Renee Shuman-Powell is not one to judge a cookbook by its cover, or even by its mouth-watering photographs. What the Upper Fells Point home cook wants to know is how well the recipes work. Most importantly, is this a book she should add to the 75-plus cookbooks already in her collection? Fortunately, she has a supper club dedicated to helping her find out. The club, which Shuman-Powell founded in September 2008, gets together monthly to cook its way through a cookbook. The members take turns choosing the book and hosting, selecting the dishes they want to make, and buying their ingredients. Then, they all get together and prepare the meal.
"Some people play music, other people exercise," Shuman-Powell says. "For us, cooking is our creative outlet. We make great food and have fun together. What's not to like?"
At-home supper clubs take many forms. While some groups focus on cooking from the latest cookbooks, others incorporate wine or local foods into their gatherings. But whatever the theme, these informal clubs provide a way for people to connect through food.
A recent Saturday night found Shuman-Powell and fellow members of the Charm City Cookbook Club in a spacious Bolton Hill basement kitchen cooking their way through Mario Batali's Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home. As Shuman-Powell rolled out the crust for a prosciutto-and-fig tart appetizer on one side of the kitchen island, Alayne Dunn beat eggs into a snowy mountain of flour for the ravioli that would be stuffed with scallions and goat cheese and lapped with a black-olive butter sauce. Elizabeth Griffiths and Julie Thorne stood at a six-burner Lacanche stove executing the final details of the porcini soup and the oxtail main course. And, at the counter by the back door, Joanne Hélouvry creamed butter and sugar for lemon almond cookies using a 30-pound red KitchenAid mixer hauled in from her Evergreen home.
"It smells so good in here I can't stand it," says Griffiths, a Frederick chemist, as clouds of mushroom and garlic-infused steam rise off the stockpot on the stove and mix with the aromas of braised meat and baking cookies.
The women have cooked from Thomas Keller's Bouchon and David Chang's Momo-fuku, taken on the Pioneer Woman, and tackled Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. However, as much as the group seems to be about cookbooks, the meetings are really about bonding and sharing a meal.
The women sipped Prosecco as they chopped parsley, chatted as they rolled out sheets of pasta, and laughed at each other's stories as they plated. The camaraderie and conversation continued through a five-course meal lasting well past midnight. "This is a whole other level of friendship," Shuman-Powell says. "This is not just your friend who comes over and talks about normal everyday stuff. We're creating something together."
Although supper clubs seem to resemble book clubs, there's a huge distinction, according to Kristin Bailey, a longtime book-club member who started a local supper club with friends in 2002. "Supper clubs allow for a social outlet with a much smaller investment of your time than book clubs," she says. "It's so much more laid-back. There is no homework."
Bailey started her supper club with three grad-school friends who wanted to learn more about wine. A couple of times a year, the group of five gathers in her Canton home with a few guests to taste wines from various countries, different styles, or types of grape. Everyone brings a bottle of wine for the tasting and a potluck dish that pairs well with the evening's beverage. For German wines, they ate potato salad, bratwurst, and rye bread with mustard and cheese. For rosés, the menu consisted of grilled seafood and a variety of salads. And on Spanish night, they did tapas, ranging from garlic shrimp and stuffed dates wrapped in bacon to tortilla de patatas.
Another supper club, Howard County Books & Cooks, has a dual mission. "It's a cooking group for people who like to read," says Adena Fritz, who formed the supper club after moving to Columbia in 2008. Today, the group has 35 members—women ranging from college students to grandmothers—who meet monthly to discuss a book and share a meal in a restaurant or a potluck dinner at a member's home. When they cook, the menu usually relates to the theme of that month's book. For Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, they served Asian fusion food, including Thai green curry, sushi, satay, and green-tea layer cake. For Outlander, a time-travel romance by Diana Gabaldon, a French menu featured Champagne cocktails, gougères, and bouillabaisse.
"Every one of us is a really good cook who takes chances in the kitchen," says Levay, who hosted a recent meeting in her Columbia home. "We're not competitive, we're supportive."
This fall, Hillary Edwards formed The Baltimore Supper Club, which promotes local foods at group get-togethers. It's part of the Baltimore Food Makers, an organization dedicated to local and sustainable eating. Edwards, a recent college graduate who lives in Butchers Hill, yearned to connect with fellow locavores. "I really wanted to help create a better sense of community and family within our group by sharing a wonderful meal together," she says.
Members also gather ingredients communally, too. For their first dinner, Edwards and four other cooks met at the Waverly Farmers' Market at 9 a.m. to pick up ingredients from local farms such as One Straw Farm and Black Rock Orchard. They returned home to prep, and then reconvened at 2 p.m. to cook a dinner for 14 that would start at 6:30 p.m.
The five-course menu included spinach salad with maple-roasted pears and goat cheese, West African peanut-and-sweet-potato stew, and homemade linguini with a three-mushroom ragoût. The chefs consulted recipes but were mostly guided by one another's creativity. "Maybe that's what made it so fun," Edwards says. "There wasn't an authoritative recipe or an authoritative cook in the kitchen. It was just this amazing team effort."
