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Sunday, May 19

Gapers Block

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"I need some help," a friend said to me recently. "I've decided to be more mindful of what I eat this year, with the hopes of seeing how it influences some of my health issues, but I don't really know how to do that. My doctor has told me to eliminate preservatives, stay away from microwave dinners, and eat lean meats, vegetables and rice. What am I going to do without my Lean Cuisines?"

Make your own? It's not as hard as it sounds, and sure it's going to take longer to cook but you just might find that it doesn't take nearly as much time as you might fear, and honestly, it can only taste better, right? I know most people eat frozen dinners because they're easy, not because they find them amazingly delicious. People on airplanes eat those prepackaged snack packs because they're hungry and don't have a choice. You, you untapped cooking maven, have a choice and the necessary skills to expand your food horizons and take your life back from plastic-wrapped frozen dinners.

To help with my research, I roamed the frozen food cases (which I admittedly rarely turn to for anything but tater tots, bags of veggies and ravioli) and decided to take a look at all the "lean" meals to pick a few popular dishes. I was hoping to figure out how to replace a few of these meals with easy to make dishes. While I have no problem standing over an oven for a few hours to make onion marmalade (which goes amazingly well with goat cheese on bread, by the way), I know most people won't do that.

And I have to admit, that I also have a goal (not a resolution) to eat more simple and healthful lunches that I make at home. I like the convenience of frozen dinners, but I really dislike eating them. So helping a friend cook better means I can also follow my own advice and prepare lunches ahead of time that are cheaper than, healthier than, and tastier than takeout from nearby food joints.

One of the common trends I noticed as I was looking at dinners, was the prevalence of glazes on meats. Guess what the second ingredient in say, "glazed chicken breast with wild rice pilaf and french-cut green beans" is? Rice? Nope. It's corn syrup. Which means there is more sugar in your lunch than there is green bean. Not exactly what I would call healthy cuisine.

I decided to pick out three dishes randomly and figure out if I could replicate something close to what they serve, all while coming in under their cost and trying to rival the prep time. I know you can type 6-12 minutes into the microwave touchpad and go read your mail while your dinner cooks, so yes you're "losing" time, but you'll still be fed in about the same amount of time while also drastically improving the flavor and eliminating the preservatives.

The entrees I chose were Lemon Garlic Shrimp, Dijon Steak Strips and Balsamic Glazed Chicken. The average price of these was around $4, not on sale. They each were different brands, but they were all touted as being "lean" or "healthy." They each contained calorie counts of 325 to 375, and Weight Watchers gave them between four and seven meal points. They all contained sugar or corn syrup in the top 10 ingredients as well as a hydrogenated vegetable oil (although they also claimed 0 Trans Fats, which makes me think since it's less than 1 percent of the weight they don't have to claim it on the label) and a lot of sodium.

All of these dishes will serve one, but can be doubled, tripled or quadrupled to make multiple servings for lunches or future dinners. Increasing the portions will increase cooking times.

Lemon Garlic Shrimp with Broccoli and Angel Hair Pasta
Based on the picture, which often lies (but just a little), there are six shrimp in this dish. If the image is to scale, I would guess that they're in the 31-40 shrimp per pound range.

1/2 teaspoon of olive oil
1/4 of a small yellow onion
1/4 pound of broccoli
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/2 of a lemon
1/4 cup of white wine (chicken broth or vegetable broth will also work)
6 shrimp*
1/8 pound (2 ounces) of dry angel hair pasta
salt and pepper to taste

* Yes, you can ask the fishmonger to give you six shrimp in the 31-40 count size, or you can buy a 1-pound bag of frozen, shelled, deveined shrimp and simply take out the six for this dish while leaving the rest tightly sealed for later.

