Ready Made: The good, the bad and the stupid…

Virgil Evetts

In the make- believe world of food media all foodstuffs are made from scratch. Nothing shop bought can ever be as good as homemade. Surely??? Meanwhile in the parallel universe of bombastic supermarket sales strategies, the very opposite is true. Who has time, what with our “busy modern lives,” to actually cook anymore? Isn’t pre-made so much more convenient and practical? Isn’t it better to pass those evening hours as quality family time. Perhaps.

For me, the truth lies somewhere in between. I’m no slouch in the kitchen and certainly could make everything I eat from scratch if I felt so inclined.  I work at home too, so I generally have more time for cooking than most. Hell, the costs are even tax deductible if I scribble a few words about it somewhere down the line! That said, I don’t by any means turn my nose up convenience food per  sé – some (as I have listed below) are so good that they make the whole business of  homemade redundant. Others however are so unnecessary and inferior that their very existence is absurd and brings in to serious question the faculties of their apparent audience – whoever they may be.

Virgils Buys….

Pastry

Oh I’m asking for trouble here and yes, I really can make pastry by hand. I just don’t enjoy doing so one bit, and with arrival of pre-made, all-butter pastry sheets in the last few years I never will again. Promise. You can say what you like about the merits of handmade pastry, and I don’t discount that it’s a true art form, but it’s also a boring palaver. I don’t advocate any old premade pastry though. It needs to be the all-butter stuff. Margarine has no place at all in pastry.

With a pack of this brilliant, and quite literally convenient food (stuff) in the freezer, whipping up a pie or a fruit tart is no bigger deal than making a batch of scones. Well go on now, tell me off…

Thai Curry Paste

Thai curries are a weeknight staple in our house, have been for years. And while I grow all the botanical essentials and keep everything else in stock to make my own pastes, I very rarely bother. No, premade curry pastes are not quite as good as fresh, but they’re pretty bloody good all the same (depending on the brand – try the alarmingly named but excellent Cock Brand).

A tablespoon or two of this stuff tossed together with coconut milk, sugar, fish sauce and your meat and/or plants of choice makes for a lightning-fast meal like no other. Twenty minutes from whoa- to go -what’s not to like?

Tinned beans: cannellini, kidney, chickpeas etc

Dried beans and pulses are infinitely cheaper than anything tinned but unless you’re a freakishly organised type and fond of forward planning they will lurk unused in your pantry for many years. It’s not just the protracted soaking required before cooking that puts me off, but the changes of stinking bean water. Horrible.  I like beans though- especially creamy, silken cannelini and the ever versatile chickpea and always have a few tins of each in the pantry.  I can use these at the drop of hat whenever I feel so inclined. Nutty, textural homemade hummus is only ever moments away as are rich Tuscan stews or any other legumous crowd-pleaser for that matter. No soaking, no stinking, just beans when I want them.

Mayonnaise

Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for fresh mayo – on the best new season’s asparagus, with poached salmon or with the perfect potato salad. Just not every day.  It’s not even all that difficult or time consuming to make, but life’s too short. Besides, I  have serious soft spot for super-industrial Japanese Kewpie brand mayo (pictured) . It’s richer and creamier than anything I could make and thanks to the addition of some good old m.s.g it has that alluring and distinctive umami tang. This impossibly good gloop can transform a very humble plate of shredded cabbage or a bowl of steamed prawns into something nearing perfection. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me.

One day I might break out the rice vinegar and m.s.g (yes, I do keep it in the pantry), and try my hand at a homemade approximate, but for now I’m quite content with this glorious extrusion. Bit worried about the battery eggs though.

Click here for the disturbingly clinical official Kewpie site.

Pizza Bases

Not so many years ago I sneered at pre-made pizza bases. They were a strange cakey lot back then and bore little resemblance to what one ought to find beneath a pizza topping. But things have changed. High quality, thin and ultimately crispy bases are now widely available and have, to a larger extent, done away with the need for kneading and proving whenever you long for a decent slice. That’s not to say I never make my own bases, just that doing so is now more of a special occasion sort of thing for when I have the time, inclination and the very best ingredients at hand.

Virgil does NOT buy…

 

Vinaigrette

Few pre-made foodstuff annoy me more than vinaigrette. How hard is combining vinegar and oil and then giving it a bit of a shake? Invariably the pre-made products have a nasty after chemical after taste, use harsh distilled vinegar, musty tasting dried herbs and often inappropriate spice blends. Worst of all the whole sad business is finished off with sugar.  Sugar!!!

