Friday, March 29, 2013

Ready to eat -- the economical approach

Our neighborhood supermarket has had a ready-to-eat counter for a long time, but recently has put in a new gimmick: the $6 meal.  For six bucks you choose one entree and two sides from the many items in the cold case.  We've done this a few times and have come to one conclusion: one $6 meal is plenty for both of us.

Here's one plate worth of dinner, consisting of half a $6 meal plus a handful of baby carrots and a slice of bread found in our otherwise depleted larder.  If you follow the rule of thumb that a healthy serving of meat should be the size of a pack of cards, we each got an adequate share of this hunk of pork.

I like this concept, first because it's a really good deal.  In fact, the last time I bought two meals I weighed everything they gave me, compared it to the per-pound price at the same counter if you were to buy a la carte, and determined that for our $12 we got $16.62 worth of food.  And if a $6 meal is a good deal, a $3 meal is an even better one.

Second, because the size of the carryout tray encourages big portions of sides.  Yes, you can find some unhealthy things like stuffed baked potato if you're determined to raise your cholesterol level, but there are lots more salads and vegetables to choose from, so your plate can be filled with vegetables without half trying.

We'll do this again.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Food photos -- entering the red zone

I love my little Nikon camera, small enough to keep in my pocket and whip out at the slightest provocation.  Since I started blogging I've taken a lot more photos, documenting many aspects of daily life -- including food.  But I've realized that my trusty camera fails me at a crucial moment: taking pictures of hot reddish food.

I have no idea what triggers the sudden attack of colorblindness.  But food that looks like this:

ends up in the photos looking like this:

To get a color-correct picture I have to hold the camera farther from the food (thus suggesting that rising heat from the plate somehow tricks the sensors) or sometimes widen my field of vision so the camera can see some non-reddish background color and restore its judgment.

I can almost always come up with an acceptable photo, but it usually takes a half-dozen shots or more.  Meanwhile my friends' and family's tolerance frays, especially if I'm photographing their plate rather than my own.

If any photographers more astute than I can tell me what's happening, I'd be grateful.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Seafood pasta

I invented "seafood pasta" many years ago when my husband and I were both working and we required our middle-school boys to each cook dinner once a week.  I prepared a cookbook for their guidance, including info such as which pan to use and how soon before dinner to start working.  Seafood pasta had the advantage of being prepared solely from cans and boxes (plus an onion) and not taking very long.

My standard seafood pasta recipe called for a can of tuna, a can of clams (or a second can of tuna), an onion, a can or two of diced tomatoes, depending on how many people were eating, and some pasta.  You can probably figure out how to put those ingredients together, and it doesn't really matter what order you do them in.

As we have become a bit more culinarily adventurous in our old age, the seafood pasta recipe has evolved.  The other night I found myself about as close to ground zero as a cook can be -- practically nothing in the fridge.  We didn't really want to go to the store so I searched around in the cupboard and came up with seafood pasta.  But this was a more exotic version than in the Mom Cookbook.

I did have an onion, so I cut it up and sauteed it in a big pan.  Meanwhile I got to opening cans: a can of artichoke hearts, a can of tuna, a tiny can of anchovies.  I had garlic in the fridge, so I cut that up too.  And best of all, I had a few leftover tomatoes that I had roasted in the oven for a couple of hours several days ago.

To the slow-cooked onions I added the artichoke hearts, allowing them to brown a bit in olive oil over fairly high heat.  Then the anchovies in their oil, stirring and poking with a wooden spoon until they dissolved into a dark, salty ooze.  The chopped garlic went in toward the end of that process, just before I added a third-bottle of wine left over from our reception at the art gallery the night before, and the pasta.

While the pasta cooked in the flavorful sauce, I added the leftover tomatoes and a bit of boiling water toward the end to make sure it didn't end up too dry.  I love this one-pot pasta method; much easier than making the sauce and the pasta separately, also more energy-efficient and resulting in fewer dirty dishes.

Years ago I would have used one or two anchovy fillets, and even today felt a bit reckless using the whole can.  But that turned out to be the secret ingredient: it gave a salty, sophisticated gourmet edge to the pasta.

We never use grated cheese when our pasta contains seafood, so we needed the oomph to come from the anchovies and garlic.  And they delivered plenty of that!  I'll remember this combination and do it again.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The muse is hungry

I am one of the two persons in a two-person show that opened earlier this month at a gallery.  I was responsible for the food at the opening reception and when I was setting out the table, my co-artist was mildly appalled to see that the centerpiece of the spread was Cheetos.  How pitifully downmarket.

But by the end of the evening, we'd gone through three bags of Cheetos, while the healthy hummus and salsa went relatively unscathed.  Clearly our sophisticated art-loving friends were not above some seriously junky junk food.  We resolved to serve them at every future art occasion we ever have to cater.

I was reminded of an article in a recent New York Times Magazine -- well worth reading -- that probed the addictive nature of not only junk food but other popular products of the food industry.  The industry deliberately hypes their offerings with sugar, salt and fat, even in foods that you wouldn't think needed it -- for instance, spaghetti sauce.  Prego became a blockbuster partly because it's full of sugar.

According to one of the food scientists quoted in the article, Cheetos are "one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure."

I will second that opinion.  As junk food goes, Cheetos are on my short list (along with Pringles and Smartfood white cheddar cheese popcorn).  I once had to take some pills three times a day that tasted noxious, no matter how quickly I tried to get them through my mouth.  I found that the best way to remove the awful aftertaste was to eat a Cheeto, which I did after every dose (perhaps the only instance in recorded history that a consumer regularly consumed just one at a time).

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Fun with food

This looks like something viewed by the Mars Rover, but it's just my secret recipe for getting rid of stale smells in the kitchen.  A teaspoon or so of cinnamon, a cup or so of water, and cook it on the stove over low heat for as long as you like.

So where did the golf-ball-size bubbles come from?  Who knows!  I put the cinnamon in the pan before the water, the reverse of my usual method, which probably resulted in a different surface tension profile.

It's practically impossible to get the cinnamon and the water to mix smoothly, no matter how you assemble it (and who cares if they don't) but in 40 years of using this secret recipe I've never gotten this result before.