Renee imagined an intimate gathering of epicureans, sharing stories and a champagne sabayon. So she put her wish out there (on the Internet) and discovered six strangers so culturally and racially diverse, they would be a casting agent's dream.
They are black and white; Korean, Indian and Hungarian. Married and not, from the city and the suburbs, they are 30- and-40-year-old women who share a remarkable indifference to carbs and calories and a conspicuous preoccupation with taste.
The group, which recently settled on the name Forking Delicious , is starting its second year. It's a boisterous, in-your-face clan of accomplished cooks whose training ranges from extensive to none at all. And the members are far more interested in the pleasures food brings than in any attempts at perfection.
"In this group there's none of the judgmental attitudes or the competitive one-upsmanship" that can happen, says Lesu Ali, a group member who was born in Detroit to Bangladeshi parents and grew up in a Greek neighborhood.
And Renee, who started the whole thing, couldn't be more delighted: "Everybody," she says, "brings something different to the table."
Renee grew up in Roslyn, the oldest daughter of divorced parents. Her mother was an artist with a day job cleaning other people's houses.
At 11 years old, Renee was responsible for the grocery shopping as well as the cooking. Her Aunt Pat would drive to the market, but Renee controlled the list as well as the budget, always finding a way for Pop-Tarts.
Being the cook gave Renee a bit of power over her two younger sisters, and challenged her to learn about menus and spices and making something from almost nothing. At Roslyn Elementary, she says, she read recipe books in the library while friends were immersed in Charlie Brown's adventures.
Often - too often, she recalls - dinner was breaded chicken legs and a Hungarian dish with cabbage in vinegar and butter.
"I'll never eat chicken legs again," she says, sounding a bit like Scarlett O'Hara vowing never to go hungry.
Now she's drawn to experimenting with more exotic, and expensive, ingredients.
"I inherited my mother's creativity but I express it differently," she says. "Through food. "
Renee went to nursing school to fulfill her need to nurture, and she still enjoys the work. But the foodie in her felt abandoned, without resources or support.
"Nobody in my immediate circle shared my passion for cooking," she says.
She tried to join a food group in 2004. "But something about it just didn't feel right. "
A year later, Renee decided to start her own group, posting a notice on Meetup.com for dinner and drinks at Stephen Starr's comfort-food eatery, Jones. "I'll be Renee in the red beret," her note read.
It drew Kathryn Simon, a property-management specialist from Riverton, Burlington County, and Donna Russell, a staffing supervisor for a home-care agency, who brought along her sister, Tinamarie Fairfax, for security.
"I wouldn't let her go alone to meet a bunch of strangers," says Tinamarie, a makeup artist in Cherry Hill who's into organics. She joined too.
The vibe was right. A second session brought Lesu Ali, and their third meeting, Dana Greene and Min Kim (who is from Korea via Brazil) - those two are professional pastry chefs who didn't know each other and were working in other trades.
With an uneven seven members (that's Renee, Kathy, Donna, Tinamarie, Lesu, Dana and Min), the group considered itself closed, except to guests (and there's a list of eager invitees).
They quickly moved to gathering in one another's houses and opted for menus built around themes.
Since then, the group has launched a Web site (http://fooddiaries.homestead.com) to catalog the members' favorite restaurants and recipes.
They envision a cookbook, a catering service, maybe even their own segment on the Food Network.
And in the fall, they're undertaking the ambitious, potentially relationship-killing experience of traveling together.
Kathy, who lived in Italy for several years and became adept at the language, came up with the plan to rent several houses on a hilltop in Umbria, between the towns of Mercatale di Cortona and Umbertide.
Initially, they planned nothing more than a week of companionship and cooking classes.
On a recent Sunday evening, all seven women and a couple of grateful guests gathered around the six-burner stove in Donna Russell's East Falls home.
The theme was champagne.
Kathy, Lesu and Min brought appetizers: marinated shrimp in a champagne beurre blanc; golden gazpacho and slices of persimmon and goat cheese with toasted walnuts rolled in prosciutto.
Tinamarie brought two whole red snappers (head and tail on) to fry on site in a wok and serve with baby bok choy in oyster sauce.
Renee brought her mother and chicken in champagne sauce. Donna made risotto topped with a drizzle of white truffle oil and polenta cooking in a champagne-and-sugar reduction and served on wide Chinese soup spoons.
Dana, a Johnson & Wales grad and registered nurse who prefers working as a massage therapist, made macerated pears and grapes in a champagne sabayon.
And Min made a lighter-than-air chocolate mousse that she topped with spun sugar at the last minute. Everybody gathered round to watch.
Min stood at an island in the middle of the kitchen, waving her arms like a magician and drawing hot strands of amber from a saucepan.
"It looks like she's playing the harp," Kathy marveled.
Perhaps the real marvel is that Min could arrive in the United States at 15 speaking only Korean and Portuguese and emerge as a fifth-grade English teacher. She says she learned the language and a healthy regard for fine ingredients by reading labels and signs in American supermarkets.
"It was," she says modestly, "a matter of survival. "
Maybe, though, the marvel is that in the last year Renee has found a way to merge her nursing and culinary skills by working as a life-skills instructor in a treatment program for women with drug and alcohol addictions.