Place a large pot of cold water over high heat and cover. Place a skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil. Slice the onion quarter into thin slices and then slice across them to create finely chopped onion and place that in the skillet. Let this cook for about 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the onion from sticking. While this cooks, rinse the broccoli under cold water and shake dry. Break the florets off into bite-sized pieces and chop the stem into bite-sized pieces as well; discard any leaves. If the shrimp are frozen, hold them under cool running water to defrost them. This should take about a minute. Once the onion is cooked, add the broccoli, garlic powder, lemon and white wine, cover and cook for two minutes. By now the water in the pot should be boiling, so toss your pasta into the water (break in half if desired) and give it a quick stir. Follow the package directions, but it should take no more than 3-4 minutes for the noodles to cook. After the broccoli has cooked for about 2-3 minutes, toss the shrimp in, give it a stir and cover again until the pasta is done. Drain the pasta and then add this to the skillet. Use tongs to toss the pasta, sauce, vegetables and shrimp together to coat. Plate and serve.

Your time will vary, but this dish would have taken me 10 minutes to prepare as a frozen dinner (cook for five minutes, stir, cook for three minutes, let sit covered for two) and it took me 11 minutes to prepare fresh. The entree cost $4.25 and my cost for the shrimp, broccoli, lemon and pasta was less than $2.50. I had the other ingredients already, so your cost may be higher. But consider their initial purchase an investment. You'll save money later.

Dijon Steak Strips with Potatoes and Green Beans
For a listing of lean cuts of beef, The Cattleman's Beef Board has a listing of 29 cuts that meet governmental "lean" or "extra lean" ratings. According to the ingredients list, there was no beef in this frozen dinner, just "seasoned cooked beef product" — I decided to go with real beef.

1 small red potato
1 teaspoon of olive oil
1/4 pound of lean beef steak (eye round steak, $6.50 per pound, no bones)
1/4 of a small yellow onion that has been chopped finely
1/4 cup of white wine (beef, chicken, or vegetable broth will also work)
1 tablespoon of fat-free sour cream
1/2 teaspoon of dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon of soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/4 pound of frozen green beans
salt and pepper to taste

Wash the potato and cut into quarters. Place a skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil and potato. Cover and cook for 4 minutes, lifting the lid and stirring every minute. While this cooks, cut any large pieces of fat off the steak and then cut the steak into bite-sized pieces. Cut the meat against the grain to keep it as tender as possible. Add the chopped onion to the skillet, cover and let cook for one more minute. Lower the heat to medium. Add the beef to the skillet, remove the cover, and let it cook for 1 minute on the first side before flipping and cooking on the other side for one more minute. In a small saucepan (or in the microwave) add 1 teaspoon of water and the frozen green beans over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and let them warm up while stirring them every minute or so. While this cooks, in a small bowl combine the white wine, sour cream, mustard, soy sauce and garlic powder. Stir with a spoon and pour over the beef after it has seared on both sides. Cover the pan, lower the heat to medium-low and cook for 2 minutes. Remove the lid on the beef, increase the heat to medium high and cook for another minute or so to reduce the sauce. Plate and serve.

Your time will vary, but this was an 11-minute entree that took me 11 minutes to make. This entree cost was $4.25. My cost for the potato, beef and green beans was about $3. I had the other ingredients so your cost may be higher.

Balsamic Glazed Chicken with a Rice and Vegetable Medley
Ah, rice! This takes longer to cook, which means it's going to take me longer to make than it does to microwave the frozen entree. But, if I make a larger serving of the rice and vegetable medley I'm then able to portion it off and reheat it later as a side dish for other entrees. If you're trying to eat less fat but want things to be more convenient, I can't recommend a rice cooker (now in red!) often enough.

Rice and Vegetable Medley (for two portions)
1 1/2 cups of water
1 cup of long grain white rice
1 cup of Country Style Frozen Vegetable (carrots, peas, green beans, green pepper)

Combine ingredients in the rice cooker, turn on, and come back 15-20 minutes later when the cooker dings. Stir with a fork to fluff and serve.

Balsamic Glazed Chicken
1/4 pound of chicken tenderloin
1 teaspoon of olive oil
1/4 of a small yellow onion that has been chopped
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons of red wine (chicken or vegetable broth can be substituted)
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the tenderloin at an angle into three or four strips. Bring the skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil and onion. Stir to coat and let cook for about two minutes or until the onion just starts to turn translucent. Place the chicken breast on top and cook for one minute. Flip and cook for one more minute. Lower the heat to medium. Remove the chicken breast to a plate and add in the garlic powder, balsamic vinegar and red wine. Stir to combine, return the chicken to the skillet and toss until the the chicken is evenly coated. Cover and let cook for 2-3 minutes or until the chicken is not pink in the middle. Remove the lid and cook for another minute while scraping the juices from the pan with a spoon and pouring it over the chicken. Plate with the rice and vegetable medley and serve.