Some supper clubs have strict rules, such as, "If you miss three meetings, you're out." Others are more casual. "If you forgot to bring a dish and just show up at the door with a bottle of wine, we'd let you in," says Bailey of the wine supper club. And some groups, like the one Crady Seymour started in 1998, have seen their rules change over the years.
Seymour, who lives in Shawan Valley, was newly married and had a demanding job in the biotechnology industry when she started a supper club to expand her circle of friends. Members brought a dish and a printout of the recipe to the monthly dinners. But growing families and busy schedules have led the elaborate sit-down dinners to evolve into casual tapas-and-wine gatherings, even featuring prepared items from Eddie's and Wegmans. "Fewer people are able to take the time and cook like we really used to," says Seymour, who has two children. "Now it's become just an excuse for us to get away from the husbands and the kids and just be together."
For the Charm City Cookbook Club members—who log their opinions on the blog charmcitycookbooking.wordpress.com—the Mario Batali cookbook recipes turned out to be a mixed bag. The oxtail was beefy and tender, but a lot of work. The soup, fig tart, and honey-ginger gelato with almond and chocolate cookies were either "transcendent" or merely okay, depending on whom you asked. And the scallion-and-goat-cheese ravioli with black-olive butter was a home run.
By the end of the night, dirty plates and utensils overflowed the sink. Every kitchen surface was covered with empty pots and serving dishes, dirty glassware, and bunches of half chopped herbs on cutting boards.
But the mess could wait. The women had more urgent matters—what to make at their next meeting: "How hard is it to make sushi?" Shuman-Powell asked.
Favorite recipes from the supper clubs
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets (about 1-inch thick)
Combine first 5 ingredients in a large zip-top plastic bag; add salmon. Seal and marinate in refrigerator for 20 minutes.
Prepare grill or broiler. Remove salmon from bag, reserving the marinade. Place salmon on a grill rack or broiler pan coated with cooking spray, and cook for 6 minutes on each side or until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork; baste salmon occasionally with the reserved marinade.
—Recipe courtesy of Crady Seymour of Shawan Valley
Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Dates
1 container dried, pitted dates
1 jar small pitted green olives
1 rasher of bacon (not thick cut), sliced in half crosswise
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut a slit in the edge of each date and stuff it with a green olive. Wrap with a half slice of bacon and place cut-side down on a rack placed over a baking sheet or jelly roll pan. (If you have a deep enough pan, put water in it to help keep the drippings from smoking and sticking.) Repeat until you have made as many stuffed dates as you'd like. Bake until the bacon is cooked, about 15-20 minutes. Cool for about 5 minutes and serve warm.
—Recipe courtesy of Kristin Bailey, who founded a wine supper club
Chocolate Caramel Pecan Brownies
1 box German chocolate cake mix
3/4 cup melted butter or margarine (prefer butter)
2/3 cup evaporated milk, divided
50 caramels (1 package), unwrapped
1 package milk chocolate or semisweet chocolate chips
2 cups roughly chopped pecans or other nuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix cake mix with butter and 1/3 cup evaporated milk. Spread half of the batter mixture into a greased 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake 6 minutes at 350 degrees.
While the batter is baking, melt caramels in the microwave with 1/3 cup evaporated milk. Remove batter from oven and sprinkle chocolate chips over batter, then the nuts. Pour caramel over the top of batter and chips. Pat rest of mixture on top of the caramel. Bake 20 minutes.
—Recipe courtesy of Jennifer Bouzigard of the Howard County Books & Cooks club
Croquetas De Jamón Serrano Y Pollo (Serrano Ham And Chicken Fritters)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 Spanish onion, peeled and finely chopped (about ½ cup)
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup finely chopped jamón serrano (Spanish cured ham)
6 ounces chicken, boiled and shredded (leftover chicken from making stock is ideal)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pinch nutmeg
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup breadcrumbs
2 cups Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
Heat the butter in a medium sauté pan over a medium flame. Add the onions and cook until they are translucent, 5 minutes. Add 1 ½ cups of the flour and mix energetically. Cook for 5 minutes to make sure the flour is cooked through; it should start to take on a golden color. Pour the milk into the flour mixture and cook, stirring continuously, for about 2 minutes, until you have a thick béchamel.
Add the ham and chicken, and sprinkle in the salt and nutmeg. Cook for another 2 minutes. You should now have a thick mixture that you can mold in your hands. Carefully pick up a bit and try to ball it with your hands. It shouldn't be too sticky. If it does stick to your hands, cook it a little longer.
Spread the mixture on a cookie sheet and let it cool to room temperature.
Take a spoonful of the cooled béchamel mixture and roll it in your hands to make a small cylinder the size of a wine cork. Roll the cylinder in the remaining 1 cup of flour, then in the eggs, and then in the breadcrumbs. Repeat with all the croquetas.
