Hot cuisine

I’m sure more than one person has gotten academic tenure for writing about the cultural significance of pre-packaged, quick-preparation foods in post-World War II America. I can’t tell you much about that. But as a single guy and a lazy son of a bitch I’ve eaten my fair share of these mediocre staples, and as someone who’s lived with a number of roommates over the years I’ve realized that many people who eat these things don’t know how to cook them properly. Yes, the directions are on the package, but you’re still cooking, in some minimal but non-negligible sense, so you’ve got to pay attention if you want decent results. Just because Martha Stewart wouldn’t be caught dead cooking frozen pizza doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to cook your frozen pizza the way Martha would do it if only she weren’t so stuck up.

Here then are some distillations from my years of opening packages and heating things up:

Canned soup: This is one of the most basic and traditional convenience food products. Most canned soups these days are just heat-and-serve. I recommend heating in a saucepan rather than in the microwave because the microwave method usually splatters, but that’s really a choice you have to make for yourself. Be aware of the soups that require the addition of liquid, like traditional Campbell’s tomato and split pea. The tomato turns out extra creamy if you use milk instead of water, but then you be careful of scalding the milk by keeping the heat at medium-low or by stirring constantly.

Packaged ramen noodles: When I discovered these as a ten- or eleven-year-old I thought they were the greatest thing ever. Now I know better. But in a pinch, I’d eat them. The microwave directions are faster than the stovetop directions, but sometimes leave part of the block o’ noodles unhydrated. My mom used ramen noodles (without the flavor packets) as the basis of a really good chicken dish, and one of my roommates makes an elaborate affair that’s closer to the real ramen that you get in Japan, adding lots of fresh ingredients to the cooked noodles. But all that is clearly beyond quickie food. If you want something a step up from ramen but still incredibly simple, I recommend some packaged yakisoba noodles I had recently that included a small packet of dehydrated vegetables along with the usual MSG-enriched flavor packet.

Microwave burritos: Depending on the brand, these can be pretty good. The secret to heating them up is setting your microwave’s power to “medium” and lengthening the cook time. This will avoid the worst problem with microwave burritos: being hot on the outside but frozen in the middle. I cook them for five minutes, but your microwave might have more or less power, so take that into account. Poke the middle of the burrito with your finger; if it’s tender, it’s done. Also, if your microwave doesn’t have one of those spinny plate things, rotate the plate holding the burritos at least once. And if, like me, you like to top your burritos off with Tapatío or another fine hot sauce, put the sauce on after cooking; it will dry up if you put it on beforehand.

Frozen pizzas: In college I discovered some $3 frozen pizzas at the small grocery store up the street from my apartment. They were amazing — two meals for $3! Eventually, though, I noticed that not all the toppings, erm, digested completely, so I quit eating them. I still buy the occasional rising-crust frozen pizza, or Amy’s spinach pizza. (Amy’s is great, but watch out and don’t buy any of their vegan pizzas — unless actually want to eat a “pizza” with no cheese.) Anyway, the trick with frozen pizzas is to be sure to rotate them halfway through cooking so they cook evenly. Also, depending on your oven, you might want to go for a slightly lower temperature than is listed on the box. (It’s the same avoid-the-frozen-middle principle as with burritos, but since pizzas are flat the remedy is much less drastic.)

TV dinners: Personally, I think these are usually pretty disgusting and always very sad: food for lonely people or for neglected children. But I’ve eaten various ones from time to time out of some peculiar desperation. The trick: Follow the directions precisely. These can be complicated and this is no time for showboating.

Goya brand cheese empanadas: Dear reader, learn from my sad experience: While these may look like an interesting new “ethnic” convenience food in the freezer case in the bodega, they actually have to be cooked in an inch of hot oil — not a quickie cooking method at all. And don’t think you can still microwave them and still have something edible. First of all, the cheese filling gets really hot and will burn your mouth bad. Second, the cheese tastes like D-grade Velveeta and the outside remains doughy and unbrowned. These things are nasty.

So there it is — now go forth and microwave. Gorge yourself on perfectly-browned frozen pizzas and burritos that are hot through and through. (Or don’t. Real home-cooked food tastes better. And there’s always takeout.)
Well-cooked burritos

11 responses to “Hot cuisine”

  1. Robyn says:

    Cup o noodles (bought by the case) + ramen + TV dinners = my childhood.

