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December 15th, 2009:

Cooking Light: What’s for Dinner: Fast and Easy Supper

taco burgers

AssembledBurgersCooking Light: What’s For Dinner is a bit of a stretch to define as a cookbook; it’s a special extra issue of Cooking Light magazine with fast, easy and light dinner recipes. These seem like they would be good for busy weeknight cooking. I’m not sure where I got the magazine, but it’s dated 2004 so I probably bought it at the upscale supermarket that we lived above for one year (one glorious year) in Portland. And it’s possible that I didn’t use it at the time because another great way to manage fast weeknight suppers there was to pick up something at the sandwich counter, the hot deli or the sushi bar on the way upstairs.

BeefBeansSeasoning2I now don’t even live in the same neighborhood as an upscale supermarket, let alone upstairs from one. And while that’s probably saving me a great deal of money in Ben & Jerry’s expenses, it means I have to do a little more planning to ensure I can pull together a fast dinner. A lot of these recipes seem like they’d be good for that.

I decided to make taco burgers because the recipe happened to catch my eye as I was flipping through. That’s it: no symbolic value, no seasonal resonance, no potential joke, just “hey, that sounds good, let’s do that.”

BeefBeanPattiesTaco burgers are pretty simple. I blended about three-quarters of a pound of lean ground beef (the recipe calls for ground round) with half a cup of canned black beans that had been drained and rinsed, plus one and a half tablespoons of taco seasoning. The recipe calls for reduced-sodium taco seasoning, but I live in near-in Queens. New York City doesn’t have room for mega-supermarkets like Fred Meyer that carry tons of products and tons of selection in every area. New York has little supermarkets that have one or two brands for any given product. My neighborhood in particular is not affluent enough for a big market like a Fairway, let alone a Whole Foods; it also has a lot of Mexican and Central American residents, and this means that the demand for prepared taco seasoning is pretty low. Why use the prefab stuff when you can make something far better with fresh spices and your own know-how, especially if you’re highly unlikely to make something as Americanized as hard-shell tacos? Tacos in this neighborhood come from trucks at the curb, not from cardboard boxes. So my choices for taco seasoning were sodium-rich and not-quite-so-sodium-rich; I chose the latter.

PattiesCookingI mixed the beef, beans and seasoning together with my hands and shaped burger patties, then pan-cooked them. While they cooked I prepared the buns: whole wheat (the recipe called for reduced-calorie, but I didn’t find that either), plus tomato slices (findable) and salsa (pretty good options, as it turns out). The recipe also calls for shredded lettuce, but I wouldn’t bother with that if I were making tacos or other sandwiches, so I didn’t here. I thought briefly of using lettuce leaves — so much less annoying than the shreds — but I didn’t have room in the fridge for the salad bowl and I knew that if I let the head of lettuce sit unused for more than a day I would forget it until my next big fridge purge, and it would be unpleasant.

PattiesTurnedWhen the burgers were nearly done I topped them with slices of cheddar and let them cook briefly, covered, so the cheese could start to melt. Again, the recipe called for reduced-fat cheddar; not to sound like a broken record or anything, but not something easy to find in my neighborhood. I have to note that this is a city where “light” cooking options are going to be a lot more successful if they call for fresh and natural ingredients than if they call for reduced-calorie or reduced-fat versions of prepared ingredients. And frankly, that’s how I’d prefer to do it anyway. So many “light” processed products really taste like they’re something less than the real thing; I’d rather go for high quality and moderation than one-for-one substitution.

AssembledBurgers2Plating was simple: I put the patties on the buns, added the tomato and salsa, took a few photos, and put the tops on the buns. I served them with tortilla chips from a fairly new Mexican grocery store nearby that’s run by people who used to work at one of our favorite diners. They don’t have reduced-calorie anything in that shop. Anyway, the burgers were tasty; the beans were a good complement to the meat and the seasoning was in the right proportion, which is good to know since I have about two-thirds of a packet left.

Verdict: Success. Fast and easy, and who knows? Maybe some day I’ll come across the light ingredients, though until then I can just use less cheese. And make room for the lettuce. But it was a nice easy dinner, which was a good thing, because I had quite enough to do already making cookie dough. My next three posts will be about holiday baking, and the Great Caramel Spill. Stay tuned.