Investigative dining: How does sit-down dining stand against home cooking for speed, nutrition and value?
Dine-in restaurant service and variety are the industry’s few advantages.
By John Coffelt
Conventional wisdom says that eating out is a quicker, better alternative to making it at home.
To find out, I set out to compare both dining experiences on as level a playing field as possible. Keep in mind, individual experiences will certainly vary.
Paired against one another in this culinary grudge match is Ruby Tuesday’s New Orleans Seafood on a Saturday evening in Tullahoma. In the other corner, homemade Cajun tilapia en papillote (or cooking “in parchment”) smothered in Parmesan sauce and topped with shrimp. A rice pilaf and steamed broccoli rounded out the sides.
Straight off the bat, the homemade version shaved 111 calories from the already low-calorie meal.
The tab for supplies, sans staples, was below $4 per plate at Kroger. I indulged my inner snob with fish fresh from the meat department, but opted for frozen, cooked shrimp to match the topping.
The cooking was pre-planned to optimize ease and speed.
En papillote, or in parchment, is an almost foolproof way to cook fish or other quick-cooking dish. Simply fold a pouch in paper, spray with oil, season and bake. The bag traps in moisture and flavor, while also keeping the serving warm if other items run a little behind.
As for the restaurant experience, every effort was made to time the visit so Ruby Tuesday wouldn’t be too busy or too dead.
We arrived at the restaurant at 5:57 p.m. and were seated right away, a luxury that would I would not enjoy Sunday when I recreated the meal.
For my Cajun catch, the important part was the sauce, and the only thing that couldn’t set and leave to cook on it’s own.
To make time for the sauce I cooked Rice-A-Roni rice pilaf in a cooker. The broccoli went into a microwave steamer bag, and the fish I baked in the parchment at 375 degrees.
The cooking times varied from about 30 minutes for the rice, three minutes for the veggies and 10-15 for the fish. The sauce took surprisingly longer than I expected, running about 25 minutes.
To match the sauce to Ruby Tuesday, I blended Parmesan into a traditional béchamel white sauce.
Béchamel is a build-block sauce in French cooking. Something like country gravy, but smoother, the sauce combines a light butter and flour roux, mixed with scalded milk and seasoned with a hint of onion, bay leaf and nutmeg.
The milk rests for 10 minutes, and the roux cooks for about 5, but what took longer than expected was the initial scalding of the milk. A truism comes to mind about a watched pot not boiling.
Ruby Tuesday Home Cooked
2 entrees (14.99 each) $29.98 Broccoli ($0.09 per floret; 12 used) $1.08
Tax (8%) $2.40 Tilapia ($1.82 per filet; 2 used) $3.64
Tip (15%) $4.50 Shrimp ($0.33 per ounce; 2 used) $0.66
Rice Pilaf ($0.33 per serving) $0.66
Tax (8%): $0.48
Meal total: $36.88 Meal total: (per two servings) $6.52
Total time: 54 minutes 49 minutes
Total calories: (per serving) 578 467
Start to finish, preparation of my meal took 35 minutes. Pretty fast eaters, we took 11 minutes, then 4 minutes to load everything into the dishwasher.
The previous day, Ruby Tuesday was uncharacteristically on their A-game. Adam, our server, had the food on the table in a mere 27 minutes.
Much of the time at any full-service restaurant is spent waiting. No matter how good the staff, servers’ time is divided between filling drinks, carrying out food and bringing out checks. Focusing on refills and getting out food before it cools, servers often are bogged down long before the tickets and change.
As fast as the staff was, Saturday was no exception. The time saved in preparation (27 versus 35 minutes) was lost in waiting for the bill.
All in all, we spent 54 minutes at the restaurant. Including eating and loading the dishwasher, the meal at home took 49 minutes.
In a side-by-side comparison, going out was enjoyable, but the home-cooking experience, although more work, was just as good. My fare was on par with the restaurant, except for those lovely little garlic-cheddar drop biscuits that I didn’t even attempt.
Bottom line, sit-down dining is the clear winner for convenience, but when it comes to other criteria, the comparison is not quite so clear-cut.
Cajun Tilapia en papillote
Total preparation time: 35 minutes
4 tilapia fillets
¼ teaspoon Cajun seasoning
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Fold four large pieces of parchment paper in half and cut into a heart shape. Spray with butter spray.
Wash and pat dry the fillets. Sprinkle liberally with Cajun seasoning. Place onto center of papers and spray fish with a light coat of butter spray.
Close paper over fish. Dog-ear the top corner of the pouch. Continue to fold over small strips around the edge sealing the pouch. When finished the heart will have a “fringe” of folds along the open side.
Place pouches on a large baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes or until fish flakes easily.
Cut open paper, avoiding steam. Serve with steamed vegetables on a bed of rice.
Parmesan Béchamel Sauce
2 cups whole milk
1 slice yellow onion, ¼ -inch thick
½ bay leaf
3 to 4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoons salt
1 dash teaspoon freshly ground pepper, preferably white pepper
In a small saucepan, combine the milk, onion slice and bay leaf. Place over medium heat and heat just until tiny bubbles appear around the edges of the pan, about 5 minutes. Do not boil. Remove the saucepan from the heat, cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Remove and discard the onion and bay leaf. Re-cover to keep warm.
In a 2 1/2- to 3-qt. heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium-low heat. When the butter has melted and the foam subsides, stir in the flour. Reduce the heat to low. Let the mixture bubble for 2 minutes, then remove from the heat and let cool for 1 minute.
Slowly and evenly whisk the warm milk into the roux. Return the pan to medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil, whisking often and making sure you reach the bottom and sides of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently, whisking often, until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes.
Do not add the seasonings until after you add the cheese and taste the sauce, as the cheese itself will be salty.
Taste the sauce; it should taste creamy with no trace of raw flour flavor. If lumps are still visible, pour the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve into a heatproof bowl.
Strain into a clean saucepan. Whisk in 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Adjust the seasonings. Use to top cooked broccoli, cauliflower or other vegetables.
(Adapted from Williams-Sonoma.)