Friday, November 24, 2017

Whither the TV Dinner?

"TV dinners -- they really can't be beat" - ZZ Top
I recently had the house to myself for a couple of nights. Consequently, I found myself in the frozen food aisle at the local grocery store -- not because I can't cook for myself, but for all the usual Freudian reasons.

Back in the '70s, if the parents wanted a date-night, the promise of TV dinners usually got me and the sibs onside with staying behind. Scorching one's fingertips whilst unwrapping the foil and straining to catch the subtle variations of The Muppet Show theme-song became a deeply embedded rite-of-passage.

As for the food, the veggies were a bust -- young consumers in-the-know choked them down first, allowing the mashed potatoes to cool from fourth- to third-degree-burn-inducing temperatures. The pressed turkey was passable, flavour-wise. But the deepest gastronomic delights -- what accounted for the texture, the somehow familiar yet impossible-to-identify flavours? -- were to be found in the dressing and the mashed potatoes. Sometimes even the cobbler dessert was deemed the second thing to go, as it rated a "meh" in both texture and flavour.

I recounted these epicurean adventures to my daughters once, when their mother was off on business. They were keen to get in on the goods (as I expected) so we indulged that very night. Lemme just say, nobody ever clamoured for a repeat of that foray -- perhaps because the dinners themselves repeated for several hours after consumption.

This time around I was considering frozen pizzas. I'm told scientific advancements have made several brands a passable pleasure. Beholding the glossy, "steaming" images, though, I knew well enough that the final product was not going to live up to the promise of the photo. I would eat said product out of a culturally-ingrained sense of thrift, and nothing in my body would be grateful for the discipline.

Instead, I went home and made my go-to comfort food -- Spaghetti Aglia e Olio, one serving. To make it a true TV dinner, I scarfed it down while watching Godless.

There are countless variations on this recipe -- its simplicity begs for improvisation. The "sauce" is essentially extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and parsley -- I throw in slivered sun-dried tomatoes and black olives and usually splash it with Pain Is Good hot sauce during the pasta-to-pan phase. The dish hits all the right childhood/childish "comfort food" flavour notes, cleans up easily and sits well.

Chop some garlic (no fewer than one clove), chop some parsley (I prefer curly to flat, but whatever), chop a sun-dried tomato (packed in oil, natch) and two pitted black olives. Boil some pasta (spaghetti for me) in salted water. Heat a glub of EVOO in a pan, with ingredients, plus some flakes of chili pepper. If you have to remove it from heat to keep the garlic from browning, that's fine. As pasta edges toward al dente splash a little of the pasta water into the pan, drain the pasta, then throw it into the pan and finish the cook. Transfer to plate, add Parmesan -- and take comfort.
Results may vary, depending on camera (and photographer).
Ironically, Spaghetti Aglia e Olio happens to be the first dish I associate with adulthood, as I didn't know of it until shortly into our marriage. We learned of it from Giuliano Hazan's The Classic Pasta Cookbook (Abe), one of those rare cookbooks I consider indispensable.

End-note: what, or who, is responsible for the demise of the Swanson TV Dinner? This guy says it's the microwave oven. This guy says it's those darn Millennials!

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