Those who don’t find cooking fun but are cooking more often because they’re at home more often these days should look to the box. Or the box. Reasonable recipes reside on the food wrappers that pile up in cupboards and freezers.
Don’t ignore them. The ingredient lists for these recipes are filled with familiar foods, spices, and seasonings. Kitchen equipment and cooking skills are basic.
While these recipes tend to be more practical than spectacular, two of my family’s favorite meals are made using recipes found on food packaging: cheese macaroni Cranberry Cream and Sausage Stuffing Bob Evans.
To prove my point, I’ll do recipes found on food packaging and share the results in a series I call: Higgins Eats No Budget Cooking Adventures. It’s “no budget” because everything will be done in my very average kitchen with my moderately above average cooking skills and below average presentation skills.
Mix my passable photography ability with my working iPhone 7 to document it all, and you have a recipe for photos that will make Instagram food influencers shiver. Get ready for pictures of lousy but (hopefully) tasty food.
Along the way, send me your cooking questions, recipe requests, and/or photos of ugly but tasty dishes.
Here’s a taste of what you can expect from the series.
Recipe first: A short introductory paragraph followed by the recipe. No need to wade through tons of text to get to the recipe only to find out you don’t have all the ingredients on hand, or you’re allergic, or just don’t think you’ll like it. I will include masses of text after the recipe for your skimming pleasure.
This is a twist on the dressing-based pasta salads served at graduation parties, backyard barbecues, or any other potluck gathering. The types of gatherings we all hope to resume sooner rather than later.
Creamy Chicken Salad
Makes 4-6 servings
7 ounces small shell pasta
3 cups cooked chicken, cubed (or 15 ounces canned chicken pieces)
2 cups carrots, sliced
8 ounces creamy cucumber vinaigrette
Cook pasta to preferred doneness. Rinse with cold water to cool quickly, drain well. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, stir lightly. Cover and refrigerate.
Tasting notes: Because if it doesn’t match your tastes, what’s the point of making it?
The cucumber dressing offers a light flavor, like a dish you would enjoy at a summer backyard barbecue. The chicken, pasta and carrot add an extremely “meh” flavor kick. Still, a bowl of creamy chicken salad at lunch will sound downright exotic if you’ve eaten PB&J sandwiches.
Equipment needed / Dirty dishes: Dirty dishes pile up fast when everyone is home. Even though I don’t do the dishes at home, I’ve learned the importance of keeping the number to a minimum. This will only count and list the materials needed to prepare the dish.
You will need a saucepan, a colander (or a colander if you want to learn more about the technique), a large bowl, a cutting board, a knife, a vegetable peeler and cooking spoon. I looked up the chicken and carrot measurements (more on that later), so add a measuring cup to the list if you insist.
Practicality: A combination of equipment, skills, availability of ingredients, steps and time required to prepare this recipe. For reference, a score of 3 to 5 corresponds to the level of the ramen noodle package; 6-8 makes cookies from scratch; 9-10 is mac and cheese baked from scratch.
I would rate this recipe a 3. The hardest part of making this dish is finding a cucumber dressing.
Insights/Tips: General cooking tips, encouragement and advice specific to this recipe.
For some reason I had this box of little noodles half full in my cupboard. (Clearly my pasta hoarding game is low.) I topped off the shells with gemelli noodles from another half-full box.
In retrospect, I should have put the gemelli noodles in first and let them cook for a few minutes before adding the shells. Using two styles of noodles in this dish isn’t going to spoil it, just be aware that these shapes have different cooking times.
Also, always add salt to your water before boiling pasta. Pasta cans usually give a recommended amount.
I ripped the last bits of meat from a recently grilled chicken. Since that’s all I had available, I went with that and cut up what looked like an equal amount of carrots.
The recipe calls for 8 ounces of dressing, but I had a 12-ounce bottle—the only cucumber dressing I could find—so I poured in enough to give it a good coating. I don’t know if it was exactly 8 ounces.
To recap, I pretty much guessed every ingredient in this recipe and it always worked. Boom. I told you that these recipes are almost foolproof. I don’t have magic powers of estimation, I just learned that a recipe like this doesn’t require exact portions.
Heck, that would probably go well with a different bandage. Wisconsin folks would probably prefer a ranch anyway. Add a few chunks of Colby or Cheddar cheese once and see how you like it even more.