The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Home Cooking From a Can? Not!

Sometimes my wife and I find supermarkets to be strange and wondrous places. For instance, our local market has a beautiful produce section and a nice meat department; both of which are usually quite deserted. But head on over to aisle 5 where they stock the Hamburger Helper, the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and the Rice-A-Roni and you practically have to elbow your way down the aisle. Same thing applies to the frozen food section.

Regardless of a new focus on fresh, scratch-made home cooking these days, nobody really seems to be doing it.

My wife shakes her head in bewilderment as she wanders down the “baking” aisle. “Look at all these cake and frosting mixes,” she muses. “Don't people know how easy it is to make cakes and frosting from scratch?” I feel the same way about packaged side dishes. I sat down and analyzed a box of chicken (flavored) Rice-a-Roni a few years back and duplicated it in my kitchen so exactly that nobody has ever been able to tell the difference. My macaroni and cheese beats anything from a box. And instead of using dehydrated potato flakes, how hard is it to boil a potato and mash it up with some milk and butter? And yet, even as we supposedly become more aware of the value of fresh food and home cooking, more and more of these “convenience” items are populating our store shelves every day.

The latest source of amazement for my wife and me? Canned and packaged “sauce starters.” Oh, the little foil packets of powdered cheese sauce and chili sauce and Bearnaise sauce mix made by McCormick or Knorr have been around forever. I mean, who hasn't made a delicious plate of pasta using McCormick's “Italian Style Spaghetti Sauce Mix flavored with Mushrooms”? Well, I haven't, but.....

I don't think anybody has ever really tried to market those things as an alternative to homemade. They are what they are. And, by the way, here's what they are, at least in the case of the aforementioned spaghetti sauce: Potato Starch, Sugar, Salt, Onion, Maltodextrin, Whey Solids, Paprika, Mushrooms, Spices (Including Basil, Oregano, and Black Pepper), garlic, Nonfat Dry milk Solids, Buttermilk Solids, American Cheese (Milk, Salt, Cheese Cultures and Enzymes), Silicon Dioxide (Added to Make Free Flowing), Reduced Lactose Whey Solids, Parsley, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Cream Solids, Lactic Acid, FD&C Yellows 5 and 6, and Red 40, Garlic Oil, and Onion Oil. All that and a generous 490 mg of sodium per serving.

While I do, indeed, use onion, basil, oregano, and garlic in my spaghetti sauce, I've never tried it with potato starch, maltodextrin, silicon dioxide, FD&C Yellows 5 and 6, and Red 40. Call me crazy.

But now “Big Soup” is getting into the mix. (Sorry, I couldn't help it.) Campbell's and Progresso both offer a line of “starters.” The Campbell's products come in packets labeled “Skillet Sauces,” and Progresso puts theirs in cans that say “Recipe Starters Cooking Sauce.” Just add meat and veggies and you have a delicious, home-cooked meal. Sort of.

After checking out the ingredients on these things, I have to admit they are nominally better than most of their counterparts. They're still a little heavy on the sodium, but they are generally free of excessive dyes and chemicals and artificial ingredients. As a matter of fact, the Progresso Fire Roasted Tomato sauce contains: Water, Tomato Paste, Fire Roasted Tomatoes, Fire Roasted Red Bell Peppers, Sugar, Cream, Basil. Contains less than 1% of: Wheat Flour Bleached, Soybean Oil, Salt, Modified Food Starch, Natural Flavor, Calcium Chloride, Ascorbic Acid, Oregano, Garlic Powder, Yeast Extract, Citric Acid. And, as mentioned, 340 mg of sodium per serving.

Ostensibly, Progresso is flogging this product as a canned alternative to the conventional fresh-made “mother sauces” you would find in a professional kitchen. "Sauces are the foundation for delicious meals, but families do not always have the time to create these sauces from scratch," says Progresso New Products Marketing Manager Allen Gerten. "To help families overcome this hurdle, we created Progresso Recipe Starters in our kitchens, so they can save time in theirs."

Respectfully, Mr. Gerten, have you ever made a “mother sauce” at home? Béchamel, for example? It's flour, butter, and milk. Melt the butter and stir in the flour, creating a roux. Add the milk and season with a little salt and you have a basic, scratch-made béchamel sauce in about five minutes. Where's the time factor and the difficulty in that? Okay, so it's easier to open a can and plop the contents in a pot, but, come on!

You want a nice five-minute tomato sauce? The only can you need is one with the tomatoes in it. That and some olive oil, onion, garlic, basil, and a pinch of salt. Cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil, add the tomatoes and the basil, season with salt and you're done. For this you need a prepared “starter” in a package or a can?

Alright, so it's better than the powdered orange cheese-like substance in a box or popping the lid on a can of Spaghetti-Os. I'll give you that. But making a decent home-cooked meal from scratch is – not – that – hard! And you don't need “recipe starters,” “skillet sauces,” or any of that pre-packaged junk.

Most weeknights, my wife walks in about 5:45. She puts down her purse, hangs up her coat, and let's the dog out. By six o'clock, we're in the kitchen. I'm prepping veg, she's prepping protein, and the starch of choice is in the pot or pan. Somewhere between 6:15 and 6:30, we're sitting down to a restaurant-quality meal that you will never find in a box, can, or frozen package.

Do I take shortcuts? Of course I take shortcuts! One day last week, I spent a few minutes chopping and freezing some carrots, celery, and red and green peppers. I breaded some nice chicken cutlets in Parmesan and seasoned breadcrumbs and threw them in the freezer. Whack up an onion, crush up some garlic, chop a little tomato, grab some olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pasta takes eight minutes on the stovetop while the chicken's sautéing with the veg. Put it all together and you've got dinner. Fresh, flavorful, home-cooked dinner in about twenty minutes without a box or a can in sight.

My wife wanted a salad last night. She picked up a bagged mix on her way home. Nothing wrong with that. We chopped up some tomatoes and cucumbers to add to the mix. She boiled and chopped a couple of eggs while I cooked and crumbled up some bacon. A quick vinaigrette of olive oil, white wine vinegar, and salt and we called it dinner. Twenty minutes, including the time it took to boil the eggs.

The whole concept of the stressed-out, time-pressed home cook who has to rely on these wonderful convenience products in order to turn out decent meals is nothing but Madison Avenue dreck. It takes eight to ten minutes to make macaroni and cheese from a box and it takes eight to ten minutes to make it from scratch. What's the difference? Besides taste and quality?

Don't fall for these gimmicks. Don't be fooled. Fresh is better in every way. And it's cheaper. You can make a quart of sauce using fresh ingredients for what you'll pay for a can of “starter.” Put away the can opener and make something great tonight. You can do it.

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