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Charlotte women gather to form a cooking club

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  • Cooking club at work
  • Tuscan Bean Dip

    Molly Macon usually brings this, but it has become a favorite of the whole group. Instead of a smooth puree, the beans are left whole, so it’s a chunky mixture.

    2 (19-ounce) cans cannellini beans, such as Progresso

    2 bay leaves

    1 small red onion; minced

    5 Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced (or whichever tomato is freshest and in season)

    2 tablespoons garlic, minced

    1/4 cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, chopped

    1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped

    2 cups good-quality olive oil, plus more if needed

    2 teaspoons dried oregano

    1 to 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

    2 teaspoons kosher salt

    1 tablespoon black pepper

    Crusty bread or toasted baguette slices for serving

    DRAIN and rinse the beans and set aside. Mix the bay leaves, red onion, tomato, garlic, parsley, basil, oregano and olive oil in a large bowl.

    ADD the beans to the marinade and toss well to coat. Add the red pepper, salt and pepper a little at a time, tasting to adjust the flavor as you go. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours to let flavors absorb.

    BRING to room temperature before serving with crusty bread or toasted baguette slices.

    Yield: About 3 cups.

  • Apple Pie With Scratch Crust

    From Garden & Gun magazine. The crust came from Phoebe Lawless of Scratch Baking in Durham; the filling came from PieLab in Greensboro, Ala.


    4 cups all-purpose flour

    1 tablespoon sugar

    1 teaspoon salt

    10 ounces cold unsalted butter, cubed

    1 cup very cold water


    1 large egg yolk

    1 tablespoon heavy cream

    1/4 cup raw cane sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

    1/4 cup flour

    1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

    1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

    1/4 teaspoon salt

    3 pounds apples, peeled, cored and sliced

    1 tablespoon unsalted butter

    1/2 cup toasted pecans

    CRUST: Mix flour, sugar and salt in a food processor until thoroughly combined. Add butter cubes and pulse until a coarse, peppercorn-size meal forms. Transfer to a large bowl.

    MIX in small amounts of water with a fork, about 3 to 4 tablespoons at a time, until dough is slightly moist and holds together when clumped. Gather dough into a large mound on a clean work surface. Cut into 4 equal portions and shape into balls. Wrap each in plastic and press into 1-inch-thick flat rounds. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or freeze up to 2 months.

    TO ROLL, let stand at room temperature 10 to 15 minutes. (If frozen, defrost in refrigerator overnight.) Flour work surface, pastry and rolling pin. Roll dough from the center out, rotating 10 to 15 degrees after each. Transfer to pie dish, easing into the bottom. Fill and cover with a second crust. Fold the edges under and crimp to seal.

    FILLING: Whisk yolk and cream in a small bowl and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

    MIX lemon juice, sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a large bowl. Add the apples and toss to coat. Dot with butter and fold in pecans. Pile into crust-lined pie dish. Top with second crust.

    BRUSH top with egg wash, sprinkle with sugar and cut several small slits in the top. Bake 35 to 45 minutes, until golden brown.

    Yield: 2 pies.

  • The Salty Sicilian

    Group member Liz Simmons usually picks a cocktail for the dinner. This time, she adapted a recipe from Charlotte magazine, switching vodka for gin.

    1/4 cup water

    1/4 cup sugar

    1 bunch fresh basil

    3/4 cup pink grapefruit juice

    1/2 cup gin


    HEAT water and sugar in a small saucepan over high heat until boiling. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Turn heat to low, add the basil and simmer 5 minutes. Cool.

    POUR a few tablespoons of salt into a shallow dish. Wet the rim of 2 glasses with water or a lemon slice and dip each one into the salt. Add ice and set aside.

    COMBINE grapefruit juice, gin and basil syrup in a shaker over ice. Shake and strain into the prepared glasses.

    Yield: 2 servings.

When eight women are making dinner together in Katherine Vest’s kitchen off Providence Road, it’s like watching a pot come to a boil:

Eruptions of laughter. Splashes of action. Sighs of satisfaction. Women jump from spot to spot, and serious talk stays serious for maybe 30 seconds.

There are multiple appetizers and ambitious entrees. There is wine. Oh yes, there is wine.

When Katherine Vest called to tell us about her cooking club, a group of nine BFFs – best food friends – who get together once a month to cook, eat and share a mutual love of food, she got breathless just talking about it:

The food trips to Charleston and Tennessee. The field trips to wine tastings, cooking classes and food events. The rival cooking club. (Rolls of toilet paper have been thrown.)

