All About Food: Make meals more saucy with Trader Joe's products

We give thanks weekly to the god of convenience food for the blessings of Trader Joe's.

People who don't have time to cook, people who don't know how to cook or people who just don't like to cook all can be found wandering the aisles in search of a three-minute meal. They usually end up in the frozen food department or the prepared food aisle.

We have found that with very little more time and minimal effort, you can create a delicious dish with fresh ingredients combined with the great variety of their bottled sauces. The secret we would like to pass on to you is how to kick these sauces up a notch in a few minutes and get credit for a meal that tastes like you have been slaving over a hot stove for hours.

Trader Joe's salsa verde is a tomatillo sauce, but the little green tomatolike vegetable itself, tomatillo, is hard to find and even harder to prepare for cooking.

Although the sauce is tasty as it is, if you throw it in the blender with a half bunch of cilantro, a teaspoon of cumin and a serrano chile or half a jalapeño, according to your tolerance for heat, you will have a multilayered and beautiful green sauce to pour over chicken breasts, boneless thighs or fish. It also makes a mean green enchilada. The sauce is good hot or cold, but if you heat it, do it briefly or it will lose its vibrant color.

Speaking of enchiladas, if the red kind is your favorite, try adding a large peeled roma tomato to the blender with TJ's enchilada sauce. It gives it a nice, fresh, homemade flavor.

The easiest way to peel a tomato is to cut an X in the nonstem end and dip it in boiling water for one minute. The skin will peel right off. Then follow the directions on the bottle but use more chicken.

To turn Trader Joe's inexpensive traditional marinara and tomato basil sauces into something that tastes like it was made by your Italian nonna, simply sauté two tablespoons of olive oil with two cloves of chopped garlic and a pinch of crushed red pepper (optional). Add the marinara to the pan and heat. If you have a few extra minutes, add a freshly chopped tomato to the mix.

Pour it over cooked pasta. Add vegetables or protein, if you are so inclined. Gussy it up with a sprinkling of oregano or, in the summer, fresh-chopped basil.

Trader Joe has obviously been around the world a few times, so his repertoire of culinary know-how includes a great variety of cuisines. While in China, he was dubbed Trader Ming and has brought his version of General Tsao's stir-fry sauce to the pantries of millions.

Nothing could be easier than cutting up some boneless breasts or thighs and marinating them in a slug of this sauce for however much time you have, from 15 minutes to overnight. Sauté the chicken with cut-up onion, red bell pepper and fresh pineapple. Add more sauce and you're done.

Terry's favorite is the Thai yellow curry sauce. It's really good straight out of the bottle. (She doesn't actually drink it.) But she does yum it up with chunks of boneless chicken thighs, which are salted, peppered and quickly sautéed, along with any of the following: canned chick peas (garbanzos), yellow raisins and any vegetables in the fridge.

Pour the sauce over the mixture and simmer until hot. Serve it over rice or quinoa.

Even if you are a serious cook, you don't have to make your sauces from scratch all the time. Use one of these helpers and give yourself a break every once in a while. We think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the results.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

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