Fast Food With Panache

He is a classically trained French chef who has cooked for heads of state like Charles de Gaulle and created elaborate dishes with the late Julia Child. Yet, Jacques Pepin says food need not be fussy, not even the food made in his kitchen.

His philosophy: a simple meal is almost more spectacular than one that was labor intensive.

His latest cookbook, and the inspiration for his next PBS cooking show, is "Fast Food My Way," a how-to guide for creating some of the most amazing meals without breaking a sweat.

COLD BLACK BEAN SOUP

Puree a can of black beans with a little olive oil, Tabasco, a couple of tablespoons of chopped onion, crushed clove of garlic, salt, and enough chicken stock to make the mixture creamy. Serve in soup plates, topping each serving with a ribbon of sour cream diluted with a bit of water. Garnish with a few slices of banana and a couple of cilantro leaves.

SWEET CHEESE MEDLEY
about 30 appetizers

1/2 pound assorted cheeses (maybe a mixture of Gloucester, feta, blue, Gouda, and Gruyere)
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
1/3 cup dark raisins
1/3 cup honey
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Salt, if needed
About 30 thin wheat crackers
About 30 mint or spearmint leaves

Cut or crumble the cheese into about 1/2-inch pieces and put them in a bowl. Toast the pumpkin seeds in a skillet over medium high heat for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the cheese in the bowl, along with raisins, honey, lime juice, and pepper. Mix well, taste for salt (some cheese is salty), and add salt if needed.

Mound a heaping teaspoon of the cheese medley on each of the crackers, stick a mint leaf on top and serve.

SLOW-COOKED TUNA STEAKS WITH TOMATO RELISH
4 servings

4 center-cut tuna steaks (each about 6 ounces and 3/4 inch thick)
1 teaspoon canola oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Tomato Relish
3/4 cup diced (1/2-inch) peeled and seeded tomato
1/2 cup diced (1/4-inch) sweet onion, such as Vidalia
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup red hot salsa or freshly store-bought salsa
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons good olive oil

Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Rub the tuna steaks on both sides with the canola oil and sprinkle them with the salt and pepper. Arrange the steaks on a serving plate, or on four dinner plates, and bake for about 20 minutes, for rare. If you want the fish cooked to medium, leave it in for a few more minutes.

Meanwhile, for the tomato relish: Mix the tomato, onion, chives, salt, and salsa in a medium bowl. Add the lime juice and olive oil and mix well.

Remove the tuna steaks from the oven and spoon the sauce liberally over and around the steaks. Serve immediately.

STRAWBERRY PANACHEE
4 servings

2 1/2 cups ripe strawberries
1/4 cup jam (raspberry, currant, or strawberry are good)
4 shortbread cookies
1/3 cup creme fraiche or sour cream, plus additional for serving
4 springs fresh mint or basil

Cut off the bottom and top of each berry. (You should have about 1 1/4 cups of tops and bottoms.) Slice the centers of the berries and set aside. Push the berry tops and bottoms and the jam through a food mill or process in a mini food processor until pureed. Mix the sliced berries into the puree. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

At serving time, put the cookies in a plastic bag and crush them coarsely with a rolling pin. Divide the crumbs along four glass bowls or goblets. Spoon about half the berry mixture on top of the cookies. Stir the creme fraiche or sour cream to loosen it and spoon on top of the berries. Top with the remaining berry mixture. Garnish each dessert with a mint sprig, and, if you like, pass some creme fraiche or sour cream.