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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, August 11

Gapers Block

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I've heard from two different sets of friends recently that they're afraid of inviting me over for dinner, because everything I make is more impressive than what they think they could offer me at their house. And it has left me aghast.

Home-cooked food isn't about appearance or skill or even time. It is about love. If there is one thing I've learned at the Italian Christmas dinners I've been lucky enough to attend, it's that food is love. The making of food for those you love is your expression of that love. The return payment is the appreciation of that love.

This is the core of home-cooked food. This is what I have offered to people who have eaten dinner at my home. This is all I, or I think anyone, should expect when they eat at a friend's house. Show me you love me, show me you care, by caring about the food you make and present to me. It could be a simple green salad with cucumber and tomato and bottled dressing, but the fact that you cared enough to remember that I'm allergic to bell peppers so you left them off shows me that you care.

I'm blessed to have the cooking skills I now have. I'm fortunate to have friends who wish to partake in meals I make. I'm delighted to have a forum to share my love for making food with an audience greater than my close friends. I'm admittedly a foodie who revels in unusual ingredients, odd dishes and unrepeatable meals. But I don't expect that from friends, because my friends aren't just like me.

I've been delighted and thrilled when friends have taken the time to share a dish that they've perfected with me. Even when that dish has been tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. One of the things I try to keep in mind is that this column, my public food forum, is not just a place to show off the Sunday night meals that I spend all weekend preparing. It is also a place, and should be primarily a place, where I show off easier meals that can satisfy the hunger on the average Wednesday night when there is laundry to done, TV to be watched and no time for elaboration.

And if my close friends feel intimidated by my cooking skills, then I fear that people who don't know me may also be intimidated and fearful of trying recipes that I say are easy. It's one of the reasons why I started replicating the frozen dinner meals. My hope was that showing how to remake these dishes with ingredients you could pronounce would take the intimidation out of cooking for yourself. I'm also working on a column that would include a week's worth of cooking for one person. (Since it has been a while since I've regularly cooked for one, it has been harder to write this requested column than I thought.)

So, I thought I would share with you some of the brain-dead meals I make on a semi-regular basis. This means I make them more than once or twice a month and often on a night when I don't have much time to explore my cooking skills. I need food. I need it quickly. I need it tasty enough.

Quesadillas: These are simple and great ways to use up little bits of leftover vegetables. One tortilla in a skillet over medium heat, a sprinkle of cheese, a sprinkle of chopped veggies that are raw or cooked, a chopped up hot dog left over from a barbecue, a piece of chicken breast that was left over from a previous meal, etc. Place the other tortilla on top, cook it for about 2-3 minutes on each side and serve. Corn tortillas are also good for these.

Pasta: I eat a lot of pasta. I love pasta. Pasta makes me happy. Pasta is quick and filling and adaptable. Whole wheat pasta is almost as good as plain pasta and stands up to a more flavorful sauce nicely. Since I am lucky to have homemade sauce on hand, I feel less guilty eating sauce out of a jar than I would if that jar said Prego. I recommend PomÂ’ brand tomato products. They're the tastiest I've tried, they come in small shelf-stable boxes instead of glass jars, and they're admittedly a little more expensive but I find the flavor to be worth it. While my pasta is boiling, I will roughly chop up some onion and some carrots and throw them into a skillet with a teaspoon or so of olive oil. I'll cook them over medium-high heat while stirring frequently. Once the onion starts to turn yellow, I'll sprinkle in some dried basil, dried oregano and dried thyme. I'll then add some chopped up chicken breast, or a little ground beef, or some chopped prosciutto (ask your butcher for prosciutto ends — they're just as tasty as the slices but far cheaper and freeze great). Then I'll add the tomato sauce (about 1/4 cup per serving) and set the heat to low. I'll stir it occasionally and once the pasta is finished cooking, I'll drain it, add it to the skillet to toss and then turn it out onto a plate. If I'm lucky enough to have the brain power to make a salad of mixed greens, I'll have that, too. If not, then I try not to feel guilty for not eating veggies at dinner and promise to eat twice as many the next day.

Sandwich and a can of soup: Yep, even for dinner. In fact, tonight we had sandwiches and soup. Sometimes this is leftover soup that I'm lucky enough to have in the freezer that I can warm up. Sometimes, it is a can or jar of soup that seemed intriguing. One of the many reasons why I like small ethnic grocery stores is because they often have brands of soup that you can't find at the major chains in town. I was lucky enough to come across large jars of soup from a Bulgarian company. The ingredient list was in English, but that was about it. The mushroom barley soup was delicious. I've also gotten a few good soups from other makers as well. And I have had a lot of watery, bland duds filled with preservatives and artificial colors. I suggest looking for ingredients that you can understand. If you know what everything on a jar is, I think you're more likely to enjoy it. Why? I think because they're more likely to care about what they put into it if they don't have synthetic flavors to cover up their lack of understanding and care. There is no shame in a sandwich and a can of soup. None at all.

Quick Rice in the Rice Cooker: This is one of my go-to cooking options when I want to spend 20 minutes doing something other than cooking. I tend to throw in two servings of rice, two servings of liquid (broth, juice from a can of veggies, tomato sauce, etc.), a handful of frozen veggies (or a can of Veg-Al), a teaspoon of herbs or spices per serving, and maybe a chicken breast that has been chopped up into half-inch squares, or a fish fillet that has been chopped up. I then read my mail, listen to my voicemail, clean out the litter box, fold some laundry, or do whatever else I need to do more than cook. The 5-10 minutes it takes for me to throw everything in the rice cooker and then the 20-30 minutes it gives me to do other stuff while it cooks are a godsend.

So do I take pictures of these meals and post them on Flickr? No. Do I replicate these meals and offer them to friends? No. Do write about these meals and share them with the readers of Gapers Block? No. Except for now I guess. And the reason I don't is because these are the meals I make when I just don't care. These are the meals I make when satisfying hunger and keeping myself from shaking are the goals. When friends come over, when how my partner feels about dinner matters, I take more care (not necessarily time) and invest my attention to what I am doing, what I am making.

So even if the only thing you feel confident in your ability to cook is scrambled eggs, then invite your friends over for breakfast and make them all your delicious scrambled eggs. If you have one chili recipe that your mom gave you, or that you got off the bag of kidney beans, then have a party. Or if you are totally unsure of your cooking ability but know that you can follow any cake recipe and whip up a mean dessert, have a party that starts at 8 and serve your guests cake and milk (or coffee, or champagne).

And I don't just say this hoping that my friends will stop being intimidated and invite me over for dinner, but because I want you to not be intimidated and invite your friends, your co-workers, the book club or the new couple who moved in downstairs over for food. I maintain the strident belief that everyone is good at preparing something, and if you know that you're good at something, you should share it with others.

So as I sit here finishing my grilled cheese sandwich and my downright tasty mushroom and barley soup, rest assured that I'm not always a whiz in the kitchen. And you don't have to be either. Even if you only have the time, energy, money to make one exuberant meal a week, or a month, that's great. Because you take the time to care that meal will be awesome, and whoever you share it with should be grateful.

Next week tune in to find a week's worth of meals to make for one person. Complete with a grocery list that you can print and take to the store.

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Barb / September 27, 2007 5:41 PM

What a fantastic article! I share the same philosophy about food. I consider myself a good cook but I still love simple, thrown together meals made up from whatever I have left in the pantry. And I love going to a friend's for dinner and enjoying what they offer or cooking with them because as you describe, it's all about the love. Thanks for sharing.

Vikas / January 18, 2009 2:44 PM

Its a fantastic article, u have made


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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