Dining In

Last month we looked at the myriad of sites, mail lists and news groups available to foodies who 'surf the Net'. While it answers nicely the average foodie's passion for the collection of food info, facts and how-to's, it doesn't even begin to address the main passions of every foodie, eating and feeding. Every one worth their sea salt in the kitchen wants not only to have recipes but to experiment with them and have an appreciative audience rave at the results. Enter the Dinner Club.

Here we have the meeting of two of the foodie's favorite pastimes. The collecting and exchanging of recipes and the testing of same. Whether you live in rural areas or metropolitan cities, as long as you have a few like-minded acquaintances, you can have equal access to this source of gourmet dining, fine wine and good company.

The early eighties saw the Dinner Club rise in popularity. Perhaps in answer to the high cost of eating out or possibly as a reaction to high inflation, people took their love of food and their spirit of adventure, melded them, and the Dinner Club was born.

Different from Progressive Dinners, Dining In dinners still have some points of similarity. Each offers its members a chance to have a gourmet meal with a minimum of fuss, bother and expense. The members of both types of groups each have an integral role in the preparation of the dinner. However, while Progressive dinners take you from one home to the next for each course of the meal, Dining In dinners have the unique advantage of staying in one place, no driving to worry about but still having several different cooks prepare. As well, Progressive Dinners have no limit on how many could participate. There are your basic "host couples" who prepared and hosted each leg of the journey, but any number of "guests" could actually attend.

Here's where Dining In comes in. Really, this type of group can consist of many couples, all with one goal in mind . . . the ultimate domestic gourmet dining experience!

Back in 1984, my husband and I had just moved up to small town Ontario and were experiencing the "new in town" thing. With another "new arrival", a mother of four like myself, that I had met through my daughter's teacher, I ventured out one Wednesday evening to the local Welcome Wagon Club meeting, little knowing what was in store. Loosely related to the ladies who "welcome" new families to the neighbourhood, this club was really an offshoot. When the Welcome Wagon lady comes to your house, along with the goodies she brings, she invites you to a meeting. It's strictly social, there's lots of ladies and you don't have to leave once you're "not new" any more.

When we arrived that night, Melanie and I were surprised to find that the room was full. There must have been almost forty women there. As the evening progressed, we heard about all the sub-groups that sprang from the main club. There was a babysitting co-op, a book club, a coupon clipper's group, a history group, a group that did crafts together, a glee club and lots more! The one that struck both of us though was the Dining In Club. We were intrigued enough at this new -- for us -- concept that we stopped Linda, the chair at the time, and asked her to fill us in.

"No problem!" she said. "We're just about to have our cocktail party where we form our new groups. Please come and we'll put you in groups as well!"

She made it sound so easy. At the cocktail party, groups of four couples each would be drawn from the names of everyone who wanted to take part. Basically, everybody's name just went into a hat. When the groups were formed, they each got together and decided who was having which dinner when and stuff like that. For the new ones and there were a few of us, there was a brief outlining of procedure.

With four couples in a group, each couple got to host one dinner on a rotating basis and then there would be another cocktail party and re-grouping. Although we couldn't make it to the first cocktail party, my husband and I were placed in a group with three Club veterans. The practice is that no group should have -- if at all possible -- more than one new couple in it. This way, we could have the benefit of three dinners before hosting our own. I could hardly wait. My husband, on the other hand, was less than enthused. We received our first menu and I was relieved to see my recipe was for deep fried squid. I'd never made them this way before, but I had made squid before so I knew what to expect.

When Roseanne and Rudy said they would hold the first dinner, they also explained what that meant. As the host couple, they would plan a theme -- ours was Mexican Fiesta -- plan a menu and find recipes for it. Then they would prepare copies of the menu and recipes for each of us in the group at the same time deciding who would do each course. Because it was at their house, they prepared the main course and it's accompaniments. As well, they would provide the cocktails before dinner, wines with dinner, and coffee etc. after dinner. I had the appetizer which was the squid and a dippy thing, Marie had the dessert and Judy would bring the gazpacho and salad.

Believe me, dragging my husband to that first dinner was a nightmare. Kind of like taking your cat to the vet. Except he talks. "Do we have to go?" "Can't we just send the appetizer and stay home?" "Go by yourself, I'm not coming!" "I don't know anybody there!"

After a lot of cajoling, we got there. It was an interesting evening. We had a good time and when it came time to leave, it was all I could do to drag hubby out of there. It was 2:00 a.m. and the dreaded dinner was a complete success. We made some new friends and discovered a way of enjoying new and different foods that made it fun.

