Turn your fall cooking into a group project with friends and family

Having people over to cook can reap rewards. Just don't wear fancy shoes!

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Canning jars full of put-up food
Photo: Dmytro Smolyenko/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media (Getty Images)

Growing up, my family lived next door to the owners of an orchard. In the fall, we’d come home to find bushels of apples sitting on the back porch, a perk of having them as our neighbors.

Then, my mother sprang into action. Out came oil cloth for the kitchen table, and on top of that was spread newspaper. Soon, an applesauce assembly line was formed. Family members were corralled into action, peeling, coring, chopping, and handing Pyrex bowls off to her to dump into her big aluminum kettle, where it cooked down into sauce.

I thought of those evenings recently when I spotted cartoonist Daniel Saad’s Facebook post about the 30-year-old apple tree in his backyard. The tree was a wedding present in 1991 to Dan and his wife, Doris, but it took 10 years for the tree to bear fruit. Once it did, the Saads used its bounty for a group cooking project each fall that now spans three generations.

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Meanwhile, I came upon an Instagram post from Helen and Billie Bitzas, authors of the Greek cooking blog Mia Kouppa, depicting their family’s tomato sauce making extravaganza during Labor Day weekend.

These types of projects can be a fun experience for family and friends alike. You can have some laughs and send everyone home with something they’ll enjoy eating as colder weather approaches. But, as I learned from talking to Dan and the Bitzas ladies, and from my own experience, a little organization helps. Here are some tips for pulling off group cooking projects in harmony.

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Decide what you’re making

In the first years after the apple tree bore fruit, the Saads made spiced apples, apple pie filling, and apple sauce. But Dan said they discovered the spiced apples could be made into pie filling, so they dropped that from the lineup.

The Bitzas family’s projects have included borlotti beans, also known as cranberry beans, which they shell and freeze for use over the winter; wild dandelions, whose greens are considered a super food; and tomato sauce.

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In my house growing up, the staples were stewed tomatoes, which my mother used in everything from soup to spaghetti sauce; the aforementioned apple sauce; and chili sauce, which was a base for her chili and sloppy joes.

Set up everything in advance

Before anyone arrives, get organized. Have kitchen scissors, cutting boards, scrap bowls and peelers at the ready. If you have favorite knives, make sure they are sharpened, and conversely, if you don’t want visitors using your most valuable kitchen gear, put it out of reach. (Although I’ve used an apple corer for years, Dan doesn’t think much of them—he says it’s faster to wield a paring knife.)

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Spread newspaper or washable table coverings everywhere, on the table, your counters, and even on the floor, to guard against splashes. Have rags or paper towels handy, and kitchen gloves, if people want to wear them.

Figure out how many plastic containers or canning jars you’ll need, and have some extras, because mishaps are bound to happen.

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“There’s nothing worse than making jam, for example, and realizing you don’t have enough jars or lids,” the Bitzas sisters said by email.

Fit the tasks to each person’s abilities

This year’s Saad family apple production involved three generations and 11 people under one roof, with jobs divided into picking, peeling, cutting, and mixing.

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Dan has retired from picking apples, but his grandchildren now take on that responsibility, snagging apples from low-hanging branches and climbing up the tree (safely supervised). “They love to get on the ladder,” he says.

As many as 14 people can show up for a Bitzas family project, although that’s nothing compared with the 20 women who arrived ahead of a cousin’s wedding to prepare diplas, a traditional fried sweet that takes two days to make.

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The bloggers’ father always directs traffic in their garage, where the production line is set up, and nobody gets off the hook because there are too many people. An extra person can be assigned to make lunch for the group, or run to the store to get beer, or simply chat or lead songs with the other group members, the sisters say.

Who gets what?

As you’re calculating how to divide up the results, figure who will use them most.

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Over this past Labor Day weekend, the Bitzas family made more than 100 one-liter jars of tomato sauce. Since family members frequently gather at their parents’ home for dinner and especially during holidays, the elder Bitzases get the bulk of what’s produced.

Years back, Doris Saad investigated canning, but decided the steps were too time-consuming. So, the Saads freeze their apple production, allowing them to snag bags as they need them.

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If you do wind up canning, my family had a separate cabinet in our basement pantry where the tomato, apple and chili sauce lived. Anyone taking out a jar told my mother, who would then mark it off in a household notebook.

Come ready to play

Dealing with mass quantities of fruits and vegetables can be tedious, not to mention sticky work.

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“Absolutely dress for the occasion!” the Bitzas sisters say. One year, a family member wore a pair of comfortable, top-quality shoes for tomato sauce making—and learned that tomato sauce stains leather.

I have an old-school cobbler’s apron, the kind that looks like a pinafore from Little House On The Prairie, that covers everything down to my knees. You definitely want to wear something washable — and remember that the aroma of what you’re making will probably get in your hair, so there’s no point in an elaborate style on game day.

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Plan on extra time

The Bitzas sisters advise people to calculate how long they think a project will take, and add an hour. “Things happen, and it can be stressful if you are pressed for time,” they say.

For instance, I’ve found lately that apples can be unpredictable. Last year’s McIntosh variety cooked down in nothing flat; this year, I’m finding I need more time to coax them into dissolving.

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Most important, says Dan, is to keep thinking of the project as pleasurable, not a chore. “Remember you’re doing this for fun,” he says. “You’re not going to launch a small business.”