    …oh crap.

  2. Mikelle F says:

    Clearly, I have some things to learn from you. First off, I would have definitely broken out the pot and oil for the empanadas instead of just leaving them at the store and buying something else. Also, I would never have thought to reduce the heating level of the microwave for the burrito (not a lot of experience in that department). No, instead, I pain over a meal, then regret the two hours of my precious evening I’ve just lost. Where were you all those years?

  3. caption should have read: WARNING: Microwave Burritos May Induce Nosebleed.

    Dave, I read this as a plea to be fed more by your non-bachelor friends. I’ll try to do my part. Though I never really led the life of ramen and microwave burritos, I did have one roommate who turned me on to the delicious dish of white rice mixed with ketchup and Italian dressing. And I had one who used to melt chocolate bars in his mac and cheese (“Chocolate milk … chocolate cheese!”). I learned how to cook, though, once I started grad school, because I felt guilty that my whole family was enduring 6 years of a Ph.D. program and I needed to deliver something rewarding in the short run.

  4. Lisa Parrish says:

    Wooo… Chocolate cheese!

    Where I come from, a cheese sandwich is made like this: Two pieces of wonder bread, slathered with butter. Several generous slices of Velveeta. One heaping teaspoon of sugar on the cheese. Heat on griddle until cheese is melted and bread is toasty-slick with butter. I can’t imagine eating such a concoction now, but my brother still loves ’em.

  5. PB says:

    I would like to commend you on the fact that you may be eating crap food–but on a really lovely earthenware, probably Italian-made sponge design dinnerware. Nearly anything tastes better with a nice presentation. Now if the nosebleed drops were only spattered in a more appealing swirl–then you would have something.

  6. Adriana says:

    Our favorite Saturday afternoon treat when we were kids was ramen noodles with the seasoning packet mixed into drained noodles (instead of soup). It was just the thing for a palate-less, carb-obsessed pre-pubescent.

    So many better options, Dave! Try frozen Chinese dumplings, fresh or frozen ravioli with some olive oil drizzled on top, rotisserie chicken from Key Foods, Kofta Curry…

  7. Eric Jones says:

    As a kid, I used to eat uncooked ramen noodles like crackers. A couple years ago, hiking with a childhood friend, I was surprised (and disgusted) when he opened a packet of noodles and started crunching away–and thanked me for showing him, years ago, the way ramen noodles should be eaten …

    This isn’t a wonderful solution, but it does present an option to the lazy sonuvabitch single guy–spend 2-3 hours on the weekend, cooking one, maybe two big pots of whatever it is you like and are relatively good at making. Then eat leftovers throughout the week. Even leftovers beat most–no, all–of the stuff you’ve listed, Dave. And a few leftovers–say, chile, or barley soup–*can* actually get better after a day in the fridge. But having dispensed with this advice, and being a lazy single guy myself, I’m looking forward to trying Adriana’s suggestions …

  8. Stephanie Wells says:

    I have two words that will change your life: Trader Joe’s. I read that New York just got its first. It’s the magical palace of frozen hors d’oeuvres that aren’t even that bad for you. Many, many nights we open the freezer and dine like it’s Oscar night or something, using only toothpicks as our silverware. If you’re a lazy-ass frozen-food fallerbacker, you might as well be falling back on coconut shrimp or har gow or miniature quiches. Every night can be a party when it’s catered by Joe. It sounds to me like you and Joe will have a delicious microwaveable marriage made in heaven.

  9. Shar says:

    I can’t believe Dave is warning people off Amy’s vegan pizza – it’s delicious! It’s no cheese, but the plethora of sweet roasted onion and other vegetables makes it a whole new experience. Maybe you should think of it as an onion tart instead of pizza to get over this crazy prejudice.

    Lisa is a big consumer of Amy’s hot pockets. I have eaten their various veggie dinners (Salisbury Steak, Veggie Loaf) for a year for lunch at work and have OD’ed. My biggest recommendation is Moosewood frozen dinners. They’re simple and there are not many options, but they taste like home-cooked fresh food. Don’t know how they do it.

  10. Lisa says:

    For the record, I am not, and never have been, a “big consumer of Amy’s hot pockets.” God, that makes me sound like such a huge geek!

  11. Adriana says:

    Actually, Lisa, it makes us want to meet Amy…