by Irina Slav
No, this is not insightful advice along the lines of “Use only fresh vegetables/fish/meat/whatever”. Just a few tips that I’ve found to be universal and whenever I’ve compromised one or more of them I’ve suffered unpleasant consequences such as a hurt ego and food that I have had to throw out — something totally inadmissible.
So, here’s what you need, complete with real-life examples.
A number of hungry people
Some knowledge about their preferences
Reasonably fresh products
Take an arbitrary number of hungry people, with that number depending on circumstances and means. If you’re planning a huge party you will have to be prepared to cook for more than the usual audience, which means you will have to buy a lot more products than you are used to, you will have a lot more preferences to take into account, and, of course, more time than you typically devote to making food. The degree of hunger you would be facing is of crucial importance — being able to anticipate it will help you plan quantities in a way that will minimize, hopefully, the amount of food that will end up in the trash and make you hate your friends, even though it’s not their fault.
Last year I did a party for my daughter’s second birthday. I invited lots of friends, planning to have the party in the back yard of the building where we live. Naturally, it turned out cloudy, so we decided not to risk it and stay in. Also naturally, it didn’t rain, but that’s another story. Among the guests were a couple of vegetarians, so I took care to have things like hummus and guacamole on the table, especially for them. I made a huge amount of hummus. A few days later I gave up trying to eat it by myself and threw it away. You see, what I had forgotten was that both of the vegetarians eat just enough to survive, so all my efforts of boiling the chickpeas (instead of getting them canned), then shelling, blending, adding the tahini, etc. , which exhausted me immensely, had been in vain. And you know what’s worse? This was the second time I did this! The first I made something like a pound of hummus for just one person. You know, I was worried she’d starve while in my house. And it’s not like I don’t love hummus. It’s just that, you know, I can’t eat a lot of it…
Make sure people are hungry by either banning all snacks officially (if you’re cooking for the family and they are old enough to comprehend), making a deeply offended face every time you see anyone opening the fridge between meals, or, my personal favorite, using threats and blackmail. “If you eat now and spoil your appetite for dinner, I swear I will never, ever make this dish again (and I know it’s your favorite)!” is a good one, regardless of what exact wording you choose. “All right, go on, stuff yourself with crisps and forget about me cooking lunch for you for the duration of the week” also works but is more suitable for younger children. Effect is not guaranteed, though, because kids are perfectly happy to stuff themselves with crisps and similar on a daily basis, so it’s risky. However, I’m an expert at nagging, and also a pro at crossing my arms and murmuring “Very well, then, do what you want” with that distinct air of finality that adds spice to such situations.
The question of preferences is no less crucial. You may think your people will eat any experiment you put in front of them just because they love you but even if they do, the whole thing leaves an unpleasant aftertaste and makes you feel somehow guilty that you forced them to eat something they’d rather not. That’s true for me, anyway, even given my love for coercion when it comes to food. There are two ways around someone’s preferences when they don’t match yours. One is to cook two separate meals, and the other is to cook what you want and invite people over to share with, leaving the family member with the other preferences to fend for themselves.
I love stuffed vegetables, especially peppers. My husband hates them. He can swallow stuffed courgettes once in a while, or an eggplant, but literally cannot swallow stuffed peppers. My mother-in-law always makes stuffed peppers for me when we visit because she knows her son and loves me, but we only visit once a year. After a long time of stuffed pepper abstinence I finally decided that I might as well make a couple just for me, and he can eat scrambled eggs or whatever, if I’m not feeling generous enough to cook him something else. Of course, I always feel generous enough, the thought of having a couple of stuffed peppers to gobble makes me extremely generous, plus I like cooking in general.
He also doesn’t like cheesecake. He can eat it but finds no pleasure in it. So I took to making cheesecake only when I’ve invited guests, especially a couple of neighbors, who I know love cheesecake as much as I do. Problem solved, and elegantly at that. By the way, one of the benefits of having a kid is that, if you’re lucky, he or she may have some of your preferences. I got lucky, which was only fair after long years of suffering.
I won’t spend much time on the freshness of products. It should be obvious that yellow spinach is no good and neither is gray meat, but I don’t go to extremes such as insisting to see the animal actually slaughtered in front of my eyes to be sure the meat is fresh, or watching the spinach grow. In fact, being a hypocritical carnivore, I wouldn’t eat meat from an animal I have seen being slaughtered. In fact I’ve often wondered if I’d become a vegetarian if I have to hunt my food and, for now, the answer is “Most probably yes.” At the same time, however, a vegetarian faced with the choice of hunting for meat or dying of starvation may also convert. Let’s hope we never have to find out.
Time, or rather time management, could be the only thing to turn a potential success into a spectacular failure. Bread dough, for example, needs a certain time to rise, depending on temperature, and if you forget to factor that time in, you may well find yourself having bread for dessert. I know those with kitchen savvy would never make such a mistake but I have seen with my own eyes an acquaintance trying to fry bananas without any oil, so noting the fact may not go amiss. But cooking time sometimes also includes the time needed to study the recipe and check if you have all the ingredients. I have the tendency to rush sometimes, and more than once I’ve started cooking something only to realize in the process that I lack something vital, such as baking powder. Sometimes you can find a way around it with a substitute (in the case of baking powder) but other times you’ll have to rush to the nearest store to get it.
Enthusiasm is what keeps you going after the inevitable failures. It’s what makes cooking so much fun. Enthusiasm helps you throw off the shackles of habit and embrace your imagination. Without enthusiasm in the kitchen, you’ll be stuck with a few staple dishes, and that can get boring even if they’re all your favorites. Enthusiasm is, after all, the engine of innovation in more than one area of life and knowledge. Just never despair, even after your third attempt to make German chocolate cake. No, it’s not the hardest recipe I’ve tried, it’s just an example. So, go forth and be brave, dare to put basil on pork chops (I’ve tried it, it’s good), and swap baking powder with yeast in your pancake mixture (also tried). The results may turn out surprisingly good. Now I’m off the throw away the remaining half of a wonderful pear pudding which I did after the kid asked for it and then never ate. What a waste! Oh, well.