Prepared for dinner

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Pfffffft. Splorp.

Freed from the confines of its tin can, the gelatinous tube of cream of chicken soup plopped into the bowl of shredded chicken and canned artichoke hearts. The mayonnaise, canned mushrooms and sour cream went in next. Splorp. Splorp. Splorp.

This was the sound of a midweek evening meal, the sound of a cook with too many jobs, too little time and too few ideas. This was the sound of assembling some ingredients, tossing them into a 13-inch-by-9-inch-by-2-inch Pyrex casserole and pronouncing it dinner.

"Nothing says dinner like 'splorp,' " a friend at work joked when I confessed that I had recently made a June Cleaver-worthy casserole mostly out of prepared foods. She was kidding, of course. But she was also right. I had no need to feel guilty. Cooking with prepared foods isn't the deep, dark secret it used to be.

Grocery aisles are filled with complete dinners in a box or bag. Just open, pour and heat, and within 20 minutes you'll dig into a Homestyle Bake or a Skillet Sensation. And in the bookstore, cookbooks specializing in everything from soup mix (The Soup Mix Gourmet) to cake mix (The Cake Mix Doctor) promise the home cook delicious results in mere minutes.

"People with three and four children - it's enough of a sweat just to get dinner out, it doesn't have to be some elaborate meal," says Anne Byrn, author of The Dinner Doctor (Workman Publishing Co., 2003, $14.95), a fix-it-fast dinner cookbook that was published last fall on the heels of the success of her first book, The Cake Mix Doctor (Workman Publishing Co., 1999, $14.95), which has nearly two million copies in print.

And it's not just a weeknight-with-the-kids kind of dinner either. On her popular Food Network cooking show Almost Homemade, host Sandra Lee uses 70 percent prepared foods plus 30 percent fresh ingredients to turn out such company-worthy dishes as ready-made mashed potatoes doctored with rosemary and heavy cream, steak stuffed with Stove Top and lemon chiffon pie in a ready-made crust, served from its shiny foil pie plate.

This is the kind of cooking that starts with a tin of tuna, not a slab of sushi-grade fillet, uses canned chicken broth, not long-simmered stock, and frosts the cake with, well, a can of frosting. Bagged salad, frozen mashed potatoes, store-bought rotisserie chicken, bottled barbecue sauce - it's all good with the added dash of this or dab of that to spice things up.

Given our busy schedules and the ease of takeout pizza and fast-food drive-throughs, no one seems to be cooking from scratch much anymore anyway. Only 32 percent of main meals prepared inside the home last year were made from scratch, according to the NPD Group, a market-research company based in Port Washington, N.Y. And that's a drop from a decade ago, when 38.3 percent of main meals were made from scratch.

"Americans want cheap and quick fuel," Harry Balzer, a vice president of the NPD Group, says, noting that three out of four restaurant meals purchased are bought at a fast-food restaurant. "They're not looking for a dining experience."

Which leads one to wonder: Can embellishing a bag of salad or making a casserole with a takeout chicken be considered cooking?

Well, it depends on whom you ask.

Amanda Hesser, a food writer for The New York Times, condemned the style of cooking (as done in Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade books) in a recent story as "a kind of faux cooking" using books that encourage "a dislike for cooking and gives people an excuse for feeding themselves and their families mediocre food filled with preservatives."

In contrast, Byrn, a former food editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has an alternate definition of cooking, and this qualifies. "This is definitely cooking," she said. "Cooking is getting in the kitchen and putting food on the table you enjoy and your family enjoys."

Turning one's nose up at such ingredients as frozen corn and canned bread-stick dough isn't going to get a fast dinner on the table, Byrn said. Sometimes, you just have to do what's convenient.

Claire Mathews McGinnis, a college religion professor who has two children aged 7 and 3, spends time in her Rodgers Forge kitchen on weekends, creating recipes from one of her many cookbooks, dishes like cottage-cheese frittatas and quinoa timbales with currants. But on weeknights, when she has limited time and a hungry family to feed, it's a different story.

"During the week, my goal is to get food on the table that's healthy and that my kids will eat within 15 to 20 minutes," she said. Over the last few months she's tested a couple of recipes from The Dinner Doctor, which she received for Christmas, with varying results. Slow cooker macaroni and cheese with its gluey noodles and gloppy cheese was a "flop." But the fast fried rice "was a huge hit," said McGinnis.

And even though the book has given her some great ideas on transforming leftover rice into some decent side dishes, she wouldn't go so far as to call the recipes "cooking."

"In the spectrum of cooking there is Julia Child at one end, where it's about cooking as creative expression," she says. "At the other end is food assembly. On weekends I do the real cooking."

Convenience cooking from prepared foods isn't anything new, says Andrew Schloss, a former chef who is the author of Almost From Scratch: 600 Recipes for the New Convenience Cuisine (Simon & Schuster, 2003, $25). Food manufacturers have long put recipes on the back of boxes as a way to promote their products.

"Americans have always sought ways to streamline cooking. It's one of the things that defines American food," said Schloss, a former professional chef who now helps food companies develop new products through his Elkins Park, Pa.-based company. "The difference in what's happening now is that ethnic foods have become part of the convenience revolution. Convenience ingredients in supermarkets now are markedly different than a decade ago, ... and they're allowing home cooks to cook like professional chefs."

A chef in a restaurant who was making chicken breast stuffed with pesto in a sun-dried tomato demiglace would have had the pesto and demiglace made, the sun-dried tomatoes soaked in oil and seasonings and the rub mixture for the trimmed chicken breast already made before a diner even ordered the dish, Schloss said. "As the chef, I would assemble it when the order came in. In 15 minutes, it's on a plate."

