There comes a time in every bad cook's life when guests arrive for dinner. And just because you don't know your way around the grocery store, much less around the kitchen, is no reason to despair. If you can't make it, you can always fake it. Here's how it's done.
A good presentation does wonders for a mediocre meal. Drizzle your sauce. As Take Home Chef Curtis Stone says, "It's all in the drizzle." And as culinary grouch Anthony Bourdain says, squirting sauce all over the plate is just another way to hide the fact that the food is mediocre. So if your cooking is mediocre, drizzle and squirt away. Serve your food on white or solid color plates. Keep a plastic squeeze bottle or two on hand and drizzle the sauce around the food, and throw in a zig-zag or lightning bolt atop the food itself. You don't even need to make the sauce. If you drizzle it, your guests will just assume you've made it, even if it's just mayonnaise or mustard. But whip it up first with a wire whisk to make it silkier and squirt better. Leave the whisk lying around in the kitchen, so they'll see it.
If anyone asks what's in the sauce, just shrug and say something like, "Oh, it's the easiest thing in the world, all you do is -- damn! I almost forgot the capers!" Then run to the fridge and grab some capers. Buy them in bulk at Costco. Better yet, buy big ones with stems and drop a couple on every plate. It doesn't matter what you're serving. Ever since chocolate-covered bacon, anything flies. It's a post-modern thing, so go for it.
If you don't have enough sauce to drizzle, spoon it on. Even a pan-fried burger tastes better with just a spoonful of sauce on top. You don't need a whole pan of sauce to improve your food; just a touch of whatever juices or oils are left in the pan can turn a bland fried slab of meat into something, well, camouflaged as superb. Glisten your food with pan juices. And don't forget the capers.
Use cookie cutters. Next time you're in a cooking store because someone else made you tag along, pick up some round, triangular and heart shaped cookie cutters, the kind that have no center handle. Or just open up a can of tuna fish from both ends. Place one on the plate, in the center, or off to the side. Pile your food into the cookie cutter or tuna can (wash first), whether it's rice, mashed avocado, spinach, or instant macaroni and cheese. Lift the cookie cutter, and voilá, it miraculously looks better. Unless it's too runny and starts to spread across the plate like the Wicked Witch of the West melting before your very eyes. If that happens, spread it into some curvy shape that makes it look like you intended it to have that effect. Pretend you're Kandinsky and marvel at your own brilliance. Even if you wreck it, at least you'll be smiling.
Garnish with flair. If you have a food processor, buy some fresh parsley, wash and dry it well, and then toss in the food processor. Put it in a freezer bag and freeze. When in need, just pull a bit out of the freezer. Don't worry about it being frozen; it will thaw by the time it hits the table. Sprinkle a bit -- less is more here -- over your food, preferably from a dramatic height, like two feet above the food and toss with a flick of your wrist. Your food will look better, and you will feel better, because you will get a kick out of pretending to be a chef if only for the second it takes you to drop a green leafy substance onto your food as you announce it's finally perfect. And if you don't have parsley, run outside and find the nearest rose bush. Sprinkle some petals all over the plate and pray your neighbors don't use pesticides. Call whatever you're serving "Persian."
Grind your salt. Anyone can grind pepper, but only serious cooks grind salt. So if you have a salt grinder on hand, even if you serve a mediocre meal, your guests will assume you're just preoccupied with other matters but actually know how to cook. The Mastrad Wobble Grinder is an affordable one and very easy to fill. If you can't find coarse salt in the store, you can order it on-line. Don't cringe about the price; since you don't really cook, it'll last you forever, and it tastes way better. And if salt grinding is going entirely too far, buy a box of kosher salt and keep it in a bowl by the stove. You'll never shake again.
Remember: certain things get thicker and richer when you crank up the heat and boil them down. This includes anything with cream (don't try it with milk or half and half, you'll just wreck it), and any broth or wine or juice or anything with sugar. The very same principle that makes it so easy to burn your food, makes it just as easy to improve it. Water evaporates when it's heated. If you pour cream or broth or wine into a pan you've just fried something in, crank up the heat and watch it boil. Stir occasionally, but keep an eye on it. You'll see it thicken before your very eyes; it's called "reducing the sauce."
Add a teaspoonful of mustard, or a splash of white wine, or some herbs. When it's thick, spoon or drizzle it on your food. Garnish like a mad abstract painter and serve, preferably with your hair tousled wildly and your clothes halfway coming off, just in case.
Most food is ruined when it's overcooked, over-complicated, or over-processed. Keep it simple. Use just a few ingredients, and stop cooking it before you think it's done. Chances are you'll overcook it. Pasta should be al dente not mushy. Vegetables should have a crunch. Get an instant read thermometer and remember that any meat over 165 is better off embalmed. One hundred thirty five degrees is medium rare. Know those two temperatures and you can probably figure out when almost anything is done. You want red meat pink, and white meat white. And whatever you do, let your meat sit five or so minutes when you take it off the heat. Don't cut into it until then or the blood will spill all over the place. That's what they call "the juices." Keep your juices in your meat until they settle down. And be sure to slap the hands of any guests who dare play with your meat before its time. They'll be impressed and want it even more.
When in doubt, watch YouTube. You can learn almost any cooking technique from a three minute YouTube video, at least long enough to fake it. Want to know how to carve a chicken, make a pot of rice or cut up an onion? Watch YouTube, but don't get distracted by the viral videos or you might burn the house down. Turn burners off before turning computers on. Better yet, watch the videos before you enter the kitchen.
Remember: even if your con game fails and your guest turns out to be a culinary genius, they'll adore you. The better the cook, the less likely anyone invites them over for dinner. Good cooks know that it can be just as hard to make a mediocre dinner as a great one, and for novice cooks, it's even harder. They will be delighted to sit down and have someone serve them supper, so lavish them with your cooking and remember what Julia Child said: Never apologize for your cooking.
Finally, remember the three principles of the con: greed, social compliance and distraction. Your guests are greedy for a good meal, a good time, and easily distracted. So tousle your hair, unbutton your clothes, and drizzle them with your talents. After all, when con-artist cooking meets con-artist dining, everyone ends up laughing.