When you want dinner in no time; Books: Two writers say you can make a meal in 15 minutes, and they've got the recipes and tips to prove it.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I love to cook.

For about 30 minutes.

Not for me the complex recipes that require long hours of attention. If I can't be eating it or leaving it in a slow cooker in a half-hour, I'll usually order it out.

Two cookbooks promise to beat my limit with time to spare: "Cooking to Beat the Clock: Delicious, Inspired Meals in 15 Minutes," by Sam Gugino (Chronicle Books, $16.95), and "The 15-Minute Chef," by Patricia Mack (HPBooks, $15.95), claim to offer real meals in a quarter-hour.

And even if they do bend a rule or two, both books do offer some nonobvious quick cookery.

A couple of caveats that cover both books:

Neither writer starts the clock until the ingredients are ready for cooking. I find the chopping, measuring, heating and finding-the-clean-bowl stuff often takes longer than the actual cooking. Some of the recipes give hints about how to speed the early steps, but not all.

Gugino's definition of a meal doesn't always match mine. Some of his recipes are short on carbohydrates. I need more than cooked poultry and a salad, for instance, for my dinner. Mack's recipes all offer a complete menu. But only the entree is prepared "live"; the rest is to be store-bought.

Fast is not neat. Unless you are so organized that you won't need these books, you'll probably leave debris in your wake that may take extra time to clean up after the meal.

And you give up flavor for time. A marinade or rub that spends only five minutes on the meat or fish just doesn't produce as much flavor as one that gets even 30 minutes to do its stuff.

Gugino's offering is clearly aimed at the upscale eater. The color photos, choice of ingredients and 60 recipes on slick-stock paper seem pitched to someone who thinks of one's self as a time-challenged chef rather than merely the designated desperate cook for the night.

For flavors, he prefers Bulgarian feta cheese to feta of other national origins, California Calimyrna figs to Black Mission and Dijon-style mustard to ballpark-common. For organization, he talks about a "well-equipped 'batterie de cuisine.' " (All I have is an untidy kitchen, but I made do.) For focus, he basically tells you to ignore everything else -- conversation, crying kids, nuclear warfare -- to get the meal done as quickly as possible.

And for creativity, he suggests that you, well, be creative. That way he can get away with describing his 60 recipes as "concepts" rather than a few too few recipes for a $17 cookbook.

Having said that, the recipes look good and so do the photos. Flank Steak Salad is a medley of reds and greens. Smothered Lamb Chops With Orzo makes me hungry as I look at the page. Even a relatively pedestrian combination, grilled sauerkraut and reheated smoked pork chops, sounds posh when named Choucroute Garni.

A recipe that caught my eye is called Chicks and Bricks. It's Cornish hens cooked in 15 minutes. And guess what? It works.

Here's the trick: The birds are flattened and pressed into a hot frying pan by a plate covered with at least 5 pounds of something (a brick, for instance).

Gugino suggests you have your butcher do the hen-flattening. Because my local grocery sells its Cornish hens prewrapped and mostly frozen to the consistency of bird-shaped billiard balls, I did the honors after a day of defrosting. Cut through the backbone, spread the bird between two pieces of foil and whack away with the flat side of a heavy cleaver. Very satisfying.

The result was everything promised: crispy skin and moist meat made more flavorful with an oil-and-vinegar sauce that doubled as salad dressing.

Mack's book has a more humble appearance: soft cover, no photos, regular paper stock. And it's shorter on warm-up advice than Gugino's. It is, however, longer on choices, with 500 recipes.

Not that every offering is a winner. If I really need a cookbook to tell me that store-bought ravioli and bottled pasta sauce make a quick meal, do you want to trust me around sharpened kitchen implements?

But this is not a lowest-denominator cookbook. You'll find Veal Marsala, Pork and Black Bean Sauce, Mussels Steamed in Wine, Spanish Tortilla (a variety of omelet) and even a quick Garlic Soup.

A few of the recipes gave me ideas: Use pretzel crumbs to bread a pork tenderloin. How about dipping catfish fillets into Dijon mustard, then into ground pecans before frying? Both of those might apply to other meals.

A salmon recipe called for brushing the fish with a mix of soy sauce, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and hot pepper sauce just before broiling. The result had a nice color but not enough taste for my taste.

Beef With Asparagus -- round steak marinated for five minutes in a teriyaki-sherry mix -- suffered a little from the same low-flavor problem. Plus, overcooking round steak even slightly (she said to stir-fry 30 seconds, and I went an extra 30) leaves the meat a bit too chewy. Next time, I'll give the meat a little more time in the marinade and a little less time in the pan.

And there will be a next time, for both cookbooks.

Now, if only there were a book that explained how to clean a kitchen in 15 minutes, I might never eat out again.

Tequila Shrimp

Serves 4

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 tablespoons tequila

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Heat butter and oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes. Stir in tequila, lime juice and pepper flakes. Cook 2 minutes or until most of liquid evaporates and shrimp are pink and glazed.

Per serving: 183 calories (50 percent fat); 10 grams fat (4 grams saturated); no fiber, 177 milligrams cholesterol; 244 milligrams sodium; 1 gram carbohydrate; 37 milligrams calcium

-- From "The 15-Minute Chef" (HPBooks, $15.95) by Patricia Mack

Chicks and Bricks

Serves 4

1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil

salt and pepper

2 Cornish hens, about 1 1/2 pounds each, butterflied, breast bone removed and pounded flat (by the butcher, if possible)

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 small head radicchio (4 ounces to 5 ounces)

1 head frisee or 1 small head curly endive or escarole (8 ounces to 9 ounces)

3 scallions

1/3 cup walnut, peanut or extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard

2 tablespoons balsamic or red wine vinegar

Divide the canola oil between two heavy 9-inch skillets (cast-iron frying pans are ideal) over medium heat. Season the hens with salt and pepper. (If the butcher hasn't done so, butterfly the Cornish hens first by cutting through the backbone with a knife or kitchen shears. Then flatten the hens between two sheets of aluminum foil or wax paper with the side of a cleaver or a meat pounder before seasoning.) Increase the heat under the skillets to high and put one hen in each skillet, skin side down.

Put a plate on top of each hen, then set weights on each plate, at least 5 pounds per plate. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook for 14 minutes, turning once halfway through. When the hens are done, the juices from the thigh will run clear when pierced.

Meanwhile, slice the bottom from the radicchio, removing the core. Halve lengthwise and, with the flat side down, shred each half lengthwise with a knife. Put in a salad spinner.

Slice the bottom from the frisee, removing the core. Cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-wide strips. Add to the salad spinner. Fill the salad spinner with water, drain and spin the greens dry. Remove any excess moisture with paper towels.

Trim the scallions and mince the white parts and about 2 inches of the green. Put them in a small bowl. Add the oil, mustard, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with a small whisk. Thinly slice the rest of the scallion greens crosswise.

In a large bowl, toss the greens with all but 1/4 cup of the dressing. Divide the greens among 4 plates. When the hens are cooked, separate each into 2 halves. Put a half on each plate, either on the greens or off to the side, skin side up. Spoon 1 tablespoon of the remaining dressing on each of the halves and sprinkle the scallion greens on top.

Per serving: 919 calories (66 percent fat); 67 grams fat (12 grams saturated); 2 grams fiber; 226 milligrams cholesterol; 935 milligrams sodium; 5 grams carbohydrates; 84 milligrams calcium

-- From "Cooking to Beat the Clock: Delicious, Inspired Meals in 15 Minutes" (Chronicle Books, $16.95) by Sam Gugino

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