How to cook absolutely nothing.

Blue sofa at the Valley Ho

About a year ago, when Super Bowl XLVII rolled around, we were six weeks into Mom’s awful food makeover (that’s what my family called it).  Inspired by Michael Pollan‘s book, In Defense of Food, I had wiped from our house virtually every one of my family’s favorite junk foods: Go-Gurt, Nacho Cheese Doritos, Kraft American cheese, and Tyson chicken nuggets, just to name a few.  I was making a weekly menu plan and cooking every night, real food with real ingredients.

Let’s be clear: I was serving nothing radical.  Our dinners in those first few weeks of the makeover included basics like spaghetti, flank steak, cheese grits, chicken pot pie and hamburgers.  I even bought those outrageously expensive Ian’s chicken nuggets to help wean the beast.

We invited a couple of friends to watch the Super Bowl at our house, friends who would expect no big production because I had no intention of throwing a fancy event.  More than that, I realized I wanted to cook absolutely nothing.  I rounded up my crew and announced that, just for the Super Bowl, we could serve and eat anything they wanted as long as it didn’t involve cooking.

They were ecstatic and anxious to get to the grocery before I changed my mind.  We bought Doritos, Tyson’s Anytizers, Klondike bars and Cheez-Its.  “How about we get this too, just so we’ll have something healthy,” my daughter said, holding one of those ready-made Hidden Valley Ranch vegetable trays.  I think they’re gross, but I was proud of her for giving consideration to food that might have actual vitamins.  For the record, she also picked up a bag of Dove Promises.  That’s my girl.

Our Super Bowl evening was really enjoyable and relaxing, for me particularly because I didn’t spend the whole time in the kitchen.  To my great surprise, when we went straight back to Mom’s awful food makeover program the next day, no one said a word.  I was half expecting a dinner boycott on Monday, a refusal to go back to real dinner after my one-day surrender.  Nope, no such protest.  Not that week or the next.  In  fact, they’ve hardly asked for any of those foods for an entire year.

I’d sort of forgotten about the whole thing until Thursday when I came home from a business trip.  “Hey, Mom, are we having people over for the Super Bowl again?” they asked.  “Maybe,” I said.  “Yay!” they cried.  “That was so fun last year!”

It was really fun, and no one was the worse for that one-day processed food binge.  So this year for Super Bowl XLVIII, we’re absolutely positively having a repeat performance.  And I am again cooking absolutely nothing.  I’m going to let my people pick whatever processed ready-to-heat/serve foods they want.  On Monday, we’ll go right back to normal.  Nowadays they don’t call it Mom’s awful food makeover, however; they just call it dinner.

Happy week.

Food | Week of February 3, 2014

lemon prepI’ve been testing Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.  What I like about Bittman’s recipes are the ideas more than the actual set prescriptions.  Like his other “How to” books, this one has more tips and techniques than actual recipes.  In particular I like his suggestions for salads that include greens, fruit, cheese and nuts (p. 40).  This approach is how I make most salads, letting the fresh or dried fruit, crumbled cheese and nuts sit in dressing while I make the main course and then tossing with fresh greens right before serving.  Since my people now like Caesar salad (miracle of wonders), I will alternate the two.

Pasta with Broccoli | Greens with Fruit, Cheese & Nuts

Bittman’s recipe calls for using broccoli, cauliflower or broccoli rabe.  I’m making the couscous with cauliflower later in the week, and broccoli rabe is too bitter for my children (though I’m still working it), so we’ll have regular broccoli.  The basic recipe for the salad is here, although there truly are endless, endless varieties and combinations.

eat your greensMashed Potato Bar with Caesar Salad

Bernard loves mashed potatoes, usually with pot roast or meatloaf.  I’m going to try a different tactic this week and serve the potatoes and salad in equal parts as the main course.  I’ll set up cheese, sour cream, broccoli, green onions and bacon crumbles for the potatoes, and I’ll probably use Tyler Florence’s recipe for those.  For the Caesar salad, here’s a recipe for making from scratch without store-bought dressing, in case you’re interested in taking that path.

Lettuce Wraps

Here’s another “assemble yourself” dinner that my kids really enjoy.  I usually use ground chicken but have also had success with turkey.  Bibb lettuce is the most tender and easiest to use, but other large leaf varieties will also work.  There are many ways to prepare the chicken, but this one was a particular hit with my people when I made it last year.  Bonus points for the slow cooker approach.

fresh eggsBaked Eggs | Toast | Citrus Salad

Baked (or shirred) eggs work best when baked in small au gratin dishes, the ones with sloped sides.  You can also bake them in small ramekins, but I find that they don’t cook as evenly as quickly.  Either way, place two eggs in each dish and bake at 375 degrees for 10-15 minutes.  Pour a bit of cream in the dish before cracking the eggs into it, and you’ll have a sure winner.  Top with salt and fresh herbs.  Serve with plain buttered toast and a citrus salad like this four-fork winner from epicurious.com.

Couscous with Cauliflower & Almond | Grilled Hearts of Romaine

Here’s this week’s experiment, a Bittman recipe that will either work or be a disaster.  My people love couscous, particularly the large Israeli variety, and they’re not entirely opposed to cauliflower.  Wish me luck.  And since I’m pushing the envelope anyway, I’ll try some grilled romaine instead of standard Caesar.  Here’s a recipe for that, from Saveur, if you need one.  You can substitute another cheese for the recommended blue if your people, like mine, hate “stinky cheese.”

4 Comments Add yours

  1. I may have to pick up BIttman’s book. I was in B&N last week looking for such a cookbook and walked out because I was so overwhelmed.

  2. jdavi339 says:

    That’s a neat idea for super bowl. last year I was all into it because of the Ravens!! I was born and from Baltimore. then year I not sure which team. But your food idea is a great one. That way we women can relax and enjoy the game too.:)

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