Exploring the World of Ready-to-Cook Foods
Let someone else do the prep work.
Last week my kids and I went on a food adventure for my column, buying ready-to-eat foods from the Pine Township Giant Eagle and making the ultimate sacrifice of taste-testing a large variety of what was available. So, while we were eating all that, my son said we should do the same for ready-to-cook foods.
Ready-to-cook food was not really on my radar, but when I'm out of town that's what my son does for dinner most days. Rather than go through the drive-through, he stops at our Giant Eagle in Gibsonia and picks up burgers, crab legs or things he can just bring home and cook.
Of course, my initial thought was, why bother? If you have to cook it yourself anyway, how hard can it possibly be just to make it yourself from the very beginning?
Shows what I know.
Like last week, we picked up a variety of items, including:
- Stuffed peppers
- Burgers, bacon and cheddar and Greek-style
- Breaded tilapia
- Beef Florentine rolls
- Crab legs
I have to say, I don't think of crab legs as anyone's idea of convenience foods, but my son loves them, so they went into the mix. After all, this was his idea. And they are quick and healthy, but they also take a very large pot for cooking and it has to be hand-washed.
As for everything else, I decided to cook it all according to the directions provided by Giant Eagle. When I got home, I started the grill to preheat for the burgers and kabobs, put water on to start boiling for the crab legs, and preheated the oven for the peppers, Beef Florentine and tilapia. Fortunately, it was the only day all last week that was actually nice enough outside to grill.
Our results were mostly excellent. The burgers were amazing. My son has long been telling me that the best burger on earth is Giant Eagle's ready-to-cook bacon-and-cheddar burger, and he wasn't exaggerating. Of course, I could feel my arteries hardening, but my taste buds were too busy doing the happy dance to care. These you should serve as a treat, but what a treat. The Greek burger wasn't as good, but it would be hard for anything else to compete with the bacon-cheddar burger.
The other big hit was the marinated beef kabob. I was prepared to hate it. My daughter was prepared to hate it. We went into this with a sort of, "We didn't make these, how can they be good?" attitude. They were good. She rarely even eats beef, and I had to smack her away a couple of times so my husband could have his share when he got home.
As for everything else, the crab legs were crab legs, my son and husband loved the tilapia and I thought it was too lemony (it had a breaded seasoning with lemon flavoring - perhaps lemon pepper?), but that's a matter of personal taste. The Beef Florentine was very good, but paled in comparison to the delicious kabobs.
The only complete fail was the peppers, which were stuffed with a hot Italian sausage. We love stuffed peppers, but the sausage was extremely hot with no actual flavor. There is nothing worse than heat without flavor, it's just painful and pointless. They would have been better stuffed with a milder sausage flavored with some seasonings and fillers. Or at least a hot sausage with a good flavor.
But I learned a lot from this little experiment.
First of all, I discovered that, contrary to what I had thought, it actually is pretty fabulous to have someone else do the prep work -- even if it's the grocery store. Being able to walk in, heat the grill and just toss stuff on without having to chop, mix, shape and form and then clean up the prep items was very handy.
And kabobs are something I love but rarely make because I hate the tedious work of putting them together. I'd rather clean bathrooms. But they're great for meals by the pool, so I'll definitely be stopping by the ready-to-cook section a lot this summer for these quick and delicious grillers.
Most importantly, I learned that I keep learning from my children. There's nothing like a kid to take you out of your comfort zone, whether it be food or music or opinions. All we have to do is listen. And eat.
We love stuffed peppers at our house, which was why we were so disappointed that the ones we bought were basically inedible. Here are two of our favorite recipes -- one we make in the oven and the other on the grill or broiler.
Cream Cheese Stuffed Banana Peppers
Ingredients (amounts will depend upon how many banana peppers you have):
- Large Banana Peppers, halved lengthwise and seeded
- Cream cheese
- Olive oil
- Bread crumbs
Lay banana pepper halves on cookie sheet or broiler pan covered with foil if making in the broiler. Or, if making on the grill, place on a flat grill pan. Spread cream cheese evenly in each half. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. Broil or grill until hot and cream cheese is melty, but not so long that the peppers shrivel. They should be firm but heated through. Not sure how long it takes -- we just eyeball them.
Stuffed Bell Peppers
You can also use banana peppers for this recipe. Bake for a few minutes less if you do, say 30 minutes or so, total.
- Three medium bell peppers, cut in half lengthwise and seeded
- One pound Italian sausage, sweet or hot
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup fresh Parmesan cheese
- Onion, any type (green, white, red), diced, about 1/8 of a cup
- Marinara sauce, 16 oz., divided (I use Mama Rosas, a Butler-based company)
- Mozzarella cheese, 1/4 to ½ cup
Preheat oven to 350. In an 8 x 8 baking dish or one-and-a-half quart casserole, spread a thin layer of marinara sauce. Place pepper halves on top of sauce, cut side up. In a medium bowl, combine sausage, egg, Parmesan cheese and onion. Mix well. Stuff peppers with mixture, dividing evenly. Top with remaining marinara sauce and Mozzarella cheese. Cover loosely with foil and bake at 350 for 45 minutes.