Using chef's shortcuts, you can fool guests into thinking you slaved for hours.

PULLING A FAST ONE

February 24, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Company is coming over in an hour and you have suddenly entered the panic zone. Dessert somehow was left out of otherwise well-thought-out plans. And now there seems to be no way to beat the clock.

When your stomach is turning, would-be host or hostess, where do you turn?

A.Commit hara-kiri because you are going to lose face.

B.Pay the kid next door to go to the bakery.

C.Call your guests and confess, asking them to pick up something sweet on their way over.

D.None of the above.

The correct answer is "D." Look into your pantry and relax. All you need is heavy cream, milk, a package of instant vanilla pudding, apricot preserves and the store-bought pound cake that you originally bought for tea with your sister. Whip them all together and you'll come up with gateau Claudine, a delicious cake that tastes as good as homemade. It takes only minutes and tastes like you spent hours.

All you skeptics are wincing. You aren't going to serve your guests some yucky thing that was developed by Becky Home-ecky for a high school cooking class. Your guests are too important for second best. No convenience food in your kitchen. You're too sophisticated, too urbane, frankly too chicken to have your friends find out how easy it was to make dessert.

Well, Jacques Pepin, once personal chef to three presidents of France and gourmet cooking guru to millions of loyal fans, doesn't feel too sophisticated or urbane. And if it's good enough for him, why shouldn't it be good enough for you?

But, really, instant pudding? Escoffier must be flipping in his grave.

Chef Pepin says he has already been criticized by food writers and chefs about the use of convenience foods in his new book, "The Short-Cut Cook" (William Morrow and Co., $19.95), but he declares that he isn't a food snob. After many years of teaching real people how to cook, he says he knows what they want.

"The proof of the pudding is in the pudding and it's really good," he says without apology for his gateau Claudine, named after his year-old daughter because she prefers the quick version to his elaborate multilayered cakes with homemade buttercream icing.

In fact, a major premise of his new book is that Americans, who tend to overdo everything, have become food snobs and have elevated the term "homemade" to a religion. And homemade, he adds, is only "best" when it is superior in taste and quality to what you can buy.

"In France," he adds, "people don't fight it. That's not to say that people should never make their own bread. But if the store-bought is good quality, you should buy it rather than try to make it yourself."

Whether it's boneless, skinless chicken breasts or store-bought pound cake, Jacques Pepin says the object is to make life as easy as possible for the busy home cook for after-work meals or for a weekend dinner party. His shortcut cooking style combines fresh foods with the best of supermarket convenience foods.

But don't be misled. You won't find every kind of convenience food in the Pepin cupboard.

"Some are good and some are bad," he says. "Fresh is always better. But if you a house in the country and were out skiing all day and suddenly four guests show up, there's nothing wrong with using frozen bread dough and frozen corn to make dinner."

Here are some of his convenience food dos and don'ts:

*He prefers fresh vegetables first, then frozen. He rarely uses canned because he doesn't like the taste and texture. His pick of the frozens includes corn and peas, considering the tiny frozen peas as better than fresh. And frozen asparagus works well in cream of asparagus soup. But canned peas and canned asparagus rate thumbs down.

*Canned chicken and beef broth are acceptable, but read the label to make sure the brand you buy doesn't have too much salt. Remember, ingredients are listed in order of predominance.

*Frozen bread dough can be a great timesaver to make bread, pizza or calzones, but look for those with simple ingredients, such as bread flour, yeast and salt.

Unlike the majority of other fast-cooking books, his shortcut cooking has no 30- or 60-minute deadline.

"Basically, the focus of the book is not to have to cook everything in five minutes," he says. "It's more a question of making life easier. Coincidentally, many of the recipes are very fast, but I did not want to be limited."

The recipes that take more time are intended to be company meals or to be prepared on weekends when we have more time. So how does this shortcut cooking fit in when you're entertaining?

First, he says, determine how much time you have to shop and prepare the meal and then pick the menu. Then, you must start to look at the supermarket as your personal sous-chef -- to help with everything from chopping vegetables to preparing sauces and dips.

"The idea," he says, "is to take stuff from the supermarket and give it your own signature. . . . The point is not to buy prepared food. What you do is buy partially prepared food and finish it yourself to make it your own food with your own taste."

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