Curious Cook: Out of the box

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I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love brownie mix. I also generally fear and loath most other types of pre-fab, chemically enhanced food from a box.

But I must confess to you a dirty little secret. I couldn’t live without blue box mac. And worse still, about twice a month, Petey and I will dine on — get ready for this — Hamburger Helper.

I know, shocking, isn’t it?

My mom isn’t crazy about cooking, but she can still turn it out, and produce some awesome stuff.

Petey’s mother on the other hand, has extremely minimal interest and skills in the kitchen.

When we were first married and living in Elizabeth City, she invited us for dinner. She was making meatloaf. She had a new, “wonderful” recipe she wanted to make for us.

I love meatloaf. I’ve discussed this before and have a couple of pretty tasty recipes. With mashed potatoes and some peas, you’ve got one of my favorite meals. And it’s not that hard to make.

I have no memory of what she served with it, but no matter how hard I’ve tried I still get flashbacks of the main dish. Her new meatloaf recipe consisted of two pounds of ground round and one can of Campbell’s vegetable soup.

And it tasted just about how you think it might. I think I got a little touch of PTSD from that dinner.

Because of his culinary upbringing, my sweet spouse Petey has a soft spot for dinner kits and food from a cardboard box. That man absolutely adores Pop Tarts. I think they are about as appetizing as the wrapper they come in.

Petey and I used to grocery shop together, and whenever we went past the Hamburger Helper, he’d gently hint that he’d like some for dinner occasionally. I’d always poo-poo his idea, because I would much rather make Beef Stroganoff, or lasagna, or anything else from scratch, so we would know what we were eating, and it would have actual flavor.

One day we were in Carlie C’s, and they had it on sale for a buck a box. I picked up one box of their fried rice. It sat ignored in the back of a cabinet for a very long time (one advantage to that stuff is it lasts for at least an entire geological age without going bad).

On the night I got to hang out with some night bakers, I got home very late, and we were both starving. I had some hamburger in the fridge, and was exhausted, so I pulled out that dusty box of Hamburger Helper.

Fried rice normally has veggies in it. This did, but it was three dehydrated peas, and a couple of slivers of dried carrots (at least I think that’s what they were).

So I threw in a couple hands full of frozen peas, and some sautéed ‘shrooms.

To continuing amazement, it was really good. I had two bowls of the stuff.

It now has a permanent place in our dinner rotation.

I always put extra vegetables in it, sometimes peas, or corn, or if I have it on hand, some fresh steamed broccoli. I now know, though, to put the veg in after it’s done cooking, and let it sit covered for 8-10 minutes to heat them through. That will preserve the color and flavor of the veggies.

I also always put mushrooms in it. Sometimes fresh, but I also used dried ones. When I reconstitute the dry, I replace the water in the Hamburger Helper with the mushroom infused broth the re-hydration produces.

Like Homer Simpson, Petey loves him some pork chops. I make smothered pork chops, but we both like them cooked in the oven, Shake and Bake style.

One day I was making a batch and looked at the ingredients on the box. I was appalled when I could neither recognize nor pronounce any of the stuff on the list.

That was the last day I ever bought it pre-made. I resolved to make it myself from then on. It’s not difficult, and I can change up the ingredients to suit my mood.

It isn’t hard to cook dinner using so many boxes, cans and shortcuts that you barely touch, or consume any real food.

I like to know what I’m eating, and where it came from. But, sometimes, if you put your own spin on it, kits can be OK. I’ve never yet been taken in for questioning up by the food police.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at

Oven Fried Chops

4 one-inch-thick pork chops, boneless or bone in

2 cups fat-free buttermilk

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cooking oil (for baking dish)

Coating ingredients:

4 cups bread, rolls, crackers, or pretzels (let your imagination go wild, almost anything like that will work)

½ cup shredded dry cheese, something like Parmesan or cotija

2-3 teaspoons dried thyme

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

2-3 teaspoons seasoning salt (adobo, lemon-pepper, barbecue rub, etc.)

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste (so please taste it for seasoning)

Put coating ingredients into food processor and blend until uniform size and combined. Spread out evenly onto baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until toasted and golden, stirring at least twice while baking. If you’re using something that is already crunchy and browned like Triscuits, skip the baking, but bread crumbs will remain white and pasty on the chops if you don’t toast them first.

After it cools, pour into shallow dish.

Then do a three-part dredge:

First dust chops in flour, then into the buttermilk.

Finally, cover with coating mixture, pressing it onto the pig, so there is a nice healthy layer all over the meat.

Lay on shallow oiled baking dish and bake at 425 degrees for 25 minutes without flipping.

Serves four.

It isn’t hard to cook dinner using so many boxes, cans, and shortcuts that you barely touch, or consume any real food.

I kind of like to know what I’m eating, and where it came from. But, sometimes, if you put your own spin on it, kits can be OK. I’ve never yet been taken in for questioning up by the food police.


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