If you like the idea of joining a book club but would really rather not debate pacing and character development in the latest best-selling novel over overly garlicky spinach dip, there’s another option: a cookbook club.
In a cookbook club, you still get to see friends, while gathering to commune over and discuss a book. But the food is better. And you don’t have to read that 350-pager (that no one ever gets through). If you’re doing it right, you are reading the book, but it’s faster. And it’s still a joy, if the author has a story to tell, like my group’s first choice, the wonderful “Taste of Persia” by Naomi Duguid.
Participating in such a club also forces you to cook from the cookbooks you buy. How many have you bought and never gotten around to trying? See? And you get to have a dinner party at a table full to groaning, but you only made one dish (or two or more for the more ambitious). You’ll try books you may not have considered picking up. Along with the title above, my group of six friends has cooked: “Ad Hoc at Home,” Thomas Keller’s supposedly more approachable effort, but still highly chef-y; “Vietnamese Home Cooking,” the second cookbook by Slanted Door chef/owner Charles Phan; and “Smitten Kitchen Every Day” by Deb Perelman. Dorie Greenspan’s just-released “Everyday Dorie: The Way I Cook” is next. (I’m making the carrot rillettes below and maybe a savory tart. We’ll see.)
Books from this season I would nominate for future club dinners include: “Carla Hall’s Soul Food” by former “The Chew” co-host Carla Hall; the widely praised “Season” by Nik Sharma; my friend Chandra Ram’s upcoming “The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook” (OK, not all of us have an Instant Pot, so that might get vetoed); and “Zahav” author Michael Solomonov’s latest “Israeli Soul.”
To get you started, here are some things we’ve learned along the way to cooking the books — a highly opinionated guide, that in spots casts aside dumb advice offered by some other media outlets.
How to communicate: If I have one more Google doc to manage, I’ll die (puke, scream, smash a crumpet). We use email. The string can get long, but we manage. But, yes, if you’re the super-organized type, create that online doc.
Keep it small: I laughed when I read advice to make cookbook groups 25 members. What an organizational nightmare. Limit your group to six to eight people: large enough to try a number of dishes in a book, small enough to manage the dinner party.
Not a potluck: You’ll consult one another and pick a range of dishes across appetizers, entree, sides and desserts. A potluck means you end up with the luck of the draw. This is not that.
But, but: What if you picked a dessert book for one session? Or an all-apps book? Those would be fun change-of-pace parties. (But maybe not this season’s “Cheese Balls”; too much, you’ll get sick.)
Challenge yourself: A 30-ish member of another cookbook club told me that her fellow cook-the-bookers all avoid harder dishes. I don’t get it. This is the time to attempt something tricky or a new technique. You’re not cooking the entire menu, so you have more time than you might when prepping a typical dinner party, and should the dish fail, you have friends with whom to commiserate — and maybe curse the author.
Knock down barriers: Make it easy to get together. Be reasonable about how often you’ll meet. Monthly sounds like a death knell. How about bimonthly? Or quarterly?
Where to meet: We take turns hosting at one another’s condos and houses. No one cares if it’s a tight squeeze, or if we eat standing around the kitchen counter.
Choosing the book: Let the host choose. Assuming all of you have similar goals, no one is going to pick something wild like Rene Redzepi’s moss-dominant “Noma.” Also, the choice should be about discovery for every member. I would love to have our group cook from my friend Robin Mather’s “The Feast Nearby,” but I know that book already.
Getting the book: We all want to support cookbook authors, but buying several books a year might be too steep a price for some members. Plus, what if it turns out you don’t like the book? Share. Pick your dish then pass the book along. (This is another argument for leaving enough time between dinners: Doing so gives members a few weeks to get the book and pick a recipe.) Or pick up a copy at the library, or use e-books.
Hosting: I’ve seen advice on picking the right plates, neutral colors to act as the canvas for the food. Are you kidding me? Just use your everyday dishes. Don’t sweat it. You want some flowers on the table? Yes, nice. But this is not the time to go all Martha Stewart. Except …
No paper plates: C’mon. These are your friends. You can wash a few dishes. Besides, if your group is large enough, you are hosting but once or twice a year.
Be mindful of sitting time: Are you coursing the dishes (we do) or throwing everything on the table at once? The answer will affect your dish. My “Taste of Persia” dish sat too long, and the texture was compromised. My fault. I should have finished it at our friend’s house. Which leads to …
Oven privileges: Ask the host before you assume you’ll be able to throw your dish in the oven for 15 minutes to melt the cheese topping. What if she’s finishing her roast at 475 degrees?
Get equipped: Expecting the host to have a stand mixer to whip cream for your pie at the last minute? Check ahead. Whatever your recipe requires on site, make sure the host has it, or plan to bring it yourself.
Finally: Have more than one dessert. I mean, c’mon.
Finally, finally: Post about it. Take photos of your dishes, then post them on social media and tag the author. It’s a thrill when they respond! Even jaded food people (my group is mostly trained chefs) get geeked. Deb Perelman’s shout-out about how our dishes were so beautiful was sweet.