There’s been a lot of chatter lately about avoiding processed food. The issue is time, how much of it we have and how we want to spend it. Some cooking-from-scratch proponents argue that if we’ve got time to watch “Dancing with the Stars,” we’ve got time to stick a chicken in the oven. (And author Michael Ruhlman has an interesting suggestion on what you should do while waiting for it to cook. Be patient, it’s in the penultimate paragraph.)
I see the aversion to home-cooking as being about more than tight schedules. It’s about being down to your very last shred of nerve after a day of dealing with people, and if one more person asks you to do one more thing that nerve is going to snap like a string on Paganini’s violin. Your inner demons are going to be let loose _ and so near the kitchen knives, too. Oddly enough I have found this to be true whether my day involved challenging and productive tasks, eight hours of misery doing busy work for a pinhead or the joys of diapers, story time and “Mom, I’m booooored.”
Which is where processed foods come in. For many of us _ and of course this is a perception strongly encouraged by advertisers _ opening a few packets or cans or slapping something in the microwave seems doable in a way that pulling out a hunk of meat, chopping an onion, and making your very own sauce does not. As someone who started cooking by following recipes on the backs of Jell-o boxes, I say if that’s the only thing that is going to get you in the kitchen go for it. Anything that you at least stirred, as opposed to brought home in a takeout bag, is a step in the right direction.However, and you knew there was going to be a however, the anti-processed food people do have a point. A lot of the boxed/bought stuff is not really easier than and definitely isn’t as good as homemade. Take noodles and cheese. So simple, and yet for years I bought the bright orange boxed stuff. In fact, I went through a bit of a lean time in college where all I had for a month were 20 boxes I had bought at a 10 for $1 sale. Yes, this was a while back. Shut up. At the beginning I had butter and milk to help things along; by month’s end I was making the stuff with water alone.
Now, there are folks who will argue that the only way to go is fresh pasta you made yourself topped with Parmesan you shaved from a block you bought from that special little cheese store you love so well. And I’m sure they’re right. As sure as I am that there is no way in hell I am going to put out that much effort on a weeknight. So I take what British P.M. Tony Blair used to call the Third Way. And it involves keeping a tub of good-quality grated Parmesan in the freezer.
I give you the People Have Worked My Last Nerve Today Emergency Dinner.
Boil water, add noodles (dried, please, but do consider buying interesting shapes to perk things up), drain when noodles are cooked to your liking and then put them back into the pan over a low-medium heat as you quickly add a knob of butter, a little cream and a good shaking of Parmesan, stirring to make sure the noodles don’t stick to the bottom and tasting while you add cheese and cream until you get the flavor and consistency you want. You can skip the cream if you don’t have it. I usually manage to have some because I buy the tiny cartons that will keep for a surprisingly long time unopened. If I have some basil that hasn’t succumbed to death-by-refrigerator as seems to happen all too often, I scissor the (washed) leaves right over the pan. A handful of frozen peas is another way to go. But limit yourself to just one addition; you want to convey simple sophistication not nursery supper.
With this I serve a baguette, very likely one that was pulled from the freezer and given a quick blast in the oven, and a quick salad of greens and bottled dressing.
Then I make myself scarce in hopes that Mr. Vinecdote (an excellent and prolific from-scratch cook who has never so much as ripped open a Knorr’s sauce packet) will do the washing up.