By Gerald Etter
Some chefs and cooks will tell you that the daily chopping
and prepping of food can be a sweet, near-mystical culinary catharsis. But
when you're 6-feet, 4 inches tall, transcendentalism is no match for your
Sam Gugino, chef, food writer, cookbook author, explains:
"It's a problem in the sense that countertops are not made for people 6-4. Maybe 5-10.For a while, especially when I would be chopping 12 hours a day, it would get to my back.
"I thought at one time I'd create a cutting board with feet on it. I certainly thought about it again when Kramer created a coffee-table book that actually was a coffee table itself. It had legs."
To date, Gugino hasn't solved the tall man's cutting-board problem, but he has found solutions to a daily meal-making dilemma that affects people of all sizes:
How to put together in a hurry a meal that's easy to prepare, and delicious and nutritious as well. It's all laid out with workable precision in his Cooking to Beat the Clock: Delicious Inspired Meals in 15 Minutes (Chronicle Books, $16.95).
The book's concept materialized when Gugino was living in California and a long commute was grabbing three hours out of his life each day. His food origins, however, go back to Philadelphia, where he was a restaurant reviewer and food writer for the Daily News.
Gugino, originally from Buffalo, N.Y., came to Philadelphia in the 1960s to attend the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating, he worked in the insurance business for about five years, and then he decided to work out an old idle daydream.
"I always had a fantasy of being in the restaurant business, and I figured I wanted to go ahead and give it a shot. People were leaving their jobs right and left back then to go into the restaurant business. It was a fun and exciting time."
Gugino attended the Restaurant School, where, he says, there were classes in which students talked about their restaurant fantasies.
After a couple of years in restaurant kitchens, he and his wife, Mary Lee Keane, went to Italy following the closing of a particular restaurant where he had been working. He wrote a piece titled "Eating My Way Through Italy."
"Nobody picked it up - that was back in 1979. But I discovered I liked writing and decided I would do more. I took writing classes and wrote some food stories for the Daily News."
Eventually he ended up as the food editor for the San Jose Mercury, which is when he began the commuting that would lead to his latest cookbook.
"I would come home at 7:30, sometimes later - you always tend to get stuck somewhere - and I'd come home hungry. Some people can just come home and have a bowl of cereal. I can't do that. It's just not me.
"So I said, 'I have to find a way to put together a meal in a hurry.' I started with pastas, which are the most logical things. I got pretty good at what I call throw-togethers. Just take what you have in the refrigerator and pantry, throw it together with some pasta and you have a meal."
Gugino wrote some stories on the theme and then expanded it a bit more after he left the West Coast for New York.
"I did a story on 10-minute meals for the [New York] Times and that was the first time that the recipes were crystallized into a concept. It wasn't just quick recipes, but a concept.
"This is really very important and you can see it in the chapters called Flavors, Organization, Focus and Creativity. Those are the four things you need to do quick meals."
Though the Times' story was 10- minute meals for two, the book was developed with 15-minute recipes to give it broader range and make it pertinent for families.
While Gugino was on a recent visit to Philadelphia, spending time with some friends, I met up with him in the kitchen of the Mount Airy home where he was staying.
He was ready to show me that, even in a "strange" kitchen, he could prepare bouillabaisse in 15 minutes, which is a lot quicker than learning how to spell it.
Bouillabaisse is a Provençal fish stew, associated with Marseilles in particular, that uses a variety of fish and shellfish, olive oil, tomatoes and a touch of saffron, with garlic and fennel.
Gugino had all the ingredients measured and ready to go. Preparation, he said, was key to success.
"You can use fresh or canned tomatoes. But always keep in mind that by using pantry ingredients you've got a leg up. . . . And by knowing how to make bouillabaisse you can make a half dozen of your own signature kind of fish stews.
"I use clam juice, not fish stock. If you had to make fish stock from scratch, it would take at least an hour.
"And you should have everything laid out, what the French call mise en place. Not just the ingredients, but the equipment. And read through the recipe."
Gugino chopped, sauteed and processed his way to a bouillabaisse completion in a bit under 15 minutes. A swift and stunning completion to a dish that would have many home cooks intimidated.
Proving that even in someone else's home, the four-pronged concept of flavors, organization, focus and creativity would make it Gugino's cucina.
Following are recipes for Fifteen-Minute Bouillabaisse and Flank Steak Salad, from Cooking to Beat the Clock: Delicious Inspired Meals in 15 Minutes (Chronicle Books, $16.95). Gugino also has a Web site, www.samcooks.com, where you can find tips on food and wine, recipes and lots of general food news.