The Comfort of Cooking With Strangers

While I'm on vacation, I've got a handful of helpful and savvy kitchen elves pitching in to keep the blog engine running. Today's treat comes from Shannon Henry, a former Post technology writer, who has transferred her talents to the kitchen.

When I move to a new town (twice now in the past three years), there is one constant: I make lasagna with new friends.

(Shannon Henry)

It may seem like a funny thing to do, but cooking with someone you hardly know, while you mix sauce and layer noodles, can be a profound experience.

After what seemed like a lifetime in Washington (including seven years of writing for The Washington Post), my husband and I moved to Denver, where I started a cooking group. For more than two years, we were a dozen women strong, who gathered in smaller groups to make soups, sauces, breads, appetizers -- you name it -- and then met once a month for a food swap. When I met Evelyn and Kathy for the first time, we made 10 lasagnas in three hours, then invited our husbands and kids for a big dinner party. We each put two in our respective freezers and gave one to friends in need -- a mom with a new baby, a sick friend and an elderly neighbor.

A few months ago, my family moved to Madison, Wis., but the Denver girls are still going strong with a year’s worth of swaps planned ahead. Wish I was there for their Culinary Heritage month!

Here in Madison, I found, somewhat accidentally, a group of women who want to cook together, too. Earlier this month, I met Lauren and Katrina while making three trays of lasagna. We talked about our kids (some of whom played happily nearby) and our lives, and we decided we’d try to cook once a week together, rotating kitchens and recipe choices. I learned that Lauren likes onions chopped very finely, Katrina dislikes fish, and I await other details to unravel at our future cooking dates.

Later that week, I mentioned the cooking-with-friends idea to moms at the school bus stop, which prompted a chopped liver session (for my first time!) with my new neighbors Suzanne and Erica. Using a time-tested recipe from Suzanne’s grandmother, we whipped up the chopped liver in about 15 minutes and had an impromptu lunch of chopped liver and lettuce on rye with a glass of red wine. I learned where Suzanne keeps her knives as well as her family’s food traditions and history.

For me, (although I’m really hoping not to move again anytime soon), cooking with friends is a way to get to know new people better and to slow down over an afternoon of cooking and conversation instead of relying on those disjointed conversations at work or school. For some people, the organized cooking group is too structured, but the occasional neighbor cook-fest works great. Others find that their mother, sister, husband or child is their best cooking friend. It is, of course, what generations of families from different cultures have done over the years.

The philosophy is simple -- cooking together brings us closer, making us feel at home wherever we are.

Shannon Henry runs the Web site, Cooking With Friends, publishes an e-newsletter and is writing a book about communal cooking with her closest friend from high school, Alison Bermack. She can be reached at

Spinach and Sausage Lasagna
From the Cooking With Friends Kitchen
Makes two large lasagnas
Note: If making with friends have someone make the sauce ahead of time and bring to the cooking date
2 packages lasagna noodles
1 teaspoon kosher salt plus extra for boiling noodles
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds sausage without casing
8 cups (1/2 batch) Tomato-Basil Marinara Sauce (see recipe below) or other tomato sauce
4 large eggs
4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
8 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 16-ounce bags fresh baby spinach (or two 10-ounce frozen boxes, thawed and squeezed of excess liquid)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the lasagna noodles, the oil (the oil keeps the noodles from sticking together), and some salt and cook until al dente. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Crumble the sausage into the pan and cook until browned, stirring occasionally, 5-10 minutes. Bring the sauce to a simmer in a large saucepan and, using a slotted spoon, add the sausage (discard the fat in the pan).

Set 1 1/2 cups of mozzarella aside and place the remaining 2 1/2 cups in a large bowl. Beat the eggs together and then add to the mozzarella along with the ricotta, parsley, eggs, salt, and pepper, and mix to combine.

If you plan on cooking the lasagna right away, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Spread a thin layer of tomato sauce over the bottom of two 13- by 9-inch lasagna pans. Add a layer of overlapping noodles to the bottom of each pan. Top with one-quarter of the cheese mixture, some spinach, and one-quarter of the sauce. Repeat and finish each pan with a sprinkle of the reserved mozzarella. At this point, you can either bake the lasagna or freeze it uncooked. If you want to bake the lasagna right away, cook it until bubbling and browned on top, about one hour.

If freezing, first wrap the lasagna tightly with a layer of aluminum foil and then wrap it completely with two layers of plastic wrap before placing in the freezer. The lasagna doesn’t need to be defrosted before cooking. Just remove the plastic wrap, and pop the lasagna in a preheated 375-degree oven until it warmed through and bubbly, about two hours.

Tomato-Basil Marinara Sauce
From the Cooking With Friends Kitchen
Makes four quarts

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (preferably mild and not too briny or spicy)
12 large garlic cloves, minced
4 16-ounce cans whole San Marzano tomatoes, tomatoes separated from liquid
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
3 or 4 dashes hot sauce (optional)
8 ounces fresh basil (about 2 large bunches) washed, stemmed, and sliced into strips

Heat the olive oil in a 5-quart pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and golden, about 2 minutes.

Add the reserved tomato juice and bring it to a simmer. While the liquid comes to a simmer, tear the tomatoes into pieces and add them to the pot. Stir in the sugar, salt, red pepper, and hot sauce (if using). Add the basil, stir, and cover the pot.

Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cook about two hours, stirring occasionally. If after two hours the sauce looks thin, remove the lid, increase the heat to medium, and let it cook down for a bit. Cool to room temperature and divide into plastic containers or freezer bags.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 16, 2008; 8:51 AM ET Community , Dinner Tonight
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Shannon - thanks for such a powerful message! I can personally attest to the wonder of cooking with friends either new or those you have had for many years. You learn so much more about a person while waiting for a soup to simmer or cookies to bake. During these times of sooner rather than later, it allows you to slow down and truly listen to the nuances of your conversations. Thanks for the reminder to call a friend or pull out the baking pans with your kiddos!


Posted by: denvergirls | December 16, 2008 10:58 AM

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