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As the economic climate has turned even the well employed into the “working worried,” people accustomed to eating most dinners out are cooking at home — despite the long hours and killer commutes that initially drove them out to restaurants in the first place, to seek sensual solace for the day’s draconian soul-drain.

But how do you cook wholesome, high-end, restaurant-quality food when you have some skills and money but little time or energy? For me, the answer is having tasty, useful ingredients at hand (including some high-quality “short-cuts”), bought locally or on the internet. With a pantry, fridge, and freezer filled with weapons of deliciousness, a passable cook can make real and good food, rapidly, and even if the ingredients cost more than marginally edible junk, you’re still not paying restaurant prices, tips, and tax. If your neighborhood has a weekly farmer’s market, you can start to cook like Alice Waters. (“Whole Paycheck” stores offer everything you need — except for Alice.) But there’s also nothing wrong with simple dinners, like a great grilled-cheese sandwich or a five-minute cheese omelet, if you’ve got terrific cheeses in the fridge for the fillings. (No Velveeta allowed!)

Major chain supermarkets are minimally helpful in this quest. They’ve finally added some organics, but for a cook who reads, gee whiz, Gourmet or Bon Appetit, most local outlets have hardly anything the recipes call for. Hello — Von’s? Ralphs? Albertson’s? Have you reached Starfleet Food Year 1980 yet? No celery root, Asian eggplants, pea-shoots, favas — not even fresh shiitakes? Well, shiitakes on all your heads!

Occasionally, supermarkets do flirt with superior products — ahh, those splendid Muir Glen Organic Fire-Roasted Tomatoes, tasting like homegrown and home-roasted! — but all too soon they’re apt to vanish, as the chains often replace them with store-brand shlock. Okay, I admit — I do have big-store mainstays, including Nancy’s frozen quiches, Michael Angelo’s frozen eggplant parmesan, Monterey refrigerated pastas, C&W frozen petite peas, Ranch Style Beans with jalapeño peppers, S&W no-salt diced tomatoes, Ortega green chiles, Peloponnese pitted Kalamata olives, and any brand of canned tomatillos, cannellini beans, chipotles, bottled roasted red peppers, capers, caper-berries, and marinated artichoke hearts. But onward to even better stuff.

Organicville:
Normally, when food publicists deluge me with burbles and squeals about the latest junk, I just hit the spam button — but Organicville caught my attention. Their products, available at Whole Foods, Henry’s, Keil’s, at their website store (organicvillefoods.com), and on amazon.com, are kitchen staples certified organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, no sugar added. The person behind them is Rachel Kruse, a third-generation vegetarian from the Midwest. She invented this line of foods because she didn’t like the available organic bottled dressings. (I hear ya, sister!) Her products don’t have that awful “good for you” bad-tasting flavor of virtue.

The ketchup enticed me. I use the stuff rarely, but in quantity, for dishes like Oakland-style homemade barbecue sauce and a favorite Venezuelan version of chili. In place of high-fructose corn syrup, this brand has low-glycemic agave nectar — turning a carbo-bomb healthy. Organicville’s ketchup tastes like Heinz. Try it in salsa americana, Chile’s minimalist version of Russian dressing: good mayo (see below), a little ketchup to taste, a scootch of Scotch or Cognac, and a few optional drops of fresh lemon or lime juice. Presto! — instant dressing for chilled cooked shellfish or artichokes. (BTW, Trader Joe’s also sells an organic ketchup. Haven’t read its table of contents yet.)

(Re Mayo: several mainstream brands now offer olive-oil mayos — hurray! — although they still contain superfluous sugar. If you don’t have time to build an aioli from scratch, olive-oil mayo is a more authentic aioli-starter or salsa americana ingredient than bottled mayos based on no-flavor, genetically engineered soy, canola, and/or corn oils.)

The other Organicville products I’ve tried have been gentle tasting, a bit flowerchildish. Products include salad dressings, sauces (barbecue, teriyaki), and salsas. The Herbes de Provence Vinaigrette is much closer to a Frenchwoman’s homemade dressing than mainstream brands are — delicate, mild, no childishly sweet undertones. Use on mild lettuces like Bibb, ripe tomatoes, and summertime salade niçoise. The Miso Ginger looks like a winner for Asian-style salads — I can already taste it on ready-shredded bagged “cole slaw mix” from the salad case. The Sun Dried Tomato Dressing obviously gravitates toward Italian greens — and green beans.

With my own crazy schedule of restaurant dates and writing deadlines, buying perishables is chancy, so I often use marinades to preserve meats (and the occasional procrastination-prone fish) until I can get around to cooking them. Surrounding protein in liquid in an air-tight zipped freezer bag (or a vacuum-sealed marinator-container) extends its life several days. I was attracted to Pomegranate Vinaigrette, since it mingles pom and rosemary, both natural allies to lamb. The dressing proved too mild in that application, but might make a pleasing marinade for chicken breast or fish (even, subtly, for grilled salmon). Or, duh, it can also dress salads, especially with sweet ingredients like fruits, beets, or firm-tender cooked carrot strips (add touches of cilantro and roasted cumin to the latter for a Moroccan spin).

