Semi-Homemade Cooking
By Sandra Lee

204 pages; Color Photographs.  Large Format Glossy Soft Cover

Miramax Books, Hyperion, New York, New York  ©2002

Reviewed by Bess R. Emanuel and Chef John Vyhnanek

About the Author: Sandra Lee has been making everyday lives a little bit easier for over ten years with her Semi-Homemade techniques. Now, she brings her inspiring, practical ideas into the kitchen in her very first cookbook, with recipes that are quick, easy, and most of all delicious.
"Copyright © 2002 Sandra Lee

Semi-Homemade Cooking, a New York Times bestseller, combines fresh ingredients with carefully chosen prepackaged foods -- everything from ready-made pastry to pre-made soups -- to create a worry-free, timesaving new approach to home cooking. For more information and recipes, please visit http://www.semi-homemade.com/

John's comments:

I suppose people who never learned to cook from scratch are perhaps a little lost when they read a cookbook. Oh! I'll never be able to cook this is probably the first words out of their mouth. Wouldn't it be nice for the culinary challenged to forget about the fear forever. Well, it might be possible if you try the new cookbook Semi-Homemade Cooking by Sandra Lee published by Miramax Books ©2002. 

Being a professional chef, I have almost always cooked from scratch, except for Campbell's tomato soup and a few other fun foods, and I never knowingly have eaten or purchased Cheez-Whiz. The reason---I really love to cook, it's fun, relaxing and rewarding, if you know what you are doing. My mother also loved to cook, but coming home from work, often tired from a day of teaching third graders, she wanted something easy, quick and tasty. I remember her combining Knorr's onion soup mix with softened butter and spreading it over sliced potatoes, wrapping them in foil and baking them in the oven. Yes, it was quick and pretty good at that! So what are you going to do if time, knowledge or fear of cooking stands in your way? Be glad that Semi-Homemade Cooking has been written and you can buy it at your favorite bookstore.

The book is beautiful. A clean white soft cover, glossy with a picture of the author and pictures of a few of the recipes contained within. Inside we find photos of every recipe. They really give you an idea of what you can achieve when you easily whip up a recipe or two. Here's how it works: pick a recipe like the Cheddar Potato Soup. Shop for the ingredients; Cheez Whiz and Stouffer's frozen au gratin potatoes, scallions and grated Parmesan cheese. Prepare it: heat the potatoes according to instructions, combine the Cheez Whiz and potatoes in a pot, add milk and heat. Sprinkle with cheese and scallions, the serve and eat! It took us less than 10 minutes and the taste was okay. The leftover soup was taken to some friends for a blind tasting not knowing how it was made---they loved it! 

The same applies to the Banana Grape-Nut Chews. Shop for ingredients: Betty Crocker Quick Banana Bread mix, Grape-Nuts cereal and bananas---you may have the butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and eggs already on hand or shop for them too. Prepare it: whip sugar and butter, add egg yolks and stir. Add quick bread mix, bananas, cereal and blend together. Spoon onto baking sheets and bake at 375 for 12 minutes or so, cool and eat.

Now you get the idea behind the book.  The dishes are made from combining already prepared or somewhat prepared foods in different combinations and or ratios. This is why the culinarily-challenged or those who are fearful of cooking can't screw up these recipes---they really work.

If you want a little more of a hands-on challenge, then try the Sesame Chicken Drumettes. You will have to marinate, coat, bake and glaze the chicken drumettes. Then you combine a few prepared items like KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce with sesame oil and honey for the glaze, but that's what many cooks do for such sauces anyway.

All in all, the book was fun to use. It might have benefited from a smaller format, as it was hard to keep it open on the kitchen counter when referring to the recipes. Next to the ingredients is the recommended brand. I assume that because this book was written by someone in California, the brands might not be available in all parts of the country or some stores might not carry a specific brand. Would you believe we had to go to 3 major supermarkets to find the Stouffer's au gratin potatoes?! We suggest you use what you have in your area if you can't find a specific brand.

So Good Cooking's recommendation is---buy the book if you want some new cooking ideas, you are challenged by cooking, or you just want to have some fun. 

