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Cooking to Beat the Clock: Delicious, Inspired Meals in 15 Minutes

Cooking to Beat the Clock: Delicious, Inspired Meals in 15 Minutes

by Sam Gugino, Dawn Smith (Photographer)
Busy professionals and harried parents don't have time after a long day to spend an hour preparing dinner, but no one wants to settle for cold pizza or cheese sandwiches everyday either. How does Provencal Mushroom Ragout over Polenta sound? Or Pork Medallions with Cider and Mashed Sweet Potatoes? In 15 minutes? Including the time it takes to chop the vegetables!


Busy professionals and harried parents don't have time after a long day to spend an hour preparing dinner, but no one wants to settle for cold pizza or cheese sandwiches everyday either. How does Provencal Mushroom Ragout over Polenta sound? Or Pork Medallions with Cider and Mashed Sweet Potatoes? In 15 minutes? Including the time it takes to chop the vegetables! James Beard Award-winning food journalist Sam Gugino has devised a host of secret strategies for getting organized so cooking dinner is quick and painless. He approaches the overall kitchen scene with four key principles in mind: flavor, organization, focus, and creativity. To this he adds clever time-saving techniques that drastically cut the preparation time for a meal-sized entrZe serving two or four. In all, Cooking to Beat the Clock offers an entirely new way of thinking about any recipe, and just may change the way you cook. It's amazing but truea delicious dinner can be ready in 15 minutes, start to finish!

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Chronicle Books LLC
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

flavor, organization, focus & creativity

This book is based on four principles,
which will enable you not just to pick
out a recipe here and there, but to
develop a lifelong strategy for fast meals,
regardless of how long they take.


Flavor means a pantry — which in this book also includes the refrigerator and freezer — well stocked with ingredients that, whenever possible, "do double duty in flavor and texture. That's what shrinks time," says Andrew Schloss, author of Cooking with Three Ingredients and an old classmate of mine at the Restaurant School in Philadelphia.

    For example, with a richly flavored extra-virgin olive oil and an equally intense balsamic or red wine vinegar, you don't need much more than salt and pepper for a first-rate vinaigrette. Yes, you may have to pay more for these ingredients, but don't we always pay a little extra for quality and convenience? And isn't a superior-tasting final product worth it?

    In addition to packing as much flavor and texture as possible, a well-stocked pantry means you're less likely to run out for last-minute ingredients, a double whammy if you're in a rush. Substitutions can also be made more easily with a full arsenal of foodstuff. Don't have pinto beans? Kidney beans will probably do. Chicken stock can sometimes be used in place of clam juice. Arrowroot for cornstarch.

    The following pantry suggestions relate to the recipes in the book, though they have much broader uses. Use them as a guide, adding or subtracting items to suit your own needs. For example, if you do a lot of Asian cooking, you may want to include ingredients such as hoisin or oyster sauce. Conversely, if you hate sardines, why keep them around?

    ANCHOVIES: See Seafood, canned.

    ARTICHOKE HEARTS: I prefer artichokes packed in water, which usually come in fifteen-ounce cans, to artichoke hearts packed in oil, so I can add the amount of oil and the type of seasonings I prefer.

    BEANS, CANNED: An excellent source of fiber and nonmeat protein. Quality can vary among brands, especially for cannellini beans, which can be mushy. However, chickpeas are generally good. These two varieties and black beans make up the canned bean triumvirate in my pantry. I usually also stock red kidney, pink, or pinto beans and perhaps navy, Great Northern, or other white beans.

    BREADS AND BREAD CRUMBS: Pita breads with a pocket, or the pocketless ones used in Middle Eastern Lamb with Cucumber Salad (page 40), keep quite well in the freezer. I don't like corn tortillas unless they're freshly made, so I use flour tortillas in San Diego Fish Tacos (page 77), Chicken Fajitas with Mango Salsa (page 54), and Huevos Rancheros with Spicy Black Beans (page 108). They will last a week or more in the refrigerator and can be frozen. (If you don't want them to stick together in one clump, separate the individual tortillas with wax paper before freezing.)

    Fresh bread crumbs are always best but are not always possible to make. They also don't last as long as purchased plain and seasoned (often called Italian-style) bread crumbs, which keep in the pantry for at least six months.

    BUTTER: I use unsalted butter because I think it tastes better than salted butter. Since it is more perishable, I keep one stick in the refrigerator and the rest in the freezer. Frozen butter defrosts quickly in a microwave oven.

