"Zapping" has yet to enter the English language as an official synonym for microwaving, but in fact, zap sounds apt when describing how the microwave performs various time-intensive culinary tasks in what seems like no time flat.
Take sauces, which can be made from scratch without any standing and stirring. Or, hardy winter vegetables and fruits, which can be prepared with a minimum of fuss. And, since foods don't burn when microwaved properly, there's none of the usual after-dinner scraping of pots and pans.
Here are 10 ideas for "zapping" various labor-intensive segments of your cooking routine. They were created in a 700-watt microwave, so if yours has less wattage, increase the cooking times slightly.
1. Time to Reduce -- Cooking down, or reducing a sauce on the stove top requires constant attention to keep the sauce from burning. An easier route is to pour the sauce (wine and stock-based ones work the best) into a nine-inch glass pie dish and microwave uncovered on full power, no stirring needed. One and a half cups of sauce will reduce to half the amount in about 12 minutes, and clean-up is a snap because the sauce doesn't stick to the dish.
2. Easy Applesauce -- It's hard to believe that you can microwave homemade applesauce in less than 10 minutes, but it's true. First peel, core and finely chop two cooking apples, or use one apple and one pear for about one cup of sauce. Toss them in a nine-inch glass pie dish along with a quarter cup of orange juice and two tablespoons of honey. Taste a piece of apple and if it needs ground cinnamon or lemon juice, add some. Cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until the fruit is tender (about eight minutes). Leave it chunky or pure'e it in a processor or blender. Serve warm or very slightly chilled as a sauce for lemon cake. Or cut the amount of honey in half and use the sauce as a condiment for roast chicken or duck.
3. Perfect Pears -- Poaching this fruit in the microwave makes a fast dessert. Peel, halve and core four pears (for four servings) and arrange them flat-side down in a nine-inch glass pie dish. Drizzle on two tablespoons of lemon juice. Then cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until just tender (about 2 1/2 minutes). Let stand for two minutes more. Serve warm or very slightly chilled in a pool of chocolate sauce. Or warm up an apricot preserve in the microwave until it has just liquefied and pour atop the pears.
4. Bullet Breakfast -- In a two-cup measure combine half a cup of apple cider and two tablespoons of oat bran for a quick one-serving start to the day. Microwave uncovered until the cider has begun to absorb the oats (about 1 1/2 minutes). Then, swirl in some raisins, chopped dried dates, maple syrup or yogurt, and let stand for one minute.
5. Basil in a Pinch -- If you need fresh basil and the market bins are bare, your microwave can help. Measure three tablespoons of dried basil into a small dish with sides. Pour in a quarter cup of water, cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until the water is completely absorbed and the basil is fragrant (about 3 minutes). You'll have about a quarter cup of chopped basil to use for making pesto. Or combine it with ricotta and toss with hot pasta.
6. Soup Sense -- When you make a pot of soup, freeze the extras in flat, portion-sized containers. To defrost, microwave on full power unless the soup contains milk or cream. In that case use medium power. The flat shapes defrost much more quickly than chunky shapes.
7. Coconut Therapy -- Look out the window, and if you wish you were in the Caribbean instead, make yourself feel better by preparing a fresh coconut. First find the softest of its three eyes, pierce it with a screwdriver and whack it with a hammer. Continue to whack until the eye is pierced completely through and the coconut just begins to crack. Drain the juice and reserve it for adding to marinades for chicken or fish or to replace some of the liquid in puddings.
Wrap the coconut in plastic wrap and microwave on full power until fragrant and very hot (about five minutes). Let it stand for 15 minutes, then whack it hard with the hammer until it splits. Use a sturdy knife to pry the meat out, and peel off the outer brown part, if you like. Grate the meat and use as needed in desserts, tropical chicken salads and in Brazilian, southeast Asian and West Indian recipes. Store it tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
8. Coffee Break -- Save your leftover morning coffee in a covered jar in the refrigerator. Then, for a change of pace, pour two cups of brewed coffee in a four-cup measure and toss in a cinnamon stick, three allspice berries, three whole cloves and two tablespoons of brown sugar. Microwave on full power until the spices are fragrant and the coffee is hot (about 4 1/2 minutes). Strain the coffee into two large mugs, discarding the spices and spoon in some foamed milk before serving hot.
9. Garnish for Greens -- Hard-cooked chopped egg is a wonderful texture and color contrast to cooked vegetables of the season such as kale and broccoli. To microwave a hard-cooked egg, first make sure it's room temperature. Then break it into a custard cup and puncture the yolk with the point of a sharp knife to keep it from exploding. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave on medium power until firm (about two minutes). Let stand until cool enough to handle, then chop over cooked vegetables. This will not be the prettiest hard-cooked egg you've ever seen, but when it's chopped no one will even know. If you've avoiding yolks, just chop and use the whites. You can also enjoy the egg as a fast and delicious breakfast when topped with plain yogurt and dill.
10. The Wet-Towel Trick -- Root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips and turnips can be easily cooked in wet paper towels. Simply stack three towels together and wet them with water. Squeeze out slightly, then lay them out flat. Set half a pound (for two servings) of thinly sliced vegetables in the center of the stack, sprinkle with dill or tarragon and close the towels up like an envelope. Set the package on a plate for easy handling and microwave on full power until the vegetables are tender (about four minutes. Let stand for a couple of minutes before serving.
Judith Benn Hurley is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer and author of "Healthy Microwave Cooking" (Rodale Press) and other books.