Basic Information Tools for the Kitchen

A video and a book arm the timid with practical tips, many from celebrated chefs at restaurants across the country

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

EVERY year, cookbook publishers churn out volumes of information for home cooks and aspiring chefs.

A few of the best of these - "Mastering The Art of French Cooking," by Julia Child, "The Joy of Cooking," by Marion R. Becker and Irma S. Rombauer and "The Silver Palate," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins - describe valuable cooking techniques and help people to overcome intimidation in the kitchen.

But, there are still questions the books don't answer, such as: "When can you leave out the salt? or "How do you fix the flavor when it just isn't there?" and "Why is it that two people can follow the same recipe and one dish comes out great and the other only so-so?

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Restaurant owner and chef Jasper White ("Jasper's") and TV anchorwoman Natalie Jacobson, both Bostonians, aim to answer such queries in their two-volume video: "Natalie's Kitchen with Jasper White: What Your Cookbook Doesn't Tell You." (Dawn Productions, 1992, Volume I is 106 mins. and Volume II 126 mins.)

A television reporter who co-anchors the evening news on WCVB-TV and is reportedly an excellent cook, Ms. Jacobson puts the questions to Jasper. "Why are you crushing the tomatoes?" she asks as they make marinara sauce.

With a video, techniques are demonstrated before the viewer's eyes.

"When a cooking video is really good, it can explain by showing, and you learn much you cannot find in a cookbook," Mr. White says. "I see video as a future for cooking."

The video, more of an encyclopedia of cooking techniques than a cooking show, was taped in Jacobson's kitchen using her own pots and pans.

It demonstrates, for example, how to shuck oysters, de-vein shrimp, and fillet fish.

Volume II takes you to market as only video can. One may read about selecting ripe fruit or looking at fish, but seeing the processes up close with someone emphasizing key points locks the image in mind.

The video also provides directions for keeping a sauce from curdling, testing for doneness, and when to add herbs.

All that's missing is recipes.

But, "Natalie's Kitchen" sticks to the basics. "Julia Child uses techniques to demonstrate particular dishes. We use the dishes to demonstrate the technique," White explains. "This is a basic cooking lesson for those who don't know how to cook."

"But it is also for people who need to cook every night and want to pick up better techniques and quicker methods," Jacobson says.

Thanks to time-coding on the video box, viewers can quickly find answers to puzzling techniques by simply rewinding or fast-forwarding the tape.

The video not only captures images but also many sounds one can't get from a cookbook, such as the sizzle of a few drops of oil as it dribbles around a wok, the bubbling of boiling water, and the punching of bread dough after it has risen. Pointers in print

It's not often one comes across a directory of cooking secrets divulged by some of this country's most famous chefs.

"Trucs of the Trade, 101 Tricks, Tips, and Recipes from America's Greatest Chefs," by Frank Ball and Arlene Feltman (HarperPerennial, $15 paper, 1992), does just that.

The French noun truc (pronounced "trook") is "a trick, gimmick, or shortcut used in cooking," Ms. Feltman explains. "It's finding a way of doing something easier, cheaper, or just better."

The trucs, from 49 chefs, range from hints for seeding chilies, cutting vegetables into fan shapes, and using dental floss to cut cheesecake to handy gimmicks, such as Emeril Lagasse's New Orleans-style technique for steaming and cooking fish wrapped in paper.

A truc can also be a simple explanation of a classic technique - a procedure that produces a more finished result.

Chef Andre Soltner of New York's Lutece restaurant offers a suggestion for making sure omelets don't stick to the pan: "Pour some kosher salt into the skillet and rub vigorously with a kitchen towel over the side and bottom of the pan. The abrasiveness of the salt will put a fine polish on the skillet. Discard the salt and proceed with the recipe."

Omelet-making is a telltale sign of a one's skill, Mr. Soltner says. "In France when a young chef shows up looking for work, they ask him to make an omelet.

"And properly so. There's so much technique involved that if a chef makes a perfect omelet - you know, you just know, that chef's been well trained."

Other trucs give directions for how to diminish the odor of boiling cauliflower by using bread chunks; how to make soft authentic tortillas by putting them in a plastic bag and microwaving them for 30 seconds; and how to soften tough meat in a stew by adding some wine corks.

The experts with the answers include such chefs as David Bouley, Craig Claiborne, Lydia Shire, Lidia Bastianich, Jacques Pepin, Giuliano Bugialli, Mary Sue Milliken (see recipe, left), Jim Dodge, David Burke, and many others.

Mr. Bugialli shares his secret for keep potatoes intact, not mushy, when boiling them:

"Fill a pot with 2 parts water and 1 part vinegar. Add a dash of kosher salt and bring to a boil. Add potatoes, already trimmed or peeled, and gently boil them until cooked.

David Burke shares an inventive idea for "crispy arched potato wafers," one of his signature garnishes: Soak thin potato slices in oil or butter and bake them with herbs on his copper cookware device: a copper pipe.

Felipe Rojas-Lombardi suggests that the flavor of the herb is in the stems as well as the leaves. Stems can be used in soups, stocks, and long-simmered sauces.

Fava beans from one's summer garden will make it to the table more speedily after learning Daniel Boulud's trick of snapping the large beans from the strange, lumpy-looking pods.

Many people pass up the rich, smooth taste of these beans because they don't know how to peel them.

Chef Judy Rogers reveals her truc on cooking dried beans: "For soft and creamy beans, cook with the lid on." When problems arise with beans, it's usually related to their age, she says.

"Homemade mayonnaise, that delightful blend of egg yolks, oil, and seasonings is a special pleasure, better by far than store-bought. But homemade mayo has an undeserved reputation for being difficult.

Here is Andre Soltner's wonderfully simple "truc" for rebinding "broken" (when it loses its texture and turns thin and soupy) mayonnaise, whatever the cause:

"When mayonnaise breaks, take a clean bowl and add a couple of tablespoons of warm (not boiling) water. Very slowly pour the broken mayonnaise into the second bowl, whisking to incorporate the water. The mayonnaise will immediately re-emulsify, thicken up ... and be fixed."

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