I love the band Pulp. When I hear the song “Common People,” I can’t help but bust a move. I’m that guy in the bar dancing like a fool and singing (read: yelling) at the top of my lungs along with Jarvis Cocker, “I want to live like common people, I want to do whatever common people do.” And for that I have to apologize to you all. The reason I tell you this, however, is not entirely a result of a guilty conscience. This happened to be the song that was playing when I was tasked with writing a food article based on the theme “Disguise,” to which I am now attempting to seamlessly segue.
I’ve never had to want to live like common people. I’ve always been lucky enough to be common from the day I was born. Growing up with busy parents who didn’t have the time to cook gourmet meals, and who didn’t have the money to feed their children crème fraiche and caviar, I’m quite comfortable with Ruffles and Sour Cream Onion Dip. (Lipton’s onion soup mix plus a tub of sour cream and you’re having a party!) I’ve experienced the complete spectrum of foods that often get the reputation of being less than desirable from the seasoned foodie’s perspective. And coming from this humble culinary upbringing, I only appreciate more the value of a great meal. But a great meal doesn’t have to consist of the words tartar, coulis, thermidor, compote, chiffonnade, confit or timbale. In fact, you’d be surprised what you can do with some “common” ingredients.
So, in an effort to illustrate that us common folk don’t have it so bad, I’ve been working in the kitchen to figure out ways to disguise the most notorious of the traditionally low-brow foods. The result: some pretty tasty creations that taste great, won’t hurt your wallet, and, most importantly, seem fancy enough to pass at your next dinner party.
Which brings me to my first humble ingredient: Pillsbury Crescent Rolls. The goal: less family Thanksgiving dinner, more first anniversary celebration. The secret: forget the isosceles triangle shapes and just unroll the entire canister in one large piece. Take some thick slices of a soft French cheese (like Rustique) and line them up along the centre of the unrolled rectangle of dough. Next, add a few spoonfuls of canned cranberry sauce. Sprinkle with fresh thyme, salt, and pepper, before rolling the dough around the cheese, making sure that everything’s covered. Bake in a 375° oven for about 10-12 minutes until the dough is puffed and golden. Serve with freshly cut Granny Smith apples and you have a delicious hors d’oeuvre that shouldn’t bring to mind images of cartoon characters that giggle when poked.
Humble ingredient number two: Jell-o. The goal: less all-you-can-eat buffet staple, more delectable fine-dining dessert. The secret: turn it into simple strawberry shortcake. Step one: buy all of the other ingredients at the store, including a pre-made angel-food cake, fresh strawberries, whipping cream, icing sugar, and strawberry jam. Start with a half cup of sugar and a half cup of water in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil before adding a generous helping of strawberry jam and a package of strawberry flavoured Jell-o. Once the gelatin has dissolved, turn off the heat and transfer the mixture into the fridge to cool. While it's cooling, use your electric mixer to get some whipping cream to stiff peaks. Once it’s reached its desired consistency, flavour with vanilla and icing sugar to taste. Wash and slice your fresh strawberries, and cut your angel-food cake into chunks. When you’re ready and the sauce has cooled, start filling a glass bowl layer by layer with sauce, cake, whipped cream and berries. Artfully decorate the top with sliced strawberries and refrigerate for at least an hour before eating. I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t absolutely LOVE this recipe.
Humble ingredient number three: Kraft dinner. The goal: less first year university, more first year Associate. The secret: make it a bake. Step one: lose the fluorescent orange powder. Save the chemical “cheese” powder for your popcorn (I admit it is tasty), and substitute a basic béchamel sauce in its place. Flour, butter, and evaporated milk work well. Add your favourite strong cheese to the sauce (I would suggest a mixture of old cheddar and gruyere), crisp up some bacon, and slice up a few mushrooms while you’re at it. Parboil the macaroni, add all of the ingredients together, mix, and bake at 375° for 20 minutes. Your friends will be a lot more impressed by this homemade macaroni and cheese than they would had you simply claimed, “The Barenaked Ladies like it, so it’s gourmet.”
Humble ingredient number four: Fluff. The goal: less kitsch, more rich. The secret: turn this traditional topping into the vehicle for other toppings. Step one: figure out what toppings you really want to feature (diced fruit, fresh berries, sorbet, etc). It’s possible to make delicious meringue cups using Fluff as the main ingredient. Beat a few egg whites until they get foamy. Add a pinch of cream of tartar and some vanilla. Continue beating with your mixer on high while gradually adding your jar of Fluff to the mix until you’ve got stiff peaks. To be really fancy, use a piping bag to create large serving-sized circles on a sheet of parchment. Shape the circles into shells/bowls. Bake at 200° for around an hour and let the cups cool. Once they’ve set, you can fill them and top them with whatever delicious treats you can think of. Wild blueberries with a dark chocolate sauce drizzle would be tasty. Just a suggestion.
Humble ingredient number five: Spam. The goal: make it edible. The secret: pulling off a miracle is never easy, but even the most difficult ingredients take a back seat to spice. Step one: check your cupboard for red chili flakes – if you don’t have them, don’t bother. Then, with your secret weapon in hand, open the can of Spam and cut away anything that doesn’t look like “meat”. Dice up the remaining Spam into tiny pieces, about the size of a pencil eraser head. In a deep pan, add some butter and olive oil, and begin to fry about half a cup of the tiny Spam pieces. After a few minutes, add a diced shallot and a few cloves of diced garlic. Deglaze with white wine, and add a few cups of fresh green beans. Toss the mixture, adding a few drops of sesame oil and a generous splash of soy sauce. Season liberally with red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste, and remove from heat once the beans are coated and cooked to your desired doneness. Serve as a side to an Asian-inspired meal, or bring as a dish to your next semi-casual pot-luck. Just don’t tell anyone you used Spam.
I hope these recipes will inspire you to embrace the low-brow and give some interesting cheap foods a chance. Sure, if you only eat lobster and foie gras, these recipes won’t even begin to meet your standards. But if you only eat lobster and foie gras, then I feel sorry for you. And so does Jarvis Cocker. Because everybody wants to live like us common people every now and then.