Guess Who's Coming to Dinner 

Whipping up a gourmet meal from your corner mini-mart is easier than you think.

Oh dear. There you are, watching your favorite reality show, when the phone rings. Why, it's Alice Waters calling, and she's going to be at your home in an hour! All you have in the fridge is a bag of slippery lettuce, some unidentifiable fuzzy things, and a shriveled-up starfruit. But with the help of the convenience store down the street and a little creativity, you can whip up a gourmet dinner in no time.

Why would anyone want to shop at a convenience store, when there are real stores with shopping carts and club cards and perky employees that address you by your last name and carry your case of Oly out to the car? Well, because your lazy, nongourmand husband took the car to get a burrito down on East 14th, and now you've only got 55 minutes before Alice is knock-knock-knocking on your door. Besides, as a certified Convenience Store Chef, you love a challenge. Using only the items at the corner mini-mart, can you whip up a knock-'er-dead meal? (No, not literally.) Given the time constraints, the lack of choice makes shopping simpler. There are no exotic melons to feel up, no fretting over whether the salmon is wild or farm-bred, no asking the butcher to debone a free-range whatever.

Those old cookbooks you bought last week at the Ashby Flea Market are tailor-made for convenience store wizardry. Most rely heavily on frozen and canned food, instant potatoes, mayonnaise, tuna, crackers, and the most versatile food ever invented, Bisquick. And even though flashier foodstuffs like Gummi Worms and energy drinks have usurped shelf space, the intrepid explorer can spelunk for flour, eggs, milk, domestic cheeses, tortillas, spongy bread, vintage pie shells, and interesting breakfast meats. Which means, resourceful chef, you can whip up a zabaglione, fresh pasta, quiches, and even light-as-air soufflés in no time, all from ingredients purchased at the gas station.

But why stop at the obvious? You can try Slim Jim tartare, Bisquick tacos with tuna and Velveeta, Clamato risotto, or a hearty Top Ramen stew -- perfect on a blustery day. It may be tough to find all the ingredients at a corner market, but America is a country built on creative food such as fatback and squirrel brains. It doesn't seem that big a deal to substitute Cheez Whiz for crème fraîche if you're mixing up, say, a batch of Coquilles St. Jacques á la Fondue.

While strolling down those fluorescent aisles, you'll encounter such East Bay types as Shifty Guy, shuffling toward the Hungry Man Salisbury Steak while clutching his copy of The Spectator. (Ladies, do not make eye contact.) Shoplifting Youth will be pillaging the candy aisles. These guys 'n' gals openly mock the signs that read "one student at a time" as they plunder the store for Jolly Ranchers. Meanwhile, Sullen Counter Man is busy ringing up Stoner and his Slurpee. Ignore these people. You have dinner to make.

Speaking of dinner, here are a few tummy teasers. Hurry Hurry Ham is always popular and, after getting a load of these ingredients, you'll see why. It's also incredibly simple to make, a good thing since Alice is always prompt.

In a large skillet, heat until bubbly the contents of one can of cherry pie filling. If your filling station doesn't stock filling, buy two Hostess cherry tarts and gently squeeze out the insides, setting aside the crusts for hot pockets at a later date. Add a few teaspoons of cut-up crystallized ginger; if you can't find ginger, you can substitute Pop Rocks for dramatic sound effects. Cut the contents of two cans of canned ham in half lengthwise and sauté in a pan until browned. Spoon pie filling over ham, cover, and simmer for about half an hour while occasionally basting the ham with the drippings. Serve as an appetizer; a very large glass of rosé would be the perfect accompaniment.

A brief note about wine. Wine aficionados have been heralding -- nay, blathering -- about the return of rosé for the past several years. But we convenience shoppers knew all along what wine snobs are just discovering: Those pink wines will get you stinko in no time.

Here's a recipe that one Convenience Store Chef calls Damn, I'm Classy Beef. You take some white wine, beef jerky, a couple cans of mushroom soup, a handful of cheese, some pimentos or canned jalapeños, and you stir it all together and serve over toast points, whatever the hell they are.

Martinis being all the rage, another Convenience Store Chef offers his invention, the Slurptini. This beverage contains vodka and blue raspberry Slurpee. Top it off with a spicy jalapeño garnish. After one taste, Alice might be heard whispering, "This must be what they serve in heaven."

Lack of space prevents the inclusion of delicious corner store versions of lobster thermidor and rack of lamb. But as long as you let your imagination and your palate guide you into a new frontier, you'll have no problem creating your very own scrumptious recipes. Brrrring! Doorbell!

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