Food — When $$ trumps urge to dine out

Take heart, frustrated foodie, you can do nearly as well cooking at home

By Amy Diaz   adiaz@hippopress.com

I am a restaurant’s dream.

I love going out to eat — from the food to the joy of having someone else wash the dishes, I thoroughly embrace the experience of exchanging large amounts of money for food. And that pretty much sums up my problem, too — large sums of money.

Now it’s true that not all restaurants are costly, but all restaurants are costly eventually if visited often enough. Though I enjoy the service and selection of a restaurant, the reality is that sometimes dinner has to be had at Chez Amy.

Restaurant at home

As with just about everything in life, presentation is part of what makes a restaurant great.

Everything comes — just for you! — on a clean white plate, perfectly arranged. This often is the only thing that separates the meal you’re about to pay $16 or more for from the frozen dinner you bought for $4 and have left to collect icicles in the freezer. Especially at chain restaurants, much of what you eat is prepared sauces dumped on frozen meat and vegetables reheated with way too much grease.

So why will I pay a day’s wages to eat at a restaurant the same food I could have for a fraction of the cost at home? Well, in addition to the snazzy white plates (sometimes they’re square!), most restaurant food comes not with a blob of sauce but with an artful drizzle. Smartly grated cheese delicately melts on top and the bread is not just a hunk that was ripped off a semi-stale baguette but a lightly toasted slice sprinkled with some sort of vaguely garlicy seasoning. It’s these extra touches, I believe, which mean the difference between my satisfaction with the restaurant meal and my feeling of emptiness at the frozen or even somewhat homemade dinner at home. It’s these extra touches of presentation (that and breaking the habit of eating while standing) that can transition you from a restaurant junkie to a happy at-home eater who can save her money for the truly sublime restaurant experience.

 

Breakfast

Most restaurant breakfast food is, to some degree, awful.

I’m speaking here not of brunches or of fantastically hearty bed-and-breakfast presentations but of the breakfasts-on-the-go you’re forced to shell out about $5 for when you wait too long to go grocery shopping. You get rubber eggs, plastic cheese and very bologna-like sausage/bacon slices crammed inside bread that is either unappetizingly chewy and stale or hard as a rock. Or perhaps you’ll have the mud-like coffee and the slightly damp toast. Or the suspiciously shriveled fruit.

You can, with probably no more time than you spend in line at Dunkin’ Donuts, make your very own breakfast to go that will be the envy of your office.

First, the coffee. Buy a coffee maker with a timer so you can set up the grinds and water the night before. Actually read the instructions for coffee-to-water ratio that come with the machine — too little or too much coffee can lead to an unpleasant morning. Instead of using tap water, buy a jug of spring or filtered water (bad coffee is frequently the result of unpleasant-tasting water) and make a point of cleaning your coffee maker frequently — both of these things will put your coffee leagues ahead of what’s available commercially. Also, unless you are fanatical about cleaning, save yourself the travel-coffee mug hassle and just buy the disposable coffee cups with plastic lids (again, fresh clean mug means fresh clean coffee). And make sure your creamer is always fresh (buy smaller cartons if necessary).

For food, skip the horrible cereal and protein bars (nothing makes you crave a donut more) and try homemade muffins. You control the ingredients so you control the calories and fat and you can make them piping hot and oven-fresh every day by slicing them in half lengthwise and grilling them on a cookie sheet in the oven or on a griddle for about 30 to 60 seconds. Even if the muffins are a few days old, this helps you avoid that odd spongy texture many pre-wrapped muffins have.

Bagel lovers can toast bagels slightly, then spread with cream cheese and sprinkle on pre-cut-up fruit or vegetables (scallions and red bell peppers, finely chopped, make an excellent topper). Brown in toaster oven or on a cookie sheet in a regular oven for about 5 minutes and you’ll be hard pressed to find the bagel’s equal from a drive-thru.

For those who like egg-based breakfasts, pre-cut, slice and grate your additions and dump them into your scrambled egg as it cooks (it will literally take you longer to park at most breakfast takeout spots than it will to cook an egg). Place contents in a tortilla and fold like a burrito for a quick, easy and highly portable breakfast wrap. (To eat while driving, wrap the bottom half in parchment paper or wax paper. I mean, no, wrap your burrito in paper and take it to work and eat it there — driving while eating is bad.)

 

Lunch

Dining out at lunch is seldom about food.

It’s either a diversion from your workday (45 minutes in a cubicle-free environment can do wonders for the morale) or a forum for meetings and networking. If, however, you are simply looking to escape the lunchroom ambience without forking over the $10 that ambience inevitably costs, try turning your lunch into a picnic. Head outside or, heck, to your car if necessary. Turn on the radio or plug in the iPod. Instead of eating reheated leftovers or salad or a sandwich from a baggie or Tupperware, arrange your food on a plate along with any accompanying chips or vegetables. Bring along some extra seasonings to help revive the food (I find steak seasoning to be a nice all-purpose restorative) and add color to that white paper plate. Indulge in a few toothpicks to keep sandwiches from falling apart and bring plastic instead of reusable silverware to prevent the hassle of carrying around a dirty fork all day. Instead of three hours of unrelenting snacking at your desk, clear a 30-minute period (do you know anyone who really gets that hour lunch? Me neither) when you can go off and concentrate on nothing but your food. When you return, keep your eye on the prize of an equally satisfying dinner and resist that 4 p.m. cookie urge.

