Special/Signature Issues » Belle

Bonding Time



Cream of mushroom soup need not apply. And forget that green-bean casserole with the fried onion topping -- unless you're hosting a June Cleaver theme party where everyone's wearing pearls and aprons.

But do keep the potluck dinner tradition alive and fashionable — with a fresh approach to cooking and cool new ways to serve. Everyone brings a dish, or makes them together, and then sits down to feast like there's no tomorrow.

Or, for an evening out, gather friends for a cooking class at one of Richmond's culinary hot spots — there's something going on all over town every week.

There's surprising serendipity either way, as new tastes are revealed and talents discovered ... and friends get a chance to reconnect over food.

Girls Night In

Twice a month, always on Wednesday nights, Meeshel von Ofenheim and some four-dozen friends gather for potluck in her Museum District house. She's an art teacher in Chesterfield County and started the group with just four women nearly six years ago. Now it's grown into a much-anticipated tradition with an amazing spread of food, a diverse group of friends and a lively, welcoming informality.

"Why it works is because there's no agenda," she says. "We have lawyers, artists, a doctor, teachers, gardeners, single, divorced — all types of women with different religious backgrounds, political views and ages. It's wonderful and it makes you appreciate all the differences. All these women are very strong women, but there's no competition, there's no cattiness, that air. You don't have to prove anything, which makes it so comfortable. We learn so much from each other."

Some weeks there's a theme night, like Mexican or Asian; other times artists will show their work, musicians will play their instruments or everyone will celebrate a birthday, wedding, divorce settlement or pregnancy. The grill is always fired up, and Meeshel sometimes prepares lamb or clams. Friends try out new recipes and often use fruits and veggies from their organic gardens.

Somehow, cleanup always gets done without delegating — different people pitch in to take out trash and recycling and to load the dishwasher. Alcohol that's left over is saved until the next gathering. Sometimes people bring paper plates and cups; other times Meeshel pulls out dishes in her always-gracious, relaxed style. "Friendship is a commitment," she says. "Wednesdays are when we celebrate our time together."

What to Take

The Ultimate Casserole Redo

Chef Sally Schmidt of Sallyfood says it's time to update those old standards. Some tips:

— Many casseroles have a modified béchamel sauce, made with roux and liquid. Ditch the old cream of mushroom soup recipes that show up at church suppers. Schmidt's updates on old standards show that a healthier, tastier variation will please even old-school guests.

— Prime ingredients are key: butter phyllo (Fresh Market carries it) instead of margarine phyllo; Greek yogurt (Ellwood Thompson's has it); organic mushroom broth; fresh and seasonal produce instead of canned (fresh baby artichokes instead of a jar). The taste difference is worth the extra effort, especially when you're making a big batch for intentional leftovers.

— Cut ingredients in uniform size for even cooking. Sauces should be silky, not gloppy. Keep guests happy and healthy by avoiding recipes with too much fat or salt.

— Recipes that can be frozen and reheated repeatedly are the best choices for potluck dinners.

— Vacuum packaging keeps leftovers ready for fast meals later. Food cooks in the bag for extra ease.

Rustic Eggplant-Tomato Bake

Inspired by a Patricia Wells recipe from Provence, this casserole is great hot or cold (when it cuts neatly into squares), delightful for a late-summer or early-autumn buffet when eggplants are at their peak, and hearty enough to be the center of the plate in a vegetarian meal.

Makes 6 to 8 servings:2 or 3 globe eggplants (about 2 pounds total), preferably Rosa Bianca, or 2 pounds Japanese eggplants
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, peeled
¬ cup mixed chopped fresh herbs such as Italian parsley, rosemary, basil and thyme
6 to 8 small ripe, red tomatoes such as Early Girl or Celebrity
(about 1« pounds total)

1) Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2) If eggplants are large, cut in half lengthwise. Slice eggplant halves or whole Japanese eggplants crosswise into «-inch-thick slices.

3) Drizzle 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over the bottom of a shallow 2-quart baking dish. Arrange the eggplant slices, overlapping them, in a single layer in the prepared dish, and season with salt and pepper.

4) Put the garlic cloves through a garlic press directly into a small bowl. Add the herbs, « teaspoon salt and enough oil to make a stiff paste. Dot the eggplant with the garlic-herb mixture.

5) Core the tomatoes, cut them in half crosswise and salt the cut sides. Place the tomato halves cut side down spaced evenly over the eggplant. Drizzle the remaining oil evenly over all, and sprinkle the tomatoes with a little salt.

6) Bake in the upper third of the oven, basting occasionally with the juices that collect in the dish, until the eggplant is tender and the tomatoes are soft and blackened on top, about one hour. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sound Stew

 Set the musical scene with local talent. Vocalist Terri Simpson's new album, "Nealiette: Children of the Sky" just dropped; it's a modern take on smooth R&B stylings, with some of the city's favorite jazz musicians in featured roles.

 Meeshel von Ofenheim says music is the backbone of every good party: "We're always at Plan 9 getting new things. Last week we played some Bob Marley reggae and K-os, which is hip-hop from Canada, but it's always something different."

 Let guests do music potluck, and bring their favorite CDs to set a changing mood.


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