Friday, July 27, 2012
Kitchen Basics #2 - Being Fancypants
The easiest way to make a meal more special is by changing the environment it's served in. Put down a tablecloth or placemats. If you don't have a tablecloth, as we didn't for a long time, fake it. Lay a square scarf, bandanna, or shawl down as if it were a cloth (or a rectangular scarf as a tablerunner). Clean cotton sheets can work as tablecloths for some tables (we have a round cafe table, so it's more challenging). Unfold a paper napkin completely and place it offset in the center of the table, so that two of the corners are pointing at your plates. If you're the kind of person who has fabric scraps (I'm a quilter and I sew, so I do), dig through and see if there's a fat quarter worth of material that you wouldn't be heartbroken to get grease on. Scrapbooker? Put a square of paper that you don't have plans for in the center of the table, or if you've got two that coordinate, put one under each plate as mats. If you've got a little extra cash, go buy a tablecloth or some mats. If you're crafty, make your own. Quilters and those who sew have a head start here, but all it really takes is straight cutting and sewing a reasonably straight hem. If you can afford it, it can be fun to have a few tablecloths or placemats that are themed for various holidays.
Whether you go the route of tablecloths/placemats or not, there are additional table changes that can make a real difference. Have a small centerpiece on your table from time to time. Fresh flowers are probably the best option, because they'll brighten up that whole section of the house as long as you keep them alive. Most people usually smile when they walk into a room that has flowers in it. If you're allergic or have a black thumb even for purchased daisies, grab some silk flowers at the craft store and stick them in a short vase. Short is the operative word here. You want to brighten up the table, not make it impossible to carry on a conversation because you can't see each other through foliage. If you're not particularly clumsy, a couple candles can also make a nice occasional centerpiece, especially sitting on a small mirror. Have a sense of humor about it. Fancypants does not mean stuffy. Why not make a Lego centerpiece? Or stick a tootsie roll pop bouquet into a favourite mug. The point is to add colour and interest and change to the table in a way that slows things down and makes you smile.
As often as possible, use napkins. I've made cloth napkins that match the decor of our eating nook, but we don't always use them, we sometimes just use paper napkins. The point is to have it there beside the fork, ready to be used. It completes the table setting. Which is another note I think is important. Place the entire table setting. Even if you know that neither of you will be using a spoon, put the spoons in their proper place on the table anyway. Sitting down to a set table with a napkin and beverage is a different experience from being handed a plate with a fork on it. It's not necessary to include salad forks and soup spoons and such, unless you're going all-out and having a Serious FancyPants Dinner with multiple courses. For a regular meal, the standard place setting should be as shown:
More standard ways to make a meal fancypants are by gussying up the actual food presentation. Put colour on the plate. Chicken breast over rice with a cream sauce is just white on white on white. Use tomato couscous sometimes, or spinach pasta. Choose a fresh vegetable or fruit side that's orange or yellow, something contrasting the rest of the meal. If you've got the inclination, grab a couple cheap squeeze bottles (often available, again, at the dollar store) and swirl or dot some sauce on the plate. It'll make you feel like a restaurant chef and whether it comes out well or not it should make you both smile. Use garnishes, there's nothing wrong with them if they're edible. If the budget is tight you can grow a couple small planters in your windowsill (parsley is a good all-purpose garnish for savory and mint for sweet--just don't plant mint directly in the ground unless you know what you're doing, as it has an extensive root system) and snip a couple leaves as needed. Many flowers are fully edible, as long as you know how they were grown (think about pesticides and sprays used for freshness in cut flowers at stores), including pansies and nasturtiums. Grate fresh cheese over the top of dishes at the table; pick up a small pepper grinder and add that last seasoning tableside. If it's something you'd enjoy taking the time with, appetizers or amuse bouches set the tone for a luxurious meal from the start. If you drink alcohol, wine or cocktails can be a nice addition. Serve a plated dessert now and then.
From here we move into the parts of a fancypants meal that are some of the bonus aspects of being a small household. Everything I've written above is easy and relatively cheap regardless of how many people are sitting around the table. But there are some things that are easier and cheaper when there's just the two of you.
Most of us have sets of dishes. Whether we bought them, inherited them, received them as gifts, we mostly eat from dishes that have a cohesive look. But do we have to? Mix up your dishes. You don't have to eat off the same plates every night. Now, I'm a little weird about this, in that I like for all the plates on the table at a time to coordinate. But even with that being the case, the dishes we use on Monday don't have to be the dishes we use on Tuesday. Here's where this is great for two-person households: all you have to buy is two plates and you've got a whole new look to your meal. The dollar store often has dishes in different shapes and colours, so you could either pay $2 to change up one night's table, or conceivably get an entire week's worth of plates for less than $15. If you really feel like splurging, go to an upscale department store with a china department (or go online). Since people often have to purchase replacements for broken or chipped fine china, you can buy just two pieces of many designs, instead of a full set. My grocery store actually sells some dishes, and they have some square bowls that I love, along with those giant leaning spoons that are really appetizer holders. Thrift stores and garage sales are, of course, also options. Only needing to get a couple pieces frees up your options and keeps you from needing a second kitchen for storage.
