Wednesday, September 19, 2007

No Nukes

Every now and then, as I’m getting on or off the ferry in the morning, there will be people handing out free things. These are generally samples of some new product, although sometimes they’re just a coupon for a buck or so off the purchase of a product (new or otherwise). I’ve gotten new flavors of Trident gum, dark chocolate covered Altoids (which were pretty good), a coupon for a free salad (never used it), and a coupon for some pain reliever (I forget which one—never used it).

The last few mornings they have been handing out frozen Red Baron panini. They have one flavor, chicken-bacon-ranch, and it’s a regular full size version. I ate one as a snack at 10 the first morning (my usual snack time, but I had forgotten my apple, so the panini seemed a reasonable stand-in, although it had about 250 more calories and way more fat than my usual 10 a.m. apple). On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best, I would give the panini about a 4. The flavor was OK (although not fabulous), and like any bread that has been cooked and is then reheated in a microwave, the toast was a little damp and limp. And at 350+ calories, and 15g of fat, it seemed a little excessive for what it was.

What I found most interesting about it was that the instructions were for microwave ovens only. According to Red Baron, or their parent company Schwan Foods, Red Baron panini are only intended to be prepared in a microwave. There weren’t even conventional oven directions on the box.

I’ve noticed this before—companies often put the microwave directions prominently on the back of the box, with great big pictures showing how to rip the box apart to make a “cooking platform,” which buttons to push on the microwave to input the correct amount of cooking time and so forth. They print conventional oven directions in very small type on one of the small sides of the box in rather terse bullet points with no illustrations. They could almost print on there “If you want to live in the Dark Ages, that’s fine with us, but don’t expect us to encourage you to heat our product in that slow, outdated conventional oven you insist on using. You archaic conventional oven people would probably like it if we provided instructions for heating this thing up in a wood burning stove, wouldn’t you? Freaks.” Except that that would take up more room than they’re willing to devote to conventional oven users.

I really hate microwaves and wish I didn’t have to use them ever. They’re handy for heating up leftovers, but even for that I’d be willing to use a conventional oven if I didn’t have the microwave. The problem is, I must use the microwave most nights to make my kids’ dinner, because at 4, 2, 2 and 10 months, they want to eat pretty much the instant their little sneakers hit the doormat in the evening. My oldest son even asks on the way home in the car if dinner is ready and waiting at home. Also, they go to bed early. As in 7 p.m. early. In order for me to get dinner into them before they have to start getting ready for bed, I have to be able to make it in 10 minutes. Lots of things can be ready in 10 minutes, but my kids’ palates aren’t quite sophisticated enough for such offerings as sautéed shrimp with grilled polenta and green salad, or some other things I could whip up using fast-cook ingredients and a few leftovers.

For years I was considered a weirdo because I didn’t have a microwave. When my husband and I first got married we had a pretty small house with a correspondingly small kitchen. As a result, we decided that a microwave wasn’t that important to us. We had the regular oven, and a toaster oven (not a two slice toaster—I don’t believe in those because they’re only good for toasting bread and you can’t use them for anything else; a toaster oven you can toast in, but you can also use them to melt cheese, heat up small frozen things, or reheat leftovers). We did fine, except that we had to keep explaining to people (including my in-laws) why it was that we didn’t have a microwave. We’d wave our hand around the kitchen, brushing all four walls in the process, and say “We have no room!” which was partly true, but we left out the part about not wanting one in the first place. The few times we included that statement, we wound up in long drawn-out debates with microwave fanatics.

I admit that these appliances have their purpose, and even come in pretty handy sometimes, but I don’t like them because I feel I don’t have full control over what I’m doing. When I microwave food, the container, density and contents of the food, strength of the microwave, and who knows what other factors have a direct impact on how quickly something heats up. When I put something in a conventional oven (or use the stove top), I have a pretty good idea how fast it’s going to heat up. And if I put something else in the oven with it, it doesn’t change how quickly either thing heats up.

Of course, this assumes a properly calibrated oven, but they sell thermometers so you can make adjustments if your oven is off. When I read microwave directions, they say “This product was tested using a 1000 watt microwave oven. Your cooking time may vary depending on microwave wattage.” Uh, OK…any indicator of how different it might be? Or I’m just kind of on my own here? I almost always find it’s the latter. I’ve also yet to find a place on the microwave where the wattage is indicated. There are stickers detailing where and when it was made, who made it, who inspected it, and God knows what other information about its provenance, but not a single peep about what its wattage is. Apparently this is information that the company can’t reveal to you unless you know the secret handshake. Or something.

I also don’t do very well with the idea of little waves cooking my food. I’m kind of a traditionalist—I think heat cooks food. I know, the molecules get “excited” and that generates heat, but there’s something kind of weird to me about excited food molecules. I’ll take my molecules exposed to conventional heat, thanks.

And lastly, I find microwave cooking to be of generally poor quality. The food either dries out, or becomes saturated with condensation from the container it’s cooked in and gets soggy. This was the case with the panini. Bread, or in this case toast, just doesn’t heat up well in a microwave. Cheese cooks away to nothing, meat doesn’t brown, eggs get rubbery, and noodles get leathery. About the only thing a microwave really can do with any success is boil water.

So I have a microwave, I don’t like it, and someday when my kids don’t need to eat dinner quite so early, I’ll abandon it altogether and not use it. By then, of course, they’ll be old enough to burn microwave popcorn on their own, and my house will constantly smell like scorched popcorn. I’ll have to teach them how to use the exhaust fan early on.

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