Convenient foods – and Basic Onion Tutorial

I see a lot of discussion – well, argument… indeed, perhaps battles – about Convenience Food.

One the one hand, some claim it to be the Root of All Evil. Additives! Sodium! Fat! Ingredients your grandmother never heard of! (That one confuses me, mildly. My grandmother never heard of many foods I eat… urad dal, miso, nachos… I know what people mean, but it’s not what they say.)

On the other hand, many people have no idea how to manage without frozen dinners, canned soups, and takeout. Some never really learned how to cook, some never really liked to cook (which is, you know, valid)  and some think cooking must be elaborate and complex – something you do on a weekend, as a hobby,  for guests, but not something they have the luxury of doing on a weeknight, after a long day at work.

I’m trying to hit the middle, here. I want to keep control of what I am eating, and I don’t want to pay a lot for  Corporate Food to do my thinking (and some prep work) for me. I do, however, need to get dinner on the table every night. And I have chronic migraine, which means that I sometimes need to either cook with some level of pain, low energy and a fuzzy brain, or point my (non-cooking) Richard at the kitchen and tell him to make dinner happen without direction. Both require simplicity.

The first part of this is defining which commercial convenience foods I am willing to use, and in what circumstances. One thing we have to remember is how many of our basic foods really are convenience foods, even though we don’t usually think of them that way. Take bread. Bread has been baked commercially for millennia. Ancient Romans bought bread. Ancient Egyptians bought bread, even earlier. It is something that has always been easier and more efficient to make in bulk, so, in cities and towns and population centers of any kind, it was baked by bakers.  On the other hand,  I often bake bread, doubtless some of you have done the same. I can do without commercial bread – but I do not *have* to. If I’m busy, if I don’t feel well, if it’s too hot to light my oven, it is easy for me  to buy a loaf. That’s convenient.

Then I put butter on that bread. Oh – I bought that, too. My mother taught me to churn butter, which she learned on her grandparents’ dairy farm, but it’s not something I normally do. If I decide I want to go back to basics, I can bake bread – from flour someone else milled – and churn butter – from cream someone else separated. At the very least, someone else grew the grain and milked the cow…  It is *possible* to do all these things oneself, but… I have other things to do with my time. And the farmers who do grow the grain buy other products that people like me design, make, transport, and sell – it is all cooperative.

So, yes, I use some commercial convenience foods. I buy some of my bread, and all of my butter… and a few frozen or canned products, choosing on a case by case basis. Canned tomatoes, for instance. They’re not the same as really fresh tomatoes, of course – but they’re a lot better than the pink plastic objects one finds in stores in the Northeast most of the year. Our tomato season is glorious, but short – and, though I know how to can tomatoes, and I *have* canned tomatoes, I don’t feel that it is the most rational use of my time, money, and space, here in my life,  here in Manhattan. (Others may choose differently, for their lives. That’s fine.)

I even always have a few canned soups and sauces. I can, and often do, make a lentil soup very easily, and keep quarts in the freezer – but a can of lentil soup is a good base for an emergency meal if I’m not well. The same for a jar of pasta sauce. I read labels carefully, then I usually add protein and vegetables, but it’s a place to start. A can of pasta sauce, commercial pasta or polenta, and a few additions from my freezer make a good meal, without having to call for takeout.

Ah, but the additions…  they are the key to cooking the way I do. These are my own Convenient Foods – foods I have cooked, and frozen to simplify later meals. I already wrote about doing this with chicken.  I will, as time goes on, write about other foods I prepare to keep on hand.