    CAPERS: The most commonly available capers are pickled in brine and come in two sizes. The smaller nonpareil capers from France are of better quality and are more convenient because they don't need to be chopped.


    Blue Cheese: Danish blue, Bleu d'Auvergne, or a good-quality domestic blue will work fine in recipes such as Pork Medallions with Cider and Mashed Sweet Potatoes (page 49) and Venetian Calf's Liver with Polenta (page 48).

    Feta: There are several different styles of this crumbly sheep's milk cheese stored in brine, depending on where it is made. I prefer Bulgarian feta because it is creamier and less salty. American versions are usually made from cow's milk and are less flavorful. I store feta in a plastic container in the refrigerator where it will keep up to a week.

    Goat Cheeses: There are a wide range of domestic and imported goat cheeses (chevres in French) from which to choose, both fresh and aged. Fresh goat cheese as used in Shrimp and Goat Cheese Quesadilla with Avocado Salsa (page 80) often comes in logs. Coach Farms is one of my favorites. It even has a reduced-fat version. Fresh goat cheese will keep only a few days under refrigeration unless it is vacuum sealed.

    Parmesan: The most versatile and important cheese in the world. Use the real thing, Parmigiano-Reggiano; it's worth the extra cost. Though freshly grated Parmesan is always best, for convenience buy it already grated (or grate a large amount yourself) and store it in the freezer, where it will keep for a few months.

    Pecorino: A sheep's milk grating cheese with more bite than Parmesan. Locatelli is probably the best-known brand. Store it like Parmesan, already grated in the freezer, for convenience.

    Others: For provolone, use the sharp, aged type, never the slicing kind. Aged Asiago and dry aged lack cheese are alternatives to Parmesan. A sharp Cheddar or a type of Swiss is good to have for shredding or melting.


    Bacon: Used in Spaghetti Carbonara (page 93) and Curly Endive with Pancetta and Blue Cheese (page 141), pancetta is Italian unsmoked bacon and thus has a more pure pork flavor than regular bacon. It comes rolled in pinwheel fashion and is available at butcher shops, Italian delis, and better markets. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week, but it can also be frozen. Slab bacon is a decent substitute for pancetta. Keep it in the refrigerator for a week (longer if unopened). Or better yet, freeze it, then slice off what you need for dishes like Clam Chowder with Potatoes and Bacon (page 115).

    Canadian Bacon: Though it is often sold sliced, I like to buy this lean smoked pork loin in one piece so I can cut it the way I want, as in Quick Cassoulet (page 47). It will keep up to a week under refrigeration.

    Prosciutto: Sometimes called raw Parma ham, though it is cured and ready to eat. Italian prosciutto from Parma or San Daniele (used in Pasta with Asparagus, Prosciutto, and Parmesan, page 91) has a richer flavor and is less salty than domestic versions. It will keep ten to twelve days under refrigeration.

    Sausage: I keep at least one kind of cooked sausage in the refrigerator or in the freezer, usually Hillshire Farm's turkey kielbasa (used in several dishes, including Choucroute Garni, page 45), because it's low in fat. A number of companies like Aidells Sausage Company make a variety of flavorful cooked sausages with venison and duck as well as chicken and pork, all of which can be used by themselves or with pastas and other dishes. D'Artagnan sells several by mail (page 150). Cooked sausages will keep up to two weeks under refrigeration; fresh sausages, depending on the meat used (chicken is more fragile than pork), up to a week. Both can be frozen but the sausages should be individually wrapped so you can take what you need without mangling the entire package.

    EGGS: Whenever eggs are called for in a recipe, use the large size. Always store them in their containers in the refrigerator, but not on the door, which is not cold enough. For people concerned about fat and cholesterol, egg substitutes work reasonably well in omelets or scrambled egg dishes such as Frittata with Artichokes, Roasted Peppers, and Pecorino (page 104); Joe's Special with Shiitake Mushrooms (page 107), and Spanish Tortilla with Baby Lima Beans and Potatoes (page 106). Those worried about salmonella in raw eggs can use egg substitutes for Main-Course Caesar Salad (page 139).

    FRUITS, DRIED: Because much of their moisture has evaporated, dried fruits have concentrated flavor. Some, like Turkish figs and apricots, require soaking to soften up, so they aren't appropriate for quick cooking. For purely coincidental reasons, figs are the only dried fruit I use in this book, in Pork Tenderloin with Figs, Brandy, and Parsnips (page 50). I prefer the more intensely flavored California Calimyrna figs to black mission figs.


