THERE IS nothing romantic about convenience foods, any more than there is about plastic flowers or doubleknit pantsuits.
Imagine walking into the apartment of a new friend to find this assortment in the pantry: deviled ham sandwich spread, condensed milk, Vienna sausage, non-mayonnaise salad dressing, tuna, imitation whipped topping, processed cheese food spread and a variety pack of cold cereal.
Now imagine the next-door apartment loaded with the likes of: imported olive oil, cocktail onions, Kron cocoa, smoked oysters, anchovy paste, Grey Poupon mustard, stout or ale, marmalade, Crosse & Blackwell shrimp bisque, Italian summer sausage and a Droste's semi-sweet chocolate apple.
Listen: If Alan Bates likes non-mayo salad dressing, I could maybe learn to; but otherwise, Bachelor No. 2 is way out in front.
The kitchen says as much about your personality as the living room or the boudoir. Why spend hours searching for that delicately decadent art deco lamp if you're going to leave non-dairy coffee creamer lying around like a smoking gun?
Weigh the connotations of different foods. If you want the refrigerator to advertise your athletic capabilities, park a bottle of Gator-Ade in the door. Or natural apple juice, murmuring of health and back-to-basics. Or svelte Perrier...plain, unspoiled Coca-Cola...veranda-lounging tonic mixer...coolly classy iced coffee.
Does the label say you buy soy sauce in a supermarket or in an Oriental grocery? Is the cheese packaged in plastic or butcher paper? Haagen-Daaz or ice milk?Butter or margarine? Coast-mellow raisins or digestive-aid prunes?
Once you have a feel for the personalities of various foods you can turn them to your advantage, creating a new image or polishing the old one.
Instead of a philodendron, consider growing a pot of fresh herbs to indicate your straightforward interest in flavor and scent.
Basil suggests Italian food, warm tomatoes, homemade herb vinegar. Mint calls up visions of juleps in the paddock, or tart Middle Eastern delicacies like the minted veal dish below (and it's an instant room freshener - just crush a leaf). Chives promise creamy vichysoisse, but they also smack a little of Better Homes & Gardens. Curry powder mixed from scratch (turmeric, cumin, cayenne, chili powder, etc.) says no holds barred. Parsley is a trifle mundane, but it indicates earnestness.
Growing mushrooms in the cellar (in ready-packed crates, not right into the unfinished floor) will lure you into eating more raw mushrooms - which should be a required sensuality exercise.
The presence of convenience foods suggests a regrettable tendency on your part to subjugate esthetics to expediency. Produce in cardboard and cellophane trappings indicates only an average degree of culinary sensitivity, but that's better than canned: frozen food is the moral equivalent of war. Fruits and vegetables gathered into plastic bags with twist-ties at least suggest you picked out the best of the supermarket bin; but ideally they should come out of brown paper bags as they would from a greengrocer.
Real garlic cannot be replaced by a bottle of garlic powder or garlic salt. Onion flakes, onion salt or onion drops are virtually unforgivable. Imitation salt and imitation butter salt should be hidden away with the artificial sweetener unless your guest has already confided he's on a strict diet.
There are numerous atmospheric options available to the beer drinker depending on whether you stock a cult brand, an import or an ordinary American premium label. Dark brews, ales and stouts bespeak a real gusto. If you're willing to have Tab in your bar, you might as well stock the so-called light, low-calorie lagers. Avoid beers which pretend to be champagne, and vice versa.
Cracked grain bread is vigorous, rye or pumpernickle chewy and reminis cent of the Upper East Side, pita bread exotic; white sandwich loaves suggest either atrophy From phy of the taste buds or children from a first marriage.
The presence of yogurt in the refrigerator can be adapted to several intriguing scenarios (homemade yogurt is guaranteed to raise the question). You could pass yourself off as a workaholic with an ulcer, suggesting you have a demanding, high-status job and raging fires beneath that serene surface. You could be addicted to tandoori chicken and curries (you could wear a veil instead of an apron). You could be health-food conscious; or you could be slimming down that superb physique.
As far as kitchen equipment is concerned, you can make an effective case for nonchalant expertise with even the most decrepit skillet if you park a jar of two dozen wooden spoons on the counter. A Cuisinart is nice (if you don't have one, it's passe) but a juice squeezer for fresh orange juice and one really good knife will get you by.
Get the knack, and you can even talk your way around an overgrown yard: Just mention you love wild onions and dandelion greens. If your guest suddenly evinces an interest in dandelion salad, shrug regretfully and say your neighbor just sprayed insecticide all over his yard and you're afraid to risk it.
MINTED VEAL AND EGGPLANT
(2 large servings with leftovers)
2 baby eggplant, or smallish adult eggplant
1 pound pale veal steak or cutlets
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
4 to 6 ounces wine or dry vermouth
6 to 8 leaves fresh mint, or 2 tablespoon dried mint
Handful sliced mushrooms, optional
1/2 cup plain yogurt
Salt and white pepper to taste
Cube eggplants and salt heavily; let drain 30 minutes in collander, then rinse thoroughly. Cut veal into bite-sized cubes.
Melt butter in saucepan and saute onions and garlic. Sprinkle flour over onion and stir, then splash in wine and stir. Add eggplant and simmer 2 minutes, stirring, then add veal cubes and continue to simmer 7 to 10 minutes, or until almost tender. Scissor mint into saucepan; add mushrooms if desired. Simmer 3 mintues. Turn heat very low and stir in yogurt. Do not boil. Season to taste with salt and white pepper; serve over rice. CAPTION: Picture, Detail from "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" from The Phillips Collection