World of experience goes into new book of kitchen advice


To save a scorched stew, remove the unburned parts, put them in a clean pot and cover the pot with a damp cloth for 30 minutes. If that doesn't take away the burned taste, slowly add dabs of cream, or a strong seasoning like chili powder, until the burned flavor vanishes.

If your cake is stuck in the pan, place the pan on a wet towel. The once-stuck cake should steam away from the sides and bottom of the pan.

If the vegetables are overcooked, puree them, stir in a little butter or cream, and you've got an elegant side dish.

So says Polly Clingerman, author of "The Kitchen Companion" ($14.95) published by the American Cooking Guild in Gaithersburg.

This is not a cookbook. It is a book of cooking advice. The other morning when I spoke with Mrs. Clingerman on the telephone from her Fredericksburg, Va., home she described her book as a "chatty reference" work.

"It replaces all those little slips of paper cooks have stuffed in kitchen drawers," she says, repeating a synopsis offered by a friend. It has been nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award, as one of the best technical and reference cooking works published this year.

Her cooking tips come from her 30 years of experience in kitchens foreign and domestic. Her husband, John, is a retired State Department diplomat and the couple spent three decades in the foreign service.

Rather than sounding world-weary, Mrs. Clingerman, a native of Lansing, Mich., struck me as a woman full of pep and common sense. A neighbor you would call if you had trouble with dinner.

Take, for example, her solution to the problem of what to do when you overcook your vegetables. "If you serve them soft, people will think you are not with it," she told me. "Vegetables are supposed to be crunchy. So what you do is you puree them, add the butter or cream, and make them into an elegant dish. Then you end up being really with it."

She spoke about one of the most basic elements in cooking: how you tell when a dish is done. Although she uses thermometers, she says she does not trust them. She prefers to supplement the reading on the gauge with what her senses tell her. She was heartened, she says at last week's meeting of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, to hear other pros admit they, too, were wary of relying solely on thermometers.

Part of learning to cook, she says, is learning to trust your senses. When she wants to know if a chicken is done, she checks the bird's color. "It should be brown," she says. She says she also might check the texture by pinching the chicken's thigh.

"It should be plumpy," she says, "it should give." And she might stick a fork in a joint and check the color of the juice that runs out. "If the juice is clear, it is done." Generally when a chicken "smells done," it is, she says.

Her book is filled with charts, and boxes telling cooks everything from how to extinguish a fiery pan ("smack a large lid on it pronto!") to how many chicken salad hors d'oeuvres you can get out of a four-pound chicken (70) to how to tone down an overly sweet entree (add small amounts of salt or vinegar).

She admitted she tends to rely on cream to rectify a variety of cooking foul-ups. But she also has a recipe for a substitute solution. "If you don't want to use cream, you can sometimes use a slurry made from a tablespoon of flour and a cup of milk," she says.

She also has definite ideas about cooking with wine. Don't use a rose wine, she says, unless the recipe specifically calls for it. Generally speaking, roses aren't substantial enough to make a difference in the flavor of the dish. Red wines, on the other hand, tend to be big and brutish, she says. To keep red wine from overpowering the meat it is cooking, you make sure your pan has as much water (or broth) as wine, she says.

There are some situations, she says, that rely more on attitude than technique to save the day. Take, for instance, the time her quiche collapsed in Lesotho, a country in southern Africa. Shortly after she and her husband had arrived there, she gave a lunch for the embassy staff. The event began and she heard a crash in the kitchen. A large quiche that was going to be lunch had been dropped. It was ruined, she says. But a smaller quiche was unharmed.

So, she says, the remaining quiche was sliced very, very thin, and lunch was served.

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