On the side: Caesar Salad
Why it works: This comfort food staple can easily be elevated to another level by replacing the pre-packaged noodles with fresh pasta (bought from the prepared foods section of a reputable market!). The homemade lasagna noodles aren’t gummy and don’t split apart like their mass-produced counterparts. Plus, they add a layer of understated elegance to the dish. Use “rustic” to describe the dish and that will get her thinking about vineyards and villas in the Italian countryside. A stunning and authentic flavor combination is mushrooms and artichoke hearts in a creamy béchamel.
Takeaway tip: Since you’re building a stack of lasagna sheets, tread lightly with the sauce and don’t drown each layer in the filling.
(In lieu of chocolate chips in this recipe, sprinkle a handful of Cheddar cheese on each cake while cooking. Then top with maple butter.)
On the side: This dish doesn’t really need any additions, but you could always add more bacon for kicks.
Why it works: The whimsical, sweet, and salty take on breakfast-for-dinner is a great conversation piece and shows that even though you’re serious about food, you don’t take yourself too seriously. The pancake batter can be mixed ahead of time, and you’ll just sprinkle the crispy bacon and sharp Cheddar cheese on the cooking cakes just like you would do if you were making chocolate chip pancakes. It’s also perfect for anyone on a tight budget.
Takeaway tip: A little batter on the griddle goes a long ways. Just a quarter-cup of batter will yield a plate-size pancake.
On the side: A tomato and mozzarella salad drizzled with balsamic vinegar (and some corn, if in season).
Why it works: The fresh and clean ingredients are relatively low in calories, but they don’t scrimp on the flavor — because you’re cooking a whole bone-in chicken, it will be juicy, the corn will be naturally sweet, and the mozzarella will add the right balance of richness to the tomatoes. She can fill her plate with two-thirds vegetables, so she’ll feel like she’s eating a salad, but, if you’re not calorie-conscious, you can pile yours with the desirable parts of the chicken she’ll avoid: skin-on legs and thighs.
Takeaway tip: Multitask. Whether you’re cooking the chicken in the oven or on the grill, you can put the shucked corn cobs in with the bird in the last seven to 10 minutes of cooking. Then you can retrieve both at the same time. While the chicken is resting, cut the corn kernels off the cob and then sprinkle on top of the room-temperature tomato and cheese salad.
On the side: Mashed Potatoes
Why it works: Because cooking a bone-in pork shoulder or butt is practically foolproof. A hulking slab of meat, slowly roasted all afternoon on low heat, will fill your abode with a barbeque aroma that will hit her the minute she walks in. It only gets better when you pull the pork from the oven. It’s caramelized and crunchy on the outside, yet remains tender on the inside. If she’s a good sport, enlist her help to pull the pork and then serve over a bed of mashed potatoes. You’ll have pounds of pork leftover, so she can go back for seconds if it’s that good.
Takeaway tip: Given its size, you’ll be able to dine on this wallet-friendly meat for the next week. Try it in pork tacos, on a biscuit with fried eggs, or in a hash.
On the side: Roasted asparagus
Why it works: Well, let’s run through the ingredients: noodles, bacon, eggs, Parmesan, and cracked pepper… What’s not to love? Even the most selective eaters find this dish hard to resist. If this doesn’t appeal to her, then it might be time to start evaluating how much you like her.
Takeaway tip: This main course comes together very fast when it’s time to add the raw egg slurry. Make sure you have the crisped bacon bits and grated Parmesan at the ready, so you can add them all to the pasta at the same time.
On the side: Saratoga chips (other good-quality chips can easily be purchased at a grocery or gourmet store).
Why it works: The sandwich is relatively easy to assemble, but by replacing the red tomatoes with the fried green variety, you’ll take her right back to those warm, rosy days of childhood. Because there is very little cooking involved besides pan-frying the tomatoes and, ultimately, the sandwich, the key is that the ingredients must be top notch — fresh bread, butter lettuce, and applewood-smoked bacon. You’ll also score points with her mom, who will undoubtedly hear all about the epic sandwich in a phone call from her daughter the next day.
Takeaway tip: This sandwich revolves around the crunchy, fried green tomatoes. When you’re dipping them in the buttermilk/breadcrumbs batter, make sure to use fine ground breadcrumbs because they stick to the fruit’s flesh better than larger crumbs like Panko.
On the side: Caramelized Apple Compote
Why it works: If you want to flex your culinary chops, this is a memorable meal because, let’s be honest, no one has probably ever cooked foie gras for her before. Specialty foods shops can provide you with a cleaned, deveined slab, so all you have to do is make sure to not to overcook it. (In a hot pan, foie gras can go from perfectly cooked [at 90 seconds per side] to liquefied in no time.) Think of it as the best open-faced sandwich — toasted brioche, a thin layer of apples, the rich square of foie gras — she will ever eat.
Takeaway tip: Brioche is the best bread choice. It’s buttery, eggy texture stands up well to the foie gras’s intensity. Toast it to add a crunchy balance to the foie gras’s smoothness.