The microwave oven is not a magic box. It's an appliance that bends to your will, just like any other, if you know how to use it.
It does some things better than others. In our house, the only kitchen appliances used more often are the refrigerator and stove top.
We use it for boiling milk for yogurt, preparing oatmeal and other hot cereals, steaming rice, melting butter, baking and steaming potatoes, baking winter squash, making applesauce, blanching vegetables, cooking ground meat for pasta sauces and sizzling garlic in olive oil.
The microwave also does a good job with white sauces, gravies and other flour or cornstarch-based preparations, because lumping is virtually eliminated. However, when making a sauce on top of the stove, unbeknownst to you, a certain amount of evaporation takes place as the liquid comes to a boil. This affects the consistency and possibly the taste of the sauce as well. It's wise, when cooking a sauce in the microwave, to reduce the liquid by about 1 tablespoon per cup to compensate for this effect.
Defrosting is fast and convenient in the microwave. Since a pound of ground beef can be thawed in about 7 minutes, you don't always have to plan ahead. Items such as chicken stock, tomato sauce and leftover pancake batter, if kept in jars, are ready for use in a matter of minutes. Egg whites can also be defrosted in the microwave. Use a low setting and stop to stir frequently.
I use the microwave to thaw sandwich bread and muffins but prefer the conventional oven for French bread. (Microwaves are attracted to moisture, fat and sugar molecules. They are all at a minimum in French bread and the loaf quickly becomes rubbery.)
By far the biggest use of our microwave is to reheat leftovers. Little odds and ends of pasta, barbecued chicken, beef stew, pork with cabbage, noodle soup, chopped spinach or steamed broccoli pile up in little bowls in the refrigerator during the week. On the weekends, lunch is a do-it-yourself affair with each person choosing and cooking his own food.
There are other things I like to do in the microwave: warm milk and honey in a glass for those who have trouble sleeping; heat damp napkins to steaming for hot towels after a messy dinner; make hot compresses when someone is suffering from sinus congestion; brew extra coffee and keep it in little jars in the freezer (when defrosted and heated in the microwave, it tastes quite fresh).
My children like to cook and often use the microwave for their own concoctions, including: sausage for scrambled eggs on toast, melted cheese on potato, pizza made on pita, brownies and hot cocoa.
Since they're not afraid of getting burned (although steam burns can occur), they have become more adventuresome. This attitude seems to have carried over to other types of cooking, as well.
A big advantage of microwave cooking is that pots and pans are kept to a minimum because food is often stored, heated and eaten in the cooking vessel. However, purchases of wax paper, plastic wrap and paper towels, which are used as wrappers, covers or blotters for items being cooked, tend to increase dramatically.
When the microwave gets to smelling bad -- which seems to happen from cooking meat and steaming items -- cooking a squeezed out lemon-half for about a minute takes care of the problem.
There are many microwave cookbooks on the market; but if you can adapt your own recipes to your own appliances, then the books are not necessary. The manual that comes with the microwave is necessary in the beginning to familiarize yourself with cooking times. Some manuals do a better job than others in presenting clear, easy to follow information.
Stores that sell microwaves also sell books, so if your manual is inadequate you can pick up another. Make sure the recipes suit your style of cooking. Because they are loaded with color photographs, manuals tend to be expensive. Two other good sources of microwave recipes are the "Sunset Microwave Cookbook" (Sunset, $2.45) and "Madame Benoit's Microwave Cookbook" (McGraw Hill, $10.95).
Although the microwave is clearly a luxury item, sales have increased enormously in the past few years. Now they appear to be leveling off.
Some of this may be due to false expectations. A working mother or father can't come home and -- ZAP -- have dinner on the table in a matter of minutes unless he or she has previously prepared it in some more or less time-consuming way, or unless the family relies on convenience foods, which also are a luxury.
The following recipes are for microwaves that have a high (full power) and a defrost (low, 30 percent of power) setting. Cooking times are approximate. Don't be afraid to stop the oven, check your food and make adjustments. Conventional cooking methods also are given at the end of each recipe.
BROWN RICE WITH SPINACH AND CHEESE (4 to 6 servings) 1 pound fresh spinach or 1 box (10 ounces) frozen leaf spinach 1 1/2 cups brown rice 3 cups water 1/4 pound hard cheese such as gruyere 1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
If using fresh spinach, rinse in a colander and rip off tough stems. Put in a large (3-quart) glass or other microwave-safe bowl. Cover with a glass pie dish or other microwave-safe plate or with nonstretch plastic wrap and cook on high (full power) until wilted, about 3 minutes. Let cool. Squeeze out water by hand and chop by hand or in a food processor.
