It's A Guy Thing
Cooking Will Get You Dates. Take It From These Two.
By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2004; Page F01
MEMO TO GUYS: Any poor schlub can take a woman to a swanky restaurant and slap down his credit card. If you really want to impress a woman, you should cook for her.
Hey, don't scoff. It works, says Doug Veith, co-author of a new guy-friendly cookbook called "Win Her With Dinner." He cooked for a woman. Burned some stuff, even messed up boiling pasta once. And she still married him.
Veith's buddy and co-author Tom Greenwood says a friend of his decided to cook for a woman on their first date. He made a pot of rice, dumped a can of tuna on top and served it with soy sauce.
Yes, it resembled cat food, but that's not the point. Women love that you tried, insists Greenwood. That first date turned into a long relationship for his friend.
As the two New Yorkers write in the introduction to their hilarious and helpful new cookbook, "We recognize that most guys don't cook. It's not that they can't, they just don't. Could it be that guys think of the kitchen only as the place where the beer and the condiments are kept? Could it be that guys are content to eat just about anything this side of crayons?"
What they need, says Veith in an interview, is "someone to take them by the hand and walk them through the process."
Their cookbook, which they wrote with the help of Alex Hilebronner -- a woman and, more importantly, a personal chef to such famous guys as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Billy Bob Thornton -- "strips out the culinary lingo . . . that gets guys freaked out in the kitchen," Veith explains. Not only does it efficiently and clearly walk them through the recipes, it recommends wines to serve (thanks to Greenwood, who used to sell wine when he lived in the D.C. area) and even suggests the right music to play in the background.
The book organizes menus into chapters that guys can relate to: Red meat, white meat, sea meat, no meat and desserts that require no cooking at all. Each menu is labeled two ways, "what it really is" (guy-speak, in other words) and "what you tell her it is" (flowery chef-speak). For example, it's really chicken, veggies and salad; what you tell her is, "breast of chicken pan-roasted in rosemary, garlic and white wine with oven-roasted potatoes, parsnips and carrots and endive-watercress salad topped with bleu cheese."
The beginning of the book also contains an invaluable section called "should do's and shouldn't do's" (turn down the volume on the answering machine in case an ex- or your mom calls during dinner is one tip), plus small black-and-white photos of cooking utensils and equipment so that a guy can see the difference between, say, a paring knife and a vegetable peeler.
The tone of the book is relaxed and wry but in no way condescending or hectoring. "It's not cooking for morons," notes Veith. "Alex's recipes are simple but elegant, and we use quality ingredients."
He's also quick to add that "it's not a booty book," referring to "Booty Food," a prurient new cookbook by Food Network TV personality Jacqui Malouf. Says Veith, "Our book is not about seducing a woman" or trying to get her into bed. "That's kinda lechy."
In fact, the spare, modern cover of the small book is as straightforward as it gets. There's a plain, lime green background with 21 words in simple, black type: "This book's premise is based upon the simple truth that women like to see a guy put forth a little effort."
Those are Greenwood's words, but it still took a woman to kick the project into gear. Veith and Greenwood had been mulling the idea for the book for years, but Hilebronner, a friend of Veith's wife, finally turned up the heat.
"We were all sitting outside, barbecuing, and we told her about our idea," recalls Veith. "She looked at us and said, 'What are you waiting for? Do it.' Two years and a month later, the book was on the shelf."
Veith and Greenwood, both 34, have been friends since they met in sixth grade in suburban Philadelphia. Although they now consider themselves decent cooks, a decade ago it was another story. Their combined cooking experience consisted of "ice, microwave popcorn and the occasional scrambled egg," writes Greenwood. They had both recently moved to New York City and were struggling to get their careers started -- Veith as an art director, Greenwood as a music writer and editor for a jazz record company. They wanted to impress women but not strain their bank accounts. They began to invite over other cash-strapped guys -- plus potential dates -- and the guys would pool their money and cook.
"The meals were slightly primitive, mostly pasta-based, but over time we became more sophisticated," says Veith. Greenwood had worked for a wine distributor in Maryland and been manager of the wine and cheese department at Rodman's in Washington, so he made sure they had good wine. Both men love music -- at one point they had been in a band together -- so the CDs playing in the background "were not just Yanni or some other New Age sewage," says Veith, but lesser known gems like "Amplified Heart" by the felicitously named Everything But The Girl ("the perfect dinner date CD," Veith calls it).