    Bulgur: Steamed, dried, and crushed wheat kernels now commonly available in cereal-size boxes in supermarkets. When sold in bulk, mostly in ethnic markets and health-food stores, bulgur often comes in two or three different grinds. I prefer the medium grind.

    Couscous: Actually a kind of pasta, though used like a grain. It is almost always found in instant form but the quality is often good.

    Polenta: Cornmeal mush that traditionally takes at least thirty minutes prepare on the stove with lots of stirring. Cooked in a microwave oven, however, polenta can be done in under fifteen minutes. Instant polenta takes only a few minutes on top of the stove.

    Rice: With the exception of Lundberg Quick Brown Rice, which is used in Seafood Pilaf with Saffron and Peas (page 98), I use basmati rice exclusively in this book because this slender, long-grain, Indian rice cooks quicker than normal long-grain rice. It's also so fragrant and flavorful it doesn't need any embellishment. Indian basmati is available in many supermarkets as well as by mail order (page 150). Basmati is also produced in the United States as Texmati and in California by Lundberg. Long-grain rice can be substituted in many of the dishes, though it is not as fragrant or flavorful and takes longer to cook.


    Fresh: Most major supermarkets carry at least several fresh herbs. I use mint, basil, thyme, chives, and cilantro most often. For parsley, I prefer the more flavorful flat-leaf, or Italian, parsley to the curly type. Fresh herbs will last up to one week, loosely stored in plastic bags in the crisper section of the refrigerator.

    Dried: Though fresh herbs are invariably better than dried, they're not always convenient. Some herbs, particularly sage leaves (not ground), thyme, rosemary, mint, and marjoram, transfer their flavors relatively well from the fresh to the dried form. Oregano does too, but only Greek oregano, which can be purchased in bunches in Middle Eastern markets, or Sicilian oregano, which is similarly packaged and sold in better food stores. If you can't find either or can't get them by mail (see page 150), use dried mint or marjoram or fresh herbs. Stay away from what I call pizza oregano, that acrid stuff that comes in shakers in pizza parlors. Herbes de Provence, a dried blend that includes thyme and rosemary, is a terrific all-purpose seasoning. And bay leaves, an essential seasoning, are almost always purchased dried. When well sealed and stored away from the stove, dried herbs can keep from six months to one year, depending on their pungency. (Stronger rosemary, for example, lasts longer than thyme.)

    LEMONS AND LIMES: Though technically perishable items, they're available year-round and keep well, so there's no excuse for buying the bottled stuff. Both will keep up to six weeks when well sealed in plastic bags and stored in the refrigerator.

    MEAT AND POULTRY, FROZEN: Boneless steaks, whole pork tenderloins, veal cutlets, boneless chicken breasts, and turkey cutlets are good to have in the freezer. Wrap them in individual portions for easier defrosting.

    MILK, CANNED: I keep a can of evaporated milk on hand in case I run out of milk or cream for cooking. Coconut milk, which is not a dairy product despite its name, is great for quick curry dishes like Chicken Curry with Tropical Fruit and Basmati Rice (page 58). There is also a reduced-fat version (coconut milk is high in fat), which I think works well.

    MUSTARD: Find a Dijon style you like and stick with it. Depending on space considerations, you may also want to consider a coarse-grain mustard and flavored mustards, especially hot and sweet and green peppercorn.

    NUTS AND SEEDS: While I often cook with nuts, I use them more sparingly for quick cooking because they are generally best when toasted, and that takes time! Some seeds, like sesame, can be toasted in a few minutes on top of the stove. Walnuts and pecans can be used without toasting. Buy pieces instead of halves; they're cheaper and don't need much chopping. Tightly sealed at room temperature, nuts and seeds stay fresh for up to six weeks. They last longer when refrigerated (up to four months) or frozen (up to six months), both good ideas in summer.


    Nut and Seed Oils: Walnut oil is the most common, but almond and hazelnut oils are also great in cold preparations — especially when fruit is used. Only one of these is necessary to keep in your pantry. I especially like those from Loriva, which have a rich, toasted flavor (as does the company's peanut oil). Toasted sesame oil is a great flavor enhancer in Asian dishes; a little goes a long way.

