Easy cooking tips 101?
October 12, 2006 12:36 PM   Subscribe

Help me entertain a first-time visitor!

I'm teetering on the edge of falling into a long-distance relationship. Without a lot of timeline or details, I visited him in September, and he's going to be visiting me for the first time here in the Detroit area for a week over Thanksgiving. I'm a horrible cook, and am trying very hard to be more domestic and seem as "female" as possible. Does anyone have any good ideas for quasi-romantic, simple dinners that I can make without making a fool of myself as well?
(I don't mean Thanksgiving dinner, luckily, we're going to my mom's for that!)
*And if it matters, I have a gas stove, so it can sometimes be tricky to leave things covered to simmer. I've ruined many a Chicken Helper because of this!
posted by slyboots421 to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Spaghetti and Marinara is always good and easy. Buy something at whole food or trader joe's and put something else in it to make it look homemade. For example, buy some chicken salad, add chopped nuts and grapes. Buy frozen meals like the new Bertoli, they turn out pretty good, heat some bread in the oven and have a fresh salad on the side. For desert, layer yogurt or ice cream with fresh berries in cheap champange flues, always looks elegant.

A meal always look more tasty when arranged nicely with complementing colors with a real place setting and napkins.

Ok, I answered and now let me say this. Seem your self, not "female" whatever that is supposed to mean.
posted by stormygrey at 12:42 PM on October 12, 2006

Sly- Go risotto. Everyone is going to tell you that it's SUPER HARD. But it's not. Let's think about it!

1- Can you boil water/stock?
2- Can you stir?

If you answered yes, you're READY! Risotto is simple, easy and flexible. Check out a few recipies on the internet and make it once or twice in advance to get a handle on it. This is a super-easy meal that tastes and looks like you're a super-cook. I always make it for dates when I'm trying to win them over.
posted by GilloD at 12:43 PM on October 12, 2006

What makes you a horrible cook? I'm asking this because the problems you have now would indicate which type of recipes you could probably do okay with. Some people just don't like to follow recipes, so they need a quick easy concept that can be described in a few sentences. Some people don't like to measure or don't keep a full pantry, so anything with lots of ingredients tends to trip them up. Some people have trouble with regulating heat (their oven thermometer is broken) or they don't know what the difference between simmer and boil looks like. Do any of these describe you?
posted by jacquilynne at 12:47 PM on October 12, 2006

Would you feel comfortable experimenting with a making a sauce or two? I've got a couple of cream sauce standbys that, when poured over chicken breasts or steak and combined with a baked potato (nuke it!), simple salad (out of a bag!), and a bottle of wine, make for a very easy, romantic meal. I'm pretty comfortable in the kitchen, though, so my idea of easy -- deglazing a pan with a little wine and throwing in some cream and herbs, then stirring till it gets all thick and yummy -- may not be yours. It's easy to practice, though. Let me know if it sounds up your alley and I'll post more.
posted by scody at 12:49 PM on October 12, 2006

Leave a small pan of water simmering on the back burner of the stove for a few hours a day, drop in some cinnamon sticks, herbs, spices, apple chunks. It will make the place smell very nice and 'domestic'.

For a nice simple dinner, I would recommend getting some fish (Salmon works well) and dropping it into a tinfoil bag (or make your own little foil bag) along with some slices of red and yellow pepper and bake it in the oven (it will steam inside the bag). Serve w/ Rice + hoisin/soy sauce.

Also, homemade pizza is fun to make together. Flour on hands = okay to be a bit foolish.

Pancakes can also be a bit romantic, for whatever reason! I always liked breakfast for dinner...it makes me want to snuggle afterwards.
posted by effigy at 12:50 PM on October 12, 2006

Response by poster: Haha, thanks, stormygrey. I realized that sounded dumb after I posted the question. I'm just trying to play up my feminine side because I tend to evolve into a "buddy" for most of the guys I've dated over the years.
posted by slyboots421 at 12:51 PM on October 12, 2006

Response by poster: jacquilynne - I think I can follow a recipe pretty well, and a lot of ingredients don't usually trip me up or anything. I think my biggest problem is that I'm not especially creative or fancy when it comes to picking out a recipe to follow, and I can barely think of anything interesting on my own. Also, my timing is usually way off. For example, I was at a friend's house in college once for a mini-dinner party and she was making meat loaf. Everyone was pitching in, and I got put in charge of making instant mashed potatoes. Somehow I made this way-too-teeny little amount, and had it done way before the meat was. I probably wouldn't have done that if I were the sole cook, but I'm just not sure how to make all of that timing work out so that everything is ready at once (I'm sure it's mostly practice).

