from Hallmark Magazine
Alison Bermack has figured out how to turn the task of cooking for her family into a great way to have fun with friends.
By Dana Bowen
What are friends for? In the kitchen, they sure come in handy when you’re elbow-deep in cookie dough and the oven timer goes off “or you get an itch on the tip of your nose,” says Alison Bermack.
Alison should know. A busy mother of three children, ages 18 months to 9 years, she orchestrates cooking sessions with her friends in their Montclair, New Jersey, homes that are one part time-saving strategizing, two parts economizing and, most of all, fun. “Sure, it’s a means of putting dinner on the table,” Alison says, “but it’s also a great way to catch up with friends.”
On a recent weekday morning, good-food smells and lively conversation swirled around the kitchen as Alison and two close pals, Elisabeth Miller and Debbie Harner, chopped, minced, pureed, sautéed and stirred. The plan was ambitious: In a lean two and a half hours after dropping the kids off at school, the cooks would make fresh tomato sauce, toasted-garlic pesto, Alison’s famous skillet-fried chicken tenders, chicken Parmesan and low-fat biscotti. The feast would be neatly packaged in plastic containers, hauled home to each cook’s respective freezer and stored for Sunday suppers, late-night snacks and mix-and-match meals.
For Alison, having a freezer full of healthy, home-cooked meals is much more than a convenience. A streamlined cooking process, she says, gives her family more time together. If Team Bermack has a busy evening of gymnastics practice and PTA meetings ahead, defrosting dinners makes the difficult task of finding table time a little easier. “And it really helps on the weekends, when my family doesn’t want me to spend a minute in the kitchen,” Alison says.
Then there’s the friendship factor, which has made the cooking process as important as the finished product. “There are times you don’t even need to talk, but you’re connecting,” she said. For that reason, she limits her cooking companions to just one or two per session so she can really savor the special moments with each friend.
As the women worked together, their dialogue bounced effortlessly between Debbie’s job as an art teacher, Elisabeth’s baby on the way and the menu at hand. They brainstormed the different directions they could take these staple dishes. “Pasta with pesto,” Debbie suggested. “Chicken tenders with tomato dipping sauce,” Elisabeth added. And what about pesto chicken pizza?
Alison’s cooking klatches started six years ago with her father’s tomato-sauce recipe, the same one that was now bubbling on the stove. She and Debbie both had gardens overflowing with tomatoes””and were on the phone swapping recipes for making the most of their abundance””when the eureka moment hit. Alison, who has never met a jarred sauce that she liked, suggested that they share the daunting task of making enough homemade sauce to last their families through the winter. So they set a date, and a tradition was born.
Their menus have since grown with the seasons and their families’ evolving appetites. Sometimes they make fresh dumplings””“so good, they never make it to the freezer,” said Alison. And they have stewed more soups than a busy soup kitchen. One afternoon they tackled red lentil, chicken with orzo and spinach, and pureed carrot and leek, and then whipped up a tarragon chicken salad with the leftover meat.
But sauce, made with canned San Marzano tomatoes year-round, is the constant. “There’s something about the sauce that’s magical when the garlic gets going””that smell,” said Alison, gliding her spoon in the pan. “It just gets you in the mood to cook.”
The irresistible aroma also often lures the women’s children””who are usually playing in the next room if they’re not at school””into the kitchen. Sometimes the kids get to help. “It’s probably why they’re such good eaters,” Alison mused.
Over the years Alison has come to accept that good pals don’t necessarily make good cooking partners. “It’s like dating,” she said, laughing. “I’ve cooked with some people where it was a disaster!” So she devised a compatibility quiz for potential cooking partners, taking into account everything from culinary skill to personality, and she shares it with an online community group that she recently founded, called the Cooking with Friends Club. “I’ve become somewhat of a matchmaker,” she explained.
Alison decided to spread the gospel of communal cooking online in hopes of making mealtime less of a chore and more of a bonding and time-saving experience. “Women in other cultures have always cooked together, in extended families or with other women in their community, but I think, in America, we don’t have that connection anymore,” she said. Her group stands in for that old-fashioned network. Members chat online about favorite recipes, plan cooking dates and seek out the kind of kitchen wisdom that used to be passed down through generations. When one member wanted to cook some Thanksgiving dishes in advance, she posted in a panic: “I have no idea what can be frozen and what can’t. Can you all please give me a quick lesson?” They did. (Who knew mashed potatoes freeze so well?)
Every few weeks, the online community gets together for recipe exchanges and tastings. One wintry evening, 16 people arrived at Alison’s house, each toting a tray of hors d’oeuvres. After an evening of socializing and snacking, everyone went home with a cooler full of bite-size treats, along with recipes the cooks had printed out beforehand. From caramelized onion—blue cheese squares to egg rolls, “it was like being at a catered affair!” Alison said, beaming.
With the online group well established, Alison is extending her idea to the wider community. She and her pals get together regularly to cook meals for sick neighbors or new parents, and using the army of some 90-plus available cooks on the Cooking with Friends Club message board, Alison has begun a coordinated effort to help the needy. In January’s “Souper Bowl,” dozens of cooking partners got together to make and freeze soup for a local food pantry.
Through all of these get-togethers and big plans, the original impulse persists: to have fun. “If we’re cooking in the afternoon, the glass of wine comes out, and maybe we’ll throw a little into the sauce,” Alison says. And when all they have left to do is wait for the sauce to finish simmering, they slice a few skillet-fried chicken tenders over a tossed salad, kick their shoes off and toast their accomplishments””and friendship.
Find a cooking match
Look for people who complement your cooking skills and style.
Plan a date
Figure on two to three hours.
Set realistic goals
Don’t tackle too much, especially the first time.
Stock your kitchen
You’ll need freezer-safe containers and bags.
Pick a theme
It’s easier to make the same kinds of foods at once.
Try new ones or share trusty family favorites.
Divide and Conquer
Make a grocery list and split it equally, or shop together.
You never know what will inspire you!
Choose a kitchen
Make a list of the equipment that people should bring from home.
Alison’s Cooking-Day Checklist
Before heading out to your cooking date, make sure all of the equipment and ingredients are accounted for. If it’s an evening date, will wine or cocktails be in order?
Fill a tote with your ingredients, recipes, extra tools and freezing supplies. Extra kitchen towels are always appreciated!
Review Recipes and Prioritize
Once everyone is in the kitchen, go through each recipe and decide on a cooking order.
Get set up
Unpack, organize and prep ingredients.
Assign someone the job of keeping the cooking on track. (There will be chitchat!)
Make Yourself at Home
Tiptoeing around a friend’s kitchen is counterproductive. Open kitchen cabinets and drawers. Get familiar with where things are.
Even if she swears that she enjoys doing dishes, don’t leave your friend with a mess.
Schedule the Next Cooking Date now!
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