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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...

August 18, 1994|KIM UPTON | 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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