Friday, January 2, 2009

Desperation 30-Minute Semi-Homemade Meals

I love to cook, but it's amazing how time-consuming the whole process can be. Between meal planning, grocery shopping, food preparation, and my favorite: cleaning up-- it sometimes feels like a full-time job. Judging from the popularity of shows such as Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Meals and Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade Meals, we're ALL desperate for shortcuts. Desperation Dinners, by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross, is one of my favorite cookbooks. It promises delicious, nutritious meals that even kids will eat in 20 minutes or less. You know the authors have lived your life as a "working" mom (hey, all moms work, whether outside the home or not) when one of them confides that she felt like she was on a trapeze-- swinging from weekend to weekend in a desperate attempt to get everything done.

But do these shortcuts work? In my experience, it is not possible to have meals that are 1)inexpensive 2)quick to prepare 3) nutritious and 4) tasty-- at the same time. (Pick any 3!) For example, to pull off their 20-minute miracle meals, Desperation Dinners advises us to purchase tender cuts of meat that can tolerate quick-cooking techniques and to rely on convenience foods such as IQF (individually quick-frozen) boneless chicken breasts. Fast? Yes. Convenient? Yes. Inexpensive? Definitely not. Tasty? Maybe. To my taste, many convenience foods such as chopped bottled garlic, seasoning mixtures, and frozen chopped onions have an "off", fakey flavor and less than desirable texture.

I have a love-hate relationship with shortcut recipes. While I do think it's great that shows like 30-minute Meals have helped to spark a home-cooking renaissance, these recipes often fall short of the mark. They don't always work as advertised or they just plain don't taste good! I guess the trick is judicious use of techniques and ingredients.

Tonight, I decided to try Rachael Ray's 3o-Minute Meal: Pork Chops, Golden Apple and Raisin Sauce, & Whole-Wheat Mac-n-Cheddar. Both DC and my DS are fond of porkchops, so I thought they'd enjoy this. It actually turned out pretty well, but mainly because I have experience with Rachael's recipes (I know some of her weak spots from previous failures) and I am familiar with most basic cooking techniques, such as making bechamel sauce. When I read the recipe, it sounded pretty good. Pork chops with a maple-dijon glaze? Check. Applesauce with raisins and cider? Check. Whole weat mac-n-cheddar? Hold it.

I've had bad experiences both with whole wheat pasta (texture and taste) as well as Rachael's cheese sauces. Scanning the ingredients, I think it is unlikely that 2T of butter and 1 T of flour to 2 cups of milk is sufficient to create a nice creamy bechamel. I think following Rachael's instructions could produce a thin, runny sauce. Also, 1/2 lb. of extra-sharp cheddar seems like a lot for 2 c. of milk.

Having been disappointed by Rachael's sauces in the past, I pulled out my best mac & cheese recipe to use as a guide. It happens to be a Sara Moulton recipe from her marvelous book, Sara Moulton Cooks at Home. Her Baked Orzo with Cheese is fantastic, so I used the cheese sauce from Sara's recipe. Sara calls for equal amounts of butter and flour, and uses 6 T of butter and flour to 3 c. of milk. She uses both cheddar (2. c. shredded) and parmigiano reggiano in the dish, and I like that combination as well. It gives a much greater depth of flavor to the cheese sauce than cheddar alone. I also decided to substitute regular fusilli for the whole wheat shells or penne Rachael calls for. I just don't care for the flavor of "whole wheat" pasta, but I do like the taste of the Barilla Plus multigrain pasta. Unfortunately the Teeter does not carry the Plus version of fusilli, so I just went with plain old fusilli.

Rachael does use some terrific techiniques that can save quite a bit of time. For example, starting the pasta water first while doing other prep, heating pans so they are ready to use when you are, and starting with recipes that can simmer and "hang out" so you can use their cooking time to work on other parts of the meal, are great time-savers.

By starting my pasta water (on low heat) while I made a quick trip to the store, it was ready to go by the time I got home. Heating the milk for the bechamel sauce ahead of time in the microwave also saved time. And one of my all-time favorite Rachael techniques is to blanch the broccoli in the pasta pot during the last few minutes of the pasta is cooking. (I think the only way to prepare really tasty broccoli is blanching in salted boiling water until it's tender but not overdone. My guys will eat it cooked this way, so works for me!)

We were shooting for an 8 p.m. movie, and I didn't get home until about 6:30 p.m., so I was hoping to work the 30-min. miracle, to give us time to eat and get to the theater (luckily only 5 min. from home).

Everything turned out great, and we were eating by 7:15. The food would have been done a bit sooner, had I realized that rather than turning down the burner under the boiling-over applesauce, I turned down the heat under the porkchops. :)

My final evaluation:

Porkchops with a dijon-maple syrup glaze: terrific. The guys really enjoyed them.

Golden apple and raisin sauce: quite tasty, though it needed a bit more dimension of flavor. I'd add mace and vanilla and a little butter in addition to the cinnamon next time.

Fusilli and Broccoli with Sara Moulton's cheese sauce: Delicious! There was a little too much sauce for the noodles and broccoli, so I'd make a bit less sauce next time. But boy, was it tasty!

By using ingredients that we like and techiniques that I know work, this 30 minute meal was a definite success!

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