Publications offer easy entree back to the kitchen THE SIMPLER THE BETTER


For or a new generation of cooks, there is a new generation of cooking information.

Plenty of reasons have been offered for why, some 10 or 12 years ago, people stopped cooking and began thawing, reheating, microwaving, grazing and going out: more working mothers; cutbacks in home economics education; a desire by women to avoid the stereotype of the female as cook; a surfeit of money; a shortage of time.

Food preparation didn't disappear, but increasingly it was being done by people who were paid for it -- in factories, take-out shops, restaurants, grocery stores.

But times have changed. A stubborn recession means money is tight. Busy as they still are, few people can afford to pay others to prepare all their meals.

Add to that the fact that most folks know a lot more about their own health and the health of the planet than in the past, and you have a stampede back to the kitchen.

"It's what the '90s are all about -- a return to tradition," said Sally Peters, director of consumer services for the Pillsbury Co. of Minneapolis. "A return to home cooking and special occasions. In tougher times, people just seem to want to hang on to those rituals."

Pillsbury is seeing evidence of the trend on its 800 line for consumer inquiries, Ms. Peters said. "We're starting to hear from people . . . who don't know how to cook. They're asking basic food-preparation questions; they want to know how to store things, they want to know what specific ingredients are, and basic cooking techniques."

Along with those requests, she said, "We're getting more requests for recipes. We know people are real interested in recipes. . . . They do need help [in understanding them]. We've found a lot of different places are offering that kind of advice." Magazines are reviving old "how-to" columns, she said. "And basic cookbooks are very popular."

Last spring Pillsbury introduced a new magazine called Fast and Healthy. Published six times a year, the magazine is packed with recipes, tips and nutrition information. Articles in the November/December issue include: "Turkey and the trimmings in half the time"; "Holiday meals take heart, festive meals that are delicious and good for your heart"; "Brush up on food safety"; and "Less guilt for working moms," on a report finding that children get about the same nutritional value from the foods they eat whether their mother is a full-time homemaker or a full-time worker outside the home.

Another new magazine, to be test-launched next month, is really an old friend in a new guise. Cook's magazine founder Christopher Kimball says the revamped Cook's Illustrated magazine will be addressed to "home cooks who take their cooking seriously." The magazine, also published six times a year, will accept no advertising. There will be step-by-step illustrations, ideas on how to improvise recipes and "in-depth" stories on cooking techniques.

"I think it's time that people really learned how to cook again," said Mr. Kimball, who is publisher and editor of the new magazine. "When I learned to cook, back in the '70s, we were dealing with a really aristocratic style of cooking" based on French traditions. "But today, French cuisine is dead. It's just gone. What you really have is working-class, everyday cooking. The skills you learned in the '70s are not the skills you need in the '90s."

"People are cooking at home," said Lora Brody, a professional food writer, lecturer and cookbook author. "But I think the way people are cooking has changed."

Ms. Brody's latest book is one of a recent spate of "basic" cookbooks: "The Kitchen Survival Guide" (William Morrow, 1992, is a how-to book with recipes and tips that cover everything from defrosting a freezer to carving a turkey. She was inspired to write it by her son, Max, who came home from college and announced that dorm food was so bad he was moving into an apartment and would cook for himself. Of course, he didn't know how to cook.

Her guide covers all the basics: how to read a recipe; how to set the table; how to make great coffee; cooking terms and what they mean; essential equipment.

"There are so many new foods available these days," said David Ricketts, a food writer whose latest book, in conjunction with the editors of Family Circle magazine, is "The Family Circle Cookbook, New Tastes for New Times."

"Through eating out, people have been exposed to different kinds of foods, and though chains like Chi-Chi's and The Olive Garden, to ethnic foods," he said. "Plus, going through the supermarket, they're seeing a lot of new things" they're curious enough to try at home.

Health-conscious people are using more spices and more flavors to replace the fat in traditional recipes, he said. Recipes that are low in sodium or fat are labeled in the "Family Circle Cookbook," as are those that take less than 30 minutes.

The book begins with a section on "What You Need To Know" that includes how to measure pans, food equivalents, USDA dietary guidelines, a six-page primer on herbs and spices, an illustrated guide to techniques (dicing, chopping, etc.), and tips on menu planning.

"Even for the person who has not dealt with a kitchen before, it's all there," he said. "We tried to make it accessible and easy."

Of course, one way to acquire culinary skills is to study with a chef, but time and money can seriously limit that option. One way to surmount such difficulties is through Anne Willan's new series of cookbooks, called "Look & Cook" (Dorling Kindersley, $19.95).