Organicville’s Pineapple Salsa: Instant faux-Hawaii, great on fish or simple grilled pork — it livened up a hopeless hunk of leftover farm-raised supermarket salmon. (Trader Joe’s refrigerated papaya-mango salsa is a good alternative.) The tomato-based Mexican-style salsas are fresh-tasting but not extraordinary.

Tangy BBQ Sauce proves very different from smoky, tomatoe-y Texas-style bottled supermarket brands. It’s light and bright, and to my delight, it’s not all that far from a Memphis-style pulled-pork sauce. It would be fine with chicken or game hens, too. Play with it. Mopped on leftover pork ribs reheated under the broiler, it made a great, crunchy caramelized coating, without any nasty burned flavor. The Original BBQ Sauce, described as “sweet and smoky,” is certainly sweet and molasses-y, but I’d add a few drops of Liquid Smoke and hot sauce. (The inventor’s a midwesterner, remember? And she’s probably barbecuing tofu.) I haven’t tried any of the teriyakis (I don’t really love the saltiness of teri), but apparently they double as Asian stir-fry sauces.

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Comments

Cornrefiner May 28, 2009 @ 11:47 a.m.

High fructose corn syrup may have a complicated-sounding name, but it’s essentially a corn sugar that is nutritionally the same as table sugar.

The American Medical Association in June 2008 helped put to rest misunderstandings about this sweetener and obesity, stating that “high fructose syrup does not appear to contribute to obesity more than other caloric sweeteners.”

High fructose corn syrup is not sweeter than sugar; and high fructose corn syrup, sugar and honey all contain the same number of calories (four calories per gram).

Like table sugar and honey, high fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives.

Consumers can see the latest research and learn more about high fructose corn syrup at www.SweetSurprise.com.

Audrae Erickson President Corn Refiners Association

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catty1 May 28, 2009 @ 1:06 p.m.

It was with great envy and yearning that I read of the opening of Berkeley Bowl West, Berkeley Bowl's bigger sister store. If only we had 1/2 the store that Berkeley Bowl is here in San Diego. Whole Foods is close, but Berkeley Bowl has lots more to offer in produce and, at least the last time I was there, was still cheaper than Whole Foods.

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Naomi Wise June 1, 2009 @ 12:41 a.m.

Ms. Erickson: It's your job to defend your employers' product, but the underlying problem with high fructose corn sugar is that it's cheaper than sugar due to government subsidies for the huge industrial agriculture companies growing corn (much of it genetically modified -- ooh boy, Roundup resistant!). (That's why American Coca Cola has HFCS, while Mexican Coke, made in a sugar-growing country, still uses sugar -- which actually tastes better and sells for a premium here.) I know very well that HFCS is no higher carb or cal than sugar -- BUT because it is so cheap, it is in absolutely EVERYTHING you buy from the supermarket -- whole-grain breads, canned and frozen veggies, fruit juices, flavored waters, frozen entrees (even for foods that a good home cook would never make with enough sugar that it would even be listed on a label, much less high on the label), etc. Most of these products don't need this amount of sweetening. (Example: I use 1/4 - 1/2 tsp. sugar for 1 gallon of spaghetti sauce, home-cooked. Most supermarket spaghetti sauces have HFCS listed fairly high on the label.)

The result is that it's conditioned the American palate to develop a "sweet tooth," to expect a taste that's sweeter than the natural taste of the ingredients not just at dessert, but all the way through every meal. That is, it's become a panacea remedy for the loss of flavor in our industrially-grown foodstuffs. (I'm a gardener. Unbelieveable the difference between home-grown and supermarket products!) And you can look at me as one of those "nut cases" (or as a Wise Person, or even a Wise Guy) but I'm among the many serious food people who believe that this inescapable ubiquity of HFCS may be a contributory factor to the increasing epidemics of obesity and diabetes type 2 in the US, both of which started to "blossom" with the increasing use of HFCS.

In any event, even if your product no worse than sugar, agave nectar is a better product, a sweetener with a lower glycemic index -- the way that whole grains (e.g. brown rice) have lower glycemic indexes than refined ones (e.g. white rice), hence better for people watching their carbs for whatever reason, whether weight problems (low-carb is easier long-term than low-cal) or high blood sugar. If not for lobbyists like your employers, perhaps the government would stop forcing us taxpayers to subsidize your product, which I do not think is a good product for our overall health. And, by the way, it sure tastes BLAH, not a lively, vegetal sweetness (like Mexico's azucar moreno, semi-refined light-brown sugar) but a sort of dull saccharinity -- that's why I prefer Mexican Coke!

