On our first date – a bloody mary brunch on a cobblestoned street in Brooklyn — my (now) boyfriend casually mentioned his love of homemade pie.
Oh grrrreat, pie crust, the one pastry I categorically bomb at every single time, I thought. “Maybe one day I’ll make you one,” I winked, flirtatiously slash nervously….
As a food writer and cookbook author, everyone assumes I’m confident making anything and everything. This is hardly the case. While I can roast a chicken to make grown men cry, I can’t cook a steak to save my life; while I can birth a carrot cake that could and should bring peace on earth, I shiver at the idea of a simple baked apple.
No matter how many aprons you own or cookbooks you read, no one is kitchen-perfect. I once invited several food writer friends over for a dinner party and made a Thai Beef Stew that ultimately was neither Thai nor stew. (If only I’d known about House of Tsang® back then!) My shame was only placated when, a few weeks later, an editor at Bon Appetit invited me over for a fancy bowl of Vietnamese “Pho” – which was so flavorless, us food snobs ended up making peanut butter toast for dinner. Obviously, we used Justin’s® peanut butter.
Conquer Your Fear
All this to say, I learned long ago that there’s one simple way for us hosts and home-cooks to get over our fear of flops. The answer is to cook and bake whatever you’re comfortable with, and whatever you have time for, and outsource the rest. Outsource all the foodstuff that makes you anxious. Outsource the chicken stock (Herb-Ox® works wonders!), the marinara sauce, the salad dressing or whatever is keeping you up at night. Don’t drive yourself crazy. Drive yourself to the supermarket.
Because, let’s be real, hosting a dinner party or making dinner for your family does not have to be so black and white. It’s not either 100% made from scratch or 100% bought from the store. Dinner can be both. A mashup. A little of this, a little of that. This is not an episode of Top Chef; this is real life.
For example, dinner can be the most soulful homemade creamy vegetable soup made slowly and diligently with fresh produce and Hormel® Black Label® Canadian bacon, paired with ….a store-bought (!) rotisserie chicken. Pow. It can be freshly baked and breaded tilapia from the local fishmonger served on a fresh-out-of-the-oven pretzel baguette presented with a heaping dollop of Wholly Guacamole® dip and a bright splash of CHI-CHI’s® salsa. Note to self: MAKE THIS.
Don’t drive yourself crazy. Drive yourself to the supermarket.
Let me illustrate how it works in real life. Last weekend, I decided to take the pie plunge. I told my boyfriend to come over Friday night for a fabulous we-survived-the-week meal. My intention was to try a new pie recipe and give it my all.
However, it was an exasperating week. Work was stressful, my dishwasher broke, Real Housewives of New Jersey was really, really good, etc.
So, on Thursday night, I went grocery shopping. Pre-pie, I knew I wanted to make pasta, so I picked up my favorite shape, orecchiette (little ears, in Italian), and decided to toss them with peas, artichokes and mint. Peas and artichokes are not in season, mind you, so I bought them frozen.
(Incidentally, every chef I’ve ever interviewed swears that frozen peas are not only totally acceptable, but a beautiful thing. I took the liberty of assuming the same goes for frozen artichokes.)
A few feet away, I saw the frozen, already-made crust. It was practically staring me in the face, begging for attention. I had to get it. I truly, sincerely, planned on making a crust from scratch but…man, I was tired. I had to get it.
Then things got even shadier. There was an unavoidable pre-made cherry pie filling stalking me as well! Could I buy the crust AND the filling and knock my boyfriend’s socks off with my “homemade slice of heaven?” Could I, in good conscious, lie about the whole dang pie?
You bet the farm I did.
This brings me to the most important component of any recipe: the big, fat lie. If it makes you feel better about the meal you made (and let’s face it, all meals, homemade or not, take work!), there’s is no harm done in glazing over the details.
So. Lie about the pie. Say your frozen peas are straight from the farmer’s market. Pretend that fried rice didn’t come from a box. Go ahead. Do it. As a food writer, a home cook and an otherwise deeply honest human being, you can go right ahead and blame me.
And for the record, my boyfriend devoured my “homemade” cherry pie. He had two big pieces and another for breakfast. He asked where I got the farm-fresh cherries and I said, “It’s a secret.” Some people call that lying by omission. I call it, Cooking 101.