One of the great joys of my life has always been cooking. I was an enthusiastic home cook when I was young, and transitioned that passion into a career as a chef.
Any regular readers of the Five Minutes With column will know that there’s barely a chef in Canberra without a packet of two-minute noodles in the cupboard; working in a kitchen all day can really kill your desire to cook for yourself at home.
But now that I’m no longer working full time as a chef, I find myself once again drawn to home cooking as a place of comfort and connection and I’m finding ways to bring my friends to the table.
At the height of tomato season, I got my hands on 20 kilos of ”seconds” from a local farm: tomatoes that were damaged, but still perfectly edible, and therefore slightly discounted. There’s an Italian tradition of passata day, whereby family and friends gather to process the harvest of tomatoes into passata (tomato puree) that can be stored and used for the coming year. Australian millennials might be familiar with this process from scenes in the 2000 film Looking for Alibrandi.
For several years now I’ve adopted passata day as a tradition of my own, where friends gather for a day of cooking, eating and drinking. We clean, cook and bottle the tomatoes, make a batch of fresh pasta, enjoy a long lunch with copious amounts of red wine and cheese, and listen to the music of Louis Prima. It’s a delightful way to spend time with friends, and a good way to cross-pollinate between friendship groups.
The shared activity encourages collaboration and conversation flows easily, even between people who’ve never met before. And at the end of the day, we all have a jar of passata to keep: a tangible (and tasty) reminder of a day spent in good company.
Humans are social creatures and, traditionally speaking, much of the work around food was shared among the community. Think of communities coming together to participate in the harvest, or communal bread ovens in mediaeval towns. None of this is new.
It’s a social gathering blueprint that I’ve extended beyond tomatoes. Last year’s bumper crop of lemons prompted a collaborative limoncello-making day and I’ve even invited people over to lounge around the kitchen while a pot of jam bubbles on the stove. Zesting and juicing kilos of lemons or removing the stones from a load of plums can be a repetitive and boring task for one person to do alone but, as the saying goes, many hands make light work!
Avoiding a repetitive strain injury, and spending time with friends: that’s a win-win in my book.
The cost of ingredients can also be shared among the group: as a single person who lives with a single housemate, it can be hard to take advantage of bulk bargains. So harnessing the collective buying power of a group can be economically savvy as well as a nice way to build community.
Homemade meals and preserves also make excellent gifts that are valued for the time and effort that goes into creating them, and sharing that process is another gift in and of itself.
Those living in the Canberra region are fortunate to have access to brilliant fresh produce from markets and local farms, as well as a flourishing community of home gardeners. So keep an eye out for a bargain, or chat with a neighbour with a veggie patch.
Next time they need to use up all those extra large zucchinis, why not invite them around and have a zucchini day? Make pickles, soup, zucchini bread … whatever you make, make it together.
And best of all, there’s someone else to help with the washing up!