Supermarkets now provide home cooks all of the pre-made preparations for what a chef might have in a restaurant. "You can get pesto in a jar, sun-dried tomatoes in oil in a jar or tube, rubs of every variety and concentrated demiglace," he said. "You can make dinner like you get in a restaurant. That's a different kind of convenience cooking than it was in the '50s."

Instead of opening up a can of soup and using it as soup or even as shortcut gravy, Schloss emphasizes finding new uses for convenience foods. Instant black beans aren't just for dip, they're used as a thickener in a delicious black bean soup that takes five minutes to prepare.

Corn-bread mix becomes Cranberry Almond Biscotti. And Baker's Joy No Stick Spray With Flour isn't just for greasing cake pans. Schloss sprays it on meat to prevent sticking when sauteing.

"I don't think if you're doing something fast or from packaged ingredients that it's lesser than if you're making it from scratch," he said. "It's the art of putting together that makes it good or bad."

Chef Rich Stuthmann, director of instruction at Baltimore International College, shows his culinary students how to make homemade beef stock - a task that can take four to eight hours. "Then you make the sauce," he said.

Stuthmann also informs the students that good commercial beef bases are available when they don't have time to make stock from scratch. "It's always best to do it the correct way, but sometimes we have time constraints," said Stuthmann, who has been cooking for 30 years. "In the real world, prepared foods survive, but we try not to take all of the shortcuts. The key is to use as much fresh ingredients as possible. Don't cut quality."

At home Stuthmann says he prefers to make veal stock from scratch, not use base, because the flavor is better. However, when it comes to feeding his family dinner - he has a 12-year-old and 7-year-old twins - the chef admits that he's not as exacting.

Whereas cooking dinner for his foodie friends might find him whipping up homemade pasta with homemade Alfredo sauce, the family gets buttered Barilla pasta from the box dusted with freshly grated Pecorino-Romano cheese. That's what the family likes, he said. "They get to grate their own cheese," Stuthmann said.

To fix it fast

Getting dinner on the table fast takes a stocked larder and some tried-and-true combinations that will get you through in a pinch:

Angel-hair pasta. In the four minutes it takes for this pasta to cook, mix up some chopped tomatoes, fresh basil, crushed garlic and olive oil to go with it. Or top with butter and freshly grated cheese.

Eggs. Transform leftover cooked ham, cheese and onions into a frittata, or toss sauteed spinach, mushrooms and feta into an omelet.

Rice. Cook double the amount you need for one dinner and stir-fry the leftover rice with pork, chicken or shrimp, scallion, bean sprouts, soy sauce and a beaten egg to make fried rice.

Marinara sauce. Doctor with cooked sausage and sauteed red pepper or add canned chopped clams and parsley for a red clam sauce.

Canned beans. Use for quick vegetarian chili, mix with salsa and cooked rice for a fast beans and rice, or put in tortillas with chopped vegetables and cheese to make burritos.

Couscous. This cooks in only five minutes. Toss with chopped tomato, cucumber, onion, red pepper and vinaigrette and serve cold as a pasta salad, or add toasted pine nuts and raisins for a side dish to takeout rotisserie chicken.

Pesto sauce. Use this pungent pasta sauce to add life to grilled chicken breasts and bottled salad dressings.

Ham steak. These cooked steaks can be warmed in the frying pan and served alongside baked sweet potatoes and salad, chopped and added to pasta, peas and Alfredo sauce or used to top a baked potato.

Flour tortillas. Roll up deli meat, cheese and lettuce for a wrap, fill with salsa and leftover chicken and cheese for a soft taco, or roll with smoked salmon and cream cheese for an elegant snack.

- Maria Blackburn

Five-Minute Bean Soup

Makes 4 servings

one 14-ounce can chicken or beef broth

one 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes

one 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained

one 7-ounce box instant black beans (see note)

1 to 2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce, to taste

salt to taste

Combine broth, tomatoes, beans and 1 can water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir in instant beans and cook about 2 minutes, until lightly thickened. Stir in pepper sauce and salt.

Note: Instant black beans are available at Whole Foods and in the natural-food section of many grocery stores.

- "Almost From Scratch: 600 Recipes for the New Convenience Cuisine"

Per serving: 316 calories; 21 grams protein; 3 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 54 grams carbohydrate; 15 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 1,156 milligrams sodium

Hobo S'mores

Makes 36

36 lollipop or Popsicle sticks

36 large marshmallows, Kraft Jet-Puffed

1 container (16 ounces) dark chocolate frosting, Betty Crocker Rich & Creamy

1 1/2 cups graham-cracker crumbs, Nabisco Honey Maid

1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate mini morsels, Nestle

Line cookie sheet with wax paper. Insert lollipop stick into 1 end of each marshmallow. Microwave frosting for 30 seconds, or just until frosting feels warm to touch.

Dip one marshmallow at a time into the frosting, allowing excess to drip off. Dip the end and one side of the marshmallow into graham-cracker crumbs.

Dip the other side into mini morsels. Stand flat end down on prepared cookie sheet.

Serve immediately or refrigerate for 1 hour.

- "Semi-Homemade Desserts: Easy, Delicious Desserts and Nothing is Made From Scratch" by Sandra Lee (Miramax Books, 2003, $19.95)

Per serving: 121 calories; 1 gram protein; 5 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 21 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 51 milligrams sodium

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