Semi-Homemade Cooking

by Sandra Lee

Published by Miramax Books

208 pages, 2002










Semi-Gourmet Shortcuts

Reviewed by Pamela C. Patterson


I will be the first to admit that I am not the most organized person when it comes to meal planning. You would think that as a mother of a toddler, I would have figured out some time-saving tricks, but noooooo -- if anything, I am more scattered than ever.

And here's my dilemma: I'm not willing to settle for macaroni and cheese every night, even though that might be my three-year-old's idea of a perfect world. I grew up in a household where the only pasta ever served was prepared by Chef Boyardee, and most meals consisted of a meat and two vegetables, one of which was always mashed potatoes.

Then I married an excellent cook -- someone who wooed me with crawfish étouffée and blackened redfish -- and suddenly the ante was upped considerably. While I usually can't match my husband's spontaneity and creativity in the kitchen -- he can literally whip up something out of nothing -- I'm always on the lookout for new and flavorful dishes to try. The problem is, the recipes I come across often require an extra trip to the supermarket, or even a junket to a specialty grocer. (And I live in a town where kalamata olives are considered exotic.)

Enter Sandra Lee to the rescue. In Semi-Homemade Cooking, the lifestyle maven applies her semi-homemade approach to the culinary arts. The book's tagline is "Quick Marvelous Meals and Nothing is Made from Scratch." It could just as easily be "All the elegance without all the effort." Sandra Lee is Martha Stewart without the impossible ingredients and daunting directions. (She's also more attractive: in the photo on page eight where she's holding a platter of sesame chicken drumettes, she bears more than a passing resemblance to Princess Di.)

But I Di-gress. We're here to talk about food, and how you can make fabulous meals in no time at all out of just a handful of ingredients. Sandra Lee makes it look easy, and for once it actually is. As the author notes in her introduction, "You'll get the benefit of quality and taste without the stress traditional cooking creates." (Personally, I'm all for a stress-free lifestyle -- especially on busy weeknights when I always feel rushed.)

After some brief introductory tips, Sandra gets right down to business. The book is divided into nine sections: breakfast, lunch and dinner and, of course, desserts; appetizers and cocktails; soups and salads; snacks (and we don't mean a handful of stale graham crackers slathered with Nutella); gravies and sauces; and even -- yes, really -- pet foods. (Hey, with all that newfound free time, you may actually feel like indulging your four-legged friends with a semi-homemade treat. And who can resist such whimsical recipe names as Bone-nanza Bones and Kitty Katafornia Rolls? You can even make a pretty Heart o' Seeds to hang from a tree for your feathered friends.)

But never mind them for now -- let's get to the hungry humans who are reading the cookbook in the first place. Flipping through Semi-Homemade, I came across countless mouth-watering recipes that I want to try. First there are those sesame chicken drumettes that looked so good on a platter -- just the thing for weekend snacking now that football season is in full swing. They're coated with a tangy concoction of teriyaki sauce, dry sherry, barbecue sauce, honey and sesame oil, along with a generous helping of toasted sesame seeds and then baked, not fried -- how healthy is that? Move over, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

And speaking of healthy snacks, who knew that onion rings could be? The recipe for Healthy Onion Rings (natch) also caught my eye -- once again, baked, not fried, but with enough zing in the taste department that you won't ever go back to the fast-food version.

Busy cooks with families to feed will be especially interested in the dinner entrees, with selections such as Lemon Turkey Cutlets and Ravioli Stroganoff (prepared with lean ground turkey to make you feel less guilty about the whole milk and sour cream). Vegetarians may feel like they're getting short shrift, as only two dinner recipes (Tropical Salmon and Noodles Alfredo) would suit them -- but there are plenty of no-meat lunch entrees that would work just as well for an evening meal.

And you can always team a soup with a salad: the soups in Semi-Homemade don't require standing over a hot stove all afternoon and the salads all look so scrumptious that it is hard to choose among them. (Since my husband is hankering for the Spicy Crab Salad, I may just have to make that one next, although I'm tempted to whip up the Apple Slaw with some of our local fall produce.)

Each recipe in Semi-Homemade lists approximate preparation and cooking times, along with with suggestions for music to cook by and (when appropriate) wine pairings. (Hint: prepare Crepes Benedict to Natalie MacMaster's "In My Hands," and serve those Noodles Alfredo with Columbia Crest® Cabernet Sauvignon.)

Which brings me to my one quibble with Semi-Homemade Cooking (aside from the handful of typos in the book): I found all those registered trademarks terribly distracting. In a brilliant stroke of product placement, Sandra Lee has consented to using ingredient "suggestions" in her recipes. However, readers are certainly free to substitute a different brand if they so desire and it provides guidance for the cook who might be unfamiliar with certain ingredients.

And since the premise of Semi-Homemade Cooking is to make things easier by using prepackaged foods, it's to be expected that brand names will be bandied about. Nevertheless, I found it more than a bit annoying to see each and every ingredient list punctuated with all those ®s. Even Wolfgang Puck, who wrote the introduction, has a little ® after his name! Give me a break.

Purists may sniff at the idea of using prepackaged foods, but I'm willing to give it a go. (And if it allows me to come up with some tasty holiday appetizers that my friends think I slaved over, so much the better.)

There's just one thing I haven't managed to figure out: how to look as fabulous as the author does in the cover photo while creating my semi-homemade masterpieces. If Sandra Lee has any suggestions for me on that, I'm all ears. | November 2002


Pamela C. Patterson has not yet applied to make her name a registered trademark. But she's thinking about it.