I'M A ONE-PAN woman. I saut'e, flamb'e, braise, fry, reduce, stew and simmer--all on top of the stove. I'm skillet labor, hovering somewhere between the blue-collar saucepan and the upper-crust souffle' dish.

Hail to thee, bright skillet! Bird thou never burnt.

It's time for the panhandlers to come out of the pantry. The skillet is the most versatile, obliging and decorative form of cookware in the kitchen. Even the wok, which in the past decade has revolutionized the definition of fast food, is really not much more than an inscrutable skillet.

Now, up front, I have to admit that I'm not talking meat loaf here. I'm a single, over-21 young professional with a house that needs work and a lawn up to my waist. I practice a flexible sort of self-discipline by refusing to bake bread or dessert (besides, my oven only has one rack in it). In the past 10 years, I've probably used the oven only 10 times.

Instead, I have a menagerie of 12 to 15 skillets; most of them are hanging on nails hammered in the kitchen plaster because (a) there's no shelf space and (b) I hate the wallpaper. Three are the old-fashioned, painstakingly seasoned, heavy cast-iron type, 6, 10 and 12 inches across. (These act as personal poltergeists, periodically throwing themselves to the floor in the middle of the night.) The newer, imitation country-style skillets have neither the heft nor the staying power of these rugged heirlooms and all the cast-iron versions want by way of washing up is a little hot water and a brisk paper-toweling--maybe a little oil rubbed in when they're tired.

I have two "magic" skillets of the Calphalon type--a luxurious 14-incher and a spunky little sixer. A couple of years ago, in a stunning debut performance, the big guy singlehandedly served up a dinner for 40 of marsh hen breasts and shallots in fennel boats with an herbsinthe sauce, marinated Canada and snow geese with kiwi sauce, and two sauces--chestnut-madeira and game-wine--for a venison roast. All it wants is a sponging off and a pat on the bottom.

I have a 12-inch Copco steel-and-bonded aluminum with a wooden handle, dedicated to the production of butter-saute'ed pancakes; a correctly upside-down crepe pan; a two-inch-deep enameled skillet with lid and a similar plain lidded steel model; a lidded psuedo-Revereware copper bottom; one old Teflon skillet, in which I occasionally brown ground meat, a small rectangular Japanese skillet for eggs and sesame seeds; and a few odds and ends. I also have two woks, which I might use more often except for their minimal moveability and my rather crowded burners.

Here's what a good skillet will do for you: Deliver unbroken egg yolks. Transform simple shallots and mushrooms into duxelles dressing. Saut'e soft-shell crabs and filet mignon. Turn the most basic of standard vegetables--cucumbers, celery, carrots--into nouvelle side dishes. Braise white belgian endive and cornish hens. Poach white fish or scallops and reduce the juices into sauce. Crisp grated potatoes or grated zucchini or leftover rice. Simmer minestrone and paella and pesto; coq au vin and veal ragout and beef stroganoff; allspice lamb and country ham and gumbo and salt roe herring and sukiyaki . . .

Skillets adapt to technique: You can shake, stir, swirl, sizzle, sear and spatulate. Habitual use of the skillet tends to coincide with one-dish cuisine, too, so it's energy-efficient all around: Saves you, saves gas or electric, saves dishwashing.

So dump the double boiler and clear out the casseroles. The skillet does it better.

CREOLE GUMBO (4 to 6 servings) Bacon drippings to grease pan 6 cloves garlic, minced 2 large onions, chopped 2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes 2 16-ounce cans okra 3 bay leaves 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce Salt to taste 1 teaspoon basil 1 teaspoon parsley Hot pepper sauce to taste 1 1/2 to 2 pounds cleaned shrimp 16-ounce can picked crab meat (optional) 3 to 4 tablespoons gumbo file' powder 4 cups cooked rice

Melt bacon drippings to cover skillet bottom a quarter-inch. Saute' garlic and onions until translucent. Add tomatoes, okra, bay leaves, red pepper, worcestershire, salt, basil and parsley. Simmer 1 1/2 hours. Taste and add salt or hot pepper sauce as desired. Add shrimp and crab, simmer another 10 minutes. Just before serving, stir in file. Serve over hot rice.

Note: Okra is a delightfully obstinate vegetable; fresh is ideal and frozen works perfectly well but canned is just generally easier to find in these backwoods.

Note again: This is a good dish to make in extra quantities; it tastes better the second day and freezes well. In such cases, however, stop short of adding the file', a sassafras-based thickener which can turn gummy if overheated or reheated. If you make a lot of gumbo and don't know whether it will all be consumed, spoon file' on top of each bowl and tell your guests to stir it all in together.

HOT CUCUMBERS NEAPOLITAN (4 servings) 3 tablespoons butter 1 medium onion, chopped 12 scallions, sliced (including firm lower green stem) 2 cucumbers, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch pieces Salt and white pepper to taste 3 tablespoons flour 1/2 cup chicken stock 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint 4 tomatoes, peeled, quartered and seeded

Melt butter, add onion, scallions, cucumbers and salt and pepper. Cover and simmer very slowly for 7 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from fire. Stir in flour until absorbed, then add the stock, mint and tomatoes. Return to simmer just for a minute or two and serve.

SIDECAR CRACKED WHEAT (4 to 6 servings) 2 cups cracked wheat (bulgur) 1/2 cup butter 1/2 cup olive oil 3 cups chicken broth 1 cup sour cream

Saute wheat in melted butter and oil. Add bouillon, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Stir in sour cream.

This bulgur dish is very rich and delicious either hot or cold. For a hot variation, add some finely chopped mushrooms at the saut'e stage. If you are serving it cold, try a little chopped mint on top. As to the name, when I was little I once asked my mother to make that "wheat sidecar"; it's still how I think of this dish.

WELSH RAREBIT (4 servings) 1 tablespoon butter 1 1/2 pounds sharp aged cheese, diced 1 teaspoon fine hot mustard 8 ounces dark or smoked beer* Cayenne to taste English muffins or toast for serving

Melt butter over low heat and add the cheese and mustard, stirring constantly. As it melts, add beer slowly, stirring the mixture so the beer is incorporated and mixture is smooth. Stir in cayenne. Serve over toast or crisp English muffins.

*Note: One good brand is Kaiserdom, available at Central Liquor and Eagle Wine and Liquor.


This is one of those no-recipe dishes, a free-form, improvisational creation, which goes something like this (for 4 to 6 people):

Buy the sirloin half of a leg of lamb and have it boned and cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes. At home, trim fat and freeze bones for stock.

Film the bottom of a heavy, lidded skillet with oil and set over medium-high heat. Add a coarsely chopped large onion and stir for a minute. Add lamb, quickly sprinkle with salt and a couple of tablespoons allspice and stir to sear on all sides. Sprinkle with about 3 tablespoons flour, another 2 tablespoons allspice and stir until flour browns. Add a bottle of smoked beer* and reduce heat to simmer. Cover. After 10 minutes, add 1 tablespoon each allspice, powdered cinnamon and nutmeg. Simmer at least another 30 minutes, until lamb is tender, stirring occasionally and tasting. (This seems a lot of allspice, so you may want to be conservative the first time. But since commercial allspice fades, both in shipping and in simmering, don't be surprised if you eventually use a lot.) If sauce starts to dry out, add a little more beer. Serve over rice; sprinkle with saute'ed almonds and top with a spoonful of plain yogurt.

*Note: One good brand is Kaiserdom, available at Central Liquor and Eagle Wine and Liquor.