Labor Savers: Prepped Ingredients are the Gimpy Cook’s Friend

Like it or not, when you get some formal culinary training you turn into a bit of a snob. As soon as I polished my knife skills at the Cordon Bleu, I abandoned many prepped ingredients and other convenience items that are the mainstay of time-pressed cooks: prechopped onions, presliced mushrooms, grated carrots, grated cheese, shredded cabbage and such. Whole ingredients are cheaper, higher in quality and have a longer shelf life.

Then I slipped getting out of the shower, sprained my wrist and promptly changed my tune. I learned to do many things with my nondominant left hand, like shift gears in my manual car and flip a quesadilla.

But it’s hard to do much slicing and dicing with your sore wrist in a splint, so I had to revisit these prepped ingredients if I wanted to stay in the kitchen. You don’t need an injury to appreciate these items, though. They come in handy for anyone who’s really pressed for time or simply doesn’t enjoy the prep work of chopping and slicing. That said, here are few things to keep in mind before tossing these into your cart.

Expect to pay more. I know, duh, but buying prepped ingredients is the home chef’s version of hiring a prep cook–you pay for someone else to do the grunt work so you can get cooking. Sometimes the difference is significant. A medium whole yellow onion costs about 12 cents an ounce vs. 40 cents an ounce for diced onions, and you’ll pay more than three times as much per ounce for shredded carrots as for whole. But that’s not always the case–I found that ounce for ounce shredded cheese cost about the same as brick cheese. Sold!

And don’t forget the eco-cost. Sure, with whole ingredients there are unused trimmings, but those can go into the compost. With prepped ingredients, there’s always packaging that may or may not be recyclable.

Choose wisely. For the most part, I was satisfied with the quality of the chopped onions, sliced mushrooms, grated carrots and the like. Hardy veggies like onions, carrots or butternut squash tend to hold up better than more delicate items like apples or watermelon. One major exception: jarred minced garlic. It’s convenient, but it doesn’t retain the bright flavor and color of fresh garlic. For that, I dug my garlic press out of the back of the drawer.

Check for freshness. If convenience products don’t look perfectly fresh, don’t waste your money. Also check the “best by” or packing date. The package of sliced mushrooms I bought was stamped with the packing date and time, so I knew they were really fresh. Also buy from stores with high turnover, so you know items haven’t sat on the shelf too long. Some markets prep their own fruits and veggies on site, which is even better.

Be flexible. You may not find exactly the type of shredded cheese or cut of onion you want, so be prepared to make substitutions.

Use prepped ingredients promptly. Once ingredients are peeled, cut and prepped, they start to deteriorate quickly and don’t have the shelf life of whole ingredients. Plan to use them within a couple of days after buying them.

By now, my wrist is on the mend and I’m ready to pick up my knife again. Prepped foods still aren’t my first choice to use all the time, but now I can appreciate how handy they can be. And you never know, I might need them again.

Hey, I’m a klutz.

Grilled Onions with Chile-Nut Puree

These grilled onions make me  think of Mexico and cebollitas (little onions), nestled in embers, turning buttery soft with a rich, smoky flavor. I like to wrap the charred tail around the bulb like wrapping string around a ball, then I scrape it through the flavorful paste and pop it in my mouth whole.


2 red bell peppers
1 tomato, halved lengthwise
1/2 onion
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 ancho chile, halved, stemmed and seeded
3 chile morro (or 2 dried chipotles), halved, stemmed and seeded
1/4 cinnamon stick
3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
3/4 ounce peanuts, (about 3 tablespoons)
1/4 teaspoon cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
2 pounds spring onions, cleaned, greens kept on
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

On a medium-high grill or over an open flame, roast bell pepper until flesh is completely charred, 12-15 minutes. Transfer to a paper bag until cool enough to handle, then peel, stem and seed. Place roasted peppers in the bowl of a food processor.

Heat a large skillet to medium and toast tomato, onion and garlic. Turn every few minutes to char all surfaces, about 5 minutes total, and transfer to food processor. Flatten chiles onto the skillet and toast for 30 seconds on both sides, until shiny and fragrant (be careful not to scorch). Transfer to the bowl. Add cinnamon stick and pumpkin seeds to the skillet, and transfer to the bowl when toasted and fragrant. Add peanuts, cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the mixture and process until a coarse paste.

Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and when oil is hot, add puree (be careful; puree may splatter at first). Fry sauce for 5 minutes, until darkened a shade and thickened. Remove from heat, stir in vinegar and transfer to a serving bowl.

Toss green onions with remaining teaspoon oil and salt and grill for 5-8 minutes, turning often, until charred but not burnt on all sides. Serve with Chile-Nut Puree.

Serves 4