Sunday, September 11, 2005

Quick Family Dinners: Bev Bennett's 30-Minute Meals For Dummies


I'm a sucker for cookbooks with a twist, and this super compilation of quick recipes in the For Dummies series, Bev Bennett's 30-Minute Meals For Dummies, is certainly skewed far enough to suit my tastes. I love a chef who shares my own approach to cooking, in which many favorite recipes begin, "Open a can of..."

Bennett starts with a brief review of why family mealtimes are important. In addition to the family bonding that takes place at the table, she stresses the importance of nutritional control, and the dietary training that starts in the kitchen. She avoids being preachy by delivering this message with humor.
  • Assumptions about my readers: You buy every book with a black-and-yellow cover that you run across...

  • Packaged foods don't all come in the macaroni-and-powdered-cheese variety. You don't have to eat like a 7-year-old when you cook from a box.

  • In case you're thinking about double-duty, a "poached salmon in the dishwasher" recipe occasionally makes the circuit of Internet message boards and spiral-bound school fundraiser recipe books. It's not a technique that I endorse. I tried it, and my dishes smelled fishy for weeks...

I wasn't tempted to poach salmon in the dishwasher, but I did try Bennett's Hot Sweet Chicken over rice from this chapter, and although my prep time ran 10 minutes instead of the 5 she estimates, with the 20-minute cooking time, it still came in at a half-hour. This dish was such a hit, I'll try it with the pork tenderloin variant next time!

Like the Working Stiff Cookbook, this one spends a chapter recommending the contents of a well-stocked pantry to help speed the task of cooking. Beans, grains, and canned fish and tomatoes top the list of pantry-stuffings, with spices and herbs for the seasoning cupboard. Among other recipes, the vegetarian Kale and Canellini Bean entree shows the value of having ingredients ready to hand. Canned canellini (white kidney) beans are a favorite of mine because of the way they fall apart in a slow-cooker, making a delightful thick soup. Matched with kale and garlic, this soup-pot meal took less than the 27 minutes estimated (mainly because I used pre-minced garlic), although I'll probably convert it to a slow-cooker recipe in the future.

"Dining Once, Eating Twice" is Bennett's suggestion for the occasional restaurant meal. In response to super-sized servings of steak, fries and roasted chicken, she recommends eating a sensible portion, then bagging up the rest with an eye to recipes that rock out on leftovers. My favorite in this chapter, I have to admit, is French Fry Soup. Knowing that fries are basically inedible once they cool and lose their crisp "tooth" leads many of us to eat the entire serving. But with this clever, quick recipe, you combine those cold, limp leftovers with a large can of chicken broth, some dill, garlic and pepper, and get a super soup in just over 10 minutes. It's much easier to stop cramming fries down long after the satiation point when you know the rest will be reborn in this great dish.

The next chapter, "Cooking at Warp Speed," advises how to use pre-packaged meals to reach a nutritional conclusion in a short cooking time. Restaurant risotto is a dish that takes a long time to prepare. The rice is stirred slowly over a low heat, so that the grains develop a slightly sticky consistency—definitely not a candidate for a quick meal! Yet packaged risotto mixes can be prepared in much less time, yielding a similar result from your "home cooking." The Bacon and Vegetable Risotto was the first recipe I tried from this cookbook, since I had a package of plain risotto mix and uncooked bacon already. Because I needed to cook the bacon first, it took me 20 minutes, as opposed to Bennett's estimate of 1 minute prep-time and 15 minutes cooking time when pre-cooked bacon is used.

Bennett even includes a list of time-saving equipment to boost your kitchen productivity. From silicone spatulas to parchment paper, these items can help reduce prep and cleanup time, making your cooking time more effective.

I have a final word for Bev Bennett. Don't be so quick to dismiss the blue-and-yellow box; packaged macaroni and cheese is now available as Kraft Easy-Mac, in microwave-quick servings. I stir a teaspoon of chopped jalapeños and a small can of drained tuna into two of these single-person packages after cooking, to make a hearty adult meal for both of us in just under 5 minutes.

Bon appétit!

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