Try not to gasp when we suggest this: The handiest cooking skill these days may not be cooking at all.
From souped-up salad bars at supermarkets, with dozens of prepped ingredients, chopped and ready to go, to specialty food stores stocked with high-quality sauces and tubs, we’ve become a nation of combiners.
“It’s smart and stylish to be able to cook this way,” says Anne Byrn, the author of several cookbooks that use prepared ingredients, including “The Dinner Doctor” and “Anne Byrn Saves the Day.”
“It’s not just picking up a bunch of frozen casseroles from Costco.”
Pasta & Provisions, the specialty food shop in Charlotte, has run with this idea for more than 20 years: Pick a fresh pasta, match it with a sauce, grab a loaf of bread and head home. Dylan George, the son of founder Tommy George, says they get people who know how to cook but are too busy and also people who don’t know how to cook but want to eat like they do.
“They’re looking for quick but still good quality,” he says. “They need a couple of steps done for them. There’s still some process to it.”
Darren Seifer of NPD Group, which analyzes consumer behavior for the food and beverage industry, calls it “fill-in shopping” or “sensible involvement” – “trying to get something fresh while not being overly involved in getting it at the end of the day.”
77 percent of eating occasions involve at least some prepared foods
42 percent of eating occasions involve all prepared foods.
As a trend, it’s hard to find reliable numbers on how many of our meals now rely on foods that are partially prepared. But according to the Hartman Group, a food-trends firm, 77 percent of eating occasions – industry-speak for anytime you eat, including planned meals and snacks – involve at least some prepared foods, and 42 percent of our eating occasions involve all prepared foods.
“This is very definitely a trend,” says Jim Hertell, a managing partner with the national food-retail consulting firm Willard-Bishop.
“We were the McDonald’s generation. I call these kids the Panera Bread generation. We taught them how to eat, but didn’t teach them how to cook.”
What’s interesting about the trend, say food industry analysts, is that it hits heavily with two groups at different ends of the age spectrum: millennials, between ages 18 and 34, and empty nesters, usually over 50. Both groups have high standards for the quality of their food, but both are time-stressed.
It all adds up to an opportunity for simple but very high-quality food preparation. So you feel like you have your fingerprints on it but it doesn’t take longer than 20 or 30 minutes.
Food industry analyst Jim Hertel, Willard-Bishop
They want shortcuts, but they don’t want to sacrifice quality.
“It all adds up to an opportunity for simple but very high-quality food preparation,” says Hertel. “So you feel like you have your fingerprints on it, but it doesn’t take longer than 20 or 30 minutes.”
Much of the research Hertel has seen is about attitudes surrounding food preparation. People who cook from scratch see it as an expression of personality and skill. But there’s another group that wants to put a good meal on the table, but doesn’t have the experience or the confidence.
“They’re a little bit wannabes. They want to be adventurous, but they can only be adventurous with (limited) time.”
The good news is that the key to doing this well is higher-quality food products. With a population that’s getting smarter about reading labels, there’s more understanding about the difference between processed foods, associated with high fat, sugar and sodium, and convenience foods with better ingredients.
“Processed implies long lists of fake,” says author Byrn. “If it’s convenient, it’s closer to real food with a couple of steps cut out.”
Byrn, who lives in Nashville, was at a party recently with a group of women when the conversation turned to food. One woman with a reputation for being a good and healthy cook described her current favorite meal: She goes to Trader Joe’s and gets the pre-cooked lentils, arugula and burrata cheese. She makes a warm vinaigrette and reheats the lentils in it, then piles them on arugula and tops it with the buratta, a ball of soft mozzarella with a creamy filling.
“We’re all searching for our phones to write it down,” Byrn said. “We went around the circle and we were all sharing our favorite Trader Joe’s purchase.”
One of Byrn’s favorites for a party: Arrabiata sauce, a spicy marinara, poured in a casserole dish, topped with two boursin cheeses and baked at 350 degrees until it’s melted. She puts it out with marinated olives and toasted French bread.
Cooking like this can be deceptively tricky, she says. It seems like cooking without cooking, but the key is knowing your products and knowing what you can do with it.
“It does require skill,” she says. “You have to bring together good taste and what flavors taste good together.”
Coming up: Assembly Line Cooking
Watch for the debut of Kathleen Purvis’ new occasional feature, Assembly Line, with reviews of prepared foods and ideas for putting together meals without recipes. Coming next Wednesday.
Arugula Topped With Lentils and Burrata
Based on Nashville cookbook writer Anne Byrn’s description, we put this together after a quick trip through Trader Joe’s.
1 package steamed lentils (refrigerator case)
Trader Joe’s olive oil with lemon juice
Trader Joe’s Everyday Seasoning
1 tub burrata (cheese case)
Place about 1/4 cup olive oil with lemon juice (or plain olive oil) and several grinds of Everyday Seasoning in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the lentils and about 2 tablespoons water. Heat, stirring occasionally, until warm.
Divide the arugula between 2 or 3 serving plates. Top with the warmed lentils. Carefully cut the burrata in half (the filling is soft) and place a half on each serving.
Yield: 2 to 3 servings.
Who doesn’t need an occasional frozen pasta? But you can make it better by topping it with a homemade bechamel sauce. From “Anne Byrn Saves the Day Cookbook” (Workman, 2014).
1 (38-ounce) package frozen lasagne (either with meat or meatless)
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated good-quality Parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano)
Place the lasagne on the counter for an hour or partially thaw it in a microwave. Set aside a rectangular 2-quart casserole dish. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place the milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Heat 4 to 5 minutes until it’s not quite boiling but has a ring of bubbles around the edge.
Melt the butter in a heavy medium-size saucepan over low heat. Add the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon or whisk. Cook, stirring, until the flour is well mixed but isn’t browned, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
Pour the hot milk into the flour mixture a little at a time, stirring constantly. Return to low heat, season with salt and pepper to taste and stir until thickened, 30 to 60 seconds.
Place the thawed lasagne in the casserole dish. Pour the bechamel sauce over it. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the top.
Bake 40 to 45 minutes, until lightly golden and bubbly. Remove from oven, let stand 20 minutes, then slice and serve.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.