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.
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.