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Masaharu Morimoto JAPANESE IRON CHEF, FOOD NETWORK
Gale Gand CHEF AND AUTHOR, GALE GAND'S SHORT + SWEET
Mark Bittman COLUMNIST, THE MINIMALIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES
Rachael Ray HOST, 30 MINUTE MEALS, FOOD NETWORK
Anne Byrn AUTHOR, THE CAKE MIX DOCTOR SERIES

F&W: Let's start with one of our burning questions: How fast is fast?

Gale Gand: I think 30 minutes. I get home at 6:30, and if dinner isn't on the table by 7, I've lost everybody.

Rachael Ray: I agree. That's the amount of time it takes for the delivery guy to come.

Gand: Actually, 30 minutes with a little advance prep—like marinating chicken breasts overnight.

F&W: How about weekend or party meals?

Gand: I'd say three hours.

Ray: Exactly right. I spend more time on those meals, but I use a lot of store-bought help. I'll buy pizza dough. I'll buy trimmed green beans, deveined shrimp.

Gand: My brother had a fabulous dinner party and bought everything—cold poached salmon, potato salad, great croutons—and he was emotionally fine about it.

Ray: I can't do that. It's just not worth the expense. I keep things simple and never try to make a big ta-da. I set myself up for success, because I'm a very fragile girl.

Mark Bittman: Part of the problem is that people get overambitious. You should compare yourself to your grandmother, not to a restaurant. What would my grandmother do? She'd make a few good dishes: pan-fried chicken, maybe some salad. If you make one good dish, that's a meal.

F&W: What ingredients are key to fast cooking?

Gand: Quality ingredients are crucial, because you don't have to do a lot to them. That's the chef's trick. With a fabulous pineapple, you don't need to do much. It's like having good bone structure.

Ray: Sometimes, it's worth buying more expensive meat to have a fast payoff. When you see something that cooks quickly, like beef tenderloin or boneless chicken parts, at a good price, buy extra and freeze it. My grandfather made real chicken cacciatore; he'd cut up the bird and simmer it with wine forever. I buy boneless chicken parts, cut them up and sauté them with oil, then add beef stock, Portobellos, canned crushed tomatoes and a shot of wine. It's not my grandfather's dish, but it's close. And it takes 20 minutes.

Bittman: Shopping can make the whole meal-preparation process much more daunting. If I give you a recipe and suddenly you have to go to Chinatown, you have to go to the butcher...

Ray: That becomes the whole day.

F&W: Let's talk about using supermarket products to dress up meals. What are your absolute favorite buys?

Ray: I think store-bought stocks have come so far and have great flavor. I make a fast meat sauce, and if I add a shot of really good beef stock it tastes like it's been simmering for a week.

Gand: I love Japanese bread crumbs—panko—for breading pork chops, or for chicken Parmesan.

Ray: Panko is great for crab cakes. People are really starting to talk about it. There's a big hubbub about it.

Masaharu Morimoto: Sake makes everything more tender. If you're grilling a steak, pour a little bit of sake over it.

Anne Byrn: There's a red chile blend—Ancho Chile—from the new McCormick collection, that I love. I add it to store-bought hummus and eat it with pappadams and cucumbers. McCormick also makes a Red Curry powder that's great.

Ray: McCormick's whole spices have a disposable grinder attached to the jar! I love it!

Bittman: Some things aren't new, but the quality has improved. Ten years ago you couldn't get real Parmesan in the supermarkets, but now you can. You can now buy great soy sauce and miso in supermarkets.

Morimoto: I buy soy sauce and flavor it five different ways: with sake, mirin, sugar, kombu [dried kelp] and bonito flakes [bits of dried fish]. I use them on lots of dishes at home.

Bittman: Ingredients like soy sauce, Parmesan and prosciutto taste so good because someone's already put a lot of time into making them. This is real convenience food. A year and a half of labor goes into making soy sauce, but it's not your labor. It's wheat, salt and soybeans.

Morimoto: And love. And sweat.

F&W: What do you think about dried herbs?

Bittman: A lot of dried herbs make things worse. Even dried thyme, which is one of the better ones, is icky.

Ray: Right, it's icky. Sometimes cost is a factor, though.

Gand: If I need two basil leaves, I just don't want to spend $4.

F&W: How often do you shop?

Ray: I have one big shopping day, my day off, when I restock my pantry. Then, every day or two, I'll stop at the market and buy ingredients for whatever that night's entrée will be. I'm in grocery stores a lot, and on weekdays I see people with little handbaskets, and I think that's a good sign. On the weekends, the big mack daddy carts come out.

Byrn: I can't shop very often; I have three children and my writing. So I rely on my pantry. To me, it's about accessibility. I shop at warehouse clubs, and I have two fridges, so I buy big bags of those flash-frozen chicken tenderloins. In the South, where I live, you can't just go to the corner store; you have to get on the highway and drive to get anywhere.

Bittman: Places like Costco can be overwhelming. You have to think about what you'll do with the ingredients you buy. Look at the broccoli and the cabbage; if the broccoli looks better, that's what you should make.

Ray: I think it's fun to go to the grocery store and buy what looks great, but it's important to figure out what you like to make. It could be Italian, it could be Tex-Mex. Then keep those ingredients on hand. I love Mediterranean food, so I always have anchovies, canned beans of every color, canned tomatoes, capers.

Gand: I always have matzo ball soup in the freezer, and I have a jar of it in my pantry and a box of matzo meal.

Morimoto: I keep cooked rice in my freezer and microwave it when I need it.

Ray: Wow, that just changed my life. I'm going to go home and start freezing my rice.