And Scody, I like the idea of simple-ish cream sauces to go over chicken and everything! The easier, the better! :)
posted by slyboots421 at 12:57 PM on October 12, 2006

That cream sauce sounds yummy...

I have the same problem you do. How about looking for some recipes (I like epicurious.com) and trying them out between now and T-Day? If nothing else, practice will make you feel more at ease.

My ex-boyfriend and I would always cook together - it was always kind of charming, and that way you wouldn't feel too pressured.
posted by KAS at 1:02 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh and, Sly, don't worry about it too much. The best girl I ever dated was a total disaster area in the kitchen. She started a kitchen fire making pancakes and once tear-gasses her entire house trying to sautee with hot sauce. I'm sure it's not the biggest deal :)
posted by GilloD at 1:02 PM on October 12, 2006

I'm actually making this tonight. A HUGE hit and it presents well.

Chicken Puffs

3 ounces cream cheese
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 cups cooked chicken, chopped (you can buy it precooked and chopped at the grocery store - saves time)
¼ teaspoon each, salt and pepper
1 tablespoon milk
2 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 8 ounce can crescent rolls
Chicken gravy (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Blend cream cheese and butter till smooth. Add next 5 ingredients and mix well. Separate rolls into 4 rectangles. Seal perforations. Spoon ½ cup chicken mixture onto center of each rectangle, pull 4 corners of dough to center of mixture; seal. Brush tops with butter. Bake on un-greased cookie sheet until golden brown (about 15 minutes). Remove and serve with chicken gravy (optional).
posted by Sassyfras at 1:15 PM on October 12, 2006 [2 favorites]

Getting the timing down is one of the hardest parts of cooking to master. You can fight this in a couple of ways:

1. Do one dish kinds of meals. Things like cooking the pot roast with vegetables together, or lasagna, for example, can be very impressive, but there's no real timing to be concerned about because it all gets cooked together. You can supplement these with something light and fresh like a salad that you can throw together at the last minute.

2. Strategic planning. Pick recipes with fairly well defined cooking times, and then sit down and think about those factors ahead of time. Plan backwards from the time you want dinner on the table. Watch for points in a recipe where you can hold things and not have it be a problem.

Say, as an example, that you want to make a chicken dish that requires you to marinate it, then grill it and make a sauce. Plus, you want to add two sides - say, garlic green beans and roasted potatoes. The roasted potatoes need to be seasoned and get tossed in the oven. The garlic green beans need to be blanched, and then sauteed.

Once you take the chicken off the grill, you're going to want to rest it for a few minutes - 10 minutes maximum. Plan on using that ten minutes to put finishing touches on your other dishes - like sauteeing the green beans in the sauce. That's quick, and fortunately, there's a holding point on the green beans once you've blanched them - because you immediately chill them so they stop cooking. So you could have blanched them an hour ago, and just let them hold chilled until the last 10 minutes before the saute.

The potatoes in this example, are pretty easy. The recipe should tell you how long to cook them, and once you put them in the oven, you don't have to do much more than turn them once. So throw them in at Dinner Time minus (cooking time + 5 minutes) so you can get them out of the oven while the chicken is resting.

You don't want to cut them up too far ahead unless you're doing an oily marinade so they don't go dark, though, so make sure you've got time to prep them right before they go into the oven. If you don't know how long it takes you to prep a batch of potatoes, make the dish once before the guy comes to visit.

So, my example plan for the meal proposed might theoretically be something like this:

Night before: prepare chicken marinade, reserve some for sauce.

