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A Return to the Kitchen; Home cooking's hot again as more folks choose to turn out healthy dishes at the end of a busy day

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Now that many of your New Year's resolutions have vanished into the oblivion of good intentions, it's time to tackle the one that really matters -- the 1999 Declaration of the Stomach.

You know, a pledge to return to real food for dinner in a move toward culinary independence. The vow that lets you jettison the grocer's gooey rotisserie bird and skip those frozen microwave feasts.

With this promise, you are determined to return to the kitchen, a place where turning out easy, healthy dishes -- even in the midst of the daily rush -- becomes fun again.

You are not alone.

Cooking specialists from Federal Hill to Bethesda say there is a movement afloat to revisit the art of cooking, partially out of a need to balance the burnout of everyday life. Cooking Light magazine offers an article on "99 Quick and Easy Ways to Be a Better Cook in 1999" in its January/February issue.

And a number of cookbooks celebrating home cooking are cropping up in stores. "How to Cook Everything" (Macmillan, 1998) by Mark Bittman and "The New Joy of Cooking" (Scribner, 1997) by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker are attracting novice and veteran cooks.

A new back-to-basics book, "Learning to Cook With Marion Cunningham" (Knopf, 1999), will be published May 2. Cunningham, author of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," said she wrote the book to get people back into the kitchen.

The cooking renaissance doesn't surprise Mary Fox, owner of A Cook's Table at the corner of Light and Montgomery streets.

"Through the '90s, people have tended to work very hard," she said. "Whenn they got home, they did not want junk food or expensive, time-consuming food, so gourmet-to-go filled the gap. But I believe people were spending a lot of time behind computers and they were starved for activities that drew on tactile sensation.

"Today, what they are trying to do is turn out easy-to-prepare, delicious, nutritious foods and do it in a way that is manageable."

Fox should know.

Several times a week, an assortment of Baltimore chefs and cooking professionals come to the test kitchen in her shop to teach cooking classes that range from lessons on the basics to Thai cuisine and gourmet Italian.

"What I'm starting to see is people getting really knowledgeable about food with ingredients that are quick and easy to work with -- and special and wonderful," she says.

In Bethesda, Janet Gaffney's Art of Cooking school is doing the same.

From a rented church kitchen and sometimes in her own home, Gaffney teaches hundreds each year how to saute, puree, knead, chop and roll. A Virginia native who draws on folksy Southern charm, she believes today's cooks -- whether they be budding or seasoned -- are in search of a true north at the stove.

"People want the reward and they want to have foods they remember from their childhood, like their mother or their grandmother used to cook," Gaffney said.

"Today's generation of cooks are young executives and people with discretionary income who come out of a generation of working two-parent households and a lot of the natural rites of passage in the kitchen have been skipped over. What a lot of people come to me for are some basic techniques, the how-tos, so they won't embarrass themselves."

Gaffney credits the move to return to cooking with a desire for "nesting."

"There's a need to bring the family together -- we hear more and more about the importance of quality time in the home. I see people on a lot of different levels -- and people are coming to cooking classes to learn to cook for their family or even learn to cook something they remember as a child but never learned how to do. And it's all technique, technique, technique."

Jane Monaghan, one of Gaffney's students, leaves her busy retail job in the Washington suburbs and goes home to cook.

"It allows me too be creative -- and my job doesn't always allow that," she says. "I cook because it releases stress, and I can tell when I go into the kitchen and start going, I'm working something out."

Sandra Birnbach, an assistant manager at Williams-Sonoma at White Flint Mall in Montgomery County, said she works all day in the cooking supplies store -- and still goes home to prepare a meal from scratch.

She routinely attends Gaffney's classes, she says, to sharpen her skills. "It's just so satisfying and I love it when people like the food I make."

With classes that cost $53 each and a spring and summer curriculum that includes "Superb Savory Soups," "Not Just for Breakfast," "Summer Fishing" and "White House Favorites," Gaffney's school gives cooks the opportunity to perfect at least one specialty.

"Whether it's a great bowl of chili or a loaf of bread or that I pour a terrific drink, if you do it well, in today's lifestyle, you can fill in with already-made categories," Gaffney says. "People find there's a luxury in having people in your home -- it has more of an air of quality and extravagance."

Gaffney's cooking expertise comes from spending years at her grandmother's side learning the basics of home cooking, such as how to mash potatoes, make pies and churn ice cream at the family's farm near Newport News, Va. When she married a fellow Southerner, she took off in search of the perfect biscuit and "anything to do with grits."

She believes her classes are popular because she does all the groundwork -- presenting a lesson on how to prepare a unique meal and then a quick course on how to serve it properly.

A regular student, Pasquale Perrino, is a retired physician whose wife still works.

Explaining his entree into the kitchen a year ago, he says: "I don't want to reinvent the wheel ... but I hate to do anything poorly."

Gaffney offers her viewpoint: "He's a professional who is highly educated and now he cooks for the family. Cooking, to him, is a creative, new forum. Instead of playing golf, this man bakes bread."

