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FOOD GROUPS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Candles are lighted, soft music plays and the heady smells of bacon and Gorgonzola cheese waft through the air as Sammi Strickland starts greeting guests in her Catonsville apartment.

They arrive, carrying covered dishes, and head for the kitchen, some stopping to pet Sputnik, the dog, on the way. Even though it is midmorning, a few people accept an offer for a glass of wine or a mimosa.

The conversation flows so easily among the dozen or so guests that it's hard to believe most of these people have never met before.

They're members of a recently formed cooking club, and they meet once a month to trade recipes, talk about food and share a meal. These days, when the comforts of home cooking and companionship beckon more than ever, such clubs seem to be gaining popularity.

"I've always liked to cook, and I thought it would be a nice way to try new recipes and meet new people," said Sami Klein of Columbia, who helped get the club started. (Yes, this club has a Sami and a Sammi, both women.)

Some cooking clubs form through other organizations, such as community groups or mothers' clubs. Some are simply groups of friends who meet every so often to socialize over a meal cooked together.

Aimee Pennington of Ellicott City, for example, started a cooking club through her local mothers' support group. The club is less than a year old and the rules are still evolving, but so far the group is rotating the meetings among the seven or eight members, she said.

The hostess supplies the ingredients, makes copies of the recipes, and then cooks the meal while the other members watch. At one meeting, member Kirsten Phalen made Chicago-style pizza. At another, Pennington demonstrated how to make minced chicken in lettuce wraps.

"It's kind of like those cooking shows, almost," Pennington said. Like the hosts of those shows, sometimes she'll make one dish in advance for club members to eat, and put together another for her audience.

"I really like cooking a lot,"

Pennington said. "Women and food go together. We like to socialize, and it's something you can kind of do with your kids there."

Diane Neas, a Baltimore restaurant consultant, belongs to a cooking club of about 15 women, all food professionals. The group, known as the Baltimore Women's Culinary Society, meets once a month to share a lavish feast cooked by the members, who include Regina Vitale, owner of Aldo's, and Margaret Sullivan, who produces cooking shows for Maryland Public Television.

"We gossip a little bit about what's going on in the industry. We talk about trends. All that stuff," Neas said.

The group, which started about 10 years ago, rotates among member houses, with the hostess choosing the theme. "Sometimes we cook there, sometimes we bring a completed dish," Neas said.

In December, the group always does a cookie exchange, and in February, it puts on a big sit-down dinner. In the spring, families of the members are invited for a meal.

The cooking club that met at Strickland's started through a Web site for Cooking Light magazine. Hundreds of such clubs formed throughout the country after the magazine ran articles in May 2000 and September 2001 about starting clubs through the cookinglight.com bulletin board. (Just go to cookinglight.com and click on "Supper Club Hub," then "Bulletin Boards.")

The first meeting of the Baltimore-area club was in September, at the Ram's Head Tavern in Savage. The group of five or six set some ground rules: They would rotate among member houses, cooking meals from Cooking Light magazines that revolved around a theme.

So far, people have been preparing the dishes at home and bringing the finished products to the host's house. But Maggi Smith of Pasadena, one of the club's founders, hopes the club evolves to the point where members of the club get in the kitchen and actually cook together.

For the meeting at Strickland's house, the theme was simply foods that would be appropriate for brunch. Guests brought such treats as French toast, sour cream coffeecake, ham and cheese frittatas and fruit cobbler. Strickland cooked Strata Milano With Gorgonzola from a recipe she found on the magazine's Web site.

Some of the recipes were modified from the original Cooking Light recipes. Judy Haynos of Baltimore, for example, made her frittatas with full-fat cheese. Strickland substituted a round sourdough loaf for the baguette in her strata recipe. And Marilee Sheton of Laurel used raspberries instead of peaches in her fruit cobbler because peaches were not available.

Before the meeting, members traded e-mails to make sure there were no duplications of dishes.

Of course, in every group there's a rebel, and this time it was Stephen Wolanski of Laurel. While everybody else's dishes boasted nutritionally correct profiles, Wolanski arrived with Mexican Tea Cakes that were far too sinful for the pages of Cooking Light.

"There's half a cup of butter in there," he said of the small plate of sugar-covered delicacies. The other guests laughed in mock horror.

Strickland set her dining-room table with her best china, and arranged the dishes in an attractive semicircle. Before eating, the guests gathered round to admire the feast. Members took turns describing the dishes they had brought and how they had been prepared.

