When you want dinner in no time

Books: Two writers say you can make a meal in 15 minutes, and they've got the recipes and tips to prove it.

May 03, 2000|By Jeffrey Weiss | Jeffrey Weiss,Universal Press Syndicate

I love to cook.

For about 30 minutes.

Not for me the complex recipes that require long hours of attention. If I can't be eating it or leaving it in a slow cooker in a half-hour, I'll usually order it out.

Two cookbooks promise to beat my limit with time to spare: "Cooking to Beat the Clock: Delicious, Inspired Meals in 15 Minutes," by Sam Gugino (Chronicle Books, $16.95), and "The 15-Minute Chef," by Patricia Mack (HPBooks, $15.95), claim to offer real meals in a quarter-hour.

And even if they do bend a rule or two, both books do offer some nonobvious quick cookery.

A couple of caveats that cover both books:

Neither writer starts the clock until the ingredients are ready for cooking. I find the chopping, measuring, heating and finding-the-clean-bowl stuff often takes longer than the actual cooking. Some of the recipes give hints about how to speed the early steps, but not all.

Gugino's definition of a meal doesn't always match mine. Some of his recipes are short on carbohydrates. I need more than cooked poultry and a salad, for instance, for my dinner. Mack's recipes all offer a complete menu. But only the entree is prepared "live"; the rest is to be store-bought.

Fast is not neat. Unless you are so organized that you won't need these books, you'll probably leave debris in your wake that may take extra time to clean up after the meal.

And you give up flavor for time. A marinade or rub that spends only five minutes on the meat or fish just doesn't produce as much flavor as one that gets even 30 minutes to do its stuff.

Gugino's offering is clearly aimed at the upscale eater. The color photos, choice of ingredients and 60 recipes on slick-stock paper seem pitched to someone who thinks of one's self as a time-challenged chef rather than merely the designated desperate cook for the night.

For flavors, he prefers Bulgarian feta cheese to feta of other national origins, California Calimyrna figs to Black Mission and Dijon-style mustard to ballpark-common. For organization, he talks about a "well-equipped 'batterie de cuisine.' " (All I have is an untidy kitchen, but I made do.) For focus, he basically tells you to ignore everything else -- conversation, crying kids, nuclear warfare -- to get the meal done as quickly as possible.

And for creativity, he suggests that you, well, be creative. That way he can get away with describing his 60 recipes as "concepts" rather than a few too few recipes for a $17 cookbook.

Having said that, the recipes look good and so do the photos. Flank Steak Salad is a medley of reds and greens. Smothered Lamb Chops With Orzo makes me hungry as I look at the page. Even a relatively pedestrian combination, grilled sauerkraut and reheated smoked pork chops, sounds posh when named Choucroute Garni.

A recipe that caught my eye is called Chicks and Bricks. It's Cornish hens cooked in 15 minutes. And guess what? It works.

Here's the trick: The birds are flattened and pressed into a hot frying pan by a plate covered with at least 5 pounds of something (a brick, for instance).

Gugino suggests you have your butcher do the hen-flattening. Because my local grocery sells its Cornish hens prewrapped and mostly frozen to the consistency of bird-shaped billiard balls, I did the honors after a day of defrosting. Cut through the backbone, spread the bird between two pieces of foil and whack away with the flat side of a heavy cleaver. Very satisfying.

The result was everything promised: crispy skin and moist meat made more flavorful with an oil-and-vinegar sauce that doubled as salad dressing.

Mack's book has a more humble appearance: soft cover, no photos, regular paper stock. And it's shorter on warm-up advice than Gugino's. It is, however, longer on choices, with 500 recipes.

Not that every offering is a winner. If I really need a cookbook to tell me that store-bought ravioli and bottled pasta sauce make a quick meal, do you want to trust me around sharpened kitchen implements?

But this is not a lowest-denominator cookbook. You'll find Veal Marsala, Pork and Black Bean Sauce, Mussels Steamed in Wine, Spanish Tortilla (a variety of omelet) and even a quick Garlic Soup.

A few of the recipes gave me ideas: Use pretzel crumbs to bread a pork tenderloin. How about dipping catfish fillets into Dijon mustard, then into ground pecans before frying? Both of those might apply to other meals.

A salmon recipe called for brushing the fish with a mix of soy sauce, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and hot pepper sauce just before broiling. The result had a nice color but not enough taste for my taste.

Beef With Asparagus -- round steak marinated for five minutes in a teriyaki-sherry mix -- suffered a little from the same low-flavor problem. Plus, overcooking round steak even slightly (she said to stir-fry 30 seconds, and I went an extra 30) leaves the meat a bit too chewy. Next time, I'll give the meat a little more time in the marinade and a little less time in the pan.

And there will be a next time, for both cookbooks.

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