Great-Tasting Shortcuts From The Supermarket
Copyright 1994 Miami Herald
From Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services
Selected and Prepared by Tribune Media Services
By Felicia Gressette
In the never-ending struggle to find the most efficient way to get good food on the
table and the tired cook out of the kitchen, the smartest strategy is this: Choose your
Settle, sometimes. And take advantage of little tricks and timesaving products that
save minutes and energy. We don't mean meal-in-a-box products, but a well-chosen
armament of minimally processed frozen, canned and refrigerated goods that let you
skip tedious steps at home without big compromises on taste. Yes, you pay a little more,
but isn't your time valuable, too?
Even those of us who love (well, like, anyway) to cook don't see any sense in working
more than we must to get the results we want. It just makes sense to spend your time
and energy on what matters most to you. At my house, coffee is important. We don't
drink a lot, but we love it, so I keep whole beans in the freezer and grind just enough for
each fresh-brewed pot. I would no more make instant coffee than fly to the moon.
I love salad, too, but I see no shame in letting someone else wash the salad greens so I
can have it on nights when I'm too exhausted to clean, spin and tear them myself.
So in a salute to busy at-home cooks everywhere, here is an honor roll of my favorite
shortcut products and how I use them. You'll note that they're mostly plain things -- I
don't like the taste of preservatives and I'd rather season my own cooking than work
with strong-tasting packaged foods. In the interest of being helpful, we've bent our usual
no-brand-names rule here and there, just this once.
X X X
PREWASHED SALAD MIX: What a great idea. Open the bag and you have salad. I like
the blends, with several kinds of lettuce. I also like the new hearts of romaine, because
you don't have to throw away all those tough outer leaves.
BROCCOLI SLAW: This is shredded broccoli stems, carrots and red cabbage sold for stir
frying or salad making. I wish they'd leave out the purple cabbage in this. I stir fry it as a
side dish, usually. I don't buy the packaged broccoli florets, though; I don't mind
trimming a head of the stuff myself. It's not hard and takes just a minute.
IQF CHICKEN BREAST PIECES: IQF means individually quick frozen, which means
you can take out just as much chicken as you want. These thaw in minutes and can
rescue you on the night before you do the big supermarket thing. It's great for a quick
skillet supper or to feed a child in a flash.
HASH BROWNS: I use these in casseroles and to make a quick potato chowder, stirred
up with a little cooked bacon, onion, white corn, broth and milk.
PEAS AND BEANS: Tiny early baby peas are much better than the mushy canned kind. I
like frozen baby lima beans, too.
WHITE SHOE PEG CORN: Thaw and dress for a salad, make a quick corn chowder, stir
into corn muffin mix.
CHOPPED SPINACH: We love fresh spinach at our house, but if it will end up in stuffed
shells or the like, I'm not going to wash, stem and chop it. I'll use frozen.
MEATBALLS: I buy the five-pound packs of little frozen meatballs at the warehouse
store, divide them into smaller portions and add them to a homemade tomato sauce or
bake them with sauce for parties. They are a wonderful timesaver.
FROZEN BREAD DOUGH: Sold in three 1-pound loaves to a package, this can be used as
pizza crust, to make cinnamon rolls, to make a stuffed bread, to make dinner rolls, for
anything that would ordinarily require you to make bread dough.
FRUITS: I like IQF strawberries, raspberries, blackberries to make quick sauces or to bake
into cobblers or pies. For a sauce, whip in the blender with a little sugar, serve over ice
cream and/or pound cake.
HERBED SOFT, CREAMY CHEESE: Great stuff. It melts into a delicious sauce or can be
used as a quick stuffing for, say, chicken breasts.
SHREDDED CHEESE: I usually buy cheese in blocks, but this is a convenient, if
expensive, timesaver that I will take advantage of occasionally. There are some new
blends -- pizza cheese, with four kinds -- that appeal because you don't have to buy four
different blocks of cheese and have some go to waste.
PIE CRUST: I favor the refrigerated kind you press into the pie plate over the frozen
ones. They're more adaptable; I've used them for empanadas, even.