Then everyone dug in, taking a little of this and a little of that and bringing their loaded plates into the living room. Many members of the group were single, and they said the cooking club was a nice way to meet people, even though Wolanski, the only man in the group, has a girlfriend.

Strickland, who moved from Georgia to Maryland about a year ago, said she likes opening her home to new people. Wolanski said he, too, joined the club to meet new people in a relaxed setting. "I've really never been a social butterfly," he said.

Maelynn Cheung, who is the editor of cookinglight.com, has seen first-hand how the clubs have taken off, since she monitors the electronic bulletin boards where clubs are formed. She can't say for sure why the Cooking Light clubs have become so popular, but she has some theories.

"If you had the chance to eat delicious food, possibly develop friendships that could last a lifetime, cook with those friends, share amusing stories and wonderful conversation, and perhaps even become a healthier person because of it, would you? I would. And apparently so have many others," she said.

Cooking Light's Strata Milano With Gorgonzola

Serves 10

2 bacon slices

3 1/4 cups one-percent milk

1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

1/2 cup (2 ounces) Gorgonzola or other blue cheese, crumbled

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper

5 large eggs

1 3/4 cups diced plum tomato

1 cup red onion, finely chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary

one 16-ounce loaf sourdough French bread baguette, cut into 1-inch slices and toasted

cooking spray

2 teaspoons paprika

2 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan cheese

rosemary sprigs (optional)

Cook bacon in a small nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. Crumble and set aside. Combine milk and next five ingredients (through eggs); stir until well-blended. Combine bacon, tomatoes, onion and rosemary. Arrange half of bread slices in a single layer in a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Spoon half of tomato mix over bread slices. Spoon half of milk mix over tomato mix. Repeat procedure. Sprinkle with paprika and cheese. Cover and chill 8 hours or overnight. Uncover and bake in a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes or until set. Garnish with rosemary, if desired.

Stephen Wolanski's Mexican Tea Cakes

Makes about 5 dozen cakes

1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus more for coating

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, softened

2 1/2 teaspoons real vanilla extract

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed

1 cup finely chopped or ground almonds (or pecans)

1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In large bowl, mix powdered sugar, butter and vanilla until well-blended. Stir in flour, almonds and salt. Add more flour if necessary for the mixture to hold together.

Shape into approximately 1-inch balls. Place on cookie sheet about 1 inch apart. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes or just until set, not browned.

Remove immediately from pan, and let cool slightly. Roll in additional powdered sugar and let cool completely. Roll once again in the powdered sugar.

Aimee Pennington's Minced Chicken in Lettuce Wraps

Serves 3 to 4 as a main course; 6 to 8 as a first course

1 pound ground chicken

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon natural rice vinegar

1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil

peanut or vegetable oil for deep-frying

1 ounce dried rice vermicelli noodles

1 red bell pepper, seeded, de-ribbed and very finely chopped

2 green onions, including tender green tops, finely chopped

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

1 cup water chestnuts, rinsed, drained and coarsely chopped

1 head iceberg or romaine lettuce

SAUCE:

2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon natural rice vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce

1 teaspoon cornstarch

In a bowl, combine the chicken, soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil. Stir to mix well and set aside.

In a wok or deep-frying pan over high heat, pour in peanut or vegetable oil to a depth of 3 inches and heat until it registers 375 degrees on a deep-fat thermometer, or until smoking. To test, drop in a piece of noodle; it should puff up within 1 or 2 seconds.

Add the noodles and fry until puffed and just barely golden on the first side, 1 to 2 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, turn the noodles over and cook briefly on the second side. Using the spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain. Let the oil cool slightly, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a heat-proof container.

To make the sauce, combine all the ingredients and stir to dissolve the cornstarch. Set aside.

Return the pan to high heat. Add 3 tablespoons of the reserved oil, swirling to coat the bottom and sides. When the oil is very hot but not quite smoking, add the chicken and stir and toss every 15 to 20 seconds until no longer pink, 1 to 2 minutes. Push it to the side of the pan.

Add the bell pepper, green onions, ginger and water chestnuts and stir and toss for 1 minute. Quickly stir the reserved sauce and add to the pan.

Stir and toss every 10 to 15 seconds until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and mix in the noodles, reserving a few for garnish.

Place several lettuce leaves in a cup shape on individual plates; divide the chicken mixture among them. Top with the reserved noodles and serve.

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