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Simply Entertaining: Dining clubs set table for fun, camaraderie

Thursday, April 25, 2002

By Mary Miller

If it's the last Saturday of the month, it's time for the Walnut Woods Dinner Group. A group of homeowners from my old neighborhood gets together once a month for dinner and catches up while enjoying a night out. Even after we moved, my husband and I remained part of the group because it gave us a chance to see former neighbors.

Our dinner group usually goes out to a restaurant, but others take turns having dinner at members' homes. Some sign up for cooking classes, go to wine tastings or plan catered dinners. Last year, one of our members had an Argentinean dinner, followed by salsa dancing lessons. Creativity and camaraderie keep the groups going -- sometimes as long as 50 years.

Some meals are adventurous, some resemble church potlucks. Some have themes. When idea banks were running low for one dinner group, members came up with a Salute to Root Vegetables. Carrots, turnips, parsnips, I assume. This same group has varied its themes -- from a recent Roadkill night (can you tell this was the guys' night to cook?) to colorful Cinco de Mayo dinners. In some groups, the host of the evening cooks, in others members share the responsibility.

If you are starting a dinner club, consider this question: Do you want to go to restaurants, homes or both? Decide on a price limit. Keep all members' budgets in mind. Consider how the cost of alcohol will be handled.

Select a date that is easy to remember. The first Friday of every month . . . the last Saturday of every quarter. Keep your group's meeting infrequent enough so it won't become a chore.

Decide on the objective -- gourmet food, friendship or both. Do you want to learn about new cuisines and ingredients or just have a burger and a beer with friends?

If you're organizing a cooking club for serious cooks, invite guests with similar skill levels and interests. Tossing in ingredients without measuring or chopping instead of mincing could push some dedicated (albeit uptight) cooks off the deep end.

In neighborhood groups, hard feelings can come about from being left out. Don't act like a fourth-grader and invite everyone to join the group but one house on the street.

Be sensitive to the minorities in the group, whether they're single, married or childless. It's got to be a bore for a childless couple to listen to chatter about other people's children for hours.

Keep the number of guests on the small side. Most restaurants and homes cannot handle dinner for 75. Between 12 and 16 seems to be the popular range.

Decide on a policy for inviting guests who are outside the regular group.

If your group dines out at restaurants, don't try to split the bill. Separate checks are essential. Or a fixed price meal.

Remind members that, in most cases, once they RSVP, members are responsible for their part. It's embarrassing to reserve a restaurant for an evening and then have to call and tell the owner that only half of the intended number is showing up. Last-minute crises do happen, but don't leave the host in a pickle.

To avoid questions at a later time, develop group rules before your group starts dining out together. Give every member a copy.

Roasted Carrots And Parsnips

If your group decides on a root vegetable blow-out, give this easy and good-for-you recipe a try. Dried or fresh herbs can be added during the last 10 minutes of baking for extra flavor.

2 pounds parsnips (about 6 medium), peeled and cut into 2-inch-long sticks, each about 1/4-inch thick
1 pound carrots (about 6 medium), peeled and cut into 2-inch-long sticks, about 1/4-inch thick
3 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Divide parsnips and carrots between 2 shallow baking pans and toss each pan with 1 1/2 tablespoons oil. Spread vegetables in one layer and season with salt and pepper. Roast in oven, switching positions of pans in oven halfway through baking and stirring occasionally, abut 20 to 25 minutes, until browned and crisp.

Gourmet (1994)

Mary Miller is a Fox Chapel-based registered dietitian and food writer. Her column appears twice monthly. For questions or comments, she can be reached at marymar333@attbi.com

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