For years, Caroline Wright amazed her 20-something friends. She could whip up a great, healthy, delicious and innovative meal in minutes – on an incredibly tight budget.
"In New York, I had a large group of friends who were all underpaid, overworked – and new cooks," Wright recalled in a phone interview from her Dallas home. "They wanted to eat fresh and cheap – anything that would save a trip to another restaurant.
"This was stuff I was making for myself after work," she added. "I told them, 'It's not that hard!' "
Wright's nightly dinner menus had a definite gourmet flair with such dishes as grilled pizza with peppers and turkey sausage, risotto with pancetta and radicchio and spicy mussel soup.
Wright took the next step: She showed her friends (and anyone else interested) how to do it. She created a blog – www.thewrightrecipes.com – and challenged herself to make healthy family meals for four people in 20 minutes for under $20.
Her 20/20 approach caught the eye of publisher Workman, which invited Wright to turn her blog into a cookbook. "Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals" (208 pages, $12.95) debuted in May.
It's been an immediate hit.
"This is the book I want to give to every young couple, new graduate and young professional I care about," said Sarah Copeland, food director of Real Simple magazine. "This is smart, healthful and hearty food to build a life on."
"(This book) curbs the expense and time of cooking and helps you put dinners on the table that feel like important triumphs," wrote Amanda Hesser, co-founder of Food52.com.
Although this is her first cookbook, Wright is an accomplished food pro. She developed recipes and served as an editor for Martha Stewart's "Everyday Food." Her work also has appeared in "Every Day With Rachael Ray," "Cooking Light" and other publications. Trained at the prestigious Ecole de Cuisine la Varenne in France, Wright taught cooking in Brooklyn before recently moving to Dallas with her husband, Garth, (a lawyer) and 8-month-old son, Henry.
Now 29, Wright still cooks for her family the way she did for her Brooklyn friends: Fast and budget-minded, but with upscale taste and seasonal ingredients.
All 90-plus recipes in the book were taken directly from her own kitchen table. She also photographed her completed dishes herself.
"I was doing this for fun," she said. "I definitely ate all the food after I shot it."
Her recipe prose is simple and direct. Instead of traditional lists of ingredients, her recipes are written as narratives, the way you would share a recipe with friend.
"I call it my girlfriend recipe style," Wright said. "I chose that intentionally. When you break out a recipe ingredient list and method, step by step, it can make the recipe look so long and complicated – and intimidating – when it's not.
"I get so frustrated by over-explaining," she added. "I'm trying to empower people to get into the kitchen, to try something new."
Wright also offers ideas for substitutions as a springboard for kitchen creativity. Her favorites change with the seasons. Summer is for grilling.
"I like to eat seasonally," she said. "My favorite right now is merguez burgers. They're really killer, absolutely awesome."
Merguez is a spicy lamb sausage that's a favorite in Morocco. Wright discovered it while in culinary school in France.
"It's ground lamb seasoned with harissa (hot chili) paste and served with cucumber and yogurt dressing," she said. "People like to try different things, and this burger is perfect for summer cookouts."
Grilled gazpacho makes use of summer's tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
"My dad is obsessed with gazpacho, so this is my nod to him," Wright said. "As a recipe tester, I ran into 10,000 versions of gazpacho. By grilling the tomatoes, I tried to make it interesting."
As well as quick and tasty – and inexpensive.
The key to 20/20 cooking is foresight, Wright admitted. Plan ahead; stock your freezer and your pantry with ingredients that come in handy when you're in a hurry. You'll thank yourself at dinner time.
"I always have pizza dough in our freezer and salad greens in the refrigerator," she said. "You can do a lot of quick meals with just those (ingredients) for starters."
Recipe: Grilled turkey sausage and pepper pizza
Recipe: Merguez burgers with cucumber dressing
Recipe: Grilled gazpacho
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.