Saturday, April 30, 2011

Healthy, wealthy and wise: Hot Dish your way

I don't watch TV cooking shows.  I cook instead.  Thus I am not a normal American.  But I am used to that by now.  People who keep track of these things tell us that nowadays Americans spend more time watching people cook on TV than they do actually cooking.  Oh dear.  When it comes to feeding ourselves, it appears that our culture is moving closer and closer to "all talk and no action".   I don't know about you, but I was brought up to DO things.  I bet you were too.  (Thanks, Mom for all the times you told me to put down my book and get off the couch.)

And thank you for spending precious possible cooking time reading this blog post.  I hope as soon as you are done you will cook something.  Anything.  From scratch.  With real food.   You will be healthier and wealthier if you do. 

And most important of all, you will be wiser.  Every time you create in the kitchen you gain experience.  Knowledge.  Confidence.  This is cumulative.  No one can take it away from you.  And here is the clincher -- eating the results of your labors will give you pleasure.  Gustatory gladness.  Sensory satisfaction.  Food fulfillment.

If you don't have a cooking project or meal in mind already, you might to play with the concept of Hot Dish.

There is no doubt in my mind that in millions of American homes every evening, families are dining on some version of Hot Dish.  One reason I know this is that Hamburger Helper and its 60 flavor variations constitutes about half of the "meal kit" industry - which in 2005 was a half billion dollar a year business.  Hamburger Helper has been around for forty years now.  Kind of amazing how the brand has evolved.  You can even buy Asian Helper (like Mongolian beef flavor) and several flavors of Mexican or Italian Helper.   America is indeed a melting pot.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of Hot Dish -  a one pot combination of protein (e.g. hamburger, tuna, the ubiquitous boneless, skinless chicken breast, cheese); carbohydrate (e.g. rice, pasta, potato); vegetable (e.g. peas, onion, a little celery or carrot,  cabbage, spinach, bell pepper or even rutabaga) AND - some kind of sauce or binder -- something smooth and creamy and rich to hold it all together.  Like a vegetable puree or tomato sauce.  Maybe a little beaten egg and milk.  Creme fraiche.  Or homemade white sauce.  See this link to my post on white sauce (bechamel) for how-to details:  You do not have to use canned soup.  Or a magical powder that turns into a "creamy sauce" when water is added.

In my childhood years, Hot Dish was elbow macaroni, hamburger, chopped onion, cream of tomato soup and Velveeta cheese.   Now I am in Grandma years and I am older and wiser.  Hot Dish for us might be linguini tossed with olive oil, roasted garlic puree (homemade of course), capers, a can of sardines, a lot of fresh chopped Italian parsley and a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan. 

Does your house have a signature Hot Dish?  Has it changed over the years?  Do you change it all the time depending on what seasonal vegetables you have around?  I encourage you to experiment.  Build your Hot Dish on the foundation of these four corners: protein, carbohydrate, vegetables (lots of these) and sauce or binder.  Use what you have.  Use what is in season.  Use plenty of vegetables.  If you are having a hard time getting started, look up some recipes for pasta e fagioli - the famous Italian vegetable soup with beans and pasta.  It is really just Hot Dish and it is good.  Here is one version:   NOTE:  I would definitely add more vegetables - maybe some chopped onion, spinach and green beans or zucchini.  Add a bit more broth if necessary.  The main idea is:  olive oil,  cooked dry beans, cooked pasta, broth (amount depends on how thick or thin you want the final dish), tomatoes, Italian herbs and various chopped vegetables.  Add a bit of sausage or pancetta for extra flavor.  Voila.  Hot Dish.

What I hope you take away from today's little sermon is this:  You can make Hot Dish without the assistance of meal kits or canned soup or weird little packets of dried secret spices, sodium and chemical thickeners or flavorings. Who knew?

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