Do you have a guilty-pleasure website that you jump to when your brain gets tired of doing what it was doing? I do. It’s not a puppy site, like most people go to. Or even kittens. It gives me a perverse thrill to look at the website of Sandra Lee, where the food and entertaining ideas of the Food Network star are shared with the world.
Sandra Lee is the self-proclaimed Queen of Semi-Homemade. As her website explains to the uninitiated, “Easy elegance can be created by mixing pre-made items with quick DIY touches.”
I start with the tablescapes. These are her over-the-top table settings for everything from grand parties to seemingly simple wine-and-cheese gatherings with friends.
In my opinion, tablescapes are what happen when you’re trapped in a knick-knack factory and they lock the doors and give you too many espressos.
That’s just my appetizer; it’s Sandra Lee’s recipes that really get me.
Here’s one for ribeye steaks: Splurge on 2 pounds of ribeyes, pan-fry them in canola oil, and then pour over them a gravy made of canned beef broth (mostly yeast extract, caramel coloring, and MSG), gravy powder (wheat starch, hydrolyzed soy, corn-syrup solids, and, in some brands, more MSG), Worcestershire sauce, and grated dark chocolate.
Another recipe advises poaching chicken breasts in an entire bottle of Champagne. Then you dump out most of the Champagne, saving just a little bit to stir into a packet mix for white sauce (basically powdered palm oil, flour, and those corn-syrup solids).
Making salmon and capers on pasta requires a pound of fresh salmon and two cans of white sauce (essentially, partially hydrogenated soybean oil).
This is the semi-homemade formula for success: Get some food, cook it a little, and serve it in a robust cloak of canned chemical goo. When you look at the pictures on the website, they look so pretty. It all looks so probable. Easy steps to magazine-quality food. You can do it!
So, why am I so entranced by this weird food? Because it reinforces my belief that there really is something beautiful and valuable in simple cooking.
Here’s my advice: Revel in the value and beauty of a hard-boiled egg, sliced in half, sprinkled with smoked salt and chives — ideally snipped from your herb garden. Fresh spinach leaves tossed with a homemade red-wine vinaigrette and topped with a few kalamata olives. Broccoli stalks tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, and black pepper, and roasted at high heat until they just start to blacken. Pignoli nuts, pan-toasted, scattered over butter lettuce dressed with pumpkin-seed oil and salt. An acorn squash split, rubbed with butter, sprinkled with cinnamon or allspice, and roasted. A slice of blue cheese with a few dots of honey.
In fact, these foods are so simple, easy, and good that they have no marketing councils.
The simpler and easier a food is, the less chance anyone will want to promote and advertise it. There is no money in talking up an acorn squash, but plenty of money to be made selling the plausible illusion of semi-homemade foods and gravy packets no one really needs.
Save your money on the cans of chemical goo. If you’re lucky enough to have some ribeye steaks, chicken breasts, or salmon, just grill and serve them with garden vegetables or oil and vinegar on fresh, beautiful lettuce.
Now that’s living!
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.