F&W: What do you do when you get bored with your fast recipes?

Gand: Going to a different grocery store inspires me.

Bittman: When I moved to L.A., I'd go to Mexican and Chinese grocery stores, and there were so many ingredients I'd never tried before. I'd make friends with locals and ask them to show me around.

Byrn: Once a week at my house, we have The Bar: a taco bar or a burrito bar. It's a Mommy mise en place, with all the toppings, and crunchy taco shells and flour tortillas. We also do a pasta bar with a red sauce, a white sauce and lots of toppings.

Gand: My eight-year-old son and his stepbrother and I do something like that at breakfast. We make stacks of crêpes—we call them Grandma's Pancakes—and I put out peanut butter, whipped cream, strawberries, jams, yogurts, cottage cheese, cinnamon, all in a line. I freeze the leftover crêpes for later.

F&W: What's your go-to fast dish?

Bittman: My favorite is a standard pasta: It's what Italians feed their kids. Pasta tossed with lightly browned butter, lots of Parmesan and enough pasta cooking water to give it a saucy consistency.

Ray: Mine is pasta too, with aglio e olio: any long, al dente pasta, olive oil with tons of anchovies cooked into it, loads of garlic, crushed hot pepper flakes, chopped flat-leaf parsley, coarse salt and pepper, warmed together. I've been known to make this when I'm watching movies at 3 a.m. and hunger hits.

Morimoto: I make soup with soba or udon noodles and dashi [fish broth made with bonito flakes] and a little soy sauce, sake and mirin. I always have dashi in my refrigerator—it's the almighty Japanese ingredient. In summer I serve the soup cold; in winter I serve it hot— so easy. For appetizers, I top toast with canned sardines and panko and bake it until the topping is crispy.

F&W: What are your top time-saving kitchen strategies?

Gand: When I go to the kitchen, the first thing I do is preheat the oven. And the day before, I read through my recipes. If I'm giving a dinner party, I make a plan for the day before and the day of.

Morimoto: I don't. I just start chopping.

F&W: Some people do a mise en place first: They chop all their ingredients and put them in bowls before they start cooking, the way chefs do.

Bittman, Ray, Byrn: No!

Ray: Getting a lot of bowls together is a huge time waste for home cooks. I always work next to my stove and just chop and drop—as I prep my ingredients, I throw them in the pan. And I clean my produce when I get home from the store, before I put it in the fridge, so it's ready to go when I start cooking.

Gand: I use braising liquids twice. I made brisket for Passover, and tossed in sun-dried tomatoes, onions and stock, and braised it. Then there was all this onion and sauce left over, so I froze it. Then later I used that braising liquid again, for more brisket, for lamb shank. In my freezer, I have all this sauce—I consider it half a meal already made.

Byrn: If you cook a pot roast, save all the leftover drippings for beef stew. Just add beef stock and boil it down; I have that in my freezer. To save time on cleanup, you can make a one-dish meal. Or use just one pan. I can do so much with one pan—boiling, sautéing, roasting.

Ray: I make salad dressing in a bowl and throw the lettuce on top.

Gand: I use the same heat source for several dishes. If I'm grilling chicken, I'll throw some mangos or pineapples on afterward for dessert.

F&W: How do you learn to multitask in the kitchen?

Bittman: It takes practice. Never let a moment go by without doing something. There's a great rule: No matter what you're going to make, put a pot of water on the stove when you walk into the kitchen. Almost always take out a cutting board and a knife, and almost always start heating some oil in a pan. Chances are, within minutes you'll be sautéing an onion that you cut on the board.

Byrn: I think the more you cook, the better you get at multitasking. When you're confident, you know you can heat oil in a pan while quickly chopping an onion or slicing garlic. And I think you learn to use good heavy pans that can take heat. You learn the signs of doneness, so that you can smell when a cake is ready without even looking at the recipe.

F&W: What if you can't do this? What if you're timing-challenged?

Byrn: Start with the dish that will take the most time.

Ray: Use common sense.

Gand: Common sense is not very common.

Byrn: Give a cooking demonstration for your family. Pretend you have a TV show—it makes you more aware of planning when you pass on information. I never really learned until I started teaching.

Ray: It's fun to invite your friends over to watch you cook. It makes you more relaxed—you'd think it's the opposite, but it's not.

F&W: What equipment makes cooking faster or easier for you?

Morimoto: On Iron Chef I had only one hour, so I learned to use a pressure cooker because it's so fast. Something that would take four or five hours can take less than 60 minutes.

Gand: I use my toaster oven a ton. When my kitchen at home was under construction, I lived off a toaster oven and a microwave for six months.

Ray: If you put limes and lemons in the microwave for 10 seconds, you'll get more juice.

Byrn: I use my microwave for baking—for melting chocolate and sour cream.

Gand: And it's good for softening brown sugar that's hardened. And I use it to cook bacon.

Ray: A big cutting board is also key.

F&W: Do you think that fast cooking can get any faster?

Ray: Not for me, sister! Anyway, fast is relative. People are so excited to tell me that they've got my 30-minute meals down to 45 minutes.

Byrn: It depends on your definition of cooking. Do you have to be actively involved in the process? Or does it mean you're relying on a jump start, like store-bought poached salmon?

Ray: But that's not cooking. That's just putting food out.

Gand: But you're feeding people. Does cooking mean chopping vegetables and making sauces, or is it about nourishing others?

Ray: Cooking is as much a selfish thing as a selfless thing. If you have a lousy day, and you cook something that makes you feel good, and makes people you love feel good, that's a great feeling.

Published September 2004
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