Sunday, January 31, 2016

Cook Book Book Club, Meeting #1

A few months ago, I saw an article that inspired me to suggest to a group of my friends that we try a different kind of book club, on that involved cook books and cooking. Yesterday, a dozen of us gathered for our first meeting.
Several suggestions were made for the first cook book, and we wound up going with Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I made an executive decision that people who had either The Classic Italian Cook Book or More Classic Italian Cooking could use those as well, since the more recent Essentials has all the recipes from the first two and another 50 new recipes.

I set up a group on Facebook to chose a date for our meeting and to keep track of who was making what, so no two people made the same dish. We met at my home because I offered it and I've got a dining table that can sit 18 or 20, if we get cozy, and a large kitchen that would allow people to finish dishes or reheat if necessary. (I was teasingly told that my 4 burner Viking range is not big enough, because we needed 6 burners at one point.)

There were a few guidelines: make the dish exactly as written and only for the number of people indicated. In other words, don't adjust the recipe based on the number of people coming for lunch and don't change the ingredients. (Confession: keeping to Marcella's low garlic quota was difficult for those of us who love garlic.) Keeping the volume of the dish to that in the book (most are for 4-6 people) seemed a little counter-intuitive, but everyone left the table feeling more than satisfied. Even a taste of each dish adds up quickly, and there were a total of 14 recipes made by 12 people. There were even some leftovers because there was so much food.

It is fortunate that so many Italian dishes do not have to be piping hot when eaten, because it is impossible to get that many people to arrive at the same time and get finishing touches on everything. We will have to keep that in mind for future meetings.

I initially thought about setting up the food as a buffet, but I think it worked better for us to sit down and pass a few dishes at a time. The cook was then asked to talk about making the dish and give any suggestions they might have about adjustments. The discussion led us to realize how many of the dishes used sage, which some folks only associate with making turkey. Another ingredient which surprised many people was butter (much more common in the north of Italy where Marcella was from than in the south) and a lot of it was used, but most of us agreed that it could easily be replaced with olive oil to make a vegan dish.

Bread: Focaccia with Fresh Rosemary and Salt (page 618-620) made by yours truly.
I fell in love with focaccia when I visited Italy in 1985. The small town I was in had a bakery which only made focaccia two days a week. It was worth the wait. No one in the States had heard of focaccia (now they don't pronounce it correctly most of the time) and it rarely has the taste or texture of the bread I got in Vernasca. Everyone enjoyed Marcella's recipe, but I think the one I had from the Frugal Gourmet was better.

Soup Course: Minestrone alla Romagnola (page 84) made by Lisa Klink.
Starting the meal off with soup was a great choice on a day threatening rain. It was delicious and filling, even in small portions. The recipe called for beef broth, but I would probably opt for chicken or vegetable broth if I make it because of the number of people I know--myself included--who do not eat beef.

Pasta Course: Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi (page 262) with Butter and Sage Sauce (page 192) made by Catherine Fleming
and Cavatelli (fresh pasta recipe on page 128) with Spinach Sauteed with Olive Oil and Garlic (page 526) used as a sauce made by T Valada-Viars.

Catherine's Gnocchi were pretty much perfect: light and uniformly shaped. The butter sage sauce was wonderful. It is my favorite sauce for butternut squash ravioli. The recipe called for prosciutto, which I knew Catherine used, but the flavor was so mild, it could probably be left out so a vegetarian could eat it.

My sister T's cavatelli were an attempt to recreate a dish we remember our grandmother making on the kitchen table. I always think of my grandmother when I smell flour and eggs. She had a large family (six children, plus a mother-in-law in residence) and there were usually spouses, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, and cousins running in and out of the house on holidays and in the summer. She always seemed to be in the kitchen. T remembered the cavatelli being shaped with the thumb, but I remember three fingers being used to thin and shape the dough. That seemed to work better. While I was sure that the book had a recipe for cavatelli, it did not. Using the basic pasta recipe made for a somewhat heavy dough. I just found a recipe for cavatelli that might make a lighter product.

