Post # 178 Takin’ the Easy Way Out!

October 14, 2013 at 3:06 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post # 178 Takin’ the Easy Way Out!

I won’t burst into song, although I’m tempted.  The Beatles are one of my favorite groups.  Nope, today I’m going to talk about short cuts in cooking, mostly the already prepared stuff you find in the grocery.  And it all starts because I was describing making dinner to a friend over the weekend, and they were amazed when I talked about the mashed potatoes.  You see, for not other reason than we just love freshly roasted turkey, we had a full on turkey dinner yesterday.  The turkey was in a roasting bag and was already prepped with butter and herbs.  The bag made it self basting and much easier clean up.  I stuck it in the oven for about four hours, turned the oven off and left the bird there to soak up its own juices and finish cooking completely.

It was the sides that made my friend’s jaw drop.  Earlier in the afternoon, I steamed some frozen Brussels Sprouts.  When they were done, I drained them, put them in a decorative bowl, and put them in the fridge to chill.  Just before serving, I shook a bottle of champagne vinaigrette and poured over the sprouts.  I added some already grated cheddar cheese, a small handful of roasted sunflower seeds, tossed the lot together, and topped it with crispy fried onions from a box.  While I was doing that, I had a pan of water on the stove heating to a boil.  I used instant mashed potato powder to make a bowlful of mashed potatoes.  A whisk, some elbow grease, hot water, and packet of this wonder, and voila!  You couldn’t get any easier.

I know lots of people who, if they read this, would be just as surprised as my friend from yesterday.  For a very long time in my cooking career, I looked down my nose at anyone who didn’t make everything from scratch.  It’s just as easy, most times, and tastes so much better because you can control the ingredients.  But as I got busier, and my cooking requirements changed from cooking for others to cooking for just myself, I found that short cuts and “the easy way” weren’t necessarily bad.  I rediscovered some childhood favorites, and discovered that many of the old standbys had been reinvented and remastered so they were healthier and tastier.

Cooking from scratch can be easy.  Most of the things people like to eat are fairly simple given the time, the practice, and the availability of ingredients.  Recently, I’ve taken on barbeque beans and tweaked it into something “world famous” as my sister has named them.  I have to admit, they are good.  It’s a two step process, and it time consuming.  Except the time is mostly in slow cooking and you can be doing something else while they are cooking.  A batch of chocolate chip cookies, for me, is the easiest thing in the world.  That’s mostly because I’ve been making them for so long, I can do it in my sleep, so the process is refined to the point of zero wasted steps.  The longest part is waiting for the oven to heat up.  But it does take prep and planning.  Years ago, when I was sharing an apartment with two guys in the Navy, one of them told me a little gem of wisdom that has stuck with me till today.  We were discussing vegetables.  I like vegetables better than I like fruit because fruit tends to be too sweet for me.  He reached for frozen vegetable, and grabbed the top of the line brand which was more expensive, but only by a few cents.  His explanation was “I’ve long believed that the best produce that gets harvested goes to the top brand.”  It made sense.

The mashed potato mix I use is from a company called Idahoan which makes me think it’s part of the Idaho Potatoes company but that’s just pure supposition on my part.  Each pouch makes two cups of mashed potatoes which feeds my family of three quite well.  The come in a huge variety of flavors and I’ve never seen them any higher than a dollar a packet.  They go on sale often and when they do, we stock up.  They’re so well flavored that I seldom make gravy for them, although sometimes I do, just cuz we like gravy.  Last night, I made one called Loaded Baked Potato which really tasted like a baked potato that had been mashed with bacon, onion, sour cream, and butter!  We’ve had garlic mashed potatoes, red skin mashed potatoes, and plain buttery mashed potatoes.  And they’re gluten free!  wink wink nudge nudge.  And salad kits are the best!  Instead of having to fix us an entire head of lettuce, the salad kit has pre-measured everything you need for whatever kind of salad you bought.  Lots of times, I’ll make up the salad kit and add a couple of my own vegetables to it.  Just watch the package though.  Try not to buy a salad kit with lettuce that’s going brown at the edges.  It won’t taste good.

In today’s society, many families  have both parents working outside the home.  Kids are involved in different activities that add to the confusion and stress of daily life.  Anything that can help de-stress the home cook is “not to be sneezed at” as my Mom used to say.   Food manufacturers  have paid attention to their customers and are providing the kinds of foods they need.  But you have to shop smart.  The cheaper something is, the less likely it will taste good or be nutritious.  That’s not to say it can’t be, it’s just less likely to be.  Organic means different things to different people, so if your mix says organic, check it out.  The USDA defines organic foods as those that have had minimal industrial processing, but that’s still a fairly loose term.   What I do when I see a new short cut product is buy one.  If there are multiple versions of the product, like the flavors in the mashed potatoes, I buy the one I think my family will like the best.  I tell them ahead of time that it’s a mix, and after we finish eating, and sometimes while we’re eating, we’ll decide whether or not to add it to our pantry.  I try to be careful about what ingredients are in the mixes I buy since you never know what is going to react with what.

I’ve left the discussion about rice mixes to the end.  As you know, if you’ve looked through this blog before, I like rice.  It’s close to my favorite food.  For me, cooking rice is so ridiculously easy that I don’t even think about it any more.  The dogs need rice for dinner?  I’m on it.  The neighborhood is having a potluck?  I’ll fix ’em a bowl of rice and nuts.  We want a quiet, no fuss dinner?  Rice and meat cooked together.  Rice is wonderful stuff.  Some of the mixes are too.  The brand Near East makes several rice pilafs that are killer.  Goya makes a Yellow Spanish Rice mix that we have three or four times a month.  We get a saffron rice mix in an aluminum pouch whose name escapes me right now about once a month.  But this is definitely an area where cheap is not better.  The less you spend (unless it’s on sale), the lower the quality.  Many companies make up flavor with salt in various forms.  Also, in order to cut costs to keep the product profitable, lots of times instead of vegetables you get vegetable “flavoring” whatever the heck that is.  And trust me.  It is a sin to ever fix “instant” rice.  It’s more expensive than regular rice and any nutrition that was in it is processed out of it.  If you don’t have thirty minutes to cook rice, don’t plan on eating rice.  Even the good mixes take 20-30 minutes.  Any mix that takes “just 5 minutes from stove to bowl” is using instant rice.  But again, it takes experimentation to find the ones you’ll like and fit your budget.

Well, I hope this helps you out.  Let me know if you have any questions.  Enjoy!  Just not the instant rice stuff.

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