These days, it's increasingly common to eat meals without any real interaction with another person. Sure, maybe someone takes your order - maybe even brings food to you - but, outside of that minimal contact, you can dine solo in a restaurant or takeout place, book in hand; lug the grub with you to eat in front of the television; chow down while walking from one place to another; even eat in your car. Meals have turned into just another necessary part of getting to where you are going.
But while convenience and easy access are necessary evils, they wind up taking away pleasure, meaning and proper nourishment on a daily basis. You can feed your stomach, but what about your mind? What about socializing? What about actually tasting your food?
We all squeeze time out for meals at special occasions or holidays, and usually leave feeling connected (if not always relaxed or nutritionally satisfied). Eating should not just be about process; it should be a regular social event, a celebration of the ordinary.
One of the best ways to turn just another meal into something a bit more special is to first add presentation. Try placemats, cloth napkins, some candles or a vase with flowers - fresh or fake. Put on some quiet music (studies have shown that diners relish their food more and eat less while listening to soulful tunes).
Begin with an appetizer or aperitif. Take a half-hour for a cocktail, some healthy finger foods, a soup or salad, a piece of fresh fruit or whole-grain bread dipped in flavored olive oil. It's a great way to get conversation started with company, or when dining alone, to slow down time and body, and just relax.
Even a simple meal becomes more elegant when you take a little time to focus on it. As summer approaches and eating gets simpler, throw a tablecloth over the outdoor bistro set, grab a glass of iced tea, and nibble on these easy starters while you wind down from the day.
Mini Potato Fritatas
1 large Idaho potato, baked, cooled and diced
1/2 white onion, sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
6 extra-large eggs
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated cheddar, Gruyère or another cheese of your choosing
1/4 cup whole milk, cream, half-and-half or skim milk
salt and pepper
1 Tbsp. sliced chives
1 Tbsp. sliced parsley
canola oil for sautéing
olive oil to taste
Serve with: potato chips, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, bagel chips or crackers
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Heat a 10-inch nonstick pan over medium heat and then add about 1-inch of canola oil. Carefully, add the diced, cooked potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, and sauté until potatoes turn a golden-brown.
Remove potatoes with a slotted spoon; drain on paper towels. Add onion to the pan; season and sauté over medium heat.
While onion is cooking, crack the eggs in a bowl, and season with salt and pepper. (It is very important to season everything well, as you will be serving this at room temperature, and cold dishes need a bit more seasoning than hot dishes.) Add the milk and cheeses; whisk well.
When the onions are soft, add the garlic and increase the heat to medium-high again. Add the potatoes to the pan and mix everything well.
When the pan is hot, add the eggs and stir with a rubber spatula to incorporate everything. Add olive oil and herbs.
When eggs start to hold but are still soft, put the pan in the oven for 6 to 8 minutes, until the fritata is just cooked through.
Remove the pan from the oven, and run the rubber spatula underneath the fritata to ensure it's not stuck to the pan. Let cool in pan about 10 minutes.
Invert a plate over the pan and flip the fritata out. Let cool completely.
When the fritata is cool, cut it into triangles with a knife or into other shapes with small cookie-cutters. They can be served with potato chips or mushroom caps, crackers, etc., or just on toothpicks.
If you want to serve this with a meat-based meal, omit the cheeses and milk, and add more vegetables (mushrooms, asparagus, etc.) when sautéing the onions.
The fritata can be made a day ahead or immediately before serving.
Makes 4 to 6 servings as a starter.
This recipe is best prepared within an hour of serving. It can be made for as many or as few as desired.
snack-size pretzel sticks or twists (better on the thicker side), 2 per person
sliced, smoked salmon, roughly 1/2 slice per stick
For Dairy Recipe:
cream cheese as needed, seasoned with sliced chives, sliced dill, sliced parsley, lemon zest, and salt and pepper
For Meat Recipe:
thinly sliced red onion
olive oil or mayonnaise, as desired
seasoned with sliced chives, dill, parsley and pepper to taste
garnish with sprigs of dill or parsley or chive sticks.
To Assemble the Smoked-Salmon Sticks: Lay out smoked-salmon slices. If they are very large, slice them lengthwise so they are long enough to wrap around the pretzel sticks once or twice.
If Using Cream Cheese: In a mixing bowl, add the softened cream cheese and season to taste with salt, pepper, herbs and lemon zest. Chill the cheese in the refrigerator for 15 minutes or so.
Lay out a couple of salmon slices, place a small spoon of cream cheese on one end of each slice, and then press a pretzel twist into the cream cheese. Roll the pretzel in the salmon.
If Not Using the Cheese: Lay out the salmon slices, season with a bit of onion, pepper, capers, herbs and egg, place the pretzel at one end and roll.
These can be served with either the olive oil, mayonnaise or both, seasoned, again, with the capers, egg, onion and herbs.
Daniel Stern, former executive chef of Le Bec-Fin is now a personal chef based in Philadelphia. He can be contacted at: www.diningdifferent.com .