Desperation Dinners!

by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross

1997. 380 pages, 250 + recipes.

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"(Most) cookbooks did little more than taunt me with perfect food beyond the reach of my reality."

Broccoli Muffins 

Mindless Moo Shoo 

Alicia's Chicken with Olives 

Creamy Mushroom Soup 

Scallop Saute 

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"At our houses it's a choice: four hours in the kitchen vs. clean underwear, our kids' soccer games, and bargain hunting for back-to-school clothes." This philosophy would not be considered A Good Thing by Martha Stewart standards, but I bet most mothers would be grateful to hear the priorities of the authors of Desperation Dinners!

I'm generally not drawn to meals-in-a-hurry books. Some beat the clock by relying on canned or frozen everything; others call for luxury "fast-foods" like veal and mascarpone. Desperation Dinners! is different. The authors Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross are working mothers of young kids, writing from the trenches dealing with the realities of picky eaters, family budgets, chronic deficiencies of time, and depleted stores of energy. The clincher is that they are not willing to sacrifice taste for convenience. (I suppose if you are a food editor at a major metropolitan newspaper, as Ross has been, you also have a certain amount of professional pride to uphold.) The genesis of the book was Ross' lament, "Isn't there a middle ground between an hour-long stint at a stove-slave and electrocuted hot dogs?"

Mills and Ross have balanced cooking expertise with real-life exigencies in creating their recipes. Thus, the Creamy Mushroom Soup pairs sophisticated portobellos for richness in flavor along with the frozen onions for speed. The result is rich and creamy.  Alicia's Chicken with Olives might horrify purists with its canned olives and canned Italian-style stewed tomatoes. But you can't argue with the outcome: a satisfying, aromatic dish that tastes like it required far more than 20 minutes prep time. Transcendent it's not. But it's pretty darn good.

To keep their promise of meals "in twenty minutes flat", the authors  claim to have timed each dish to the second. I believe them. Most meet the 20-minute...some even take less time. These women deserve medals for their honesty. There are plenty of other meals-in-minutes authors who employed wishful thinking rather than stop watches in gauging prep time.

"Desperation Dinners are as much about recipes as they are about real life." A sane survival guide for the desperate, the book has good ideas for turning your freezer and fridge into "pantries", eminently do-able plan-ahead tips, a handy list of "bail-out" side dishes. This may seem like a matter of common sense, but it's all here and accessible.

Desperation Dinners! softened my militant stance against pre-prepped fresh foods. It used to drive me crazy to think that people would happily pay an outrageous premium to have the food company grate their cheese, wash their lettuce, and chop their vegetables. How  much time and labor do they save? Five minutes max? How hard is it to get out the food processor and do it themselves? But I compromised my principles and bought some of the bagged vegs called for in certain recipes in order to see if they really made it under the 20-minute deadline. I have to admit they did streamline things nicely. If bagged cole slaw enables harried home cooks to face the kitchen rather than going out to Arbie's, then I feel much better about the role of pre-packaged produce. I draw the line at bottled garlic, and even Ross admits that frozen onions are acceptable only when they are minor players in a dish. And I was glad to see that they are adamantly against green boxes of grated Parmesan.

There's an engaging Irma-Brombeck-ish patter of the authors' cooking tips and family stories accompanying each recipe that includes cooking tips and family stories. They come across as real people you might chat with at your kids' soccer game or on the class field trip to the aquarium.

Although Desperation Dinners! is geared to the harried family (they even have smiley-face symbols on recipes that are most likely to be kid pleasers), I could also see parents sending it off with a kid who is about to get their first apartment whose cooking experience is limited to nuking frozen burritos.

The authors could use a little brush-up course in the Food Pyramid, and note that fat and meat are at the tiniest tip-top part of the pyramid. I couldn't believe how much meat they allow per serving. These women are card-carrying carnivores! They can be pretty free with oil too. The Sweet and Sour Broccoli Slaw was drowning in dressing, a situation I remedied by adding more slaw to the dressing. Otherwise, it was delicious and only took an unbelievable seven minutes to make.

Most of the dishes I tried ranged okay to surprisingly good. None of them caused my family to make rude retching noises (although the strange green California Bisque came close). Many are short-cut versions of familiar dishes, such as Summer Ratatouille and Flash-Baked Chicken. The Mindless Moo Shoo tasted as good as what you'd get at a decent Chinese restaurant, except this recipe calls for flour tortillas, a cross-cultural mesh that worked out fine.

The fact that the dishes are not four-star isn't really the point  here. Ross and Mills promise real-food, good-tasting recipes that only take twenty minutes....and they deliver.