Sans Meal Plan: Lessons We Can Learn from Sandra Lee

Let me set up a completely not true at all but just go with it hypothetical situation: You’re an 18-23 year-old college student living in a dorm or an apartment close to a college campus. You are off meal plan, but many of your friends still eat dining hall food regularly. You enjoy food. You enjoy cooking. Sometimes, you don’t feel like cooking intricate and in-depth recipes for every meal because you’re usually cooking for one. You don’t want to buy food every day, but also don’t want to subsist on instant oatmeal and Easy Mac. What to do? Luckily for you this completely anonymous and hypothetical person with no connection to you at all, one woman has your back, through thick and thin, through cocktails and more cocktails: Sandra Lee.

Ms. Lee has made a career drinking vodka on television helping you make “Semi-Homemade Cooking” and “Money Saving Meals” on the Food Network by using a 70/30 attitude when it comes to cooking; 70% ready-made products and 30% fresh ingredients. In other words, you’ll learn how to trick others into thinking you slaved over a hot stove for hours!

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I haven’t really ever taken too much an interest in Sandra Lee, nor have I watched her show for more than a few minutes. Despite the fact that I have never made one of her Frankenstein concoctions before, I find her methodology to cooking very college-friendly. There are a ton of things you can do to improve upon ready-to-make foods. The Internet is swarming with “recipes,” or you can just figure stuff out with food you already have. So, in honor of this approach to gastronomy in college sans meal plan, I present you with some great ideas for cheating your way to homemade.

  • When I lived in Providence over this past summer, one of my good friends shared with me her cheater’s recipe for amazing spaghetti sauce. By adding some ground turkey or beef with fresh veggies and spices (onion, garlic, pepper, more tomato, etc.), my friend transformed a couple of jars of Prego into one of the best meat sauces I’ve ever had. Sauté (or if you’re me, caramelize) some onions with garlic and olive oil, add in some extra thyme and basil (or dump in some conveniently anonymous “Italian Seasonings”), as well as salt and pepper, add in whatever other veggies you want in your sauce (bell pepper, tomato, zucchini, etc.), throw in a pound of ground meat and cook it thoroughly with the vegetables. Finally, dump two bottles of premade pasta sauce into the whole mix and simmer until the sauce is heated all the way through. Fun tip: add a little extra sugar to the mix to tie in all the flavors. Eat on pasta, eggs, bread, or plain with a spoon. It is that good. [Thanks, CA, you da best!]
  • One of my favorite things to do as a kid was add extra cheese to the infamous blue Kraft Macaroni and Cheese box. This may seem blasphemous to diehard fans, but I’ve always been obsessed with all things cheese — the sharper the taste, the better. Even though the blue box really is “The Cheesiest” around, I always found the flavor to be wanting in the sharpness department. To remedy this, I would use pre-shredded (or self-shredded, if necessary) extra sharp cheddar cheese and dump in AT LEAST an extra cup of cheese to the “finished product.” Stir stir stir stir. If strings of cheese don’t stick to the spoon, there is not enough cheese. Alternatively, if you love the crispiness that baked mac & cheese has to offer, prepare noodles as instructed, add extra cheese, put mixture in an oven safe dish, and cover with either breadcrumbs, panko, smashed Ritz crackers, potato chips, or something similar with some extra shredded cheese. Bake for about 20 minutes or so until the top layer is golden and delicious. Enjoy!
  • Although I love baking from scratch, sometimes it’s just not practical to bake cakes or cupcakes completely from the bottom up — laziness time constraints are totally real during senior spring. And, I must admit, I can be a sucker for some Duncan Hines box cake mix (and definitely for some store-bought frosting… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!). There are, however, some cool things you can do to improve upon boxed cake mix. Changes such as adding pudding, replacing water with buttermilk, using coffee instead of water in chocolate cake, and adding extra vanilla or almond extract to yellow cakes can make all the difference in the world. I also really enjoy using soda instead of the typical liquids (Sprite or cream soda with yellow cake is delicious, while Cherry Coke or Dr. Pepper work with chocolate cake). For a friend’s birthday, I actually made a yellow box cake with Sprite, and after the cakes had cooled (still in their pans), I poked holes all over and poured a box of raspberry Jello mixed with boiling water all over the tops of the cakes. The cakes absorbed the taste and got a cool marbled pink and yellow look. Then, all I did was made a cream cheese frosting, and voila! An absolutely delectable cake that had a unique lemony-raspberry flavor and looked awesome when we cut into it. For all adventurers out there, ice cream cake can also definitely be made easy with a box mix of cake, a package of Oreos, and a tub of softened ice cream…
  • Snickerdoodle cake batter blondies? I think YES! Simply mix a box of yellow cake mix, a melted stick of butter, a beaten egg, and 3 teaspoons cinnamon and put the batter in an 8×8 baking dish (or 8-in. cake pan). Sprinkle the batter with 2 tablespoons of sugar and another teaspoon of cinnamon and bake at 350 for about 20 minutes. Let your blondies cool for about 30 minutes before cutting into them because they will be ooey and gooey. They taste like heaven and are über impressive.

1 Comment

  1. Hannah

    Salsa cheat: take a can of corn, toss in a hot pan to sear, chop up some cilantro, and mix with Tostito’s regular salsa. It makes it SO much better for about an extra $1.

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