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Matt Moore is the type of guy whose friends turn to him when they're clueless in the kitchen, blowing up his phone and his inbox with pleas born of date night distress. Though he may presently be single (hello, ladies!), the Nashville-based singer/songwriter and author knows that the way to a woman's heart is through a home-cooked meal — taught well from an early age by his mother and grandmother.
Earlier this week, Moore shared secrets with us from his new book, Have Her Over for Dinner: A Gentleman's Guide to Classic, Simple Meals, in the hope that even the most culinarily challenged guys (and gals) out there could feel comfortable skipping the restaurants this Valentine's Day and opting for a romantic dinner for two at home, instead. (No previous cooking experience required!)
Here's a transcript of our interview with Moore, followed by his favorite beginner-friendly recipes for a 3-course meal under $30.
What inspired you to write this book?
Every good product is born out of a real need, I think, and I was constantly getting emails from my guy friends asking me for recipes. But, any time you get anything from guys it always comes with restraints: it has to come from one store, or has to have X number of ingredients, and so on. So, I figured, 'Why not save myself some time and write a book?' and here we are about a year later. I've always cooked, and in my family, we're the people who sit down for breakfast and are already planning out what we're having for dinner. Eating meals together is the center point of the day and when we catch up. I think it's so needed in our generation, especially guys. In the last 20 or 30 years, the idea has been to jump in the car and go to a restaurant, and if you were brought up that way then cooking is an essential thing to know in life, and that's why I wrote the book.
Did you really write, edit, photograph, design, publish, and market this book yourself?
I wrote everything and then brought in an editor, I did a lot of the photography but then brought in a photographer, and the same with graphic design. The book trade seems to be going through what happened with iTunes in the late '90s (I liken everything to music). When I went to the publishers (with my book), I ran into the same blocks as with the record labels and my albums. As a writer, it didn't seem to make sense to go with a publishing house, so we started our own and got a distributor and we'll see how it goes, but it's going well so far. Word of mouth is the best marketing tool that's out there. I have a blog, a Twitter feed, and a Facebook fan page, all that stuff. It's important to exploit all forms of social media. People want to keep in touch and it's sort of a strange existence sometimes, but it's pretty cool. I think people like being able to get a little free recipe or an (insight into your real life behind the scenes) and that's what social media is great for.
Why do you feel it's so important to get this book out there in the hands of men who are culinarily clueless?
It's important from a family standpoint to be able to cook and have that time together. As Americans, we rely too much on having others cook for us. Look at the health care debate: sure, when you go out to eat, everything tastes great; but it's also got cream and butter and fat and you don't necessarily know what else has gone into it. Cooking is an essential life skill that I think we've lost, and not just the guys. It's not a gender role — I know plenty of women whose moms never taught them to cook, either. I think it's a skill that everyone should learn to embrace.
Is making dinner how you got your woman to fall for you?
I don't have a woman right now! (Laughs.) It certainly has come up in the past, though I don't normally (make her dinner) until the third or fourth date. I generally play music more often than cook, but it's something that I like to have up my sleeve. I don't know how it's going to go down now with the book. I might have to tell them I was a ghostwriter or something.
Why do you think showing your date your prowess in the kitchen is such a deal-sealer?
It's a chance for a guy to demonstrate a sense of confidence — even if you don't have the skill, to take on the challenge — and to show you can care for another. It's easy to go to a restaurant and throw down a credit card, but girls really talk about the guys who cooked dinner for them. If you're able to pull off something that's successful, that's even more to boot.
If the end goal is to get your date to make out with you, why include things like garlic, beans, and onions?
As I say in the book, "Leave the flavors of dinner at dinner." Make sure to have mouthwash and mints, and go brush your teeth if you can. The idea is to stock your kitchen with the basic ingredients, and I tried to create recipes that focused on five ingredients or fewer. You can't really get away from garlic and other key ingredients, so my advice is just to go for it and use mouthwash and go from there.
What are your tips for guys who want to "have her over for dinner" but have roommates (aka live in Frat v2.0)?
There's two things you can do: bribe them with beer; or bribe them with leftovers. There's going to be a little bit of harassment from them over your plans for your special evening, but bribes usually get them out of the house pretty quick.
What if you have a tiny apartment? Or are living in a dorm?
