What to Cook When Your Kids Go to College?

Whatever you want! Try this recipe for an empty house

I just sent my youngest kid, Jake, off to college. It was one of those occasions that prompt you to examine your past, your future, whether there was any meaning to it all, and whether there’s any sense in going on. In a desperate attempt to cheer myself up, I began, long before the fated day, to contemplate the ways in which life might actually improve when my husband Doug and I were once again, after 21 years, home alone.

Okay, the house would stay cleaner. Less laundry. No more empty rooms lit up like Christmas trees, or the accordant electric bills. No more puddles of toothpaste in the sink, or bathmats soaked and shoved in a corner. No more waking to Grand Theft Auto serenades. No more cartons with one half-tablespoon of ice cream left put back in the freezer. And speaking of the freezer, no more exploded cans of Red Bull in there. Not to mention no more iced green tea with mango clogging up the refrigerator’s top shelf, or demands for more, more, more frozen burritos, or six-packs of Gatorade crammed atop the eggs.

My God. There would be room in the fridge.

And not just in the fridge—in my repertoire. My older child, Marcy, is an omnivore who’ll try anything—sweetbreads, soft-shell crabs, alligator, leeks. Jake, ironically because he’s a huge football lineman, is the world’s pickiest eater. He doesn’t really like vegetables, except for steamed broccoli. He doesn’t care for potatoes, or stews, or meat that in any way resembles the animal from which it came. (Sausage and ground beef are okay.) His favorite foods are tacos and spaghetti with meatballs. He would eat them every day if he could—and at college no doubt will.

But now he’s gone, and I’m free to experiment however I please when it comes to dinner. The more I think about this, the less his departure stings. No meaning to life? I can make pad Thai for supper! I can serve a Caprese salad, or brussels sprouts, or cassoulet, and not be made to feel I’m a bad person. And I can use mushrooms anytime I want, in anything I want. Jake really hated mushrooms.

For our first dinner after his departure, I made this and served it over sautéed polenta. He would have been appalled.

Mushroom Ragu

1 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 c. eggplant, peeled and cut in half-inch cubes
1 lb. assorted mushrooms—I used shiitakes, oysters, maitakes, enokis, buttons and lion’s mane—washed, trimmed and sliced
¾ c. dry red wine (I used cheap merlot)
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat, then add garlic. Sauté two minutes, then add onion. Sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. (I added a little salt now.) Add the eggplant and mushrooms and continue to sauté, stirring occasionally, until they become limp and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the red wine and simmer for another 15 minutes. Taste and season. Serve over sautéed or grilled polenta or cooked pasta.

Serves three—Marcy was still home, and she loved this, especially the lion’s mane mushrooms.

“I’m glad he’s gone,” she said.

SANDY HINGSTON is a senior editor at Philadelphia magazine.