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What food critic Laura Reiley learned by not dining out for two months

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I went cold turkey.

I took two months off of reviewing restaurants so that I could work on the Tampa Bay Times' Farm to Fable series. (Look for the second part in Sunday's paper; it's all online now at tampabay.com/farmtofable.)

I'd done it before. Over the years there have been other reasons to step away from that particular credit card, to desist in making reservations under funny names. And it's always illuminating.

There were pros and cons this time. On the pro side, changing my exercise regime not at all, I lost weight and felt fitter and more energetic. Anecdotal, surely, but it prompted questions about my willingness to overeat when dining out, about portion sizes and about how much more sugar, fat and salt go into restaurant meals.

A big con: I'm less popular than I thought. Dining out many times each week means a constant social swirl. Commit to eating in and you're left with how frequently you feel like inviting folks over or how often they extend an invitation to you. Could my social status really hinge upon our collective distaste for running the vacuum cleaner?

The code

Single folks and those newly in love may not know this. There is a call, sometimes a text, which comes at 6:15 p.m. Wording varies. A text may read: "Hey, how was your day?"

This means: "What are we doing for dinner?"

Thus begins the familiar marital dance of negotiation. I say we have that eggplant we need to use. He sighs, suggesting it become something spicy, maybe with sausage. I say it will require another grocery run. He recants, declaring the eggplant sufficient. I am victorious; it becomes a delicious, or maybe merely satisfactory, dinner. While watching the News Hour, he thinks wistfully of sausage.

Stone-cold fact: The person with the concrete cooking plan often emerges victorious. You need to know what you've got in your arsenal. To this end, keep a working grocery list on the fridge and enforce the rule that the family member who finishes the orange juice is responsible for adding it to the list (a 5-year-old's phonetic spelling is amusing but still helpful). And although it requires discipline, having a weekly meal plan prevents daily emergency shopping and cuts down on impulse buys. I tended to do the heavy-lifting project-cooking on weekends, doubling recipes that froze well.

There are the go-to's, the tried and true recipes splattered with sauce. Paperclip the pages of your faves, or better yet, scan and print. For online recipes, it's easy to forget which vermicelli bowl recipe was good and which one you hated — a lot of recipe sites now allow you to make personal notes to yourself. Use that feature.

Blank canvas

At restaurants I seldom order a dish with boneless, skinless chicken breast. It is milquetoast, vanilla on a plain cone, a flubbery fillet of humdrum. And thus, for the time-crunched home cook, it is my friend. Panko! Wine, mushroom and a splash of cream! Red curry paste and coconut milk! It's got more quick changes than Beyoncé.

That said, a whole chicken is more economical and satisfying, but you have to put it through its paces. Make that poultry drop and give you 20. Monday night's roast chicken means Tuesday I'm making chicken broth, in which I poach a couple of chicken breasts to tuck away for Wednesday night's Chinese chicken salad before it is cooled and frozen to live another day as some kind of hearty soup. This is about saving time and money and minimizing garbage.

Tastes change

You make your grandmother's pecan bars and someone inevitably says they don't taste the same. Hypothesis: The recipe tastes the same and it is the taster who has changed. There is a shifting zeitgeist and we're all along for the ride. The Asian sesame noodles and spinach thing with the phyllo that I leaned heavily on as a young adult now taste cloying and sludgy. It's okay to move on, to forge ahead, but you need a constant flow of new ideas. Read widely, and as dorky as a recipe exchange sounds, try an informal one with the five of your friends whose tastes are most simpatico.

Praise is important

If you're the cook, it's inevitable, sometimes you feel unappreciated. The most extreme example: Thanksgiving, eight hours of cooking, 20 minutes of eating before coma sets in. It's okay to make demands, darn it. In my household, the first person to utter something positive — but true, it can't be blowing smoke up my skirt — about the meal wins a metaphorical kewpie doll.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

What food critic Laura Reiley learned by not dining out for two months 04/18/16 [Last modified: Monday, April 18, 2016 12:49pm]
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