food: Fast and furious

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The Independent Culture
Just like McDonald's, my kitchen operates 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, except for the occasional bank holiday. Even when we're moving, in theory.

We have just moved. Come the day, it was the usual story. Despite months of planning, it became apparent at the last minute that some things were going to have to give - namely the kitchen sink, hob and work units. The kitchen was closed. Despite my husband's promises that everything would be up and running the following day, it took two weeks.

Secretly I welcomed this enforced holiday from the stove, and at least the oven worked. At last I could justify living off cook-and-chill meals, M&S and takeaways, watch EastEnders, and dispose of the washing-up the following morning.

The first night was promising. The Happy Garden on Shepherd's Bush Green delivered an excellent Chinese takeaway (it included cooked ostrich) and I looked forward to genning up my taste buds in the evenings to follow with all the Indian and Far Eastern dishes I never cook myself.

Over the next couple of weeks I homed in on the fridge compartments of every supermarket in the vicinity, buying up convenient snacks and meals, either because they sounded fantastic, or because they were simply too kitsch to pass up. Whoever invented "haggis crispbakes" and "onion filled Yorkshire puddings" should be made creative director of Saatchi's.

My shopping bags underwent a transformation, acquiring the streamlined shape of boxes stacked one on top of another. The fridge began to look amazingly organised and I had time to read Hello! while waiting for my prawns in a fruity curry sauce to heat through.

I had it breaded and battered, wrapped in filo, latticed and en croute. I dunked into dips and ate spreads, broke fajitas with friends, bit into bites, tried it lite, and marvelled at how the Kiev oozed. And I soon became junk-wise.

Cartons of fresh soup, as initiated by the New Covent Garden Soup Co, seem to have been copied by all and sundry, and now come in sexy plastic pouches with bright colours such as beetroot and saffron. Some of them are excellent: a lunch of mussel and saffron soup, or carrot and coriander, with a decent loaf of bread and cheese, will be making regular appearances in the future. (They are also brilliant for babies and tots: add a few mashed vegetables for an infant casserole that is vastly superior to anything you will find in a jar.)

Pasta sauces, too, are improving, but what is it about them that attracts famous names? Tempting as it is to choose Newman's Own "Sockarooni" over Loyd Grossman's "Tomato and Chilli" or "Puttanesca" - both of which are delicious - if Jarvis Cocker ever does a Napoletana I'll be switching brands. A good, fresh tomato sauce (check for dried herbs, which can be invasive) rarely goes to waste.

I found pizzas just disappeared inch by inch at any time of day, especially those with a deep pile of goo and mushrooms. And when the pile wasn't deep enough, there was nothing to stop a little artistic licence with more mozzarella, more salami, more olives and the like.

There are danger zones in fast food. "Medleys" and "bakes" are often just a ragbag of ingredients that do not fit together. Also, in packet- speak "serves one" means, "serves one small person with a poor appetite". Three between two is more on the mark.

If one snack in particular stood out, it was Linda McCartney's "Southern Fried Grill", produced by Ross Young's. On one side of the packet a message from Linda begins, "Because I care about the food we eat as a family... I have insisted on the nature of the ingredients we use, which ensures they are both wholesome and delicious." On the other side of the packet among the list of ingredients are: Flavour enhancer 621, Stabiliser E464, Raising Agents: E450A, 500; and the principal ingredient is rehydrated textured soya protein concentrate.

Stodge can be a pitfall where a dish comes with rice, pancakes, couscous or naan. Ignore such titles as "curry with rice": this is often "rice with curry", and short on the sauce. "Buckets" of flavoured rice sound as though they have been invented in the officers' mess, but one way around the small portion syndrome is to buy curry dishes without the rice and partner them with a prepared rice, such as "fragrant Thai" or "special fried". They go to more of an effort to be exciting than the all-in-ones, and come in sensible quantities.

Sharwood's frozen curries proved to be small but delicious, in particular their Thai green and red curries in which the flavours of lemon grass, lime leaves and coconut provide a much needed freshness.

I cannot say I was overly sorry when the kitchen was finished and back in operation. After a week I had begun to get hungry. Not a roaring, healthy hungry, as in "I've just done 20 lengths and now I'm going to sink half a loaf of ciabatta crammed with grilled tuna, black pepper boursin and sliced tomato", this was a nagging, tedious hunger that left me feeling grumpy.

But I do miss watching EastEnders, and curling up with a curry on a Friday night does have its advantages