The women they invited were impressed. "Women came in and out of the equation, but we began to notice that one consistent remark. We had good wine, good music, good food, and they were impressed," says Veith. "We began to wonder why no one had thought of putting this all together into a book."
"I thought the book was a great idea. I had worked for Matt [Damon] and Ben [Affleck], who are total boys. They used to only eat pizza and McDonald's, so I knew about guy-friendly food," she says.
The plan was for her to come up with the menus and then for Veith and Greenwood to "guy it down" if she got too complicated. She would submit recipes, then they each would test them and compare notes. Predictably, as the book came together, there were some battles.
"Like the word 'marinate.' That's a simple term, I thought, but that went kaput," says Hilebronner.
"Guys are spooked by words like 'marinate.' They prefer 'soak,' " explains Veith.
They compromised by letting Hilebronner write "make the marinade," in the directions, but having her add, "let the beef soak."
And then there was the salt fight.
"It's just salt. I just wanted the recipe to say 'salt.' But no, she insisted on kosher salt. So they now say 'kosher salt,' " says Veith.
But Hilebronner lost the blender argument. "I wanted the Caesar dressing to be made in a blender. I thought everyone had a blender -- don't guys make smoothies? But Doug and Tom said no. Apartment kitchens are too small, blenders are too expensive, no blender. So now the dressing is made with a whisk, which I think is harder."
She did insist that the book contain a page in the beginning showing the proper way to chop or dice an onion. She also objected when the guys wanted to write "heat the oil just until it begins to smoke."
"I told them that was a fire waiting to happen. But how do you describe when the oil is hot enough in the pan? We decided to say that when it looks runny, it's hot enough," she says.
Even the fact that they live on different coasts -- Hilebronner in L.A. and Veith and Greenwood in New York -- caused a few hitches. "Some cuts of meat have different names on the West Coast," she says. "And while I can get petrale sole here, Doug and Tom just said, 'Huh?' "
"We wanted ingredients that any guy, anywhere in the country, could find," says Veith.
"What was cool," he adds, "is that it really was a collaboration. Alex's challenge was to make complex meals come out simple. Some of her ideas were too complex, but some of our ideas were no good at all. Like, we'd buy a steak and throw in a potato and some rice -- double-starch it up. Alex would tell us we really need to have a vegetable."
They also gave the recipes to inexperienced cooks to try, "like my dad, who knows how to make frozen green beans and that's it," says Veith. "We wanted to guy-proof it."
And they've done a good job. The recipe instructions are clear, written in guy-friendly language that gets the job done. "Slice the cuke into CD-thin disks," instructs one recipe, and even a beginner knows exactly how thin to slice. Even better, the directions take the cook step-by-step through the menu so that everything gets done at the right time.
The trio also has stripped away unnecessary measuring whenever possible, as well as included reminders -- put the wine in the fridge, turn off all the burners -- that would be helpful to any cook. Ingredients for each menu are grouped into those to buy and those you should already have. Plus, each recipe contains droll little tips and observations. ("French green beans are very thin. American green beans are fatter. When shopping, picture French and American people and this will not be hard to remember.")
Of the three menus we tested, there were only a couple of objections. A watercress and endive salad with blue cheese was deemed too bitter and strong for a date meal. "What would your breath smell like?" asked one guest, who turned it down. The menus also called for what seemed to be overly generous amounts of food. The recipe for sesame-encrusted ahi tuna, for example, calls for each person to get a 3/4-pound piece of tuna. That's a big hunk of tuna. The 18-year-old guy who tested the recipe commented, "What woman is going to eat this much?"
To give you an idea of the flip, casual tone of the recipes in "Win Her With Dinner," we have presented them here just as they appear in the book. The recipes divide the ingredients into things you need to buy and things you should have on hand. The ingredient list is actually more like a shopping list (1 bag of sushi rice, for example, or 1 bottle of soy sauce), so just take it with you to the market. The specific amounts of each ingredient are included in the step-by-step directions.
WHAT IT REALLY IS:
Tuna, Rice, Veggies and Cucumber Salad
WHAT YOU TELL HER IT IS: Sesame-Encrusted Ahi Tuna, Stir-Fried Shiitake Mushrooms and Asparagus and Cucumber-Sesame Salad
Adapted from "Win Her With Dinner" by Doug Veith, Tom Greenwood and Alex Hilebronner (Rodale Books, 2004 ).