Dinner - 2 hours: clean green beans and blanche them.

Dinner - 1 hours 30 minutes: Pull the chicken out of the fridge to let it warm up a little and drain off marinade. Prep garlic and butter for beans.

Dinner - 1 hour: Preheat oven, cut up and season potatoes.

Dinner - 45 minutes: Potatoes in oven.

Dinner - 40 Minutes: Reserved marinade into pot to heat and reduce for sauce. Stir it when you walk by it.

Dinner - 25 minutes: Chicken on grill. Alternate watching chicken and stirring sauce.

Dinner - 10 minutes: Chicken off grill. Cover. Throw beans in with garlic and butter to saute.

Dinner - 5 minutes: Potatoes out of oven. Beans off heat.

Dinner - 2 minutes: Chicken on plates, sauce on chicken. Beans & potatoes on plates.

Dinner: Plates on table.

You don't need to put together a plan that detailed (or you might want one even more detailed, depending on your inclinations) but if you at least think about how long things will take to do or cook, and how you can fit them into a schedule, you'll be able to oversome the timing problems.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:26 PM on October 12, 2006 [6 favorites]

The great thing about sauces is that a) you cook them until everything ELSE is done and b) they make everything else look fancy. I don't know what your guy is into, but chicken or pork chops with a canned or home-made sauce and some quick-tossed or store-bought salad. There, that's a meal. Or, even better than salad, steam some broccoli, which goes great w/ most all sauces.
posted by muddgirl at 1:27 PM on October 12, 2006

Go to the store and buy the foofiest pasta they have. Little ruffles or something. The $5 pasta. Boil it.

Melt some butter on the stove, salt it a little, slice an onion and carmelize it. This means just leaving it for a long time on medium heat, stirring a little.

In a saucepan, on medium heat, mix the smallest container of cream you can find with a small wedge of crumbled gorgonzola. Add frozen peas, the carmelized onions, and some diced ham or smoked salmon just for a mo'.

Serve with a green salad, with more veggies than you would maybe usually add. Green onions, fresh pepper. I think of these things as "the little touches."

For dessert, get some port and nice chocolate gelato or haagen dasz... or a muscat and sorbet.

EZ romance.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:29 PM on October 12, 2006 [3 favorites]

ooh i forgot the nuts. Add some walnuts or pine nuts too!!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:37 PM on October 12, 2006

okee-doke, I'll post the cream sauces tonight -- I'm at work and so don't have exact measurements (I'm at the point where I can just eyeball everything without measuring, but I want to give you more precise instructions than just "pour in enough cream to make a lot"). They really are quite tasty, considering how ridiculously easy they are -- the day after I served my super-easy chicken dijon to my boyfriend for the first time, I overheard him raving on the phone to one of his buddies about my cooking. Score!

And yes, dessert can be very easy too. Slices of store-bought pound cake + berries + whipped cream or chocolate sauce = heaven.
posted by scody at 2:02 PM on October 12, 2006

You'd like your meal to appear as easy as the 'after' shots in the TV cookery classes, so plan it such that next to nothing need be done at the time when he's there and you're under maximum pressure. My favorites for that kind of constraint are carbonnade and boti gosht.
posted by jet_silver at 2:02 PM on October 12, 2006

How about setting out an antipasti platter and nibbling on that as a meal? Go to a cheese shop and have them recommend some good ones. Roasted peppers. Sausages/salamis. Sauteed veggies. Nice bread, olives. And of course, the vino.
posted by clairezulkey at 2:17 PM on October 12, 2006

For our first Valentine's Day, I made this chicken dish for my now-fiancee. It's really easy but tastes great, and it doesn't take very long to make. It does require having a pan you can use on the stovetop and in the oven, but other than that it doesn't require much that's out of the ordinary. I served it with garlic mashed potatoes, but those take a little longer. I've made this dish a few times since and it's always great. Server with a good crusty bread too! Mmmm...

However, you and your man may not think garlic makes for good post-dinner romance. (I like it just fine and so does my fiancee.)
posted by bDiddy at 2:41 PM on October 12, 2006

Steak au poivre, and watercress. He'll lick his plate. Look up the recipe on epicurious.

