A LIFE HACK FOR
GOOD, EASY MEALS
How to incorporate heat-and-eat dishes into a week of family meals and casual dinner parties.
BY TENNILLE T. LEGLER | PHOTOS BY ERIN ADAMS
Normally, Tuesday meals can be a bit thrown together. We often play tennis as a family after work and school, which leaves me scrambling to get something—anything—on the table before we hustle our boys into pajamas and off to bed at a reasonable hour. They’re used to frozen pizzas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
This week was different. I had picked up heat-and-eat meals from the Asheville-based gourmet grocery store Red Fiddle Vittles, in part to relieve the stress of making dinner on busy nights but also to be able to treat ourselves to the food of a talented local chef. I won on both fronts.
Launched in 2018 by husband-and-wife team Matt Farr and Erica Beneke, Red Fiddle Vittles offers a rotating menu of scratch-made frozen and heat-and-eat meals—all of which feature a stunning variety of seasonal local ingredients—as well as grocery items created by the region’s farmers and producers.
Their charming store, located on Hendersonville Road in a small shopping plaza with plenty of parking, is a veritable who’s who of local food, featuring nearly 100 different producers from Western North Carolina.
I picked up my food on Tuesday afternoon, which is the first day of the week for their new take-home dinner menu. They post a new menu each week on their website Sunday nights, along with an option to pre-order (which they suggest doing – especially if you’re planning to pick-up later in the week). Farr was there and packaged my food in a sturdy, resealable bag, with everything clearly labeled and easy heating instructions.
Later that week, we invited family friends over for dinner. It was a casual gathering, a chance to catch up after a few months of not seeing each other, and I told them to bring their appetites. While I typically cook for dinner parties, and enjoy doing that, I have to admit I’m often disappointed with the amount of time I get to spend with guests. More often, I feel tethered to the kitchen, sometimes rushed, and then struggle to look composed and feel relaxed when we all sit down to eat.
This time, I … well, I turned on the oven. Each of the dishes I picked up from Red Fiddle Vittles came in oven-ready containers and reheated at the same 350° temperature. So all I had to do was pop the dishes into the oven at the right time. I poured myself a glass of wine and joined our friends in the living room. I set a timer on my phone to remind myself when to add a new dish to the oven, and planned it so everything would finish at the same time.
We started with a kale and chioggia beet salad with apples, aged cheddar and pumpkin seeds, topped with a muscadine vinaigrette. It presented a lovely mix of sweet and savory flavors, and featured fresh produce from the WNC Farmers Market, as well as farms in Burnsville and Hendersonville.
The main course was a savory bison meat loaf with mushroom gravy, an absolute home run with meat from Dr. King’s Carolina Bison in Leicester and a collection of earthy mushrooms from Asheville-based Wild Goods. It was served with mashed potatoes made with Blue Ridge truffles and creme fraiche (warranting an extra round of two-thumbs-up), as well as roasted butternut squash and sweet corn with pickled ramps, featuring an Emerald Mountain Dust seasoning from Canton-based Well Seasoned Table.
For dessert, we had a perfectly baked apple-blackberry sonker—a bit like cobbler—made with fruit from Hendersonville and served with a side of ice cream from Meadowsweet Creamery in Mars Hill.
The evening went smoothly and I enjoyed the rare experience of serving my guests a tremendous meal that elicited all the oohs and aahs I like to hear, while also getting to enjoy their company.
After starting with a catering business, Red Fiddle Vittles is now enjoying a growing base of loyal fans for its prepared meals. It’s not often you find something that makes life easier and better—and yet Farr and Beneke are doing both. Beneke is a professionally trained chef, who also achieved a bit of fame as a contestant (and winner) on the TV cooking show “Chopped,” and both she and her husband show a genuine commitment to sourcing local food. Their dishes are thoughtful and well executed, delivering flavors that achieve high marks.
By the time Saturday morning rolled around, we were bracing for a busy day. Both of my kids had sports in the afternoon—hockey for the 13-year-old and soccer for the 9-year-old—and I was looking to pull together a hearty breakfast that would fuel them through the coming hours. I waved them off the cereal and told them breakfast would be ready in 20.
In addition to prepared meals, Red Fiddle Vittles offers an impressive selection of locally grown food and they pull together a group of items for what they call an All-Star Appalachian Breakfast: a dozen eggs from Dry Ridge Farm, thick-cut bacon from Colfax Creek Farm, their own house-made buttermilk biscuits and sausage gravy, yogurt from Wholesome Country Creamery and granola from Pete’s Granola. I also grabbed a bag of coffee beans from Sharewell Coffee and a jar of Berry Best Jam from Imladris Farm.
This was a treat for the whole family. I scrambled the eggs with chopped spinach and swiss cheese and cooked the bacon to crispy perfection. The biscuits bloomed in the oven, and I reheated the sausage gravy in a small saucepan before topping it over the biscuits. I set out the jam, along with the yogurt and granola, and sipped on a piping hot cup of coffee while everyone dished up heaping mounds of food on their plates. After an easy cleanup (thank you, paper plates), everyone decamped for the day of sports and lasted throughout the day with only a small batch of snacks before dinner.
Before this week, I hadn’t had much experience with frozen or heat-and-eat meals. I have friends who incorporate them regularly into their weekly menu plans—and I know they’re popular among working professionals, as well as retirees, who value high-quality food and yet don’t have the time or energy to shop or cook for elaborate meals.
But going forward, I’ll be adding them to my own list of “life hacks.” As a mom and a wife, I value mealtimes together with my family. It’s a time of sustenance for growing kids, as well as an opportunity to help them expand their palates with new dishes, and also a time of joy and laughter. And I discovered that when I wasn’t being tasked with the jobs of planning, shopping, prepping and cooking the meal, I was better able to focus on those valuable moments more easily, which makes life both easier and better.
The heat-and-eat meals from Red Fiddle Vittles come in oven-ready containers and most dishes cook at the same temperature.