I think you can still create a romantic setting or meal that doesn't require all-out preparation: like, say, a bottle of wine and an indoor picnic. As long as you have a stove and an oven to work with, just focus on setting the scene. I'm not a Sandra Lee-type person with "tablescapes" and all of that, but a simple white tablecloth and some candles will do the trick. In the book, I focused on recipes you can pan saute or grill, and I love cast iron pans, which will get you the effect of an outdoor grill even when you might not have access to one.
What's your go-to thing to "wow her" in the kitchen?
Besides cooking for her wearing only an apron? (Laughs.) To be quite honest, people have so many tastes and preferences these days, but as long as she's not a vegetarian, a good filet or a nice sirloin is always a good choice. Start off with the best ingredients you can buy and then you don't have to do a whole lot to them to make them taste good. It'll speak for itself. I love a girl who's not afraid to eat everything, but I'm also a Southern gentlemen, so it's gotta be a good steak.
What should guys avoid when it comes to showing off their kitchen skills?
Don't "over promise and under deliver." Don't start off the evening saying you're going to make your specialty and then it doesn't end up coming out the way you want. Be humble, but go the extra mile and get fresh herbs, fresh seafood, and good cuts of meat whenever possible. You don't have to go the Whole Foods route, either. Focus on a nice pasta or salad for the sides and it'll keep everything pretty cheap, under $8 to $10 per person for the whole meal compared to $15 to $20 for an entree in a restaurant.
Valentine's Day: tips for making her dinner on this special day in particular?
Number one, know what she likes. If it's a first date, I might ask [ahead of time] what she does and doesn't eat. From there, some of the more elegant things you'd see in a restaurant are good choices: lobster, scallop, and shrimp dishes or a steak dish. Something you wouldn't eat everyday. If you look at Valentine's Day menus across the country, restaurants are cramming people in for a prix fixe menu with a set price and small portions and probably lesser quality. Splurge on the ingredients and cook for her at home — no matter what, it's still going to be less than you paid in a restaurant.
One thing that I really stress in the book is just to keep things simple. Being a musician, I love having great background music, and if it's someone you've known forever, pick tracks that you can talk about and that spur the conversation because it can get awkward at times. With the food, focus on quality ingredients, keep it fun with the right atmosphere, and offer her a cocktail when she gets to your place. You're already a step above the other guys by having the confidence to create this special night for her, so you're going to score over the guy who just slapped down his credit card on a $200 restaurant tab. It's not the food, it's the act, and if the food's good, then that's just the icing on the cake.
What about figuring out the wine?
There's always the rule that red meat and red sauces go with red wine and seafood and white sauces go with white wines, but I also included beer pairings in the book because we're enjoying a cool appreciation for beer right now. Sticking with that traditional rule [about wine] is good, but if it tastes good, go for it.
What if the guy knows he's a terrible cook? Do you have a "foolproof" dish?
Here's the cool thing about my book: it goes from front to back, the easiest to the most complicated recipes. Date one is store-bought pasta and sauce with an Italian sausage, which is humble but really good. Basically, you're just boiling water and heating everything up in the pan. It's been highly successful for many guys. If you mess that up, you may not have any place in the kitchen for real.
What kind of beverage would you serve with that? Wine? Cocktail? Non-alcoholic?
For that particular one, and not to sound too Sideways here, but a pinot noir would work pretty well, or a zinfandel. As far as cocktails go, I don't generally recommend pairing those with dinner because the flavors are complicated. Since I'm from the South, I'd have to say sweet tea in the non-alcoholic drinks department, and everyone has their own recipe for sweet tea. So simple, but my favorite way to do it is to mix the brewed tea into the sugar while it's still really hot, maybe 20 or 30 minutes, and then pour it over ice. I never refrigerate sweet tea because it gets bitter.
What kind of message does good cooking send to a woman?
I think it just simply shows that you care about her, that you're willing to take the time to plan a menu, shop for ingredients, and put it all together. Relationships are all about compromise and selflessness and being able to give yourself to another, and if you can show love and that heartfelt preparation to a woman, it's just a really good thing.
Aw, that's so sweet!
You caught me on a good day, I swear I'm not generally this sweet. My friends are giving me a hard time (about the book). But, another sweet skill a guy should have is to be able to take a girl out to dance. Thankfully, that's pretty well-preserved here in the South, but not everywhere. Jumping up and down in a club isn't dancing, so learn swing dancing or something similar.
