So to start with, let's talk about food.
The best way to get to the heart of anything is through its' stomach, and co-ops are no different. The cooking rota/scheme/system-of-mutual-aid that has been feeding us Golems for almost the past two years is a simple, yet beautiful, thing. Anyone with a few friends living in a small geographical area could replicate it, saving themselves time and money and building closer social ties in the process. It's that good, believe me.
For those who don't already know, this is how it works. There's a chart on the wall in the house where the majority of the cooking co-op members live. We write our names down on the day on which we are happy to cook (currently each member cooks once a week). On that day we cook a meal for everyone else in the co-op (usually in the evening, but we have also had slap-up breakfasts and picnic lunches - it can be very flexible) using whatever budget we feel happy with. We thought about having a set budget, but it works much better letting people spend what they feel they can afford. On a lean week we might cook a big leek and potato soup. On a week when we're feeling flush we might do a Korean feast with 6 different dishes, like I did a while ago. As long as there's a decent size meal, nobody minds.
The benefits of this are hugely varied. The most obvious benefits are that we each only have to cook an evening meal once a week. This saves a massive amount of shopping, cooking, and cleaning up time. The trade-off is that you have to cook for lots of people once a week, but this adds very little to preparation time, and only a little to the cleaning up.
It's also dramatically cheaper, because you're not having to buy ingredients for 7 different meals, but you still get the benefits of a varied diet. In fact, it's much more varied than our diets might be otherwise, because we have 7 different cooks making their favourite dishes, or trying out new recipes we've seen somewhere. We try to take each others' likes and dislikes into account (mostly vegan food, only ethically produced meat if there is meat, nothing too spicy, etc) but that still leaves enormous scope for a widely varied and very interesting diet. I am sure we are all healthier for it. Left to my own devices, I would never get a decent meal together every night, but with the co-op, I don't have to. I only have to be organised once a week, which even someone as wildly disorganised as I am can manage.
On your cooking day, you let everyone know what time dinner is at, and if people need to pick up food later because of work or other commitments, they let you know, and then we all get together and eat tasty nosh. This is one of the other great benefits of the cooking co-op; meals are generally social occasions, with a wonderful sense of community which is perfectly complimented by a full belly. Of course, if you don't feel like being sociable, you don't have to be. You can pick up your food later, ask someone to drop it off at your house, or eat and then leave immediately. As with all communities, it's important to respect the needs and wishes of your members. But on the whole we're a sociable bunch, and dinner might turn into a night out, a film, or a bracing discussion about feminism. Our friendships are enriched by this forced (in the best possible way) contact, and our increased interactions lead to increased outcomes of all sorts.
When friends or family visit us, they are catered for as well, provided you get the say-so from that day's cook, and many a lovely person has joined us for a chaotic, yet tasty, meal. During hard times people can ask for time-off, but are generally still provided for. When Finn was born I had a month off, but was still fed every night. I was in no fit state to do anything at the time, let alone feed myself well, and yet here I was, being fed and looked after by my little community. I wish every new mother could have such a thing.
A wee while ago some friends of ours moved to Swansea and one of the factors behind their move was wanting to be part of the cooking co-op, so we are now 9 people in total (including wee Finn). Naturally he's not cooking for us (yet!), so we have started having a 'week off' option which we rotate between us. So now you get a lovely dinner every night, and you don't even have to cook every week to get it. You save money, time and washing up, and gain social time, a more varied diet, and a wonderful sense of togetherness.
Cassian also did some interesting evidence-gathering with their electricity monitor, and surmised that cooking for more than just yourself at once saves a trucktonne of energy, so this system of feeding yourself has environmental benefits too. You can save even more energy by making use of a haybox, more on that below.
Now, I realise I've gone on at some length, but that's because I think the cooking co-op is the Bee's Knees. There are many, many ways you could organise something similar. You could cook for each other just once a week. You could have one week on, one week off. You could organise it with people from your church, your local pub, your workplace, your extended family. You could do it as a one-off exchange with a nearby friend or family. You have little to lose, and only tasty noms to gain.
If you've made it through this far, you deserve a recipe to get you started. This incredibly tasty vegan stew was cooked (mostly) by an armchair, two blankets, and a duvet in our living room. You raise the stew to boiling on a hob, and then super-insulate it for the remainder of it's cooking time. Very simple, and very satisfying, with no possibility of it getting stuck to the pan. Win all round.
We cooked this for 12, because there were visitors. It was very tasty, and cost less than £10, even with the rice we also cooked conventionally to make sure there was enough grub (there was plenty).
Middle Eastern Aubergine and Lentil Stew
For the food
A large pan with a well-fitting lid
3 large aubergines, chopped in half lengthways and then sliced into chunky half moons
400g of brown lentils
3 large onions, finely chopped
12 cloves of garlic, chopped
6 large tomatoes, chopped
Green chillis, amount to your taste, seeded and chopped
A big bunch of fresh mint leaves, chopped
3 tablespoons of tomato paste
3 teaspoons of ras-el-hanout (a spice mix available in Asian food shops, or look up a recipe online and make your own)
3 teaspoons of salt
A very large glug of oil (we used about 1 1/2 cups, which is a scarily large amount - adjust to your liking)
For the haybox
A sofa or armchair. Foam is a fantastic insulator.
Blankets, duvets, pillows - anything that can be wrapped closely around the pan to act as insulation. You need to insulate it very thoroughly, so the more the merrier. You shouldn't be able to feel any heat coming from the pan once it's wrapped up.
Make this dish at least 4 hours in advance, so it has loads of time to cook and become super-tasty.
1. Find a blimmin' big saucepan, but that will only just fit your ingredients in. For the haybox to work well, you need as little empty space in the pan as possible.
2. Put the lentils on to boil in the saucepan, and cook them until just tender.
3. Meanwhile chop everything that needs to be chopped. Marvel at your effective use of time.
4. When the lentils are cooked, drain them and rinse out the pan.
5. Chuck all the ingredients in and give it a massive and thorough stir.
6. Heat it on the hob with the lid on until it is boiling and the tomatoes are just starting to break down.
7. Take it off the heat, put it on your chair of choice, and then speedily encase it in layers of lovely insulating materials. You might want to put a tea towel under it if you're worried about the bottom of the pan marking your chair, though it should be fine. Tuck it in very carefully with lots of layers, and then LEAVE IT. Don't check on it, stir it, or otherwise let any heat out. Just enjoy knowing that it's merrily doing it's thing with no chance of it burning to the bottom of the pan. Delish.
8. Get it out just before you want it, and be prepared that you may need to give it a quick boost of heat on the hob. Usually it comes out at perfect scoffing temperature though, and is beautifully moist, with the lovely meshing of flavours which only comes from long, slow cooking.
9. Feed lots of people, and enjoy the feeling of having saved all that energy and stirring time :D