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The Perfect Week: From the Culinary Conquests of a Self-Professed College Gourmet Aficionado

FOODLOVE
Written by AJ Smith

Written By: AJ Smith (@adotjdotwoots)

Spontaneity is a beautiful thing… so I’ve heard. Variety is the spice of life… so I’ve read. Going with the flow is the way to go… so I’ve been told. I, on the other hand, grew up in an undeniably loving, yet highly routinized, mechanically and systematically engineered household. My childhood consisted of more than a fair share of rules, schedules, and consistency. “My way or the highway” – My dad was notorious for trolling any of my friends that wore their shoes in the house, or touched the walls (potentially leaving unwanted fingerprints). “You know the drill” – Every week had a regiment that had to be executed with pinpoint accuracy – covering when to do chores, or watch our favorite TV shows (shoutout to CSI), or even when to shower (#TeamPMShowers). Food was no different.

Before getting to the perfect culinary week – let’s get in the hot tub time machine and travel back through my early culinary conquests so you can appreciate my sources of inspiration for the delightful cuisines that are served up below. Let’s just say, I’ve seen some stuff.

My family had an artfully crafted weekly routine: a menu of meals carefully categorized by origin themes. While deviations were not unheard of, they were as rare as a great Adam Sandler movie without a cameo from Rob Schneider.  As an only child, my parents and I formed an NBA Jams caliber squad, effortlessly running three-man-weaves with our routines.

Hungry for a taste of what I’m talking about? Check out what was cookin’… Every. Single. Week. For. My. Entire. Childhood. AND. Adolescence. (That’s 17+ years… or more than 6,200 meals!)

Day

Theme and cuisine

Monday

The classics:

  • Chicken nuggets (the dinosaurs if I had been a poster child for admirable manners), Kraft mac & cheese (shapes were the liquid gold standard, but I had and maintain mad respect for the original), and cold green beans with ketchup.
  • Editor’s note: I know what you’re thinking. Say whaaaat? Cold green beans and ketchup? You’re tempted to discredit me as any type of authority on topics related to food… but we all make mistakes. I need you to forgive and forget. What’s done is done. I needed my nutrients if I was ever going to dunk a basketball, and my mom, bless her heart, discovered the formula to success – I was the pickiest eater West of the Mississippi until college – read on.

Tuesday

Comfort food:

  • Grilled cheese (with an eloquently ooey-gooey center and golden brown exterior… I need to be alone) and tomato soup.
  • Editor’s note: Lesbehonest, Tuesday’s suck. You can’t even blame its misgivings on being a Monday, but rather you just have to grin and bear it, despite all the oddities life throws at you. Nothing eases the frustration like some melted cheese (scientific fact – Google it) and its trusty sidekick Tomacho-Man soup.

Wednesday

Mexican food night:

  • Refried beans (a full plate of the musical fruit – this was likely a driving factor in my high school relationship status), chicken tacos, and nachos.
  • Editor’s note: Uncharacteristically, this menu actually rotated with a higher degree of frequency, which I primarily attribute to this nonnegotiable fact: Mexican food uses a grand total of 7 ingredients (ish) and somehow disproves math and all of its principles, enabling more than 15 billion creations. Case in point, Taco Bell still releases new menu items with regularity. Other dishes included burritos, quesadillas, beef tacos, and enchiladas.

Thursday

Italian food night:

  • Chicken or eggplant parm.
  • Editor’s note: With ¼ of my heritage coming from Italian roots, I’m relatively certain I was predisposed to appreciate all things in Italian dining. I don’t trust people that don’t like chicken parm. Does chicken parm actually activate Italian superpowers in those of us with the eligible bloodlines? You tell me.

Friday

German night:

  • Bratwurst with sauerkraut (OR Liverwurst if we were feeling super zesty and in high demand for an uptick in iron), Kraft mac & cheese (I swear our family kept Kraft in business), and CGBWK (cold green beans with ketchup – I hope you’re over this.)

Saturday

Pizza night:

  • Every other week, like clockwork, we would have a homemade pie (prepared by mom with my Great Aunt’s legendary dough recipe), OR we’d go out on the town to a favorite local spot called Pizzafarros (as a child I always sensed the staff planned ahead for our family to come in – we had our own secret code for ordering the pies to be cooked to our liking “Rare and Chewy – tell them the Smiths sent you.)

Sunday

Hodgepodge night:

  • This was as spontaneous as we got, but each week was predetermined two weeks in advance. Sunday’s entailed leftovers from the previous night’s pizza bonanza, anything expiring (rare), pot pies (which I didn’t learn until MUCH later in life were significantly low on the nutritional scale – mom and I had to have a crucial conversation about this) or – if dad wasn’t on call, the grill would be ablaze, and we’d dine like royalty with a steak. God bless those nights.

