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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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Monday, March 27

Gapers Block

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When I was growing up, my mom and aunts would joke with each other that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach. What they never mentioned is that it works both ways. Knowing how to make at least one good meal can increase your wooing wattage.

Cooking is more than just creating sustenance. If done well, if done with care, if done attentively, it can be an expression of love. It can be a great way to share an aspect of your personality, your heritage and your experience. All those grandmas that say "Eat! Eat!" aren't just trying to get you fat. They're trying to share their love with you.

You can learn a lot about a person when you watch them cook. Watching someone trail their fingers across the jars in a spice rack, lift a lid off a pot and smell with their eyes closed, or pause in the middle of a sentence to taste a sauce can be a very sensual experience. Someone who knows how to take things slow, to savour a cooking and an eating experience, should give you a glimpse of how they express themselves in other sensual areas. If eating can be a metaphor for sex, cooking is a metaphor for foreplay.

What does it take to be a good home chef? Patience, a desire to experiment, curiosity about foods and how they react with each other, and a willingness to make mistakes. Even Martha recommends that you always keep the name of a good take-out or delivery restaurant on hand. If you get it right, though, you could open up your relationship to a whole new level.

I'd been dating someone for a few months and I decided to make him a meal that didn't involve cream of mushroom soup, ramen noodles or pizza. Since I was still in college, my budget didn't allow for a lot of fancy food purchases, but I figured with some chicken, mushrooms, potatoes and a salad I'd be able to make something that would impress him, fill our bellies, and maybe even get me leftovers.

I don't remember if we had leftovers, he doesn't really remember the meal, but I ended up impressed. It was one of those "maybe this will work out" moments when you start to think your relationship might have long-term possibilities.

How did he manage to turn the evening around so it impressed me? Quite simply: he called his mother.

I had finished most of the dinner prep, slipped into something "more comfortable" and was ready to make a salad when my beau arrived. I was impressed that he had a bottle of wine that didn't have "Boone's" on the label.

"What can I do to help?" he asked as we walked into the kitchen.

"Nothing, I just have to wait for the dinner to finish cooking and make a salad," I replied while taking a salad bowl out of the cupboard.

I put the ranch dressing on the counter by the bowl. Then I pulled the lettuce and cucumber out of the vegetable bin. The cucumber was floppy and oozy. The bag of lettuce, which had been a mixture of red and green leaves a week earlier, was brown. Brown and stinky and inedible. I was horrified. The rest of the dinner preparation had gone so well. Now I was stuck with three roma tomatoes and a bowl. I had no idea what I was going to do. I knelt at the vegetable bin for a long time staring at my veggie mush.

"What's wrong?" he asked. I stood up with the offensive produce in my hands. "Oh! Gross!"

I pitched the non-green vegetables and turned to him with a handful of tomatoes. "Got any ideas how to make a salad out of tomatoes and air?"

He furrowed his brow and then said, "Let me use your phone."

I was convinced he was going to call his roommate so they could share a laugh. Like I said, we hadn't been dating that long and I was fearing the worst. Instead, he called his mom. I couldn't hear most of the conversation, but I managed to hear "olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Gotcha! Thanks."

He came back in the kitchen, handed me the bottle of wine and said, "Open this and pour us a glass while I work my magic."

He didn't seem irritated that my "I'll make you dinner" offer had turned into a "help me salvage our dinner/relationship" request, so I reached for the corkscrew. Luckily the wine was still chilled, because I didn't have an ice bucket or ice since the freezer was packed full of single-serving frozen pizzas which I purchased on sale but hadn't gotten desperate enough to eat yet.

While I poured two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, he sliced the tomatoes thinly and evenly, laid them in the bottom of a small baking sheet, and drizzled the slices with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sprinkled them with salt and pepper.

"We'll let them marinate till dinner is ready and they'll be great."

"What's it called?" I knew his mother was Italian and was hoping it had some glorious several-syllable name that ended with an "a."

"I don't know. My mom just calls it tomatoes with gravy."

"Gravy?" I asked. "Gravy has meat juices in it."

"Not always. Not in my mom's house."

And thus our food explorations began, with many new words and techniques learned by each of us. But without this one good meal that permitted us both to show off our food knowledge, it may not have continued.

I learned that night that food isn't just about feeding a need, it is about feeding a desire. Just as romance helps make fulfilling another human need more enjoyable, romance also can turn the simple consumption of proteins, vitamins and minerals to an evening of closed eyes, soft murmurs, and indecorous smackings.

It's my firm belief that everyone can cook at least one good meal without having to spend hours watching the cooking channel, or taking classes, or even reading cookbooks. If you can put together a home-cooked meal, you're guaranteed to impress someone. Even if that someone is just your mom who was happy you called her to ask about tomatoes.