They say you eat with your eyes before your mouth. What about presentation?
A lot of the recipes int he book focus on different colors. Our minds and our stomachs aren't attracted to bland surfaces. If you're making a salad, throw in red tomatoes and cucumbers, even a yellow bell pepper. I'm not about stacking foods fifteen different ways, I think that really helps to have different colors and textures. I go with just a plain, clean white plate, even if you have your aunt's antique china, go out and get some white plates that will put the focus on the food.
What's your definition of sensual foods?
I can tell you what NOT to do. When I went on spring break in the Bahamas a few years ago, someone told me to eat some conch to feel like a man, and I was sick for days. You've got your oysters and all that stuff, but I'm definitely not, excuse my language, an "eat this, get laid" kind of guy. Chocolate is my go-to, as well as classic desserts. I think anything too weird beyond that is probably...going to seem like you're trying too hard.
Which foods are in season right now that maybe she's never had before?
I live literally next door to the Nashville farmer's market, which is one of my favorite places in the world. There's not a lot in season right now, however; but greens — turnip and collard greens and kale, tough leafy greens you can braise or saute — are always a nice option over a spinach for a side, something like a balsamic kale. Full of flavor and all that good stuff that your mom always told you about. It's really not the time of year to be getting the best stuff, but if you can eat in season it's always the best way to go.
What other things should we know about having someone over for dinner?
With a meal at home, you're able to control costs and control your ingredients, and it's also entertainment all wrapped up into one. I'm not here to harken back on old times, but we probably don't do enough of that these days. It's a great way to get together and have a good time. I'm not against restaurants at all, but cooking dinner for one another is a skill that everyone should have. All of my friends are getting a laugh out of the book, but they're also learning something along the way.
If you want to bend Matt's ear, buy a signed copy of his book at one of his upcoming signings, or buy him a drink at Robert's Western World the next time you're in Nashville, check out his website, HaveHerOverforDinner.
RECIPES FOR A 3-COURSE MEAL AT HOME UNDER $30
Spicy Arugula and Pancetta Salad
Pancetta is basically the Italian form of bacon. You should be able to find this item at the deli counter in most grocery stores. Have them slice it thin, but don't accept their invitation to try a sample. Of course, if you can't find the pancetta, bacon is always an appropriate substitute. Green onions can also be substituted for the chives.
1. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. 2. Add pancetta. Cook until crispy and fat has rendered, turning once, about 5 to 6 minutes. 3. Remove pancetta from heat and place on paper towels to drain excess fat. Cool. 4. In a separate mixing bowl, add vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Whisk until incorporated. 5. In a serving bowl, toss dressing with arugula and chives. 6. Garnish with pancetta, gently broken by hand into bite size pieces.
Sauteed Shrimp with Lemon Zest
When zesting a lemon, always be sure to only use the outer layer of the fruit. Don't use any of the bitter white part of the skin. The oils from the zest will really shine through with the sweet flavor of the shrimp.
1. In a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, add oil and red pepper flakes; saute for 30 seconds. 2. Add shrimp, garlic, lemon zest, and salt; sauté for 2-3 minutes. 3. Add the juice of 1/2 lemon and continue to saute until shrimp are firm and bright pink, about 1 to 2 minutes. 4. Add butter and stir with shrimp until melted, then remove from heat. 5. Garnish with minced parsley. Serve immediately.
Chocolate Covered Strawberries
Make it easy, and prepare these in advance. They generally will keep for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
1. Fill a two quart pot with 2 to 3 inches of water and bring to a simmer over medium high heat. 2. Place butter and chocolate into a separate heatproof medium bowl and carefully rest it inside of the pot with the simmering water to create a "double boiler." 3. Remove pot from heat and allow chocolate to slowly melt in the bowl, stirring on occasion with a rubber spatula. 4. Holding a strawberry the stem, dip into the melted chocolate and turn, ensuring an even coat. 5. Place on a baking sheet lined with wax or parchment paper. Repeat until all strawberries have been dipped, or until no chocolate remains. 6. Set the strawberries aside for at least 30 minutes, allowing the chocolate to set, or store in the fridge until ready to serve.
Copyright 2010 Shoestring, LLC. Photos and recipes courtesy and copyright of Matt Moore and Last Resort Press.