Children are left with spouses, who are shooed off to find something else to do that night.

“We move heaven and Earth for cooking club,” she said.

Why join the club?

Maybe friends who cook together stay together. Vest’s cooking club has lasted about five years.

“We had young kids and we needed to get together,” says Barrie Benson, one of the members of the group. That explanation is about as simple as it gets.

And simple is good, because when eight women crowd into one kitchen, it’s complicated enough just getting all the names straight:

Katherine Vest, Anne Carter Smith (said as one word, Annecarter), Molly Macon, Haley Poole, Mason Smith, Liz Simmons, Mary Bradley Thigpen (also said as one word, Marybradley) and Barrie Benson. One was missing the night we joined them – Beverly Shull, the president-elect of the Charlotte Junior League, who was traveling.

All are between the ages of 39 and 43. All have children who are roughly between ages 5 and 12. Some have jobs, some are stay-at-home moms.

They know each other from a lattice of connections:

“From play groups.”

“Book club.”

“Single friends.”

“Moving to Charlotte after school.”

Four are “serious” cooks. Four love to bake. Liz Simmons is the resident mixologist, who picks a cocktail. A couple are simply “resident eaters,” who are happy to do any small cooking chore.

Other friends have asked to join, but the group hesitates. Nine is a good number. That’s enough that if a couple of people can’t make it, you still have a good group, but not so many that you can’t fit everyone around a table.

Tasters’ choices

“So, I’ve been on a quest to find the perfect Parmesan,” announces Haley Poole. She has covered a cutting board with a sheet of parchment paper and written the origin by four wedges of cheese: Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Pasta & Provisions, Dean & Deluca. (Pasta & Provisions and Whole Foods did well, by the way.)

On the other side of the island in Vest’s very large, country-style kitchen, Liz Simmons is mixing tonight’s cocktail, the Salty Sicilian, adapted from a 2011 issue of Charlotte magazine.

Since it’s a weeknight in mid-September, they’ve picked a late summer/early fall theme: Roasted quail wrapped in pancetta, sausages and wedges of grilled raddichio served on creamy polenta, from the cookbook “A Platter of Figs,” by David Tanis. Turnips and turnip greens with bacon.

A simple platter with the last of the garden tomatoes. And an apple pie featured in a recent Garden & Gun, with a pie crust from Phoebe Lawless of Scratch Baking in Durham.

To cook so many things in one evening, there’s a work sheet, listing the menu, the things that have been prepped ahead, the list of cooking tasks, cookware and serving pieces and groceries.

Just gathering the quail took some doing. You don’t trot down to the Teeter for that. Hunting friends helped out.

As women arrive, the room briefly – very briefly – falls quiet while women study the work list. And then it explodes, with sauteing, chopping, washing, slicing and peeling.

Molly Macon brought Tuscan Bean Dip, which gets serious attention. The recipe has become a group staple.

“I give Molly’s recipe away everywhere,” Haley Poole admits.

When the from-scratch pie crust is ready to roll out, a nervous baking novice calls for moral support. Several women gather around.

Learning together is part of the appeal, Vest says.

“We’ve all been out of school so long, but every month, we come away with some little thing I’ve learned.”

Clubs and more clubs

A couple of years ago, several women pinched pennies to go to a real cooking school, at the Inn at Blackberry Farms in Tennessee.

While there, they met their match: A group of nine women, all about 20 years older, who also cook and take food trips together. The Charlotte group ended up going to Roaring Gap to visit them, and the mountain group came to Charlotte for a Sunday lunch.

Then there’s a rival club here in Charlotte, a group of friends who cook from simpler cookbooks. They tease Vest’s group about being snooty; Vest’s group teases them back by calling them “The Casserole Club.”

It led to Liz Simmons’ house getting TP’d during a Christmas party.

“I didn’t take it well,” Simmons admits. But peace broke out and they have since made up over a meal.

When the polenta is cooked, the cookbook directs them to pour it out onto a cutting board, where it’s supposed to “grab” the wood and form a pool, rather than pouring off the side onto the floor.

That one takes a lot of moral support, and there is triumph when it works. The roasted quail, sausages and raddichio are nestled into the polenta.

When the table is loaded, everyone clinks a glass and digs in.

At the end of the table, Katherine Vest watches and considers what she loves so much about this group.

“Everyone is going a million directions. Kids, careers. We don’t come together to ‘entertain,’” she says. “We know how to turn that on. This, this is no pressure, all joy.

“The shared love of food is enough.”

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