But cooking can be intimidating, it isn't an exact science (unless you're baking or making souffles, and that's a whole other column) and there are more opportunities to make mistakes than masterpieces. And, if you're already stressed as you try to impress someone, figuring out how to replicate a rack of lamb recipe you saw on "Good Eats" is going to send you into breakdown territory.

So, you'll find a simple recipe for a full dinner here, and there will be more to follow. If you have suggestions, questions, or requests please send them to We're all in this wooing game together, after all.


Fig1. The potatoes never knew what hit them.

Baked Red Potatoes with Olive Oil and Herbs
4-5 small red potatoes
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
more fresh or dried herbs (you can use the same type you use in the chicken -- see below)

Since small red potatoes don't have to be peeled, they are ideal for this dish. If you only have larger potatoes available, you'll probably want to peel them because the skin will dry out. Scrub them well under running water and dry them thoroughly. You'll want to slice them so you get 1/2" squares -- if they're too big, they won't cook by the time the chicken is done. If they cook faster than the chicken, you can remove them from the pan and then return them for the last few minutes to warm them back up. Once the potatoes are chopped, put them in your baking dish and drizzle about 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil over the potatoes. Sprinkle the herbs, salt and pepper and using your hands coat all the potatoes evenly. You can always add more salt and pepper at the end, so don't overdo it. Spread the potatoes to the edge of the pan so there is room for the chicken. To test for doneness simply stab one with a fork. If it pierces easily they're done, if there's any resistance keep cooking them.


Fig2. Cinnamon beats the chicken down with a pint glass.

Chicken Rotolo with Mushrooms and Herbs
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts (it will be cheaper but messier if you remove the skin and bones yourself)
1/4 pound mushrooms (button are fine but other mushrooms will have more flavor)
1 small onion or (a shallot if you can find one)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove of garlic
1 large sprig of fresh thyme, tarragon, sage, basil, rosemary or a mixture thereof (dry will work too, just not as well)

Preheat your oven to 350�°. Trim as much of the fat off the chicken breasts as you can, and put them between two paper towels, saran wrap or wax paper. Now you will flatten each breast, one at a time, until they're each about a 1/4" thick. If you don't have a fancy food mallet, you can use a sturdy drinking glass, an empty bottle of wine or beer, or any other flat sturdy item.

Peel the onion and slice it as thinly as possible. Put a skillet over medium heat. Once it's warm add a tablespoon of olive oil or butter (no margarine, Crisco, or corn oil -- you want the oil to give the food some flavor) and drop in your onion slices. Stir occasionally while you lightly brush dirt off your mushrooms (you can wash them but it isn't really necessary unless they're really dirty). Remove the stems from the mushrooms and slice the caps thinly. Stir them into the pan along with a garlic clove that has been minced or put through a garlic press. Stir for a few minutes till the mushrooms are browned and nicely aromatic, then take the pan off the heat.

Sprinkle half of the mushroom/onion mixture onto each chicken breast and add your fresh or dried herbs -- about a tablespoon of fresh or a teaspoon of dried per breast. Now comes the tricky part: You want to roll up the chicken while keeping the mixture from falling off. A few toothpicks will help you seal things up. Once the breast are rolled up, place them seam side up in the baking sheet, snuggled among the potatoes. You'll bake for about 30 minutes, turning the chicken once after 15 minutes and stirring the potatoes. Since you'll slice the chicken into rounds, you can cut one in half to make sure it isn't pink but still has some juices in it. If it is pink, put it back in the oven for another five minutes. Once they're finished, remove the toothpicks and cut into half-inch thick slices which can be fanned on the plate, leaving room for the tomatoes, potatoes, and bread.


Fig3. The key is thin, even slices.

Tomatoes in "Gravy"
2-3 Roma or small beefsteak tomatoes (they have fewer seeds)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
a sprinkle of herbs

Cut out stem and slice tomatoes thinly, 1/8"-1/4" is perfect. Spread the slices evenly in the bottom of a pan or a plate with a lip. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. If you have some left over fresh herbs (mmm...basil) sprinkle some of that on top. Put the dish, covered, in the refrigerator until dinner is ready to serve. Use bread (you picked up a baguette at the store, right?) to soak up the "gravy" that will settle on the bottom.

Finish with a bottle of white wine, a loaf of crusty bread, and a bar of dark chocolate with seasonal sliced fruit for dessert.

Our total for the chicken, mushrooms, two crusty rolls, potatoes, a small onion, tomatoes, and a peach for dessert came to about $8.00. Since the olive oil, vinegar, and garlic can be used for many recipes I didn't include them. Your cost will vary, of course, but cooking for your sweetheart is far cheaper and much more romantic than a meal in any restaurant.


Fig4. The finished meal. Bon Appetit!


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