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Mom's Semi-Homemade Meal

One father cuts corners for a Mother's Day dinner to remember


Published May 16, 2012 at 9:07 a.m.


Family meals can be tricky in my house. My wife has been a vegetarian since college. She also hates mushrooms and olives. I, on the other hand, am a whole-belly-clam-swilling, beef-jerky-snapping, “I’ll have extra of the clear meat in my banh mi” kind of guy. You could say we embody the attraction of opposites, at least culinarily speaking.

With so little overlap in our tastes, it’s not surprising that we have fallen into a rather predictable dinner routine: taco night, Italian, stir-fry, sandwiches, taco night and so on. So this Mother’s Day, I decided to change things up a bit and create a meal that would be a throwback to some of my childhood faves. I’d have to keep it vegetarian, but wanted to have some fun with it, too.

The first snag in my plan was the scheduling of the holiday itself. I divide my time among many local bands, and on this particular Mother’s Day, I had both a long rehearsal for the upcoming Hug Your Farmer benefit concert at Higher Ground and a setup for a recording session at Phish’s studio, The Barn.

So we decided to celebrate on the Wednesday evening before Mother’s Day. Even then, planning happened a little (or a lot) later than I expected, and I ended up with only about an hour to shop, cook and clean up. Oops.

You’ve heard it time and time again: If you want to eat healthfully, stick to the perimeter of the grocery store. The produce, fresh meats and dairy products are most often found along the edges. But there was no time for that on this particular evening, folks. As handy as I am with a chef’s knife, prepping three courses of fresh ingredients was simply not an option. I would have to get in deep. Real deep. To a place where shelf life is a nonissue. Where maltodextrin reigns supreme.

That’s right. Armed with some lazy-ass, mid-century-era recipes, I took on those middle aisles and lived to tell about it. The Food Network’s Sandra Lee defines “semi-homemade” as a combination of 70 percent ready-made convenience products and 30 percent fresh ingredients. I pushed the envelope here to more like a 90/10 split.

Now I share my half-baked expertise with you, dear reader. What’s that? Can’t cook? No problem! This trio of dishes requires almost no time, no prep and very little actual cooking of any kind. You’re welcome.

Cabbage Salad with Ramen Noodles

Here’s a tasty salad that can be made in a matter of minutes, especially if you substitute your favorite bottled dressing for the homemade one. May I suggest something in the sesame-ginger category?

My mother-in-law used to make this salad for family reunions and various progressive dinner parties long ago, so I knew my wife had at least tried it at some point. While I’ve been known to chomp on an uncooked piece of vermicelli from time to time, I just couldn’t bring myself to throw raw ramen noodles into this mix. Instead, I decided to brown them in butter with some almonds. Sorry to get so fancy on you.

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 package (about 1/2 cup) sliced almonds
  • 1 package ramen noodles, broken
  • 1 bag of precut coleslaw mix (get the most colorful one you can find)
  • 3 green onions, chopped (the white part and maybe an inch of the green)

Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium-low heat and add the almonds and ramen noodles, crunching them up while leaving some clumps. Throw the “flavor packet” included with the ramen, full of dried vegetables and meat-like substances, into the garbage and never look back.

Stand over the pan, keep the noodles moving and don’t walk away for any reason! This is the only bit of actual cooking you are going to do. If you are anything like me, it will take you two tries to get this right, while the smoke detector beeps and the dog goes running under the bed. When things are looking nice and brown, shut off the heat and set the nut/noodle mixture to the side. Let’s make dressing…

  • 1/4 cup sesame or canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk these ingredients together in a measuring cup. Add about half the dressing to the slaw mix, taste it and add more if needed.

Last, combine this with the nut/noodle mix, but not until you are ready to serve. We don’t want those noodles reconstituting. Finely chop the green onions and throw them in. Mix well and serve.

Polynesian Fake Chicken

My mom used to make a similar dish we would call Pearl’s Chicken, named for an elderly neighbor who, I assumed, had turned us on to it. There is nothing specifically Polynesian about this dish, but I have seen similar recipes going by that name, and since the salad and the dessert share a vaguely Asian theme, why the hell not? Let’s have a semi-homemade luau!

Though I’ll gladly eat nearly every kind of food item offered to me, I live in a vegetarian household. So we’re using Quorn (imitation chicken) cutlets for this recipe. Having worked with Quorn before, I knew they only took about 20 minutes to bake. In this case, the vegetarian thing actually worked in my favor.

  • 1 package of 4 Quorn Naked Chik’n Cutlets
  • 1 cup Thousand Island dressing
  • 1 cup orange marmalade
  • 1 packet onion soup mix

It doesn’t get any easier than this: Lay the frozen cutlets on a lightly greased 8-by-8-inch baking pan or pie plate. Combine the dressing, marmalade and soup mix in a separate bowl and pour over the top. Bake the dish at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. This can also be made with four real chicken breasts: Simply reduce the oven heat to 350 degrees and cook for an additional 20 to 30 minutes.

Scotch Crunchie Bird’s-Nest Sundae

This is my riff on the classic candy that goes by many names. Haystack and Scotch Crunchie are just a couple.

A lover of all things related to Rice Krispies Treats, I adored these as a kid. My wife is the ice cream lover in the house (I prefer to drink my dessert), so I decided to make a little nest from this simple mixture and use it as a sundae foundation. Perfect for the kids, or a make-your-own sundae bar, these nests provide a whimsical, sweet and salty home for your favorite treats.

  • 1 package semisweet chocolate morsels
  • 1 package butterscotch morsels
  • 1 12-ounce bag of chow mein noodles
  • 6 ounces salted cocktail peanuts
  • 1/2 gallon of your favorite ice cream

Make a double boiler by placing a metal or glass mixing bowl inside a large pot. Put about an inch of water in the pot and fire it up on the stove. Dump both the chocolate and butterscotch morsels into the bowl and get to melting. Again, you’ll need to stay close to the stove as the mixture melts. Also, watch out for scalding steam!

When the concoction is melted, remove the bowl from the heat and add the noodles and peanuts. Rip off a couple of squares of wax paper and place them over some shallow bowls. Place about one cup of the mixture on a piece of wax paper and shape it into a nest.

Repeat for each serving. Place the nests in the fridge for at least an hour to firm up. At dessert time, fill the nests with your favorite ice cream, plus hot fudge, berries, nuts or any of your favorite sundae toppings.

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