Or that Donna has finally decided to marry her companion of 14 years, James Kane, when the group goes to Umbria in the fall. Or that her Forking Delicious friends have vowed to undertake the ambitious task of catering her wedding reception.
Renee says she can't explain the chemistry this group has experienced.
"We have a sisterhood and I don't really understand why," she says. "I guess we were all looking for something. "
Staff writer Dianna Marder can be reached at 215-854-4211 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder
Learn more about Forking Delicious at http://fooddiaries.homestead.com
Makes 6 servings, about 1 cup each
2 large yellow tomatoes, seeded and chopped (about 3 1/2 cups)
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped (about 2 cups)
1 yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
1/2 each: red and green bell peppers, cored, seeded and chopped (about 1/2 cup each)
1/2 red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon each: chopped fresh mint and cilantro
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon minced jalapeno pepper (optional)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 cups champagne (brut/ extra dry) plus extra for drizzling
1. Place the tomatoes, cucumber, bell peppers, onion and garlic in a blender and process until smooth.
2. Add the vinegar, oil, mint, cilantro, honey, jalapeno (if desired), salt and cumin. Pulse until combined, 5 or 6 times.
3. Cover and chill at least 1 hour or overnight. Just before serving, stir in the champagne. If served in champagne glasses, drizzle additional champagne around the lip of each glass.
- By Lesu Ali, adapted from Cooking Light's Annual Recipes 2007
Per serving: 146 calories, 2 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 315 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Shrimp With Champagne Beurre Blanc
Makes 8 appetizer servings
For the sauce base:
2 cups champagne or other dry sparkling wine
1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons champagne (or other white wine) vinegar
1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
For the shrimp:
1 cup champagne or other dry sparkling wine
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
24 (about 2 pounds) extra large uncooked shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails intact
1 tablespoon each: Fresh minced chives, tarragon and parsley
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 16 (tablespoon) pats
1. For the sauce base, up to 4 hours ahead, mix the 2 cups champagne, shallots, vinegar and peppercorns in a heavy pan. Bring to a boil and reduce to about 1/4 cup liquid, about 20 minutes. Cover and let stand at room temperature.
2. For the shrimp, mix the 1 cup champagne, olive oil, shallots and ground pepper in a resealable plastic bag. Add the shrimp, seal and shake to coat shrimp evenly. Marinate for 30 to 60 minutes at room temperature, turning the bag occasionally.
3. Mix the chives, tarragon and parsley and set aside.
4. Preheat the broiler. Spray the broiler pan with nonstick spray.
5. Drain the shrimp, discard the plastic bag and marinade. Arrange the shrimp in a single layer on the prepared pan. Broil until just opaque in the center, about 2 minutes per side.
6. Rewarm the sauce base over medium heat. One pat at a time, whisk in the butter, letting each melt before adding the next (do not boil or the sauce will separate).
7. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Arrange the shrimp on a platter. Spoon the warm sauce around. Sprinkle with the fresh herbs.
- By Kathryn Simon, adapted from Bon Appetit magazine, Dec. 2003.
Per serving: 468 calories, 24 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 0.5 gram sugar, 33 grams fat, 237 milligrams cholesterol, 173 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Chicken in Champagne Sauce
Makes 4 servings
1 cup flour
3 tablespoons Cajun seasoning
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup champagne
1/2 cup light cream
1/4 cup each: Chopped scallions (or chives) and parsley
1. Mix the flour and Cajun seasoning. Dredge the chicken.
2. Melt the butter with the oil in a large skillet. Sear the chicken on both sides until golden and crispy.
3. Deglaze the pan with champagne;, scrape up any bits and cook the chicken until cooked through, about 5 to 6 minutes.
4. Add the light cream, scallions and parsley, and continue cooking until heated through.
- By Renee Whyte, adapted from Entirely Entertaining in the Bonnet House Style (Bonnet House Alliance, 2001).
Per serving: 475 calories, 36 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 0.5 gram sugar, 24 grams fat, 131 milligrams cholesterol, 146 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Polenta With Champagne and Preserves
Makes 4 servings
1 box of polenta (or 1 cup yellow cornmeal)
4 cups water
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 bottle good-quality champagne
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 tablespoon lemon zest
1/2 tablespoon butter, melted
3-4 teaspoons raspberry
preserves, room temperature
1. Follow the instructions on the polenta package, or gradually add 1 cup yellow cornmeal to the saucepan with 4 cups boiling water. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring constantly until thick and creamy, about 15 minutes, adding more water if a thinner blend is desired. Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.
2. Pour the champagne into a small saucepan. Add sugar slowly, one spoon at a time. Bring to a boil.
3. Continue boiling on medium-high until the liquid is reduced by almost one-half, about 12 minutes.
4. Remove from heat. Whisk in the butter and lemon zest.
5. Divide the polenta into four servings, put a dollop of the raspberry preserves in the center of each, and drizzle with champagne reduction.
- From Donna Russell, Forking Delicious food group
Per serving: 261 calories, 3 grams protein, 50 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 156 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.