Takeout trend shifts into high gear with semiprepared gourmet food

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One of the biggest changes in ``home cooking'' today is the food not cooked at home -- takeout food. Americans seem to have evolved rather rapidly from Chinese food and deli sandwiches ``to go'' into a society where convenience foods and specialty food shops do the cooking for them.

Most fast-food shops will wrap almost anything -- from soup to nuts -- to go. But the new trend is for semiprepared gourmet food -- dishes such as Oysters Rockefeller, Stuffed Pork Chops, and Roast Butterflied Lamb.

One place that tries to provide an answer to the insatiable demand for fresh, good food that can be served quickly is Something Special, a gourmet supermarket operated by the Giant Food Chain in McLean, Va.

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``We call it `step-cooking,' '' says manager Ann Brody. ``Most of the steps are already done -- the filling, stuffing, topping, or rolling up. The only thing left is the cooking.

``Customers like having an assist with the chopping, cleaning, and other prep work, and we can do as many steps of cooking as they want.''

At Something Special, fresh fish is available whole, in fillets, stuffed with crabmeat for baking, or already cooked in casserole and chowders, ready for reheating at home.

Fresh vegetables at the salad bar are washed and cut up for easy salad-making or stir-frying. Beef is sliced into strips for marinating.

Another trend, says Ann Brody, is that ``people seem to be ready to talk again. Instead of choosing items from the shelf with no grocer behind the counter, customers today want to talk about their purchases. We like it, even though it means more personnel. That's how we find out what they want.''

All the cooking and baking at Something Special is done on the premises in a full kitchen behind the foods and bakery display areas. The market also has a catering service, a shopping service, and someone to help customers plan a party.

``It's continual market research,'' says Ms. Brody. We think we have the best of both old and new worlds -- modern, efficient shopping facilities with a variety of merchandise, plus the old-fashioned hospitality of a smaller store.''

Although the takeout food trend is increasing, convenience food will not completely replace home-cooked meals, according to a recent panel of specialty food experts.

``Women today who buy ready-cooked main dishes, soups, salads, and desserts are using them to simplify menu preparation or to augment it,'' says Sheila Lukins, co-owner of The Silver Palate in New York City, a highly successful food specialty shop.

``People often buy one or two courses when they're entertaining so they can then spend more time preparing a specialty of their own,'' she says.

One reason for the change in consumer buying habits in the '80s is undoubtedly the fact that 57 percent of all married women with children under 18 now work, while 63 percent of all women over 18 hold jobs.

This means fewer hours for shopping and food preparation. It has also meant a steadily growing number of food specialty shops.

Currently a $2.5 billion business with estimates projected at $7 million by the 1990s, gourmet food seems to be aimed at working women. But a surprising 32 percent of all supermarket traffic is male, according to Carol E. Jackson, director of home economics for Jerry's Foods and Super Value stores in Minnesota.

``Male shoppers, along with the single person living alone, are consumers who comprise a greater portion of society today than the traditional family household,'' she says. ``They are pretty steady customers.''

The most common misconception about quality takeout food seems to be that it is expensive. It doesn't need to be, according to market owners.

For example, while lobster salad may be expensive, chicken salad is moderate in price. A pricey pheasant-under-glass dish can be balanced by a tasty herbed tuna fish dish.

``We've had no resistance to our prices,'' says Ms. Lukins ``People who want a ready-made dinner party realize that service and preparation costs have to be built into the price.''

Served at a buffet supper after the panel discussion, Polynesian Chicken Salad is based on a recipe from Carol Jackson. Polynesian Chicken Salad 1 1/2 cups cooked long grain rice 1 1/2 cups cooked wild rice 1 1/2 cups cubed chicken or turkey 1/2 cup pineapple chunks 1/2 cup halved seedless green grapes 1/2 cup sliced water chestnuts 1/4 cup coarsely chopped salted cashews 3/4 cup mayonnaise 1/3 cup chopped chutney 1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt Lettuce leaves

In a large bowl, combine first 7 ingredients. In measuring cup or small bowl, combine mayonnaise, chutney, and salt and spoon over chicken mixture. Toss to blend. Cover and chill several hours.

To serve, line platter or bowl with lettuce leaves. Spoon salad on leaves. Makes about 6 cups salad.

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