Thursday, April 4, 2013

Almost Edible: America's Iconic TV Dinner

Remember those classic American TV dinners?  The ones with the separated trays that you could pull out of the freezer and put in the oven and or microwave and then plop down in front of the boob tube and watch your favorite evening shows while eating your perfectly separated meat, potatoes and vegetables.   As kids, we used to think TV dinners were a special treat especially if we got to eat them off a TV dinner tray and watch our favorite shows.  FloJo's favorites were the back to back Saturday night weekly episodes of Love Boat followed by Fantasy Island and Mr. Roarke.  "My dear guests, I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island."


The earliest documented beginnings for TV dinners was in the late 1940's when Albert and Meyer Bernstein started packaging frozen dinners under the One-Eyed Eskimo label divided into three compartments all on aluminum trays.  The product took off enough that the company expanded it's market, renamed itself the Quaker State Food company and within five years had sold a quarter million of these dinners.

At this point, competition from a well known brand, Swanson, emerged as they flooded the marketplace with advertising for their product.  Swanson gets credit for the actual naming of the product as a "TV Dinner", which has been propelled into American food history as an iconic mid-century meal.

The credit for who actually invented the TV dinner is disputed.   Until recently, the American Frozen Food Institute (did you know this even existed?) claimed Gerry Thomas, an executive with Swanson  was the inventor. Gerry himself maintains he was the original inventor when the company found themselves with a surplus of turkeys.  He claims to have invented the dinners as a way to bring Thanksgiving dinner to American households all year round (while using the surplus turkeys). Queue dark foreboding music now, the controversy began when Betty Cronin, a bacteriologist who was also working for the Swanson brothers, asserts that it was the Swanson brothers themselves, Gilbert and Clarke Swanson, who came up with the concept of the TV dinner.  (Her job by the way was to figure out how all three ingredients could cook evenly for the same amount of time-- and from our experience eating frozen dinners this was not really ever solved).  Then you've got the Bernstein's claim as the original inventor (although clearly they could not take credit for the naming of the product).

Despite who gets credit and goes into the Frozen Food Hall of Fame (yes this really exists) as the inventor of the TV dinner this term is now iconic in our culture and envelopes any pre-packaged frozen dinner that you can buy at the grocery store and reheat either in your oven or now the microwave.


Last night, we waxed nostalgic and came up with our own modern version of the TV dinner.  What triggered the thought to recreate this iconic dinner?  Simple-- we had recently bought some cubed steak and immediately that conjured one of the most popular TV dinners, an all-star really--Salisbury Steak.  You all remember those Hungry-Man Dinner commercials right?  Elevating what is really hamburger to elite steak status simply by smothering it in brown gravy.  This is where advertising really sucked us in as kids because we thought it was such a treat to be able to eat this mushy patty swimming in salty, thin gravy surrounded by either corn or peas with a pat of butter and then a mystery dessert that seemed like something sneaky Mom was trying to pass off as dessert.



The term Salisbury Steak has been used since the turn of the 19th century.  Despite this "steak" being around for so long, the last time we've had it was back as kids eating those TV dinners.  Our college student, Po (watch for him as a guest blogger soon-- on the prowl for cheap eats) hadn't even heard of Salisbury Steak before our TV dinner version.  Now, there's some real education!

We ate it at the kitchen table just like a true Fifties family.  Actually, it was because  we didn't have any retro TV trays and we also have a new puppy (KO) that believes she deserves to eat what we are eating.  Maybe that's a new product idea-- doggy TV dinners that are separated into compartments.  Kibble in one compartment, soft food in another and some hard chewy thing as dessert after the meal.
Anyway-- we digress.  Here's our modern version of the Salisbury Steak TV dinner--



Modern Salisbury Steak TV Dinner

Makes 4 patties

For the Patties:

4 cubed steaks (approx 1 pound)

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon Lawry's seasoning salt

1/2 teaspoon Steak seasoning

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

4-5 shiitake mushrooms

For the Gravy:

1 onion, finely sliced

2 cups beef broth

2 Tablespoons ketchup

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce (4 shakes)

1 teaspoon corn starch (thickens the gravy and gives it a nice shine)

Salt and Pepper to taste

For the Mashed Potatoes:

6 potatoes peeled and boiled

1/2 c sour cream

2 garlic cloves

1/2 cup 2% milk

1/4 cube of butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh Chives

(for a kicked up touch we used chives, Himalayan pink salt and fresh cracked peppercorns to top the potatoes)


For the Broccoli:

1 broccoli stalk

3 pats of butter

Make the potatoes first (they take the longest):

1 – Peel the potatoes and dice into even pieces.  Place in  a large pot of water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat  to simmer until a fork can easily pierce the potatoe

2 – Drain the potatoes and allow to cool for a few minutes.  We then use a ricer to mash the potatoes (it provides a nice soft texture), but you can mash them with whatever instrument you have available. 

3 – Heat the milk, sour cream and garlic in a pot on low heat until warm and then add the potatoes.  Season the potatoes with salt and pepper to taste and mix all ingredients with a wooden spoon until blended.  Keep on warm.

4 – Place all four patties on a grill and season one side with seasoning salt and garlic powder.  Grill patties until browned, about 2 minutes. Flip the patties, season this side with the dry mustard and steak seasoning and continue grilling the patties until browned, about another 2 minutes.

5 – Remove the patties and set aside on a plate.  Quickly grill the mushrooms (1-2 mins).

While grilling the patties

6 – Bring a shallow pan of water to a simmer.  Add washed broccoli to the water and steam with a lid on for approx 4 minutes.  Color should be bright green.  Drain water and set broccoli aside.

7 –  In a cast iron skillet place 2 TBSPs of butter in the pan and melt on medium heat.  Add the onions and saute until browned and soft.  Pour about 1-3/4 cup of beef broth into the skillet – reserve a 1/4 cup of broth. Add the ketchup and Worcestershire sauce and let simmer for a couple of minutes. Whisk the corn starch into the reserved beef broth and then add to the skillet.  Bring the mixture to a simmer.

Add the patties and cook until warmed through, a few minutes on each side.

8 – Plate the entire meal on a white plate in a line and separated to resemble the compartments.  They do make compartment trays if you really want to go all out on this meal.


Here's a fun TV dinner plate from CB2 or a brighter version from Chow.com.

9 – Serve and enjoy!


Live life with flavor and fun!