Two months ago, my food life was boring. Well, my dinner life was boring, anyway. Breakfast is always pleasurably familiar, and lunch usually involves something simple like yogurt and fruit or a salad, but dinner is when I’m generally serious about cooking something that takes more skill than a pancake. However, around the beginning of June, I suddenly realized that my once-ambitious forays into the kitchen at dinnertime had become all but non-existent, and I had, in fact, become a dinner-snacker (translation: someone who fails to eat an actual meal in the evening, choosing instead to graze his or her way through things like sugar snap peas dredged in hummus, tortilla chips and salsa, and the occasional bowl of cold cereal).
This bummed me out. I love to cook, and dinner is by far the meal with the greatest potential to be interesting, adventuresome, and close-to-gourmet. Breakfast is my favorite meal because its foods are those I find most comforting (scones, French toast, omelettes, oatmeal, and so on), but dinner is where I get creative. The last thing I intended was to become a dinner-snacker.
I think that subconsciously, cooking dinner for one had just become too much effort, and I had no opportunity to cook for anyone else. Six months before, I relocated from Chicago, where I lived with a roommate who loved my cooking and where I had a slew of friends who were always clamoring to be invited over for a meal, to Grand Rapids where I knew nobody. Where’s the fun in that?
My interest in good food and cooking hadn’t waned in any way; actually, my penchant for reading cookbooks and food memoirs seemed to be growing. I was buying Gourmet and Bon Appetit more frequently, and the majority of the library books I toted home each week had something to do with food. I just wasn’t living it out in the kitchen. I was fantasizing about cooking instead of doing it.
I’d go to my parents’ house for the weekend, and spend it almost entirely in the kitchen under the guise of giving my mom a break, but really, I was fulfilling my own need to chop and stir.
Sometime during the second week in June, I was browsing the food writing section of Schuler Books when the beguiling cover of What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin caught my attention. Part caricature, part cookbook, and part single person’s food manifesto, it had a certain appeal. Cooking for one has a certain appeal.
In A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg puts it like this: “it’s my chance; my inviolable opportunity, to eat whatever I want to. It is one of the few moments when I can be perfectly selfish without feeling guilty.” I feel that.
I almost bought a copy of What We Eat When We Eat Alone. Good thing I didn’t. It would have sat on the shelf, unused.
Because then I met Eli.
To my surprise, a week or so after I almost bought What We Eat When We Eat Alone, I was on a first date. Then, six days later, a second date. When I was sure there was going to be a third, I started wondering when it would be appropriate to invite him over for dinner. I know, it smacks of domesticity and traditionalism. But I’m confident enough in both my sense of self and my cooking abilities to be okay with that. I wasn’t worried about appearing anti-feminist. I just wanted to cook for the guy. I liked him.
He asked for a third date, and I countered with an invitation to a homecooked meal. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t turn me down, and indeed, I think he may have actually beamed at me in response. (This is a man whose colleagues have nicknamed his daily noontime trip to the vending machine for chips and cookies “The Eli Lunch.” No additional comment necessary, right?)
I have never been so nervous about making a meal, and I certainly didn’t think much about timing, but in retrospect, I think the menu I put together for that first meal was ingenious. There must have been a cooking angel hanging over my shoulder. We sat on my rooftop deck, squinting into in the early evening sun, and ate grilled salmon and vegetables, pasta salad, and blueberry crumble. It was a perfect mid-summer dinner. I got everything but the salmon and pasta at the Fulton Street Farmers’ Market that same day, and most of the work was done in advance, with a little actual cooking after he arrived. Anyway, here’s the menu, complete with instructions (for both prep and timing, as well as early-in-the-relationship-oh-my-God-you’re-at-my-house-and-I’m-cooking-for-you-what-do-I-do coping strategies). And yes, the food got a rave review.
Dinner For Two
Prep, which can be done as early as the morning:
12 ounces wild sockeye salmon, cut into two fillets: brush both sides lightly with olive oil, and rub with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you’re ready to grill.
Zucchini and summer squash (two medium or four small): wash and slice into 1/4″ rounds. Place in the center of a large sheet of aluminum foil. Top with 2 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into cubes, one clove of minced garlic, sea salt, and pepper. Fold foil together over the top to make a pouch, and crimp sides together. Refrigerate.
Pesto pasta salad: cook 2 cups whole wheat farfalle in boiling water for 12 minutes, or until al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water until cool. Toss with 6 ounces pesto (I like Classico), 1 cup pine nuts, 3/4 cup fresh grated parmesan, a generous handful of halved cherry tomatoes, and 1/2 cup chopped black olives. Refrigerate.
Blueberry crumble: Rinse and drain 6 cups fresh blueberries. Toss with 1/2 cup unbleached flour or cornstarch, 1/2 cup sugar, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Place in an 8″ square or round casserole, cover, and refrigerate. For the topping, combine 1 cup unbleached flour, 3/4 cup sugar, and 1 teasoon ground cinnamon. Using a pastry blender or sharp knife, cut 1 stick chilled unsalted butter into the dry mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Set aside.
Just before your date is due to arrive:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and start the grill. Allow the grill to heat up on the high setting for about five minutes, then turn the temperature to medium-low. (Don’t start cooking yet, though, in case he is running late.)
Once your date has arrived:
Give him something to drink – he’ll appreciate it (for my dinner with Eli, this was Raspberry Simply Lemonade, because I’d noticed he drank some type of berry-flavored lemonade each time we’d been out for dinner. It went great with the rest of the summery menu). A chilled chardonnay or pinot grigio would also work.
Take the blueberry crumble from the refrigerator, uncover, and place on the middle rack of the oven (note the time or set the oven timer: it will be 40 minutes before you can add the topping). Dessert is now in the works, so you can head for the grill.
Place the foil pouch of veggies on the grill rack, and close the top. Allow to cook 10 minutes, then open the lid and place the salmon directly on the grill rack, skin side down. Close the lid and cook five minutes, then flip and cook for another five.
In the meantime, remove the pasta salad from the refrigerator and set the table (this will give your hands something to do, which can help with nerves and help you avoid the staring thing).
When the salmon has cooked a total of 10 minutes, remove both it and the veggies from the grill, and place on a serving platter. Dig in! (Try hard to actually taste and enjoy your food – you worked for it.)
By the time you have finished the main course, it should be close to time to add the topping to your blueberry crumble. Simply open the oven door, pull out the rack, and spoon the topping on. Bake for another 15-20 minutes, until the topping is golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. (If you need something to do besides talk, this is the perfect time to take a short walk or do the dishes. If he’s a keeper, he’ll offer to dry them for you.) Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
While I can’t guarantee that you’ll land yourself a boyfriend as a result of one homecooked dinner, it certainly can’t hurt. Two months later, my dinnertimes are anything but boring. I make dinner three or four nights a week, and we end up eating out or with family the rest. He’ll eat almost anything, thank goodness (not like my brother-in-law, who subsists mainly on canned chicken and omelettes, to my sister’s dismay). And when there are leftovers, I send him home with a Schuler’s bag containing lunch for the next day. His colleagues are starting to get over their shock at the absence of his daily vending machine fare (although I don’t think I’ve managed to eradicate it completely…yet).
And as for cooking for one, I still do once in a while. An omelette with goat cheese and red peppers, a croque madame and a bowl of tomato soup, the occasional bowl of cereal. I don’t mind eating alone – it is down time, in a way – but I definitely prefer company.