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Cookbook Watch

April 01, 1998|LAURIE OCHOA

In cooking, as in clothing, fashion moves in cycles. During the '80s, many novice cooks considered it a privilege to spend hours, even days, preparing some wonderful Paula Wolfert dish from Southwest France or an elaborate Chinese banquet from Irene Kuo's "The Key to Chinese Cooking."

It was a time when we learned that simple food did not mean easy food. It was when Martha Stewart started making us feel guilty for not doing everything ourselves and when "The Silver Palate" cater-it-yourself aesthetic took hold. And if we sometimes didn't get a chance to sit down properly with our guests until dessert, at least we knew they were eating well.

It was a different entertaining style from a generation earlier, when cooks reheated "do-ahead" dishes most likely made from canned or boxed convenience foods. No-fuss entertaining was the motto. And when Marion Burros' and Lois Levine's cookbook "Elegant but Easy" came out in 1960, full of make-ahead recipes that called for canned potatoes, processed cheese spread and Jell-O, it became a best-seller.

Now we're again in a time-conscious age, when recipes with more than three ingredients are considered difficult and 30 minutes' cooking time for a weekday family dinner is the absolute limit for many. Just as organized do-ahead party hosts never disappeared entirely in the '80s, there are still plenty of cooks who shun the quick and easy today; but what the cookbook and food industry says it's hearing from readers and customers is that they want less stress in the kitchen.

The time is right, then, for "The New Elegant But Easy Cookbook" (Simon & Schuster, $25), Burros' and Levine's revision of their 38-year-old classic, still emphasizing low-stress entertaining with make-ahead recipes.

Of course, the new book is quite different from the original. In the same way that Prada uses better fabrics than '70s polyester mavens, the recipes call for better ingredients. There are few traditional convenience foods, for instance.

"In hindsight we think we should have known that these these products of technological progress were not making food taste better," Burros writes in the introduction. "But like almost everyone else, we were conned into believing that these timesavers would not compromise the taste or integrity of a dish and would give us more free time. Free time to do what? Work harder and longer hours at other jobs."

There are no apologies, however, for the 50 recipes they've kept from the original book because there are some things, like Levine's "original plum torte," that never do go out of fashion.

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