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Food & Drink A chef worth her salt

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Linda Carucci teaches the basic cooking tips and techniques behind fine cooking

The recent trend in cookbooks seems to be easy and quick—a few basic ingredients and 30 minutes and you, too, can create a tasty and impressive meal. That’s certainly a liberating and practical approach, but it’s also refreshing to read Linda Carucci’s new book, Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks, which inculcates that fine cooking, while within reach of the home cook, takes time, a dedication to detail, and an attentive, practiced palate. “Fine cooking is about subtleties and refinements,” said Carucci, winner of the International Association of Culinary Professionals teacher of the year award, during a recent Central Market cooking class. “It’s about tasting a dish and knowing how to season and finesse it, a skill learned from practice.”

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Climbing the stairs up to the cooking school, I could smell roasting meat and, in the classroom, the air was steamy with pork and herbs. Standing on the audience side of the counter, Carucci coached the Central Market chefs. “Don’t be afraid to interrupt me in class to test something,” she said, “I want them to see the process, I don’t want them to leave thinking it happens by magic.”

In every art form there are happy accidents, but Carucci practices a more controlled approach. For the first lesson, she handed out tasting cups of cream and kosher salt, and a small bowl of red-pepper bisque. As she demonstrated how to cook the soup, we experimented with tasting it, first with no salt or cream—flat and vegetal—then adding a little salt—out came the carrot, onion, and chicken broth—and then a little cream, at which point the flavor bloomed cayenne and the bass notes of the red pepper.

Thus we learned that salting to taste does not mean pouring on the Morton’s until a dish tastes salty, but adding salt until all of its flavors are where you want them. At home, Carucci said, one should always find the flavor with a small sample of soup, and then work on the pot. “Your tongue will remember the flavor,” she said.

Carucci almost exclusively uses Diamond Crystal kosher salt because its pyramid shape makes it adhere to food and melt faster, and, without the calcium silicate, it tastes better. The large crystals also have half the sodium of table salt, so it’s harder to over-salt foods.

It’s this fussy, chemists’ approach that makes Carucci’s book interesting and her class useful; each dish is a means to a thousand lessons, and knowing why a technique works makes it easier to apply to another recipe. Slightly pink pork leads to a short tutorial on food safety and slightly pink apple sauce generates a discussion on how to buy apples and the glory of the hand-crank food mill. Apple sauce turns pink when lemon interacts with the red skin of, in this case, the Macintosh apple—it’s science in action.

And it’s good food: The sweet apple sauce was aromatic with cinnamon and vanilla, its faint lemon a refreshing foil to the pork’s salty crust of fennel and thyme. The pork meat was pink enough to be tender and succulent, but not so rare as to make one nervous about trichinosis.

Carucci’s recipes are delicious, but it’s interesting to note that there are no photos of prepared food in Cooking School Secrets. Instead, there are illustrations, such as how to butterfly a chicken breast or the difference between a flat whisk and a balloon whisk. “I didn’t want the book to be about the way food looks,” Carucci said, “I wanted it to be about the way the food tastes.”

Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks

By Linda Carucci
Chronicle Books
352 pages, $22.95
ISBN: 0811842436

In terms of taste, Carucci is less of a stickler about fresh versus prepared than one might expect; there’s a place for canned San Marzano tomatoes and powdered garlic. “There’s no way I’d make bruschetta without fresh garlic,” Carucci explained, “but if I’m roasting pork and there’s a chance the garlic in the rub could burn, there’s no way I’d use fresh. Who wants to taste that acrid stuff?”

Carucci was a dean at the California Culinary Academy, in San Francisco, for many years, and Cooking School Secrets is full of official tips and techniques—paysanne cut to plate presentation to umami to mise en place—but it’s also full of Carucci, who brings a wry sense of humor and a chatty warmth to her book and her class. Her approach is not solely based on training and theory, but anecdotes and the empirical knowledge of her Italian heritage, and growing up in a family where preparing meals was a major pastime.

One of the best dishes of the evening was a simple cooked spinach, prepared from a family recipe. In it roasted pine nuts and raisins were used sparingly to balance the texture and add nutty sweetness, while a tiny amount of sharp pecorino cheese smoothed out the flavors. You couldn’t taste the cheese, but it took away the spinach’s dry aftertaste. “My father passed away while we were cooking for the book,” Carucci said, “but, at one point, we were talking about it and I told him we were putting the spinach recipe in the book. He was completely disgusted, he said, ‘What, you mean the spinach your mother makes once a week?’”

By Susan Pagani


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