MA Ms. Willan runs La Varenne cooking school in Paris and La Var

enne at the Greenbrier in Virginia. Instead of recipes, the books have photo illustrations of each implement, ingredient and step in the cooking of 50 different dishes. Each recipe is a lesson in how to cook. Some are fairly simple: angel hair pasta with shrimp, asparagus and sesame, for instance, which has a separate four-step illustration on "How to peel and devein

shrimp." Some recipes are amazingly sophisticated -- Sachertorte, Black and White Chocolate Mousse Towers. But all are lavishly illustrated and filled with tips. There is both a shopping list and an "order of work" for each recipe.

At least nine "Look & Cook" books are planned; currently, three are out: "Chicken Classics," "Perfect Pasta" and "Chocolate Desserts." Future titles include "Meat Classics," "Appetizers" and "Italian Cooking."

'Survival' recipe

Here's a recipe from Lora Brody's "Survival Guide." It could be a family meal, or for entertaining.

Baked Chicken Breasts with Honey Mustard Sauce

Serves six.

1 cup raw long-grain white rice

2 1/2 cups canned chicken broth, or 1 chicken bouillon cube dissolved in 2 1/2 cups hot water

3 whole boneless chicken breasts, skins off or on (its up to you), split in half

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup honey

1/3 cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

Heat oven to 375 degrees with rack in center position. Spray a 2-quart casserole with non-stick vegetable cooking spray or coat it lightly with vegetable shortening. Pour rice over bottom of prepared dish, then pour in broth. Rinse chicken and pat it dry with paper towels. Layer the chicken over the rice.

Combine remaining ingredients, mix well, and spread over the chicken. Cover loosely with foil and bake 40-50 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking 10 minutes, or until chicken is done.

Note: Test chicken for doneness by pricking with fork; juices should run clear. Or slice into thickest part with a small sharp knife to make sure there is no pinkness in the meat. If liquid is not absorbed, let sit 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Ms. Brody was recruited by Kraft General Foods to promote a new kind of cheesecake recipe that is extremely simple. Each has four basic ingredients plus a crust and takes only three steps to make. And there's no springform pan.

3-step cheesecake

Here is the basic recipe:

Serves 8.

G; 2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, softened (see note)

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2 eggs


OC 1 ready-to-use graham cracker crumb crust (6 ounces, or 9 inch)

Mix cream cheese, sugar and vanilla

at medium speed with electric mixer until well-blended. Add eggs; mix until blended. Pour into crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, or until center is almost set. Cool. Refrigerate 3 hours or overnight.

Note: You can also use lighter Neufchatel-type cheese.

Variations: For chocolate, melt four squares of semi-sweet baking chocolate; add after eggs and mix until blended. For candy version, sprinkle 1 cup of chopped candy bars on top of cake before baking. For pumpkin, add 1/2 cup canned pumpkin, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and a -- each of nutmeg and cloves in the first step. Then add eggs and proceed as directed.

The next recipe is from "The Family Circle Cookbook." It could be a meatless entree, or could accompany roast chicken.

Lasagna torte

Serves eight.

& 1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 can (28 inches) tomatoes in puree

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 medium-sized carrots, pared and shredded

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (or 1 tablespoon dried)

2 pounds fresh spinach (or two 10-ounce packages frozen leaf spinach, thawed and squeezed dry)

12 lasagna noodles2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 cups (8 ounces) shredded fontina cheese

Heat oil in large skillet over high heat. Add onion; saute until soft, about 8 minutes. Place in medium-sized bowl.

Add tomatoes to skillet, breaking up with spoon. Add garlic and carrots. Bring to boiling. Lower heat; simmer, covered, 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in basil and salt. Set sauce aside.

, Stem and wash fresh spinach.

Place in large pot over high heat; cook until wilted, about three minutes. Drain and squeeze dry.

L Cook lasagna noodles according to package directions. Drain.

Heat oven to moderate (350 degrees). Line 9-inch springform pan with aluminum foil; grease foil.

Add ricotta, Parmesan and pepper to reserved onion; stir to combine.

Trim lasagna noodles to fit pan. Fit 4 noodles into pan, overlapping slightly. Cover with one-third ricotta mixture, spreading evenly. Top with one-third spinach, one-quarter sauce and one-quarter fontina. Repeat two more times, using noodle trimmings as one layer. Top with the last of the noodles, the remaining quarter of sauce and fontina.

Bake until hot, 50 minutes to an hour. Let stand five minutes before serving. Remove sides of pan. Cut into wedges to serve.

Pillsbury's toll-free consumer information number is (800) 767-4466. Answers are available weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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