Labor Day — when the workers of the world get to celebrate and rest — usually means a busy, tiring, labor-intensive weekend for the cooks of the family — us! Our fun-loving husbands think it's great to have folks over to celebrate the long weekend, and invitations flow fast. We're left to feed the hungry hoards as they come and go.

So this Labor Day we're putting our heads together to come up with our favorite "labor-saving" ingredients, and we plan to employ as many as we can.

In no particular order, our favorites this year:

• Already-boiled eggs. (They save time on homemade potato salad and deviled eggs. Find them in packages in the deli, the refrigerated section of the supermarket or on the salad bar.)

• Peeled fresh garlic. (When you're harried, every little thing helps. Now available in smaller jars, so waste is not a concern. Usually found in produce.)

• Refrigerated (not frozen) rolled pie crust dough. (The updated crusts have no seam to seal, and everyone still asks for our pie-dough recipe! Usually found in dairy.)

• Rotisserie chicken (makes quick work of hearty entree salads perfect for lunch or a light dinner).

• Already-shredded cabbage. (The package's recipe is perfectly fine for traditional slaw, but this great ingredient will work in everything from your own slaw recipe to other salads and even stir-fries.)

• No-cook noodles for lasagna. (One step removed from the labor-intensive job of making lasagna. Recipes abound. Just be sure to have plenty of sauce to prevent a dry casserole.)

• Crockpot liner bags. (Beverly swears by these beauties, which make cleanup a breeze. Found alongside plastic food-storage bags.)

• Microsteam bags. (These ingenious bags provide easy, no-fail steaming of fresh vegetables in the microwave without dirtying a dish. Found alongside plastic food-storage bags. Some vegetables in the produce section also come in microsteam bags.)

• EZ-peel shrimp, already-peeled and already-steamed shrimp. (No matter what your recipe calls for, there's an easier, quicker shrimp ready for you. EZ-peel is the newest category. The shell is split, the shrimp is deveined, and, with the flip of a finger, the shell comes off.)

Today's recipe is the last of our labor-saving secrets. Shrimp Dijon Pasta Salad With Asparagus is a great-tasting, quick and easy recipe that will feed a crowd of people in a snap. Only the labor-saving cook needs to know it takes 20 minutes.

Menu suggestion:

Shrimp Dijon Pasta Salad With Asparagus

Fresh berries

Hearty Italian bread

SHRIMP DIJON PASTA SALAD WITH ASPARAGUS

Start to finish: 20 minutes

1 pound penne pasta or other short, tubular pasta

1 pound thin fresh asparagus

2/3 cup Garlic Dijon Vinaigrette, recipe follows, or more to taste

3 scallions

1 can (2.5 ounces) sliced black olives

1 pound already-cooked and peeled shrimp (steamed, grilled or sauteed)

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, optional

Place the pasta in boiling water and cook according to package directions. When pasta is cooked, drain well, and rinse with cool water. Set aside.

Meanwhile, break the tough ends off the asparagus spears and rinse well. Cut the asparagus into 1-inch pieces and place in a microsteam bag or in a single layer in a shallow, microwave-safe dish. Microwave on high, uncovered, just until crisp-tender, about 2 to 3 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. When done, pour the asparagus into a colander and add a handful of ice. Rinse the asparagus, and ice with cool water to stop the cooking. Drain well, removing any ice pieces.

Make the Garlic Dijon Vinaigrette, recipe follows.

Rinse and chop the scallions. Place them in a large serving bowl. Drain the olives and add them to the bowl. If the shrimp are larger than 1 inch long, cut them into bite-size pieces and add them to the bowl. Mince the parsley, if using, and add it to the bowl.

When the pasta is cooked, rinsed and drained, shake it well to remove as much water as possible. Add it to the bowl. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the pasta to taste. (We usually use about 2/3 cup. Extra vinaigrette can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.) Serve the salad immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Yield: 10 servings

Approximate values per serving: 333 calories (36 percent from fat), 13 g fat (2 g saturated), 88 mg cholesterol, 17 g protein, 37 g carbohydrates, 3 g dietary fiber, 228 mg sodium.

GARLIC DIJON VINAIGRETTE

Start to finish: 5 minutes

4 cloves already-peeled fresh garlic

1/4 cup red-wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Drop the garlic cloves one at a time through the feed tube of a food processor with the machine running, and finely chop.

Stop the machine, and add the vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Process to blend, about 5 seconds. With the motor running, drizzle the oil through the feed tube in a thin stream. Process just until well combined and slightly thickened.

Yield: 1 cup

Approximate values per tablespoon: 97 calories (98 percent from fat), 11 g fat (1 g saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, trace protein, trace carbohydrates, 0 g dietary fiber, 53 mg sodium.


Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross are co-authors of "Desperation Dinners!" (Workman, 1997), "Desperation Entertaining!" (Workman, 2002) and "Cheap.Fast.Good!" (Workman, 2006). Contact them at Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. Or visit the Desperation Dinners Web site at www.desperationdinners.com. © United Feature Syndicate