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The Bumbling Gourmet

In Which a Beginning Cook Triumphs Over a Pitiful Lack of Culinary Aptitude to Make Dinner for Friends, Not Once but Twice ... Without a Single Fatality!


Some people predicted that this story would be written from prison, where I would be doing time for involuntary manslaughter in the accidental poisoning of one or more dinner guests.

That's the level of confidence my cooking usually inspires. And it's probably why the editors of the Food section drafted me for a story in which an inexperienced chef tries to master the kitchen by studying "Cooking for Dummies" and other idiot-proof manuals.

The goal was to see which books offered the best instruction for beginning cooks.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm not a complete novice. In ninth grade, my culinary talent earned the prestigious Boys' Chef Medallion from my junior high school. My sister immediately denounced the award as a sham, even though I had learned to prepare such French delicacies as roti avec confiture (toast with jam).

Today, my cooking skills remain the stuff of legend. The editors of the Food section were so impressed that they gave me a book titled "How to Eat," presumably with chapters on "Chewing," 'Swallowing" and "How Not to Stab Yourself With a Fork."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 7, 2001 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
The recipe for Apple-Pear Crisp ('The Bumbling Gourmet," Feb. 28) is from "Cooking for Dummies" by Bryan Miller and Marie Rama (Hungry Minds Books, $19.99).

I threw that one on the reject pile, along with "How to Cook Without a Book," a title that seemed too oxymoronic to be useful. That narrowed the field to four bonehead cookbooks. After flipping through them, I chose a few recipes, made a shopping list and headed for something called a "supermarket," which I had previously thought was a place to find beer and use the ATM.

My taste testers for Meal No. 1 were two friends who took out a large life insurance policy before arriving and left their daughter at home with a revised last will and testament.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before planning the menus, I set some ground rules: No pasta dishes and no breakfasts (I'm actually decent at both). Each dinner had to include an appetizer, salad, entree and dessert. And the second meal would have to be harder than the first.

I immediately cheated. To ease the workload my first time out, I decided that the salad could be one of those pre-washed, prepackaged jobs, although I made the dressing from scratch.

But the other dishes weren't so simple. And shopping was a nightmare, the first clue that these "foolproof" cookbooks had serious flaws.

For example, the ginger chicken recipe from "Learning to Cook With Marion Cunningham" (Knopf, 1999) called for four medium-size yellow onions. However, when I got to Ralphs, no yellow onions were to be found. The store had onions labeled green, white, brown, red and several other shades (periwinkle, mauve and plaid), but no yellow. I finally had to break a cardinal guy rule ('Never ask for directions') and request help. Unfortunately, the produce clerk was equally clueless. We eventually decided that the brown onions looked more yellow than their name implied and settled on those.

After chasing down the rest of the ingredients for the meal, I returned home and phoned my girlfriend, Allison, with an update. "What's on your menu?" she asked. I described the aforementioned salad and chicken, plus ham-and-asparagus roll-up appetizers and an apple brown betty dessert.

"You need to have a side dish," she said.

What? Salad doesn't count?

"Afraid not."

Great. Hanging up, I remembered that the chicken recipe listed a side dish: "Serve with riso, a tiny pasta that looks like rice grains and cooks in six minutes."

No problem, I thought.

Wrong. Back at Ralphs, I scoured the pasta aisle for riso but located no such animal. Fortunately, the book listed orzo as an acceptable substitute, so I grabbed that.

The recipe also called for currants, which it promised would be available in the dried-fruit section of most markets. Not this one. And not in several others I checked, increasingly panicked as my time for cooking slipped away. At Albertsons, I finally collared the produce guy for assistance. He'd never even heard of currants. In desperation, I snapped up a bag of dried cherries.

Then came the cooking phase. Although Cunningham's book is my favorite of the lot (it has more recipes that suit my taste, handy charts on buying and storing fruits and vegetables and lots of photographs, which are more helpful than illustrations), it suffers one glaring deficiency: No mention of how long the ingredients take to prepare before cooking. That undermines the book's introductory hint that it would explain "how to have all the elements of a meal-meat, potatoes, vegetables-come out on time."

Actually, none of the books solved that dilemma, which turned out to be my biggest problem. Although "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cooking Basics" (Alpha Books, 1995) and "Cooking for Dummies" (Hungry Mind Books, 2000) did list preparation times, they seriously underestimated how long a kitchenophobe like me would take to accomplish even the simplest tasks.

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