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Quick-Fixes

The year is 1961, and people are not very interested in cookbooks. Only 49 cookbooks were published the year before, and even the redoubtable Julia Child is having a difficult time getting her first manuscript, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, accepted for publication. (The editors at Houghton Mifflin who originally gave her a $250 advance for the book have turned it down twice.) Things look grim until finally an editor at Knopf decides to take the book.

Since then, Julia Child's book has gone on to sell more than two million copies, and the book industry has undergone a sea change in its ideas about cookbooks, recognizing them as notable moneymakers for the publishing industry. Talk to an editor about a book of poetry and watch him or her doze off. But mention the words "celebrity cookbook" and dollar signs suddenly appear in the eyes. Cookbooks of all sorts have become big stuff, and the industry is publishing some 280 this fall season alone.

Why do people buy cookbooks? "Probably 75 percent of the cookbooks we sell," says Gayle Shanks of Tempe's Changing Hands Bookstore, "will be given as gifts. Wedding showers are big. People like to give cookbooks to children going off to college. Mother's Day and even Father's Day are big. And, of course, people give them during the holidays."

Yes, people are buying cookbooks, but are they actually cooking with them? Hard to say, but one popular new culinary-lit category apparently is being pressed into service.

"We have more and more people coming in," says Shanks, "looking for ideas on fixing dinners that you can start as soon as you walk in the door." The enormous modern stress we're under to cook the daily meal quickly is reflected in a specialized category on the bookstore shelves, reserved for "quick and easy" cookbooks. Their titles explain it all: Cooking to Beat the Clock, Quick Mexican Cooking, Fresh 15 Minute Meals and even Florence Henderson's Shortcut Cooking. Quickies by Minda Rosenberg also turned out to be about cooking, by the way.

The need for speed has invaded our crazy, hectic lifestyles to such an extent that after a busy day at the office, we keep the same pace when we approach the kitchen. We're a country of fast drivers, fast talkers and fast eaters, so why not fast cookers? As a household cook who has the number for Nello's Pizza programmed on my telephone's speed dial next to 911, I appreciate that dialing has become an essential culinary skill for many of us. But don't you hate it when you order food to go and they recognize your voice? Practically speaking, the best alternative to quick dialing is probably quick cooking.

If you find yourself reading parenting magazines instead of gourmet magazines, here's the book for you. The anguished title Desperation Dinners! The No-Time-to-Cook Cookbook, by working mothers Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross, offers some 250 recipes with the promise that they are not difficult, do not require expensive equipment (beyond a microwave), can be made from start to finish in 20 minutes and--most important--taste good. Apparently, there is some sort of life beyond serving electrocuted hot dogs to the kiddies.

What's the concept behind fixing Minute Minestrone Soup or even Garlic-Roasted Salmon? It begins with a sad commitment to using less fresh food. If you want to save time, go to the grocery store only once a week. Stop using fresh herbs (they take too long to wash, clean and cut up). Instead, pick up a bottle of dried Italian herb mix. Start developing a healthy respect for the salads in a bag you can find now in the produce sections. Of course, you're already using the peeled baby carrots, the shredded coleslaw and sliced mushrooms, aren't you? Don't buy regular cheese--buy shredded cheese. If it comes frozen, canned or bagged, it's probably listed in this book's ingredients.

Of course, such foods have their place in the kitchen but are certainly not the most economical. There is a price to be paid for speed. In the car, you get speeding tickets; in fast cooking, you get higher grocery bills. Not only is this stuff expensive, it's much lower in quality: Frozen does not taste better than fresh, but if you're desperate enough, it'll do.

Some of the quick cookbooks are just plain goofy. Take Lickety-Split Meals: For Health Conscious People on the Go by Zonya Foco. On one hand, she has some wise tips on how to organize your kitchen, includes a grocery store shopping list and offers tips on healthful shopping. (Look for a spaghetti sauce with five grams or less of fat and 800 mgs or less of sodium per cup.) But then she'll turn around and tell you to make your own homemade turkey sausage. Sure, it's a more healthful ingredient to use, but you just don't make it "lickety-split."

Consider her suggestion for a Friday night veg-out dinner with her husband: guiltless nachos supreme. Munch on raw carrots, broccoli and cauliflower while chopping onions and green peppers and opening cans of beans and chiles. Then, after spreading this over baked tortilla chips and reduced-fat shredded cheese to bake in the oven, you are to play "Macho Man," by the Village People, changing the words to "Nacho Man." Dance around the kitchen and add a series of jumping jacks and sit-ups while waiting for the dish to heat up in the oven. Follow with grapes for dessert. I don't know about you; at our house, we would not enjoy doing this.

"Time is short," shouts the Eating Well Rush Hour Cookbook, recognizing that rush hour has moved from the streets into your kitchen. In the book's attempt to appeal to gourmets, you'll find recipes for slightly unusual things like eggplant-couscous rolls (not something we'd fix in our kitchen during rush hour). After sadly looking at a recipe requiring mangoes as an ingredient, I was heartened to discover a lengthy chapter on the culinary art of hot dogs. Ready to try microwave fajita dogs?

Not all the books sacrifice quality in the preparation. Melissa Clark's The Instant Gourmet: Delicious Meals in 20 Minutes or Less has dishes that make my mouth water. How about fresh goat cheese quesadillas tonight? Chicken breast in balsamic vinegar or even linguini with Gorgonzola cheese, pine nuts and watercress? The last recipe requires heavy cream, so you can see that we're going for maximum flavor here along with speed. But it's healthful cooking be damned.

Must we choose between health and speed? Sacrifice economies of purchase for the stressful rush to bang pots and pans? Something else is getting lost here besides flavor. What about an appreciation for the process? The reason I cook is that I enjoy it. Standing at the stove somehow relaxes me and helps me unwind from my day. I like cutting up herbs and using fresh garlic. I prefer fresh fish over frozen. Don't show me recipes that you can prepare in five minutes. I want to spend more time in the kitchen, not less. I take heart from books like Pierre Franey's Cuisine Rapide, whose concept of really fast cooking requires 60 minutes.

If we are hurrying to boil water, something is not right in our lives and it's time to stop and smell the rosemary. That's when we need to reexamine priorities. Do we really want to open a can of Spaghetti-O's, slam a few plates down on the table, pull out a stopwatch and tell the family, "Ready, set, go"? Good things take time. Faster is not necessarily better. Like sex, cooking is a pleasure that should be savored, not rushed.


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