Desperation Dinners

Times Staff Writer

For some, desperation dinners are what go on the table every night. For others, these are the meals served when one is out of time, energy or inspiration. Just about every cook has a small repertoire of "DD" recipes--tried, true and, typically, overused.

The beginning of a new year is a good time to retire a few of those oldies and replace them with some fresh ideas. Most of the recipes featured were inspired by classics, ones that take practically no time to prepare. The results are entrees that look impressive enough to serve guests, but are actually quick and easy.

For instance, remember chicken divan? Substitute jumbo shrimp for the poultry and this old favorite takes on new appeal. Use frozen broccoli spears for speed, or if you prefer, substitute fresh vegetables that have been steamed or microwaved. The remaining preparation is done in one skillet to limit cleanup.

Anyone who's lived in that belt of land that extends from southern Illinois south through Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas knows about chicken-fried steak. There it's served with cream gravy; but try it California-style instead, with fresh salsa. The steak is still prepared in the traditional manner--dredged in flour and fried in hot oil until golden brown.

If inclement weather limits use of the outdoor grill, try pan-frying a flank steak and serving it with a simple mushroom sauce made from the drippings. This quick method sears the meat on the outside, while the center remains pink and juicy. Team the meat with oven-fried potatoes and a green salad.

Chinese New Year, celebrated next Thursday, would be a fun time to try one of our fried rice variations--Shrimp-Spinach, Beef or Vegetable-Bacon. Each makes a meal in itself, but might also be accompanied by other favorites from a nearby Chinese take-out.

Fettuccine Gorgonzola is a variation on the classic Alfredo. Gorgonzola cheese gives this dish a buttery, yet distinctively pungent flavor. (We don't recommend substituting other blue cheeses; they typically are too overpowering.) A salad of fresh winter pears and walnuts makes a good accompaniment.

Still another classic take-off, Turkey Piccata, substitutes turkey breast steaks for the traditional veal. Pounding the meat achieves the desired thinness, then the steaks are quickly browned in lemon-butter. We also deviated from the original recipe by adding sliced mushrooms.

CALIFORNIA CHICKEN-FRIED STEAK

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons milk

Oil

4 beef cubed steaks

Salt, pepper

Flour

Salsa

Sliced avocado

Combine eggs and milk in shallow dish. Heat 1/2-inch oil in deep skillet to 350 degrees. Season cubed steaks to taste with salt and pepper.

Dredge steaks in flour. Dip in egg mixture and dredge again, lightly shaking off excess. Fry steaks 1 or 2 at time about 4 minutes per side or until golden brown, turning with tongs. Drain briefly on paper towels, then keep warm until all steaks are fried.

Serve with Salsa and garnish with avocado slices. Makes 4 servings.

Salsa

3 cups diced tomatoes

2 green onions, sliced

1/2 serrano chile, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 tablespoon oil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt

Combine tomatoes, onions, chile, garlic and cilantro. Stir in lime juice, oil and oregano. Season to taste with salt. Makes about 3 cups.

SHRIMP DIVAN

12 large shrimp

Butter

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups whipping cream or half and half

1/4 cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Salt

White pepper

1 (10-ounce) package frozen broccoli spears, thawed

1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

Clean and devein shrimp. Melt 1/4 cup butter in large skillet. Saute garlic 2 to 3 minutes. Add shrimp and saute just until pink. Remove shrimp and set aside.

Whisk in flour and cook 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in cream, then wine. Add mustard. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Set sauce aside.

Place 1/4 broccoli in each of 4 buttered ramekins. Add 3 shrimp, then spoon 1/2 cup sauce over each serving. Combine bread crumbs with 2 to 3 teaspoons melted butter and sprinkle 1 tablespoon over each ramekin.

Bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes or until heated through and bubbly. Makes 4 servings.

PAN-FRIED FLANK STEAK WITH MUSHROOM SAUCE

1 (1 1/2-pound) flank steak

1 clove garlic, halved

Salt, pepper

Garlic salt or powder

1/4 cup butter or margarine

1 tablespoon oil

2 tablespoons minced shallots

3 cups sliced mushrooms

1 cup dry red wine

Chopped parsley

Trim any excess fat from flank steak. Pat surfaces of meat dry with paper towels, then rub with cut side of garlic. Season to taste with salt, pepper and garlic salt. Melt 1 tablespoon butter with oil in skillet large enough to hold flank steak. Add meat and cook, uncovered, over medium-high heat until meat is browned on both sides, but still pink in center.

Transfer meat to carving board and cover loosely with foil. Melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter in pan drippings. Saute shallots and mushrooms 2 to 3 minutes. Add wine and cook until reduced by about 1/2.

