I live in a seaside community clogged with tourists in the summer and with a University nearby with college students hanging out at local eateries and pubs in the winter. It is interesting to see what is in the grocery carts of fellow shoppers at different times of the year. In summer, the tourist guests with money to spend frequent the upscare shi-shi market here in town filling their baskets with pricey organic foods, delicious cheeses and pate’ for entertaining, lobsters for a barbecue. In the winter, passing students in the aisles of the market is a whole other scene.
Constrained by limited finances, tight quarters, campus food and college life of work and PLAY the focus is not on nutrition for the students. The tourists went back home last week and the college kids rolled in. It was impossible to pay my cell-phone bill in person yesterday due to the snakey long line almost out the door at Verizon Wireless…students eager to update their cell phones, ipads and the latest keep-in-touch hand-held technology. Some of them gave up the waiting line as well, and moved on to the market where we wove our shopping carts around and past each other in the crowded aisle. Groups of two or three young people…future Rhodes Scholars hopefully…standing in front of shelves of snacks, pretzels, chips, SODAS, canned pasta and ramen noodles trying to come to a corporate consensus on what was the best buy. Yikes!
Fortunately they are still young and if not pre-diabetic already from living in this culture of packaged foods and fast-food stops they probably will make it to full adulthood reasonably healthy.
So that brings us to the whole question of packaged foods…especially on a food blog dedicated to delicious recipes that are bursting with flavor, nutritious and truly satisfying and pleasurable. Is it okay to use them in our kitchens and ESPECIALLY is it okay to include them in the recipes on our lovely food blogs here where some people do have the time and passion to create a masterpiece in food preparation from growing their own heirloom veggies, to freshly grinding their whole grains when making bread, to simmering bones and peelings for REAL broth for soups?
I have done most of those things in my cooking experience at one time or another, but not all at once in the service of a singular master creation. I don’t have the time anymore while I spent hours committed to other creative passions and work.
At times, I do use carefully selected packaged foods as a base, adding fresh vegetables and wholesome ingredients to personalize my recipes. For instance, there are times when an invitation will arrive for a pot-luck get together later in the evening or the next day. I may be quite busy with work and other commitments, low on funds or no time to go shop, chop, stir and prepare something in a pretty dish that takes several hours. I may have a tight end-of-the-week budget. Having a few packaged items on the shelf to be turned into something delicious as well as suitable quickly is a necessity in my pantry. A box of risotto with spices, dolled up with diced sautéed portabello mushrooms, onions, chopped olives and fresh halved grape tomatoes in a covered dish is a hit! A good jar of your favorite pasta sauce with freshly broiled chopped sweet Italian sausage, sautéed Belgian endive or rappini and added dried basil, marjoram and crushed fennel seed brings accolades of satisfaction..no time to simmer a sauce for hours in a busy life.
There are a few guidelines that I faithfully follow if I am going to cook using packaged foods on occasion and they are:
I. I do like the flavor of salt but I look for LOW sodium . Most packaged foods are extremely high in salt 480-850mg is WAY too high. (I don’t like No-salt…the flavor is too flat for my tastes)
2. NO high fructose corn syrup…EVER. Certain brands of pasta sauce and canned veggies use this sweet poison.
3. Always add fresh veggies..celery,greens, carrots, parsnips, onions, garlic, shallot, potatoes, a squeeze of fresh lemon, sea salt or pink Himalayan salt if needed, local honey or organic brown sugar if needed, fresh or dried herbs to taste,
4. No MSG
5. Packaged foods that contain healthy grains and a label that lists limited ingredients, most of which are pronounceable!
6. And most importantly… Do not rely on packaged foods on a regular or daily basis for your meals!!!! Using packaged foods whether in boxes, cans or those frozen or microwaveable entrees in bags are most often not even FOOD, but mixtures of chemicals to imitate food or preserve poor quality foods. Choose carefully, read labels, and then be creative and adventurous when you occasionally need to whip up something on the spot that can pass for “real cooking“. Check out my recipe for a luscious lentil soup when on a shoestring budget at the end of the month
Remember also: Good company around the table is even more nourishing that the food, although having both at the same time is a FEAST!
From Christine, the Cook
ps. Do you like gardens, creativity, and using your imagination?..all part of life whether in the kitchen or the world at large. Check out my Greening Spirit blog and my latest post on http://thegreeninspirit.wordpress.com