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Reality Cooking : Confessions of a Former Foodie : From five-course dinners and an ever-simmering stockpot to salad in a bag and 20-minute soups, a foodie embraces...

TIME STAFF WRITER

Yes, I am the person who in a different life cooked 13-course dinners. (I have witnesses, living today.)

I am the person who entertained more than once a week in a wide variety of strange and wonderful cuisines. (Duck feet, anyone?)

I am the person whose 20-gallon stock pot was used so often the wallpaper in her apartment peeled off like a bad sunburn.

I am the person who catered her own wedding reception, for heaven’s sake.

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Now I am the person who schedules a dinner for friends at 5:30 and starts cooking at 3:30, following an unexpected visit to my four-year-old’s doctor’s office.

I am the person who invites the editor of a sophisticated food magazine to dinner and gives her laundry to fold while cans of this and that are--artfully, of course--tossed together.

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I am the person who sometimes wears two different shoes to work and doesn’t realize it until late in the afternoon.

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We’re talking reality here, not a women’s magazine version of dinner at the table served by a perky, smiling mother with a manicure. We’re talking two working parents, play dates, swimming lessons, symphony-opera-shopping-thinking-reading-bicycle-riding days, nights and weekends that seem to dissolve into black holes of time. I go to bed in January, and when I get up, it’s July. (Am I the only one this is happening to?)

Since the birth of my son and the disintegration of time as I previously knew it, I have learned a few things about cooking, time management and perspective. Life, eating and entertainment now revolve around three things: a little boy’s play, good health and happiness. This does not allow time for elaborate dinners or dinner parties. Nor, strangely, do they seem necessary. Our friends have not abandoned us for better cooks; we are still invited back for dinner, even if the dessert we serve is M & Ms and ice cream sandwiches; we are not overeating from food boredom (overeating, perhaps, but for sport); nor are we seriously malnourished, despite the fact that this month my son seems to be eating only black beans, rice and Popsicles.

There are a few things we have stubbornly refused to abandon, however. Good food is one. Having friends over for dinner or brunch a couple of times a month is another. (Not only is this fun, it saves money on baby-sitters.)

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Eating out is reserved for social occasions, rather than for evenings when we’re too tired or too late at work to cook. On those nights we probably crack open a can of low-fat, low-salt soup, which we then make less healthy with the addition of soy sauce or cheese or something else with character and/or fat. For us, carryout seems too expensive and, more important, too much like work, since it needs to be picked up. Fast-food is something I’m just not ready for.

To avoid desperate mid-week straits, I plan a little, use convenience products when they work and try to do something useful every second of the day. Julia Child once said to me, “Never apologize!” and that has become my mantra.

Here is what I am not apologizing for:

Convenience products such as cake mixes that I once thought overpriced are now tucked very nicely into our eating life. And they do more than just save time. Bakery-bought cupcakes, for example, cost $3 to $5 for a dozen, as against $2 for a box of mix, plus a can of frosting (on sale) that comes packaged with attractive candy sprinkles for decoration. Of no small importance, there’s the entertainment value of watching a 4-year-old spray the walls with chocolate from an electric mixer. And the pride of someone who hasn’t yet mastered shoe-tying when he frosts a finished cupcake and tops it off with colorful, unhealthy candy.

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Cake mixes are not just for children, though. Adults can enjoy them if they are properly topped, say with low-fat ice cream drizzled with caramel, sprinkled with chopped and partially melted Heath Bar candy. (Those watching their weight can substitute non-fat brownies for the cake.)

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Then there’s the microwave oven, about which I vaguely (in that other life) remember saying, “Why would anyone want one?” As an example of our family’s new reality-based style, when ours broke on a quiet Sunday morning we dressed quickly, hopped in the car and dashed around town looking for a replacement.

Why? Roast chicken needs to be rewarmed. Baked potatoes, which take on the texture of Styrofoam when microwaved, can be baked in the real oven in the morning before work and then successfully reheated in a couple minutes in a microwave at dinner time. But the microwave’s chief and most valuable talents are reheating cooked rice (prepared in large batches in the rice cooker and kept in the refrigerator for several days) and steaming certain vegetables such as broccoli and baby carrots.

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It can also be used for heating grilled chicken and cheese quesadillas. Black beans and rice. Cooked pasta and tomato sauce. Grilled fish. In short, the once disdained microwave now prepares most week-night dinners.

But the key to week-day survival, I’m convinced, is shopping only once a week. This forces planning, a modest amount of self-discipline and, despite the threatening nature of such a commitment, actually makes life easier.

So on weekends--usually Saturday mornings, early--I pull out recipes or recipe ideas I’ve collected in a file. Whether we’re entertaining that weekend or not, I plan two dishes to cook on the weekend, plus one surprise to keep things interesting. This fills four or five dinner slots. The others seem to take care of themselves with pizza or dinner out or at a friend’s house. And there’s always the 10 gallons of something (often Prego spaghetti sauce) bought in a ravenously hungry moment at Costco.

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On one recent weekend I made a wonderful, fall-apart roasted lemon chicken; tabbouleh (inspired by lemons given to me by a friend); a salad made of tomato, onion and stale Italian bread chunks tossed with salt, pepper and a little olive oil; and lastly, a too-garlicky hummus that we devoured with pita bread. This carried us through the better part of the week, when we added steamed rice, canned black beans and packaged chopped and pre-washed salad. (This is expensive, I know, but it seems like a good alternative to week-night salad spinning . . . just too much exercise on an empty stomach.)

On another recent Sunday we grilled, but not just for one meal and not indoors--where we have a perfectly fine stove-top grill. The reason: I’m in charge of the indoor grill, but my husband rules--and cleans--the grill outdoors.

And so he grilled, at a single standing: Italian sausage, salmon, shrimp, chicken and a huge pile of vegetables, including sliced potatoes (in their skins--peeling is too much work) sprinkled with olive oil, fresh rosemary and coarse salt.

From that single barbecue we reaped grilled sausage for dinner that night (and for freezing in small servings as a future treasure); grilled swordfish, part of which was consumed the next night with grilled vegetables and two nights later in seafood-vegetable burritos; grilled shrimp, which ended up a couple days later in whole-wheat pasta with a spicy peanut sauce . . . Indonesian in spirit, if not literal translation.

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The only cooking we do during the week occurs in the morning before work--say, around 5:30, when sane people are sleeping and the day is quiet and cool. That actually is a good time to toss together a soup, so that it can steep in the refrigerator all day and taste even better by evening. A simple tomato soup with white beans and pasta (15 minutes) is one. Stir-fried sirloin soup is another. Chicken gumbo is a third. Minestrone soup with fresh and frozen vegetables is another. (Frozen corn and limas and canned tomatoes are just fine.) Nothing I make in the morning takes longer than 30 minutes, provided the ingredients are handy. I make sure they are.

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Potatoes for dinner that night can be baked in the morning. Vegetables can be chopped for a quick evening stir-fry of hot-and-sour broccoli we eat with commercially made egg rolls. Corn bread from a mix can be popped into the oven and baked to serve that evening with canned vegetarian chili and grated cheese.

But if weeknight meals are survival of the hungriest, weekend entertaining is where the fun is. And, of utmost importance, where the good leftovers are.

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That’s where we find easy meals of grilled tandoori chicken, served with jicama and carrot cole slaw (3 cups grated jicama tossed with 1 cup grated carrot and a few tablespoons of bottled sesame dressing), apple rice, naan bread from a nearby Indian grocery store (substitute whole-wheat tortillas in a pinch), bottled chutney and plain yogurt spiked with a little cumin and salt.

Another applauded company meal is Cuban in spirit: fried plantain chips (greasy, salty, delicious, sold in bags in some supermarkets and Latino groceries) and beer followed by Cuban picadillo (a ground beef dish with capers, raisins and olives), yellow rice (plain rice tinted with turmeric), canned black beans and salad from the bag. For dessert we share a platter of sliced Muenster cheese and chunks of guava paste (from a Latino market), a traditional Puerto Rican-style dessert served with very strong coffee in espresso cups. (Espresso is also too much work.)

An al fresco -style meal we like combines any or all of the following: cannellini (white kidney) beans tossed with tons of fresh, chopped oregano and black pepper, tomato, canned tuna and a fruity green olive oil; pasta with pesto (if there’s any in the freezer--garlic and olive oil if there’s not), or maybe wild mushrooms and lemon, if I’m trying to impress; a few bowls of olives (including Trader Joe’s great garlic-stuffed green ones); fresh mozzarella with tomatoes; grilled peppers (frozen from an earlier grill-out), marinated mushrooms or asparagus and a few kinds of bread--maybe homemade, maybe not.

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One of our favorite entertaining meals is brunch, both because it is easy and because looking good on Sunday morning somehow seems rude--thus, the food gets all the preparation time.

Among the popular brunch menus at our house: fresh orange juice (my husband’s job) and sparkling wine, banana-buttermilk-wheat germ-pecan-honey pancakes with pourable raspberry yogurt and syrup, a fresh fruit platter (another job for my husband) and fried sausages (usually “lite”).

Of late I have served cornmeal pancakes made with corn-bread mix thinned to pouring consistency with milk and served with orange-honey butter and pureed berries (they’re simply overripe berries sieved just before they go bad and tucked into the freezer for just such an occasion).

Another easy brunch menu: packaged tostada salad shells used as a container for eggs of any kind (probably fried for adults and scrambled for children) and a dollop each of sour cream, guacamole, tomato salsa and black beans topped with grated cheese. Serve this with margaritas or limeade.

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Although I’ve written two books on appetizers, I seldom make them any more except as entrees. Too time-consuming. One such former starter turned meal is chicken-and-cheese quesadillas with black bean and corn salsa. This takes minutes when made with already shredded cheese and previously grilled chicken, plucked from the freezer.

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In theory, at least, there are still special occasions for which nothing is too difficult, too complicated or too silly . . . just like in the old days. The weird thing is, I just never seem to find the time. Maybe this is where the priority shift is most apparent.

For my son’s first pre-school fund-raising event, I rose at 4:30 a.m. on a work day to make a fancy dessert designed to bring huge profits to the organization and honor my son’s good name. When I arrived with the treasure I noticed everyone else unloading bags of packaged cookies and bakery boxes. I took this as a sign. Now when the need arises, I ask myself this question: Does it make more sense to play with him or spend hours messing up the kitchen? If the answer is play, I head for a bakery.

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Thus, when I was recently asked, mid-week, to bring in a home-cooked dish for a school lunch two days later, I picked up the phone and dialed Pizza Hut, later explaining to the school that pizza is a traditional end-of-the-week family treat. They smiled. (Was that sympathy or disdain?)

I did not apologize.

TANDOORI CHICKEN 4 pounds chicken breasts, skinned but not boned 2 cups yogurt 3 tablespoons oil 4 large cloves garlic, minced 2 tablespoons ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 2 tablespoons ginger, minced 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes Juice 2 lemons Cilantro Lemon wedges

Rinse and dry chicken pieces. Using sharp knife, score each chicken breast to bone in 3 or 4 places. Set aside.

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Combine yogurt, oil, minced garlic, cumin, cardamom, cloves, salt, pepper, ginger, red pepper flakes and lemon juice in large bowl. Cover chicken with yogurt mixture and marinate in refrigerator overnight.

Remove chicken pieces from marinade, place on barbecue grill, cover and cook, turning every 10 minutes, until juices run clear when pierced with knife. (Time will vary depending on heat of grill.) Serve chicken on platter garnished with sprigs of cilantro and pass lemon to sprinkle over. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 4 servings contains about:

371 calories; 790 mg sodium; 93 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 39 grams protein; 0.56 gram fiber.

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Note: If in hurry, combine 2 cups yogurt with 2 tablespoons cumin, 3 tablespoons oil and juice of 1 lemon. It’s not as good but it gets the job done.

APPLE RICE 3 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup chopped onion 1 cup white rice 1 1/2 cups chicken broth 1/4 cup apple juice concentrate 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

Heat butter in medium saucepan. Add onion and slowly saute over low heat until soft. Add rice, chicken broth, apple juice concentrate and turmeric. Stir to combine, cover and bring to boil.

Immediately turn down heat as low as possible and simmer until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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Each of 4 servings contains about:

289 calories; 385 mg sodium; 24 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 45 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.31 gram fiber.

TOMATO SOUP WITH WHITE BEANS AND PASTA 2 onions, chopped 2 tablespoons corn oil 3 cloves garlic, minced 3 carrots, chopped 1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes, drained 1 (46-ounce) can tomato juice 2 (15-ounce) cans white beans, drained 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1/2 (6-ounce) can tomato paste 1/2 cup elbow macaroni

Heat corn oil in medium pan. Add onion and saute over low heat until tender. Add garlic and saute until tender but not brown. Add carrots, tomatoes, tomato juice, white beans, sugar, cayenne and tomato paste. Simmer until carrots are tender, about 15 minutes. About 5 minutes before serving, add macaroni and simmer until al dente. Makes 4 servings.

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Each serving contains about:

367 calories; 396 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 65 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 4 grams fiber.

CHICKEN AND CHEESE QUESADILLAS WITH BLACK BEAN AND CORN SALSA 1 (8-ounce) package shredded Monterey Jack cheese 1 (8-ounce) package shredded mozzarella cheese 6 large flour tortillas 1/4 pound goat cheese 1 1/2 cups chopped grilled chicken breast 1/2 cup shredded fresh basil Black Bean and Corn Salsa

Place Jack and mozzarella cheeses in plastic food bag or bowl with top and shake to combine. Place 3 tortillas on microwave-proof platter. Sprinkle cheese mixture on tortillas. Dot with goat cheese and chicken pieces, sprinkle with basil and top with remaining tortillas. Microwave 1 to 2 minutes on HIGH, turning once. Serve immediately with Black Bean and Corn Salsa. Makes 6 servings.

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Each serving contains about:

405 calories; 587 mg sodium; 88 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams protein; trace fiber.

Note: For children, make without goat cheese and basil. Most children hate these tastes.

Black Bean and Corn Salsa 1 (16-ounce) can black beans 1 cup frozen corn, thawed 1/2 basket cherry tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped 1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chiles 3 green onions, sliced 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar 3 tablespoons oil 1 teaspoon ground cumin Salt

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Drain liquid from beans and rinse in colander. Combine beans, corn, tomatoes, chiles, green onions and cilantro in small bowl.

In separate bowl combine red wine vinegar, oil, cumin and salt to taste. Pour vinegar-oil mixture over bean mixture. Toss before serving.

Note: This is better if made before work in morning and then refrigerated.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

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196 calories; 63 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 1.97 grams fiber.

STIR-FRIED SIRLOIN SOUP 1 pound sirloin or other meat 1 tablespoon cornstarch 3 tablespoons chili powder 1/4 cup olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 3 cloves garlic, minced 1 (16-ounce) can tomatoes, with liquid (4-ounce) can chopped green chiles, with liquid 1/2 cups frozen corn 1 quart beef broth 1/2 bottle red wine 1/4 cup red wine vinegar Salt, pepper Shredded Cheddar cheese

Slice meat into 1/4-inch-thick strips, cutting at diagonal to grain, and place strips in large bowl.

Combine cornstarch and chili powder in small bowl.

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Toss steak strips in 1 tablespoon oil. Add cornstarch mixture and toss to coat.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large pan over high heat, add beef strips and stir-fry quickly until beef is cooked as desired. (Reserve any cornstarch mixture left in bowl.) Remove beef strips from pan and reserve.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil, add onion and saute until tender. Add garlic and saute until tender, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes with liquid, chiles with liquid, corn, beef broth, wine and vinegar. (If any cornstarch mixture remains, add to soup at this point.) Bring soup to boil and simmer about 15 minutes, adding water if mixture becomes too thick. Add beef strips. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with shredded cheese to sprinkle over individual portions. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving, without cheese on top, contains about:

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443 calories; 1,027 mg sodium; 52 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams protein; 2.28 grams fiber.

BANANA PANCAKES 1 cup whole-wheat flour 1 cup unbleached white flour 1/4 cup wheat germ 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda 2 eggs Vegetable Oil 2 cups buttermilk 4 tablespoons honey 2 ripe bananas, peeled and mashed 1/2 cup chopped pecans

Combine whole-wheat and unbleached white flours, wheat germ, baking powder and baking soda in large bowl. Mix in eggs, 1/4 cup oil, buttermilk, honey, bananas and pecans.

Brush hot griddle lightly with oil. Spoon batter on griddle, using about 1/3 cup of batter per pancake. Cook over medium heat until lightly browned on bottom and bubbles form on top. Turn pancakes and cook until top is springy when touched. Cook carefully because pancakes burn easily. Makes about 16 pancakes.

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Each serving contains about:

172 calories; 121 mg sodium; 28 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 22 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.34 gram fiber.

Cover Design: Tracy Crowe

Food styling: Donna Deane and Mayi Brady

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