Prepared for dinner

More families are relying on ready-made foods to get meals on the table. But is a casserole from a can really cooking?

February 25, 2004|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SPECIAL TO THE 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."

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