- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

I’ve never really understood what modern shoppers and home cooks mean by the term “convenience foods.” Of course, I know the products that those words refer to: package foods that you quickly prepare simply by adding water or heating. And I know that you can even get very creative with some of them.

That isn’t what I don’t understand, however. Instead, I wonder why so many home cooks rely largely on convenience foods for their home-cooked meals when, to me, so many basic ingredients are really convenient and simple.

Take fresh, in-season produce, for example. I find it exceptionally convenient to rinse and cut up a selection of greens and other vegetables and toss them with a dressing that takes just moments to prepare, resulting in a great salad. Or vegetables can be sauteed in hot olive oil, maybe with a touch of chopped garlic or some hot red pepper flakes, to make the perfect side dish in a matter of minutes.

And how about the summer fruit in markets right now? Choose up a freshly picked peach or nectarine, pass it under cold running water to wash away any dust from the orchard, and eat it. What could be more delicious, or more convenient? It doesn’t take much extra effort, either, to turn such fruit into a more elaborate creation, maybe using a base of good-quality ready-to-bake puff pastry from the market’s freezer case.

One of my favorite true convenience foods now widely available in markets is the cooked, ready-to-eat rotisserie chicken. Rubbing a whole chicken with seasonings and then cooking it on a slowly turning spit is an excellent way to produce juicy, flavorful meat. Those I’ve sampled from supermarkets deliver reliably good results, provided that you take some care to select one that seems to have finished cooking fairly recently, looking plump and juicy, with nicely browned skin.

Bring such a chicken home and you can serve it immediately to your family. Or, with very little extra effort, you can turn it into the perfect late-summer main course salad: Chinois Chicken Salad, a favorite at my restaurants. A straight-from-the-market rotisserie chicken is perfect for such a salad, as the still-warm meat will soak up the flavors of the Asian-style dressing in a way that cold chicken, the usual staple for salads, cannot. The trick works with other dressings as well.

Add a few leaves and vegetables that you also picked up at the market (if you’re in a real hurry, you can even buy them already cut-up from the store’s salad bar), and you have a truly spectacular salad. Now that’s what I call convenient.

Serves two as a main course, four to six as an appetizer.

CHINESE MUSTARD VINAIGRETTE

1/4 cup (60 ml) rice vinegar

2 tablespoons light sesame oil

2 teaspoons dry Chinese or English (Colman’s) mustard

1 teaspoon soy sauce

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons peanut oil

CHICKEN SALAD

2 small heads or 1 medium head napa cabbage

1 small head romaine or iceberg lettuce

10 snow peapods

1 whole cooked hot rotisserie chicken

1 tablespoon black sesame seeds, or white sesame seeds toasted in a dry pan over low heat, stirring continuously, until golden, about 1 minute

First, make the Chinese Mustard Vinaigrette: Put the rice vinegar, sesame oil, dry mustard, soy sauce and a little salt and pepper into a blender or a food processor fitted with the stainless-steel blade. Blend or process until smooth. With the machine running, drizzle in the peanut oil to form a thick, smooth dressing. Taste the dressing and adjust the seasonings if necessary with more salt and pepper. Transfer the dressing to a bowl and set aside.

Select 4 to 8 nice-looking leaves from the napa cabbage and set them aside to decorate each serving plate. With a sharp knife, cut the remaining napa cabbage leaves crosswise into 1/4-inch (6 mm) julienne strips.

Pull away the outer leaves of the romaine or iceberg lettuce to reveal the paler, tender heart. With a sharp knife, cut the lettuce heart crosswise into 1/4-inch (6-mm) strips until you have 1 cup (250 ml) of shreds.

With the knife, cut the snow peapods diagonally into 1/4-inch (6-mm) strips.

With your fingers, remove the skin from the still-warm rotisserie chicken. Pull off the meat from the breasts, thighs and drumsticks; tear the meat into bite-sized pieces.

In a mixing bowl, combine the chicken, shredded cabbage, shredded lettuce and snow peas. Toss with enough of the vinaigrette to coat all the ingredients well.

Arrange the whole napa cabbage leaves around the edge of a large serving plate or platter, or on individual serving plates, and mound the salad mixture on top. Garnish with sesame seeds and serve immediately.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s new TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

2004 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC.

DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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