Tuna steaks marinated in 1 lemon, 2 garlic cloves mashed, 1/4 cup olive oil, and 1 inch worth of grated ginger for 30 minutes or longer. Cook the steaks about 3-4 minutes per side on medium/high heat.

Also: I recommend Rocco Lagano's book "Five minute flavor". There are some easy, fast recipes in this book that will impress, but expect them to take about 45 minutes, not 5 minutes.

Also, I find it helpful to pre-prepare everything I need for a meal before I cook. Do all your cutting, etc. beforehand.
posted by xammerboy at 2:43 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Learn to do beurre blanc; it's the basis for 70% of all classic meat and vegetable sauces in French, German, and even (with adaptions of oils for the butter) Italian, Greek and other European cuisine. Add some kind of flour or other thickener, stir until the flour is smoothly dissolved completely in the fat, and add plenty of water based liquids, and you move it to famous gravies. Subtract some of the acid, add cream or milk products, and you have various cream sauces.

If I teach poor cooks nothing else, I teach them beurre blanc. And then, they aren't poor cooks.

And I agree with xammerboy about pre-prep and staging ingredients completely, before you start cooking. Use dishes or plastic zip lock bags to hold your prepped ingredients, give you kitchen a thorough wipe down, clean up your sinks, and have a drink and short sit down, before you start cooking proper, and nothing will seem as rushed or disorganized as it does, if you don't.
posted by paulsc at 2:47 PM on October 12, 2006

Risotto is good, like GilloD says: easy to make, comfort food for winter, and can be adjusted to whatever ingredients you like (eg, you can make mushroom risotto, peas and sausage risotto, asparagus risotto, pumpkin risotto, etc). I like it as a main dish, but it's also great as a side dish. Ingredients are important: Get arborio rice, because regular white rice won't work. And get a block of parmiggiano reggiano or romano to grate fresh for the recipe -- DON'T use the canned powdery stuff.

Roasted veggies (peppers, squash, asparagus, or root vegs like potato, sweet potato, beet) are super-easy to make. Cut up, put on tray, put in oven. Optionally, you can put herbs, oil, butter, salt, brown sugar on them. Halved acorn squash with butter, brown sugar, salt and pepper is a nice late-fall one, provided you're not going to get overloaded with them during Txgiving.

A nice salad goes a long way toward making a one-disher seem like a real grown up meal. You can get packaged dark-green salads, and add walnuts, apples, feta or bleu cheese crumbles, cherry tomatoes. Or you can do a Caesar salad, which most people love.

You can come off as a better cook by using fresh herbs rather than dried (they have MUCH more flavor). Also, as others suggested, buy fresh bakery bread and a couple of nice cheeses (maybe one soft and one hard) for snacking.

Baking is actually what will make your house smell awesomest. Make a banana bread or coffee cake just before he comes and then you can have it for snacks or breakfast.

Be able to make a reasonable cup of coffee in your house. Have unscented candles, with candlesticks, that you can use for the dining table if you want. Have an actual dining table, cleared of bills and other detritus.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:12 PM on October 12, 2006

Also, for presentation of risotto, it's good to have a bright herb sprig for garnish, and to have other things on the plate. Risotto by itself can look like just a grayish lump. (You don't know it's the food of angels until you taste it)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:13 PM on October 12, 2006

One other easily overlooked point for the anxious hostess: make something the visitor likes, as opposed to making something you like to cook. No point plopping a wonderful steak in front of a vegan, or lobsters in front of people who have seafood allergies, or risotto before people who are on the Dr. Atkins diet.

