Browsing through old cookbooks– really old cookbooks– I came across a recipe for chicken which began with these words, “Draw and singe the bird...” Today, I’d put that cookbook right back on the shelf and head for the supermarket.
Cooking, today, has become a simple matter of setting a few dials, pushing a few buttons, and if the equipment is working properly, you can be assured of success. The preparation of attractive, nutritious meals is almost guaranteed by today’s helpful cookbooks, and further simplified by the availability of foods that are measured and mixed for you– some to the extent that we don’t even have to open the package– we can microwave the vegetables right in the same bag we buy them in, and the pork loin roast needs only to have the labels removed before we put it into the oven, plastic wrapping and all, for thirty-five minutes, and it comes out perfectly seasoned and roasted, ready to slice and serve.
We’ve had convenience foods for so long that we don’t even think of some of them as being convenience foods. We take such things as cottage cheese, yogurt and cultured sour cream for granted, but there was a time when every cook had to know how to make them from scratch. There’s a certain measure of sameness about them, of course, since they have to meet certain standards in order to be sold as what we expect them to be. Sometimes all that dependable consistency can be boring. For a good many years we’ve been able to buy cottage cheese with chives added, but have you thought about adding other things for a change of taste? My sister adds crushed pineapple to her cottage cheese, and another relative likes it with diced tomatoes stirred in. A good friend introduced me, years ago, to a very special treatment she learned from her mother. She drained all the extra milk from the cottage cheese by letting it drip for several minutes in a large sieve, then stirred in thick cultured sour cream, little green onions sliced thin, some pepper, and crumbled blue cheese.
I’ve always liked three-bean salad and was delighted when I found I could buy it, already made, in a can at the grocery. When someone complained that it was a little too vinegary, I tried draining off the juice from the can and replacing it with a bottled Italian oil and vinegar garlic dressing. Another time, I also added thinly sliced carrots, some chopped red onion, and bits of cauliflower and broccoli. There are so many other possibilities that I haven’t even tried yet– tomatoes, shell macaroni, celery, cashews, sweet bell peppers.
The most familiar convenience food our generation knows about is canned condensed soup. Just add water or milk and heat, what could be simpler? It was condensed soup that caused the casserole revolution, making the convenient, concentrated and seasoned soup a key ingredient in literally hundreds of combinations of meats, vegetables, and various forms of pasta, potatoes, rice and even bread crumbs and potato chips. But, have you thought of ways to change the basic soup and still call it soup? Just about any pale, cream-type soup (celery, onion, potato, mushroom) can be turned into a cheesy soup by melting in two or three slices of processed cheese, the kind you would use for a grilled cheese sandwich. Turn it into that favorite cheese and broccoli by adding broccoli florets and a bit of minced onion. Try adding a small can of clams or some salmon to a batch of potato soup for a tasty chowder. Or sprinkle shredded fresh basil leaves over tomato soup at the last minute.
Someone once gave me a bottle of crème de cassis, a black currant liqueur which I sometimes used in desserts having to do with berries. It was a nice addition to the flavor of the berries and helped sweeten them, requiring the use of less sugar. When the gift bottle was gone, however, I didn’t feel the need to replace it until sometime later when I was making a strawberry dessert and found the berries I had bought to be in need of a flavor boost. I found a little light rum left over from the Christmas eggnog and added a couple spoonfuls to the berries. The result was not the same as with the crème de cassis, but it definitely helped the flavor of the strawberries and I’ve since learned that a little rum added to nearly any fruit recipe is an improvement. It doesn’t take much, so you needn’t worry about the alcohol content. In cooked recipes, the alcohol evaporates quickly, leaving only the flavor behind, and even in recipes that require no cooking the alcohol dissipates within a few hours in the refrigerator. Try a little rum in apple or rhubarb pie– yum.