Friday, November 02, 2007

In Search of Delicious Convenience

If you cast your gaze upwards a few jots and read the tag line of my blog, you will see that I am on a never ending quest, which tends to lead me towards ever more delicious foods, but I do have a simultaneous, although secondary, culinary goal on my quest. That secondary goal is efficiency.*

With my desire for efficiency in the kitchen comes an interest in the innovations of the comestible-industrial complex. Too busy to slice your own cheese? They have made slice-like units and wrapped them individually in plastic for you! Too busy to slice your own cheese AND too busy to unwrap those tediously packaged slice-like units? Let the power of the aerosol can assist you! Too busy to make pudding or mashed potatoes or pancakes or tea? Just add water to this powder, and something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike** your requested food will rehydrate itself before your eyes!

Most of these convenience "foods" are chock-full of preservatives and various derivatives of Scary Robot Corn. But a select few are actually (surprisingly) close to their agricultural origins. Instant mashed potatoes, for example, are an acquired taste by themselves (a taste I admit to acquiring during my hot lunch days at Johnson Elementary), but they can be a handy ingredient, and don't have any fake additives, if you buy the right kind (it's in the hippie section). Dehydrated garlic is only, exactly that. It's the dried red pepper flakes of the allium family. None of these things can compete head-to-head with their fresh selves, of course, but if they're not the star element of the meal they make a reasonable substitute.

Instant mashed potato:
invalid food
soup/stew thickener
base for fish cakes
with a roasted chicken from the grocery store, better than pizza delivery

Dehydrated garlic:
sauteed greens
pasta/pizza sauce

Those are all good, sensible uses for convenience ingredients. But you know, you never learn as much succeeding as you do failing. Or at least, once you've failed, you have a sense of how far is Too Far, and you can start retreating until you get back to Delicious. In the interests of educational failure, I pushed my luck and made Asking For Trouble Stew. My goal was stew with no browning, no chopping, and no stirring. I bought pre-cut stew meat, dehydrated garlic, dried onion, and canned tomatoes. And for once, I got the meat at the We Hate Animals grocery store, instead of the We Pat Them On The Head Before We Kill Them store. It seemed disrespectful to use beautiful, healthy meat in a dish I was pretty sure wouldn't be delicious.

2.22 lbs stew meat
2 cups cooked potatoes, leftover
28 oz diced tomatoes
1/2 cup water
2 tsp minced garlic (dried)
1 T chopped onion (dried)
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp rosemary, crushed
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt

Dump everything into the crock pot. Set it to 6 hours on low. When it's almost done, turn the heat to high and skim the fat. Mix the fat with a tablespoon of flour, mix back into the stew to thicken it. Let it simmer until it thickens. Still not thick enough? Remove and puree the potatoes and mix them back in.

And here are the notes I made after I ate it:

if you're not browning or chopping, stack the deck in your favor in other ways: bones, connective tissue, fat, whole spices, flavorful liquid (not water)

Don't use:
lean, pallid meat and water

skinless chicken thighs, short ribs, oxtails, neck bones
wine, stock, tomatoes
peppercorns, bay leaves, cardamom pods, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds

So the next week, I made black beans with smoked pork neck bones. Much better. Still no chopping or browning. Full report tomorrow.

*Although you'd never guess it after reading that first sentence. Hey, I just finished Pickwick Papers—it's soaking in. Next, I suppose I should self-prescribe some Old Man and The Sea.

**hat tip to another dear departed master of the ridiculous run-on sentence, before whom we all must bow.

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