Spanish Potato Gratin

Serves 4 to 6

1 cup chopped sweet onion

3 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon sweet butter or olive oil

2 large pinches saffron threads

2 pounds Yukon gold or red bliss potatoes

salt and pepper to taste

2 cups rich chicken broth (homemade or Poulet Gold from a gourmet grocer)

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

1/2 cup blanched almonds

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Saute the onions and garlic in oil in a skillet for five minutes until lightly golden. Stir in saffron and turn off heat. Slice potatoes into very thin rounds and layer the bottom of an oiled oval or round casserole dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and layer with onion mixture. Pour chicken broth over potatoes, covering the layers and add water if needed to cover. Mix bread crumbs with almonds and parsley and pulse in the food processor. Add paprika, salt and pepper, 2 tablespoons olive oil and stir. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture in an even layer over the top, cover with foil and bake 20 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 additional minutes -- liquid should be nearly evaporated and potatoes should be tender.

-- From Mary Fox's A Cook's Table

'Gucci' Leftover Meatloaf

Serves 6

2 small jars of cooked vegetables (such as marinated carrots, roasted red peppers)

3 potatoes

2 cups ground veal or turkey

1 cup chicken stock

1 egg

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 cup unseasoned bread crumbs

1 cup tomato sauce (leftover spaghetti sauce or barbecue sauce will do)

1/2 cup white wine or sherry

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

chutney or tomato tapenade, if desired

Base layer: Use assorted strips of cooked vegetables such as marinated carrots (purchased in the gourmet section of a supermarket) and a jar of roasted red peppers. Also add three parboiled, julienne potatoes. Lightly toss the vegetables together in a bowl and press into the bottom of an 8-inch-by-8-inch rectangular, oiled baking pan. Season with salt and pepper.

Mix the next 9 ingredients and spread over the vegetables. Bake for 30-40 minutes at 375 degrees. Let sit for 10 minutes and then cut into squares. Each square can be topped with chutney or a tapenade of sun-dried tomato, if desired.

-- From Mary Fox's A Cook's Table

Winter Soup

Serves 6

1 teaspoon oil

1 leek, white part only, washed and sliced

2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 2-inch chunks

3 cups water

salt to taste

slices of dark leek for garnish

Heat oil in a three-quart pot. Saute leek until tender and add the squash. Pour in water and add salt. Cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and boil until squash is tender. Remove from heat and puree. If a thicker soup is desired, return to heat and continue to boil gently until reduced. Sprinkle leek slices on top for garnish.

-- From Janet Gaffney's Art of Cooking

Apple Pie With Cheddar Cheese Crust

Serves 6-8

TWO CRUSTS:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup vegetable shortening

1/4 pound sharp Cheddar cheese, grated

1/4 cup iced water

FILLING:

5 large apples

juice from 1 lemon

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon white sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place flour and salt in a food processor or bowl. Add vegetable shortening and process until it resembles a fine meal. Add the grated cheese and pulse until mixed. While processing, dribble iced water until a dough ball forms. Remove the dough, cut in half and roll into a circle. Put in pie pan to form bottom crust. Roll out second ball of dough and set aside for top crust.

Wash, peel, core and chop apples and coat with lemon juice. Mix flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Toss the dry mixture with the apples. Add brown sugar to the mix until coated. Fill the bottom of the empty pie shell with the apple filling. Scatter the butter on top of the filling and top with the second crust. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon white sugar. Bake for 1 hour until crust is golden.

-- From Janet Gaffney's Art of Cooking

Brioche

Serves 6

2 ounces warm water

3 packages yeast

3 ounces sugar

1 1/2 pound cake flour

1/2-ounce salt

12 1/2 ounces butter

8 eggs

In a mixing bowl, pour warm water, sprinkle in yeast and a dash of sugar. Let it rest about 10 minutes. Add flour and remaining sugar. Begin mixing. When yeast is thoroughly blended into flour-sugar mixture, sprinkle in the salt. Add butter bit by bit. Add eggs, one at a time. Knead until smooth. Pour into a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel. Let rise at 70 degrees for 5 hours. Deflate dough and transfer onto a buttered stainless-steel tray. Fold dough several times. Cover with plastic and towel again, and place tray in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, divide dough into three equal pieces. Place one piece on a lightly floured surface, flour hands and pound dough. Fold like an envelope, pound again. Repeat. Fold edge and seal. In a large, buttered brioche form, place ball of dough. Repeat for two additional loaves. Make indention in dough with three floured fingers. Cover with towel and let rise at 70 degrees for 1 1/2 hours. Place on a heated pan in a preheated 475-degree oven. Reduce oven to 350 degrees and bake 40 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on a rack.

-- From Janet Gaffney

Where to call

For further information on classes at A Cook's Table, contact 410-539-8600. For a list of spring and summer classes at the Art of Cooking, call Gaffney at 301-951-3719.

Pub Date: 02/17/99

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