    Olive Oil: Use the more flavorful extra-virgin type in cold preparations like salads, or in cooked dishes where the oil is drizzled in at the very end to enhance the flavor. Find the specific oil you like, regardless of where it comes from, by experimenting, much like tasting wine. Always go for intense flavor. For sauteing or frying, pure olive oil or a lower grade of extra-virgin is fine.

    Other Oils: When a neutral cooking oil is called for, I use canola oil for its heart-healthy qualities and relatively high smoke point. There are also many flavored oils on the market, such as those with basil, roasted garlic, and hot peppers. These are obvious time-savers because you eliminate at least one ingredient. I like the Consorzio line in particular. Well sealed in a cool, dry place, oils will last several months or more. I'm not in favor of refrigerating oils. Better to buy smaller amounts and turn them over.

    OLIVES: I use mostly black olives and I like to have two kinds on hand, one oil cured — that is to say, not in brine — like those from Morocco or Sicily, and one packed in brine such as a meaty Greek kalamata or Italian gaeta. Pitted olives save time and kalamatas can be found this way. So can jumbo green Sicilian or Spanish olives. Jars of small green pitted cocktail olives — plain or pimiento stuffed — and a chopped version of pimiento olives called salad olives are convenient because they keep in the refrigerator for several weeks or more.

    ONION FAMILY: Though perishable, onions, garlic, shallots, and scallions are pantry staples because I use them so regularly and they are available year-round.

    Any white, Spanish, or yellow onion is fine in recipes that call for cooked onions. Buy different sizes so that you'll have what is called for in a recipe. In this book, a small onion is about four ounces, a medium about eight ounces, and a large about twelve ounces. When a raw onion is needed, use a sweet onion like Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Maui — all of which have less of a bite — or a red onion, which is usually between a Spanish onion and a sweet onion in intensity. I store white or Spanish onions in the refrigerator — where they'll last several weeks — because the cold helps to neutralize the compounds that cause tearing when onions are chopped. Sweet and red onions should be kept cool but not refrigerated and consumed within a few weeks.

    Whole heads of garlic will last several weeks without refrigeration if kept cool. When a clove is called for in a recipe, it should be good size one. Like garlic, shallots will last several weeks without refrigeration if kept cool. Onions mixed with garlic are a decent substitute. Scallions, also known as green onions, are not because they are too mild. The green tops can be substituted for chives as a garnish. In the crisper section of the refrigerator, they'll last up to five days.

    PASTA: I use dried pasta almost exclusively at home because, in addition to being incredibly convenient, it is consistently good. I prefer pasta imported from Italy and choose from among several brands. American pastas have improved in recent years, so try different brands until you find the one you like. I use dried capellini primarily in this book because it cooks the fastest among dried pastas. If you want to use dried pasta other than capellini, it will take longer to cook. Fresh pasta, regardless of the shape, cooks as fast as or faster than dried capellini. More and more supermarkets are carrying fresh pasta in a variety of shapes. While dried pasta, as the saying goes, lasts longer than most marriages, fresh pasta should be used within a few weeks if sealed and kept under refrigeration.

    PASTES: Though they are not used in this book, prepared pesto, tapenade, and olive paste, to name a few, are handy for quick hors d'oeuvre spreads, pasta sauces, and toppings for grilled poultry or seafood.

    RED BELL PEPPERS, ROASTED: Seeded and peeled and packed in jars, they are an essential pantry item because they can be used in pasta salads, sauces, and omelet fillings, and as part of an antipasto platter. Though expensive, the Spanish piquillo sweet red peppers, which are roasted over a wood fire, are sensational, velvety, and full of flavor. Available at specialty stores or by mail (page 150).

    SALSAS AND CHUTNEYS: Both offer intense and multiple flavors that can enhance a sauce or dressing, or they can be served on their own to dress up a plain grilled piece of meat, chicken, or fish. There are a lot of mediocre salsas on the market, so be selective when choosing one for a recipe like San Diego Fish Tacos (page 77). For example, ingredients like tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cilantro should be high up on the list of ingredients. Indian and Asian markets offer a wider variety of chutneys than supermarkets.

    SALT: I use kosher salt because it has a purer flavor than table salt and it doesn't clump. I keep it in a small sugar bowl for easy measuring, though more often I just grab some with my fingers.

