Breakaway Cook

Great Food from a Dorm Room? Yes! (Guest Post by Lida Wu)

Breakaway cooking isn’t about following an exact recipe; it’s about seeing what you can come up with regardless of what “type” of cooking it is. And what better place for breakaway cooking than a dorm room?

Now, hear me out. When I first discovered that I had been placed in the one dorm that didn’t have a kitchen, I was pretty freaked out. I mean, the dining hall isn’t that bad, but it’s the motions of cooking, the idea of an actual meal rather than snippets of this-and-that from the salad bar that keep me sane. I knew I had to take drastic action. So here’s a list of things college students can do to radically increase the quality of the food we eat.

  • Invest in an induction burner. Now, these amazing devices are completely fire safe. On the other hand, Fire Safety doesn’t know that. So I keep it under my bed.
  • Get a rice cooker. I grew up eating rice, so a meal without rice is like a sandwich without bread, and rice cookers have steamer inserts that you can use to steam vegetables while the rice is cooking. One pot cooking indeed! You can use a rice cooker instead of a microwave, which I don’t even have/bother with.
  • Convert your desk and bookshelves into a pantry. This requires a little planning, but an extra bookshelf can be used for things like vinegar, chili paste, and oil, while you can fill your drawers with spices, miscellaneous dried ingredients, plates, and utensils.
  • Become a vegetable hoarder. I don’t eat much meat anyway, but I can’t cook it in my room for obvious reasons. On the other hand, buying lots of groceries when you’re on a meal plan gets expensive. Behold: yet another opportunity to break the rules! With a salad bar filled with things like raw broccoli and cubed tofu, it’s a cook’s paradise. Because you don’t have to do annoying things like parboil and chop, there is absolutely no excuse not to carry around a Tupperware so you can make stir-fry later. Just don’t get caught: on one occasion when I wasn’t subtle enough, some manager chastised me, “this isn’t a grocery store!” (It isn’t? I thought.)
  • When prepared ingredients aren’t an option, the dining hall has whole vegetables on display. Yes, I sometimes take them. Yes, maybe I’m not supposed to—but why on earth is there an entire rack of raw onions next to the bagels?
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to be a little crazy. Don’t have a sieve? A (clean) mesh laundry bag works just as well. Don’t have any Thai spices for curry? Turns out that sage and cloves in coconut milk make a savory dish taste almost like gingerbread.
  • When you’re ready, have a dinner party. Sure, you might be eating off plastic plates and sitting on the floor, but is good company really about tablecloths and cutlery? No, it’s not. And when you can still make dishes like Moroccan tagine with dried apricots and Chai-spiced vanilla pudding, who is going to complain?

So that’s my bit on cooking in college. When I finally went home for winter break, I cooked a million things that would be impossible to make on an induction burner (hummus, whole wheat pita, grilled mackerel, etc.). And while I’d like to say it was 100% bliss — and, in many respects, it was — I did miss the challenge of cranking out great food in my room.

It’s good to be back.

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Lida Wu is a freshman at Wesleyan, and blogs at the fabulously entertaining www.octopusgourmet.com.

(Editor’s note: guest posts are always welcome — send your breakaway-related ideas to Eric)

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Entertaining, Breakaway Style (Guest Post)

Id like to propose the notion of breakaway entertaining.

Yes, really.

I’ve endured plenty of entertaining disasters to gird the foundation for this idea. For instance, a dinner party 10 years ago, where just maybe I was being a little too solicitous.

“You know what you can get me?” said a glaring Dutch dinner guest. “A drink… for you. Seriously.”

Then there was a tree-trimming party where I got the bright idea to use holiday cookie-cutters to make individual raviolis. But with 30 people coming, I really ought to have started the pasta dough sooner than an hour before the party began. Not a fun way to cook or socialize – and more breakdown than breakaway entertaining.

On too many occasions, I’ve labored to turn out the perfectly executed meal – flavors, ingredients, temperature, colors, contrasts, wine pairings, and always with a sinking feeling that it fell short. Once while stressing over a menu, a trusted friend and fearless cook turned to me and said, “It has to taste really bad before people won’t eat it.”

In that statement, an anvil got lifted off my chest, and I found some freedom to relax. I also regained a little perspective over why I’d even bothered to have a dinner party in the first place. (Thank you, Bruce Rosenbaum.)

