A little while back, I wrote a post about how easy it is to replicate your favourite takeaways. So let’s continue with this theme and take a look at that other big culinary expense, ready meals. Personally, I don’t buy them, unless you count the odd chicken nugget or fish finger, but I can completely understand why we as a nation opt for them so often. When your life is packed to the rafters with activity after activity and chore and after chore, the prospect of cooking a meal from scratch is not a particularly attractive one on the average weekday evening. And there’s something about the winter months that makes everything so much more of an effort. Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, I think we’ve established that ready meals are a convenient option in the life of today’s typical hectic family.
But let’s look at the pros and cons – yes, they’re easy, but consuming them also means relinquishing a certain amount of control over what is going into your belly. Information contained on the side of the packet isn’t always straightforward and there’s been a lot of recent publicity over the amount of salt and sugar that goes into to producing not only ready meals but also cereals and snacks. Making your own alternatives means you can take back at least some of the decision making in the kitchen.
However, that brings us back to the time and energy issue, or rather the lack of time and energy issue. I’m afraid there’s not really much home cooking that can compete with two minutes in the microwave on this front, but there’s plenty of dishes that will only take you about thirty minutes to prepare (unlike certain celebrity chefs, I’m not going to pretend that they’ll take you a mere fifteen minutes. That would be ridiculous).
Let’s take beef stroganoff, a fairly frequent ready meal. To make a perfect delicious one from scratch, all I do is fry up one sliced onion in 30 grams of butter and season with salt and pepper. Remove from the pan, then add the same amount of butter again and fry a decent portion of sliced beef. Season, and once browned, add the onion back to the pan. Put in a few tablespoons of sour cream, one teaspoon of mustard, some grated nutmeg and a generous sprinkling of smoked paprika. To bulk up the flavour, I sometimes add a beef stock cube, any leftover gravy I might have in the fridge or some barbeque sauce. Serve with boiled rice and whatever vegetables or salad you desire.
I often bang on about macaroni cheese on this blog, but it really is a meal you can improve a thousand-fold by making at home. Even the thought of a processed macaroni cheese gives me the heebie-jeebies. There really is nothing easier than making a béchamel sauce, then adding cheese and cooked pasta to it. And you know exactly what’s going into it. Granted, that’s plenty of ingredients with a hefty fat content, but at least you know what they are.
Good old spag bol. It’s the first thing many of us learn to cook at home and yet we still find ourselves reaching for that jar of readymade tomato sauce or the microwavable version. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, tinned tomatoes are your best friend – if you add them to fried onion and garlic then you really don’t need someone else to make the stuff and put it in a jar for you. And charge you a few extra quid for the privilege.
So next time you hover in the ready meal aisle of the supermarket, just keeping on walking, straight past those packets and onto the ingredients that will save you money in the long run.