Sure, you can follow a recipe and whip up something elaborate when you want to show off. But you don’t do that every day. We don't do that every day. Nobody does that every day.
We all look at what in the stores on the way home, or check out the sagging vegetables in the crisper and improvise. That's what professional chefs do, too – when they don't order take-out. But professional chefs and other food-obsessed folk have some stuff in their pantries that you might not.
Here are 10 things that you can keep around the house to make those dinners you whip up on the fly seem more like restaurant dishes.
Sometimes you find things on the Internet; other times, things find you.
Poking around online last night, I wasn't even thinking about food – which, granted, is fairly unusual for me. Somehow, I managed to surf my way over a list of products still made in the USA, mostly clothes and accessories.
I was vaguely hoping to find myself a new duffel bag, something old-school and sturdy. But there, at the bottom of the page – below Johnson Woolen Mills of Johnson, Vermont, and Utility Canvas of Gardiner, New York – was, remarkably, a listing for a "Steam Cheese Burger Chest – Meriden, Connecticut."
1. Xanthan gum
Sure the word "xanthan" sounds a little ominous, and yes, the stuff is made from the bacteria that cause black rot on broccoli plants. But xanthan gum is a pretty benign substance. When the bacteria (called Xanthomonas campestris, if you're a scientist) is mixed with corn sugar, it produces a tasteless, colorless goop that can be used as a thickener. It keeps ice cream from crystallizing and is what gives gluten-free bread its spongy texture. Some people may be allergic to it, but it's pretty much as harmless as you can get.
Steven Stern, a former fact checker and a full time food fiend, is here to complicate things help.
Q: What's up with that green plastic leaf thing that comes with my sushi? Am I supposed to do something with it?
A: You mean you don't eat yours?
Just kidding. Those leaves are definitely not edible. They're called baran (sometimes spelled haran), and they're mostly used for decoration. Presentation is really important in Japanese food, even when you're dealing with cheap supermarket sushi. The plastic leaves also serve as dividers in a bento box (a single-portion lunch combo container), keeping your eel nigiri away from your tuna rolls.
Celebrating America's regional sandwiches, one bite at a time.
Hometown: Buffalo, New York, and surrounding area
Specs: Freshly sliced roast beef on salt and caraway-covered roll. The top of the roll is dipped in the beef jus, and a pot of strong horseradish is served alongside.
Backstory: The soul of Buffalo's favorite sandwich is the bread: a round Kaiser-style roll with caraway seeds and coarse pretzel salt baked onto the top. The roll, called a kümmelweck, is the source of the sandwich's name, was brought to western New York state by German immigrants, probably at the beginning of the 20th century. The origin story gets a little murky after that, but the most accepted version is that a bar owner was hoping to sell more beer and added the salty, thirst-inducing sandwich to his lunchtime buffet table.
Previously: Steven Stern's ode to eating alone at the bar
Tips for best bar eating
Find a good spot
If you're next to the place where the waitstaff picks up drinks, they're going to be squeezing by you all night. If you're all the way at the end of the bar, the barkeep is going to have to do a lot of walking back and forth to take care of you. Choose somewhere central, and settle in.
Start with a drink
Sure, you can ask for the wine or cocktail list, but if you sit down and immediately order something – a beer, a Campari and soda, a club soda if you don't do alcohol – the bartender knows they're dealing with someone decisive.
Sometimes my friends are a little shocked, a little concerned maybe, when they find out how much time I spends sitting at bars by myself. Perhaps they imagine I'm just tossing back whiskey, crying into my drink, singing along to the jukebox. Well, sometimes, yes, I am doing precisely that. Most of the time, though, I am eating. I love eating alone at bars.
I eat at bars that serve food and restaurants that have bars. I eat shepherd's pie in Irish pubs and beef cheek ravioli in fancy Italian joints. I seek out odd little local spots in cities I'm visiting, looking for the perfect cup of gumbo, some regional burger variation I've never encountered before. I stroll into high-end restaurants that are booked up for the months and get wonderful meals without waiting.
The last few centuries of kitchen innovation have given us indoor plumbing, refrigeration, microwave ovens and the Slap Chop. But one piece of kitchen equipment hasn't changed much: the cookbook.
In terms of format, the earliest known cookbook - De Re Coquinaria, written in 4th century Rome – isn't all that different from Rachael Ray's latest collection.
But now, everyone seems to be saying print is going the way of the Roman Empire. Compared to the rest of the publishing industry, the cookbook market is holding up relatively well, but the iPhone era may finally bring some innovation into a very old genre. Digital devices are entering the kitchen, and they're changing the idea of what a cookbook can do.
"Carrying bottled water is on its way to being as cool as smoking while pregnant," claims the video "The Story of Bottled Water," which debuted on YouTube last month and garnered more than 450,000 views.
Is it true? Are liters of Evian now beyond the pale? Is Dasani déclassé? Has bottled water become the new eco-no-no?
Not quite yet. Though water sales have seen a recent downturn, plenty of folks are still paying for their daily hydration.
Times are tough, which is why most Americans are taking their coffee with two tablespoons of cheap. Inexpensive coffee is being poured by the bucketload at fast food restaurants like McDonalds, with its successful McCafe line, and Burger King, which is planning a nationwide Seattle's Best roll-out this summer.
Even slightly swankier Starbucks is offering totally credible coffee that's no more than a buck and change. So what could possibly make a cup of joe worth $13?
According to Jay Caragay, speaking to The Baltimore Sun, it's "very fruity, juicy, good mouth feel, [and] full bodied." And Caragay should know, because it's his Baltimore coffee ship Spro that's selling a 12-ounce cup for $13. Apparently, even during lean times there are fat cats prowling for novel luxuries.
For that much money, one might expect the coffee to be served in a Swarovski crystal goblet, or brewed in an expensive brass machine with dozens of tubes and loud, steam-spewing valves.