Finding new ways to enjoy good food with good friends.

When Cooking Light readers first started forming supper clubs in 1999, members kept it pretty straightforward, usually preparing recipes from a current issue. But clubs that have met for several years often look for new ways to celebrate cooking. We checked in with six long-running groups to find out how their members keep gatherings fresh and interesting.

All Together Now
When Amy Lai launched the first Cooking Light Supper Club in California’s Bay Area, the member hosting the monthly meeting would pick a cuisine, such as Mexican, Greek, or Japanese, and plan the menu. Nowadays, the group focuses on an ingredient instead. “One month, our theme was lemons. We learned how to preserve them in a jar and made a delicious Moroccan chicken dish with preserved lemons,” Lai says. “It’s kind of like Iron Chef!”

That’s just one of the ways that the group has evolved. Although the five members now meet every other month because of busier schedules, they always prepare a couple of dishes as a group. “I encourage people to cook together,” Lai says. “We share techniques, improve our skills, and have so much fun.” Since finding the time to meet can be challenging, the group is flexible, and when they do meet, they spend more time together. Whereas they once gathered on weekend evenings, they now start at noon and go home around 5 p.m. with batches of whatever they’ve prepared. During the holidays, Lai’s group spends a day preparing a variety of specialty foods, such as pretzel sticks rolled in chocolate and crushed peppermint, to give as gifts or to have on hand when company stops by.

Pick a Theme
Theme nights are a favorite way to keep meetings exciting. The 12 women in the Dallas Lights supper club, which has been going strong for two years, often design meetings around holidays. “For Chinese New Year, we all wore red for good luck and made horoscopes for the fortune cookies,” Carrie Park says. For Academy Awards night, everyone wore prom or bridesmaid dresses and showed up with easy-to-fix foods like nachos and brownies. One of their latest innovations is Make Your All-Time Favorite Dish, for which they wear their most-loved outfit and, after the feast, hit the latest Dallas hot spot for after-dinner drinks and dessert. The group is also planning a progressive dinner with each course at a different house.

Try Something New
Encouraging each other to “cook outside the box” is common practice in the long-standing supper clubs. “We want to mix it up and test ourselves,” says Grace Trendel, whose Chicago-area club is going on its fourth year. Members take on dishes they typically avoid in order to expand their repertoires. “I’d never baked anything before, and now I’ve made three delicious cakes,” says Sheila Enright, a member of the group. And, if a recipe doesn’t work out, no one minds, Trendel notes. After all, they’re among friends, and it’s part of the learning process.

In fact, learning is status quo for all cooking clubs. Just ask Maureen Gaeke’s Denver-based, eight-person co-ed group. They’ve sampled various cuisines, but their meetings are about more than just food. “Our members have traveled all over the world, and we often plan our meetings around countries we’ve visited.” For instance, one couple came home with Croatian wine and cheese from their trip, and made foods like those they had sampled. Another member, who spent time in Switzerland, brought chocolate liqueur and cooked items with raclette cheese. These meals are enhanced by the photos and stories that accompany them, and everyone goes home comfortably satisfied and with insight into a foreign culture. “One girl’s going to Germany soon, and we can’t wait to see what she brings home,” Gaeke adds.

Other clubs are a bit more pragmatic. “Each October, we have a Thanksgiving side-dish night,” says Sara Uttech of Madison, Wisconsin. The 15 members of her group cook the latest side dishes from Cooking Light’s Thanksgiving-themed issue; it’s the perfect way for members to discover new recipes to include in holiday meals. “Even better, those who are traveling get to see firsthand what travels well,” Uttech says.

Cook for a Cause
Some supper clubs have a socially conscious bent. Park’s Dallas group has created an annual Christmas tradition: They bake cookies to deliver to firefighters and other folks whose hard work often goes unrecognized.

Uttech’s group cooked a meal at the local Ronald McDonald house. “I used to volunteer there and knew that different groups went in and prepared meals in their humongous kitchen,” Uttech says. “It was nice to use our skills and make a comforting meal for people whose children were being treated at the hospital. We all enjoyed giving back to the community, and we are planning to do it again soon.”

Hit the Road
There are several supper clubs that take their shows on the road. Lisa McGuire’s Boston-area club takes a trip every fall. In 2001, the group rented a house near the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center in Norwich, Vermont. In addition to touring the center and buying baking equipment, they cooked all of their meals together and visited local food co-ops and farmers’ markets. They enjoyed themselves so much they returned a year later. “When you meet each month, it’s a bit rushed because of work and family obligations,” McGuire says. “But when we go away, we’re able to relax and visit local food attractions. My trunk was filled with apples, ravioli, and maple syrup.”

Travel is also a priority for the Denver bunch, who went to a lodge in the country one weekend for skiing and snowshoeing. “We cooked gumbo on Friday night, and each couple was in charge of a different meal after that,” Gaeke says. She says joining the club is one of the best things she has ever done, especially because of the close friendships she’s developed with members.

Communal Cooking
One of the goals of communal cooking is to make the job fun (and easy) for everyone, especially the host. Follow these tips and recipes for a party that truly cooks:

  • Team up with another friend to organize the party. Two heads (and sets of hands) are better than one.
  • E-mail the menu and a recipe to each guest. Help them decide what portions of the recipe to make ahead and what equipment they need to bring.
  • Arrange the equipment and ingredients for each dish ahead of time. Think through the prep for each recipe, and set out specialty dishes and tools in advance. This will keep folks from peering into every drawer and cabinet in your kitchen. Plus, have your guests bring (and wash) their own equipment. Mark pieces with colored tape to identify whose is whose.
  • Make a copy of the menu and each recipe for guests to follow.
  • Appoint someone to be in charge of each course.