My aunt recently gave me a cookbook that was prepared as a fundraiser for an organization that she has been giving her time and energy to for many years. It’s called A Better World, and it’s a wonderful after-school program that gives low-income children a safe and enriching environment in the after-school hours. (Read more about it at http://www.abetterworldcharlotte.org )
It occurred to me, looking at the book, that one of the hallmarks of American home cooking is its heavy reliance, and creative use, of processed store-bought products. Think of the many American staples such as green bean casserole, tuna casserole, chili, or brownies, that rely on specific products from the supermarket, often canned cream soups, pre-seasoned rice, or packaged baking mixes. I looked through the pages of this book, one of thousands like it that have been lovingly assembled for a community organization, and I noticed all the simple, smart recipes, many of which are instantly recognizable as ones you’ve seen at a potluck, a church dinner, or a family barbecue across the United States. Some are regionally specific. I had never had the cheese sausage dip before, but have encountered it twice since moving to Charlotte. And others, like broccoli cheese casserole, are likely familiar to all Americans.
Not all the recipes in the collection were in this category, but it is a large part of the American repertoire that I sometimes underestimate. If you’re a food snob like me, you may very well immediately dismiss any recipe calling for cheez wiz, boxed stuffing, or instant butterscotch pudding, in large part because these products are filled with overly processed, artificial ingredients. But the truth is that authentic American recipes use these ingredients, and while you can make everything from scratch, these recipes were truly born alongside the products they use, not to mention the dish undoubtedly comes together faster and more cheaply if you use them. So I will save my critique of artificial flavors and fake fats for another day, and for today I will simply admire these recipes for their ease, tastiness, and frugality. Of course, if you have the budget, go ahead and buy higher quality packaged foods to use in the recipes.
Sausage cheese dip (from my neighbor Kelly)
I tried this recipe at a neighbor’s party. I liked it a lot, and it seemed to be a hit with everyone. When I asked my neighbor how she made it, I was surprised at how it seemed to add up to more than the sum of its parts. So here is what I gather to be a Southern party favorite:
- 1 package Jimmy Dean original sausage
- 1 lb Velveeta Cheese
- 1 can Rotel tomatoes
- tortilla chips
Fry the sausage meat and drain. Put in a microwave dish. Cut up cheese in chunks and place over meat. Add the tomatoes. Cook in microwave about 3 minutes. Stir mixture. Serve with warm tortilla chips.
Broccoli Cheese Rice Bake
This next recipe reminds me of the broccoli cheese casseroles my mom made growing up that I always loved. I also always loved Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice as a kid, and I’m not even sure I’ve had it since. This is a no-fail dinner! The stuffing on top could be replaced by whatever crackers or crumbs you have on hand, or even just an extra handful of cheese.
- 1 package Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice
- 1 package frozen broccoli
- 1 can chopped mushrooms
- 1 small can water chestnuts
- 1 can cream of mushroom soup, diluted with about 1/2 can water
- 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
- 1/2 cup Pepperidge farm herb stuffing mix
Preheat the oven to 350. Make the rice according to package instructions in a large saucepan. Once cooked, add broccoli, mushrooms, water chestnuts, soup, and cheese, and blend. Spoon into casserole dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Top with stuffing mix. Bake 30-35 minutes. Serves 6-8.
Apple Dumplins (from the Better World cookbook)
The punchline in this last recipe is the Sprite at the end, which struck me with equal parts fascination and suspicion. But it just sounded too charming to pass up, and so I made it. I wasn’t sure what would happen with the liquid at the bottom, but I see now that the idea of the dumpling is that the bottom is a little gooey and the top is brown. And it really was a comforting dessert. I adapted the quantities just a bit to suit my tastes.
- 1 package crescent rolls
- 2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and quartered
- 1/4 cup butter, melted
- 1/2 cup sugar, mixed with 1 tbsp cinnamon
- 1 can Sprite
Wrap each apple quarter in a crescent roll and lay on bottom of buttered glass baking dish. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar onto the dumplings. Pour the butter over the top and then the sprite around the dumplings. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes or until brown on top.