Drink This: Trimbach Pinot Blanc; Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer Carte d'Or; or Louis Jadot Bourgogne Pinot Noir.
Play This: Bill Evans Trio, "Sunday at the Village Vanguard"; Milton Mascimento and Lo Borges, "Clube Da Esquina"; or Roxy Music, "Avalon."
INGREDIENTS TO BUY:
1 bag sushi rice *
2 fresh ahi tuna steaks, 3/4 pound each
1 bunch scallions
1 hothouse (seedless) cucumber
1 bottle rice vinegar
4 ounces toasted sesame seeds
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms
1 bunch asparagus
INGREDIENTS YOU SHOULD ALREADY HAVE:
1 bottle soy sauce
1 box kosher salt
1 bottle toasted sesame oil
If you will be drinking white wine, put it in the fridge.
Pour 11/4 cups sushi rice into a strainer. Swish it around under cold running water until the water runs clear. Shake off excess water and set aside.
Marinate the tuna. Put it into the mixing bowl and add 1 cup soy sauce. Set it aside. While it's soaking, point at it and sing, "We Will Rock You" into the cucumber. No, really, don't do that.
Rinse and shake dry the scallions. Cut off and discard the roots. Starting from the root end, cut the bottom five inches of each scallion into thin, round slices. Set aside.
Make the salad. Peel the cucumber, then cut off and discard the ends. Slice the cuke into CD-thin disks. Place the disks into the salad bowl. Pour in 1/2 cup rice vinegar and salt lightly. Sprinkle with half of the sliced scallions. Drizzle lightly with some sesame oil. Lightly sprinkle with some of the sesame seeds. Set aside the rest of the seeds. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge.
Remove the stems from the mushrooms and discard. With a paper towel, brush any dirt off the mushrooms caps. Cut each cap into four slices. Set aside.
Rinse the asparagus, then cut off and discard the butts (the bottom 1 to 2 inches). Cut each spear diagonally into three sections. Set aside.
Spread some more of the sesame seeds on a dinner plate, setting aside a few tablespoons' worth. Working with 1 tuna steak at a time, remove it from the marinade, allowing any excess to drip off, place the tuna on the seeds and flip to evenly coat the top, bottom and sides of each steak. Discard the marinade.
Make the rice. Pour 11/4 cups water into the small saucepan. Add a pinch of salt and the rinsed rice. Put on the lid and place the pan on the stove over high heat. When the water is boiling, reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Set the timer for 15 minutes and let it simmer. Continue with the next step. When the timer goes off after 15 minutes, turn off the heat but leave the rice covered.
Get started cooking the veggies. Pour 2 tablespoons sesame oil into a large frying pan. Put the pan on the stove over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot (when it looks runny), add the asparagus and mushrooms. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in 1 tablespoon soy sauce and sprinkle with most of the reserved sesame seeds. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting.
Get started cooking the tuna. Pour 2 tablespoons sesame oil into the other large frying pan. Put the pan on the stove over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the tuna and cook for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until rare or medium-rare, respectively. While the tuna is cooking, give the asparagus and mushrooms a quick stir.
When the tuna is done, sprinkle it with the remaining half of the scallions.
Fluff the rice with a fork. Turn off any and all burners. Get the cucumber salad out of the fridge. Place a scoop of rice on each of two clean dinner plates. Lay the tuna against the rice, and put veggies on the sides of each plate. Sprinkle the remaining reserved sesame seeds over everything.
*Note: It's important to use sushi rice because it cooks faster and uses less liquid than regular rice. If regular rice is all you can find, follow the directions on the package and realize it may take longer to cook.
Per serving: 1,250 calories, 101 gm protein, 121 gm carbohydrates, 40 gm fat, 129 mg cholesterol, 40 gm saturated fat, 895 mg sodium, 13 gm dietary fiber
WHAT IT REALLY IS:
Steak and Potatoes With Spinach and Shrimp
WHAT YOU TELL HER IT IS: Garlic-and-Herb-Marinated Filet Mignon with Horseradish Cream Sauce, Served with Baked Potatoes, Sauteed Spinach and Shrimp Cocktail
Adapted from "Win Her With Dinner" by Doug Veith, Tom Greenwood and Alex Hilebronner (Rodale Books, 2004).
Drink This: Trapiche "Oak Cask" Malbec; or Weinert Merlot; or Chateau Lynch-Bages Pauillac.
