Cook the Book, Revsited

With a towering cookbook collection and new additions added regularly, it was clear...I'd need twelve lifetimes to work through those books.  An idea began to take shape. What if...we combined the elements of a book club...and a potluck? What if...each person cooked out of the same book so we could compare notes--rejoicing in the winners and mulling over the duds, collectively?

And that's what we did. Back in 2006 we spent a few months working out the kinks. We tackled a few of the latest and greatest chef cookbooks, only to determine...they weren't so great. "I don't get it. Everyone's talking about this book!" An industry veteran cooed in my ear, "That's marketing, darling."

Eventually, we settled on tried and true and modern day classics. Julia Child, Lydia Bastianich, Rick Bayless, Julie Sahni, Thomas Keller, etc. One Christmas, we took over a culinary school kitchen for a baking marathon.

For two years, we gathered around the table. We explored cookbooks, and stretched our culinary skills. Seasoned pros joined the ranks and provided valuable insight when a recipe went awry or needed improvement.

On an average day, we'd try 10-14 dishes from a book. Sampling a variety of dishes side by side, a picture takes shape. Beyond the text, you begin to understand the author's culinary point of view--a penchant for sour notes, or earthy flavors. Elements of their writing style come into focus. "What if I can't get fresh epazote? Are substitutions recommended? Where? In the recipe, headnotes, or introduction?" It's a deeper look that extends well beyond my one-recipe-at-a-time approach.

It was an incredibly valuable experience. But in the end, it became difficult to sustain. And things wound down a couple years later.

:: :: ::

In the intervening years, I experienced some dramatic life changes. When things finally slowed down, I started asking myself some tough questions. What's working? What not working? And what am I missing?

In the process of reevaluating that big LIFE picture, I realized how much I missed our cookbook group. The original members are spread around the world, but maybe others would be interested. I sent out a few feelers.

Within a few weeks, we had our first gathering. We extended the table twice, and then realized all the food would not fit. Buffered with two other tables, it was an incredible feast! Raising a glass among new friends, old friends, and others I'd only met that day, it was incredibly fulfilling.

Our first gathering we tackled:

Essential Classics of Italian Cooking 
by Marcella Hazan

- Chickpea Soup with Rice
- Cucumber and Orange Salad
- Scallop Sauce with Olive Oil, Garlic, and Hot Pepper over Pasta
- Braised Carrots with Parmesan
- Baked Escarole Torta
- Baked Polenta with Bolognese Meat Sauce
- Pork Stewed with Porcini Mushrooms and Juniper
- Olive Oil Cake & Vin Santo
- Homemade Limoncello