Cooking for family and friends

For the past seven years, Jill Alexander and a group of her friends regularly gather for what they term their “monthly ladies supper club.”

“I have several close friends that have been part of my life for the past 35 years, and one of the common threads is our love of cooking,” says the Centerville woman. “Because of this, one of my friends, Lisa Snapp, started the club.”

There are eight women in the group. The number eight was selected, Alexander explains, because that’s how many people fit around most dining room tables.

“We meet at a different person’s house each month and the one hosting does all the cooking,” she explains. The remaining seven bring a bottle of wine.

“It’s a great time to get caught up, sit back and relax and enjoy a home-cooked meal with great friends and wine,” Alexander says. “Some of us in the group have always cooked and entertained and some have not, so it’s fun to see how everyone rises to the challenge.”

The only rule: the dinner must be homemade.

It was Jill’s turn in January; her menu included Grilled Pork Tenderloins with Chili-Balsamic Glaze, Maple Chipotle Sweet Potato puree, and roasted asparagus.

We asked her about her lifelong love of cooking and entertaining.

What are some of your favorite cooking traditions?

A few years back after all the kids graduated college and were all on their own, I started a family tradition of “Sunday Dinner.” Every Sunday my three kids and their spouse/fiancee meet at our house and I prepare a huge family dinner. This is usually when I get the most creative because all three of my adult children — Erik Young, Renee Young and Amber (Alexander) Madsen — love everything from comfort food to gourmet.

It is a very rare Sunday for us not to gather for dinner. When they were growing up I was the “old school” mom who made a family dinner every night because I feel food brings a family together. And I want to continue this tradition even though they have grown and moved out.

What are some of your earliest memories of food and cooking?

When I was little my mom taught me how to make Tollhouse chocolate chips cookies — it was at that moment my interest in cooking was born.

The first dish I mastered was her homemade lasagna — the sauce was from scratch, the whole nine yards. When I was in high school, I actually had a couple of small dinner parties for my friends and made lasagna.

From there I became more self-taught with my main reading material being cook-books. My first favorite was “The Silver Palate Cookbook” which became my go-to recipe source.

Later when the Food TV Network was born, it soon became (almost) the only thing I watched on TV. I think this is really when my cooking abilities skyrocketed to a whole new level. Between the chefs on the Food TV Network and the ease of sourcing new recipes on the internet, creativity and inspiration is endless.

I also love to go to a new restaurant and try new, sometimes strange things, on the menu and recreate them at home. One example of this is the Bone Marrow at The Purple Pig in Chicago. It sounds strange, but its amazing how this savory indulgence is a little piece of heaven.

What is it about cooking that you enjoy?

Cooking is a source of “therapy” for me, I love the creativity and I love to share my “art” with the ones I love. I love hosting dinner parties for my friends and family all year round. It is my passion.

What are some of your favorite ingredients?

I go through different stages with ingredients that I may cook with over and over because they have become my favorite. Garlic is always at the top of the list, especially when roasted first and then added to almost anything! Kale was and has been my favorite vegetable for the past year, and of course, bacon, because everything is better with bacon.

We are so fortunate to have The Second Street Market for fresh, local produce, reasonably priced herbs and spices and the gourmet balsamic vinegars and olive oils that are standard staples in my kitchen.

Is your cooking related to your profession?

I am a Marketing Assistant at PDi Communication Systems, Inc., so I do not cook professionally, but I did try my hand at running my own little catering company out of my home for a while on the side, but it became too much of a conflict with working full time. I found myself using all my vacation days cooking for catering jobs. So now I just cook for my friends and family and for the pure joy of it.

What advice do you have for new cooks?

Don’t be afraid — if you can read, you can cook. Just follow the directions of a recipe carefully. If it doesn’t turn out, try it again, don’t give up. If it does turn out, next time tweak it a little and make it your own.

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