THERE’S one way to get a great TV dinner: Avoid the freezer.
After eating a few, I realized everything on the tray could be easily improved just by starting from scratch. And so I set out to take the original tray and put it back together with 2003 ingredients and attitudes, all fresh, for a real meal.
To come up with the postmodern TV dinner, I started with the famous combination Swanson’s laid out in 1953, when the potpie producer had to unload 26 tons of unsold turkeys. The first aluminum tray held Thanksgiving in miniature, with roasted breast meat sitting on corn bread stuffing under gravy, mashed sweet potatoes to one side and green peas to the other. Dessert was later added, and the stuffing was changed to white bread. Sweet potatoes were eventually replaced with white, which tended to weep less when reheated (maybe because they were made from nice, dry flakes).
It’s obviously a good meal, or 250 million Americans would not replicate it every November. But it could be much better for everyday eating, near or far from the latest reality TV.
The turkey was the simplest occupant of the tray to reinterpret. I’ve always thought one of the great innovations in supermarkets has been turkey cutlets. I’ll roast a whole bird or breast if I have to when it’s not a holiday, but I like the fast flexibility of sliced white meat. If you cook it right, it stays juicy, and you can add any flavor to it. There’s a reason Waverley Root once wrote that the best veal scaloppine in Italy is actually turkey cutlets.
Instead of just laying the turkey on bread, in stuffing, which seems dated, I slipped it into a form of bread: fine, dry crumbs mixed with fresh sage, parsley and garlic. A dip in beaten eggs makes the mixture adhere. As it cooks, it forms a savory crust over succulent meat.
To make it more contemporary, I laid the turkey on a bed of mesclun, which is how we always eat it, as a combination entree and salad. The fried crust acts almost like the oil in a dressing for the greens, and a squeeze of fresh lemon adds the acidity. (Fifty years ago, iceberg would have been good enough, but even the worst supermarket now sells lettuce with character.)
For the potatoes, it would be impossible not to improve on the TV dinner rendition just by peeling a few and mashing them with milk and butter. Using Yukon Golds instead of regular Idahos or russets is an even bigger advance, on the level of throwing out the margarine and unwrapping Plugra. But this is a new century; if Americans have learned anything over the last 50 years it’s that richness is a virtue. I decided to follow Joel Robuchon’s heart-stopping example and turn starch into dairy. Butter, cream and creme fraiche are mashed in, and a drizzle of truffle oil carries the dish completely over the top.
For the second vegetable, the choice was a no-brainer. Instead of Birds Eye special green peas, straight from the freezer, I bought sugar snaps, the latest upgrade from snow peas. These sweet little mange-touts (literally, “eat the whole things,” pod and all) have only been grown commercially since the 1980s. Originally they were confined to farmers markets, but now supermarkets carry them year-round.
They could be simply steamed, but they take on more intense flavor when you braise them in a bit of butter and a touch of fruity vinegar. They’re still sweet and crunchy but the flavor soaks through. I topped them off with fresh chives, which were as foreign in the ‘50s as dark green lettuce.
For dessert, I played with an apple and pear cake, with New Age sun-dried cranberries and crystallized ginger, as a takeoff on the old soupy stewed fruits or dry cakes. Then it hit me that chocolate was the more progressive idea. Only in the last 20 years has it become an obsession; when I was growing up it was tasted only in brownies and layer cake and Baker’s was about all you could buy.
A flourless chocolate cake, with a little orange sauce, seemed like the ideal finishing touch. It’s easy; it’s foolproof; it can be served hot or cold. And unlike a molten chocolate cake, which is even more contemporary, it lies low in the tray, as a TV dinner should.
You could serve all this on a dinner plate, of course, but using a tray makes you realize one undying appeal of TV dinners: The design gives you the option of eating dessert first.