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There Are No Small Meals . . .

September 23, 1993|BARBARA HANSEN | 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.

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.

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.

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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