Two important notes:

  1. My mom, the rock-star she is, bent over backwards to ensure dinner was prepared for all three of us (as I’m an only child), at the same time, so we could enjoy family time. She would always prepare the items listed above for me, cater to my dad’s more advanced and matured tastes (usually prepared a separate, but related meal in the same thematic range as my dinner), AND whipping herself up a healthy dish, as well. Superwoman. Not to mention, she always delivered unrivaled presentation, taste, and quality of cooking featuring the greatest ingredient of all: LOVE.
  2. I cannot stress the importance of the classic meal combination (chicken nugs, mac & cheese, CGBWK). This is what I would call the utility meal – my safety net – my rock. Any meal that ever needed to be replaced, for any reason, could always rely on this dish to come in from the bullpen and save the day.

By now, it should be expressly clear that this was a unique set up. My childhood taught me incredible organization and dependability, and (clearly) nurtured my type A personality. Fortunately, these were relatively desirable traits in the real world… but I always wondered, was there more out there? What is this thing called, “creativity?” Tell me more about this concept of “we’ll see what sounds good…” or “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it…” As my curiosity began to grow, the time had come. COLLEGE.

This was for me, like most, a renaissance of epic proportions. My culinary curiosity peaked, in part because of the freedom to explore menus everywhere, and also, out of the need to survive (the Fend fo yo Self principle…).. Before I knew it I had developed a brand for trying anything, and my common taglines were, “Call me the iron stomach. “I am the human disposal.” (Are you going to eat that?) and “If it’s free, it’s extra delicious and calorie-free.” Just reckless, shameless, and a simpler, beautiful time.

Of course, much of college dining involved late night burrito runs, grilled cheese or mac & cheese binges (for days), or pizzas by the pie. So as you can imagine, when we fast-forward to post grad life… much of these habits had to be transferred to the rearview. I began to actually acquire some self-respect as a man, and I began to think about my physique… My taglines transitioned to classics like, “No thanks, I respectfully decline your generous offer for those delicious home-baked brownies you (ruthlessly) brought to the office, because I’m ‘Keepin’ it tight.’” What kind of monster had I become?

Couple these tidal shifts in lifestyle with a perpetually growing interest in TV shows like Man vs. Food, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and Chopped, and I had the perfect storm for culinary conquests to begin.

For 5 years, I’ve dabbled in all kinds of food-related adventures, including a gourmet grilled cheese cook-off (which is unquestionably a must-try date night activity), countless contributions to family-dinner-style potlucks with the harshest critics known to man (my friends), and even my personal coming-of-age-story, as I helped my mom stir multiple things during her Thanksgiving day primetime production (I know what you’re thinking, “That’s THE SHOW – he has ARRIVED.”)

As such, I feel appropriately qualified to share with you my PERFECT WEEK – a collection of culinary creations covering a calendar weeks’ worth of darned near divine dishes.

A few ground rules and forewarnings to equip your pallet for the tasty treats below:

  1. The perfect week had to be modeled after the general approach outlined in my childhood system. It’s nostalgic. Sentimental, even. Expect to notice some related, but (in my humble opinion) noticeably refined and enhanced twists. (Basically, I know how to adult now.)
  2. This list was prepared with the following criteria in mind:
    • Taste: For real though, food is our escape, our coping mechanism, our celebration, our social centerpiece, and at the heart of it all: does it taste delicious?
    • Keepin’ it tight: As documented above, those lbs. stack after the metabolism glory days begin to slow down in the mid-20s. Health and wellness is a top priority in all the options outlined below.
    • Simplicity: This is a COLLEGE (or in my case, eyes-on-the-prize-young-professional…) Gourmet list… we’re not going for dishes that will Beat Bobby Flay, help you deal with mystery basket ingredients, or assist you in overcoming any sabotages on Cutthroat Kitchen.
    • Pride: Would I be eager to prepare this dish for a date (nothing wingmans quite like the right food) and/or (perhaps more importantly) would I proudly serve it to my mom?
  3. This is the perfect WEEK. Don’t bite off more than you can chew and go trying to prepare every meal in one week (especially if you’re managing a full time job and/or classes like most of us)… consider the list a drag and drop option! Try a couple dishes on for size J
  4. By reading this article, you’ve entered an informal contract to comment with your perfect culinary week!

And with that, I’ve hope you brought your appetite and stretch pants. It’s grub time:

Day

Theme and cuisine

Monday

Classics night (American):

  • Grilled BBQ chicken, asparagus, bell peppers, and Uncle Ben’s steam-fresh garden vegetable rice.
  • Instructions: Season up the chicken with a pinch of salt and pepper, red chili flake for spice, and Monterey chicken seasoning. Marinate in BBQ sauce before grilling. Hit the veggies with a touch of garlic and black pepper, a soft, or even slightly sultry, or even seductive drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Foil those bad boys up, grill them off! Uncle Ben’s rice will be ready in a quick 90 seconds… plate for presentation by layering the chicken on a bed of rice, crossing your veggies on top and finishing with a drizzle of BBQ sauce. Just stop it.
  • Editor’s note: In one of the biggest shockers of the perfect week – mac & cheese is NOT in the starting lineup. This is directly attributed to the “Keepin’ it tight principle.” If there was ever a meal to sub in mac & cheese (if you managed to elliptic-kill-it at the gym that day) – make moves.

