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IN THE KITCHEN : It's All Rocket Science to Me

September 16, 1993|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

It used to be, back in my cocksure neophyte cooking teacher days, that I would laugh merrily when people asked, "Is cooking difficult?"

"No," I would chortle, patting them on the head. "It's not rocket science and there is no heavy lifting. Anyone can cook."

I now formally and heartily apologize.

Of course, it is true that anyone can cook. Literally true, anyway, just as it's literally true that any of us can sing a song, write an article or plant a garden. It's just that there are some people who seem to do it better than others.

The mistake, though, is thinking that cooking is just a matter of some inborn natural ability. In fact, I would wager that this is the case in fairly few instances. For most of us, the ability to cook--or to write, or to paint, or do most anything else when you get right down to it--is more a matter of knowing the tricks.

It wasn't a dish that brought this realization home, but a can of white paint and an 8x10-foot room with French doors. With a week off and nothing to do, it seemed an easy enough project. I would spend a day--or, at most, two--painting and then while away the rest of the week cooking or reading or gardening.

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After all, how difficult can painting be? It's not rocket science and there's no heavy lifting.

The long and the short of it is that during what turned into my full week of masking, sanding, prepping, priming, painting and cleaning, I had plenty of time to reflect. I had hours to think about how something that seemed so easy could be so difficult. I had days to ponder the importance of the little things that make big jobs possible. I had a week to meditate upon the error of my ways.

And what I decided, after all that time breathing paint fumes in a closed space, is this: What makes a difference when it comes to tasks such as cooking or painting are the things we know almost without knowing we know them. They are the kinds of things you learn along the way in a recipe--usually not the thing that attracted you to it in the first place.

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I remember when I was first learning to cook, every time I sauteed chicken I had a horrible time with the skin sticking to the pan. Nothing I tried made any difference. Finally, one day I realized it hadn't happened in a long time. To this day, I can't tell you what it is I am doing differently (my current theory is I wasn't letting the fat get quite hot enough before adding the chicken).

Making fresh pasta was another lesson. Whenever I rolled out the dough in the pasta machine, the sheets would get ragged and warped. I tried different techniques for mixing and rolling and varied the proportion of eggs and flour. Finally, someone said to let the dough relax a half-hour before rolling. Case closed.

It's not the big things that make a good cook--or, probably, a good anything, for that matter. A good cook is not made of once-a-month Veal Prince Orloff, but of everyday dishes that are too numerous for comment, yet are performed capably and well. A great cook can do both--but woe betide those who attempt the former without mastering the latter.

For that reason, the recipes that seem to stick with me longest are not the fanciest, but those from which I learn something.

An old Ada Boni book laboriously translated from Italian taught me the best, simplest way to braise fennel: in a covered pan over medium heat with a bit of garlic, water and olive oil; at the end, take off the lid and cook just long enough to concentrate the juices.

From Joel Robuchon--via Patricia Wells--I got a way to prepare salmon that is moist and perfectly cooked with a crispy skin: Score the skin and cook it over moderately high heat in a non-stick skillet with just a little oil; finish it, flesh-side-down, in the oven.

From Madeleine Kamman come a dozen things ranging from how to make a quick sauce stock (deeply brown meat scraps, add canned stock and boil) to a quick way to make creme Anglaise: Mix sugar and egg yolks until foam forms; stir in milk; cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until thick.

I imagine these are the things we probably would have learned were all of our mothers wonderful cooks and all of us attentive students. Neither, of course, was the case. So here I sit, white primer under my fingernails still, happily typing a recipe. And if anyone knows how to get paint off a patio, please let me know.

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For a dinner to celebrate the end of a paint job, I fixed this panzanella adapted from Marcella Hazan--an extremely simple summer dish with two good cooking tricks: Soaking the onions takes away most of the pungency, and moistening the bread with tomato puree gives a more intense flavor.

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