WHILE MOST scientists agree that knowledge of nutrition has a long way to go, existing information points in one direction: The more varied the diet and the less refined the food, the better we'll all be.
Great. But the man who commutes from Rockville to Arlington every day is less interested in getting fresh vegetables than he is in getting dinner. A short stop for fried chicken suits his needs, guilt notwithstanding. Good nutrition is so easy to put off.
The problem lies not so much with time as with thought. Brown rice isn't avoided because it takes 45 minutes to cook, but because brown rice seems to call for some elaborate complement, and that's hard to think up during a mere Metro ride. The omnipresent question hangs over our heads--"What's for dinner?"--and it seems there's nothing a can of (oversalted) mushroom soup can't transform into a meal.
The trick is to produce a wholesome meal with as little thought as possible, and that requires a change in attitude.
The first thing to do, says private-practice dietitian Johanna Roth, is to eat something. "Have a piece of fruit when you come into the house," she recommends. "When you come home from work and you're absolutely ravenous, it's hard to plan meals rationally."
Banana in hand, then, it is easier to redirect your thoughts about meal preparation. Roth, a dietitian, graduate student, mother and wife, has experience with this kind of thing.
First, it doesn't need gravy to be a main dish, so you don't necessarily need mushroom soup. A main dish can be made from plain meats and dried herbs. Right, fresh is better, but dried will do just fine. Nearly any herb does well with chicken, or try a sprinkling of curry powder or seasoning salt. The chicken bakes or broils as the cook prepares side dishes of bulghur and steamed vegetables (recipes follow).
Second, says Roth, diversify. Think of a meal as something more than meat and potatoes, and the choices more readily become apparent. She recommends an occasional meal of scrambled eggs (heavy on the added chopped vegetables). Serve them with salad and toasted english muffins. After teaching night classes, she'll prepare a late supper of fresh fruit and yogurt--lots of trace (and other worthwhile) vitamins and minerals, plenty of protein and light enough to go to sleep on.
Third, use your gadgets. Dust off the crockery cooker and, at the very least, use it to cook soups; if you're inclined, expand to stews and fricassees. That way "you can walk in the door and dinner's done," says Roth. With hearty bean or pea soups served with whole grain rolls, cornbread or muffins, you've got your trace elements, protein and roughage in one cheap meal. If you don't have the presence of mind to start the pot in the morning, turn to quick-cooking lentils when you get home from work. Lentils can simmer while you mix and bake quick bread.
The wok is to quick meals as the crockery cooker is to slow. A tablespoon or two of peanut (or other vegetable) oil, a little ginger (which keeps almost forever in the hydrator drawer of a refrigerator) quickly coats fresh or even leftover vegetables with a flavor that suits a lighter life style.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are key to a whole-foods diet, yet thoughts of them provoke images of limp lettuce, wilting celery and watery bean sprouts resurrected at the end of the week from the back of the refrigerator. For those who tend to forget their fresh produce, Roth recommends a supply of carrots, potatoes, oranges and apples as foods that keep weel. Eat salads early in the week, then when you remember those foods that you've forgotten, they're salvageable.
Recommendations for whole grains traditionally translate into meals with brown rice, but other whole grains add variety, and some of them no longer require a special trip to the health-food store. Bulghur, for instance, takes much less time to cook than brown rice and has a similar, nutty flavor. Buckwheat groats, available in the special foods section of some groceries, have a unique, wild flavor. Millet and barley can fill the same niche. If you decide that brown rice is the dish, "put it on the instant you get home,", says Roth, "before you've even decided what to have for dinner."
Frozen scallops and turkey breast slices (purchased as-is in the poultry freezer of the neighborhood supermarket) thaw quickly when submerged in water and offer peace of mind to the harried commuter/cook.
And don't forget the children. They are an untapped source of cook-power, says Roth, whose 9-year-old son can prepare a dinner of pork chops, green beans and peaches with cottage cheese. Even if they aren't up to full meals, she says, children can pull meat out of the freezer to thaw by dinner time, or transfer a casserole from the refrigerator to the oven.
The goal is to include the greatest variety of whole foods, with the least amount of thought possible. Roth advises cooks to change gradually, however, and "to make progress slowly. You can't do it all at once. Everyone needs to have long-term goals, but have short-term goals that will get you there." Recipes help.
MARSTON'S CHICKEN (4 servings) 2 garlic cloves 2 chicken breasts, halved (wings attached or not) 3/4 teaspoon ginger, powdered or freshly grated 3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons water
Smash garlic cloves and rub them over chicken pieces. Combine ginger, salt and pepper and sprinkle the mixture over the chicken. Melt butter in baking pan and lay the broilers skin side down. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees, add water, turn the chicken and bake, skin side up, for 20 minutes more.
STEAMED CARROTS AND CELERY (4 servings) 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into sticks 3 stalks celery, trimmed and cut into sticks 1/3 cup chicken broth
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and cover tightly. Place over very low heat and steam about 15 minutes, or until slightly tender.
BULGHUR PILAF (4 to 6 servings) 2 ounces slivered almonds 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 small onion, chopped 1 clove garlic, minced 2 cups water, or 1 cup chicken broth and 1 cup water 1 cup bulghur (whole wheat kernels) Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste Plain yogurt, if desired
Toast the almonds by putting them in a medium-sized saucepan and stirring them over medium-high heat until they begin to brown. Remove almonds from pan and reserve them. In the same saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add onion and garlic and cook over low heat about 2 minutes. Add water and bulghur, and bring to a boil. Cover and lower the heat. Simmer about 15 minutes. Stir in toasted almonds and season to taste. Serve with plain yogurt, if desired.
DINNER MUFFINS (12 muffins) 1 cup bran 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 2 tablespoons butter, melted 2 tablespoons honey 1 cup buttermilk or 1 cup yogurt mixed with 2 tablespoons water 2 eggs 1/2 cup raisins or other chopped dried fruit
Combine bran, flours and baking soda. Combine butter and honey and warm over low heat to melt the butter. In a small bowl, combine butter, buttermilk and eggs and beat well. Add dry ingredients and stir a few times, then add raisins and stir just to moisten dry ingredients. Divide among 12 greased or paper-lined muffin cups. Bake at 325 degrees for 15 or 20 minutes.