How Beginners Can Survive In the Kitchen

Lora Brody's back-to-school basics are designed to teach anyone how to cook a meal

I'VE assumed nothing," says Lora Brody, talking about her newest book, "The Kitchen Survival Guide."

Billed as "a hand-holding kitchen primer," the guide is a detailed "how-to" book geared for the novice cook - for the recent college grad, newlywed, or anyone who might view the kitchen as uncharted territory.

"Anyone can be taught how to put a meal on the table," Ms. Brody says confidently during an interview. "It's only food. We're not talking about building a bridge."

That no-nonsense attitude - with a shake of humor and a pinch of sass - has made Brody's approach to basic cooking a very accessible one.

Such a service comes at a good time. In the cooking world, the gap between the "cans" and the "cannots" has widened, says Brody, author of several cookbooks, including "Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet" and "Cooking with Memories."

Cooking has been elevated to an art form, Brody continues. Before, it was drudgery; now it's a trendy pastime and a fancy occupation, which is fine. But even in some "regular" cookbooks, one has to know how to use a wok, she points out. What if you don't know how to use one? "Butter and flour a pan" might be like telling someone who doesn't know about cars to "change the oil and replace the spark plugs." There's a certain level of assumed expertise that newcomers just don't have, says Brody.

Pair culinary snobbery with a prepared-food industry approaching an all-time high in convenience, and the result is people who can appreciate fine food in restaurants but who, at home, have Lean Cuisine and a soda for dinner.

"These people need a certain level of comfort in the kitchen, a certain level of success," says Brody. "They're like baby birds in the desert: `Teach us! Teach us!' " she chirps.

Another point to consider is that today many children have grown up with working parents. For them, the call "Dinner's ready!" has been replaced by the microwave's Beep-beep-beep!

This is why people like Sam Arnold, owner of The Fort, a restaurant in Morrison, Colo., praise Brody's educational effort. Mr. Arnold ordered 120 copies of "The Kitchen Survival Guide" as gifts for his employees, many of whom are in their teens and 20s.

"There's been such a lack of knowledge in the basics of cooking. The employees that we have who are in the dining areas - and the bussers, especially - many of them come from broken homes. The only source of food is Taco Bell or Burger King. They would not have the least idea how to boil water or cook an egg or cook anything," says Arnold by phone.

"It's happened ever since mothers have said [to their children] `Go read a book. Go out and play. You don't need to learn this,' " Brody says. "People for that reason, and for others, have completely bypassed the kitchen - even women my age who said `I'm not hanging around the kitchen; not that drudgery!' " A number of women have bought the book for their recently retired husbands, who have never had to fend for themselves, she adds.

Brody wasn't prompted to write "Kitchen Survival" by statistics showing a decline in basic cooking know-how (though such statistics exist). She was prompted by something closer to home: an event in her own kitchen. One Sunday morning she was cooking French toast for several young people and accidentally set her pot-holder on fire. The flame quickly traveled to the butter in the pan and created a lot of smoke, more flames, and "major hysteria from the crowd of hungry observers," she writes.

"There were screams of `Water!' countered by admonitions of `Hit it with a dish towel!' I calmly reached to the shelf next to the stove for the large yellow box of baking soda that is kept there for this very purpose and emptied its contents on top of the pan and pot holder. This immediately put out the fire."

THE incident got Brody, mother of three, to thinking: How could I turn my kids loose in the world and expect them to be able to feed themselves as safely, efficiently, nutritiously, and deliciously as they were fed at home?

The answer: Write it all down. The first part of the guide deals with getting ready: Setting up and equipping your kitchen, how to deal with that equipment (such as defrosting your refridge), stocking up on food, how to choose produce ("Is this a tomato or a baseball?") and store it, getting to know some basic terms and approaches ("cooking basics this mother thinks you should know"), as well as how to properly feed yourself and your guests.

The second part of the guide offers 130 "recipes to get you started," from soups, sandwiches, pizza, and eggs to pasta, rice, fish, meat, desserts, and more.

Most important, Brody's kitchen wisdom is whittled down to the simple and practical. She suggests: "Next to each recipe you have tried, write down some notes about whether or not you want to make it again.... Which pot did you use? What did you serve this with? How long did it take you to make it?" (Shortcuts - brownie mixes, Bisquick, no-boil lasagna noodles - are welcome. "Cheating is a microwave dinner," she says.)

"I like to think of [this book] as a facilitator," says Brody. "It's a teaching tool."

All this has inspired Brody to teach again. "With this new generation of cooks, everything is exciting. They're clean slates. They're grateful," she says.

Her next book project? "The Entertaining Survival Guide."

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