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READING FOOD : How to Make Short Order of Cooking at Home : The Short-Cut Cook by Jacques Pepin (William Morrow: $19.95, 283 pp.)

December 20, 1990|ROSE DOSTI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The author's handsome face is on the cover--and so is his promise. He will show you "How to Make Simply Wonderful Meals With Surprisingly Little Effort."

Pepin pulls no punches; he starts by putting the maudlin term "homemade" in perspective. Says Pepin: "During the past several years, the term 'homemade' has taken on a righteous tone. In today's terminology, it means better, more virtuous, truer to nature. But homemade food is good only when it is superior in taste to its store-bought counterpart. In reality, many so-called homemade breads, cakes, croissants, jams and condiments are greatly inferior to similar items available at the local market." In fact, Pepin points out, the great home cooks in France rarely make breads, pates, quenelles, basic doughs or jams.

He also points out that cooking is not the only aspect of food preparation that can be simplified. In his introduction he says: "Even the use and cleaning of cooking utensils can be streamlined. And by having a well-stocked larder you can create meals on short notice."

But there is a hitch. Pepin's hints are not aimed at the occasional cook but the committed everyday cook. He is talking to those who would enjoy filling the freezer with ready-to-use homemade broths and the refrigerator with sauces (salsa, tomato sauce and mustard vinaigrette) for instant use.

Nor can the recipes be appreciated by a cook who is uninterested in or unfamiliar with French cuisine. You can take the chef out of France, but you can't take France out of the chef--not even one as cleverly adaptable as Pepin, who, after serving as chef to three French presidents, moved to this country and made a career as a cooking teacher and television chef, as well as writing several major works on French cuisine.

French methodes are what you get in Pepin's recipes, whether they are inventive variations on an international theme (shrimp won ton Ravioli, mozzarella and cilantro salad, Brie tortilla croque-monsieur, corn bread and ham dressing, pork stew a la Saigon ), or strictly French things ( parmentier, mushroom soup, bread sticks gratinee, fougasse , salade a l'ail, mushroom salad, Mussels ravigote) . Don't be surprised to find instructions for cooking with more than one skillet at a time, that juggling act French chefs do so well. Or using cooking water to flavor sauces, salads and other foods. Or preparing foods in mass-production-like steps (assembling dumplings one day and cooking them later), as a professional chef might.

Pepin's shortcuts include ideas such as doubling or tripling a recipe and freezing the excess, using a pressure cooker to reduce cooking time, peeling vegetables directly into the sink disposer or garbage pan, lining baking pans with foil to save on cleaning afterward, or filling a dirty pot or roasting pan with water as soon as it is used, to loosen solidified cooking bits and make washing up easier.

He suggests freezing food in dishes that can go from freezer to oven to the table. When sauteing meat, he says, saute an extra vegetable in the unwashed skillet: "A cleanup step is eliminated and the juice from the meat will enhance the flavor of the vegetable." When selecting a menu consisting of three dishes, make sure that one or two of them can be made ahead, "or you will be too involved in cooking to create a hospitable atmosphere when your guests arrive." Use wipeable place mats and a good quantity of paper napkins instead of cloth ones.

There are some wonderful recipes in the book. Don't miss the steak a l'Orientale made with Oriental spices, the roast leg of lamb with enough garlic cloves to make the Garlic Festival people love you for life, shrimp with cabbage and caviar, gravlax with olives served as a carpaccio -style appetizer, broiled quail with coriander sauce or the chicken Nicoise in puff pastry. There is also a sausage stew that might appeal to he-man appetites, and for those looking for light things, there are pasta dishes that could qualify as diet food (pasta primavera, rigatoni with red pepper sauce, penne with a nut sauce). And there are numerous vegetable dishes (scallops au gratin, gratin of pumpkin and zucchini flan caught the eye). Plus a lot more.

Best of all, Pepin is not a snob about store-bought mayonnaise, frozen dough, or other ready-made ingredients that can help create quick, yet appealing dishes. He suggests tossing scallops with a sauce of bottled mayonnaise, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce. He makes ravioli with store-bought won ton wrappers, calzones with frozen bread dough. His raspberry tart uses frozen berries and a frozen pie shell, and he contrives an Orange Bavarian Cream out of melted ice cream and instant vanilla pudding.

Here is a festive, fast and easy recipe that should come in handy during the busy holiday season.

BROILED QUAIL WITH

CORIANDER SAUCE

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon catsup

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

4 whole quail (about 6 ounces each, or 4 1/2 to 5 ounces boned)

2 tablespoons water

Combine Worcestershire, catsup, honey, hot pepper sauce and coriander in large plastic bag and shake to mix well. Add quail and toss to coat with marinade. Seal bag and set aside, rotating occasionally at least 2 hours.

When ready to cook, remove quail from marinade and arrange in foil-lined baking pan. Broil about 5 inches from heat 4 to 5 minutes. Turn and broil 4 to 5 minutes on other side. Remove and set aside on individual plates in warm place.

Place water in baking pan and stir to dissolve any solidified juices sticking to foil. Pour juices over quail and serve. Makes 4 servings.

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