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Cooking with Joy

The Confessional:
Dinners I Have Served


By Joy Rotondi

Even a prolific and experienced cook needs a day off once in a while from creating masterpieces in the kitchen. Joy Rotondi bares her culinary soul as she describes some of the shelve-scrounged meals she has prepared and eaten.
Included: What to eat when you think you have nothing.

During the summer of my 13th year, I prepared salmon mousse in aspic followed by coq au vin for French friends of my parents. Suddenly, I was a star! Everyone wanted a piece of me.

About the Author

Joy Rotondi

Joy Rotondi recently returned to the classroom and teaches sixth-grade language arts near Boston, Massachusetts. She was raised in an Italian-American family happily obsessed with good food. Her prowess in the kitchen was first noted when she whipped lime Jello to a mousse at age 7. By age 12 she'd advanced to the salmon mousse in aspic featured on the cover of Gourmet.

On Thanksgiving Day 1996, with the help of friend and culinary cohort Cindy Blandino, she launched , a playful site dedicated to serious American cooking. has been featured on CNN, Better Homes and Gardens , and in The Wall Street Journal, among other places. Her bread and butter for the last 11 years has been designing and maintaining Web sites for the culinary world, including restaurants, culinarians, and food marketers. Rotondi lives on Boston's North Shore with her 12-year-old, a Shetland sheepdog, and four hens.

Visit her Web site

In college, I had friends because I cooked. They were like lap dogs, following me around the dorms basement kitchen. To this day, my reputation is large. My own kid is thinking of college, but expectations are still high. I visit my college friends from time to time for a little R & R. Amy shows up at the airport with a pound of veal scaloppini and a baleful look in her eyes. Cindy wants to see what magic I can conjure from the contents of her overstuffed pantry. Sandy wants a pie made from the apples outside his kitchen window. All I want to do is climb into their hot tub and take a load off.

So it is with some trepidation that I reveal the horror of of of da da da daaaaaa True Dinners!

The week before school started this year -- that week when we all schlep and dust and decorate and organize -- I had cereal and blueberries three nights in a row. The blueberries looked a little sorry for themselves by Day 3. Id like to tell you that it was homemade granola, but it wasnt. It was stale Rice Crispies, and I ate bowlfuls standing over the kitchen sink.

Cheese and crackers for supper is not unknown here. Sometimes I have to scale the cheese and re-bake the crackers, but I serve it with three refrigerator door standbys to glam it up a bit: Branston Pickle (a British relish), country-style Dijon mustard, and pickled onions. If I have a speck of pate I can trust and an apple, Ive hit all the food groups.

Speaking of apples reminds me of my childs favorite Sunday supper -- popcorn and apples. When the school week has been prepared for -- homework done, clean laundry put away, house tidied up, animals fed, fresh sheets on the bed, clothes laid out (or none of the above) -- we relax with a bowl of hot stovetop popcorn and crisp, sliced apples. Its really very good and very satisfying. There never is any leftover popcorn, but if there were, we would bundle it into snack bags for the weeks lunchboxes.

One dinner faux pas my child clamors for is so culturally incorrect that I beg your forgiveness in advance for even mentioning it. There is not a hint of antioxidants. Zero lycopene. Its high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie, so we just skip right to it. Once in a long while, an ice cream sundae satisfies something deep inside like nothing else can. Our fave is the Tin Roof Sundae -- vanilla ice cream, chopped salted peanuts, butterscotch and hot fudge, and pillows of whipped cream. Add sliced banana if the shame is too much for you.

On other odd nights Ive made hot cereal with raisins -- Wheatena is my favorite -- and then left it covered on the back burner until morning and served it again. This is a real time-saver!

Got nothing in the house but stale bread? Theres always French toast. Just dont think you can get away with just a little mold on the bread. You cant. Ive tried.

How do I sustain my stellar reputation as a gourmet cook with such a string of sins? I time my transgressions -- they are only served to The Inner Circle. Should my fans at large grow suspicious, believe me, one mouthful of that veal, one whiff of that homemade apple pie, and, once again, the audience is in my thrall.

Joys Stovetop Popcorn Are we raising a generation of kids who have never tasted stovetop popcorn? Horrors!

What you need:

  • A thick-bottomed metal saucepan, preferably with a vented lid
  • A large bowl
  • A big flat spoon or other utensil to paddle the popped corn and salt


  • Corn oil
  • Fresh popcorn (see my pantry articles)
  • Kosher or sea salt
  • Optional: Melted butter (corn oil gives the popcorn a buttery flavor)


  • Have a large bowl and the salt ready.

Pour corn oil into the saucepan just until it covers the bottom of the pan. Not too much now! Place on high heat. After 30 seconds, place ONE kernel in the hot oil and COVER. Listen for the pop! Immediately pour in only enough popcorn to form a single layer covering the bottom of the pan. COVER. As the corn pops, shake the pan frequently to rearrange the kernels. Youd be wise to hold the lid tight with your second hand. Decrease the heat or remove pan from stove frequently as the rate of pop decreases. As soon as the popping stops or slows to only a pop every few seconds, take it off the heat.

Avoid an attack by searing hot popcorn! There is always one ornery kernel that will pop in your face if you eyeball your results. Turn the pan opening away from you and empty into the bowl as soon as the popping has stopped; otherwise, you get steamed, soggy popcorn. Yuck.

Better to leave unpopped kernels than to burn some. One burned kernel will flavor the whole batch.

Paddle in the salt to your hearts desire. Munch.