Play This: Mazzy Star, "So Tonight That I Might See"; or Sarah Vaughan, "After Hours."
INGREDIENTS TO BUY:
2 baking potatoes
1 bunch Italian (flat-leaf) parsley or regular parsley
1 bottle Worcestershire sauce
2 filet mignon steaks (1/2 pound each)
1 container (16 ounces) sour cream
1 bottle prepared horseradish
1 bunch fresh chives
8 to 12 colossal shrimp, cooked and peeled
1 bottle cocktail sauce
2 bags prewashed baby spinach
INGREDIENTS YOU SHOULD ALREADY HAVE:
4 cloves garlic
1 jar Dijon-style mustard
1 bottle extra-virgin olive oil
1 box kosher salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
1 bottle finely ground white pepper
1 stick butter
Set oven to 400 degrees.
Scrub the potatoes under running water. Use a fork to poke four sets of holes in each.
Give the potatoes a head start. Place them on the middle oven rack. They'll need to bake for 45 to 60 minutes. Note the time and take the next 15 minutes to work on your moonwalk before moving on to the next step.
Make the marinade for the steak. Peel the garlic and discard the paper husks. Finely dice the garlic and put it in a mixing bowl. Rinse a handful of parsley and shake it dry. Cut off and discard the stems. Finely chop the leaves. Add them to the bowl. Add 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce and 4 tablespoons mustard. Whisk. Whisk in 1/4 cup oil. Lightly salt and grind in black pepper. Add the steaks and flip them to coat evenly. Put the bowl in the fridge.
In another mixing bowl, combine half of the sour cream, 2 tablespoons horseradish, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon white pepper. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge. This is the sauce for your filet mignon. Incidentally, filet mignon literally means "dainty filet." (We don't get it either.)
Whisk the remaining sour cream until it's smooth and place it in a cereal bowl. Finely chop the chives and whisk them into the sour cream. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge. Unwrap the butter while it is cold (unwrapping warm butter is like trying to peel a rotten banana). Place it on a small plate and put the plate on the table. The butter and sour cream will be the potato toppings.
Once the potatoes have been in the oven for 30 minutes, flip them. Pull the steaks out of the fridge to let them come to room temperature. Wait another 15 minutes before continuing with next step.
Turn on your broiler. By now, the potatoes should be done. Stab one with a knife to double-check; when it's soft all the way through, the spuds are ready. Remove them from the oven, wrap them with foil, and place them on the stovetop to keep warm.
Make the shrimp cocktail. Get ready to do some garnishing with sprigs. This is a real résumé builder. On each of two small plates, arrange an even number of shrimp in a radial fan formation. Slice the lemon into wedges and place two wedges on each plate. Garnish each plate with a couple sprigs of parsley. Pour the cocktail sauce into a cereal bowl and put it in the fridge, along with the shrimp, unless your guest has already arrived. In that case, dig in, as the rest of the meal won't take long to prepare.
Remove the steaks from the marinade, allowing any excess to drip off, and transfer the steaks to a small baking pan. Discard the marinade. Put the pan in the broiler or, if your broiler is in your oven, put the pan in there, on the top rack. The steaks will take only 6 to 8 minutes, so keep an eye on them. For medium-rare, cook them 5 to 6 minutes (flip them after 3 minutes), or until the thermometer registers 145 degrees when stuck in the center of the steaks. For medium, cook for 7 to 8 minutes (flip after 4 minutes), or to 160 degrees.
Make the spinach. Pour 2 tablespoons oil into the large frying pan and put it on the stove over medium heat. When the oil is hot (when it looks runny), add spinach a handful at a time. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes until wilted. Lightly salt and pepper. Cover the pan, remove it from the heat and turn off the burner.
Check on the steaks. If they're done, turn off the broiler and pull out the pan.
Arrange the filets, potatoes and spinach on the dinner plates so they look appetizing. Double-check that all burners are turned off. Take the horseradish cream out of the fridge and put a small dollop on top of each steak. Garnish the cream with a sprig of parsley. Put the remaining horseradish sauce and chive sour cream on the table. Enjoy.
Per serving: 896 calories, 54 gm protein, 69 gm carbohydrates, 46 gm fat, 186 mg cholesterol, 18 gm saturated fat, 1,363 mg sodium, 18 gm dietary fiber
© 2004 The Washington Post Company