Film and TV

I Don't Like Sandra Lee, Except for When I Do, PLUS! Three Semi-Homemade Things I Made Up

Not to get all Sam Brown-on-Guy Fieri on you guys, but Sandra Lee bugs me a little. In the past, she did not bug me -- in fact, my first attempts in the kitchen were prompted at least in part by her recipes. (I didn't start cooking until I was 30. Seriously.)

I found her "semi-homemade" concept of 70 percent prepackaged/30 percent fresh foods easy to replicate, and as I built confidence in the kitchen, I began replacing her prepackaged steps with my own homemade ones. Even after I stopped using her recipes and moved on to actual homemade cooking, I still tuned in once in a while because Sandra's sunny demeanor and insistence on how "grrrrrrrreat" everything looks/tastes/is appealed to me. Until it didn't.

I think what bugs me about Sandra Lee is the cognitive dissonance her concept and persona create in my brain. She's practically the First Lady of New York State, and her glamorous spread in Vogue is pretty mind-blowing. How many cans of Pillsbury® Crescent Rolls would I really expect to find in her fridge?

Also, the word "tablescape" makes me crazy.

That's not to say I don't understand her stated goals; I get that her demographic is families on a budget, and/or families who are tight on time. And I also get that her concept springs from a really rough childhood, in which she regularly MacGyvered food for six kids out of a can of soup and a box of flour. But other Food Network hosts successfully prepare low-budget meals using a lot less processed food -- see: Melissa D'Arabian and the show Ten Dollar Dinners. The thing about processed foods is that they are actually a lot more expensive than bulk components and whole foods, so I question whether Sandra Lee's concept is really a "money saver."

So what, right? Time is money, and not everyone has the time for all that scratch cooking. But I don't really get that either, since there are about eleventy-billion ways to prep foods ahead to save time. Katharine Shilcutt just did a piece on the subject of kitchen shortcuts and time savers, and it features pretty fresh time-savers (pre-cut lettuce, chopped vegetables, cheese crumbles); Brook Viggiano's "What's Cooking This Week" series does a great job of repurposing fresh ingredients and components for several meals throughout week.

So with all that said, I want to add that I do like that Sandra Lee remembers where she comes from, and that she reaches out to an audience that she understands. If nothing else, she seems like a pretty authentic person and if she wants to write an article about how I could do my job better, I won't take it personally. Plus, her passion is working to fight childhood hunger -- a cause close to my own heart -- and she does an amazing job as a spokesperson for Share Our Strength. Finally, when it comes down to it, I'm still that lazy girl who Sandra Lee inspired to get into the kitchen, and I'm still using semi-homemade concepts when I cook -- I just aim for slightly less-processed foods for the processed part. Here are my three favorites, with items you can find at H-E-B.

Tabbouleh Meatballs

You wouldn't think I needed a shortcut for meatballs, and really I don't, but I have a tendency to buy too much food so I recently found myself with a lot of tabbouleh on hand. I also had a half-pound of ground turkey and some leftover (homemade) roasted red peppers, so I mixed them all together, added some salt and pepper, some pre-minced garlic and a handful of feta cheese and BOOM! As my friend Jim likes to say, "Diagnosis: Delicious." The bulgur acts like bread crumbs, and the fresh parsley dressed in lemon juice is bright and refreshing. You can serve these on pasta with sauce, but they are great in pita pockets with some tzatziki, too.

Quinoa Salad Salad

Quinoa salad is adapted from a recipe by Boutros Boutros-Ghali. (Not really.) This has recently become my new favorite lunch. H-E-B carries an in-house quinoa, spinach, grape tomato and feta cheese salad that comes ready-made for about $3.50; it is quickly becoming a staple at my house. Sometimes I just dive right in, but more often I serve it over baby spinach, top it with whatever leftover beans are in the fridge and drizzle a little extra dressing all over it. I say "extra" because it comes with a light lemon and olive oil dressing that takes readily to any other kind of vinaigrette you might want to add. Of all the H-E-B salads, this is my number one pick ... at least for now.

Frozen Falafel

This is an item that is sometimes hard to find, depending on the grocery store -- I've had the best luck at H-E-B Montrose, where there are sometimes as many as two different kinds to choose from. I'm always shooting for the plain ones, but these "Poblano" patties are a decent runner-up, although they sort of force your hand when it comes to choosing flavors. My patented move is forgetting to pull a protein early enough in the day to have it thawed out by dinner, so I love to keep these on hand for last-minute dinners. I'll usually whip up a quick batch of polenta, toss in some sautéed vegetables and serve the falafel on top of it all.

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Christina Uticone