"What?!" I asked, panicked for her, "How are you going to do that?"
"Easy," she said, "Go to eatZi's and buy the pasta, then go home and mess up a few dishes. Voila! My famous bowtie pasta."
There are times, especially during the holiday rush, when a person simply runs out of time. Yet dinner for visitors needs to make it to the table. Or a dish you've promised needs to appear at a gathering. When you're out of time, can't, or just don't care to cook, there are plenty of store-bought options that, with minor prep work, can be passed off as your own.
With pre-made items, though, beware the perfection factor. Unless you're a master gourmand, homemade items often have loving little glitches that, just like glops of stray glue on a homemade card, let you know that it's for-real homemade. That's why you have to mess up your store-bought food a little -- add an extra sauce, include a personal garnish, use your own serving dishes, lump individual serving selections together. You may have to dirty some dishes, but it can all be done in minutes.
Just be sure to dispose of the boxes.
At The Easy Way Out, the name says it all. Present owners Kirsten Bradford and Daniel Gallo prepare an extensive array of dishes in this little gem tucked next to an abandoned gas station near Peachtree Battle Shopping Center. The food is homey enough to avoid suspicion of take-away cheating, but sophisticated enough to still warrant nods of appreciation when it arrives at the table. Look for entree offerings of beef Stroganoff ($12.95 per pound) and poached salmon with tomato-olive relish ($8.95 per pound). Good side dishes include squash casserole with dill, and broccoli with red onions and capers (both $7.95 per pound). Meals from here have been the secret ingredient of so many Buckhead dinner parties over the years that the store offers house accounts for regular customers. 2449 Peachtree Road, 404-262-9944.
Wade through the throng at eatZi's, the popular take-out chain in Buckhead, and ponder the selections in the wrap-around deli case placed center stage. Choose pork tenderloin with bourbon peach glaze ($12.99 per pound) and cornbread ($4.99) for a Southern feast, or individual meatloaves ($6.99 each) and scalloped potatoes ($1.99 per slice) for an evening of comfort food. Pre-made salads, crusty breads, and a small but strong selection of wine keep you from having to run to 12 different stores to put dinner on the table. Avoid serving the store's signature quesadillas with sour cream-tomato salsa and guacamole: They're a take-away giveaway. 3221 Peachtree Road, 404-237-2266, www.eatzis.com.
Impress guests with your Italian repertoire by picking up an authentic Bolognese lasagne ($40 per pan) from La Piccolina. Not a dollop of ricotta in sight, this beauty gets its creaminess from bechamel sauce and its depth from a rich meat sauce (a vegetarian version is also available). Imported olives and homemade bread round out the meal. It may be tricky to pass off the moist, boozy rum cake ($10) as your own, but it's worth a try. 'Fess up, but only to dessert, and only if you have to. While there, order one of the crusty, delicious grilled sandwiches to sustain you as you pretend to slave away in the kitchen. 2834 Franklin St., Avondale Estates, 404-296-1624, www.lapiccolina.com.
Customers in the know swing by Mimi's In A Minute each Monday for a menu of the week's dinner specials. Not so much for a formal meal as for an impromptu gathering of friends on a weeknight, the specials (typically between $8.50 and $11 per serving) include family-style favorites like chicken con queso and shrimp and grits. The store also has a deli case full of side dishes and salads, and I've been to more than one dinner party where I've seen Mimi's three-cheese stuffed new potatoes sitting proudly on the table. The host or hostess smiled graciously when a guest inevitably commented on how delicious they were. I kept my eyes on my plate and kept my mouth shut, but the jig is up. 3125-A Briarcliff Road, 404-636-5800.
Need to sweep your paramour off his or her feet? Star Provisions has just the thing. The pre-assembled meals, labeled Mise En Place, come elegantly packaged for two. Start with blue crab fritters in Thai citrus essence ($12), then move onto beef tenderloin with roasted fingerling potatoes ($30) or salmon with spinach and black truffle vinaigrette ($28). Finish the meal with brie de meaux from Star's cheese shop, or an elegant, seasonal tart ($9 to $12) from the bakery. All right, so you're setting a really bad precedent by fooling someone into thinking you've concocted food this well-conceived, but they'll be so seduced by your good taste that they probably won't mind when they find out you can't pull it off every night. 1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-365-0410, www.starprovisions.com.
Though Whole Foods Market has a diverse selection of prepared foods, the side dishes are your best bets here. The friendly staff will let you sample your way through the ever-changing choices, which on a recent visit included grilled asparagus salad ($7.99 per pound), Indian-spiced spinach ($5.99 per pound) and cinnamon-roasted winter squash ($5.49 per pound). If you're desperate for an entree, go with the free-range rotisserie chicken ($7.99 apiece), which you can keep warm and triumphantly pull from the oven as your guests arrive. The clear winner for desserts here is the bourbon chocolate pecan pie ($15.99). Appearance of pies varies: Sometimes it looks as if someone threw the mess in the oven and called it a day. Other times, it looks like a stoned person lovingly devoted hours to meticulously arranging the pecans in perfect circles. Hope for the former, but perfect-looking pecans are easily masked with fresh whipped cream. 2111 Briarcliff Road, 404-634-7800; 1180 Upper Hembree Road, Alpharetta, 770-664-6300, and other locations, www.wholefoods.com.
As for how to respond to recipe requests when guests rave about your culinary genius? Sorry, you're on your own.