Mastering techniques for memorable meals


Back in the days when Americans were beginning to discover that good cooking consisted of more than casseroles featuring cream of mushroom soup, Mary Risley was among those food lovers who were teaching themselves to cook by watching Julia Child on television, reading cookbooks and attending classes offered by well-known chefs.

In 1973, Risley was opening her San Francisco apartment for informal cooking classes and giving demonstrations at local stores. By 1979 she was ready to open Tante Marie's Cooking School, named for an old French cookbook (Tante Marie means Aunt Mary) and now a renowned San Francisco institution.

Now comes her own book, The Tante Marie's Cooking School Cookbook: More Than 250 Recipes for the Passionate Home Cook (Simon & Schuster, $30, 2003). It won't replace full-time classes, but it's a pretty good substitute if you want to master the techniques that will make you a confident home cook who enjoys the kitchen and produces food that pleases family, friends and other guests.

The book offers good recipes and ideas for putting together a memorable meal, from hors d'oeuvres to dessert. Even better, it provides a context for cooking - basics that many cookbooks assume you already know.

For instance, there is a brief explanation of oven temperatures - low (250 degrees), moderate (350) and high (450) - and the uses for each. Each chapter includes a useful introduction. The chapter on chicken explains how to pick a good chicken in the store and warns against the common practice of removing the skin before cooking chicken (the skin keeps it moist - you can always remove it later).

Most of all, Risley believes that cooking should be fun - and that with some basic knowledge, it can be both fun and creative. This book alone may not get you all the way to Risley's goal of helping you cook without a recipe, but it can certainly nudge you several steps further along. Risley's text is enlivened with illustrations by Alice Harth.

Butternut Squash Soup

Makes 10 cups

4 pounds butternut squash or other winter squash, such as kabocha, Preservation or Hubbard

3 tablespoons vegetable oil (divided use)

coarse salt

1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder, store-bought or homemade (see note)

freshly ground black pepper

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

1 to 2 garlic cloves, finely minced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

one 8-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk

To prepare the squash, trim both ends. Cut the squash in half. Cut off all the skin. Cut the rounded part in half and remove the seeds with a metal spoon. Cut the squash into 1-inch dice, put them on a lightly oiled baking dish and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and the Chinese five-spice powder. Bake in a 400-degree oven until soft when pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes.

To roast the seeds, spread them on a baking sheet, lightly coat with oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast along with the squash for 10 minutes.

To make the soup, cook the onion with a sprinkling of salt in the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the ginger and cook another 2 minutes. Add the squash and stock and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.

Puree the soup in a food processor or with an immersion blender and return to the saucepan. Stir in the coconut milk. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with roasted seeds.

Note: An alternative way to cook all winter squashes - whether for soups, vegetable dishes or pies - is to cut them in half, remove the seeds and bake the squash in the oven until soft. The squash then can be pureed in a food processor or through a food mill. Cooked pumpkin or other winter squash will keep for a week in the refrigerator.

Note: To make your own Chinese five-spice powder, put in a spice blender equal amounts of cinnamon stick, fennel seeds, cloves, star anise and white pepper. Blend to a fine powder.

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