Smile Politely

Cooking with your community

This story is about cooking. It begins, like all good meals, with a list of ingredients: 1 whole organic chicken, celery, onion, house aged ham, etc, etc…. This is also a story about cooking together. Not with your lovely partner, though that would be a fantastic February story, but with couples, groups, sometimes even crowds. I have been cooking with groups of people on a regular basis for over fifteen years now.

The technique, ideas, and style that I’ve gleaned from working shoulder to shoulder with others (particularly interesting when cooking shoulder) have far overshadowed any innate talent I may have had. I’ll confess here that I’m not as keen on cooking for cooking sake as some of my very closest friends. If it’s just me around I’m as likely to eat a bowl of cereal as anything else. What I love is the way cooking with a community stimulates creativity and experimentation. Apart from a friend’s kitchen, where else can you play with new ideas while a group of actively engaged onlookers cheer you on, hoping for your best work to date?

Last weekend a group of us gathered together with no real theme, no unifying idea to keep things from getting out of hand. It could have been a mess really. If we started with a spicy appetizer, my soup would have seemed flavorless in comparison. If I added cream to my soup, the main course Carbonara would have seemed heavy and overwhelming instead of homey and comforting. This is a recipe column though so let’s get down to business. I started early on Saturday making a very simple stock:

Chicken Stock (The Easy Way)

  • 1 Whole Organic Chicken (Rinsed, patted dry)
  • 2 Onions (Halved, out layer removed)
  • 2 Carrots (Scrubbed, broken in half)
  • 2 Celery Stalks (Scrubbed, broken in half)
  • 6 Peppercorns (In cheese cloth if you prefer)

Toss all ingredients in the largest post you own, fill with water, bring to boil, reduce heat to slow simmer for several hours. Remove and reserve Chicken, strain stock, done!

From there you can do almost anything. I made a white bean, kale soup with some of the broth, froze a bunch more and left some in the refrigerator to use throughout the week. I also left a whole cooked Chicken in the house that the family could tear at when needed.

At the last minute we added more friends to the mix. More coordination, more potential strange combinations, more chances for sharing and collaboration. This evening the menu fit together perfectly. I grabbed some bread from Pekara and made a ricotta spread (Ricotta, Olive Oil, Salt, Pepper, Parmesan) to pair with some incredible 5yr old house aged ham that was waiting for us at our host’s.

Bacon was started for the Carbonara while a cake began to take shape in the corner. While the flan was resting, the children found something sweet to tide them over. (It was still going to be a little while before we ate.)

What I loved about this night was not the actual food that came together (my soup was a little flat) but the chance to see others in action. To taste works in progress and help each other refine; “how about a bit more salt … needs a bit more acid, here’s half a lemon … I have leftover cheese, anyone need some?” I know lots of people who say they do their best work alone, away from others, completely immersed, but that’s not me at all.

All of my best work happens out loud, my most interesting observations come out in conversation not reflection, and my best cooking happens when people are watching. (Not so with typing though…)

I prepared Kale two ways, first sautéed in the leftover bacon drippings and added to my broth with white beans and Parmesan. The second way was raw with crumbled Ricotta Salata, lemon juice, salt and pepper. (idea from Dove Vivi in Portland) that provided a good contrast to the bacon-y, cheesy, pasta-y main course.

We tripled up on desert with coffee flan, chocolate samples from Brechin Chocolate and lemon almond cake. We were unbelievably full by the end of the night. I want to draw slight contrast between cooking together and a full on pot-luck. Now, I love a good pot-luck, but there is something deeply satisfying about working together, peering behind the curtain and seeing how the sausage is made (sometimes even helping to make it!)

This experience, this collaborative cooking is what excites me most about starting a community kitchen in this town. To take what I’ve learned and you’ve learned and mix it together. To build a shared sense of identity and support our local economy. To make the best X or Y that anyone has ever tasted or be supported in your colossal flops. The planning for our community’s first shared use kitchen faculty ( is heating up. We’ve got momentum, money, and some of the best cooks I know behind this. I can’t wait to see what this town can do.

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