Simplicity is Maine cook's recipe for success

Karyl Bannister may be the only person in America who, if stranded on a desert island, would dream of pot roast. She'd imagine it marinated in apple cider and served with mashed potatoes and - get this -succotash.

Coming from this down-to-earth Maine homemaker, such thoughts are no surprise.

With her first cookbook, "Cook & Tell: No-Fuss Recipes & Gourmet Surprises" (Houghton Mifflin, $23), Mrs. Bannister has successfully tapped into the sensibilities of home cooks across America. The book is a delightfully offbeat collection of recipes, with folksy anecdotes that read like letters from old friends.

"Cook & Tell" is also the name of Bannister's popular monthly newsletter, launched in 1982 after she sent sample copies to friends on her Christmas card list -and heard only raves. Since then, the newsletter has become a valued source of ideas for established foodies and fellow homemakers alike. Subscribers - from chef Fritz Blank, who cooks at the four-star restaurant Deux Cheminees in Philadelphia, to Delphine Snook, an octogenarian in Ottawa, Ill. - eagerly await Bannister's newsletter each month. She not only has subscribers in all 50 states, but also in Saudi Arabia, Australia, and the Netherlands.

"It's a connectedness," explains Mrs. Bannister. "Those who use it feel part of a network of like-minded [people]."

The cookbook's recipes, culled from her newsletters, are deceptively simple. And there isn't a teaspoon of pretentiousness in them. They range from the Rev. David Stinson's blueberry pie, for example, which he sells at church auctions (see recipe below), or Randy Decoteau's French Canadian Meat Pie, which he traced to his Quebecoise great-grandmother.

Bannister includes a recipe for 20-minute ground-chuck "steak," with beets on the side, from a working mom with five kids. And a Roman pie with Velveeta cheese and potato chips - a dish anyone with gourmet tastes might kick under the table to the dog.

Her nose crinkles at the mention of elegant sculptured dishes served at some restaurants.

"Ooh, I hate those," she says. "That is sooo not me. It's become so 'cheffy,' food has. And I am certainly not that. Once in a while, I get sort of trendy and throw in cilantro, but I always feel sort of obligated to apologize for it."

There's no apology needed for her commitment to fresh food, even if that meant rolling up her sleeves and "raking" blueberries at her favorite Maine barren.

"Until he retired and went with me, Bob [her husband] never could believe that in a half hour, two people could pick a bushel. We would have 32 quarts of blueberries.

"It made me feel rich," she adds. "The Maine wild blueberry is as big as my baby finger. It's not like those 'grapes' that you buy in the market. These taste like blueberries - only more so."

Her standards aren't lost on her husband, who for years had a garden with rows of corn and zucchini, which, she says, "you could get dressed in."

They no longer have time for a garden, but she still seeks out fresh foods from a variety of sources -even just-picked rhubarb from her cleaning man. But she's hardly a stickler about buying organic produce.

"We're not going to get organic on you," she says. "And we're also not afraid of food or shortcuts. There's a lot of fear of food out there. People ask: 'Why don't you have low-fat, low-salt, low-sugar?' I tell them 'Go somewhere else for that.' "

More refined cooks might sour on Bannister's simplicity, but that doesn't faze her a bit. "There's a lot more experimental cooking, with long, stratospheric lists of ingredients," she says. "But there's a place for this still."

Blueberry pie two ways: pecan or traditional

Blueberry Pecan Pie

'What a pie! Blueberries and a hint of lemon add summery highlights to a rich dessert that cries out for a whipped cream garnish.'

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

1 cup dark corn syrup

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup butter, melted

1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup fresh blueberries (unthawed frozen berries are fine)

Pastry for a single-crust 9-inch pie (see recipe below)

1-1/4 cups chopped pecans

Whipped cream, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Using an electric mixer, thoroughly combine the brown sugar, corn syrup, eggs, butter, lemon zest, lemon juice, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl. Fold in the blueberries.

Roll out the pastry and line a pie plate. Trim, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Fold and crimp the overhang. Pour the blueberry mixture into the crust and sprinkle the pecans over the top. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the top begins to crack and the juice bubbles around the edge. (Add 15 to 20 minutes for frozen berries.) Serve cold for best slicing, with a garnish of whipped cream.

The Pastor's Blueberry Pie

'The Rev. David Stinson of the Congregational Church in the Harbor helps his church raise money by contributing homemade pies for its auctions.'

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Grated zest of 1/2 lemon

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 large egg

4 cups fresh blueberries or unthawed frozen berries

Pastry for a double-crust 9-inch pie (see recipe below)

2 tablespoons milk

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Combine the 1 cup sugar, flour, lemon zest, lemon juice, and egg in a large bowl. Stir in the blueberries. Roll out half of the pastry and line a pie plate. Trim, leaving a 1/2-inch overhang. Fill with the blueberry mixture. Roll out the top crust, cut vents, and fit it on the pie. Seal and crimp the edges. Brush the top crust with the milk and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. and bake for 40 minutes more, or until the filling is bubbling and the crust is golden brown. (Add about 20 minutes for frozen berries.) Serve warm or at room temperature.

Fail-Safe Pie Crust

The recipe makes enough for 3 double-crust or 6 single-crust pies. Any dough not used the day it's made can be easily frozen.

2-1/2 cups vegetable shortening

6 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon salt

1 large egg

2 tablespoons white vinegar

Put the shortening in a large bowl and dump in the flour, sugar, and salt, in that order. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the shortening into the dry ingredients. Beat the egg in a measuring cup with a spout, stir in the vinegar, and add water to equal 1 cup. Gradually drizzle the egg mixture into the flour mixture, tossing with a fork, drizzling more of the egg mixture over undampened places, and then tossing again, until the pastry gathers into a mass. Divide the pastry into six portions and quickly form each into a disk. Put each disk into a zip-lock plastic bag and store in the freezer, or, if using the same day, chill the dough in the refrigerator for about 3 hours before rolling it out. Frozen dough should be thoroughly defrosted before being rolled out.

- Recipes from 'Cook & Tell,'

by Karyl Bannister (Houghton Mifflin)

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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