We questioned the wisdom of steaming the fresh spinach before adding it to the oil and garlic, because it is less time and dish consuming to simply allow the spinach to steam once it is in the oil and garlic. It was a really nice, homey dish.

Fish Course: Baked Fillet of Sole with Tomato, Oregano, and Hot Pepper (page 309) made by me
served with Gratin of Artichokes, Potatoes, and Onions (page 458) made by Mary De Longis
and Gratineed Cauliflower with Bechamel Sauce made by Kerry Glover.
The sole was fairly easy to acquire at the local Costco. The tomato sauce is made first, using onions, garlic, canned plum tomatoes, capers, and fresh oregano. I was afraid that our cold weather had done in my fresh oregano, but I managed to find some in one of my pots. After the sauce is made, the sole is dipped in the sauce and arranged in a baking dish. It was a little difficult to understand the instructions for arranging the sole, so I wound up folding the pieces in half. Then the sauce is poured over all and the dish goes into a very hot oven. The instructions said it was 5 minutes at 450 degrees. It took almost 15 minutes before it was actually cooked. Although it sat on the table under foil for a while, when it came time to serve it, the fish was not overcooked at all.

Mary's artichoke and potato dish was good, but she said that she did not know how to properly trim the artichokes. Everyone agreed that she should just try using the frozen artichokes from Trader Joe's the next time. It was, none-the-less, a really good side dish.

The Poultry Course: Oven-Roasted Chicken with Garlic and Rosemary (page 328) made by Sharon Baker
and Chicken Fricassee with Red Cabbage (page 333) made by Laurie Perry
and Sauteed Chicken Livers with Sage and White Wine (page 441) made by Mary De Longis.
We served the chicken dishes with Pan-Roasted Potatoes with Anchovies, Genoa Style (page 524) made by Liz Mortensen and Breaded Eggplant Cutlets (page 496) with Piquant Green Sauce (page 42) made by Maria Elena Rodriquez. Sadly, I do not have photographs of either dish, since the arrived at table after we sat down. Fortunately, Liz did photograph her potatoes (below.)
The roast chicken was melt in your mouth delicious. Sharon said she used the required vegetable oil, even though we all agreed that olive oil would be just fine. She also basted the chicken every 15 minutes throughout the cooking. That's probably something she would not do under most circumstances. The fricassee was delicious and did not smell of cabbage at all. Laurie was really pleased with the flavor available from five ingredients and the ease at which the dish came together.

Mary's chicken livers were so delicious. I might consider making them and throwing them into the food processor to make a spreadable chopped liver. They would probably make a good appetizer that way, spread on bread or toast.

I am a huge eggplant fan, so Maria's eggplant was a big hit with me. She produced a beautiful platter of Milanese-style cutlets and the salsa verde was a lovely touch. I kept a few leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

Salad Course: Orange and Cucumber Salad (page 552) made by Laura Brennan.
I invited Laura to join us after we had brunch together a few weeks ago. She was dubious of her cooking skills, but she was game to give it a try with a simple recipe. Her dish was made special by the oranges which came from her own trees (as was the lemon juice used in the dressing for the salad.) Putting the salad course at the end of the main meal before dessert as a palate cleanser is common in Europe and worked very well for us. Laura felt inspired by the whole experience and now feels more confident to try other recipes in the book. Yay, Laura.

Dessert Course: Diplomatico (page 577) made by Nan Cohen.
The dish starts with pre-made pound cake and has a lovely mousse filling. It does require a bit of advance work, since the cake is dipped in rum and coffee and needs to ripen. The recipe is a great do-ahead because it can be made up to a week in advance and kept in the refrigerator.

Liz just reminded me of another rule: chose a recipe without regard to allergies or preferences of other people attending. There will always be food that most people can or will eat and no one has to eat every offering to feel ful. My sister adds that it is important to identify any potential allergens when serving the food (for example peanuts and shellfish) so those with allergies can avoid them. We did try to have signs identifying the recipe for each dish (which is vital in a buffet, less important when dishes are passed at the table but still helpful.)

We are now in the process of choosing our next book, because we were a dozen happy women at the end of the meal.