Having only two people at the table makes it easier to give yourself permission to sometimes try more expensive ingredients in your meals. When you're cooking a specialty luxury dish, you only have to buy enough to serve two. Sushi fans will find it much easier to budget for two servings of otoro tuna than for four or six. Filet Mignon is often sold already portioned for two. Even such things as specialty nuts, olives, or cheeses are much easier to justify when you only have to buy a small amount. As a bonus, when you buy just a very small amount of something expensive, if it turns out that you just don't like it, it's not as big of a deal to leave it unfinished and have a slice of pizza instead. If you're serving 4-6 people, the ingredients for a fancy dish can run you upwards of $50. When you've put that kind of money into dinner, you're likely to feel that you just have to finish it, no matter what. If the ingredients for the same fancy dish cost you half as much, you can more easily allow yourself to consider it an unsuccessful experiment.
Many households have very busy schedules. The more people living in the house, the busier they tend to be. Lots of people have to contend with multiple work schedules, school schedules, after-school extracurriculars, clubs, errands, appointments, and visiting friends. This makes arranging dinner more challenging. When there are two people in the house, managing the time does get simplified quite a bit. It's easier to plan a nice dinner together from time to time, because there are only two schedules that have to be worked around. Only having to take into account the time constraints of two people allows dinner to be a more luxurious experience on occasion.
There are some surprising benefits to taking the time to make a meal a nice occasion, instead of just grabbing some plates and chowing down in front of the tv. You're much more likely to talk to each other if you're sitting at a table, especially if that table has been fully set and even decorated in some manner. Talking, having real conversations, is regularly cited as being important for all types of relationships, be they parent-child, friendships, siblings, but especially intimate partners. Taking the time to sit down to a meal together and talk about your day can have a real lasting effect on the long-term health of your partnership. Also, give some thought to how quickly you eat when you're at a sit-down restaurant versus a casual meal at home. You likely eat much faster at home, rushing through the meal to get the dishes out of the way and get on to the next thing you've got planned for the evening, even if that's just tv time. Slowing down when we eat doesn't just improve our enjoyment of the experience (it tastes better if you let the food touch your tongue, instead of just inhaling it!), but it's good for our physical health. People who eat slowly and fully chew their food have fewer digestive problems such as gas, reflux, constipation, etc. It can also be a part of a weight-loss plan, in that you're more likely to eat only as much as you need and stop when you're full if you eat slowly. The faster you eat, the more likely you are to eat until there's no food left. Personally, I think life is less stressful overall if you take time as often as possible to just take a break from everything else and sit down and eat a meal with no hurry and no interruptions. Let the phone ring if someone calls. Put your napkins in your laps. Tell a story and laugh at your eating companion's stories. Do it on a regular basis and it becomes something to look forward to, a moment of calm no matter how hectic things otherwise get.
One important note about being a little bit fancypants. If one person is in charge of the meals they either need to tell the other person that they're planning something special for dinner, or they need to do it only to make themselves happy. One should never spend money and time on elevating a meal experience solely for the praise or appreciation of someone else. Many of the things I've mentioned are small changes that, taken alone, will make a meal a little bit more fun or a little bit fancier. They may not be consciously noticed by the person who didn't put the time into them, and that's ok. On the other side, if many of these things are combined, it could make for a very fancy meal, which might be uncomfortable for an unwarned person who's used to very casual eating. Be fancypants to the level that is fun for you, and do it because it is fun. Tell your dining companion that you thought you'd "do things up special tonight". They may decide to make it even more special and contribute an idea of their own, or they may just grin and go along with it. Regardless, the point is to have a nice meal together.
The photo at the top of this entry is an example of a very simple fancypants side dish. I made Parmesan couscous and spooned it into an old heart-shaped mold (which I think was originally for jello), pressing it into all crevices. Then I turned it out onto the plate and lay a few celery leaves alongside (because I had celery in the fridge. If I'd had an herb within reach that related to the dish, I'd have used that so the garnish could be eaten), topping the heart with a small amount of grated Parmesan cheese. The white beneath the blue plate is an old Corningware plate turned facedown. The whole look took about a minute and a half to achieve, but made my sweetheart smile when he sat down.