Instant dinner

We challenge one of Dubai's best chefs to make a gourmet meal out of prepackaged food.

Always the best place to start when a meal calls for instant foods.
Powered by automated translation

Just add water. Ready in two minutes. Simply heat and serve. The mantras of ready meals, convenience foods and instant supermarket products are difficult to ignore when you lead a busy life. At the end of a hectic day, the idea that a whole meal can be made from a packet of this and a carton of that can be an appealing alternative to cooking from scratch.

Convenience food is nothing new. The first canned foods were commissioned by the French army during the Napoleonic wars. In the US, Swanson developed and sold the first frozen ready-meals or TV dinners 53 years ago this week. And more recently in the UK, Sainsbury's convenience stores have started selling eggs that have already been hard-boiled - although they cost twice the price of traditional, uncooked eggs.

With such a wide and vivid array of instant foods at our disposal, they're difficult to ignore. So I challenged one of the UAE's best chefs to turn them into something special. Lionel Boyce's lips pucker at the sight of my can of Easy Cheese. The executive chef at the Desert Palm hotel in Dubai takes one step back from Kraft's ominous-looking dairy product and ruefully shakes his head. "You know there's something wrong when you've got cheese in a can, especially when it reads 'no need to refrigerate'."

I've joined Boyce in his kitchen at Rare restaurant to set a challenge as tough as any the 42-year-old Australian has faced in his career: to make a gourmet meal using "instant" or prepacked food as the main ingredients. The award-winning Rare is renowned for its expertly seared steaks. But today, instead of reaching for slabs of beautifully marbled Wagyu beef, Boyce will be adding boiling water to dehydrated potato granules and trying to work out how to obtain cheese from a pressurised canister.

I've brought along a shopping bag full of instant treats, and I'm getting some kind of perverse enjoyment from watching the colour drain from Boyce's cheeks as I unveil each one. Alongside the Easy Cheese is a packet of Smash instant mashed potato. "Definitely a classic," remarks Boyce with a hint of irony. "I think the secret of this one will be to add a lot of butter." Next to it, I place an add-your-own-lettuce Caesar salad kit by Simply Salad. "Basically it's bread bits in a box, with the dressing and some flavoured soy bits," he says. "Our lettuce will obviously be fresh, so possibly not bad."

His spirits continue to lift as I show him a prepacked duck breast by Luv-a-Duck from his native Australia. "Good old Luv-a-Duck breast," he chimes. "I think this will come out better than we expect. Not too much of a challenge there, I think." But things take a slight turn for the worse when I reveal the next ingredient: a jar of organic baby carrots and peas. "Organic overcooked vegetables," he grumbles. "I think we've probably lost the flavour into the brine already, but I reckon we can do some magic on that to bring it back to an edible level."

The final ingredient brings a welcome smile to Boyce's face. "Aunt Betty's butterscotch and pecan puddings," he cheers. "You'll probably find that these will cook up pretty good. Obviously not as good as a home pudding, but being a pastry product there's not a lot you can go wrong with. I think you could possibly get away with it at a dinner party if you put your own garnishes on it and didn't tell anybody about it."

With the dubious array of instant food goodies laid out before him, Boyce starts making plans. "With the ingredients you've given me to play with, we'll do a salad starter," he says. "We'll heat up the duck breast and we'll do a creamy pea sauce with some carrots and the Smash. The Easy Cheese we might use to enrich the mashed potatoes." In no time the roast duck breast is whipped out of its stiff plastic packaging and slapped under a gently warming salamander grill; meanwhile the peas are released from the confines of their glass jar and tossed into a pan with some chopped garlic, onions and fresh thyme. The Smash gets mixed with boiling water and the carrots go into a pan with knobs of butter. The can of Easy Cheese sits inauspiciously to one side, almost as if waiting to pounce.

Boyce turns his attention to the salad kit. The cardboard box opens to reveal sachets of salad dressing, flavoured soya bits, croutons and a sickly smelling powdered cheese sprinkle. Boyce's nose wrinkles with disapproval. "The colours are all wrong," he complains, referring to the radioactive-pink soya bits. "You can always tell when something's artificial by the colour. "We've supplied some nice Romaine heart lettuce. We've also put a nice poached egg on top. We've used their croutons, dressing and strange cheese mix and made something along the lines of a classic Caesar salad. So that'll be the starter."

"Should I taste it?" I ask. "Have you signed my disclaimer yet?" he jokes. I venture a forkful and despite the synthetic intensity of the cheese sprinkle, it's not bad at all. I switch my gaze to the main course. "The Smash potato has gone a little yellow, but that'll be the added cheese in a can and the butter," says Boyce. "We've got the crispy skin duck with glazed organic carrots and a bit of a bonne femme with the peas, which is a pea ragout bound with cream. We've added some shallots, some onion and a little bit of garlic and we've just reduced it down with cream. And salt and black pepper to taste."

The duck is a little saltier than I'd have liked, but it is tender. "The duck itself - it's not too bad," Boyce agrees. For dessert, Aunt Betty's little creation has been blasted in the microwave for all of 30 seconds and intelligently garnished. "Now we've got the nuclear butterscotch and pecan pudding," Boyce announces. "There's not enough sauce on this, so we've added some cream Chantilly or sweetened cream with vanilla, some chocolate cigarettes and a little bit of fresh fruit just to give it a bit of jazz. It's not too bad at all, really."

To the seasoned epicurean, Boyce's admirable handiwork would certainly get found out. Even so, most would be surprised that a bunch of prepacked convenience products could turn out so well. So how did Boyce rate the ingredients? "The best would be the pudding because it's very simple. The worst would have been the organic carrots and peas because they had no flavour in them whatsoever. But the ultimate worst was the cheese in a can, obviously."

It's been an interesting experiment, but would Boyce ever consider "going instant" in his kitchen? "Here and in 99.9 per cent of restaurants that I've worked in, you won't find a pre-mix or packet mix. It doesn't take that much more time to cook up the real McCoy than it does to open up a packet." Think twice before you open yours. Simply Salad Caesar salad, Dh11.50, Spinneys Smash mashed potato, Dh6.95, Waitrose

Bio Nova garden peas with baby carrots, Dh11, Organic Foods & Cafe Kraft Easy Cheese, Dh19.80, Carrefour Love-a-Duck duck breast, Dh43.25, Spinneys Aunt Betty's pecan and butterscotch puddings, Dh12.50, Spinneys