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WHEN IN A PINCH, DAIRY PRODUCTS COME TO THE RESCUE

Long live dairy products, the godsends of desperate cooks. And live long, they do -- from one month to four -- unopened in your refrigerator.

Thanks to the war on cholesterol, I had all but forgotten this luxury of ultra-pasteurized shelf-life. Now, with all of the fat-trimmed dairy products on the market, I am once again happily checking expiration dates at my local supermarket cold case.

At the moment, there's a month to go before my non-fat yogurt is gone, two months left to rely on my "lite" sour cream and nearly four months before I must decide the fate of my reduced-fat ricotta and shredded cheddar.

To help these products live even longer, food science researchers at North Carolina State University advise turning your refrigerator to its coldest setting -- 32 degrees is optimum.

(Expiration dates apply to unopened packages. After opening, even researchers recommend the old take-a-whiff test. If it smells funny, pitch it.)

For busy cooks, what all of this time really buys is bail-out potential. When I'm convinced there's nothing in the house to eat, I'll remember that container of cheese. On desperate nights, I figure a little cholesterol is better than starvation.

Italian and French cookbooks abound with simple recipes built around dairy products. Take today's recipe for Ricotta Noodles. The original version comes from a favorite book of ours, "Pasta Fresca" (William Morrow & Co.) by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman. Alicia lightened the sauce, substituting reduced-fat ricotta and turkey bacon.
RICOTTA NOODLES

1pound tube-shaped noodles such as penne

2tablespoons olive oil

1small onion, peeled and finely diced

3slices turkey bacon, coarsely chopped

1carton (15-ounce) reduced-fat ricotta cheese

1/4 cup good-quality grated Parmesan cheese

1teaspoon dried parsley flakes OR 1 tablespoon fresh

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

3tablespoons hot water from pasta pot
Cook noodles until just tender. Meanwhile, heat oil in a small non-stick skillet on low heat. Add onions and bacon and cook until onion is tender and bacon is not quite crisp. Drain oil from skillet and pour bacon and onions into a mixing bowl. Add cheeses, herbs and hot water. Stir well.

When the noodles are done, drain them well. Pour half of the noodles immediately into the mixing bowl. Stir well to coat with cheese. Add the other half. Stir well. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve at once, passing extra Parmesan to sprinkle on top if desired. Makes 6 servings. Approximate values per serving (Using Nutritionist IV software): 418 calories (27 percent from fat), 12.7 gm fat (2.5 gm saturated), 73.2 mg cholesterol, 20.4 gm protein, 55.5 gm carbohydrates, 524 mg sodium.

Cook's notes: Turn any leftovers into mock lasagna by topping noodles with spinach (if you have it), bottled spaghetti sauce and mozzarella cheese. Heat in a casserole in a 350-degree oven until bubbly hot.

How desperate are you?

Send desperate tales of woe or everyday success stories and your favorite quick recipes to Desperation Dinners, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608.

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