Shortcuts: The good, the bad and the ugly |

Shortcuts: The good, the bad and the ugly

Marialisa Calta
United Features Syndicate
United Features SyndicateFrozen peas are an excellent "shortcut" ingredient and make a fresh and delicious-tasting soup.

When are cooking shortcuts too short? Every home cook has a line that she or he will not cross. I draw mine at using cream-of-anything soup as a shortcut to a cream sauce, processed cheese food and any so-called “home baked” goodie that comes in a tube in the dairy aisle. (Confession: Cracking the tubes open terrifies me.)

Sam Zien, aka “Sam the Cooking Guy,” who has a cooking show on FitTV and at least two cookbooks under his belt, has his own standards. In his latest book, “Awesome Recipes & Kitchen Shortcuts” (Wiley, 2010), he interprets “shortcuts” to include gravy in jars, packaged Hollandaise, shelf-stable “ready” bacon and pizza dough from one of those scary tubes.

OK, I disagree. Why not just avoid recipes that call for gravy or Hollandaise if you don’t have the time to make your own? And does it really take that much time to cook bacon? (To me, the “ready” stuff tastes weird.) And you don’t have to make dough from scratch to have a top-quality pizza: Frozen dough from the supermarket or, even better, fresh dough from the local pizzeria is far preferable to the tube stuff.

Be that as it may, I’m on the same page with the Cooking Guy when it comes to frozen vegetables and frozen fruits. Sure, there’s nothing better than ripe strawberries in season, but when they are out of season, we know that frozen berries taste way better than the cottony “fresh” ones available year-round.

Frozen spinach adds vitamins (A and C), iron and taste to all manner of pasta sauces, omelets and soups. Frozen peas are so far superior to canned peas that they seem like a different vegetable. Frozen peas are even preferable to fresh peas unless those fresh peas are recently picked and shucked. If you are a gardener or have a farm stand or farmers’ market nearby, go for it. If not, head for the frozen-food aisle.

No one argues that you should cook “from scratch” all the time. Many home cooks prefer a “half from scratch” method, which relies at least partially on healthy, quality prepared foods. What constitutes “healthy” and “quality”? Here are some of the Cooking Guy’s recipes that pass my test.


2 ounces bacon, chopped (or 2 ounces “ready” bacon)

1⁄2 cup diced red onion

2 teaspoons olive oil (if using “ready” bacon)

3 cups chicken broth

1 (16-ounce) bag frozen peas

kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1⁄4 cup heavy (whipping) cream

1⁄4 cup sour cream

If using “real” bacon, set a skillet over medium heat and cook the bacon until fat is rendered and it is almost crispy. Add the onion, and cook until it is softened and bacon is crispy. Set aside. If using “ready” bacon, heat the olive oil in a skillet and cook the onion until softened. Then add the ready bacon, and cook until crispy. Set aside.

In a medium pot, bring the broth to a boil and add the peas. Cook about two minutes. Transfer the peas to a blender with just enough of the broth to cover, and season with salt and pepper. Blend until smooth. Return to the pot, and stir in the heavy cream. Heat through. (Do not boil.)

Serve in a bowl, and top with 2 to 3 teaspoons of sour cream and some of the bacon/onion mixture.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.



1 handful of frozen spinach

2 large eggs

kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 generous teaspoon butter

2 to 3 tablespoons goat-cheese crumbles

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, and add the frozen spinach. Cook until there’s no more liquid (but not until it starts sticking).

In a small bowl, beat the eggs with a pinch of salt and pepper.

Add the butter to the spinach, and let it melt. Spread the spinach evenly over the pan. Pour the eggs over the spinach, mix gently and cook, pulling the edges away from the pan with a spatula and letting the uncooked egg run underneath.

When the eggs are mostly set but still a tiny bit moist on top, sprinkle the cheese crumbles over one half. Fold the other half over the cheese, and let it cook for about a minute.

Flip the entire omelet over to the other side, and cook for another minute or so until it is cooked to your liking. Give it a touch more freshly ground pepper, and serve.

Yield: 1 omelet, feeds one or two.

Recipes from “Awesome Recipes & Kitchen Shortcuts” by Sam Zien (Wiley, 2010)

• Marialisa Calta is the author of “Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family” (Perigee, 2005). For more information, go to