 

Dinner

If you’ve eaten nothing but disappointing food all day, it only stands to reason that you want the security and relative ease of a restaurant meal at night.

Also, if you are eating with someone, the promise of flirty conversation in dim restaurant lighting can hold far more allure than a television-focused meal on the couch. You can, however, approximate the restaurant experience of an actual dinner in your own house.

When planning your menu, keep your meal simple — there are lots of meals that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less (see Rachael Ray’s section of the Food Network website, www.foodtv.com). Overloading your expectations and your preparation work will leave you frustrated, tired and with a messy kitchen, pushing you right back into the restaurant habit. Start with a main course and a simple side course, pairing them so that one can be made while the other is cooking or so that some of the ingredients overlap, leaving you less to chop and dice.

Pre-washed and cut lettuce in a bag is an enormous time saver and makes adding a salad course relatively easy (that’s right, your dinner now has courses).  Do like they do at your favorite restaurant and actually serve the salad in a bowl between your appetizer and main course. This gives your main course a few more minutes to cook and allows you the relaxation of an unhurried meal. (Also, a salad served with a hot meal is frequently forgotten until the main course is eaten, by which time the lettuce is wilted.)

Appetizer, you say? Bowl? Yes, using actual dishes is key to recreating the restaurant experience at home. To make this experience less painful, make sure you have a relatively clean and empty sink/dishwasher/ drying rack before you start dinner. There’s nothing more depressing than washing a sink full of dishes before you get to the dishes you just dirtied. Serve your salad in an actual bowl and your main course on an actual dish, in the center as they do at your restaurant. The presentation will make for a more impressive “dinner is served” moment and the praise will make you feel better about the labor you just expended. For that “artful sauce” look, try dressing your main courses up with sauces or infused oils which you apply through a squeeze bottle (they are available in the Tupperware section of most kitchen and home stores). If that seems like a step too far, add sauces with a ladle that has a spout, which allows you to turn a pour into a more controllable dizzle.

As do restaurants, serve your bread in a basket and revive slightly stale bread by spritzing it with olive oil and toasting it in the oven for about five minutes.

Appetizers needn’t be complicated dishes that require their own cooking time.  Just set out a plate of cheese, crackers and olives, fruit and bread, pita chips and hummus or chips and salsa. You get that added nibble while you’re cooking and you turn the meal into an experience.

And, though I love the television as much as the next girl, that experience should come without the tube. Dim the lighting or use candles. Play music and, as at a restaurant, serve the drinks first so everyone has a chance to sit and unwind a bit before the food arrives. Instead of making dinner a race, the right mood can help make dinner a relaxing part of the evening, even if you have to make it yourself.

 

FOOD SIDE 1

The Bartenders Companion to 750 Cocktails: The Ultimate Practical Guide to Classic Mixes, Coolers, Breezers, Blended Drinks, Smoothies and Juices, by Stuart Walton, Suzannah Olivier, Joanna Farrow, Hermes House, 2005, 512 pages.

 

One of the truly fun things about a night on the town is the menu of fun, brightly colored, multi-ingredient cocktails featured at many restaurants.

The restaurants serve them for the same reason that we like them: these drinks are as much an event as they are part of your meal. The dessertinis, fliritinis and other wide-mouth-glass-served-in cocktails contain more than the standard one or two liquors we are likely to have in our homes. Frequently, these drinks include new liquors that have only recently hit the market or odd flavors that nobody wants a liter of but which make nice half-shot additions.

There’s no need, however, to completely throw up your hands. With a book such as The Bartenders Companion (a recent publication available in the bargain bin at the local Borders) and a bit of planning, you can enjoy that impossibly rich and overdone cocktail right in your own home.

The key ? Those little single-serving bottles at the liquor store. Sure, you may not want to buy a jug of butterscotch shnapps, Godiva Liqueur or the crazy new Starbucks espresso-flavored drink. But for a few dollars you can buy exactly the right combination to get a drink as good as any served at your favorite bistro.

A book like The Bartenders Companion is particularly helpful in this endeavor because it can help you figure out when to splurge on which liquors. In addition to recipes, this full-color book includes a sizeable section on specific kinds of liquor. For vodka, for example, the book explains the drink’s origins, what it’s made of, what kind to buy for which purpose and what dishes it goes with best. The book even goes so far as to explain how to serve beer and soda — and, hey, the better you understand your components the better you can mix them.

Now that you’ve stocked up on your main liquors and thrown in a few accessory liqueurs, try this recipe, which is as chic as anything you’ll find on the town.

 

Apricot bellini

3 ripe apricots

2 teaspoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons sugar syrup

1 1/2 tablespoons cognac

1 1/2 tablespoons apricot brandy

1 bottle brut champagne or dry sparkling wine, chilled

Plunge the apricots into boiling water for 2 minutes to loosen the skins, then peel and pit them. Discard the pits and skin. Process the apricot flesh with the lemon juice until you have smooth puree. Sweeten to taste with sugar syrup, then strain. Add the brandy and liqueur to the apricot nectar and stir together. Divide the apricot nectar among chilled champagne flutes. Finish the drinks with chilled champagne.

 
2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH