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There Are No Small Meals . . .

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Would you believe what I’m doing?” exclaims Barbara Swain as a visitor examines cake tins tiny enough for Alice in Wonderland at her smallest. Even the kitchen is little--not by choice, but because that’s what you get with most condos.

Swain, a Pasadena-based home economist and food stylist, is engaging in child’s play, making a batch of brownies for a photo shoot with cake mix and tins from a play set for children.

She’s accustomed to thinking small--but usually not that small. Swain is a specialist in cooking for one and two. Note: Cooks who use her book, “Intimate Dining, Memorable Meals for Two” (Fisher Books: $9.95), don’t have to raid Toys R Us for equipment.

For the moment, Swain sets aside her teeny cake tins and continues making an adult-sized dinner for two--a memorable meal made on only a couple of hours notice.

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First there are crostini , accompanied by little crocks of ratatouille, tapenade and Gorgonzola cheese, and served with Chardonnay. Then comes pasta in a cream sauce with Parmesan cheese, ham and lots of colorful vegetables. Swain parboils the vegetables along with the pasta, an unconventional technique that works well if the timing is right--the vegetables go in when the pasta is almost done, firm vegetables first.

Alongside the pasta, she serves tomato slices glistening with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with shredded fresh basil. For dessert, she pours warm fudge sauce over vanilla ice cream on just-baked brownies.

Making dinner looks easy, the smooth way Swain works. And you’ll never find massive leftovers in her kitchen because she doesn’t tolerate waste.

“I almost never throw anything out,” she says. If a carton of milk is about to pass the pull date, she boils the milk, places it in a sterile glass jar, then uses it for cooking and baking. She saves fresh salsa in the same way, boiling the salsa for use in cooking or combining the boiled mixture with chopped fresh tomatoes to appear again as “fresh” salsa.

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Swain is the first to admit that cooking for two is not efficient, even to the point of sounding as if she’s talking down her book. But she’s being realistic. It’s as much work to make couple-sized creme brulee as a full recipe. You just wind up with less of it.

So why cook when there’s almost no one to eat the food? To control fats, quality of ingredients and portion sizes, Swain says--and because it’s fun. Cooking, she says, is a “great relief from the real work of the day. You take risks without calamity. You are almost never disappointed if you use good ingredients and don’t burn them up.”

Swain also believes that if you go to the trouble of cooking, it’s important to make food look good. Crisp yellow linens, stylish black plates and a garden setting are the backdrops for the crostini and pasta dinner for two she’s just prepared.

Whether dining alone or with someone else, Swain, who is single, firmly believes in switching dining locations for variety--a table outdoors, a table by a bedroom window, anywhere but the same old routine place. She even switches the looks of her rooms for special occasions. A large, blank white wall opposite her dining table is a perfect foil for colorful wall hangings. A huge, brilliant floral print cloth is tacked onto a custom-made wood frame--the backdrop for a recent luau Swain hosted. A pareu printed with parrots in bold colors goes with Mexican dinners. Swain plans an arrangement of mirrors, large red candles and branches sparkling with silver leaves for Christmas.

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Swain has had plenty of practice in scaling down recipes. In 1978, she produced “Cookery for One or Two” (HP Books). And she’s taught the subject at UCLA Extension.

Her new “Intimate Dining” acknowledges tastes and trends that weren’t around when Swain’s first book was published. It’s not heavy on wild contemporary creations, though. “I don’t do cutting-edge food,” she says. “My thing is to find the dishes that make the most sense for two. I try to use ingredients that I think can be purchased and comfortably kept in a kitchen for two. There are no exotic staples in this book beyond balsamic vinegar.”

Recipes lean toward classics like steak Diane, chicken Veronique, crab Newburg and beef stroganoff. They’re there to provide psychological as well as physical comfort. “If you grew up with these flavors,” Swain says, “you need to reconnect with them periodically.”

More up-to-date dishes include cumin-broiled salmon with corn-tomato salsa, grilled chicken breasts with mango salsa and black-bean-and-corn salad. A chapter called “Little Meals” suggests light alternatives to full dinners, such as quesadillas with guacamole, tostada salad and chili. “Family Favorites” offers meatloaf, lasagna, oven-barbecued chicken, Swiss steak and, would you believe, pot roast for two. Swain, who has trimmed the customary hefty chunk of meat down to a handful, insists: “A small pot roast can be just as delicious as a big one.”

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For this dish you can use any pasta from spaghetti to mostaccioli, but Barbara Swain likes it best with penne. Pasta primavera is basically vegetarian, but ham or poultry can be added.

PASTA PRIMAVERA 2 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup chopped onion 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed 1/2 to 1 cup sliced mushrooms, optional 2/3 cup whipping cream 1/2 cup thawed frozen peas, optional 3 quarts water Salt 3 to 4 ounces pasta, any shape 2 to 4 cups assorted cut vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, carrots, green beans, asparagus, sweet red pepper 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese plus additional for garnish Freshly ground pepper Dash nutmeg, optional

Melt butter in medium skillet over medium heat. Saute onion, garlic and mushrooms in butter until onion is translucent and tender. Add cream and peas. Set aside.

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Bring water and 1 tablespoon salt to full boil in 4- to 6-quart pot. Add pasta, then reduce heat to maintain medium boil. Cook according to package directions, until al dente. When pasta is almost done, about 3 to 5 minutes before serving, increase heat to full boil. Add longer-cooking vegetables such as carrots and green beans followed by broccoli, cauliflower and sweet red pepper. Add zucchini and asparagus last and cook 1 to 2 minutes. Drain pasta and vegetables well and return to pan.

Bring cream mixture to full boil and pour over pasta and vegetables, then toss. Add Parmesan cheese and season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Toss over medium heat until sauce is thickened and creamy and coats pasta and vegetables. Serve immediately with additional Parmesan cheese. Makes 2 servings.

Each serving contains about:

726 calories; 761 mg sodium; 159 mg cholesterol; 49 grams fat; 52 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams protein; 1.09 grams fiber.

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Variation:

Add 1/2 cup diced fully cooked ham, turkey or chicken to boiling cream mixture before adding pasta and vegetables.

RATATOUILLE FOR TWO 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 small onion, cut in slivers 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed 1 Japanese eggplant, sliced 1/2 inch thick 1 medium zucchini, sliced 1/2 inch thick 1/2 medium sweet red, green or yellow pepper, cut in slivers 1/2 cup sliced mushrooms, optional 1 medium tomato, diced 1 tablespoon minced parsley 1/2 teaspoon dried leaf basil Salt Freshly ground pepper

Heat 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, onion, garlic, eggplant, zucchini, sweet pepper and mushrooms. Saute until onion is translucent, adding more oil if necessary. Add tomato, parsley, basil and season to taste with salt and pepper.

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Cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes. Remove cover, bring to slow boil and cook until juices evaporate and oil reappears in bottom of pan. Serve hot, at room temperature or cold. Makes 2 servings.

Each serving contains about:

170 calories; 159 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.32 grams fiber.

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Swain sometimes bakes the brownie batter in a 6-inch cheesecake pan she bought at a baking specialty shop. That yields a round cake to cut into brownie wedges.

BARBARA’S BROWNIES FOR TWO 1/4 cup butter 1/2 cup chocolate chips or 3 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped 1/4 cup sugar 1 egg 1/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 cup flour 1/8 teaspoon salt Vanilla ice cream, optional

Hot Fudge Sauce

Line bottom and ends of 7x3-inch loaf pan with 12x3-inch strip parchment. In medium saucepan over low heat, melt butter and chocolate. Stir constantly until chocolate is completely melted. Remove from heat, add sugar and mix well. Cool to lukewarm. Add egg, nuts and vanilla. Beat thoroughly to blend well. Add flour and salt, stir until blended and pour into prepared pan.

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Bake at 325 degrees 25 to 30 minutes or until sugary crust forms on top and brownie does not indent when touched in center. Cool on rack 10 minutes. Run knife along sides of brownie to release. Remove from pan by pulling up 1 end of parchment to release brownie from bottom of pan. Lift out, peel off paper and cool on rack. Cut into wedges. Top with vanilla ice cream and Hot Fudge Sauce. Makes 2 large or 8 small brownies.

Each of 8 servings contains about:

255 calories; 137 mg sodium; 52 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.18 gram fiber.

Hot Fudge Sauce 1/4 cup whipping cream 1/4 cup sugar 1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips Dash salt 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

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Combine whipping cream, sugar, chocolate chips and salt in small saucepan. Bring to gentle boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Cook 2 minutes until sauce is thickened and smooth. Stir in vanilla. Cool slightly before serving. Makes 1/3 to 1/2 cup.


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