It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning. My car trunk is packed with everything I’ll need: a laundry basket holding saucepan, frying pan, food processor, and kitchen knives; a tote bag of vegetables, tofu, rice, oil, and spices; another bag of miscellaneous items – an apron, empty food storage containers, a box of teas to share with the ladies, dishcloths, and garbage bags for cleaning up. I double-check my list and see that I’ve forgotten a crucial item: my recipe! (I won’t get far without that.) Finally, I hop in the car, coffee by my side, and pick up my neighbor. She loads in her gear too and I can smell the fennel that she’ll be using in her recipe; the scent drifts around us as we chat on the short drive to the church.
We haul our supplies into the silent building, through to the kitchen. It’s not quiet for long, though, as our six group members begin arriving, in various states of wakefulness. Someone hooks up an iPod and music mixes with the sounds of clanging pots, chopping boards sliding into position on the countertops, sinks filling with water as vegetables are scrubbed. “Does anyone have a can opener that works?” one woman asks. “So, did you take the kids to the orchard after all?” another asks her friend who has set up a station beside her. It’s Saturday morning, and we’re ready to cook dinner.
My batch cooking group has been meeting to cook together for several years now. We are six women who all live within a 10-minute drive from each other, renting a local church’s kitchen for three hours once a month. When we gather, we each prepare a separate recipe. The recipe has to meet certain criteria: it must be vegan; it must be an “entrée,” incorporating at least one protein, vegetables, and – ideally – a grain; it must freeze well, without becoming mush once thawed; and it must yield 12 servings. We divide the servings into six two-person portions, meaning that each member comes away with six different two-serving dishes, ready to be frozen. Each member is responsible for bringing – and paying for – the groceries needed for her recipe, and she alone prepares it. The kitchen we rent has two electric stoves, two sinks, and plenty of counter space. We split the rental cost equally between members.
It’s not easy eating vegan in these ’burbs. Or maybe our tastes are discriminating. We unite to make affordable, convenient meals that offer alternatives to the expensive and questionably healthful fast-food and grocery store offerings in our area. Now, when one of us needs a break from cooking for the night, she can reach in her freezer and pull out a tasty dish – something that she knows is preservative-free and prepared with fresh ingredients, by friends’ hands. The shared dishes offer flavors and ingredients that may not usually be part of our home cooking repertoire. Some of the recipes prepared in recent months by our members include four-bean chili, coconut quinoa stew, brown lentil and butternut squash burritos, tofu and spinach calzones, lemon red lentil soup, Jamaican patties, chickpea fritters, and ratatouille. Occasionally, a member veers slightly off-course (always to the delight of our tastebuds), cooking up vegetable stock, granola, or chocolate banana bread. Not all of us follow strictly vegan diets on the homefront, but we’re all open to welcoming meat- and dairy-free meals to our family dinner tables.
Nor do we all represent the same demographics. One member comes from a two-adult household; another has a four-year-old daughter; another yet, two teenagers. Our household incomes vary. We have a homemaker, a freight forwarder, a clinical research consultant, a graphic designer. Initially, we were simply friends-of-friends, neighbors, acquaintances; now we are friends. For our group brings us much more than filled freezers and bellies. What we gain is connection.
We cook side-by-side, teaching each other, learning together. “How can I prepare beets so my kids will eat them?” one woman asks. “Does anyone know if there are any local farmers still accepting members for their CSA program?” “My food processor’s broken; can anyone recommend a good model to replace it?” “How do you get your pastry crust so flaky?” Someone else is always ready with an answer. In other times, perhaps, we could have turned to our mothers for cooking lore. Now we have each other, lending wisdom gleaned from our various life experiences, our cooking successes (and disasters), and our home cookbook libraries. We bring in surpluses from our vegetable gardens to share and lists of favorite websites with recipes for vegan-aspiring families; we lend each other tools and provide each other with last-minute ingredient substitutions (“Don’t worry, you can use some of my olive oil”); one member was even gifted with a nearly new stainless steel fridge by another member who was upgrading her appliances. Some of us only see each other once a month, but we keep up via email in the weeks between. We know what’s going on in each other’s lives – who has lost a pet, who’s going back to school to launch another career, who’s planning a big trip. Although we may never all sit together at once around a table to break bread, we are a family.
