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BOOK REVIEW : Gotcha Cuisine : What's for Dinner?, By Michael Roberts ; (William Morrow: $22; 333 pp.)

April 22, 1993|KAREN STABINER

We all have the list: Things They Fed Me as a Child That I Refuse Ever to Eat Again. My mother's salmon and pickle relish patties, which always seemed to coincide with my father's decision to work late. The spaghetti casserole I inhaled as a child, whose main ingredient turned out to be Velveeta cheese. And of course, tuna-noodle casserole.

It seems like everyone's mom made tuna-noodle casserole in the 1950s, and everyone had a trick to make the basic recipe unique. My mother favored cream of mushroom soup as a base (remember how it slid out of the can in a single congealed can-shaped lump?), while others preferred cream of celery. One enterprising mother crumbled potato chips on the top, while another used cornflakes.

But nobody, to my recollection, ever added dried mushrooms and Gruyere cheese, made the sauce from scratch or bothered with spices such as mace. My 3 1/2-year-old looked at an updated casserole I made from a recipe of chef Michael Roberts', pronounced it too ugly to eat and then ate half of my serving, spooned a mound onto her plate and gleefully announced that there was enough for her to have it in her lunch box tomorrow--which kept my husband from eating his third helping.

Welcome to the world of the gustatory "gotcha." Michael Roberts, of the late, lamented Trumps in West Hollywood has written "What's for Dinner?," an attempt to answer a question that is driving more and more of us either to distraction or to restaurants that offer take-out. His answers--more than 200 of them, divided into categories such as "Kettle Dinners," "Fifties Favorites," "Dinners Your Grandmother Wouldn't Recognize" and "Dinners Without Meat," among others--are as much fun to read as they are surprisingly good to eat. If there are a few gaps along the way--if you wish for a bit more technical guidance, recommendations about sample menus, or a single dessert recipe (there are none)--the happy results you do get are more than decent compensation.

Some of the loveliest recipes are for fish. Roberts concocts all sorts of smart complements without ever overwhelming the fish itself. The luckiest sea creature is salmon; in one recipe it's "buried in potatoes"--a shredded russet crust--baked in foil, and then served in a sauce of shallots, white wine, vinegar and eight tablespoons of butter.

I planned to serve that dish, I confess, without reading to the end of the recipe and was saved only by a lone quarter pound of butter that languished in the freezer, waiting to be invested in a birthday cake someday. The good news is that the fish and sauce were exquisite, even if my first effort at the crust was too thick to get crunchy. The lesson was: Always read the whole recipe.

And never believe what anyone says about butter. My next effort was scallops poached in grapefruit juice, which called for four tablespoons of butter for four people. Hardly a fat felony, but given the salmon, I decided to halve the amount and see what happened. It was great--tangy grapefruit juice and sweet butter were just right with the mild scallops.

It was so wonderful, in fact, that I ran through the index until I found another grapefruit-based recipe, for a poached salmon salad with grapefruit vinaigrette. The salmon fillets are poached in grapefruit juice and raspberry vinegar, then the liquid is reduced and mixed with walnut oil. All this gets heaped on top of chicory and grapefruit sections. To me, the dish symbolized everything that was wonderful about Roberts' restaurant--unexpected flavor combinations that were both subtle and distinct. No screaming sauces, no bully spices, just clever, sophisticated cooking.

Or, as my husband said after rolling the scallops around in his mouth, "It's very '80s." He spoke with a mixture of wistfulness for the buttery days before cholesterol and an absolute understanding that much of what Roberts does is of a style that has been supplanted by plain grilled everything and lots of olive oil. This is not by any means a complaint; ironically, Roberts' citrus sauces taste new again, in the midst of today's more robust dishes.

"What's for Dinner?" answers its own question but raises another: What do we serve with dinner? The poached salmon salad, for instance, makes four entree-sized portions, which means that a half-recipe makes four nice first-course salads. But how about a slaw, or some kind of cold vegetable accompaniment, for the book's updated franks and beans? And now that we've made those healthful scallops, how about alternatives to the prosciutto and cheese we're supposed to serve before and after? Many recipes get glancing suggestions, but the cooks who are outside their standard realm could use a little more help.

Still, this is hardly reason to get cranky. Roberts' book is so cheerful, so eager to offer us something good and new to eat, that its shortcomings are insignificant. This is not a cookbook for the traditionalist. But people who are willing to take a chance, who cook with a dash of humor, will likely find things to love. Beyond that, Roberts is to be applauded for trying to sustain the institution of the evening meal at a time when too many people seem to have forgotten the civilizing aspects of the social dinner. Sit down to a new-age tuna-noodle casserole with friends or family and give your loved ones a better set of sense memories than those that were handed down to you.

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