In a small, deep frying pan, heat the olive oil to 375 degrees (measured with a candy thermometer). Add the croquetas in small batches, making sure they are covered completely in oil. Fry until they have a nice golden color, about 1 minute; then transfer them to paper towels to drain. Repeat with all the croquetas, and serve hot. Makes about 36 fritters.
—From Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America by José Andrés with Richard Wolffe (Clarkson Potter, 2005)
Coca De Cebolla Con Pimientos, Anchoas Y Queso Manchego (Traditional Catalan flatbread with caramelized onions, roasted peppers, anchovies, and Manchego cheese)
For the onions:
1/4 cup Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
1 Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
For the flatbread:
1/2 ounce (2 envelopes) active dry yeast
1/2 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus extra for work surface
1/2 teaspoon salt
20 black olives, pitted and cut into small pieces
1 (13-ounce) jar piquillo peppers (Spanish fire-roasted sweet-spicy peppers), cut into ½-inch-wide strips
16 anchovy fillets (oil-packed)
6 ounces Manchego cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
Spanish extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Sea salt to taste
2 tablespoons chopped chives
Prepare the onions: Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and brown (caramelized), around 30 minutes. If the onions start to get too dark, add 1/2 tablespoon of water to keep them cooking evenly without burning. Set them aside.
Make the flatbread: In a small bowl, stir the yeast into the milk. Place the flour and salt in a food processor, add the yeast mixture, and process for 60 seconds, until you have a well-mixed dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes to allow the dough to rise.
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Take out the dough and knead it for 5 minutes. Then, cut the dough into 8 equal pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Sprinkle a little flour on your work surface and roll a ball of dough out to form a very thin long strip, around 10-inches long and 2-inches wide. Prick the strip with a fork. Repeat seven more times, creating 8 strips of dough.
Cover the strips of dough with the caramelized onions and the olives. Place on a baking sheet and bake until crisp, 10 minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven, leaving the oven on.
Cover the cocas with a layer of piquillo pepper strips. Add 2 anchovies on top of each, and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Return to the oven for 2 minutes.
Drizzle the cocas with olive oil, add sea salt to taste, and sprinkle with the chopped chives. Serve hot. Serves 4.
—From Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America by José Andrés with Richard Wolffe (Clarkson Potter, 2005)
Grandmother's German Potato Salad
Red potatoes (10 small or 5-6 good size)
About 1/2 pound bacon
Diced onion to taste
1/3 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/3 cup vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil the potatoes until fork tender, then cool until able to handle, peel and cut into cubes. Roughly dice bacon; cook it with the onion and drain mixture. Mix water, sugar, flour, and vinegar together and pour over the warm potatoes. Add the bacon-and-onion mixture. Add a little more water if needed. Serve warm.
—Recipe courtesy of Anne Walsh, who brought the dish to Kritsin Bailey's wine supper club
West African Rabbit Sweet-Potato Stew
2 onions, halved and sliced, divided
1 whole rabbit loin, deboned from carcass (use for stock), legs reserved for a different use
4 sage leaves
4 garlic cloves, chopped, divided
1/2 bunch Swiss chard, 2 leaves with center rib removed, remainder with center rib removed and chopped, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons ginger, minced
1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes, halved and sliced into 1/4-inch thick slices with their skins
4 cups rabbit stock, made from carcass bones
1/2 can whole peeled tomatoes
4-6 tablespoons peanut butter
Peanuts, for garnish
Put one sliced onion in pan with a small amount of oil. Set heat to low, stirring occasionally until onions are fully caramelized. Lay out rabbit loin. Season inside with salt and pepper. Place caramelized onions, sage, 2 garlic cloves, and 2 large Swiss chard leaves along center line of loin. Roll loin up as tight as possible, and truss using butcher's twine. Season outside of rolled loin with salt and pepper.
In a pot large enough to hold the stew, brown rolled rabbit loin in oil on all sides until brown. Remove and set aside. In same pot, add second sliced onion, remaining garlic, ginger, and small amount of salt. Sweat until onions are barely translucent.
Add sweet potatoes and rabbit stock, add water as needed to just cover vegetables. Add 1/2 can of tomatoes, breaking up the tomatoes as they are added. Salt to taste.
Place rabbit loin back in pot of stew, on top of vegetables so that it is barely submerged. Cover pot to braise rabbit. Gently simmer for 10-15 minutes. Add remaining Swiss chard, cover, and simmer for additional 10 minutes. Check rabbit loin for doneness. If done, remove to cutting board. Remove string from loin, and cut loin into 1/4-inch slices.
Stir peanut butter into stew. Adjust salt if needed. Squeeze lemon juice into stew until acidity is balanced. Serve stew in soup bowls, garnished with peanuts and a slice or two of stuffed rabbit loin.
Adapted from a recipe by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, prepared by The Baltimore Supper Club