By Jerry Shriver
In the time it takes his less fortunate friends to have a pizza delivered, Sam Gugino can whip up a saffron-scented bouillabaisse -- complete with homemade croutons and garlicky mayo -- wash a pot, open the wine and dazzle a table of four.
"Beat the Clock," which features versions of classic dishes such as cassoulet, chicken saltimbocca and jambalaya, is perhaps the most appetizing in a wave of recent titles that promise to speed up and/or greatly simplify meal preparation. The competition includes "The 15-Minute Chef" by Patricia Mack (HP Books, $15.95); "The 30-Minute Kosher Cook" by Judy Zeidler (William Morrow, $22); "The Pressured Cook" by Lorna Sass (William Morrow, $19.95); and "Just Add Water" by Lauren Chattman (William Morrow, $22).
Quick-and-easy remains one of the most popular cookbook genres, indicating that life in the late millennium is as frenzied as ever and that the dozens of previous volumes still haven't solved the dilemma of what to throw on the table after work.
"Friends from the old school of cooking recognize…that this is the way people are living and eating today," says Gugino as he covers the bouillabaisse pan with a lid to speed cooking. "At the same time, people will always prefer home-cooked meals. No matter how good takeout food has gotten today, it's not as satisfying."
The restaurateur-turned-food writer began developing time-saving strategies in the 1970s when he lied in California and faced a daily hour-plus commute. He later wrote a New York Times story featuring 10-minute recipes for two people; that led to this book, which features recipes for four.
"I've tried to take the best ingredients, using fresh items when possible, and put them together in 15 minutes for a meal," he says. "It's no more expensive than ordering takeout, and it's cheaper and better for you than most restaurant foods."
Among Gugino's keys to quick success in "Beat the Clock" (which he also explains on his Web site, at www.samcooks.com):
* Keep a well-stocked pantry and freezer. "It solves 75% of your problems."
* Get organized. Good equipment such as heavy-bottomed skillets, sharp knives, a food processor and a sauté pan "lasts longer and will help you to cook better. And locate it where you can get to it easily."
* Focus. "When you get into the kitchen, blank everything else out. Don't even sip a glass of wine. Be leisurely about eating your food, but not about the cooking."
What would a traditional yet practical cook such as Julia Child say about Gugino's bouillabaisse, which features quick sautéed onions and garlic, roasted peppers from a jar and just three kinds of seafood?
"I would like to think she'd say that this is not as good as a classic bouillabaisse, but that it is a delicious meal that you can make at home in 15 minutes - and better than what you'd normally eat."