    SAUCES: If you use soy sauce frequently, consider having two kinds: dark soy for heartier dishes and a lighter soy sauce for light dishes and dressings. For those watching their salt, there are low-sodium versions. Fish sauces from Vietnam (nuoc man) or Thailand (nam pla) are great flavor enhancers — don't be put off by the smell — but they also have lots of sodium. Worcestershire sauce (made from anchovies and various other seasonings) is also worth having on hand. Sometimes all a dish needs is a splash or two of hot-pepper sauce. Tabasco is the most common, but I also like to keep a habanero sauce, which, despite its searing heat, has lots of flavor.


    Anchovies: Most commonly available filleted and packed either flat in two-ounce cans or upright in jars. (Don't use fillets wrapped around capers.) I prefer the hand-filleted Ortiz Spanish anchovies, which are meaty and not very salty. They come in four-ounce tins and are available in specialty-food shops or by mail order (page 150). If you use only chopped anchovies, and not very often, anchovy paste in tubes may be more appropriate. It lasts several months in the refrigerator.

    Clams: Minced or chopped (I prefer chopped) and packed in round cans, like tuna. After tuna, the most versatile canned seafood for chowders and pastas.

    Tuna: In recent years I've switched from fancy albacore packed in water to light or albacore packed in olive oil because the latter has so much more flavor for everyday eating as well as specific dishes like Pantry Antipasto (page 136) or Salade Nicoise (page 142). Progresso is a widely available brand of very high-quality olive-oil packed tuna.

    Others: Salmon, sardines, mussels, crab, and shrimp are not used in this book but are candidates for pantry stocking. For example, mussels could be used in quick pasta dishes (like canned clams) and sardines could be a part of an antipasto platter.

    SEAFOOD, CURED: Smoked or cured seafood, particularly salmon, is a great choice for quick meals because it needs no cooking and a little goes a long way as in Capellini with Smoked Salmon and Scallion Cream Cheese (page 97). It will keep about a week under refrigeration and can be frozen.

    SEAFOOD, FROZEN: I prefer frozen crab and shrimp to canned. The crab could be used in Corn Chowder with Crabmeat and Pimientos (page 113), the shrimp in Jambalaya (page 87).

    SPICES: While ground seasonings are the most convenient, whole spices, like coffee in bean form, give more flavor and aroma when freshly ground in a spice mill, such as a coffee grinder used exclusively for spices. Specific whole spices I use are cumin, allspice, dried ginger root, black pepper (ground in a pepper mill), and nutmeg (grated with a nutmeg grater). I grind small batches of cumin, allspice, and ginger so I always have some that is as close to freshly ground as possible. Black pepper and nutmeg are ground as needed.

    Other important spices in my kitchen include hot-pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, saffron (threads, not ground), curry powder, and paprika. I use less often Chinese five-spice powder, caraway seeds, chili powder, juniper berries, fennel seeds, and dried chilies (ancho, New Mexico, and reconstituted chipotle peppers in tomato sauce). See Mail Order Sources (page 150) if these less-used spices are not readily available to you. I keep a jar of pickled sliced jalapeno peppers in the refrigerator (where they last for months) as an alternative to fresh jalapenos. Though technically perishable, fresh ginger is always part of my spice pantry. To keep cut ginger from molding, wrap it in a paper towel and put it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, where it will last a few weeks or more.

    STOCK: A good homemade stock can add a rich flavor that canned stocks can't match. However, if you don't want to make an occasional pot of stock over the weekend, buy a good brand. Chicken stock is the most versatile. I like Health Valley fat-free chicken stock. There are also reduced-sodium stocks. Bottled clam juice is also very handy as a seafood or fish stock alternative in dishes like Fifteen-Minute Bouillabaisse (page 84) and Steamed Cod with Summer Vegetables (page 72). Just be mindful of its saltiness. Ditto for most canned beef stock. Canned vegetable stocks in various forms (such as low-sodium) are becoming increasingly available. Try natural-food stores and upscale markets if your supermarket doesn't have them. An alternative for canned or bottled stocks are "homemade" stocks in gourmet markets. These stocks must be refrigerated — usually for not much more than three or four days — but they can be frozen.

    THICKENERS: I generally use cornstarch, but arrowroot is fine, though more expensive. Both work more efficiently than flour.