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Naomi Wise June 1, 2009 @ 12:52 a.m.

catty1: Oh, yeah, do I ever miss Berkeley Bowl. I didn't even live in Berkeley, I envied all my friends who did, and when visiting them I'd often stop off on the way and stuff the trunk with an orgy of BB produce. (For that matter, my local supermarket in SF, a very small chain called Andronico's, was better than our Henry's, although not quite as cheap -- it was more like a cross between Ralph's and Whole Foods. Always lots of fun stuff in the veggie case to play with, including local-grown lion head mushrooms, celeriac, and one year around xmas, they even had scorzonera, Italian black salsify, which roasted up like a charm.) Sigh.

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Fred Williams June 1, 2009 @ 4:44 a.m.

I want to read more about bacon fat and how to use it in the kitchen.

When I was little, I remember my granny always saved it in a jar by the stove. I was told that was to avoid clogging the drains.

Now I know the real reason was to re-use it in cooking.

Please tell us more.

(Naomi, heckuva trick that slime-ball PR flack from the highly-subsidized corn industry pulled. He's paid with OUR tax dollars to tell us that corn syrup is good food...what a disgusting worm. Some people have no pride.)

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Naomi Wise June 10, 2009 @ 7:46 p.m.

STOP THE PRESSES -- TJ'S FROZEN GORGONZOLA-SAUCED GNOCCHI NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL! I nuked the first half of the package, following package directions, and they turned to rubber bands as they cooled -- BUT I reheated the second half stovetop in a skillet (the alternate directions, same amount of time as nuking -- 7 minutes) and they were perfectly fine. The sauce is pretty goopy and monotone, so I chopped some skinny spears of asparagus into it at the start, and they cooked crisp-tender right along with everything else, and added some different taste and texture to the dish. Maybe the bit of added moisture from the asparagus in some way helped the gorgonzola stay soft.

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Naomi Wise June 4, 2009 @ 8:54 p.m.

A Few Uses For Yummy Bacon Grease

(Latest word from the food police is that fat from well-raised, slow-growing heritage hogs like Berkshires and Durocs is fairly low in "bad" cholesterol and quite high in "good" cholesterol. This "bad" food may actually be "good," kickle kickle. I'm not talking about supermarket bacon. Remember to taste before salting, since bacon fat often has all the salt you need for the dish.)

1.As fat for frying or scrambling eggs. Nice for eggs scrambled with cream cheese and scallions or chives. Great in a scramble with Egg-Beaters, health-conscious but so boring. Add some nice melty cheese, too, maybe a minced jalapeno. That'll show em! (Oops, too spicy? Try a little sour cream on top, heh heh.)

  1. As the fat for "country-fried steak," a tough-ish, lean steak (e.g. round or chuck) rubbed with seasonings and a little flour (not wet-battered like chicken-fried), pounded a little to tenderize it and bash the seasonings into the surface. It's sauteed slowly for an hour or so, and finished off with a roux-thickened milk gravy (remove steak, stir the grease with a little flour until golden, add milk and simmer until thickened) or a cream gravy (add cream, bring to a boil, stir until thickened.) This is NOT a task for canola oil. You want FLAVOR-grease for this gravy. (Bacon fat is also good for making "biscuits and gravy" if the sausage you're using is finky, e.g., pre-cooked nuker links that yield no fat.)

  2. Instead of icky canned refried beans, there's a shortcut to making a decent version. Take a can of pinto beans (like Ranch-Style), drain excess liquid, heat 'em up in a skillet with a big fat pat of bacon grease, mashing as you go with a potato-masher or fork. Also good with canned black beans (serve with lamb or goat, scattered with bits of queso fresco.

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Naomi Wise June 4, 2009 @ 9:01 p.m.

More Bacon Grease

4.Wilted spinach salad. (Treat like the oil in a vinaigrette -- quickly stir in ample vinegar or lemon juice or the fat will congeal disgustingly as it cools.) Also: Tomato salad.

  1. Southern-style braised greens, if you don't have any ham hocks or other smoky thing in the house. Throw a dab into the braising liquid, it'll help lots. Great with kale (which takes less cooking than collards or turnip greens.) Also fine for sauteeing ribbon-chopped kale, Brazilian-style, especially if you don't have a whole feijoada on hand to compensate for the plainness of the authentic Brazilian version.

  2. A cooking magazine recently offered a recipe for "bacon cornbread" using bacon grease in place of oil and chopped cooked bacon and scallions mixed into the batter.

  3. Mousses, terrines, pates. Most French recipes for these items call for a top-coat of thinly-sliced pork backfat, which is not exactly easy to get in SD. Using bacon slices, I've found, adds way too much oozy fat, salt, and bacon-flavor. A thin coating of melted bacon fat smoothed over the top just to seal the surface works better. Particularly good with chicken liver creations, bringing to mind New York City's great "My Grandparents Were Kosher, Not Me!" sandwich of chopped chicken liver and bacon on rye. (With butter, not mayo on the bread.)

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Fred Williams June 5, 2009 @ 12:22 a.m.

Wow, Naomi. I'm gonna have to raise my bacon consumption just to keep up. Thanks!

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