A couple of my colleagues stayed all night in the office. They were helping to deal with problematic invoices, so we can produce our company accounts. To thank them, I went to the local supermarket to buy a bottle of nice sparkling red wine. At the checkout, I noticed that a woman had a trolley full of ready-meals and other convenience items. She hadn’t purchased any “real” raw food at all. She had no separate vegetables. She had no cuts of meat. She had no grains or pasta. She just had a cart filled with cardboard boxes of pre-prepared chillcooked and frozen miscellany.
It suddenly struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had consumed one of these microwave ready-meals. There was a period when I ate them frequently. While I worked at Easynet, a group of us got into the habit of buying some Tesco pasta dish or other at lunch and cooking it in the company microwave. The pasta would go a strange grey colour. It become mildly crispy on one edge, but half melted into the softening plastic container on the other. It was about then that I began to realise that the convenience meal did not quite live up to its promise.
My first step to gastronomic enlightenment was in actually using some raw ingredients. Unfortunately, I tended to spoil these ingredients with Chicken Tonight or some equivalent bottled slurry. With the advent of Mrs Trellis, however, emerged a different notion of food preparation: that it’s cheaper, nicer, fresher, tastier and, well, foodier to produce the stuff manually, so to speak. I was surprised to find that, despite the implications by Kraft Foods and their ilk, such Real Food doesn’t really take that much longer to prepare either. For example, what on earth is difficult about roasting a chicken? Put chicken in roasting pan, stick half a lemon up its backside and wipe on some oil and seasoning. The oven does the rest of the work whilst one watches television, goes to the gym or bathes the locust. Frying a steak is hardly more odious. A pasta sauce? Take a tin of tomatoes, add herbs and seasoning, simmer, and that’s it. And it’s always miles better than the suspiciously astringent Dolmios and their brethren.
The revelation, though, is stew and other one-pot meals and soups. One can purchase ready-meal stews. These consist of expensive punnets of fatty lumps of meat and slimy vegetables in a monosodium glutemate and guar-gum sauce. Sure, it takes just three minutes to heat up in the microwave, but making a real stew is hardly a chore. Just fill a pot with – well, whatever. Add plenty of liquid, including some wine. This is a good way of using up the last dregs of an old bottle. Then let the mixture simmer for as long as one can give it (the longer the merrier). The simmering can happen parallel with all those busy, busy middle class things one needs to do, so it doesn’t really factor in to the convenience equation. The notion that such food is time consuming is bizarre. If we’re going on a run, or to see a film, we sometimes put on a stew slowly to simmer, and consume it on returning. Our time is consumed in doing the things we would have done had our meal arrived in a plastic tray. Again, it’s the oven that’s breaking a sweat, not us. What’s more, we can bag and freeze the inevitable surplus from the pot. We can then consume it on another day, when we don’t feel like taking any time at all in even preparing a fresh meal: voila, our own ready-meal, but without the trans-fatty acids and sodium benzoate.
Yes, this is all rather bourgeois, but it deserves evangelising: extricating yourself from convenience food needn’t be inconvenient. Try giving up the habit for a week, at first, and then a month. Once the Kraft Crack has left your culinary neighbourhood, you’ll never look at another cellophaned punnet of their gloop again, let alone allow it privileged residence in your gut.