This was a 9-minute entree for me that took me 9 minutes to cook the chicken breast. It took 20 minutes for the rice cooker to complete its cycle, but I now have another serving of rice for the next time I make this dish. The frozen entree cost was $3.89. My cost for the rice, frozen vegetables and chicken came to less than $2 but I had the other ingredients (and the rice cooker).

So while eating no preservatives and spending less than it would cost for three frozen entrees, I got three dinners and a side dish for later. It took me less than 15 minutes to cook and clean up each night and I never used more than two pans, a cutting board, a knife, and a spoon or fork while cooking. Cooking for one doesn't have to be the huge, bothersome chore that the Healthy Cuisines and Lean Choices would like you to think that it is.

Stay tuned next week when I will show you how to buy a large "family-size" pack of chicken breasts and marinate each one in a different sauce so that when you cook it during the week you'll still be eating healthy, saving money and proud of your expanded culinary skills — and still have plenty of time to knit, watch Lost or give your dog a bath.

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bean / January 2, 2007 9:29 AM

This is great advice, but:

Garlic powder? What's wrong with using a clove of fresh garlic?

And white wine in a beef dish???

Cinnamon / January 2, 2007 12:36 PM

Theres' never anything wrong with real garlic. But there's nothing wrong with garlic powder either, especially for people who are just learning to cook. Garlic powder releases flavor faster than fresh and you don't have to worry about burning it or having it turn bitter.

And that should say red wine with white as a possible substitute. It will provide a little acid and brightness, but red wine will give more flavor.

Paul / January 3, 2007 12:42 PM

Great article, Cinnamon. I'd like to see this developed into a series actually - not ingesting crazy amounts of salt and HFCS yet having the same meal is a huge plus.

geekgrrl / January 3, 2007 3:39 PM

this is actually really helpful. it makes me think i might actually be able to cook dinners!

Lisa W. / January 4, 2007 6:30 PM

Onion marmelade?? Can we have that recipe, please?

missmann / January 4, 2007 9:49 PM

I like the idea and I like the conceptual artish quality of build your own frozen lunches.

BUT, I've been bringing my own home-grown lunch to work about as long as I've been working and there's easier ways to get the same net benefit without trying to recreate the frozen meal motif. Brownbaggin for me is complicated by the fact I don't really like sandwiches, so instead I rely on a core main dish (in winter a hearty soup that can be nuked, in summer often a hearty grain based salad or hummus) with extras of yogurt, fruit and veg. A batch on Sunday will usually get me through 4 lunches -- one day or so is a treat lunch out. If you are used to the high sugar\salt of processed food maybe start by making sure you have a bit of those tastes (a chunk of chocolate for dessert or a main course of a miso based noodle soup).

If my work schedule is brutal, I'm not above throwing in Lean Pockets or using Trader Joe's BBQ tubs as a base but I think you can do simple, tasty food without having to rely on the matrix of the frozen meal that someone is already eating.

Cinnamon / January 5, 2007 11:42 AM

Thanks for the compliments, y'all.

geekgirl: You can totally cook a meal. I promise. Give it a try and if there are things that you don't know how to do, email me and I'll include them.

Paul: Send me an entree preference and I'll try to replicate something similar.

Lisa W.: Onion marmelade is really easy, it will be out in this week's column.

missmann: You make a great point, it is easier and faster to make one big meal and portion out the leftovers. And the great thing about soups and stews is they almost always freeze well, so even if you get sick of the stew you made on Sunday by Wednesday, you freeze and have it in two weeks. And your point about eating chocolate or miso instead of salt and sugary stuff is a very good one.

But I know there are so many people out there who are used to the little portioned trays and want that type of food, but who feel like they don't know how to cook. My hope is that letting them know that they don't need to rely on those companies by showing them how to replace those meals will get them to expand their options and cooking skills.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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