The bigger they are the harder they fall. True for baked goods (my attempts at Aunt Estelle’s Mile-High Sponge Cake measure more like a block and a half) and true for superstars. But long before Martha Stewart imploded on Implone, the anti-Martha forces were gathering. While America loved watching Martha make from-scratch puff pastry for her artful hors d’ouevres, when it came to throwing one’s own party, well, easy does it.
Wives are working, children are over-scheduled, our lives are hectic, and especially after the cooking frenzy of the holidays, less is certainly more. A number of cookbooks have emerged encouraging us to open that can and feel good about it, most notably Sandra Lee’s “Semi-Homemade Cooking” (Miramax Books). Even the cover tells us: “Quick Marvelous Meals and Nothing is Made from Scratch” and boasts an introduction by Wolfgang Puck, no less. Sandra even has her own show on the Food Network in which she turns convenience food shopping, rather than searing and sautéing, into an art form.
Here’s an appetizer idea the next time you have friends in, Goat Cheese Pizza. Place a fully baked thin store-bought pizza crust on a cookie sheet. Spread with marinara sauce. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese (of course you buy the shredded variety), then with crumbled goat cheese, and bake in a preheated 425-degree oven until bubbly, 12 minutes. (Okay, she does have you chop 2 tablespoons of fresh basil to sprinkle on top. Whew! A woman’s work is never done.)
Then there’s the phenomenon known as Rachel Ray, with her immensely popular shows on the Food Network and now even a talk show on CBS. Her cookbooks routinely head the best-sellers list, and what is she doing? Teaching you how to throw together dinner in 30 minutes or less. She is as unMartha as she can be. Everything she does is a no-brainer, and America is eating her up. She fixes dinner in real time. No pre-cut veggies or pre-sliced anything. We even see her walk over to the refrigerator to get out the ingredients, and at the end of the show, poof, there’s dinner.
If ever there was a Jewish Rachel Ray, it’s got to be Jamie Geller, who calls herself “The Bride who Knew Nothing” and whose cookbook “Quick and Kosher” (Feldheim) is the busy kosher cook’s answer to a prayer.
Although Geller’s grandparents were gourmet chef/owners of a restaurant in the Philadelphia suburbs, her mother worked and rarely stepped into the kitchen. Geller, a former high-powered producer at a major cable network, married “without knowing a spatula from a saucepan,” she says. “To say I had a lot to learn is the understatement of the century.”
With a little help from her mother-in-law, Geller learned to cook, sticking to her mantra of a 15-minute time limit on preparation for any dish. In the chapter entitled “Secrets of the 15-Minute Chef” Geller reveals her timesaving strategies for serving beautifully presented dishes without breaking a sweat. “Be a cubist,” she instructs, for example. Buy pre-cubed meat and pre-skinned and cubed butternut squash and save time.
Like Rachel Ray, Geller’s style is homey and conversational. The book contains enough interesting ideas for the experienced homemaker who is just looking for some shortcuts without intimidating the novice cook and with dozens of luscious photographs to whet any palate.
Lesser known, but no less snappy is the Rush Hour Cook series (Champion Press) by Brook Noel. The book called “Weekly Wonders” even notes on the cover: “She’s everything that Martha isn’t!” The idea was born over Noel’s need to “find some sanity in my crazy life” and create a strategy for the family to get together at mealtimes with “a simple and sane dinner hour during which we can connect and enjoy one another.”
Never know what to make for dinner? The weekly meal plans and shopping lists will remove the guesswork and, more importantly, save you time. Noel, whom a friend once called the “absolute Queen of Incapable Cooking,” bursts with an “if I can do it, you can do it” attitude and flair. If she can make tasty, wholesome meals with her 12- to 14-hour work schedule, then we can too.
All the recipes in the book have to meet the following criteria: The ingredients have to be pronounceable and easy to find “without engaging in a full-scale scavenger hunt.” The ingredient list can’t be longer than the instructions, and each recipe has to elicit a compliment and be edible, at least in part, to the finicky child.
Other books in the series - “Presto Pasta,” ”One-Pot Wonders,” “Effortless Entertaining” and ”Family Favorites” - all sport the tag line: “Conquer kitchen chaos and create a sane and simple dinner hour with the help of The Rush Hour Cook.”