If there is one food item that anyone can absolutely make better and cheaper themselves, compared to the store-bought version, it's tomato sauce. This is partly because fresh ingredients will almost always be better than a sauce bottled and shipped across the country--but it is just as likely that it's because most tomato sauces are pretty awful.
Belle and I eat a fair amount of pasta, since it's a quick, vegetarian-friendly food. So we've tried, at one point or another, a lot of different store-bought sauces. At best, they're inoffensive, and at worst they're flavored in exactly the wrong ways: sour, chemical-tasting, and mealy. One day, after having a particularly bad batch, I decided to try making my own again. It turns out that it's much easier than I expected, although it does take a bit of time.
I'm sure you can find a detailed recipe elsewhere (I typically just buy a bunch of produce and wing it), but the basic process of making sauce (according to the Joy of Cooking) is a simple, three-step process:
The difference between this and sauce-in-a-jar is striking. It tastes like it's made of real vegetables, for one thing. It's no doubt healthier. And if you do it right, there's no excuse for it to be bland. Give it a shot, and I think you'll agree: life's too short to eat store-bought sauce.
From the Television Without Pity Top Chef recaps, and filed under "so disgusting, it might just be delicious," I give you the Meatcake.
If it weren't for the fact that I would have to eat it all myself, I would try this tomorrow.
Belle starts another weekend dogsit tonight, so she won't be having one of our homecooked meals for a few days. I'm sure that she can manage the store-bought pasta that's a staple on our dinner table (and one of the main reasons I keep a membership at Costco), but if she feels more adventurous I thought I'd try to write up one of her favorite dishes. This is a Mexican Lime chicken, but since Belle's a vegetarian obviously we're not going to be using real poultry. You'll need:
Start by adding a little bit of olive oil--only about a teaspoon--to the pan. Cooking with fake meats takes getting used to. Real chicken tends to have lots of its own juices, and when I've tried to use oil in the past, using too much just saturates the meat and makes it greasy. But vegetarian meat obviously never had any real juices, since the good stuff is usually some kind of mycoprotein (read: fungus. MMmmm!) so you have to help it out and keep it from burning in the pan or drying out. On top of the oil, squirt in some of your lime juice. With a squeeze bottle, I use two or three squeezes--probably a full lime and a half. Then I actually add a little bit of salt and pepper to the lime and oil mixture, so it'll cook into the bottom of the meat at first. I'm wary about doing an actual "rub" for fake meat, because I think it's less cohesive or durable than the real thing. You don't want it to crumble on you.
Now put the stove on medium to medium-high, enough to get a little sizzle but not enough to flash fry. Remember that the ficken doesn't really need to cook to be done--we're just trying to warm it up and sautee the outside a little. Add the cutlets, and sprinkle more lime juice on each, enough that the spices will stick. Sprinkle the salt, pepper, and other spices on top of the cutlets to taste. Now your job is basically just to babysit the cutlets and make sure that they don't burn--you want the outside to be browned but well away from blackening. There's nothing worse than burnt fungus. Turn each cutlet a few times, and use their position on the stove eye to regulate their cooking. To test, cut a little bit off the end and see if it's hot all the way through, as well as making sure that you don't need more lime or salt. Be careful not to add too much of either, though. It shouldn't be sour.
You can serve this on its own as an entree. I think it'd be good with wild rice and black beans, to offset the saltiness. But when I've served this for Belle, what I actually do is crush tortilla chips to cover the bottom of a shallow bowl, shred a little cheese on top of that, then layer on the cutlets and add a thin line of salsa down the middle of each. It's a colorful meal, quick to make, and pretty filling.
Thomas Wilburn's patented Scavenger Hunt Huevos
Toss the egg into a skillet on medium heat, scramble. Add one slice of cheese. Use a fork to whip these until a little fluffy. Add a handful of tortilla chips, crushing them up. Don't worry about the staleness--they're basically just going to be filler. Pour in salsa and black beans, reduce the heat, crush in another slice of cheese, and stir until the beans are soft. Add the fake hamburger last. It'll thaw quickly.
The end result will look, to be polite, like something the cat dragged in. Spice it with pepper, salt, cumin, and red pepper to taste. I have a weak sense of smell, so I season heavily. Entonces: one cheap pseudo-Mexican meal made from handy ingredients, perfect for when your vegetarian girlfriend is working late and you don't feel like going to the grocery store.