I have this knack for putting together a meal on the fly. It’s not gourmet, nor is it ever really that amazing, either. But I am able to put together something to share with those who arrive to my house hungry. It’s not a magic trick, either. To me, it seems like the most primary thing to be able to do, but some people I’ve met just can’t seem to wrap their head around it.
[Tip One: keep an emergency lasagna (or other alternate casserole-type dish) in your freezer at all times. Pick them up when they are on sale and guess what? You’re prepared now. Note: Foods that are kept frozen at 0 degrees will keep indefinitely, but won’t retain quality.]
I think my most impressive feat of feasts was when I came home from my grandfather’s funeral, a couple years ago. My now-husband, B, had just picked me up from the airport, and told me in the car on the way back to our house that it was CB’s birthday, and he and several of his friends were at our house. Our house that was 568 sq ft. Our house with a hallway as a living room, and a bedroom not big enough to contain both our bed and dressers. Our house now had five strangers in it who were getting day-drunk.
Needless to say, I was a tad perturbed. I wanted to unpack my bag. Maybe be sad a little more. I don’t know, maybe not wiggle into my cramped house with six other people in it? After just getting back from my grandfather’s funeral?? But there are only so many battles worth engaging in while in a relationship and I had decided to sheath my fury-sword, and just BUCK UP AND DEAL WITH IT this time. We arrive at the house. I make the rounds of “how do you do’s” and “nice to meet you’s.” I go into the kitchen.
What do I have? What can I offer these people? You can serve crackers and mustard, right?
Mind you, I had just been out of town for the past three days. I had literally just returned home. B hadn’t been to the store, and the provisions were sparse. I took an inventory:
- 6 slices bread
- 2 boxes Hamburger Helper (but NO ground beef)
- half-empty tray of Oreos
- A half eaten bag of potato chips
- 1 box frozen potato pancakes
- 8 slices salami
- Every condiment known to man
- An impressively unopened economy-size jar of pickles
- and a half-block of cheese
[Tip Two: keep an emergency soup “dry kit” in your pantry. These will have all the seasonings, beans, etc. and you just boil with 6-8 cups water. Try to avoid the “flavors” that call for meat, i.e. chicken noodle, and stick to things like split pea, or vegetable barley. Also, these prepackaged soup mixes typically have a long shelf life.]
I did not want to actually “cook” anything. I wanted to get something set out so then I could leave and unpack my suitcase in peace. I got very lucky by having at least a few slices of bread, yet I didn’t have enough bread to make everyone their own sandwich. Instead, I made the three sandwiches I could, and then cut them into triangles and stacked them into a tower of bite-size sammies. I poured the chips into a small bowl and set it out, and then arranged what was left of my Oreos onto a plate. It looked planned, but it wasn’t.
I quickly (and successfully) was able to feed these strangers. Each one grabbed a triangle, fistful of potato chips, and ate. I counted down the minutes until they all left to go to the bars to celebrate CB’s birthday and I could be alone. My eyes glazed over in relief, and I could barely make out the shape of B coming towards me, and standing next to him, a smudgy-faced guy with glasses.
“K, do we have any milk?”
After literally serving up the last pieces of food in my house, this bizarre dude asks for a glass of milk. B and I just stared at each other for a long moment, bewildered. This is a total stranger, in someone’s house who he doesn’t know, and he’s asking for a glass of milk to accompany his Oreos. Who the hell does that? Would you do that?
“No, we don’t have any milk. But we might have some soymilk…” He nodded and said that, yes, he would accept a glass of of soymilk since we did not have any regular milk. And so I gave him a glass of soymilk. He thanked me, sat down, and finished off the stack of Oreos he had put together for himself. My husband and I laugh about that moment, looking back at this total stranger asking me for milk. It was the weirdest. However, after it was all said and done, I was able to feed everyone by just using what I had on hand.
[Tip Three: the next time you purchase celery and carrots for a soup or stew recipe, you’ll likely not use the entire bunch. However, go ahead and prep all veggies. Take what you didn’t use and wrap in foil, then place in freezer-safe bag, and label. Now you’re ready for round two of soup/stew night with already washed veggies.]
Again, seems like a no-brainer, right? Obviously you can’t serve something you don’t have. But what if you did prepare, and planned a meal, but all your preparation and cooking goes to hell, and you’re left with no “extra” ingredients, and a ruined dinner?
This past Christmas, my husband and I (and our dog) joined his parents and went to visit my mother-in-laws parents in Kansas. It was a quick weekend trip, to spend time with them before being caught up in our own Christmas festivities. They have a beautiful home (although they keep the thermostat set at 105 degrees YEAR ROUND), and it had been a little over a year since B and I had been to see them. We were glad to go, and enjoyed getting the grand tour of updates around town.
During our visit, my mother-in-law, M, wanted to cook dinner at home and invited her cousin and her husband over. A simple salad, and potato soup affair. She had thoughtfully packed up all the ingredients, and even cooked the potatoes the night before, in an effort to minimize hands-on time. It was meticulously thought out.
[Tip Four: you’ve probably heard this before, but it’s no less true: have a prep day. For me, this is the day we go to the grocery store. I put everything away, jot down what day of the week I will make X dinner I’ve planned, and wash/chop/mince all appropriate ingredients. I am CRAZY about washi tape, and use it to label EVERYTHING I prep. It’s the bees-knees.]
At about 4 in the afternoon, M got up to start the potato soup. The recipe she was using called for milk as the base, and so she set a pot of milk on the stove to bring to a simmer. Then she walked away to set the table, which she charmingly covered in family quilts and set out her Christmas china she had carefully packed from home. It was spectacular.
I leave to take the dog out for a walk. Upon my return, I can immediately smell the funk.
“M has scorched the soup,” my father-in-law gleefully teases.
There is some deliberation on just how scorched the soup is, and if it is salvageable. I taste it, smacking my lips in thought.
“Can it be saved?” M asks desperately, as B and my father-in-law continue to giggle over this misfortune of stinky hot milk juice. I turn to her, and look at the pot again, and then sniff the spoon. Shaking my head slowly, as if sharing the unfortunate news of a death in the family, I tell her it can’t be salvaged.
The pot is whisked out to the garage, to “de-stink.” M shares her disappointment, and a discussion begins on what to serve for dinner. We have under an hour before the cousin and her husband arrive, and that’s barely enough time to try and air-out the dining room. What do we do? How do you rescue something that seemed so planned and fool-proof?
[Tip Five: Impromptu gathering to watch the sports game? Popcorn is a perfectly acceptable thing to offer your guests. I think that it’s often overlooked, but it’s a great salty snack for movies and late night poker games. Do you have a little Parmesan cheese leftover from spaghetti night? Sprinkle on top. Or, for a sweeter concoction, melt butter, brown sugar and honey together and pour over popcorn.]
You get in the car with your father-in-law, drive as quickly as you can to the Dillon’s down the street and buy three giant deli tubs of Baked Potato Soup and share a good laugh in the car on the way home.
Listen, sometimes you have to put out plain salami and cheese sandwiches and other times you have to thrown in the towel, and go buy deli soup. It’s a gamble every time you cook, and sometimes you’re going to lose. But in the grand scheme of things, no one will remember, right? (Except you; you’ll always remember…) So, get prepared, and the next time you come home from a funeral, you’ll be ready to feed whoever shows up.