The kitchen is the heart of a home, and I’ve discovered that good cooking is the way to a lot of people’s stomachs and hearts! Cooking allows creativity and appeals to all of our senses: smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing. There is no better gift than to cook for others – it’s a labor of love. I come from a long line of good cooks in my circle of family and friends, and we appreciate food not only for the nutrients but also because it’s a great way to connect with others. Growing up, my family always made time to sit down together for dinner, and our Sunday night tradition was making pizza.
Another favorite of mine is to cook for and host tailgate parties on the Virginia Tech campus during football season. I recommend easy, make-ahead dishes to please a crowd. Food safety is extremely important! Hot and cold perishable foods should be kept in insulated coolers. Cold foods should be kept on plenty of ice and held at 40 degrees, and hot foods should be held at 140 degrees. Crock pots are great, and there are several portable products that hold both hot and cold foods. Do not put food in direct sunlight, and the maximum time to leave food out is two hours; however, if the outdoor temperature exceeds 90 degrees, limit food exposure to one hour. Drinks should be in a separate cooler from food because it will be opened often. And, just like mother always said — wash your hands! Have plenty of disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer available.
Do your research and invest in a good set of pots and pans for optimal cooking performance because “you get what you pay for.” It’s better to buy good cookware versus replacing it every few years. I have used stainless steel for decades, and it still looks and performs as if it were brand new. It is durable, timeless in design and cleans easily. I also like cast iron, but it requires a lot of tender loving care.
My favorite recipes are quick, easy and delicious. Nothing makes me happier than to have a friend remind me how much he liked the margaritas and black bean and corn salsa I made for a tailgate party or the family member who now loves Caprese salad, something she had never tried until I made it for her. My two little bonus girls always ask me to make extra cheesy mac and cheese. I hope you enjoy this favorite:
Mediterranean Antipasti Salad
3 cups (12 ounce box) uncooked tri-color penne or spiral pasta
½ pound ounces provolone cheese, cubed*
½ pound pepperoni, cubed*
½ pound Genoa salami, cubed*
1 cup seedless Kalmata olives, sliced
1 cup garlic stuffed olives, sliced
1 cup cherry tomatoes or Cherubs, halved
1/3 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
1/3 cup olive oil
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
3 pepperoncini peppers
*Slices cut on #12 from the deli. I purchase olives and sun-dried tomatoes at the olive bar at Kroger on South Main Street in Blacksburg.
Cook pasta according to package directions; drain and rinse in cold water. In a large bowl, combine pasta, cheese, pepperoni, salami, olives and tomatoes.
In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, mix olive oil, cider vinegar, dried oregano, salt and pepper. Shake well. Pour over pasta salad and toss gently. (If taking to a party, add dressing upon arrival and toss.) Top with whole or sliced pepperoncini peppers. Serve immediately or chill to serve later.
Caroline Cook is a graduate of Towson University with a B.S. degree in communications/media studies. She lives in the NRV and is a radio and TV personality, often appearing as a guest cook on WSLS-TV’s “Daytime Blue Ridge” and as a commentator on WDBJ-TV’s “The Joy Sutton Show.”