Gourmet Dinners from the Bargain Aisle

With the economy still running down, dining in is the date du jour. Let’s face it, though: sometimes cooking a meal from scratch is about as appealing as watching your account balances nosedive. Thankfully, there’s hope for those of us who aren’t used to expending more energy on dinner than it takes to dial takeout. With quick kitchen cheats and just a few ingredients, you can elevate the homely frozen, boxed, or bagged dinner into haute cuisine. Or at least a meal you’re not embarrassed to serve to guests. (Just remember to recycle the packaging — hide the evidence!) After all, if Chat ‘n Chew can charge New York prices for your mother’s standby dishes, you can get away with presenting glorified dorm food to your dinner party. Some of my guest-tested favorites follow.

Pizza Vegetariana: Bake a frozen cheese pizza according to directions (DiGiorno and Freschetta are good picks — they don’t have the cardboardy taste the cheaper brands do.) Meanwhile, thinly slice portobello mushrooms and red bell peppers. Sauté the vegetables in olive oil and add to the pizza five minutes before the pie is ready. Just before serving, drizzle with aged balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with red chili flakes. Tip: to impress carnivores, add good quality prosciutto at the very end.

Not Yo Mama’s Mac ’n‘ Cheese: Boil the pasta from a box of mac ’n‘ cheese until al dente (make sure not to overcook) and drain. In a pot, add 1/8 cup plain yogurt to the cheese powder and stir until well blended, then add the pasta. Divide into bowls and top with sliced heirloom tomatoes and crushed black pepper. Garnish with a sprig of basil. For extra flair, divide into bake-safe ramekins and top with grated cheddar and breadcrumbs; broil until crumbs are toasted and cheese is melted. Tip: opt for classier white cheddar instead of the standard neon-orange; Annie’s is my top choice.

Redeemed Ramen: Thinly slice a medium-sized bok choy and the white parts of scallions lengthwise. Lightly fry shrimp in a skillet and set aside. In a pot of boiling water, add one bag of ramen noodles, the seasoning packet, bok choy, scallions, and shrimp; cook until noodles are done, several minutes. Divide into bowls and serve with soy sauce and Sriracha hot sauce. Tip: use just half the seasoning packet to slash your sodium intake without losing much flavor.

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