MEALS in MINUTES Quick-cooking dinners an alternative to carryout

April 28, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Excuse me -- could I talk to you for a second? I know you're busy. I hardly have a minute myself. But if I could just have a few moments of your time, I might be able to change your life.

It's about dinner.

At least for the nearly 80 percent of you who prepare an evening meal several times a week, and maybe for the rest of you too -- it's about to get easier.

Cookbook authors and publishers have figured out that today's families, in which all adults may be working outside the home, have less and less time to fuss with meal preparation. They've responded with a slew of "meals in minutes" books, promising a little organization and a lot of time-saving when it comes to dinner.

"There's definitely a need" for the quick-cook books, says Arlene Gillis, owner and manager of Books for Cooks at Harborplace. "With women working there's hardly anyone who stays at home to cook. And it's not just women -- a lot of men are cooking for themselves and their children, and they need a quick meal as much as women do."

The need, she says, "has been met by every publisher under the sun." She can count at least a dozen "quick and easy" cookbooks on her shelves that are new within the past year.

Suzanne Rafer, a senior editor with Workman Publishing Co. of New York, notes there are "a lot" of the speed-scratch books around. "They certainly fill a need. And I think they're focused in a way that people find inviting."

She suspects the promise of time-saving may be somewhat overstated -- "It's never going to be 20 minutes or 30 minutes," she says. "Not unless the shrimp is already cleaned," or you have someone in the kitchen doing all the chopping and cleaning. "But it's a nice frame for people who want to cook, and want to cook in the time they have. It may inspire them to get into the kitchen," Ms. Rafer says.

Statistics indicate many of us may need inspiration. A recent survey by a national food processing company found that 78 percent of adults said they prepared dinner at home at least three times during the work week. And almost half of those people -- 43.6 percent -- said fixing dinner is the toughest duty they face after a day on the job. And nearly a quarter -- 22.8 percent -- said the most time-consuming part of getting dinner is deciding what to have.

Michele Urvater, chef and author of the "Monday to Friday Cookbook" (Workman, 1991, $14.95), knows the obstacles we all face. Her book is a classic in the "speed-scratch" cooking genre, one of the earliest on the market. As Ms. Rafer described it, it's less of a "meals in minutes" book and more of a "get with the program" book.

Although she has been a restaurant chef, a corporate chef and has cooked all sorts of esoteric cuisines, Ms. Urvater says, "Once my daughter was born, reality set in. I thought, I've been doing this professionally for 20 years -- what must it be like for people who are less skilled in the kitchen?" She wrote "Monday to Friday" with just those people -- which includes most of us -- in mind.

"I wanted to do something realistic and helpful," says Ms. Urvater, who was in town recently to promote convenience cooking with products from Kraft's Bird's Eye line (the folks who did the cooking survey). "My thought was that getting dinner on the table Monday to Friday is not only about recipes. And it isn't only about recipes done in 30 minutes or less. . . . Having to get a dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less is not always the solution, either."

Instead, she says, "A lot of what goes around cooking and before cooking and after cooking is what I think is a problem for people."

Her solution? She offers three, actually.

"To start, get organized. You have to build up a pantry. You have to build up a stash of goods that you always have in the house, from which you can always rustle up a meal.

"A second step that I would love to encourage people to do -- and this sounds sort of rigid, initially, but let me explain -- is to do a calendar. Look at your calendar, look at your schedule, and make a 'sketch' of a meal, what you think you want to cook the next five days -- or even start slow -- even start with two days."

And then, she says, think ahead. "You say, OK, Monday I'm home a little bit earlier, but Tuesday I'm coming home real late, and so is my husband. So maybe Monday is the night I should do something I can stretch into Tuesday, that I can just reheat or turn into a soup or salad. Chicken is easy, I'll get chicken."

Don't try to change your cooking style all at once, she says. Start with what you can do, even if it's just one or two days a week.

It really does work, she says. "One person I met on my last tour was a young woman -- she worked full-time, she went to school at night and she had not learned to cook at home." But using the "Monday to Friday" method, "she said she was cooking, she was actually enjoying it -- it had changed her life."

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