As much as I would like to cut to the chase and reveal the eternal interplay between good food and spiritual growth, there is an unavoidable question I need to ponder: Do bad food and negative attitudes toward eating cause us physical as well as spiritual harm? My reply to this question—one especially worth considering with Thanksgiving right around the corner—is an unequivocal yes and here is why.
“The thought of cooking an egg terrifies me.” “The moment I enter the kitchen I feel paralyzed.” “I’ve tried to cook, but nothing tastes the way it should.”
Food fears are familiar to many people eating day after day in restaurants and keeping their refrigerators stocked with bottled water and packaged goods ready to be consumed as soon as the lid is off or the microwave is on. Paradoxically, the more cookbooks one reads or the more food shows one watches on television, the more afraid of preparing a meal from scratch one may become.
Perhaps the best way to grow beyond these always-unfounded fears is to put a stop to projections of failure and let the food, so to speak, prepare itself through you instead of being prepared by you. Too much control tends to mar the simplicity that marks a good meal. Food fears escalate with complexity. The goal is not to become a French chef but to provide simple, solid fare for oneself, one’s family, and one’s guests.
Imagine first who will be eating with you, and set the table accordingly. Before going to work, set out the placemats, dinner dishes, silverware, napkins, and, if appropriate, wine and water glasses. Add a seasonal touch such as decorative candles. After work, go to the supermarket with three sure-to-please courses in mind. Start with a fresh garden salad made up of ready-to-serve romaine lettuce and baby spinach.
Purchase a box of cherry tomatoes, a sweet onion, and a bulb of fresh garlic. Choose for the dressing a ready-made balsamic vinaigrette with extra virgin olive oil. Go to the spice section and get some dried parsley flakes and to the cheese section to purchase a container of shredded Asiago.
Then buy four boneless chicken breasts, two lemons, a box of white sliced mushrooms, and a jar of capers. They should be in the same section where you found the salad dressing. If you don’t have these at home, pick up a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, some white all-purpose flour, salt, black pepper, and butter. Get a box of wild rice with cooking directions on it.
Then go to the frozen bread case and buy six ready-to-heat-and-eat crusty dinner rolls (while I encourage home-baked bread whenever possible, sometimes you need to rely on bread that’s ready to go). Finally, purchase whatever berries are in season, a quart of French vanilla ice cream, and a package of crisp vanilla wafers. If you wish, buy a bottle of white wine like Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay and perhaps a liqueur like limoncella to serve after dessert.
That’s the shopping list. It’s easy to acquire in about forty minutes with no fear! Remember the food will prepare itself through you and it will be good. Keep it simple. Here’s how:
Empty into your salad bowl the bag of chopped romaine and a handful of the spinach leaves for extra color. Wash the tomatoes and add ten of them, cut in half. Peel the onion and chop half of it into the salad bowl along with two diced garlic cloves. Add some salt and pepper and two tablespoons of the dried parsley flakes you purchased.
Heat the oven to 425° and bake your dinner rolls for ten minutes as you want to serve them with the salad. Don’t forget the butter! Plate the fresh greens and sprinkle them with Asiago cheese. Let your guests add the amount of dressing they like. Serve it on the side—not from the bottle. It looks better that way.
Following the directions on the box, start cooking the wild rice; this will usually take about forty-five minutes to cook. Next unwrap your four chicken breasts and lightly coat them with flour. In a nonstick pan, heat on medium-high a tablespoon each of butter and olive oil. Cook the chicken for about four minutes on each side.
Remove the breasts from the pan, lower the heat, and add to it the juice of one lemon and three teaspoons of capers. Let the mixture come to a slow boil and return the breasts to the pan, turning them a few times until they are juicy. Let them simmer for about ten minutes and top the chicken with a few turns of sea salt and pepper. Then sprinkle the whole delicious mixture with some parsley flakes.
Heat some olive oil and butter in another pan. Add some chopped sweet onion and a garlic clove, and as soon as they start to sizzle add the rest of the spinach to the pan turning it quickly until it reduces itself t a lovely sautéed green (about five minutes, at most) to complement the rice and the chicken. Look at the beautiful dinner plate you’ve created: lemon-caper chicken, wild rice, sautéed spinach—ready to serve as soon as your guests finish their salad.
While they are relaxing over the last bite and perhaps sipping some more chilled white wine, excuse yourself and go to the kitchen (which may become your new favorite room freed of all food fears!) and scoop some ice cream into a dessert dish.
Top it with the fresh berries, and if you’d like, pour over it a spoon of the liqueur you purchased earlier, or which you already have on hand. Serve it with the vanilla wafers to add that extra touch everyone loves. Make coffee if anyone wants a cup. Ask if they need some more water or wine and relish their compliments to the chef.
This blog is an excerpt from Table of Plenty: Good Food for Body and Spirit by Susan Muto.