Please, please, please don’t buy this stuff. Make your own.

Croutons

Do I really need to explain to you why these are rip-off of epic and rather absurd proportions? Haveyou no bread in the house, no oven or stove top? While I’m quite sure that none of you buy premade croutons, someone obviously does. Quite a  few someones actually. Worrying on many levels.

Grated cheese

Apart from the fact that any idiot with two working hands and a cheese grater can make it at home, pre-grated cheese is extremely uneconomical. Because it has been treated with an anti-clumping agent like rice flour and tossed about in the bag, this product appears to be more substantial than it ever really is. Always compare price by weight to un-grated cheese then walk away.

Ready-made pasta sauce

Oh, I know I raised a few heckles here before by claiming to be sickened by those of you who buy ready-made pasta sauce. And although I was perhaps a bit on the hyperbolic side of things that day, I still passionatly believe that bottled pasta sauce is uniformly dreadful stuff. Even the pricier so-called artisan brands I’ve tried have been flaccid disappointments.  A very basic homemade pasta sauce like salsa alla puttanesca takes minutes to make and will always taste better than anything out of jar with a faux-Italian name and far too many numbers in the ingredients list.

Pre-cut/peeled apples

An offensively unnecessary product which makes me mutter darkly wherever I encounter it. You have to hand it to the producers though – they have found a previously untapped market of fruit consumers – dim-witted, lazy and middle class. No offence.

And oh how I could go on, but for the sake of brevity and in the interest of not alienating my entire readership, I think five of each will do. Now hands up who agrees with me wholeheartedly and who wants to slap me about the place for a bit?

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8 thoughts on “Ready Made: The good, the bad and the stupid…

  1. Totally with you on pastry, Thai curry paste and tinned beans. I might have to give pre-made pizza bases another chance – I am yet to try a good one but I wrote them off a long time ago so perhaps it’s time to venture into that land again. I love having grated cheese in the fridge but aside from the cost (which would turn me off anyway) it tastes awful with all the extra crap. We tend to keep a small airtight container full of grated cheese in the fridge, replenishing from a block whenever it runs out. Works a charm and we don’t have to bother with the grater every time. I personally can’t abide supermarket cake, and though obviously baking cake from scratch takes a while most of the process is usually just waiting for the oven – so that’s my must-avoid!

  2. For years I’ve found it hard to believe that there are able bodied people out there who buy ready grated cheese. As I mostly use grated cheese in cooking I grate a kilo at a time and freeze it in a ziplock bag.

    And I use a lot of pre-rolled pastry sheets. Can’t even be bothered rolling out the block of bought pastry.

    I have to say that there’s one jarred pasta sauce that comes a very close second to homemade. But only one.

  3. Heinz Seriously good mayo lives up to the name. I didn’t even like mayo before I tried it. Now I have a mayonnaise habit. Made in NZ with free range eggs too…

  4. Fightin’ words! Totally agree about pastry when it comes to puff, except that I’m convinced that all-butter is an urban legend – where the hell do you get it? But when it comes to shortcrust, although I hate rolling it out I can’t convince myself to use premade when it’s a two-minute job to make it in the food processor. Curry paste – no way! I’ve been making curries from scratch this year and I’m amazed at how much better the flavour is. I’m not much of a fan of canned beans because they’re squishy compared to home-cooked ones, but ever since MAF started insisting on heat-treating them into bullets, there’s no other option. Otherwise, you’re right on the money, although I use Heinz Seriously Good Mayonnaise rather than Kewpie. My addition to the list would be breadcrumbs, as long as they’re panko. I have no idea how you make a panko crumb and I have no intention of finding out.

  5. I can’t agree about cooking beans, chickpeas etc from scratch. I agree with Carolyn that the tinned ones tend to be mushy, and I don’t like the glutinous, over-salted liquid that you have to pour off. I find the old trick of bringing the dried article to the boil (with a bayleaf in to make them smell aromatic when they’re cooking) and leaving them to stand for an hour before cooking really does shorten the cooking time dramatically. And as far as I know MAF have stopped heat-treating imported beans, chick peas etc. But what I’ve enjoyed most this winter is eating my own home-dried borlotti beans – I only had 300g so they had to be rationed. Out of this world!

  6. Karena, I hadn’t heard heat treating had stopped – that’s great news! I will look at dried beans again. So much cheaper than the cans, tastier too, and no more of that gluggy liquid!