Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Cooking Tips for the Poorly Talented

I went to a friend's house for dinner recently, and I was prepared for the absolute worst. She is a self proclaimed domestic dunderhead who can boil water for spaghetti and not much else. Much to my surprise, she had prepared a well-balanced meal that was not only aesthetically pleasing, but also gastronomically acceptable. I asked her where the caterer was, and she informed me that she had cooked the entire meal herself. The key was that she hadn't cooked it from scratch, and there are quite a few shortcuts out there that can make even the worst cook look like Emeril Lagasse. After all, if you want to impress your significant other (men, this means you, too!) a home-cooked meal is an irreplaceable date idea.

A well-balanced meal will consist of the four food groups. I know the government has flipped it's lid over its increasingly complicated food pyramid, but it's easier to remember the food groups we grew up with. You'll need a meat, a fruit/vegetable, and a starch, with the meat replacable by some other source of protein. For example if you're cooking for a vegetarian, or happen to be one, I recommend any of the fantastic Boca foods. They're not just about burgers anymore - they make chicken and beef substitutes, even chili, and they all taste excellent. If you're cooking for a meat-eater, a great shortcut are the Tyson frozen meats, pictured at left. They're already cooked - all you need to do is microwave it and it will come out juicy and ready to go. I recommend the teriyaki chicken breasts - they come out fully seasoned and even have little grill lines in them so it looks like you actually cooked it! They come in a big bag in the frozen section - now you've finished the main section of your meal.

Next is a fruit/vegetable, and this part is just as easy. Go to your grocer's freezer section and pick out anything you like. All you have to do is stick those in the microwave as well, and you're good to go, because those frozen veggies also come pre-cooked. We're having teriyaki chicken here, so as an alternative, let's do something different. Go to the canned fruit section and pick up a can of sliced mandarin oranges. You can drape them over your chicken breasts and it will not only cover your fruit/vegetable, but it will be a prettier, tastier alternative to brussel sprouts. Believe me.

Now for the starch, the foundation of the meal. Again, this could not be simpler. In the pasta section of your grocery store you'll find a number of products that both look fancy and take little work to accomplish. I'm a big fan of the Near East line of foods. They are fancy-sounding and -looking side dishes that are so easy it should be a crime. For our meal we'll select the vegetable and chicken rice, to go along with the oriental theme. This is going to require some actual cooking, but other than water boiling, you've got nothing to do - just make sure to start this going first so you can be cooking your other parts while you're waiting for it to finish. Now all you have to do is spread the rice on the plate, put a chicken breast or two (depending on who you're feeding) on top, and sprinkle a generous portion of the mandarin oranges on top. Add a sprig of parsley if you're feeling especially artistic. And there you have it - a gorgeous, tasty Chinese dinner in under half an hour, and with less MSG, I might add.