You look at the calendar and see that Friday is approaching. You realize it’s time for your annual girl’s weekend getaway at the ranch.  And you’re in charge of the big dinner. What do you prepare and how do you make it fun for everyone?

That was the task this year — and most years — for Lauren Browning, who is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park) and is often tasked with overseeing the meals for this fun getaway. SAN ANTONIO WOMAN sat down with Lauren to talk about her tips for pulling together a fun (and delicious) gathering with friends.

Browning’s friends originally came together in Houston approximately 10 years ago. The friends were just married and beginning their families. “As couples, we met through a church connection. Each time we would meet for dinner at one of our houses there would inevitably be someone who was newly pregnant — detected by their decline of anything alcoholic,” muses Lauren. It quickly became the “who’s pregnant supper club,” she recalls.

“As life happens, some of us moved to San Antonio, and some moved to Austin, while three remained in Houston. Over the years, we grafted in two more couples. Although we do not all live in Houston, we stay connected by planning this annual getaway and celebrating the things that endure – the goodness, beauty and humor of God,” says Lauren.

Annually, the women gather at the family ranch of one of the attendees. It was formerly a dude ranch with an old concrete slab dance floor located at the top of a hill.  “As part of our annual getaway weekend, we always include a hike up to that old dance floor.  It’s been a tradition to watch the sunset, and the ladies just savor the experience,” explains Lauren.  “We do that while enjoying a savory spread of cured meats, olives, special cheeses and crackers and chilled rosé wine.  It’s a bit of a pain to carry the cooler up, but worth it,” she goes on to say.

Lauren says the girl’s getaway allows for easy conversations that often revolve around surviving and thriving amidst the chaos of a full house.  “We sit in rocking chairs for hours, enjoying the view of the spring-fed pond with coffee mugs in hand.  Our conversations start ramping up, and in no time, we are all grabbing our notepads to write down some anecdote that works or makes sense of a life moment, a parenting tip or something inspirational and life related – it’s very encouraging.   There’s so much wisdom between everyone — we don’t want to miss the pearls — and the laughs,” says Lauren.

“Another favorite pastime that marks the weekend includes a few women bringing musical instruments (guitar and mandolin) and leading everyone in a few songs on Sunday morning.  It’s an uplifting way to depart the weekend  — our faith is what brought us together in the first place.  For some, it is their only weekend away.  It’s a joy to be with them,” Lauren says.

Lauren’s organizing principle for planning the meal:

“I like taking vegetables that are in season that may not be what people would normally gravitate to and cook themselves. I enjoy showing them another way to think about this or that

vegetable. So it is fun to cast vision and empower them to make new things back home.” For this

getaway Lauren selected fennel. She directed the preparation and cooking while those gathered watched and helped cook and assemble platters

(all while sipping prosecco and having fun). “It was like a team-building experience,”

reflects Lauren.

Lauren’s tips for a girl’s getaway meal:

Spotlight a new vegetable or preparation method.

Prep the food at home prior to getting to the getaway destination. Leave the final cooking and assembling for the cooking experience.

Make it engaging. It’s easier to get everyone involved. Attendees can be in charge of projects like making the salad vinaigrette, using a recipe as a guide.  Allow them to choose the vinegar, herb or mustard, for example, and create their own new vinaigrette.  They can also place prepared food decoratively on serving platters.

Serve food family style.

Make it fun!  “I love pre-ordering cocktail napkins to capture a special theme for the weekend,” explains Lauren.  (Local website store recommendation for personalized items: “Good Gifts.”)

Enjoy the process of cooking, not just the outcome.  “A lot of people will look through a recipe and follow it to the letter.  My joy is looking at a recipe for

inspiration,” says Lauren. “I like putting flavors together like a puzzle, adding an item here and there for an even better fit.  I use my senses and take liberties in

layering flavors.  For me, creating fresh and delicious food is as exciting as eating it, especially with friends!”

RECIPES:

Roasted Fennel and Tomatoes

Ingredients

2 fennel bulbs cleaned and stalks removed, cut into 8-12 wedges of equal thickness, with root intact

1 carton of cherry tomatoes, halved

2 cloves garlic, minced

Chopped fresh herbs to taste (I like tarragon, basil, chives, and/or thyme, or a mix of many other herbs too)

1/4 cup more or less extra-virgin olive oil

1 lemon, zested (I prefer the microplane zester) and juiced

Kosher or sea salt

Pepper

Optional: 1-2 teaspoons of truffle oil right before serving.

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees on the bake setting or 400 degrees on the convection bake setting.  Place a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil.  Then place fennel wedges and cook until just tender, but not mushy (about 8-10 minutes – taste to check).  Remove from water and cool by spreading out the wedges on a baking sheet with a towel underneath to absorb additional moisture.

2.  Place cooled wedges into a large mixing bowl, along with tomato halves, garlic, herbs, lemon zest, 1/4 cup olive oil, 2-3 tablespoons of lemon juice, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper.  Toss ingredients so that fennel and tomatoes are evenly coated.  Taste and add more salt if needed.

3.  Spread fennel and tomato mixture on a large rimmed  baking sheet.  Ingredients should not be on top of one another or they will steam and not roast as well.  If baking sheet is overcrowded, distribute between a second sheet.  Place in the oven and roast for 20 minutes, more or less.  If garlic is burning, remove tray at once.  Golden, even browning is the key.  Serve as a side dish with a lighter fish such as halibut, snapper, or grouper.   Serves 4-6

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