Cooking 'almost from scratch'

No time to cook but still want a homemade meal? Try a mix of fresh and prepared foods.

Millions of Americans are used to making soup with bouillon cubes, ragu from a jar of tomato sauce, or pie from canned pumpkin. Getting a little help from prepared foods is nothing new. But never before have there been so many choices available and so many gourmet-quality and organic convenience foods.

Just take a look at the shelves of salsa in your local supermarket. Hot, medium, or mild used to be the big decision. Now shoppers choose their heat as well as flavor from umpteen different combinations such as roasted garlic, corn, cilantro, mango, and more.

Upscale convenience foods are just the latest twist in what has become one of the subtlest yet most sweeping trends in the culinary world. Now, some of the savviest and most sophisticated home cooks are combining from-scratch recipes with prepared foods without a second thought. And because so many of these products - such as prepared pesto, curry, or Jamaican-jerk sauce - are now made with top-quality ingredients, dishes made with them can taste just as good as those made from scratch.

Right in step with this style of cooking is "Almost from Scratch: 600 Recipes for the New Convenience Cuisine" (Simon & Schuster, 420 pp., $25).

Author Andrew Schloss is no slouch. He is a trained chef who works as a food-product consultant, writes about food for various publications, and has penned seven cookbooks. He also has a wife and three kids. So like most of us, he has a lot of demands on his time. Much as he might want to devote hours to cooking each day, he simply can't.

With "Almost from Scratch" Mr. Schloss streamlines supper without sacrificing flavor.

Schloss comes from a purist perspective. In a telephone interview, he recalled how he used to spend two hours every evening cooking dinner - even after he'd been cooking all day at his Philadelphia restaurant or in a classroom with his culinary students. He was also what he calls a "perimeter shopper" - one who only filled his shopping cart with items from the outside aisles where produce and other fresh ingredients are typically stocked.

But as his schedule changed and his work required him to develop more and more convenience foods, he realized that cooking "almost from scratch" is much more practical - and that dishes made this way can still taste great.

Still, he was unsure what his colleagues might think of his going so far as to publish 600 recipes for this style of cooking - recipes that call for such items as frozen peas, preminced garlic, or a can of lentil soup. "I imagined some sort of backlash," he says, "and maybe there is one that I just don't know about."

In writing "Almost from Scratch," Schloss aimed to appeal to both purists and those who only occasionally cook from scratch. "I hope that I found a middle ground where they can all meet," he says, adding: "I want people to adapt my recipes, making them more or less from scratch depending on their personal taste, cooking style, and what's in season."

Schloss steers away from mentioning brands in his recipes, for several reasons. First, he and his testers tried many varieties of each product from both average and upscale supermarkets and didn't find much disparity among them. Second, he didn't want people to feel locked in to using one particular brand. And finally, he says, he rather likes "the feel of an unbranded recipe."

Of course, he may also have wanted to avoid looking too promotional, especially since his client list includes such food giants as Pace and Campbell's. Some still might feel there's a conflict of interest simply because Schloss chose to write this book. But he seems genuinely enthusiastic about this shortcut-style of cooking for his own family - and eager to share this approach with other time-strapped cooks.

Even if we might have been cooking this way all along, there's much to be learned from "Almost from Scratch." The lengthy lists of items to keep in a well-stocked pantry, for example, is useful. And many recipes aren't ones most people would think of.

Really, who knew you could whip up Osso Buco with a jar of garlic salsa, biscotti from corn-bread mix, or dark chocolate soufflé from a box of brownie mix?

Red and Yellow Tomato Salad

1/4 cup Caesar dressing
1 tablespoon prepared basil pesto
2 large ripe red tomatoes, cored and cut into large cubes
1 large ripe yellow tomato, cored and cut in large cubes (or substitute another red tomato)

Combine the dressing and pesto, add the tomatoes, and toss to coat. Refrigerate for 10 minutes, then serve.

Serves 4.

Farfalle with Feta and Cracked Olives

1 package (12 ounces) large bow-tie noodles
1 jar (8 ounces) olive salad (mixture of chopped olives, bell peppers, garlic, olive oil, and herbs - or substitute 1/4-cup jar of tapenade and 1/4 cup jar of chopped roasted red peppers)
6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about 1-1/2 cups)
Salt and black pepper to taste

Heat a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, stir to separate, and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain and toss with the olive salad or tapenade and roasted red peppers, cheese, salt, and pepper.

Serves 4.

- From 'Almost from Scratch'

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