Over the years, we had many different things we might never have tried. There was the night we had Polynesian and were asked to come dressed for the part. Most of us thought grass skirts and the like but there was one couple, John and Mary, who took it one step further. They came dressed as obnoxious tourists complete with loud print shirts and several cameras dangling around each of their necks. And the time we had a hobo dinner. I always knew Leon was a bum, but that night he outdid himself. We had dinners where white tie and tails were required. Mostly we just had good food and lots of fun.

That particular group lasted until 1990 when finally after slowly losing most of its membership, the last four of us gave up. We missed it for a long time.

And then . . . my husband started nagging. "We should get another dinner club going!" He meant I should! "Don't you think it would be nice to do again?" For me to do! "Think of all the nice people we met!" Well, he had me there.

After two years of nagging, this man who didn't want to go in the first place, succeeded in getting me started again. I made up a flyer, combed through my rolodex and invited 24 of the most adventurous people I could come up with. They came, all of them. They were curious and interested. We had a fabulous cocktail party and at the end of the evening we had nine couples who wanted to join. The others weren't sure of being able to handle the time commitment. No matter! We made three groups of three couples each and went from there. At the second rotation we had ten couples. As I write this, we're getting ready for our third round in September and we're up to eleven couples. Looks promising!

Most often, the menus involve recipes for dishes that the host couple, at least, has never made before. This is one of the things that makes a Dining In dinner so interesting. We've had some truly memorable dishes. And some of them were successfully so! So go ahead. Search for that recipe you had somewhere and were dying to duplicate, dabble in the cuisine of a country you've never been to, or plan a menu around your favourite theme . . . garlic in everything? . . . a drunken feast? . . . edible flowers? . . . tropical splendour? . . . a hobo fest? If you're so inclined, you can even ask guests to dress the part. The sky's the limit!

When each couple in the group has had a chance to host a dinner, we'll do the cocktail party again, invite any new comers along and regroup. Like before, each couple brings an hors d'oeuvre - something they've never made before - and whatever they're drinking.

It's rare to get the exact same group twice. Imagine, dinner with adults, not having to cut up someone's food and fuss and bother to a minimum . . . plus new faces now and then.

Here's a couple of recipes from our cocktail parties. I've credited the people that brought them. Maybe you can try them at your first cocktail party. It can start with as few as four couples. What have you got to loose?

This one was truly wonderful, and so simple too.

Radicchio and Pears

Radicchio and Pears
Contributed by: Vince and Helen Perruzza
  • 2 heads of radicchio
  • 4 pears, peeled and sliced
  • juice of a lemon
  • 1/2 cup Roquefort or any blue cheese
  • 1 8oz tub of soft cream cheese

After peeling and slicing the pears, place them in water to which lemon juice has been added to keep them from browning.

Whip together the Roquefort and the cream cheese until smooth.

Separate the heads of radicchio into individual leaves.

To each leaf add a dollop of cheese mixture and two or three slices of pear.

Serve at room temperature.

  • Yields: 40 canapés
  • Preparation Time: 20 minutes

This is the recipe I came up with on the night of the cocktail party. I hadn't decided what to make, I only knew it had to be shrimp and really spicy. This was the result! They make a great main dish too.

Sicilian Style Shrimp

Sicilian Style Shrimp
Contributed by: Rossana and Claudio Tarantini
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 tsp hot chili flakes
  • 1 - 19 oz can diced tomato
  • 2 tsp chili paste
  • 1 tbsp fresh chopped basil
  • 1 tbsp fresh parsley chopped
  • 3 lbs fresh jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a deep sauté pan or wok, heat olive oil until smoky. Add garlic and diced tomato. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add chili flakes and simmer 5 minutes more.

Add herbs, chili paste and shrimp and cook over medium heat until shrimp are just done. About 7 - 8 minutes.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Can be served hot or at room temperature.

  • Yields: approximately 60 shrimp
  • Preparation Time: 20 minutes

Cindy's Mother's Pate

Cindy's Mother's Pate
Contributed by: Cindy and Carl Lorusso
  • 1 lb chicken livers
  • 1 med onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp dry mustard
  • 1/8 tsp cloves
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • pinch of thyme
  • 1/4 cup sherry or brandy

Trim livers and place in a bowl with the onions.

Add milk and refrigerate overnight.

Drain well, and sauté in oil until tender (10 min) and allow to cool.

Process in food processor to a smooth paste, add butter cream and seasonings and blend.

Add sherry or brandy. Pour into a mold and refrigerate until firm.

Serve with melba toast.

  • Yields: one 9 x 4 loaf
  • Preparation Time: 30 minutes, not including overnight soak and 3 - 4 hours chilling time.
Those ought to get you in a cocktail party mood. If you have any questions about Dinner Clubs, or have an interesting story about your own group, please contact me. I'm always interested in how other people are running their groups.

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