Just ask, if you don't know, about allergies and likes/dislikes. And stay away from peanut products, shellfish, nuts, and other stuff known to kill people on contact, just as a precaution.
posted by paulsc at 3:40 PM on October 12, 2006

Lasagna is really easy to make if you buy the no-boil noodle sheets. (I get the Barilla kind) I always put browned ground beef & spinach in mine. Assuming you follow the directions on the back of the noodle box, thaw two packages of frozen chopped spinach & add it to the ricotta mixture. If you want, you can assemble this the night before -- cover with plastic wrap & fridge it til you're ready. Then preheat oven to 375, place pan on foil covered baking sheet, bake for 45 minutes if uncovered (or until it's bubbling). I usually just wing it for the layering part...sometimes I add sauce to the beef to cut out a step. Really, if you've eaten lasagna, you'll have some idea of how much of each layer you'll need. The hardest part is thawing the spinach! It makes kind of a lot, but leftovers are always good.

There's also a really easy chicken recipe i've used before: Engagement Chicken. You pretty much roast a small chicken with lemons & pepper. It's really really easy & it goes well with mashed potatoes & a great salad. Don't let the name throw you off! Apparently, if a woman makes it for her bf, he'll propose soon after, because it's 'a meal your wife would make'. Maybe it won't make your guy propose, but it should do the trick on the "domestic & feminine" goal ;) I made it for my bf 3 times or so in the last 2 years & he proposed two weeks ago. I think it was the chicken that did it.
posted by good for you! at 3:50 PM on October 12, 2006

I like to cook, and I've been cooking for people my whole life, and I still only make fail-safe recipes when cooking for company. It's just too stressful otherwise. There's literally no way to screw the following dish up, and friends that I've served this to at dinner parties still mention it. It's something that's fun to watch someone cook, what with the chopping of the colorful and oh-so-cute baby squashes and the crushing of the garlic and whatnot. Also, you don't need to use a cookbook or a recipe--everything is to taste, so you look like you've made this a million times before.

Guys like to help a little when you cook, so put him on garlic peeling and crushing duty (that way, your hands don't get stinky--if they do, rub them all over with a stainless steel spoon to get the smell off). Also, if you use the "fresh" pasta that only has to boil for a few minutes, this meal can literally be done in under 15 minutes. I feel guilty when someone has to slave for hours to cook me dinner, but if they can just whip up a quick, elegant meal, I'm impressed and put at ease.

Pair this with a nice salad, some good quality crusty bread (get this from a bakery if possible, not the grocery store), and a light white wine (I recommend a vino verde). Use the pasta of your choice (I recommend linguini); one package of Trader Joe's baby yellow squash, cut in fours, microwave according to package with a little butter on top; one package Trader Joe's baby zucchini squash, cut in half lengthwise, microwave according to package with a little butter on top. Mix the cooked pasta and the squash, sprinkle with kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste (it's essential that you use these particular ingredients--Morton's salt and pre-ground black pepper out of the tin don't taste as good, and you look like a better cook when you use quality ingredients. It's a cheap way to class up a simple meal for not very much money), and drizzle a little good quality extra-virgin olive oil on top. Crush up some fresh garlic and add to taste. It's ok to have garlic since it's not a first date, as long as you both have some.
posted by gokart4xmas at 3:55 PM on October 12, 2006

since it sounds like you'll be cooking for him over the course of several days, you'll want some regular-type comforty foods, as well as the initial showstoppers. Here's a casserole that's embarassingly easy to make, and tastes fantastic, too:

Mexican Casserole

1 lb lean ground meat
1/2 onion, chopped (or use 1 chopped shallot, if you're not a big fan of the onion)
1 packet taco seasoning
1 can fat free refried beans
8 oz can tomato sauce
1 cup cheddar cheese
2 cans crescent rolls

Preheat oven to 375. Cook meat with onions til done, drain any fat. Add taco seasoning, refried beans and tomato sauce. Heat through. In a 9x13 dish coated with cooking spray, spread out 1 can of crescents, sealing perferations. Spread meat mixture on top. Cover with cheese. Put second can of crescents on top. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until crescents are golden. Serve with a nice salad.
posted by spinturtle at 5:28 PM on October 12, 2006

A friend of mine has a great deal of cooking experience, both at home and at a couple of restaurants (but no formal training).

He's developed a lot of yummy recipes for entertaining, and the best part is that he tells you about the appropriate holding times, figuring you'll be doing a little cooking and a little hanging out in between. Perfect for what you're hoping to do.

