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A meal in 20 minutes? You've got to be kidding!

Marian Burros, food writer and editor for The New York Times, does it - with style and taste - in her latest cookbook, "20-Minute Menus" (Simon and Schuster, $19.95).Burros says a recent survey indicates that most Americans are only willing to spend "20 minutes or less" preparing dinner. The market for ready-made and takeout foods bears this out; these foods reached an estimated $60 billion in 1987.

Married women, many of whom work outside the home, still do the grocery shopping and prepare the meals. Takeout foods, prepared ingredients and the growing market for frozen entrees all indicate that getting dinner on the table fast is as big a challenge for today's home cooks as is eating well.

However, Burros, who believes in healthful cooking, insists there's no reason not to cook, when delicious and well-balanced meals can be prepared at home in about the same amount of time it might take to stand in line at the deli for takeout food.

"Not only does a home-cooked meal taste better than takeout foods, it also gives the consumer more control over the healthfulness and quality of the ingredients," she says.

Her cookbook contains 100 meals that can be on the table in 20 minutes or less - and that includes time for preheating the oven and scraping the carrots.

Another plus: Burros promises that by using her menus, the length of your average supermarket visit should drop from 20 minutes to 10 minutes!

How does she do it?

There are essentially three components to a meal: protein, starch and vegetable. To streamline the menus, Burros has combined the protein and the starch, the vegetable and the starch, or the vegetable and the protein. In a few instances, she has combined all three components into a one-pot meal.

Chopping and dicing takes time, so Burros uses the cut-up vegetables that are available at supermarket and deli salad bars. (Don't buy cut-up tomatoes,"they taste terrible," she says.) Add 1 to 5 minutes of preparation time if you want to chop your own vegetables. Pre-trimmed and pre-sliced cuts of meat and chicken are also suggested.

Another timesaver, from Burros' point of view: no desserts. If you want dessert, you can buy it.

The cookbook includes a list of ingredients to have on hand for the pantry and a shopping list for each menu. But the real key, Burros explained in an interview here, is the "game plan," those step-by-step instructions that she provides for each meal.

"People still need basics," she says. "They don't know about timing dishes, how to get everything to the table at the same time." So Burros tells the reader when to boil the water, grate the cheese, and drain the fat from the sausage.

Too simple? Too basic? No way! Her menus go from seafood to pasta to chicken and meats. You can choose a one-dish meal (Potatoes Smothered in Everything with Crusty Whole-Grain Bread), go ethnic (Tex-Mex Pizza) or try a new flavor combination (Turkey Breast with Papaya and Chile). Also included: Broiled Fish with Red Pepper Puree; Risotto with Radicchio; and Polenta with Sausages and Mushrooms.

Burros doesn't follow her 20-minute rule in all cases, but she comes close. She identifies those meals that will take a little more time - never more than about 5 minutes or so.

The cookbook provides a list of mail-order sources, including those for organic foods. "For more and more people, the purity of the food supply is becoming a serious consideration," Burros says. "The number of small farmers raising organic crops is increasing, and some of them sell by mail...In the summer, of course, most of us have access to some local organic crops."

You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to prepare the recipes in Burros' cookbook, but you do need a food processor.

One last word: to keep to a 20-minute deadline, the cook must keep moving. No time for telephone calls or reading the newspaper!

The following is a sample from "20-Minute Menus." There is no cream in the sauce - just the illusion, thanks to a mixture of ricotta and yogurt. Serve the chicken with the Pepper-Rice Salad.

Chicken in Mustard "Cream" Sauce

12 ounces chicken breasts, boneless and skinless

2 tablespoons flour

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup chicken stock

1/2-1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon cornstarch

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

3 tablespoons dry sherry

1/3 cup low-fat ricotta

1/3 cup plain low-fat or non-fat yogurt

Wash and dry chicken breasts and cut in half. Dredge in flour.

Heat oil in heavy pan and brown chicken on both sides, 7-10 minutes.

Stir a little chicken stock into dry mustard and cornstarch to make a paste. Then stir in the rest of chicken stock; add pepper.

Chop parsley, set aside.

When chicken breasts are browned, remove and keep warm; deglaze pan with sherry. Add mustard mixture, return chicken to the pan and cook until mixture thickens.

Process ricotta cheese with yogurt until smooth.

Remove the chicken when cooked; turn heat to very low and quickly stir in ricotta mixture. Do not boil.

Serve sauce over chicken, sprinkled with parsley. Serves 2.

Pepper-Rice Salad

1/2 cup long-grain rice

1 cup water

4 tablespoons chopped red onion (about 2 ounces)

7 ounces whole green bell pepper or 6 ounces sliced, ready-cut pepper (1 1/4 cups)

7 ounces whole red bell pepper or 6 ounces sliced, ready-cut pepper (1 1/4 cups)

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 teaspoon sugar

4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Bring rice and water to boil. Reduce heat, cover and cook about 17 minutes over medium heat, until rice is tender and water has been absorbed.

Chop onion finely.

Slice green and red peppers into strips with fine slicing blade in food processor, drain. Spoon into serving bowl with onion.

Toast sesame seeds.

Stir sugar and vinegar into serving bowl; add sesame seeds.

When rice is cooked, stir into dressing mixture. Serves 2.