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MARCH 9, 1998:  Pioneered by sanctimonious hippies, early waves of health food fads in America were disastrous. Tofu cults infiltrated decent neighborhoods and vegetarian cafes sprouted up like mushrooms in a moist cow pasture. They served up what seemed to be nothing more than pine mulch puree generously seasoned with dirt. Their motto must've been: "Hey, anything tastes good when you have the munchies."

The backlash was equally appalling. Ray Stevens scored a hit with "Junk Food Junkie," and every kid you knew could recite the ingredients of a Big Mac in eight seconds or less. (Two all-beef patties, etc.) The '70s were a disturbing time for everyone involved.

So it was with equal amounts of fear and loathing that I approached a new vegetarian cookbook with a '70s throwback design. Vegetarian Dinner in Minutes has a bold color scheme of avocado, pimento and saffron that would fit right in the Brady Bunch kitchen. And the photography--such as a 12-by-8 Chiles en Nogada shot point blank with a
300 millimeter lens--has a kind of Betty Crocker camp that typifies cookbooks of two decades ago.

But that's as far as the retro goes. Everything else about this book is all you hoped for in the future of home cooking. Veteran food writer Linda Gassenheimer isn't kidding when stating the book's purpose as "flavor without fuss." Each recipe is organized with a one-stop shopping list, helpful hints, a cook's countdown of when to do what and a list of staples. Many dishes can be ready in the time it takes to boil water, some using only one skillet. Faster food comes only in freezer-to-microwave or box-to-bowl varieties.

Better yet, this food is good for you. Though not all recipes are vegetarian in the strictest sense--some call for eggs and dairy products--Gassenheimer works within government guidelines of fat intake and a smart selection of ingredients to create healthy, well-balanced meals.

Best of all, this food tastes good. Instead of rehashing the standard vegetarian fare such as alfalfa sprouts on whole wheat, the author culled her recipes from her extensive travels. The book is divided into five regions. That three are within North America is more a testament to our diverse culture than a limit to selection. And while the Far East section limits itself to rather standard Chinese and Indian influences, the author shows off her expertise in Mediterranean cuisine with a section that more than makes up for any deficiencies in the Orient. One of my favorites turned out to be perciatelli and broccoli. Oddly enough, Sicilian food can be great without meat because their style of pasta, like perciatelli, is thick and heavy, giving the dish an almost meaty texture.

Mushrooms, particularly the portobello, create the same culinary illusion, so it's of little surprise that the grilled portobello steak sandwich is one of the meatiest-tasting lunches around. Then again, if you're a vegetarian because you just don't like meaty stuff, you might want to avoid most of the recipes in this book and stick with your diet of birdseed and dandelions. Because most of all, this isn't simply a book for vegetarians, it's for anyone who enjoys a variety of rich, wholesome meals that happen to lack meat. (Chronicle, paper, $16.95)

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