Other hints I've come up with, as someone without innate domestic talents who learned to fake it: whenever you feel like getting creative and you want to know if flavors will go well together, smell them together. The nose knows.

And don't be afraid to add pre-made sauces to your home-made sauce, or to doctor pre-made sauces with your own fresh ingredients.

I sometimes just read the ingredient labels for inspiration. For instance, if I'm using a terayaki sauce, I'll start with a store-bought sauce and read the labels for all the other store-bought terayaki sauces I can find. I'll notice that most of them contain ginger, pineapple, onions, and peppers. Knowing that those are safe flavors to work with, I'll buy them fresh and add them to the meal. Or, in a place like Trader Joe's, I'll look at their frozen pre-made chicken terayaki bowl, and see what they mix terayaki sauce with.

A dollop of pesto adds complexity to the flavor of just about any Italian recipe, and is a no-brainer seasoning for potatoes.

Good luck!
posted by nadise at 5:38 PM on October 12, 2006

You've got lots of good suggestions so far, but I would like to repeat jacquilynne's excellent advice: plan backwards and make a list. I consider myself a fairly advanced home cook, but I absolutely cannot get everything on the table at the right time unless I do a detailed list in advance. Also, as others have said, do as much prep work as possible before you start cooking. Simple rule: knives should not be out at the same time that pots and pans are out. If you don't have a lot of little bowls, buy a sleeve of small cups (like dixie bathroom cups) and a sleeve of bigger (10 oz. or so) cups to put all of your chopped veggies, portioned pats of butter, etc. into.

Another trick to make things seem fancy is to make a multi-course meal. This doesn't have to be difficult. For example:

-Charcuterie platter - salami, cornichons, olives, cooked sausage, etc. Can be out while you cook.
-Soup - homemade (in advance) or store bought. Not too heavy/hearty. Keep warm in a pot on the stove until ready to serve.
-Main course + salad
-Cheese course - pick 2 different kinds of cheese and 2 different kinds of crackers. Serve on a small cutting board.
-Mignardises - buy about a half dozen fancy candies, chocolate truffles, bite-size cookies, etc. Serve on a small plate. Ridiculously easy yet very impressive.

You'll notice that the only real cooking you need to do is for your main course and dessert. Serve smaller portions of everything so you don't end up totally stuffed at the end.
posted by rorycberger at 6:20 PM on October 12, 2006

Also, fresh pasta. Fresh pasta is done in only a minute or two. Boil water with a little salt. Add pasta. When pasta floats, it's finished. Take a table spoon of fresh pesto and mix it in with the pasta. It will taste amaaaazing.
posted by xammerboy at 9:17 AM on October 13, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for your great suggestions!! I can't wait to try some of these out!!
posted by slyboots421 at 9:19 AM on October 13, 2006

gah, went straight to bf's after work last night, so didn't get my recipes. Those cream sauce recipes are still coming, slyboots, I promise!
posted by scody at 10:24 AM on October 13, 2006

I kind of feel like begging you not to succumb to the allure of pre-prepared ingredients (pre-cooked, already chopped chicken breast, crescent rolls), because it's cheaper and often more tasty to do the work yourself - but I think I'll settle for encouraging a cook to develop her mad skillz.

Braised Chicken Breasts on Creamy Leeks - simple, easy, fairly traditional and very tasty, if you're looking for fall/winter comfort food. Wash your leeks well to make sure they're free of grit - that's the most challenging part of this dish.

And, an easy chocolate cake that never fails to delight us - you make it all in one pan. Here's a PDF version of the recipe, and I've also pasted it here so you can revel in its simplicity:

All-in-the-Pan Chewy Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Butter Icing from In the Sweet Kitchen by Regan Daley

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder, such as Ghirardelli or Hershey’s
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
6 Tbsp canola oil
1 Tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup cool water