If using frozen spinach, leave in box and put on a glass pie dish or other microwave-safe plate and cook on high (full power) until partially thawed, about 3 minutes. Unwrap, break block into pieces and spread around outside of dish, leaving center empty. Cook on high (full power) until completely thawed, about 3 minutes. Let cool. Cut off tough stems. Squeeze out water by hand and chop by hand or in a food processor.
Rinse rice in strainer. Drain well. Put in a large (3-quart) glass or other microwave-safe bowl. (Cooked rice will not fill bowl, but a large vessel is needed to avoid boilovers.) Bring water to a full boil on top of stove. (This can also be done in microwave, but I find it more convenient to use a kettle.) Add to rice.
Cover and cook on defrost (low; 30 percent of power) until nearly all water is absorbed, 20 to 25 minutes for medium grain rice and 25 to 30 minutes for long grain rice. (This dish also may be made with 1 1/4 cups converted rice and 2 1/2 cups boiling water. Cook on defrost for 15 to 20 minutes.) Let stand for 5 minutes to finish cooking.
Shred cheese. You should have about 1 cup, gently packed. Stir spinach and cheese into hot rice. Add salt. Serve hot.
Conventional Method: If using fresh spinach, cook in covered skillet on top of stove. If using frozen spinach, cook in 1/2 cup water in covered saucepan on top of stove. Cook rice in covered casserole until water is absorbed, 45 to 55 minutes.
OATMEAL WITH DATES (Makes 1 serving) 1/3 cup rolled oats 6 dates, snipped 2/3 cup milk
Put oats in glass or other microwave-safe cereal bowl. Add dates and milk. Cook on high (full power) until milk boils and oats are cooked, about 2 1/2 minutes. Stir and let stand for a few minutes to thicken and cool.
Conventional Method: Cook in saucepan on top of stove, stirring constantly.
BROWNIES (Makes 12 pieces) 2 squares (2 ounces) unsweetened chocolate 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter 1 cup, minus 2 tablespoons, sugar 2 extra large eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 2/3 cup flour, stirred with a whisk, then measured
Put chocolate and butter in a 4-cup glass measure or other microwave-safe small bowl. Cook on high (full power) until chocolate melts, about 2 minutes. Stir in sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Mix in flour.
Put a custard cup upside down in center of 10-inch glass pie dish. Spread batter in a ring around cup. Cook on defrost (low; 30 percent of power) until batter begins to set, about 5 minutes. Then cook on high (full power) until top no longer looks shiny and batter begins to pull away from cup in center of dish, about 3 minutes for chewy brownies or 4 minutes for cakey ones. Let cool. Cut into slices to serve.
Conventional Method: Melt chocolate and butter in saucepan over low heat on top of stove. Prepare batter as above. Put batter in 8-inch square pan lined with wax paper. Bake at 325 degrees until done, about 18 minutes for chewy brownies or 22 minutes for cakey ones.
RACLETTE (Serves 4) 4 medium new, red potatoes (about 6 ounces each) 1 pound raclette cheese; if not available, substitute muenster or gruyere Gerkin pickles, cocktail onions or cornichons
Scrub potatoes. Arrange in a ring in a shallow glass or other microwave-safe bowl, leaving center empty. Cover with a microwave-safe plate or with nonstretch plastic wrap and cook on high (full power) until potatoes are easily pierced with a paring knife, about 10 minutes for 4 potatoes this size. Let stand for a few minutes to finish cooking.
Let cool slightly and peel. Cut into chunks. Arrange in rings on four individual glass or other microwave-safe plates, leaving center empty. Cut cheese into thin slices and distribute over potatoes. Cook, one plate at a time, on high (full power) until cheese melts, about 1 minute (cook about 2 1/2 minutes if potato has been refrigerated). Garnish with pickles.
Conventional Method: Put potatoes on steamer rack in pot with about 2 inches of water. Cover and cook over high heat on top of stove until potatoes are easily pierced with a paring knife, about 30 minutes for any number of potatoes this size. Put chunks of potatoes on one large dish or 4 individual ovenpr dishes. Bake at 450 degrees until cheese melts.