    TOMATOES, CANNED: Canned tomatoes in juice are an excellent alternative to fresh for dishes like Fifteen-Minute Bouillabaisse (page 84). But don't always assume that Italian plum tomatoes are best. When I was food editor of the San Jose Mercury News, we did several taste tests of canned tomatoes, and supermarket brands did quite well. So shop around. Crushed tomatoes and chunkier diced tomatoes can save more time because no chopping is needed. Strained tomatoes are essentially a puree, and stewed tomatoes are diced tomatoes that are already seasoned. Stewed tomatoes can also have ethnic twists such as Mexican or Italian style. I find smooth and seasoned tomato sauce the most convenient, especially for dishes like Jambalaya (page 87) and Spaghetti Bolognese (page 94). Because you rarely need more than a tablespoon or two at a time, consider buying tomato paste in tubes, which can be refrigerated for several months.

    VEGETABLES, FRESH: See Produce, page 29.

    VEGETABLES, CANNED: In addition to those already mentioned, consider canned beets for the Pantry Antipasto (page 136) or for a quick cold soup. Canned corn can be used in soups like Corn Chowder with Crabmeat and Pimientos (page 113). And sliced water chestnuts are good for stir-fries and salads like Asian Sesame Chicken Salad (page 145). For pickled jalapenos, see Spices, page 22.

    VEGETABLES, FROZEN: Peas (especially the baby peas used in Scallops and Shiitake Mushrooms with Pea Puree, page 76), corn, broccoli florets, brussels sprouts, and lima beans (used in the Spanish Tortilla with Baby Lima Beans and Potatoes, page 106) are the frozen vegetables I use most often. Asparagus spears or cuts and frozen leaf or chopped spinach are also good to have around. Available in ten-ounce boxes or larger plastic bags.

    VINEGAR: A great source of nonfat flavor in cold and hot dishes, and a good substitute for alcohol when deglazing skillets for a quick sauce in sauteed dishes. I use balsamic, sherry, and red wine vinegars most often. Balsamics come in many quality levels; the better ones are good enough to use as sauces or dressings by themselves. Raspberry is the most common of the many delicious fruit vinegars. Consorzio makes wonderful passion fruit and mango vinegars. Most fruit vinegars are less acidic than wine vinegars. If I want less acid but no fruit, I use cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar.

    WINES, LIQUEURS, AND SPIRITS: Any alcoholic beverage you'd drink can be used in cooking, which leaves out those dreadful cooking wines sold in supermarkets. Rather than opening a bottle of white wine for just a half cup or so, I keep a bottle of dry vermouth in the refrigerator. Because it's fortified to a higher proof, vermouth lasts much longer, two months or more. Sherry has the same durability. You don't need a liquor cabinet of spirits, but a good brandy has many uses and can often be substituted for other spirits.


Organization means a well-equipped batterie de cuisine, the right equipment to simplify and speed up meal preparation. You don't need anything fancy or expensive, but I recommend several items, some of which you may already have.

    I can't imagine having tested the recipes for this book without my hefty twelve-inch nonstick skillet. A good twelve-inch skillet — or larger if you have the stovetop space — is the most important and versatile tool for fifteen-minute meals. It usually enables you to saute enough meat for four people without crowding the pan. Crowding steams the meat instead of sauteing it. Large skillets also allow liquids to reduce faster for sauces because they have more surface area. More significant is the thickness of the metal. A heavier gauge metal (especially one with an aluminum core) conducts heat more evenly. This is important because you'll be cooking at high temperatures most of the time. A nonstick surface enables you to use less fat.

    A wide surface area is also a good reason for getting a large, deep skillet (also known as saute pan), one with a diameter of twelve inches and a capacity of four quarts or more. It should also have a cover and a short handle opposite the standard long handle for easy carrying to the table or counter. This larger capacity skillet will enable you to do braised dishes, stews, and soups in record time. Again, you'll want a heavy-gauge metal and preferably a nonstick surface.

    I like to use nine- or ten-inch cast-iron skillets for frittatas and Spanish tortillas, the two omelets that go under the broiler. For breads like the pita breads in Middle Eastern Lamb with Cucumber Salad (page 40) and the baguette slices in Fifteen-Minute Bouillabaisse (page 84) that also go under the broiler, I use a shallow baking pan or baking sheet.

    My wok has sat permanently on my stove for years, which should give you some indication of how often I use it. It is particularly good for fast meals because, in addition to being used for stir-frying, sauteing, braising, and steaming, it can be used as a mixing bowl. Invert the ring that comes with the wok so it sits closer to the flame, giving you greater heat intensity. I've found that electric stoves at full blast provide more heat than gas ranges.

