Cook teaches art of relying on fresh, seasonal foods

December 04, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

After almost two decades of evangelizing about fresh seasonal food, Perla Meyers shows no hint of wilting.

Ms. Meyers is one of the few cooking teachers who can spend more than 30 minutes discussing something as elementary as simple soup without losing the audience's attention. She proved it at a recent demonstration at a Williams-Sonoma store in Chicago, where her contagious enthusiasm kept a group of shoppers captive. They savored every drop of her creamy mushroom soup and many stayed to ask questions and to ponder the pearls dished up with the potage:

*"Do your shopping first and then decide what to cook with the ingredients. There will always be a recipe waiting when you get home from the market."

*"Think fresh. Think seasonal. For instance, this soup could be made with broccoli and double-poached garlic instead of mushrooms. Or, in spring, use fresh asparagus, bibb lettuce, baby spinach. Add lentils or shredded lettuce for texture. In winter, try rutabaga or kale."

*"Only use a garlic press for foods to be eaten the same day they are cooked because the garlic oil that is extracted is so pungent. When it's pressed it could become bitter with long standing time."

*"Chop garlic with a pinch of coarse salt for foods that are made in advance -- the garlic will be easier to digest."

*"Use only white pepper in long-cooked recipes -- it gives real depth of flavor. Use black pepper near the end of cooking and for garnish."

*"All vegetable soups can be made with a base of olive oil rather than butter."

*"Dried mushrooms from Chile compare to the Italian porcini in taste but their price is much lower."

*"Always taste your food to make sure you like it."

Ms. Meyers' commitment to preaching freshness began in the early 1970s. Her first book, "The Seasonal Kitchen," broke new ground with recipes using fresh, seasonal ingredients at a time when many Americans were fascinated with canned soups and frozen vegetables.

Ms. Meyers had been a frequent contributor to food magazines during the height of "gourmet" cooking and often dwelled on a single subject -- such as paella or risotto -- in an effort to bring ethnic dishes and their ingredients into the culinary mainstream.

Born in Austria and raised in Spain, Ms. Meyers' cooking style always has reflected her multicultural background. She now lives in New York.

Her new 300-recipe book, "Perla Meyers' Art of Seasonal Cooking" (Simon & Schuster, $27.50), is similar to her five previous books in its intensity and thoroughness. But this latest, well-organized cookbook reflects the availability of the variety of ingredients in today's marketplace.

"Our kitchens are much more global," says Ms. Meyers, "but there is a whole new generation of cooks who are missing the basic techniques. They don't know how to move the foods from one season to another. They can only follow recipes as they are written."

"My great love is to teach, to be on the road and to meet people. If you reach just a few converts it is worth the effort. You can teach love for food."

Here is a soup recipe, perfectly suited for holiday entertaining, adapted from the book.

Wild mushroom and green onion soup

Makes 6 servings.

2 ounces dried Chilean mushrooms, see note

6 cups beef bouillon or broth

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 bunches green onions, tops trimmed, finely minced

2 medium cloves garlic, peeled, mashed

salt, freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons flour

1 cup whipping cream

For the garnish:

6 fresh mushrooms, stemmed, thinly sliced

3-4 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Rinse the dried mushrooms thoroughly under warm running water to remove all traces of sand and grit. Combine the mushrooms in a medium saucepan with the bouillon and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, 30 minutes or until the mushrooms are tender. Drain and mince finely. Reserve the broth and minced mushrooms separately.

Melt the butter over low heat in a heavy-bottomed 3 1/2 - to 4-quart casserole. Add the green onions, garlic and 2 to 3 tablespoons of the reserved mushroom broth. Season with salt and pepper, cover and braise the green onions until very soft, about 3 minutes.

Add flour and stir until well blended. Add the remaining reserved broth and whisk until well blended. Add the reserved mushrooms, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.

Add the cream and just heat through. Taste and correct the seasoning and serve hot in individual soup bowls, garnished with a few thinly sliced raw mushrooms and a sprinkling of parsley.

Note: Dried Chilean mushrooms, found in clear plastic containers in most supermarkets, often are labeled simply "imported dried mushrooms."

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