I cannot praise this grassroots system of feeding ourselves enough. But a certain amount of advance organization is necessary to get it up and running. If you want to create a similar cooking community, first define your goal and find participants who can identify with it. This may be cooking dinners for gluten-intolerant households, baking a month’s worth of wholesome snacks for school-aged kids, or making lunches to bring to the office. Determine how often you will meet (weekly? biweekly? monthly?), where you will meet (at a member’s home? rotating member’s homes? at an independent, rented, kitchen?), what you will make (how many recipes? how many servings each recipe?), how you’ll make it (the division of labor), and how you’ll pay for the groceries and rental. My group is perfectly suited to my members’ needs. Your needs may be quite different. Perhaps you’d prefer cooking several dishes collectively. Maybe you’ll only unite for special occasions, like holiday baking or harvest preserving. By necessity or choice, you may make your group meetings more of a family affair, with children, spouses, and grandparents helping – or assisting with on-site childcare. Whatever their form, because of their rewards to body and spirit, your group meetings are sure to become as anticipated as ours are for us!
It’s mid-morning and we’re well into our recipes by now. Teabags are steeping in the mugs at our sides. Four of us have chosen recipes using onions, which results in a shared weeping moment until the fumes dissipate with cooking. This happens often. Again, we bring up the topic of remedies for onion tears; again we laugh them off. (Though one of us continues to swear by her onion goggles.) Our compost pail is filling with peels. Someone is grinding spices, someone else is rolling dough for dumplings. The badminton club who practices in the auditorium next to the kitchen keeps finding excuses to wander in and take a peek at what’s cooking: “Just in for another glass of water, pardon me. Oh my, what smells so lovely?” Knives stop their rhythmic hammering and the tap is turned off when one of us, quietly but proudly, announces that she may be buying a hobby farm the next province over. “Whaaaat?!?” we holler, so happy for her.
No two get-togethers are alike. One Saturday, one of the church kitchen stoves, quite unexpectedly, wasn’t working. At all. We improvised. This morning they are both working to full capacity, frying, browning, mellowing our food. If we remember, we print out copies of the recipes we’ve chosen so that the others will have them for future use; otherwise, later someone sends a mass email request for a recipe and anyone else who’s interested gets an emailed copy too. Usually, members choose recipes that they’ve tested at home: a new favorite, for instance, only with ingredient quantities doubled or tripled. Sometimes we take risks and use a recipe we’ve never made before. We have made mistakes, but never produced anything inedible. Truly, anything we make is far superior to any ready-made meals we could buy near us.
As each cook finishes her dish, she asks for containers from the others and doles out her creation equally between them. At this point, we often take out spoons for little samplings of our bounty. (Who says you can’t have chili in the morning?) Finally, we clean up, mindful of our status as renters. We lock the door, say our goodbyes, drive off in our own directions. This is the first chance I’ve had all morning to sit down. I remember to drive carefully so that I won’t jar the lids for the containers of soups and stews, causing them to spill over. My neighbor and I discuss which of the meals we’ll be cracking into for lunch, and then we’re turning into our street. As I haul my equipment back into my house, I’m greeted with a hug by my daughter. “Mama,” she says, inhaling deeply into my hair. “You smell like good things. What have you brought for us?”
The following recipe offers a taste of Fall, and is perfect for a batch cooking group, yielding two savory tarts.
yields two quiches
Two standard one-crust pie shells; lightly prick the surface with a fork and pre-bake the shells for 10 minutes at 400 F (allow to cool to room temperature before filling)
4 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 carrots, peeled and diced
3 cups green cabbage, finely chopped
2 lb. (two regular packages) extra-firm tofu, drained, pressed, and crumbled
3 tbsp. tamari
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. natural cane sugar
2 tsp. sea salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. fresh dill, minced
1/3 cup nutritional yeast flakes
2 tsp. brown (natural) sesame seeds
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, carrots, and cabbage and sauté until onion begins to brown lightly. Add ½ cup of water and partially cover the skillet, reducing the heat and cooking until the carrots are tender.
While this is cooking, in a food processor mix the tofu, tamari, mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper, and dill; mix until well processed. Turn out the mixture into a large bowl and stir in the nutritional yeast.
When the cabbage mixture is cooked, transfer it to the food processor and mix well. Turn it out into the bowl and combine with the tofu mixture, stirring well.
Divide the filling into two parts, filling each pie shell with one part. Pat smooth with the back of a fork and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Andrea Belcham is the author of Food and Fellowship: Projects and Recipes to Feed a Community (The Alternate Press, Fall 2011), which looks at the batch cooking group phenomenon more intensively. She cooks, crafts, and tends to her little patch of earth in Quebec.