Scratch and bites

Cooking ‘from scratch’ can save your taste buds, soul and the planet

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spied some fake food news recently as I walked down the frozen food aisle, progressively triggering the motion detectors and illuminating the products inside the glass cases. The headline on the front of a Banquet Turkey Pot Pie caught my eye, bragging about a “flaky crust made from SCRATCH.”

“From scratch” is such a conveniently nebulous term now. At some level, everything is made from scratch, including me. “From scratch” originated as an 18th-century sports term for a line scratched on the ground that all competitors had to stay behind so none had an advantage. Cooking from scratch is supposed to mean food prepared using no mixes, pre-made crusts, kits or packets of prepared ingredients named “Helper.”

It is true that Banquet Turkey Pot Pie starts out with scratch ingredients. These include hydrolyzed soy protein, cooked chicken powder, sodium tripolyphosphate, mechanically separated turkey, sodium stearoyl lactylate, sugar and dextrose. This crust is made in 100-pound blobs and machined into shape. As a bona fide pie crust expert and avid pot pie consumer, I can tell you this crust is not remotely flaky when it emerges from the microwave.

It is false advertising, but what can one expect for 88 cents?

“Scratch” harkens back to a mythical time when grandmothers, not factories, produced baked goods. Lately, writers have been lamenting the average millennial’s lack of cooking savvy, but that cry is nothing new. A 1946 New York Times story bemoaned the fact that “the old-fashioned style of cooking — from scratch, as it were, without frozen or canned products — is on the wane.”

Generally speaking, the people nostalgic for those good old days were not the ones getting up at 5 a.m. to bake the bread or wash the pots. If you talk to women from earlier generations, they cooked from scratch because there wasn’t an alternative. When prepared foods started appearing, many of them said “Hallelujah!” Convenience foods meant less daily drudgery of food production and more time to pursue education or a job. 

At the supermarket, “from scratch” now seems reserved for baked goods. Conagra’s Marie Callender’s Cherry Crunch Pie has an “extra flaky crust made from scratch,” while her Chicken Pot Pie has a “golden flaky crust made from scratch.” (Personally, I think it’s the same crust.)

Other products avoid the label even when they could brag about it. Delallo Sesame Breadsticks are “made in Italy” but not “made from scratch.” Calhoun Bend Mill Peach Cobbler Mix is “made in the U.S.A”, “home style,” “premium,” “like Mom’s cooking!” and “easy to bake.” It is closer to “from scratch” because you still have to add fruit, milk and butter.

Despite all the culinary shortcuts available in 2018, I’m more optimistic about home cooking than I have been for years. It’s cyclical. Every generation eventually comes home to the kitchen. The younger generations are demanding to know how their food is grown and are realizing that cooking from scratch is food transparency in action. Scratch cooking also scratches that maker itch.

If you learn to cook, you learn to feed yourself and know exactly what’s in your food. You learn how to shop for ingredients, read labels, slow down and share food, and save a ton of money on groceries. For some, cooking can be a focused discipline that brings balance to a harried life. I even like Blue Apron delivered meal kits because they are a decent introduction to the joys of scratch cooking.

I cook from scratch at home but certain foods just aren’t worth the effort, such as tomato puree, hot dogs, fresh mozzarella and filo pastry.

The reality of bites

While looking for foods marketed as “made from scratch” I encountered a plague of bites. I spied frozen cream cheese-filled bagel bites, Velveeta Cheesy Bites, Brazi Bites and TGI Friday’s Honey BBQ Boneless Chicken Bites. Bites apparently weren’t small enough for Entenmann’s. The bakery sells Fudge Brownie Little Bites. Oreo’s Thin Mint knockoff is fudge-dipped, mint crème Thins Bites. Simple Truth Quinoa & Red Pepper Omelet Bites “microwave in 1 minute,” but they aren’t “from scratch.” All of this verbiage is designed to fool you into thinking you are eating lighter and healthier. Of course, nobody just has one bite.

Local food news

Edwin Zoe has opened Chimera at 2014 10th St. (in the former Sushi Tora space) next door to his Zoe Ma Ma Chinese street food spot. … Andrea Frizzi’s Vero Italian eatery has opened in the former Pizzeria Da Lupo space at 2525 Arapahoe Ave. … Cured West has closed at 2019 10th St. The original Pearl Street Cured location remains open. … The Colorado Natural Wine Grand Showcase April 18 at Denver’s Space Gallery features tastings of organic, biodynamic, sustainable and natural wines from all over the planet. conaturalwineweek.org. … The Colorado Jewish Food Fest (April 15) at the Boulder Jewish Community Center features tons of family activities plus a vegetarian menu that includes avocado toast with fresh mozzarella (Woodgrain Bagels), organic cotton candy (River and Woods), rugelach (Sweet Pea Cuisine) and a chickpea miso bowl (Zeal), plus latkes and kombucha. coloradojewishfoodfest.com. … Boulder County’s inaugural Food Waste Awareness Week is April 16-22, with programs to teach food waste reduction and save food, money and water. bouldercounty.org/environment/sustainability/food-waste.

Taste of the week

Sometimes a great, warm sub sandwich is the only dish that fills the bill. I found a satisfying example recently at the inconspicuous D’Angelo’s Deli next to Safeway in North Boulder. Just describing it makes my mouth happy. The bacon and garlic cheese steak is a chewy loaf layered with beef, grilled onions, roasted red peppers, spinach, roasted garlic mayo and provolone.

Words to chew on

“The secret of good cooking is, first, having a love of it… If you’re convinced that cooking is drudgery, you’re never going to be good at it, and you might as well warm up something frozen.”

— James Beard

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, and streaming at kgnu.org. Comments: nibbles@boulderweekly.com