Just as Good?

Some cooks make the mistake of buying a higher-quality cut of meat or vegetable than is necessary. This is wasteful and can actually ruin the dish being cooked. Appropriate trade-offs for health-conscious individuals are also discussed.

Just as Good?

It used to be money, now it’s fat grams, and it has always been time — the ground for the “just as good” syndrome. Thirty years ago the commercials were for margarine (“Tastes just like butter, for half the price”) and for store-bought pastries (“Just like homemade”). Now they’re for everything from fat-free pretzels (which always were fat-free, only now they can boast about it) to fat-free potato chips to (an oxymoron if ever there was one) fat-free sour cream, and for microwavable dinners (“Gourmet meals in minutes”). James Burnham –philosopher, polemicist, NR founding editor, and occasional cook –made the answer one of his laws: “Just as good, isn’t.” Read more “Just as Good?”

A Dry Stone Retaining Wall

Building a dry stone retaining wall is hard work, but it’s also fun. Maybe it’s the low-tech appeal of doing what humans have done for thousands of years. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of turning a pile of rocks into something beautiful and useful that will last for centuries. Maybe it’s the challenge of fitting together a giant, three-dimensional puzzle. Whatever the reasons, many people find working with stone enjoyable and satisfying. You can, of course, turn any pleasant project into drudgery by overdoing it. Two hours of wall-building is enjoyable exercise; six hours is an ordeal. To keep it fun, think of your wall as a summer hobby, to be plugged away at on Sunday afternoons, not a project to be completed in a weekend.

A Dry Stone Retaining Wall

Why Dry?

“Dry” simply means that mortar isn’t used to cement the structure together. Rather, the stones are carefully fit into place and held there by gravity. Mixing up and slopping on mortar is, of course, a nuisance. But that’s not why we leave it out of our wall recipe. A dry stone wall, put together well, will actually outlast a mortared wall for two reasons. It can flex slightly, moving with the ground beneathit instead of cracking like a stiff mortared wall would; and since it doesn’t rely on mortar, it won’t fall apart as mortar wears away, as all mortar eventually does. Read more “A Dry Stone Retaining Wall”

What Cooking Classes Teach (Part 3)

I recently went to what looked like one of those novelty classes: “Fall for Italy,” given by Sally Kofke at The Cookingstudio, a well-equipped teaching kitchen at King’s Supermarket in Short Hills, New Jersey.

  • Kofke is one of many teachers around the country who have studied with famous cooksin situ (New York, France, Italy) and returned to spread the word in a more complete way than those stars passing through ever could.
  • Kofke has taken several courses from the Hazans. Having recently spent a month going to classes in Florence, Venice, and Bologna, I didn’t expect to learn anything, but of course I did.
  • Kofke has a cooking school in her house, in Montclair, New Jersey, where she teaches basic courses, and she knows how to pack a lot of techniques into one class. She ordered quail that hadn’t been cleaned, for instance, and made students learn what to snip off and what to leave on (it was a participation class).

What Cooking Classes Teach (Part 3)

Many had never seen a quail or used dried porcini mushrooms, and they came away wanting to experiment with both. I looked at The Cookingstudio’s list of classes, assembled by Joanna Pruess, the school’s director, with new interest. Even if a teacher is not a foreigner or classically trained, he or she can bring students far forward and pass on valuable advice. Read more “What Cooking Classes Teach (Part 3)”

What Cooking Classes Teach (Part 2)

Most cooks who do demonstrations know that their primary job is to keep an audience amused for however long it takes to get through the recipes. For instance, people come to watch Sheryl Julian, who gives demonstrations at the Hotel Meridien in Boston, not because she trained at the Cordon Bleu (she did) but because she gets a crowd going. “Make sure your butcher is afraid of you,” she’ll say in the middle of boning a leg of lamb. “You’ll get the best meat.” She interrupts with little quizzes–What two foods were always served on white napkins in Victorian England? Asparagus and ice cream–and gives almost as many tricks as Wolfert does. Put plates in the freezer so that ice cream will stick to them. She has an unerring sense of when her audience is restless or hungry. “I’m passing around these cookies now, even though I haven’t shown you how to make them yet,” she said at one demonstration. “You all look like you need a pick-me-up.”

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As Much Fun as Watching a Showman Can Be

participation class is where what you learn really takes, because it enters your sensory memory and not just your notebook. Being warned by a teacher at a demonstration not to incorporate flour into bread dough too fast is different from being shown how to turn a lumpy mess in front of you into satiny dough. At a participation class the teacher can rescue you by adding more liquid (which makes the dough look like it belongs in a cement mixer) and then pummeling it until it looks like something you’d consider eating once it was baked. Read more “What Cooking Classes Teach (Part 2)”

What Cooking Classes Teach (Part 1)

I used to think that learning to cook was a matter of being able to read. I made sure that a half-teaspoon of salt was perfectly level and that I took out the pot roast after two and a half hours exactly. If the veal stew called for Chardonnay and I could find only Chablis in the cabinet, I looked for another recipe. I took the same pleasure in cooking that I did in making bookshelves in shop class. I was excellent at following directions, the longer and more specific the better.

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I considered myself pretty much the equal of the authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, still unsurpassed as a teaching cookbook, and of Marcella Hazan, whose Classic Italian Cooking is another fundamental text. After all, I could make any of their recipes with precision. Read more “What Cooking Classes Teach (Part 1)”