Advice for taking food to friends in need

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Bringing food to family and friends in need is a time-honored tradition. Whether they are coping with illness or are up all night with a newborn, it's heartening to know someone is thinking about them. Mac-n-cheese does wonders for the worried soul.

I've prepared meals for others — though not often enough — and provided guidance in the Taste section for people with good intentions but a lack of ideas. Oh, I am full of advice.

Recently, my husband and I were on the receiving end of such thoughtfulness after our son had surgery. A basket of cookies, a buttery vat of mashed potatoes, restaurant gift cards and several containers of lentil soup, to name just a few things, sustained us in those first few days when we were weary and he was in pain. What a nice break it was to go almost a week without cooking.

Let me tell you, though, my outlook has changed a bit since I've had some firsthand experience with the comfort-food brigade. If you're worrying about what to prepare and how it should be delivered, stop it right now. To steal a well-worn advertising phrase, just do it. Your efforts will be appreciated immensely.

I can assure you, I was not critiquing the offerings or wishing for something other than what was dropped on our doorstep. I've learned over the years that people don't like to cook for the food editor. Honestly, I am not that critical. Graciousness is a two-way street.

Like you, I want to please people when I cook, but the truth is, most people are happy that you've made the effort. (Okay, maybe not your kids.) And make no mistake, the effort doesn't need to be home-cooked. Gift cards and takeout are worthy offerings.

But because it's what I do, I still have a few words of advice for taking food to friends who need a hand:

• Don't bug the recipients with a lot of questions about what the family likes to eat. I know that seems thoughtful, but it only adds to the burden. If you really don't know, talk to someone who knows them better. Otherwise, make or bring something simple. Who doesn't love chicken soup? It was so nice that my friends (and one of my son's teachers) decided for us what dinner and dessert would be.

• Deliver food in disposable containers or ones that the recipient can keep. Somebody who is sick or preoccupied with challenges doesn't need to worry about returning your favorite baking dish or heirloom Bundt pan.

• And my last bit of advice, and pardon me if it seems a wee mean: Don't plan on spending a lot of time visiting when you deliver the food. Seriously, showers might have been scarce and the house could be in disarray. Your job is to provide comfort, not to make your friend feel like she needs to vacuum. Call to say you're coming and then do the hand-off at the front door. Don't feel bad if you're not invited in.

My list of do's and don'ts used to be longer. But now I know that a show of kindness in the form of buttery mashed potatoes and roasted chicken are as good as a spoonful of sugar. That old saw about the thought being the most important thing is really true.

Dark or white?

I met up with a regular Taste reader at the recent Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading who had a beef about chicken. Why, he asked, do so many recipes call for "flavorless" boneless, skinless chicken breasts? He substitutes thighs or legs whenever he can, he said. "The other tastes like cardboard."

Boneless, skinless chicken breast roared onto the scene years ago and quickly became a favorite low-fat protein. The price now corresponds with its popularity. It's used in many recipes, but my irritated reader is right about the flavor. There isn't much. It has almost become like tofu … a vehicle for a myriad of ingredients, techniques and cuisines.

So is it that much better for us? If you're counting fat, it is. Thighs baked and eaten without the skin have about three times more fat than breast meat. Calorie-wise, they aren't too far apart. A cup of diced roasted, skinless breast meat is about 230 calories and 5 grams of fat compared with 293 calories for the same amount of thigh meat and 15 grams of fat.

In the flavor category? The thighs win hands down.

The cookie issue

We've received a few calls and emails from readers wanting to know when this year's Christmas cookie issue will be in the paper. The 11th annual cookie issue is Nov. 28. We're in the midst of testing recipes, and I will give you a sneak preview. Our favorite so far is a lighter-than-air chocolate cookie that melts in the mouth, leaving an intense chocolate aftertaste. You'll want to double the recipe.

It's the happiest time of the year for the Keeler Elves and those with whom they share their cookies.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586. Follow her on Twitter: @roadeats.

Advice for taking food to friends in need 10/30/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 3:00am]

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