Easy, innovative recipes lift dinnertime out of rut Quick Fixes

March 08, 1995|By Felicia Gressette | Felicia Gressette,Knight-Ridder News Service

What's cooking at your house tonight? Baked chicken. Meatloaf, maybe. Burgers and baked potatoes. Spaghetti.

In other words, same old same old.

Same here.

It's so easy to fall into a suppertime rut, serving up the old reliables you can make with your eyes closed. No surprises with the ingredients, no new skills to master, no "eew, what's that?" from the folks you're feeding.

Aren't you tired of it?

Same here.

Which is why the following featured cookbooks have earned a place in my kitchen. They're full of reality-based recipes -- soups, salads, main dishes that are built from fresh raw ingredients, not additive-filled packaged foods, yet don't require a zillion ingredients and don't take forever to put together. They offer rewarding new tastes for bored home cooks and eaters.

These books prove that good food doesn't depend on hours of fussing or expensive, exotic ingredients. They are testimony to the enduring appeal of simple, good food.

Sometimes, a great new cookbook is just the thing to jump-start a stalled imagination and whet the appetite of the most jaded home cook.

We know that, aside from true-blue foodies and collectors, most people don't go around buying cookbooks just for fun. But for folks who'll buy one now and then, or are looking for a gift idea, one of these just might provide inspiration and variety when you're fed up with the usual fare.

The offerings are "Cucina Rapida," easy, authentic Italian recipes; "Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home," mostly vegetarian, mostly ethnic dishes; "Helen Chen's Chinese Home Cooking," a clear and unintimidating guide; "Mark Peel & Nancy Silverton at Home," recipes from a married couple who own and cook at Campanile, one of Los Angeles' best restaurants; and "Nathalie Dupree Cooks Great Meals for Busy Days," the latest offering from the popular, Atlanta-based TV cook.

My favorite, "Cucina Rapida," by Clifford A. Wright (Morrow, $19), is a delicious discovery for lovers of Italian food (of which I am one). Most of the recipes can be done in 30 minutes or less, and the flavors are forthright.

I've cooked a lot from this book since it came out in early summer and have yet to be disappointed. The recipe for Linguine with Shrimp, Spinach and Lemon is bright-tasting, a memorable supper that I will make again for my family or for casual entertaining.

My only reservation about "Cucina Rapida" is that Mr. Wright has a lavish hand with olive oil and some of his meat portions are overly generous, to my way of thinking. I've reduced by half the amounts of oil with fine results and would recommend you do that, too.

The Moosewood cookbooks written by the collective that runs the well-known vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., have gained legions of fans through the years. Now, following several restaurant-style collections, comes a book of recipes expressly for home cooking, "Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home" (Fireside, $15 trade paperback).

Subtitled "fast and easy recipes for any day," it's a tremendously appealing, eclectic bunch of mostly vegetarian, ethnically influenced dishes. (There is a fish chapter, and quite a few recipes use dairy products, such as cheese).

This is a great cookbook for nutrition-conscious cooks and lovers of new flavors. The recipes are mostly simple and straightforward but urge you to try new seasonings and expand your tastes.

The daughter of famed restaurateur Joyce Chen (who died last summer after a long illness) has written a welcome guide to the home cooking of her country, with notes on ingredients and the )) how and why of Chinese techniques that will empower even timid cooks.

The recipes in "Helen Chen's Chinese Home Cooking" (Hearst, $25) use a lot of familiar ingredients -- Coral and Jade is a stir-fry of shrimp and snow peas seasoned with ginger, sherry, cornstarch and ketchup -- and most are accomplished in short order.

If you've wanted to trade your habit of Chinese take-out for some of the home-cooked real thing, this is just the book to get you started. The recipe for Hot and Sour Soup will give you a taste of Ms. Chen's work.

Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, well-known to California foodies for their Los Angeles restaurant, Campanile, and the adjacent La Brea Bakery, have collected some of their favorite family recipes (they're married and have three children) in this volume. He does the savory stuff, she bakes breads and sweets.

Mr. Peel and Ms. Silverton, who live over the restaurant, seem to be able to take home whatever ingredients they fancy. This is nice for them, but it means the rest of us will have to do some schlepping. And because they are professional cooks, their ideas about what's quick and easy may not strike you as exactly that. They also have a chef's love for oil, butter and cream.

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