Today, I’m talking about the humble onion… I suppose I could cook without onions – but I certainly don’t. The vast majority of my meals start with sauteing an onion. But that does take some time and effort – not much, but if I get home late from a job, any time matters, and when I’m cooking with a migraine any effort matters. And sometimes I have onions that are larger than I really want, cooking for just two people. I do usually chop and saute the onion fresh for each meal – it just smells so appetizing…

Sometimes, though, I do not have the energy, or much time. And I have found it remarkably useful to have sauteed chopped onion already in the freezer. I can toss it in a skillet and skip the whole first 5-10 minutes of cooking. Or, even better, I can drop it into a soup or sauce, and have the caramelized flavor of the browned onion without having to use a separate pan, or spend the extra time. To make my life easier, I simply replenish as I go – when I do start with a fresh onion, I often just go ahead and chop and saute 2 or 3 of them… As long as I’m using a large enough saute pan, this is not a problem. Then I pull some out, put them aside in a heat resistant bowl to cool, and later, transfer them to a zipper bag I keep in the freezer.

Since I’m talking onions – here is a basic tutorial on preparing them for those who are interested.

I find that the easiest way to peel an onion is to cut off the stem and base ends, and then cut it in half, from top to bottom. The peel usually then slips off pretty easily. If part of a layer is papery and part is still oniony, I may, if I’m being finicky, cut off the papery parts – or I may just discard the whole layer… depends a lot on time. The important part is to discard the papery parts.

Then, I lay the onion flat on its cut side. Holding it carefully (note the position of the fingers – away from the blade) I slice lengthwise from near the root end to the stem end. I leave the base attached so that it doesn’t fall apart while I am cutting. The number of cuts I make depends on the size I want my chopped pieces to be – this is a fairly coarse chop, useful for most cooking. If I were mincing the onion, I would slice it more. Occasionally, I want finely sliced threads – for, say, French onion soup, or some Indian cooking. In that case, I either omit this step altogether, or just make one slice down the center of a large onion, to keep the slices manageable.

Then I slice crosswise. Again, the size of the slice depends on the size I want the chopped pieces to be. When I get close to the stem end, I flip it over onto what is now the larger cut side, and slice from there.

Notice that the top layer is slipping a bit. Be careful – I often remove the slipping layer, to be sure my finger does not slip under the knife. Notice also that I said slice not chop. For safety’s sake, use a sharp knife, and cut in a sliding, slicing motion. If the primary force is down, you are more likely to have a knife slip. If the knife doesn’t easily slide through the onion, sharpen it…  you can easily get commercial knife sharpeners in any cookware department (even in many hardware stores.) A steel alone does not sharpen a knife – it smooths the burrs on a freshly sharpened knife, but you need a stone (which is set into a sharpener, if you don’t know stone and steel technique.) A dull knife is a dangerous knife – it will slip and cut you.

After chopping the onions (yes, I said to slice them – but the process is called chopping, and they are referred to as chopped onion – sliced onion implies the long threads you get without the lengthwise cuts) heat some olive oil in  a saute pan or fry pan.  I use a medium flame, heat the pan first, so a small amount of oil spreads out nicely, and add the onion. It takes a little attention – you can’t just walk away more than a few steps, and you do need to stir periodically. Adjust the heat to be sure it doesn’t burn. Depending on what you are cooking, you may stop the process when the onions are soft, or a light golden color, or you may lower the heat and cook them until they are truly browned. When I’m cooking to use later, I stop at soft and just turning golden – I can always cook them more when I use them.

Then, as I said, if I cooked more than I needed for this meal, I put some aside to cool, then package them and freeze them. I like to use zippered bags, and flatten them out – then it is easy to break off as much or as little as I want.

I really like to use just a little if I’m scrambling eggs or making an omelet – it takes longer to brown onions than to make the omelet, so I used to just leave them out, but they do add a lot of flavor…  quickly, and conveniently. Or I drop some into a soup, or a can of tomatoes, to make a sauce. Or I toss some in a pan, add the already cooked chicken, add the frozen vegetables, heat up, serve over microwaved cooked ahead rice – and I have a complete meal in about 10 minutes. There are nights when I need that…

So, I do use some commercial convenience foods – though I read labels carefully.  But mostly, I make my own convenient foods.

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