Microwaving is such a great low-fat cooking method, we sometimes forget its most obvious virtue: speed. In fact, microwave cooking is so fast that even the busiest person can prepare a wholesome meal from scratch at home.
No question about it, the convenience of take-out food is great. But when you cook for yourself, you control the amounts of fat and salt, and if you use the microwave, you needn't sacrifice convenience.
The success of this theory relies on (1) realizing what the microwave can and cannot do, and (2) the types of "convenience" foods you microwave. Fatty foods, such as pizza and fried chicken, microwave unevenly and become soggy, so you want to pass on them. But low-fat, high-water content foods, such as skinless chicken cutlets, fresh fish fillets and fresh vegetables, can be microwaved perfectly without using excess fat. As for salt, never use it on chicken, fish or vegetables being microwaved because the grains attract the microwaves, causing foods to dry out.
To translate these healthful foods into quick dinners, think of chicken or fish salad with barley, roasted peppers and fresh greens. If you don't have these ingredients on hand, use what you've got. A garlicky oil-and-vinegar dressing is a great start for a main dish salad (and a tasty marinade for chicken, fish or vegetables). Toss in some corn and purple onion, or scallion, and there you are. Even good-quality bottled dressings or reduced-calorie mayonnaise can make tasty sauces. Add fresh crushed herbs if you have them, or for zip add a sprinkle of curry powder or chili powder, lightly heated to bring out the flavor.
So where does convenience come in? A pound of chicken or fish, enough to serve four, takes about five minutes to microwave. No doubt, that's faster than it takes for pizza to be delivered. If you can't shop frequently, keep chicken cutlets or fish fillets in the freezer for up to three months. In the morning, put them in the refrigerator to defrost and they'll be ready to turn into a convenient dinner by evening.
These recipes were created in a 700-watt microwave. If yours has less wattage, increase the timing slightly. For instance, if your microwave has 500 watts, the chicken will take 7 to 7 1/2 minutes.
CHINESE CHICKEN SALAD
1 pound chicken cutlets (boneless, skinless chicken breasts)
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 clove garlic, mashed through a press
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger root
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 scallions, minced
Romaine leaves for rolling
Cut the chicken into 4 pieces and pound lightly until it's of even thickness. Arrange the chicken around the edge of a 9-inch glass pie dish.
In a small bowl combine the hoisin, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and lemon. Pour over the chicken, covering it well. Cover the dish with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until cooked through, about 5 to 5 1/2 minutes.
Refrigerate the chicken until cool. Use your fingers to shred the chicken into pieces. Arrange the chicken on a serving dish and sprinkle with the scallions. To eat, set some chicken in a romaine leaf, roll up and enjoy. Nice with an accompaniment of wild rice salad.
Extra easy: If you don't have the Asian ingredients on hand, substitute a vinaigrette, or a mixture of fresh lemon juice and olive oil. Then carry on with the recipe.
Per serving: 214 calories, 36 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 98 mg cholesterol, 114 mg sodium.
SHRIMP WITH MUSTARD AND DILL
1 tablespoon prepared Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon coriander seed, finely crushed
5 black peppercorns, finely crushed
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill, or 1 teaspoon dried dill
1 pound peeled large shrimp
In a medium bowl combine the mustard, lemon juice, coriander, peppercorns and dill. Add the shrimp and toss well to combine. If you have time, cover, refrigerate and let the shrimp marinate for a couple of hours. If not, carry on.
Scoop the shrimp into a 9-inch glass pie dish along with the marinade and nudge them away from the middle, leaving about a 2-inch hole. This will help the shrimp to cook evenly. Cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Let stand for 3 minutes and serve warm or chilled. Great atop a plate of mixed spring greens, or stuffed into a pita with a chiffonade of spinach. Or serve with red-skin potatoes and mustard on the side.
Extra easy: Marinate the shrimp in a good-quality bottled dressing or Mexican-type salsa.
Per serving: 128 calories, 23 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 173 mg cholesterol, 221 mg sodium.
CRACKED WHEAT SALAD
1 cup coarse cracked wheat
1 1/2 cups defatted chicken stock
Sprig of fresh rosemary or basil
1 cup cooked, thin green beans (about a large handful)
1 cup cooked diced new potatoes (about 1/2 pound)
1/4 cup pitted Greek-type small black olives
3 scallions, minced
Juice of 1 fresh lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, mashed through a press
Curly lettuce for serving
Combine the cracked wheat, stock and herb in a 9-inch glass pie dish and cover with vented plastic wrap. Microwave on full power until the wheat is tender, about 5 minutes. Let stand for about 3 minutes, then remove the herb and drain away any excess stock. This step can be done ahead and the wheat can be covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days.
In a medium bowl combine the wheat, beans, potatoes, olives and scallions. In a small bowl combine the juice, oil and garlic and whisk well to combine. Pour onto the salad and toss well, about 30 times. Serve at room temperature on curly lettuce.
Extra easy: Toss the wheat with leftover stir-fried vegetables.
Per serving: 280 calories, 8 gm protein, 51 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, .8 gm saturated fat, .4 mg cholesterol, 336 mg sodium.
Judith Benn Hurley is the author of "Garden-Fresh Cooking" (Rodale Press).