Debbie Matthews: Out of the box

Dec. 31, 2012 @ 02:49 PM

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 aptitude 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 given you what I think is a pretty tasty recipe. 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 to forget I still get flashbacks of the main dish. Her new meatloaf recipe consisted of 2 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.
If you have a fondness for those things, but have a matured palate, DaisyCakes (401 Foster St.), makes something they call Pop’t Arts. They’re sorta like the supermarket version, but made with real food, and unlike Pop Tarts, they’re yummy.
Petey and I 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 the fried rice. It sat ignored in the back of a cabinet for a very long time (one advantage to that stuff is that it lasts for at least an entire geological age without going bad).
On the night I hung out with the night bakers at Guglhupf (2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., #1) for a column, 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 HH.
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 my continuing amazement, it was really good. I had two bowls of the stuff. It's the one variety of Hamburger Helper I like.
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 always put mushrooms in it, as well. Sometimes fresh, but I also use dried. When I reconstitute them, I replace the water in the Hamburger Helper with the mushroom infused broth the rehydration 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.

Oven-Fried Chops
4 1-inch thick pork chops, boneless or bone-in
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cooking oil (for baking dish)
Coating ingredients:
4 cups bread, rolls, crackers, or Terra Chips (let your imagination go wild, almost any bread-like product 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 in size and combined. Spread out evenly onto baking sheet and cook 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 eggs and milk you’ve whisked together.
Finally, cover with coating mixture, pressing it onto the pig, so there is a nice healthy layer all over the meat.
Lay chops on shallow oiled baking dish and bake at 425 degrees for 25 minutes without flipping.
Serves four.

It’s easy 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 by the food police.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is