    I generally use only two saucepans, one with a two-quart capacity for rice and the like, and a larger heavy pan for polenta, risotto, and pilafs. For smaller jobs like warming the milk for Turkey Cutlets with Garlic Smashed Potatoes (page 66) or the liquor in Steak Diane with Parslied Potatoes (page 34), it's good to have a one-quart saucepan.

    An eight-quart capacity pasta pot is essential, not just for pasta but for boiling, steaming, and poaching as well. Smaller pasta pots can boil over while you're performing another task. You might also consider a pasta pot with its own colander insert. That way you can easily dump the drained pasta next door into the wok and just as easily add some of the cooking water to the preparation, which several of the pasta recipes require. Failing that, a large, separate colander (about twelve inches in diameter) will work. When draining the pasta in the sink, I put a large stainless steel mixing bowl underneath to catch the cooking water if some is needed for the recipe. (Or you could quickly stick the pasta pot underneath.)

    Though I advocate getting a butcher to pound meat like pork tenderloins or chicken breasts into medallions and cutlets for faster cooking, not all of us have that luxury. So you'll probably need a meat pounder. This is a flat piece of heavy metal that may be round or rectangular and is attached to a handle (not to be confused with a toothy meat tenderizer). The side of a weighty cleaver will also do the job.

    A salad spinner whips moisture from salad greens through the slats of an inner chamber into an outer chamber where it falls to the bottom. It works much faster than draining in a colander. For greens that are not particularly gritty, you can also soak them in the spinner, rather than using the sink. This also saves time.

    A food processor is no longer a luxury. And for quick meals it's a necessity. For chopping and pureeing and for making no-cook sauces and dressings, a food processor can't be beat. I use the stainless steel blade 90 percent of the time but I also recommend using the shredding and slicing attachments. If you don't have a food processor, you'll need to add a few minutes to the preparation time for recipes that use it.

    While the microwave oven is in over 90 percent of households, many people use this device only for defrosting or reheating. But the microwave does a good job cooking vegetables and it cooks rice, potatoes, and bulgur faster. (It also makes easy polenta, though not as fast as instant.) The microwave also frees up more room on the stove. Still, I don't use it extensively and I give conventional cooking methods as alternatives when I do. Most of my microwave cooking is done in a two-quart glass casserole with a cover that can be used on the stove.

    You should have several mixing bowls, ideally a set of stainless steel mixing bowls with different capacities, including at least one that is quite large for fast mixing of main-course salads. In a pinch you can use a pasta pot or a wok.

    The only knives you'll need are a sharp chef's knife about eight inches in length, a similarly well-honed paring knife, and perhaps a serrated knife for things like tomatoes and bread. It's important that knives always be sharp. Nothing slows cooking down more than dull knives. Most of us don't have the time to get our knives sharpened professionally, so I recommend a sharpening machine like Chef's Choice. Merely using a sharpening steel isn't enough.

    Peeling, except for garlic and onions, goes a lot faster with a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler, especially one with a fat, easy-grip handle. For peeling garlic I use a garlic peeler, a rubber tube that removes the peel with a quick back-and-forth motion. (A rubber jar-cap opener can be substituted.)

    Other utensils include a four-sided grater for cheeses and vegetables, a small colander or strainer for draining and rinsing canned beans, a heavy-duty can opener, tongs for turning meat, a wide metal spatula, a potato masher, a timer (preferably magnetized), a hand juicer, rubber spatulas, wooden spoons, wire whisks, a pasta fork, glass measuring cups for liquids, stainless steel measuring cups for dry ingredients, stainless steel measuring spoons, and a pepper mill. A few more things that are nice to have but are not essential: an egg cutter, which can be used to slice kiwifruit and mushrooms, a nutmeg grater, and a cocktail fork to extricate capers from a jar.


Focus means being single-minded about getting the meal out in a hurry. It begins soon as you walk in the door and put a pot of water on to boil and turn the oven to broil. Focus means the question, "How was your day, dear?" has to be asked and answered while eating dinner, not cooking it. No sipping of wine, listening to the news on the radio, or sifting through the mail. Get in there and get it done, then be as leisurely as you want afterward.

    When I was ready to test each of the recipes for this book, my wife went into her office and dosed the door. Then I set the timer and didn't look up until the meal was ready, fifteen minutes or less later. I prepared all of the meals myself, and having done so I honestly think it's easier for one person to handle the task, especially in a small kitchen. Two people can get in each other's way. Let the person who isn't cooking do everything else for the meal, from setting the table to opening the wine.