Bess' comments:

This was a fun book to look at, and pretty easy to use.  As John said, the recipes we tried were all pretty tasty.  I have to say, however, that I had some concern about so much use of prepared foods, given the high amounts of preservatives, salt, etc. in many of these products.  In addition, the author uses whole milk, eggs, and other products which would prevent anyone who is watching their diet from eating healthily with these recipes, unless they were altered. But would someone who is cooking at this level know how to adapt the recipes for a lower-fat or lower-sodium diet?  I was surprised that someone from Southern California was not more diet conscious!  Another concern was one about waste: in the recipes we tried, we almost never used the whole box/jar/mix because the recipe didn't call for it all.  Maybe if I were cooking like this often, I'd be able to use up the rest of these ingredients, but since I don't, it felt wasteful, and expensive--these prepared foods aren't cheap!  

Cheddar Potato Soup

Cheez Whiz® again! I may have been able to get away with using Cheez Whiz® in one recipe, but three? (See pages 37 and 61.) I'm sure a professional foodie is bound to suggest I be sent to "culinary jail" for this. For those of you out there questioning my use of Cheese Whiz®, or even turning your nose up a bit: Don't be so quick to judge and dismiss. This soup is super and sure to please the taste buds of any cheese aficionado.
Serves 4

2 packages (11 1/2 ounces each) frozen potatoes au gratin, Stouffer's®
2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup Cheez Whiz®, Kraft®
3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese, Kraft®
1/2 cup green onions, chopped

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 12 minutes 

Preparation:
Prepare potatoes in microwave according to package instructions. Whisk milk and Cheez Whiz® in a heavy large saucepan to blend. Gently stir in scalloped potatoes.
Bring mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Ladle soup equally into 4 bowls.
Sprinkle generously with shredded cheese and green onions. Serve hot.
Storage and Leftovers: Cover tightly and store in refrigerator for up to 3 days. To reheat, combine Cheddar Potato Soup and 114 cup whole milk in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly until warm.

Sesame Chicken Drumettes

There used to be a place on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California that had the most amazing drumettes-that's all they served. Unbelievable, wonderful drumettes in all sorts of flavors; sesame was my favorite. When they closed shop I scrambled to create a recipe that could pass as its twin. Full of flavor, the outside is always perfectly crispy and the inside is always tender and juicy.
Serves 4

1/3 cup teriyaki sauce, Kikkoman®
1 1/2 tablespoons dry sherry, Christian Brothers®
1 1/2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, Sun Luck®
> 1 1/4 pounds chicken drumettes (about 12)
1 1/2 tablespoons barbecue sauce, KC Masterpiece®
1 1/2 tablespoons honey, Sue Bee®
1/4 teaspoon oriental sesame oil, Sun Luck®

Prep time: 35 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes

Preparation:

In a large resealable plastic bag, combine teriyaki sauce, sherry, and sesame seeds. Add chicken drumettes, turning to coat.
Seal bag and refrigerate at least 30 minutes, or up to I day. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Line a cookie sheet with foil.
Using tongs, transfer drumettes to cookie sheet. Discard marinade. Bake until drumettes are golden brown, about 15 minutes.
Mix barbecue sauce, honey, and sesame oil in a small bowl. Brush drumettes with honey mixture and bake 5 minutes. Turn drumettes and brush with honey mixture and bake 5 minutes longer. Can be served hot or at room temperature.

Banana Grape-Nuts® Chews 
Makes about 24 cookies

Nonstick vegetable cooking spray, PAM®
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, Land O'Lakes®
1/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar, C&H®
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, McCormick® 
2 egg yolks
I 1/2 cups banana quick bread mix, Betty Crocker®
I cup Grape-Nuts® cereal, Post®
2 bananas, peeled and coarsely mashed (about I cup)

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 12 minutes

Preparation:

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Spray large cookie sheet with nonstick spray. Using an electric mixer, beat butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in yolks I at a time. Add quick bread mix and cereal and beat until just blended. Add mashed bananas and beat just to incorporate. Working in batches, spoon 2 tablespoons batter for each cookie onto prepared cookie sheet, spacing evenly and forming 6 mounds. Bake until cookies are golden brown on bottom and set in the middle, about 12 minutes. Using a spatula, transfer cookies to cooling rack.
Storage and Leftovers: Cover tightly and store at room temperature for up to 3 days.