Is it really necessary to spend hours slaving over a hot stove in order to eat well? Heck, no. Slaving over a hot stove should be fun, which means you shouldn't have to do it all the time. There are too many good alternatives to let it become a chore. Of course, there are restaurants and carry-out places, but these are not what I view as primary alternatives. My easiest and cheapest choices for non-cooking meals come in tins and boxes.
There has of late been an explosion of exotica that you can whip up at home, much of it great. If you like tabouleh, Near East and Melissa brands offer excellent "instant" versions of this dish. (I should perhaps mention that these are grain-intensive taboulehs, and may not be preferred by those who like the parsley-dominated versions—but I think these are wonderful.) In fact, these companies have several delightful food items (the Near East couscous parmesan, for example, is outstanding).
Fantastic Foods makes an instant hummus that is admittedly not as good as the stuff you'll get in a restaurant, but the box can sit on the shelf for ages, and all you have to do is add water and a little olive oil to have a bowl of pretty darn good dip (I add some lemon juice, too, since I like a little zip). Also, their Nature's Sausage is a good, low-fat, meatless alternative if you're cutting back but miss the taste. No, it's not the same, but the texture is right and the flavor is pleasing—plus, it's in a box and will wait for you.
Mahatma and Vigo are brands of rice dishes that come in little bags found in the rice and bean aisle of your grocer. Both have good versions of classic dishes that you can whip up in minutes, including New Orleans-style red beans and rice, saffron rice, and Cuban black beans and rice. Actually, the rice and bean aisle is a good place to hunt for new goodies, from the Alessi risottos to a wide range of pilafs.
"Natural" grocers like Whole Foods and Wild Oats can be even better sources of these nifty goodies. Brands like Marrakesh Express, Casbah, and Lundeberg offer intriguing blends or new treats. I think Casbah's Instant Baba Ganoush is great (again, not the same as a restaurant, but I can have it with little effort, any time of day or night). And check out the house brands of instant or easy soups, beans, and stews at these places. They're generally yummy.
If you're feeling adventurous, you can peruse the offerings at local ethnic grocers. I've become fond of a squash soup and a canned, spiced tofu that I find at the Asia Super Market on Milwaukee Avenue. What might you find?
If you like Indian food, contact Jyoti Gupta. Jyoti came to the U.S. from India several years ago, and has built a successful business out of her home recipes for vegetarian, Indian cuisine. You can buy canned, prepared foods (my favorites are Chhole, Saag, and Karhi—but everything is excellent), or you can order all the bits and bobs of the Indian experience, from spices to cookbooks to incense. Some of Jyoti's products are offered at natural grocers or health food stores, but it's easier and usually cheaper to order direct. Visit the website for Jyoti Foods for contact information. The website lists grocery stores that carries their products.
Still, there's nothing like a home-cooked meal. And do-it-yourself, in addition to saving money, can be fun and satisfying. This recipe is great for when you have some time but not much. It takes little shopping and almost no preparation. Just bung it in the oven, and go change clothes or throw another load in the washer. It's also mighty tasty—no one will guess it was so easy (unless they read this). Besides, people are impressed by anything that requires oven mitts.
some garlic salt
Preheat oven to 450°F. Wash chicken thoroughly. Sprinkle both the body and neck cavities liberally with garlic salt. Cut the lemon in half and stick the halves inside the chicken. (If it's a tight fit, have the pointy, skin side of the lemon sticking out, not the juicy, cut side.) I generally roll the lemon on the counter a few times before cutting it, to "loosen the juice," and I rub the cut side of one lemon half over the outside of the chicken before sticking it inside, but neither of these is part of the original recipe, and they're not necessary if you're really pressed for time.
Put the chicken in a roasting pan and place in the oven, uncovered. Reduce heat immediately to 350°F, and roast for about 18‑20 minutes per pound, until juices run clear when chicken's skin is pierced. When it's done, remove the lemon from inside and serve alongside the chicken. Serve with buttered rice and steamed veggies. Unless you're really busy, and then you can just rip off a drumstick, squeeze a little of the lemon over it, and get back to work.