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Taking orders: simple or complex cooking?

By JANET K. KEELER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2003

There is cooking and there is getting dinner on the table.

They are not the same thing.

Cooking is edible self-expression often inspired by friends and family, cookbooks and magazines, and TV chefs who praise perfectly seared tuna steaks always beautifully pink (or red) inside, and fresh salsas sweetened by chunks of ripe mango.

To cook is to transform raw ingredients into something else: Tomatoes become spaghetti sauce, and eggplant is the star in Mideastern baba ghanouj.

Getting dinner on the table is a dreaded household chore akin to laundry and dusting, sometimes accomplished under duress and with much grumbling. Pick up dry cleaning, check. Stop at bank, check. Assemble ham and cheese sandwiches for dinner, check.

Cooking is fresh snapper grilled with a swish of minced garlic and melted butter; arborio rice doused bit by bit with boiling broth, then carefully tended; and pie crust formed from flour, ice-cold butter and water.

Getting dinner on the table is carving a store-bought rotisserie chicken, opening a can of chicken noodle soup or zapping a frozen lasagna.

I prepare food both ways, the creative and the perfunctory, but I am not happy when drudgery overtakes self-fulfillment because of hectic schedules and rumbling stomachs.

This happens to me as well as you, I suspect.

The giant food conglomerates know it, and that's why they are pushing dinner kits, frozen and shelf-stable, as the answer to our jam-packed schedules and lack of expertise. Resist them. Most taste no better than the cardboard they come in.

When I am in a cooking mood, stand back. Furious action in the kitchen leaves pans perched atop pans, a floor coated with goo and the checkbook ransacked to fund a Moroccan tagine or a tortilla press.

On the weekends, no recipe is too involved, not even watermelon pickles or lumpia, the Filipino egg rolls. (Weekdays, no recipe is too simple.)

There have been Saturdays completely and deliciously consumed by trips to an Italian market for ricotta salata and loaves of ciabatta, a butcher for hand-cut baby lamb chops and a half-pound of advice, a wine shop for a bold, bawdy red and then to the grocery store for the rest. An Igloo in the backseat protects cold items between stops on the trail. These jaunts are preceded by an evening of cookbook scouring and then followed by hours of cooking.

Sometimes, mail-order is involved. Or a cooking class. Always, always, there must be an appreciative audience or I will not sully my apron. I am a performance artist with chef's knife.

Then there are the Mondays (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, etc.) when hungry people forage through our refrigerator in search of something, anything, that might be considered dinner.

Are there no leftovers from the $100 Saturday meal? I am grumpy at the question. Why do they need to eat again?

I am spent.

I am curious how you cook, or don't. Do meals need to be made in 30 minutes (or less), or do you have more time to spend on them? Or do you wish to? Do you choose to cook, or do you have to?

A doctor recently called to complain about the simplicity of recipes in the Taste section. He wants something more challenging. Moroccan chicken, he suggested, with more than cumin.

Do you want challenges? Or are you turned off when a recipe has more than 10 ingredients?

Please let me know. When it comes to recipes, what do you want? Simplicity or Complexity? Or some of each for different days of the week?

Maybe together we can enjoy cooking more and have to hurry food to the table less.

-- Send your thoughts by e-mail to . Put HOW I COOK in the subject line. Or mail submissions to Taste, St. Petersburg Times, 490 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. Either way, include your name, city of residence and daytime phone number.

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