OF all the newspaper food writers in the country, Al Sicherman (pronounced SICK-er-man) of the Star Tribune here is about the only one whose articles are popular because they're weird. His columns have been called strange, offbeat, and off the wall, and that's why his readers - and his editors - like his writing.
For example, his Bing Bongs (homemade Ding Dongs) and Bo Bos (homemade Ho Hos).
Or there's his Wrong Way Corrigan Dinner, in which he put some coffee in the appetizer, a dessert ingredient in the salad, and so on - with the weird ingredients running the wrong way through dinner.
Or the dinner commemorating the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, in which every course - yes, even the dessert - has SPAM (an ``inseparable element of the Allied advance'') in it.
Thirty-six of his wacky dinner-theme columns, originally published in the Star Tribune, can be found in ``Caramel Knowledge'' published by Harper & Row (246-page paperback, $10.95).
``I'm more read than cooked,'' says Mr. Sicherman. ``More people read my recipes than prepare them, but all my recipes are decent, and some of them are wonderful. The directions are carefully written.''
His book is part memoir, part menu-planning, and all wordplay. Readers grin or groan, depending on their reaction to his persistent puns.
For example, in ``Food That's Good For You!'' - a column on jazzing up things that kids didn't particularly like - he writes:
``Beets have earned a firm place in the I-don't-want-any parade. This [recipe] beets a lot of others for tanginess - I liked it quite a beet.''
Sicherman is an electrical engineer, turned copy editor, turned columnist.
After a year with Honeywell, he found he didn't like engineering and returned to school to take journalism. Facile with words, he became an adept headline writer.
And his knowledge of electronics turned him into a computer maven the minute the Star Tribune installed computerized typesetting. His enthusiasm for the new technology led to a year's work in Paris and an editor/computer consultant at the International Herald Tribune. There he discovered the delights of French cuisine - pastries in particular.
He was back in Minneapolis writing heads and editing copy when a replacement was sought, posthaste, for an ailing food writer. Sicherman agreed to a two-week tryout.
He chose a dinner theme, planned and prepared a three-course meal, serving it to friends. The column included the recipes and the group's reactions to them.
But it was not the recipes (original though they were) that made the columns unique.
It was the meandering introductions, in which Sicherman leaped from one word association to another, weaving his way toward the week's theme, that readers found fascinating.
Many columns begin: ``When I was growing up in Milwaukee....''
``After those first two weeks, I had a third idea, so I did a third column,'' says the writer. But then calls and letters come in from readers who wanted the quirky columns.
``I used the growing-up-in-Milwaukee anecdotes as vehicles for saying something weird,'' Sicherman continues. ``After seven years, my life is an open book. I've written my own biography.''
Last year the Wall Street Journal featured Sicherman on Page 1, calling him ``the Woody Allen of food writing.'' The praise brought a barrage of offers to publish his columns in book form. But he'd already done that himself.
The first edition of ``Caramel Knowledge'' circulated mainly in Minnesota and the author's native Wisconsin. In the expanded edition, available nationally, Harper & Row has added sketches and fillers - excerpts from his Little Food Mysteries columns.
Here's a ``taste'' of Sicherman:
``For the main course [in a hot-dog meal], frankfurters in their entirety, each nestled in a boat crafted from a scooped-out zucchini half. I found all of the items in the menu quite respectable, but I thought this one really cut the mustard.
``These hot dogs contain cheese, prompting a guest to ask, `This recipe isn't called ``Easy Cheesy something,'' is it?' No. It is one of my very few rules that I do not prepare recipes called `Easy Cheesy something.'
``(Another is that I do not prepare recipes called `something Surprise.' When I sit down to eat, I don't want to be surprised. Pleased, yes; surprised, no. Things called `Something Surprise' remind me of a business firm in Milwaukee with a very jarring slogan: Blau's Sudden-Service Plumbing. Every time I see it, I picture plumbers bursting into the house at three in the morning, while searchlight-equipped helicopters hover outside.)
``Well, now that I have that off my chest, let's get back to our main course.''
Wienie Zucchini 4 (8- to 10-inch) zucchini (11/2 to 2 pounds) 1/2 cup chopped onions 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 1/2 teaspoon oregano 1/4 teaspoon tarragon 1/4 teaspoon basil Dash pepper 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons oil 1 cup bread crumbs 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt Oil for brushing 1 pound cheese hot dogs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Cut the ends off the zucchini; then cut each in half lengthwise and scoop out each long zucchini half (reserving their scoopings) to leave boats with sides 1/2 inch thick.
Chop the part of the zucchini you scooped out of the boats. Combine it with the green onions, parsley, oregano, tarragon, basil, and pepper, and fry in the butter and oil. Stir in the bread crumbs.
Sprinkle the hollowed-out zucchini boats with garlic salt and fill each with the fried zucchini mixture.
Put the filled zucchini boats in a shallow pan, and brush the tops with oil.
Bake for 25 minutes, then put a cheese dog on each one, and bake 7 or 8 minutes more - until the hot dog is heated through.