Good meals to make in 20 minutes

For a book that is not quite a year old, The 20-Minute Natural Foods Cookbook , by Sharon Claessens (Rodale Press, $14.95) is the most dogeared in our kitchen library.

The cover is already wearing thin at the edges, because it does just what the title says. It tells how you can put good, wholesome meals on the table in 20 minutes - or less.

In the first 24 days my wife had this book in her possession, she used it 21 times, for one dish or more, or for the whole meal.

Our daughter, a young working wife, returned it after a few days with undisguised reluctance, only after we promised she'd get one the moment an appropriate gift-giving occasion came round.

As a family, we have been big on the curried eggs, baked enchiladas, eggplant lasagna, and cheese-and-spinach bake, to name a few.

The quick chile con carne served with corn bread and a salad also stands out in my memory.

The ''20-Minute'' part of the title is no exaggeration, but it does need some explaining. The book is divided into three sections, with the largest one full of dishes that take only 20 minutes from start to table.

The next section has recipes that can be put together in 20 minutes or less before baking or chilling and need no supervision during the cooking process. Every dish is table-ready within the hour.

The make-it-ahead section includes breads, along with main-course dishes that require preparation ahead of time, but still need only 20 minutes to prepare for the table.

When Sharon Claessens was first asked to write a cookbook, she turned it down , because ''the market was loaded with good cookbooks,'' she said modestly. She didn't feel there was room for another.

But two days later, she rushed home from work, realizing she and her husband had precious little time to eat before going out to a seminar.

That night she put a meal of tacos on the table in, you guessed it, less than 20 minutes. Later she realized this was nothing new.

Having traveled widely, absorbing the tastes and talents of cooks from a wide range of cultures, she is able to contribute interesting recipes as well as speedy ones.

Next morning she telephoned Rodale Press: ''I do have a cookbook that's worth writing,'' she said. We agree.

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