For me, breakaway entertaining isn’t about settling for less or resolving myself to mediocrity. Rather, entertaining in breakaway style is an invitation to let go of perfection or oppressive ideals sooner in the process as a way to enjoy my guests and the sociability of the moment.

Isn’t this the real reason we invite people into our homes and cook for them?

Cooking shows and magazines are filled with pointers for how to make entertaining less stressful. But breakaway entertaining isn’t about 30-minute tricks and shortcuts. Here’s how I picture it:

• Do as much in advance as possible. Not just prep—everything cooked, baked, reduced, and grilled before guests arrive. Few dishes need to be served piping hot; meat, fish, vegetables, and pasta still taste and look appetizing at room temperature.

• Don’t overload the menu. A one-dish entrée like a casserole or stew, coupled with a hearty green salad and a nice wine works wonders. A simple dessert. And you’re done.

• Ask for help. Maybe that means asking one or two people to come an hour early to help plate the food, make a last-minute grocery run, or just fluff the table. Or maybe it means when guests ask if they can bring something, you say yes and assign them a dish.

• Remember your priorities. Your guest list is more important than your grocery list. Don’t make what’s on the table more important than who’s around it.

Entertaining can and should be about the food, but not to the exclusion of the joy, lightness, and authentic pleasure to be found in one another’s company. Great food lives in the moment. And so does the chance to connect with and enjoy that same moment with friends and family. The flavors or textures of a great dish can never be recalled as clearly as who laughed the hardest 20 years later. By then, everyone’s forgotten that amazing sauce, or that average soufflé.

Since the era of entertaining with servants is long past, let’s officially abandon these impossible ideals about the perfect meal — or how it all is supposed to look. Simple and flavorful is an easy recipe to entertain with, and much more likely to create the desired result: Mutual delight.

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Terry Sweeney may be the only writer and editor in Los Angeles with absolutely no affiliation to the entertainment industry. Technology and the Internet pay his bills, but cooking, farmers’ markets, and eating out are what feed his soul. He can be reached at [email protected].

Photo by Ken Surabian.

(Editor’s note: guest posts are always welcome — send your breakaway-related ideas to Eric)

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Guest Post: Healthy Persimmon Crêpes

I’m very happy to present the first guest post, from the talented photographer, blogger, and nutritionist Emiko Taki, while I tend to the fulltime job of feeding and caring for Delia and Daphne. I’m delighted that Emiko is part of this community. You can see some of  work at her blog,  KitchenEm.

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persimmons emiko

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By Emiko Taki

This is very similar to the Persimmons Grand Marnier in The Breakaway Cook, but was made rather spontaneously. Recently, I was working on a recipe involving lots of egg whites/meringue, and hated to waste all the egg yolks that were piling up in my poor neglected rice bowl.

So I decided to make some crêpes. But I didn’t want them to be another anonymous number on a crêpes shop menu.

One recipe I consulted called for a quarter-cup of melted butter — a half stick.  Now,  I do realize that butter is often essential for many, many desserts, but do I really need, or want, that much butter in my crêpes? I decided to replace the butter with some 1% milk, and added some cardamom and cinnamon to spice up the batter. (The nutritionist in me can’t help but say: people often mistake the percentage on the milk carton for the amount of fat, but it’s actually fat percent measured in weight. So, whole milk is about 50% fat and 2% milk is about 33% fat.)

The crêpes looked and tasted pretty good, much better than I expected. But then what? Do I dress them up by adding a blob of whipped cream and smearing on some chocolate fudge? That would totally defeat the purpose of making it low fat. I looked around the kitchen and found a few persimmons that I got from my colleague, still not quite so Persimmon-orange, and not ready to be eaten fresh just yet. Fantastic! I sliced it thinly, simmered in a little water, and  finished with a little bit of sugar and bourbon. That’s when I thought of Eric’s book and there it was! Okay, my version is cheap – not quite the Grand Marnier, but it tasted great. I’m not too fond of overly syrupy, sugary desserts, yet the crêpes & persimmons just by themselves were a bit too dry; I added a tablespoon of Greek yogurt, which rounded it out perfectly.

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persimmon crepe emiko

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