Can-do cooking to beat the clock Convenience foods is getting a good name


THE FOOD TRENDS for 1991 have been charted: safer fish, '60s-style hippie foods, two-dishwasher kitchens. But food trends are for trendwatchers and a small group of people clustered at the top of the foodie pyramid. It's another story for the rest of the world.

"In my next kitchen, I'd love to have a vending machine and a microwave oven -- forget about the stove," says Joan Coleman, half seriously.

Coleman, who lives in Dixon, Ill., is the mother of two boys, ages 6 and 9. Like an ever-increasing number of women, she has a full-time job outside the home. She also is working toward a Ph.D. and is divorced.

The thought that she could juggle all of this with made-from-scratch meals, using all the latest trendy vegetables, strikes her as not only ludicrous, but also highly impractical.

"There are only so many hours in the day. Not too many of them are going to be spent peeling vegetables. Like, maybe, none."

For Coleman and legions of others like her, convenience prevails as the watchword, the guiding force at the dinner table. Along with nutrition and food safety, it is one of the most compelling food issues facing consumers.

The umbrella of convenience in the kitchen stretches over a large number of products and procedures, but for many, convenience is spelled C-A-N. If one person is making chicken stock from the requisite bones and fresh vegetables to use as a base for homemade soup, scores of others are reaching for a can of chicken broth. Still more are leapfrogging over all those steps, opening a can or box of ready-made soup and heating it in the microwave oven.

Indeed, soups are the single biggest selling canned-food item, according to the Canned Food Information Council. And they are but one of the 1,500 products that come in a can, from fruits and vegetables to meats, fish and pasta.

Despite all the talk about the "correct" foods -- organic, fresh and locally grown -- canned-food sales are growing as they have been for much of the last 10 years. In 1989 (the last year for which there are data), canned-food sales rose as much as 8 percent in some categories.

Similar increases are seen in other convenience categories, including frozen dinners and prepared supermarket foods.

"The reality is that there are only 24 hours in a day," says Michael Sansolo, editor of Progressive Grocer magazine, a trade publication for supermarkets. Food manufacturers are tuned in to that and are geared to help you cope with that by offering the highest level of efficiency and convenience. If a food can be made more convenient, chances are it has been."

Now, in the spirit of "If you can't beat them, join them," there has been an acceptance, at least tacitly, of certain prepared foods by professional cooks. Increasingly, cookbook authors are designing recipes around convenience foods. It is not so surprising that a recent "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" routinely lists canned and frozen foods among ingredients. But sly references to frozen artichokes, canned chicken broth and canned chickpeas show up in the likes of "The New American Kitchen" by Michael McLaughlin and "The Way to Cook," Julia Child's book, among others.

Jacques Pepin, one of the more celebrated French chefs working in this country, has written the "Short-Cut Cook." Does he see a book filled with convenience foods to be a contradiction of sorts, a compromise of the high standards he has set and maintained so steadfastly?

"Not at all," he answered in a phone interview from his home in Connecticut. "This is not an evolution. It is something else entirely. People aren't necessarily saying they'll never cook from scratch again, but maybe that they'll reserve that type of cooking for the weekend."

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