Anyone that has watched Food Network for more than a brief moment is familiar with Sandra Lee, the proponent of cooking food that is partially store-bought, partially homemade. She makes a cocktail with every meal and a "tablescape" to match, and her line of cookbooks is truly dizzying. But despite all this, I never made one of her recipes. I fell in with the foodie crowd that dismissed her as a cheater and a poor chef. Everyone knows that using supermarket pre-packaged foods in cheating, right? Or is it?
Sandra Lee Christiansen had a difficult childhood, where most of the care of her four younger siblings fell on her shoulders. This included making the dinners for the family, and you can easily see how the ideas she presents in her shows came to fruition. The meals in the Semi-Homemade Cooking 3 are nothing new and groundbreaking in the culinary world, but they are quick and easy, something often missing from traditional preparations.
I may not be a working mother yet, but I am working, and there have been many nights when I wished there was a choice between long, involved culinary preparations and microwave dinners. Time is precious, so I was open to any tricks that Sandra Lee could show me. Her third Cooking book is divided into chapters by food genre, moving from Italian to Pan-Asian to French, and offering endless opportunities for something fast and easy.
I started in the Comfort Food chapter and made the tuna Nià§oise on a Roll sandwiches. The recipe is basically another rendition of tuna salad, but it takes half the preparation time that I would normally have spent chopping celery and onion. The salad itself was creamy and tangy (thanks to the capers), and the red onion slices on top really added the bite it needed. The only real problem I ran into was locating the jarred fines herbes at my local grocery store. I ended up substituting a garden herb mix, and the end result was still delicious, if not exactly authentic.
In fact, locating the recommended ingredients was often a problem. Sandra Lee calls for very specific seasonings in most of her recipes, and it appears that these products are often not available nationwide. Assuming that the main purchasers of her cookbooks are homemakers with low to medium cooking skills, this can often be a stumbling block. In order to be successful with her recipes, the cook needs to have a strong enough grasp of the recipe and cooking in general to make appropriate exchanges when recommended ingredients are not available.
The next recipe I tried was the Ravioli with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Brown Butter Walnuts. Unfortunately the ravioli flavor originally called for wasn't available in my store, and even the size was different. I chose a similar cheese-filled ravioli, and I have to say that I wouldn't be ashamed to serve the result to my family as a quick supper.
The last two recipes I tried were for Fried Pork Chops and Cajun Mashed Potatoes. I had never considered putting Bisquick on pork chops as a coating, but the result was crispy and crunchy. It's definitely a trick I would try again. Once again I had the issue of being unable to find the seasoning packet she called for (Knorr garlic herb sauce mix), but I substituted a smaller sized garlic and herb recipe mix from the salad dressing aisle, and adjusted the recipe accordingly. The Cajun Mashed Potatoes involved using pre-made potatoes from the refrigerated aisle, but no plain potatoes were available at my store. I chose frozen mashed potatoes, and the result was as expected: runny, pasty, and lumpy. I couldn't recommend them unless the people eating them were used to instant mashed potatoes.
Overall I was pretty pleased with the recipes I found in Sandra Lee's cookbook, and they will definitely help when I've had a long day and need some quick ideas. The photography is bright and appealing, and the recipes are blessedly short. Every chapter even ends with Sandra's signature cocktail ideas. But in the last analysis, the book is more tailored to harried homemakers than anyone with additional culinary skill, and I would advise that anyone trying the recipes be prepared to substitute at least one ingredient per recipe.
Recipe from the book: Nià§oise on a Roll