By Alison Ashton
After Hurricane Katrina rolled through the Gulf States five years ago, a friend headed to his family’s home in south Mississippi to clean up the damage. While he was there, the military came by, distributing MRE (meals ready to eat) like they were edible Mardi Gras beads. My friend accepted some and passed them along to his wife, who was my coworker. She brought them to work, where several of us gathered in the communal kitchen to sample some guv’ment fare. It was OK–and probably very welcomed by thousands of overwhelmed souls busy setting up house in FEMA trailers. When time and resources are tight, your definition of “good” broadens” considerably.
At Nourish Network, we advocate cooking from scratch with fresh, whole, seasonal foods. But we also live in the real world, where long days can make getting healthy food on the table for dinner challenging. We’ve offered cook-ahead strategies to stock the freezer, shared speedy recipes that come together faster than ordering a pizza, and suggested equipment like pressure cookers that make quick work of cooking beans and grains.
Sometimes even those are a stretch, though, and it helps to have some of the work done for you. Lately, I’ve notice a wider range of steamed, shelf-stable, refrigerated or frozen legumes, grains, and vegetables that make healthy cooking convenient.
Legumes. I’ve become a fan of vacuum-packed, steamed, ready-to-eat black-eyed peas, lentils, and various kinds of beans distributed nationwide by Melissa’s (I’ve also found refrigerated and shelf-stable varieties at Trader Joe’s). They typically have less sodium than their canned counterparts (rinsing canned beans washes away only about a third of the sodium) and much nicer texture. These steamed legumes are firm and hold their shape.
Whole grains. We’ve sung the praises of Village Harvest’s line of frozen, cooked grains, including quinoa, brown rice, and wild rice. These have terrific texture, and you can pour out what you need and put the rest back in the freezer. (I’ve used the quinoa to speed up preparation of Curry Quinoa Cakes.) Trader Joe’s also has its own label of frozen cooked grains, as well as shelf-stable versions.
Veggies. While I prefer using fresh beets with a big bouquet of greens still attached to make something like Mama Kourtesi’s Beet and Green Salad, there are hectic evenings when I appreciate the convenience of peeled and steamed baby beets that I can add to a salad or slice over pizza. Items like steamed, sliced carrots also are a fast way to add color–and nutrition–to salads and side dishes.
Products like these make it a lot faster to eat healthily on crazy days, but there are some caveats. You’ll pay a premium for the convenience. For instance, a 20-ounce bag of frozen cooked brown rice is $5, which would buy you a 32-ounce bag of uncooked rice (uncooked rice from the bulk bins costs even less). And while many of these items have little or no added salt, others may have more. If salt’s a concern, check the sodium tally on the Nutrition Facts label.
This Mississippi “Caviar” isn’t quite an MRE, but with the help of some ready-to-eat components, it’s close. And it tastes a heck of a lot better, trust me.
A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the Editorial Director for Nourish Network. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health as well as on her blog, Eat Cheap, Eat Well, Eat Up.