    Though just about every cookbook tells readers to scan the entire recipe before cooking a dish, readers don't always do so. (I've been guilty myself more often than I care do admit.) Well, this time I really mean it. To make the recipes in this book work as quickly and efficiently as possible, you should read them through first. Most people know enough to get out the ingredients because they're listed, but they often fail to read the method for what equipment is needed. You don't want to be in the middle of a recipe and then go searching for a vegetable peeler or saucepan, only to find it is dirty in the dishwasher — or not find it at all. Remember that the timing of these recipes begins when all ingredients and equipment are laid out and ready to go.

    Having equipment within easy reach is important. Because I often use the food processor, I keep it almost at arm's length. I suggest you do the same. That avoids rattling around in the cupboards. The same philosophy holds true for other equipment that you use often. Pots, pans, dishes, and utensils should be quickly available and not require a foot stool or deep knee bends to find. Put the dim sum molds, spaetzle mills, and other seldom-used items in the back of a drawer or in the far recesses of a cabinet.

    Give yourself as much counter space as possible, even if it means putting a few things on the floor temporarily. My kitchen is so small that I routinely use the top of the refrigerator and the top of the microwave oven as holding areas.

    Focus provides something even more important than speed — safety. Looking one way while performing a task in another direction is a recipe for injury. By being single-minded on the task at hand, you'll get it done quickly, enabling you to move on to the next one.

    You'll notice that recipes will frequently say, "Meanwhile ..." or "While the meat cooks ..." This is simply a way of letting you know that at the same time you are actively performing a task, something else is taking care of itself. For example, in Panfried Snapper with Tomato Salsa and Basmati Rice (page 73), three things are going on at once. The salsa is being made while the rice cooks and the snapper sautes. You may be unaccustomed to managing such simultaneous tasks, but soon you'll feel comfortable with the rhythm. The Quick Meal Tips on page 29 will also help you to increase your speed.


Creativity involves strategies for preparing meals in minutes, thinking beyond recipes so you don't always have to follow a specific formula.

    I realize that there is a certain comfort in following recipes. And I'm confident that the recipes in this book are good enough to be prepared again and again. Nevertheless, it's also my hope that you'll use the recipes as a springboard, a blueprint if you will, to create many more fifteen-minute meals on your own.

    To do this you need to think about concepts, rather than specific formulas. For example, Beef and Asparagus Stir-Fry (page 38) is a meat and vegetable stir-fry when you break it down. If the meat isn't beef, it could be pork or lamb. Or it could be poultry, either turkey or chicken. Seafood might be shrimp, scallops, or cubes of tuna or swordfish. Vegetables might include string beans, broccoli, or several varieties of summer squash in lieu of asparagus. Obviously cooking times will vary, but you get the picture.

    Chicken Fajitas with Mango Salsa (page 54) is a stir-fry wrap sandwich with a sauce or salsa. The filling could be beef, lamb, or pork accompanied by onions or bell peppers in colors other than the red ones called for in the original recipe. The salsa could be one made with tomatillos, jicama, or avocados, and the tortillas could be corn or whole wheat instead of white flour tortillas.

    Add an ingredient here and there if it happens to be in the fridge or you just feel like putting okra in Jambalaya (page 87). Maybe you want some red in Beef and Asparagus Stir-Fry. So you add some sliced red bell pepper. Of course, spices can be changed or varied in intensity to suit your particular taste.

    Sometimes you might follow an ethnic bent. Say you're doing a pasta and you have fresh tomatoes around. Basil, garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese are natural accompaniments. But you could just as easily go Greek with feta cheese, kalamata olives, and oregano. An Asian marinade for chicken breasts might be soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and fresh ginger. A Middle Eastern twist could include cumin, garlic, coriander, lemon juice, and olive oil.

    Once you feel confident, you might want to try some cross-cultural flavors, like Greek-style fajitas with the cucumber salad from Middle Eastern Lamb with Cucumber Salad (page 40). But go easy in the beginning. Don't just throw feta cheese and kalamata olives together with soy sauce and ginger. Even fifteen-minute meals have to have some logic and order.

Meet the Author

Sam Gugino is a columnist for Wine Spectator and a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He lives in New York city. Visit Sam's Web site at: www.samcooks.com.

Dawn Smith is an avid cookbook collector and a still life photographer who specializes in food. She lives in New York City.

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