Last week, Steve Bodio put up a post linking to a piece on Mark Bittman's New York Times food blog regarding British cookbook author Delia Smith's statement in favor of frozen mashed potatoes, amongst other things. I was surprised the conversation didn't roar a bit more, though the post did draw some interesting thoughts in other quarters.
The rather extreme comments on Bittman's blog led me to think a bit about the eating cheaply, eating well and/or eating conveniently. Anyone who's been around a college in the last thirty years is probably aware of the siren call that is ramen noodles. Eight for a buck and good for quelling hunger and fulfilling your daily msg requirement. Instant mashed potatoes, canned beans, canned soup, canned stock, frozen pie crust, frozen pies, frozen dinners- there is a continuum of convenience.
This continuum is by no means limited to the regular grocery store. Upscale groceries, with lots of pre-prepared salads, dishes, and meals, are as bad or worse. Whole Foods has plenty of semi- and fully-prepared foods stocked. The packaging is more likely to be biodegradable ink on cardboard or unbleached-appearing paper and the ingredients may be organic, but it's still a tv dinner. Trader Joe's has made something of a specialty of the convenience food and also tends to emphasize food characterized as "fair trade" or "organic". I love Trader Joe's, but will admit to being a bit taken aback the other day upon noticing the packages of shelf-stable cooked rice and cooked lentils for sale. My first thought- "water in, too heavy for backpacking". My second "heck, who can't boil rice?" I'm by no means speaking from a position of some sort of basic ingredient purity- I'll testify that the TJ's frozen gyozu are pretty darned tasty. On the other hand, I consider pre-made pie crust to be a cop out and kind of unworthy.
I suspect that where one falls on the continuum of convenience depends largely upon how important food and eating really are to you. How much enjoyment do you get from a really well prepared, that is to say well flavored, dish? The more important novelty, or subtle improvements in flavor are to a person, the more return he gets for his investment of time and effort in preparing something from basic ingredients.
Much as I enjoy eating what I consider well and much as I enjoy my local grower's market, or eating meat I shot, carried, butchered, and packaged myself, I can't get too carried away with the idea of local, fresh and organic. Cold pizza is a near ideal breakfast food. For that matter, I was going through some old recipes the other night and came across a couple that require a can of cream of mushroom soup. I not only enjoy those recipes, but I'll probably always have a can of condensed cream of mushroom in my pantry for emergency purposes. In fact, when confronted with meat of dubious tenderness and/or strong flavor, you can't really go wrong by flouring it a bit, browning it, taking it out of the pot and cooking some onion in there until the onion turns translucent, then deglazing the pan with some wine, then returning the meat, a can of cream of mushroom soup, some pepper, perhaps thyme, and a bit more wine. Cover tightly then place in a slow oven and let it cook for a few hours. Serve with rice. Works in a dutch oven on coals, too. Hide the empty can.
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