Food and friends

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By John Gray

September is here which means there’s a hint of chill in the air and desire to bring some warmth to the kitchen. The best way to do that is by opening your favorite ten dollar bottle of wine and turning on the stove.

What? Are you telling me you can’t cook? Baloney. No I’m not saying you should eat baloney; I’m saying anyone can cook if they try. My mom used to say, “If you can read you can cook.” The part she left out was the word “well.” Cooking well is usually reserved to those who enjoy standing over a stove employing that whole “practice makes perfect” thing.

I am by no means a great chef but I’ve learned some tricks along the way to make it appear so. If you have no clue what you’re doing in the kitchen, I recommend your first stop be at the McCormick sauce and spice rack in the supermarket. McCormick has taken four years of cooking school, added a smidge of magic and placed them in tiny packages.

Take the “creamy garlic Alfredo” sauce mix for one example. You heat up some milk and butter in a pan, stir in the mix and then pour it over your favorite pasta. Add a little broccoli you heated up in the microwave, roasted red peppers they sell in the jar and some of those already cooked chicken strips you normally toss on salad, mix together and I promise it will taste as good as anything you’ve ever ordered in a fancy restaurant.

That’s just one example, the McCormick rack has 30 others just as easy and just as good. Want another trick that will blow your mind and taste buds? Buy a nice steak, a bottle of ranch salad dressing and a plastic zip-lock bag. A day before you plan to barbecue, put the steak in the bag, dump in the dressing, seal it and shake. Once the steak is covered in sticky white dressing and looks thoroughly disgusting, place it in the fridge for the night. The next day toss it on the grill and the dressing will burn off, leaving a tender, tasty piece of meat behind. You’ll be amazed how good it tastes or that this stupid trick worked so well.

Now even though I’ve demonstrated how easy cooking a good meal can be, some of you may still be thinking, “But John I just hate the kitchen and would rather order take-out.” Fair enough, but don’t you want to have friends over to your house or apartment; like ever? The answer to that comes in three little words—wine, cheese, bread.

If you watch people when they are out to eat, what is it that they really dive into? First, they order a big glass of red wine, then jump across the table to get their hands on the fresh crusty bread the waiter just delivered and if there is cheese on the table, forget about it. You can give your guest ample supplies of all three at your next party and they’ll be happy. Think I’m exaggerating? Ask people why they like Olive Garden. No one mentions the entrees. To a person, they all talk about the big bowl of salad and the bread sticks. In fact, most people eat so much of those two that they end up taking half their entree home in a doggie bag.

Which reminds me of my last trick I wanted to share with you. The next time you have guests coming for dinner, stop in the aisle that sells muffin mix. Grab the blueberry mix that comes with a can of real blueberries. Buy two of them. When you make them at home later, add the second can of blueberries to the first batch so you have twice as many as required in each muffin. Bake them, place two muffins in a pretty bag and attach the name of the guest to each one. Later after you’ve thrown this wonderful party and been the perfect host, as you walk the guests out, have the muffins waiting by the door in a basket. It is your parting gift and the next morning as they sip coffee and talk about how much fun they had at your place, they’ll heat up the muffins and you’ll be a culinary god.

  Oh and if you don’t like muffins, this trick works just as well with cookies or candy or any other treat you send your guests out the door with. I prefer giving them something they can have for breakfast the next day but put your own spin on it.

You know summer is great but as we approach the fall this is really the time of year people love—breaking out the sweaters, raking up the leaves and inviting friends and family over to share good cheer. With the daily dose of heartache we see on the news lately, we all need the love of good company. Feed them well, hug them tight and by all means raise a glass for me.

John Gray is weekly columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at johngray@fox23news.com.

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