1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups icing (powdered) sugar
2-3 tbsp milk or water
1 1/2 tbsp natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Sift the flour into an ungreased, unfloured 8 x8-inch (20 x 20 cm) square baking pan (a 9 x 9-inch (23 x 23 cm) pan would work too; reduce the baking time by 5 to 7 minutes). (If you wish to unmold the cake before icing and serving, oil the pan lightly and line the bottom and up two sides with a piece of parchment paper. Take care when mixing not to disturb or tear the paper. Personally, I like to leave the cake in the pan; it keeps very well that way, and is even easier!) In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Add this mixture to the flour in the pan and stir well with a forkor small whisk to blend the ingredients (a flat sauce whisk works beautifully). With the back of a tsp, make three indentations or wells in the dry mixture: one large, one medium-sized, and one small. Into the large well pour the canola oil. Into the medium sized well, the vinegar. Pour the vanilla extract into the last well and pour the water over everything. With a fork, stir the mixture until the ingredients are well blended, making sure you reach into the corners and sides to catch any dry pockets. Do not beat this batter, but mix just until most of the lumps are smoothed out, and there are no little patches of overly thick or overly runny batter. A few lumps won’t hurt, and it’s important not to overbeat at this point.

2. Bake the cake for 30 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean and the top feels springy when lightly touched. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool the cake completely before cutting, turning out or icing. This is an extremely moist cake, and it will tear if cut too soon. While you’re waiting for the cake to cool, whip up a batch of the chocolate icing. If you have lined the pan with parchment, run a knife around the sides of the pan and gently lift the cake out with the help of the parchment paper.

3. In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and 1 cup of the icing sugar until the butter is well distributed. The mixture will be very dry and still powdery. Stir in 1 tablespoon of milk or water, then sift the cocoa powder over the mixture and cream Mix in the vanilla, then add thesecond cup of icing sugar. Add as much ofthe remaining liquid as necessary to make a thick, creamy icing. (This recipe makes more than enough to generously frost the top and sides of the cake, and if you keep the cake in the pan, as I do, you will have plenty of icing left over for greedy fingers!)

4. To serve, you can simply sprinkle the cooled cake with sifted icing sugar and/or cocoa powder, but yummy icing reallycompletes it. And there is not better cake for a scoop of chocolate or vanilla icecream. Any leftovers can be stored in thepan, at room temperature, covered with a piece of aluminum foil. The un-iced cake freezes well: wrap the whole pan securelyand thaw without disturbing the wrapping,at room temperature, for 4 to 6 hours. Makes enough for 8 servings if your guests are really polite, 3 to 4 if they are honest. (Again, I’m not kidding).
posted by deliriouscool at 10:49 AM on October 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Finally checking back in! Here's my go-to chicken-with-sauce recipe:

Saute 2 seasoned boneless chicken breasts in about a Tbsp. of olive oil over medium-high heat for about 5-6 minutes each side. (If the chicken breasts seem very plump, pound them with a rolling pin between a couple of sheets of wax paper so that they'll cook more evenly.) Put them on plates and hold them in a warm oven.

[Optional: add a little more oil to the pan (if necessary) and saute about half a container of sliced mushrooms, plus a little salt. Transfer to plates with chicken.]

Pour about 1/4 cup of dry white wine into the hot skillet. Stir (with wooden or plastic spatula), taking up the nice little crunchy bits of chicken, until the wine's reduced by half (about a minute).

Add about 1/2 cup heavy cream, 1-2 Tbsp Dijon mustard (depending on your tastes), and 1 Tbsp minced tarragon (fresh is better, but dried works fine). Cook, stirring constantly, till smooth and thick (about 2 minutes -- it should start to bubble and turn golden).

Stir any accumulated juices from the plated chicken into the sauce, then pour the sauce over the chicken and mushrooms.

This is a good sauce for seared fish as well; I like to subsitute dill if I'm serving it with salmon (which I also serve with thinly sliced cucumber instead of mushrooms).

For steak, follow the above instructions (use a couple of ribeye steaks cooked for ~5 mins each side, depending on thickness and desired doneness) except substitute brandy, red wine, or cognac in place of the white wine; Dijon mustard is optional, and no tarragon necessary.

Practice it a couple of times before your friend comes and you'll be making this sauce with your eyes closed!
posted by scody at 10:40 PM on October 14, 2006 [2 favorites]

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