Recipe for cooking up your own club

Your book group is meeting soon, and you've hardly cracked the first chapter of the bestseller you all chose weeks ago. Should you go anyway, even if you might feel like a kid who didn't do the homework?

This is the predicament that six young New Yorkers shared - month after month. Over lunch one day, these women decided to drop their book groups and pursue a more relaxed way to enrich themselves while socializing with friends: They would start a cooking club.

That was six years ago. Every Sunday evening since then, each member has made a dish and shared it with the group. They analyze one another's recipes and anything else that might come up while circling the buffet table - boyfriends, fashions, bosses, you name it.

These women - Rebecca Sample Gerstung, Katherine Fausset, Lisa Singer, Lucia Quartararo, Sharon Cohen Fredman, and Cynthia Harris - are not alone. As many Americans strive to simplify their lives and also to strengthen connections to friends and family, often over a good meal, cooking groups like this one are springing up all over the country.

What sets these cooking clubbers apart, however, is that they pooled their publishing know-how and connections to write a book about their experience.

"The Cooking Club Cookbook: Six Friends Show You How to Bake, Broil, and Bond" (Villard, 163 pp., $19.95) is a helpful and appetizing guide for those who might want to start their own cooking club. The authors share their most successful recipes as well as what they have learned are key ingredients for any cooking group.

"Plan menus and choose courses ahead of time over e-mail, by phone, or in person," they advise. But don't cook together; it's too chaotic. Instead, they urge participants to take turns preparing different parts of the meal - in their own homes - and to convene at the home of the member who makes the entree.

So that dishes complement one another, pick a theme. It can be anything from Mediterranean to Mardi Gras, Asian to Italian, or comfort food to party food. And make sure expenses are shared.

A chef's degree isn't needed. Some members barely knew that hitting the defrost button on the microwave doesn't constitute cooking.

What matters is that cooking-club members are willing to learn. And that everyone gets a pat on the back at least most of the time. But eating and encouraging are only part of the evening. What keeps people coming back each month is the sense of fun and camaraderie.

"The recipe we got right the first time," they write, "was our mix of good girlfriends. At the end of the weekend, having a group to consult on any matter of concerns - 'Are these leather pants too tight?' or 'Can someone proofread my résumé?' - has been the most rewarding part of Cooking Club."

Israeli Couscous With Arugula, Tomato, and Feta

1-1/2 cups Israeli couscous (large-grain variety)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups water
Juice from 1 lemon (about 1/3 cup)
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 scallions, thinly sliced (white parts plus 2 inches of green)
1 bunch arugula, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved (or 1-1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved)
1/4 pound feta cheese, diced
1/4 cup flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a stockpot, bring the couscous, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and the water to a boil. Turn the heat down to low. Cover and cook for 8 minutes, or until most of the water is absorbed.

When the couscous is cooked, drain it in a colander and rinse it with cool water. Set aside.

Pour the lemon juice into a large bowl. Drizzle in the olive oil and whisk, adding the scallions and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

Just before serving, add the arugula, tomatoes, feta, and parsley to the couscous. Toss with the olive oil-lemon juice dressing. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Serves 4 to 6.

- From 'The Cooking Club Cookbook'

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