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The Cook/Book Club
The Cook/Book Club

By dint of many subtle hints, (“Can I come?” “Can a photographer come too?” “When can we come?”) I had finally secured an invitation to what was beginning to seem like the most exclusive club in town.

For as many months as our new copy editor and food columnist Betty Teller (see adjoining column) had sat at the opposite desk from mine, I’d heard about these meetings, or more precisely I’d heard about the food that each member was preparing for each meeting. The menu, the ingredients, the hours everyone had spent preparing this dish or that. How great the last meeting was.

Teller is the founder of the Cook/Book Club, a group of people who share the fascination with paging through cookbooks. Her aim in starting the club a year or so ago, was to inspire inveterate readers to go one step further and actually cook from them.

I too love to peruse cookbooks. During cookbook seasons (spring and fall), review copies arrive on my desk daily. I page through them, and then I add them to what is a growing stack underneath my desk, and when it gets to the point that I can’t fit my chair under said desk, I try to figure out what to do with them.

So far this spring I had accumulated about three dozen, which range from quite weird (“The Wonderbread Cookbook” “The Zen of Fish”) to ones that might actually be usable (“Rosa’s New Mexican Kitchen,” “My Italian Garden”).

The truth is, however, that when I cook from a cookbook I invariably go back to a couple of battered standbys, usually Julia Child’s.

Teller’s idea, however, took shape when she invited a few fellow foodies to form this club. The idea was they’d meet every other month. Each time one member would host the club and would choose a cookbook — old, new, it didn’t matter.

Over the course of a few weeks by e-mail each member signed up to prepare one dish from the selected cookbook. Then, at the appointed time, each showed up with the dish, for an extravagantly marvelous potluck, unified by a common theme in that each dish came from one author.

From these humble beginnings, the idea took off to the point where so many people were clamoring to join the club, they ran the risk of growing so large no member’s house could accommodate any gathering.

“But,” Teller said, “what people can do is start their own club. We’d love to see some spin-offs.”

To this end, the club invited Register photographer Lianne Milton and me to the next meeting. The organizers for this meeting were members Holly Krassner,  marketing director at Diablo Publications, and Dan Dawson, owner of Back Room Wines in Napa.

They’d enlisted the help of friends, Cheryl Stotler and John Cross, who work for Tudal Winery in Calistoga, to hold this meeting at a house on the winery’s property that could accommodate the crowd of about 14 and their dishes. The cookbook for the meeting was “Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen” a book that’s been around for a while but, Krassner explained, one whose recipes were intriguing, if complicated.

The proposed menu arrived in my e-mail. By signing up for dishes by e-mail, Teller said, they arrive at a reasonably balanced menu, and not a situation where — surprise! — 14 people turn up with a dessert.

The evening of the meeting, when I arrived at the house at Tudal, the spacious kitchen was already filled with busy cooks. There was Ken Morris from Grgich Hills winery putting the final touches on his Braised Turkey in Teloloapan Red Mole, while food writer Janet Fletcher was assembling Shrimp Seviche with Roasted Cactus, one of five appetizer dishes. Teller was regaling the crowd with her tale of the “200 steps” that were necessary to follow to make the Spicy Mushroom Tamales, another appetizer. (“Enjoy them now because I’m never making them again.”)

Stotler was adding to the general merriment of the evening by trying out various recipes for Margaritas; members all sampled and approved recipe No. 1 and were onto recipe No. 2, which, although I did not write it down, was also extremely acceptable.

Other appetizers — Bacalao-Stuffed Chiles with Tomatoes and Olives from Stotler, and food historian Pam Elder’s Picadillo Stuffed Jalapenos, Ruth Begell’s Rustic Jicama Salad with Red Chile and Lime, and Krassner and Dawson’s outstanding guacamole — probably could have constituted a sufficient meal, but this was only the beginning.

At length more dishes were added to the buffet: Tomatillo-Braised Pork Country Ribs with Mexican Greens from Krassner; Chicken Breasts in Nutty Queretaro Green Mole from cooking teacher Julie Logue-Riordan; Crusty Lentil Cakes with Garlic and Herbs from Dawson; Drunken Pinto Beans with Cilantro, Tequila and Bacon from chef and nutritionist Cheryl Forberg; and Browned Vermicelli with Roasted Tomato, Zucchini and Aged Cheese from caterer Leigh Corshen.

Tudal owner John Tudal showed up with a newly bottled rose — which appeared to be wine pro Dawson’s drink of choice to pair with Mexican foods, along with a couple of sturdy whites (or those great Margaritas), and everyone filled a plate and then filled a long dining room table.

The conversation, not surprisingly, was about food, and specifically the trials each had encountered with his or her dish.

Logue-Riordan entertained the group with her opinion’s of Bayless’ green mole (“I had this absolutely wonderful delectable sauce — and then Bayless made me cook it!”).

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Forberg, who is dedicated to the notion that food can be  delicious while being healthy admitted she had cringed but followed her chosen recipe, which called for a pound of bacon. Fletcher, author of cookbooks and cooking articles, noted she’d gone for the recipe, which unlike most of Bayless’ creations, did not require 200 steps and 500 ingredients. Begell imparted her adventures with jicama, a popular Mexican root vegetable — following the recipe which called for “1 medium jicama” she’d decided to double the recipe and so bought two jicamas, discovering at the checkout stand that she had something like eight pounds of jicama, at a couple of dollars a pound. “I read the rest of the recipe when I got home,” she said, and this included the small print — 1 medium jicama,  about 1 pound — which meant, she explained, she had a whole lot of jicama to use up.

“I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t read the recipe before I go shopping,” someone commented.

Dinner was still by no means over. Annie Baker, the zany pastry chef from Mustard’s who was once a stand-up comedian, applied her comic talents as well as her expertise with desserts, in presenting her Pastel de Tres Leches, a Mexican celebration cake made with three milks, to finish the meal.

All in all, an evening of high spirits, much fun and really, really great food.

And now they’re all getting ready for their next meeting.

We’ve included for Register readers some of the recipes from Bayless’s book.

Cook/book club | May 8, 2007
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