When you're cooking with a group, building a meal around meatballs makes sense. They're easy to prepare, adapt readily to meals from soup to pasta, and tempt even fussy eaters. They're particularly suited for big batches because once the ground beef base is mixed and the oven is heated, it's almost as easy to make five or six batches as one or two.
This trio of recipes shares meatballs patted together with onion, garlic, oregano, and a touch of red pepper.
Here's how the process works for a group of three or four mothers preparing all three meals in one morning: While one mom shapes and bakes the meatballs, a second cooks the noodles that go into the Beef and Sweet Pepper Pasta -- a dish that combines the flavors of fennel, carrots, and spicy red pepper pasta sauce. The third mom chops the vegetables and assembles the Herbed Beef and Barley Soup. All that's left is making the chili-spiked mayo sauce for the Meatball Sandwiches.
Adding boneless, skinless chicken breasts to family favorites is a strategy that we've used to create a hearty casserole, a healthful chowder, and a light chicken salad on a bed of spinach and noodles.
To keep it simple, one mom cooks the pasta for Chicken Mac and Cheese, while another bakes whole chicken breasts for the Asian Chicken Salad. The Mac and Cheese is emboldened with smoky cheddar, chopped onion, garlic, and herbs. A topper of sourdough bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese adds crunch. Asian Chicken Salad is a dish that goes home as a salad kit, complete with already-cooked noodles, fresh spinach, and a gingery Asian-inspired dressing.
While the browning and boiling are going on at the stove, another mom chops onions and vegetables for the Chicken Mac and Cheese as well as for a savory Chicken Chowder that features peppers, squash, lima beans, and Southwestern spices.
Chopping and assembly-line work are a big part of this trio of vegetarian dishes. For instance, one mom boils the pasta while another makes the lemony filling for the lasagna pie. A third mom pitches in to chop vegetables for the enchilada filling and the soup.
The first person to finish can begin baking the corn bread croutons for the vegetable soup. Shredding cheese, sauteing vegetables, and preparing a Mango Salsa and a sauce for the enchiladas follow.
Then form a production line to assemble the lasagnas, with moms taking turns. One layers noodles, another heaps on spinach, ricotta, pesto, and mushrooms. Use the same technique for the enchiladas: Fill the tortillas with a mixture of tofu, onions, cheese, and spices. Roll, and arrange in the baking pans.
Finally, assemble the soup in the storage containers and you're ready to head home.
Cooking groups form for lots of reasons. Many are made up of busy moms looking to jazz up the routine of feeding the family and create dinners more efficiently.
In Iowa, a group of moms with young children started cooking together to lower their stress level at mealtime. "We were just swapping recipes one day, talking typical moms' talk about the chore of making dinner every night," says Michelle Millman, an Iowa mother of three. "A cooking group was a logical way to try new things and not have to slave away in the kitchen every night of the week."
In San Francisco, Ellie Rossiter brought her group together to experiment with cooking and explore new recipes. "We are good friends and have done lots of things together, but never cooking," she says.
Evenings full of kids' classes, rehearsals, and meetings were the catalyst for the moms of Amherst, New Hampshire, to get together. It began as neighbors driving each others' kids to choir. "Then we started delivering meals to our friends when they needed help. Then we started cooking together, and now we do it often," says Aimee Chester, mother of two girls.
Neighbors, people with children the same age, and those who share your taste in food are all great candidates for membership in a cooking club.
Our Better Homes & Gardens® Moms' Cooking Club strategy allows cooks to share ingredients and enjoy cooking together. The recipes are grouped in threes: each trio is built on similar ingredients and uses different appliances. Three are based on chicken, three on ground beef, and three are meatless. Our recipe suggestions are only a starting point, however. Prepare one of the recipes from the trio, all three, or adopt the ideas and strategies for other recipes your group has chosen.
We suggest setting a standing date for your group to meet. Then e-mail or deliver copies of each recipe to all members and figure out what equipment to bring. You'll need at least two or three of several basic cooking tools on hand, including vegetable peelers, kitchen knives, cutting boards, and measuring spoons. Extra Dutch ovens and 12-inch frying pans are helpful too, as are pot holders and trivets. Also have plenty of plastic wrap and plastic bags for storing chopped vegetables and other ingredients before they're cooked.
It's best to shop the day before the actual cooking day. We suggest choosing one of two basic strategies:
One strategy is for each club member to buy her own groceries, with the host of the day providing milk, eggs, and spices.
Other groups may prefer to have one person shop and then to reimburse the shopper. When one person shops for all, she should multiply the amount of the ingredients in each recipe by the number of people in the group, as each of our recipes accommodates one family.
You'll make the most of your time when everyone pitches in and does most of the chopping, cutting, and measuring first. That way, the cooking doesn't have to stop while someone chops the onions. Keep in mind that, when cooking multiple recipes, it's more efficient to finish one dish before starting the next. Also consider dividing up the frying, boiling, baking, and other tasks based on who likes to do which jobs.
Toting the finished food home is easy because some recipes are prepared in the pans in which they'll be served and the rest require only plastic storage ware. Two of the recipes go home in the form of "kits," with the main part of the entree in one package, the fresh topping in a separate container. Heap on the topping just before serving your family.
Once you bring the dishes home, adjusting them to your family's taste is easy. For example, try giving the soups a flurry of fresh herbs before serving, or add parsley and vegetables to a macaroni and cheese dish.
The women in our New Hampshire group decided they wanted more oomph in one of the recipes, so they added chili peppers and splashed it with white wine.
All of our recipes will keep in the refrigerator or in the freezer. Thawing is best done in the refrigerator; it's safer, and it preserves the texture of food better than microwave thawing. More thawing and reheating advice is included with each recipe.
As your group experiments with recipes, don't worry if other families find your particular recipes not quite to their liking. A few recipe casualties are part of the experience. Keep experimenting. Hitting a "home run" with other families makes it all worthwhile.
The real reward of these ideas, and the moms' cooking clubs, is that they combine the joy of group effort -- women helping women -- with the sense of fulfillment from having a refrigerator filled with delicious meals, ready to reheat and set on your family's dinner table.
"The beauty of the evening hits when I come home from work the next day," says Aimee Chester, "and don't have to think about what is for dinner. Then I am really happy!"