Slice meat thinly on diagonal across grain and serve with sauce. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

SHRIMP-SPINACH FRIED RICE

1/4 cup oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

6 cups cold unseasoned cooked rice

Soy sauce

2 eggs, beaten

1/4 pound small cooked shrimp

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1 cup julienned carrots, blanched

1 cup frozen leaf spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

1 cup frozen peas, thawed

Salt, pepper

Heat oil in large wok. Stir-fry garlic 1 to 2 minutes, then add rice and continue to stir-fry 3 to 4 minutes, adding 1/4 cup soy sauce or to taste. Make well in center of mixture and add eggs. When eggs begin to set, stir into rice mixture.

Add shrimp, green onions, carrots, spinach and peas. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Heat through. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: If desired, melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in small skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 beaten egg. As edges begin to set, lift egg and allow uncooked portion to flow underneath. Continue procedure until egg is completely cooked, thin layer. Remove from heat, cool slightly and cut into strips. Use as garnish.

BEEF FRIED RICE

1 (8-ounce) filet mignon steak

1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms

1/4 cup oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced

1/2 cup green pepper strips

1/2 cup sweet red pepper strips

1/2 cup yellow pepper strips

2 tablespoons minced ginger root

Soy sauce

Salt, pepper

2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds

6 cups cold unseasoned cooked rice

2 eggs, beaten

Partially freeze steak. Trim off all fat and slice thinly. Cut slices into strips. Soak shiitake in warm water 15 to 20 minutes or until soft. Squeeze out excess water. Discard stems and slice mushrooms into thin strips.

Heat oil in large wok. Stir-fry meat, garlic and onion until meat begins to brown. Add green, red and yellow pepper strips, mushrooms and ginger and continue stir-frying 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1/4 cup soy sauce or to taste. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Add rice and mix thoroughly. Fry, turning occasionally, until mixture begins to brown. Make well in center of mixture and add eggs. When eggs begin to set, stir into rice mixture. Continue cooking until eggs are set. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: If desired, melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in small skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 beaten egg. As edges begin to set, lift egg and allow uncooked portion to flow underneath. Continue procedure until egg is completely cooked, thin layer. Remove from heat, cool slightly and cut into strips. Use as garnish.

VEGETABLE-BACON FRIED RICE

6 slices bacon, diced

1/4 cup oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup julienned zucchini

1/2 cup julienned yellow squash

1 cup chopped bok choy

1/2 cup sweet red pepper strips

1 cup Chinese pea pods

Salt, pepper

6 cups cold unseasoned cooked rice

Soy sauce

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup chopped green onions

2 cups bean sprouts

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds

Saute bacon in wok until crisp. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Wipe wok out with paper towels, then heat oil. Stir-fry garlic 1 to 2 minutes. Add zucchini, yellow squash, bok choy, red pepper and pea pods. Stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add rice and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes. Add 1/4 cup soy sauce or to taste. Make well in center of mixture and add eggs. When eggs begin to set, stir into rice mixture. Add green onions, bean sprouts, reserved bacon and almonds. Heat through. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: If desired, melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in small skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 beaten egg. As edges begin to set, lift egg and allow uncooked portion to flow underneath. Continue procedure until egg is completely cooked, thin layer. Remove from heat, cool slightly and cut into strips. Use as garnish.

FETTUCCINE GORGONZOLA

1/2 pound Gorgonzola cheese

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 cup whipping cream

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 pound fettuccine

Freshly ground pepper

Basil leaves, optional

Cut cheese into small pieces. Melt cheese and butter in top of double boiler over simmering water, whisking occasionally. Stir in cream.

Remove sauce from heat and allow to thicken. Add lemon juice to boiling water and cook pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta and toss with sauce. Serve with pepper and garnish with basil. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

TURKEY PICCATA

1 (1-pound) package turkey breast slices

3/4 cup flour, about

3/4 cup butter or margarine

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 pound sliced mushrooms

1 cup dry white wine

Make 2 to 4 slashes through membrane on outer edges of turkey slices to prevent curling. Dredge each slice in flour and pound out between 2 sheets wax paper to very thin, even thickness, less than 1/16 inch. Continue dredging in flour while pounding to maintain even coating, using all flour and adding more if necessary. Cut large slices in half, if desired.

Melt 1/2 butter in large skillet over medium heat, adding half of lemon juice. Saute turkey slices quickly in single layer until lightly browned, turning once. Remove and continue adding slices until all are cooked, adding remaining butter and remaining lemon juice as needed.

Remove all turkey slices, add mushrooms and saute lightly. Stir in wine and bring to boil, scraping browned bits from sides and bottom of pan. Return turkey to pan. Cover, reduce heat and simmer gently 5 minutes. Serve turkey with sauce spooned over. Makes 4 servings.

Food Styling by Donna Deane and Minnie Bernardino

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