Thirty-Minute Fettuccine (Photography by Tara Hope Cofiell)

Written By Michael Vyskocil

Despite the burgeoning of cooking demonstrations in all major media, including the Internet, we are not spending more time in the kitchen, according to Michael Pollan, Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin Press, 2008).

In a recent article published in The New York Times Magazine (July 29, 2009), Pollan noted that while our fascination with food has grown, our interest in actually preparing it has waned. It has become a spectator sport.

“Maybe the reason we like to watch cooking on TV is that there are things about cooking we miss,” Pollan wrote. “We might not feel we have the time or energy to do it ourselves every day, yet we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives entirely.”

Meanwhile, commercially prepared frozen foods and refrigerated products have enjoyed substantial growth in the last decade. Consumers with less time to prepare a meal from scratch and less inclination or ability to cook have heralded these conveniences. But where does that leave people who are interested in cooking and are searching for creative ways to use these pre-packaged food products?

With that idea in mind, I have assembled several recipes that use frozen, commercially-prepared food products as ingredients in creative dishes.

Thirty-Minute Fettuccine
Makes 4 main-dish servings
The convenience foods of today are the express trains of the kitchen. This bistro-quality dish uses timesaving refrigerated pasta and frozen mixed peppers and onions to help you keep your busy family on track.

? cup canned low-sodium chicken broth
? teaspoon cornstarch
Coarse salt
1 16-ounce package frozen yellow, green and red bell peppers and onions (stir-fry vegetables), thawed
1 9-ounce package refrigerated fettuccine or linguine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 22-ounce package frozen fully cooked, boneless, oven-roasted, diced chicken breasts, thawed
1 clove garlic, minced
? cup chopped tomatoes
? cup finely chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese, for garnishing

In a small mixing bowl, stir together the chicken broth and cornstarch and set the mixture aside.

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the frozen pepper mixture and pasta to the boiling water. Return the water to a boil and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the pasta is just tender. Drain the water from the vegetables and pasta and return the ingredients to the saucepan. Toss the pepper mixture and pasta with two teaspoons of the olive oil. Keep the peppers and pasta warm over low heat.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the remaining teaspoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken breast pieces and garlic. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Push the chicken pieces to the sides of the skillet. Stir the chicken broth mixture and add it to the center of the skillet. Cook and stir until the mixture bubbles and has thickened. Stir together all ingredients in the skillet to coat with the sauce.

Remove the chicken and sauce from the heat. Toss the cooked chicken and sauce with the pepper and pasta mixture, chopped tomatoes and parsley. Garnish each serving of pasta with ? cup of Parmesan cheese.

Chicken and Dumpling Soup
Makes 4 main-dish servings
A fresh green salad served with this comforting soup will round out the menu.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 22-ounce package frozen, fully cooked, boneless oven-roasted diced chicken breasts, thawed
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
? teaspoon dried thyme or oregano, crushed
1 10 ?-ounce can low-sodium chicken broth
1 ? cups water
? medium onion, cut into wedges
1 cup julienned carrots
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
?/? cup commercially prepared biscuit mix
? cup yellow cornmeal
? cup (2 ounces) grated cheddar cheese
?/? cup milk

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken pieces to the saucepan and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 to 5 minutes, or until the chicken pieces are warmed. Sprinkle the flour and thyme or oregano over chicken pieces. Stir in chicken broth, water, onion and carrots. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce the heat. Cover and simmer for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the dumplings. In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the biscuit mix, cornmeal and cheese. Stir in the milk until the mixture is just moistened. Drop the dumpling batter into the hot liquid to form eight equal-sized dumplings. Return the soup to a boil; reduce the heat.

Cover and simmer for 12 to 14 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted into the middle of the dumplings comes out clean. Do not lift the cover while the soup is simmering. Transfer the soup and dumplings to a deep serving bowl. Serve hot.

Potato and Sausage Casserole
Makes 6 to 8 main-dish servings

1 32-ounce package frozen hash brown potatoes, thawed
? cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 10 ?-ounce can cream of chicken soup
2 cups sour cream
2 cups (8 ounces) grated cheddar cheese
16 ounces frozen natural beef sausage patties, parboiled and crumbled into small pieces
1 cup Italian bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the hash brown potatoes, butter, cream of chicken soup, sour cream, cheddar cheese, parboiled sausage patties and ?/? cup bread crumbs. Pour mixture into the prepared baking pan and spread evenly in the pan. Top the mixture with the remaining ?/? cup bread crumbs.

Bake, uncovered, for approximately 1 hour. Serve warm.

Walnut Sticky Biscuits
Makes 1 dozen buns
Based on the popular sweet baked treat, this version uses commercially prepared refrigerated biscuits in place of the buns.

10 tablespoons (1 ? sticks) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for buttering pan
1 ? cups firmly packed light-brown sugar
? cup chopped walnuts
12 commercially prepared refrigerated biscuits

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and light-brown sugar. Once the butter and sugar are melted, stir in the chopped walnuts.

Pour about 1 tablespoon of the melted butter-and-sugar mixture into each cup of a standard 12-cup muffin pan.

Place one biscuit into each cup in the muffin pan, pressing down slightly so that the biscuit fits securely inside each cup and comes in contact with the melted butter-and-sugar mixture.

Bake until the tops of the biscuits are golden brown, about 14 to 17 minutes. Remove the muffin pan from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Gently loosen the edges of the biscuits with a sharp knife. Place a baking sheet, face down, on top of the muffin pan. Carefully invert the muffin pan upside down onto the baking sheet.

Remove the biscuits from the muffin pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Cooking with Fresh Pasta
Fresh refrigerated pastas are increasingly available in the supermarkets. Fresh pastas work better with lighter sauces such as wine- or broth-based sauces that don’t cover their subtle flavors. Use dried pastas for heavier sauces, such as cream-, meat- or tomato-based sauces.

Fresh pastas are prepared differently than dried pastas because they contain more moisture. They need only a minute or two to cook (unlike dried pastas, which take about 10 minutes).

Once cooked and drained, fresh pasta must be tossed with oil or sauce, then served immediately. Stash refrigerated pasta products in the refrigerator for those days when you need a swift supper. Toss the pasta of your choice with chopped fresh basil, garlic, butter and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Or, mix and match varieties of fresh pasta with purchased sauces. Try these fun combos: chicken ravioli with alfredo sauce, tomato and herb linguine with red bell pepper sauce and spinach tagliatelle with garlic herb butter.

More Shortcuts
Fresh carrots that have already been grated or cut in julienne strips are one of the latest timesaving convenience foods that can be found in the produce section of the supermarket. They are packed in a plastic bag, just like the familiar “baby” carrots.

Supermarkets often sell strips of meat sliced for stir-frying in the meat department. These meat strips are great for adding to soups (like the Chicken and Dumpling Soup below) and stews.