Tuesday

Comfort food (American):

  • Grilled cheese (with an eloquently ooey-gooey center and golden brown exterior… I still need to be alone) and tomato soup.
  • Instructions: Use some honey whole wheat bread and a light helping of I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter! Slice a few thin dimes of low sodium, low fat All-American cheese, and cook on the stove top for 90 seconds on each side, medium heat to a golden brown. Ideally, eat by candlelight, alone. For the tomato soup, this is where we step up our adult game. Look for the V8 garden vegetable tomato soup, seasoned with herbs. It’s the comfort food PB & J.
  • Editor’s note: Okay, you’re right. This violates the “Keepin’ it tight’ principle. Note the lower fat and calorie substitutes and super healthy tomato soup upgrade… we do what we can, but live a little. Tuesday’s suck worse as an adult.

Wednesday

Mexican food night:

  • Green Chile pork carnitas tacos, homemade guac, hot sauce for days, and Uncle Ben’s seasoned Spanish rice.
  • Instructions: This is a crock-potter for sure. Acquire pork, dump in a healthy share of green Chile and set-it-and-forget-it. Let that bad boy work for you while you’re at work, simmering on low heat, and infusing layers of flavor together. Come home to a glorious smell circulating throughout your home… unleash two avocados, diced jalapeno, serrano Chile, green onion, yellow bell pepper, and a tomato. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and two pinches of garlic. Thank me later. Be sure to equip your largest bottle of Cholula within driving distance. Hit your tortillas with the slightest brush of EVOO and low heat on the stovetop… top your tacos with that glorious guac, some red cabbage, and a generous dousing of Cholula. Dine with the Gods. Oh yeah, and pop that rice in for 90 seconds – sub out rice with low-sodium refried beans if you work out of smell’s reach from others and already have a lovely family.
  • Editor’s note: The crock pot is a real-deal Godsend. Google pork carnitas crock pot instructions for more clarity, but trust me – it’s an explosion of flavor, with low maintenance prep.

Thursday

Italian food night:

  • Whole wheat pasta (with protein added, if you rock Barilla), Jennie-O spicy Italian turkey sausage, and Ragu red sauce with green peppers and mushroom.
  • Instructions: Get your sausage started first on the stove top, medium heat, covered… flip every 4 minutes and cook for 17-19 minutes. They steam in their own juices… it’s like a sauna for flavor. I need a bib. Bring your water to boil and cook the pasta for 10 minutes to achieve al-dente domination. Hit the sauce with low heat on the stove top, and add garlic, oregano, red chili flake, and a touch of that easy-breezy-beautiful powdered parmesan. Stir all ingredients to achieve the magic.

Friday

I’m probably going out or having a date over, gotta keep it tight night:

  • Fish filet (my recommendation is tilapia or salmon, at your discretion), seasoned with lemon pepper, garlic, and a hint of black pepper, Uncle Ben’s seasoned brown rice, and steam-fresh mixed vegetables (corn, green beans, peas and carrots). If you’re riced out – serve with a bright side salad: fresh strawberries, blue berries, raspberry vinaigrette, pistachios, and spinach.
  • Instructions: Bake or grill your fish and microwave the rest. Who needs anything too demanding on a Friday night? Uncork that wine, pregame your meal, call an Uber, and live a little – or “Netflix and chill” with your girl or dude.

Saturday

Pizza night:

  • It’s the perfect week – it’s time to man or woman up and make a homemade pie. Don’t ask questions, just head to Trader J’s for some of its pristine whole wheat dough, fo sho.
  • Editor’s note: As mentioned early, an epic date night is completing a gourmet cook-off with your significant other… personal pizzas are another perfect opportunity to infuse a little culinary competitive fire, passion, and romance into your Saturday night. Do work.

Sunday

Hodgepodge night:

  • Grilled steak, rosemary and garlic potatoes, and corn on the cob.
  • Instructions: Season your steak lightly (let the meat shine) with a pinch of salt, pepper, and steak seasoning, should you need it. Carefully grilled that bad boy to your desired level of pink and embrace its glory. Cube red potatoes and let those little fellers soak in water for a bit to soften up. Season with a heavy hand of garlic, rosemary and thyme and a healthy pinch of salt and pepper, and apply a generous drizzle of EVO. Bake off your potatoes at 350 (tree-fitty) for 40 minutes. Lightly “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter” (used as a verb) your corn, dress with black pepper, wrap comfortably in foil, and baby it whether or not it’s baby corn while you grill that glorious meat.

 

At the end of the day, love what you eat, and love the way you feel afterwards. Eat in moderation, hit the gym a few days a week, and look forward to the quality time with your boys (or girls), your significant other, or your family and use food as your magnet for magnificent memories. LETSGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

About the author

AJ Smith

AJ has a bachelor degree in marketing and management as well as a master's degree in business administration. His specialties are basketball (letsgoo Suns!), baseball (letsgoo D-Backs/Bo-Sox!), football (letsgoo Cards and my "legendary for all the wrong reasons" fastasy football teams), early 2000s pop-punk, college gourmet culinary creations, Star Wars, bromance, cheese, and longwindedness.

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