If there were ever anyone tediously opposed to cutting a single stupid corner in home cooking, it would be me. I've abandoned storebought lasagna noodles, I press my own paneer for Indian food (it doesn't take long, really you should try it), I've bought a tortilla press and a bag of masa harina and I've turned my back upon storebought tortillas (even the super fancy kinds, even though I know they're fine). TEDIOUS.
Nonetheless, it rankled a bit the other day at a food conference to hear folks speaking of people who use canned vegetables, or even frozen vegetables, from the supermarket as shockingly ignorant of what food ought to taste like*. "Dead food" is a term that gets applied with some zeal. For the sake of argument, I'll assume folks weren't thinking of canned tomatoes as part of the denunciation (canned can actually be better for you - here's a short run down from EatingWell). But there are other taste delights for which the "dead" version just plain tastes best.
I may be biased in favor of the occasional tinned item right now coming off of a catering gig where, in a Georgia-inspired menu, I put two corn casseroles up against each other: the standard "corn junk casserole" from my friend Rachel (native Southerner) and a fancy version inspired by the lovely cookbook Root To Leaf. You can guess which of the two guests were eating with their hands from the pan after most people had left and clean up begun.
Corn Casserole Recipe
This corn casserole recipe is like a cross between cornbread and bread stuffing - the perfect side dish. Here's how you make Corn Junk Casserole, in Rachel's words:
There are several variations of the recipe, but all involve the same ingredients: combine 1 drained can of corn, 1 can creamed corn, 1 cup sour cream, 1/2 or 3/4 stick of melted butter (depending on how south you are of the mason-dixon line...), 1 box jiffy corn bread mix. Bake at 350 for ~40 mins. I never add eggs, but my aunt adds two. Just depends on the consistency you're after.
Being well north of the Mason Dixon line I only added half a stick, and since my other casserole was egg based I left those out.
"Georgia Style" Mac 'n Cheese Recipe
I feel it only right to add, while we're on this particular menu, that "Georgia style" Mac n' Cheese is delicious. I don't know if anyone in Georgia eats this, but I like to imagine they do. Maybe I could talk them into it. It combines the comfort food qualities of homemade mac 'n cheese with the veneer of nutritional respectability provided by cabbage.
My version is the Food Lab's stovetop Mac 'n Cheese, topped with Fried Cabbage (which is cabbage cooked up in a frying pan, not deep fried in oil, here's a recipe if you need one - the main thing is to add enough salt & pepper when you first put the cabbage in) and Cornbread Crumbs (if you don't have stale cornbread hanging around and are making it from scratch, be sure to make an unsweetened skillet style cornbread, like this one). Layer it up in a casserole dish (use your discretion in how much cabbage to put on top of the noodles, I like more than the average person), stick it under a broiler at low heat to toast up that cornbread topping, and you're set.
Back to "dead foods"
I also make my green bean casserole at Thanksgiving by splitting the difference - mushroom soup made from scratch, half fresh green beans (thin sliced and super quick blanched) and half from a can and the French's onions. . . oh I love those onions. They are also ideal hot dog accompaniments, as discussed in an earlier Nordic food post.
Basically I don't like absolute rules. I'm in a state of pique because a few days ago I read a children's cookbook that stated that using a microwave when cooking is wrong because real chefs never use a microwave. I take issue with instructing a little kid to behave like a "real chef" (because they're, you know, not . . . they are kids who should enjoy learning to cook not be worried that their dishes wouldn't pass judgment on Chopped). Beyond that, I like this quote from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt on The Splendid Table:
People are afraid of the microwave. Even the other day I was on Twitter and somebody mentioned, "This restaurant must microwave all their food." They were talking about one of these big, national, chain restaurants. To me that was just like, "Well, you know what? I've worked in restaurants like that and most of those places don't microwave their food."
But you know where they do microwave food a lot is actually at very fancy restaurants. I think it's because at these fancy restaurants chefs maybe use a little bit more thought and realize the microwave is just another tool. There's nothing evil about it. Just because most of the things people cook in it happen to be frozen dinners, it doesn't mean that it can't be used as a good tool for cooking real, fresh food.
While we're speaking of rule breaking and experiments conducted by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, here's a recent post from him on when it's okay to use the dreaded dried herbs instead of fresh. My personal philosophy has always been that the best herb to use is the one that's going to actually be in your kitchen when you need it - if that means recognizing that you aren't going to have a bouquet of fresh oregano throughout the winter then for crying out loud, buy dried oregano to have on hand.
Have I made my point about following rules? I believe I have. I'm going to go make some Georgia Mac 'n Cheese now, in the hopes that the people of the state of Georgia will one day join me.
*To be absolutely fair, part of the discussion was about food affordability and the American diet, and certainly we know that people of all income levels avoid produce that tastes lousy no matter its nutritional benefit. Setting that aside.