Quick & Classic Modern comfort: Shortcuts take the trouble out of stews and casseroles while leaving the nostalgic taste intact.

January 31, 1996|By Janet Hazen | Janet Hazen,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE Rita Calvert contributed to this article.

Preparing one of the classics is a good way to satisfy the need to nestle up to something familiar, comforting and tasty during the winter season, when we like to lie low and simplify. But some of these time-honored dishes require days of shopping for ingredients and even more time spent chopping, peeling, stewing and assembling.

The solution is easy: classics made with a few shortcuts that add to the quality of your life but don't detract from the quality of the dish.

Classic stews and casseroles are the ideal dinner this time of year. They are hearty, satisfying and robust and usually include vegetables, protein, starch and many interesting flavors in one dish.

The following recipes are classics not only from the United States, but from the Mediterranean, Spain and the Middle East as well. Over the years, they have become favorites in this country. In this case, each dish is designed in a streamlined fashion -- using fewer ingredients, frozen vegetables where applicable, canned chicken broth in place of homemade chicken stock and fewer steps.

All are perfect for leftovers and actually are better the second day. They can be frozen with great success and make outstanding lunches the next day. Served with a green salad and bread, these casseroles and stews are the quintessential uncomplicated winter meal.

There are as many variations of gumbo as there are Creole and Cajun cooks. One traditional version made with chicken, ham and okra is referred to simply as an okra gumbo, despite the fact that chicken and ham are also used. In this recipe, I added lima beans and corn, also used in this Southern-style dish, but often not in combination with okra.

Some frozen vegetables are acceptable; others are really terrible. Beans are always OK, and frozen corn is usually better than corn out of season. Okra is hard to find fresh in many markets, so frozen is fine; people with an aversion to okra may like it better since it is not gooey, as fresh tends to be. Canned tomatoes in the wintertime are also preferred to the hard, unripe, treated ones we find in the stores. Canned chicken stock is a real time-saver and just fine when used in a hearty dish like this, although be aware of the sodium content.

This one-pot stew is very easy to make and takes only about an hour to prepare and cook. Once the onions are sauteed, just throw the rest of the ingredients into the pot and let them cook together.

Chicken gumbo

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 pound thick-sliced bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces

3 medium onions, medium dice

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 bay leaves

1 1/2 tablespoons dried thyme

2 (28-ounce) cans chopped tomatoes

6 cups chicken broth

1 cup white rice

8 ounces frozen okra

10 ounces frozen lima beans

1 pound frozen corn

2 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

1/2 cup water

salt, pepper

cayenne pepper

Cook bacon in skillet until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Discard all but 1/4 cup bacon fat.

Cook onions, garlic, bay leaves and thyme in 1/4 cup bacon fat over moderate heat 15 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add tomatoes, chicken broth and rice. Bring to boil over high heat. Cook 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until rice is tender.

Add okra, lima beans, corn, chicken and reserved bacon. Reduce heat to moderately high and cook 10 minutes until chicken is just done and vegetables are heated through. Remove bay leaves. Season to taste with salt, pepper and

cayenne.

A quick-step paella

When most folks think of the cuisine of Spain, paella comes to mind first. Like gumbo, there are hundreds of versions of this short-grained rice dish. Most are elaborate, with dozens of ingredients and many steps. Traditional paellas usually require cooking each ingredient separately and then adding it to the rice, in a paella pan, at just the right moment. The assembled dish is then baked in the oven and served in shallow bowls. The classic version is, of course, preferred, but if you don't have all day, the next recipe will fill in perfectly. It can be made in a %J regular pot on top of the stove.

If you are really pressed for time, you can buy cooked, shelled prawns in the seafood department of many grocery stores.

Seafood-sausage paella

Makes 8 servings

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons saffron

6 cups chicken stock

2 large onions, small dice

5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/3 cup olive oil

2 teaspoons each dried oregano, thyme, basil, salt, black pepper

2 cups short-grain white rice

1 pound frozen peas

1 pound medium-large prawns, shelled and deveined

1 pound linguica sausage, cut lengthwise and sliced into 1/2 -inch pieces

2 pounds small mussels, cleaned

Dissolve saffron in chicken stock. Set aside.

Cook onions and garlic in olive oil over high heat 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add reserved chicken stock and saffron, herbs, salt and pepper, rice and peas. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to moderate and cook, uncovered, 10 minutes.

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