TORTILLAS: Both corn and flour have endless uses, as quick quesadillas, burritos, tacos.
CANNED CHICKEN BROTH: I do, on occasion, make stock from scratch, but for
cooking rice on a Wednesday night or a spur-of-the-moment soup, I reach for a can. I
like the reduced-sodium broths best, and I keep the new canned vegetable broth around,
PASTA: Hands down, my favorite pantry ingredient upon which to build a meal. Top it
with leftovers, steamed vegetables, a quick tomato sauce. I would be lost without a
supply of dried pastas in various shapes.
PREBAKED PIZZA SHELLS: Also known as Boboli. I like the new, thin-crust version a
lot. I think pre-baked shells get crisper in the oven and just taste better than most other
at-home pizza products. I top them with crumbles of goat cheese, a drizzle of olive oil
and some chopped herbs as a hot bread to go with pasta.
SALAD DRESSING MIX: I keep Good Seasons Italian, Cheese Garlic (my daughter's
favorite) and Honey Mustard around to mix and use for salads (of course) and as
marinades. Italian is good with shrimp, chicken or flank steak; Honey Mustard is
yummy to soak turkey cutlets.
BOTTLED MOJO: I love this garlicky, Spanish-style marinade and sauce and use it as a
marinade for shrimp and pork tenderloin and to deglaze a skillet for a quick sauce.
REFRIED BEANS: I like the kind with onions, garlic and green chilies, but I usually
doctor them up with more sauteed onion and some canned tomato-green chili sauce.
Then I stir in some cubes of cheese and serve this as a quick bean dip. Sometimes I just
eat it for supper this way, topped with a little low-fat sour cream and salsa and with a
few tortilla chips on the side. It's also a tasty filling for quick enchiladas or burritos.
MILD GREEN CHILIES: I've been hooked on these for 15 years, since I lived in Texas.
They add a little boost of flavor to pasta sauces, salads, skillet suppers. They're sold
whole and chopped in 4-ounce cans; when I can find chopped, I buy them.
SALSA: I have been searching for a good jarred salsa since Old El Paso changed the way
it makes its Thick and Chunky brand; the new formula tastes too cooked to me. Salsa is
good for adding a quick Tex-Mex flavor to lots of things -- stir into rice as it cooks, add to
a skillet of sauteing chicken breasts, douse a pot roast.
ROASTED RED PEPPERS: I admit, these don't taste as good as bell peppers you lovingly
roast under the broiler, over a charcoal fire or over a gas flame. But, sheesh, who has
time? I would roast my own peppers to serve as a dinner-party treat, but when I'm
looking for a little color and flavor in a hurry, I reach for a jar.
ARTICHOKE HEARTS: Drain, squeeze out the water and quarter or chop roughly, then
add to pasta salads or stir into rice, as it cooks with a little sauteed onion and a can of
crushed tomatoes. These are also good as a cold, marinated salad, with oil and vinegar.
SOFRITO: Homemade sofrito, a sauteed mix of onion, garlic, bell pepper and sometimes
tomato, is the essential flavor base of the Cuban kitchen (and, under other names, the
Italian kitchen, the French kitchen, you get the picture). When I need a fast fix of Cuban
food, it's handy to have a jar of this around. You can also make a big batch yourself,
portion it and refrigerate or freeze.
TOMATOES: I vote for the fresh, ripe real thing in uncooked or lightly cooked
applications, but for soups, stews, casseroles, dishes with a lot of other ingredients, I
think you'd be crazy to spend the time peeling, seeding and chopping tomatoes. I keep
several sizes and kinds of canned tomatoes around: 28-ounce cans of whole, peeled
tomatoes, various kinds of stewed tomatoes (my latest favorite is Del Monte's new
salsa-style) and 15-ounce cans of chopped tomatoes.
BEANS: I keep canned black beans (both the plain and seasoned kind), white cannellini
and red kidney beans around. If I'm making a big bean dish, I'll cooked dried beans from
scratch, but for a quick salad or pasta topping or to add some protein to a soup, canned
can't be beat.