When Donovan Jon Fandre picks up a ham or a lobster or a bunch of oysters in the shell, people watching him always say the same thing: "You're not going to put that in the microwave, are you?"
But that's just what he does. And when those onlookers taste the results, they smile and he smiles. He knows he's won another batch of converts.
"A lot of lousy meals have been cooked by microwaves," he says. "A lot of people say, 'Microwave -- that's less than desirable.' But that's because they've tried to cook things in the microwave that aren't the best things to do. And they've became discouraged."
For the past 15 years -- with his cooking demonstrations, public television shows and now a new book, "Real Food Microwave" (Morrow, hardcover, $20) -- Donovan Jon Fandre has been trying to get people to change their minds about microwave ovens.
"I called it 'Real Food' because I wanted to get across the fact that this appliance is just a device that applies heat to food. And all the rest of the cooking is done by human beings who stir, taste, adjust, test and so forth," he says.
The first thing he emphasizes is that people should use the microwave for the things it does best. "If people would stick to vegetables, fish, poultry, large pieces of meat, rice, grain, they would be very satisfied," he says.
The core of his book is what he calls the "jump-start philosophy": You use the microwave to shorten the cooking time of a dish. But then you finish it by using a regular oven or stove top and thereby get the advantages of both.
"When you place a chicken or turkey roast in your conventional oven, assuming that you've heated it to 350, which takes a few minutes, nothing happens as far as what we call cooking until it gets probably to 100, 105 degrees," he says. "So if you're taking it from your refrigerator which is probably the low 40s or so, it's in your oven for a long time just heating up to cooking temperature."
With the microwave, he continues, you can shorten that process. Heat the chicken or turkey for 10 or 15 minutes in the microwave to start it cooking and then transfer it to the heated oven so that you get the browning and crisping that a regular oven adds to the dish.
To make soup quickly, he cooks the vegetables in the microwave while he heats the stock on the stove. "Liquids heat much better on top of your stove," he says.
By combining the cooking methods, he has soup in 15 minutes that would take an hour and a half if it were done entirely by microwave or entirely on the stove. "And it will taste exactly the same had you done it the long, slow, simmer way," he adds.
"I saw a wonderful recipe the other day for root vegetables. It said to sear or brown them in a skillet with a little bit of oil and then put them in conventional oven for about an hour and 15 minutes. Then take them out and serve them. Well, if you brown them in the skillet and then put them in the microwave, covered, in about 20 minutes you get the same exact texture, quality and aesthetics as you would have if you had taken an hour and 15 minutes."
Mr. Donovan has always loved cooking and worked in restaurants all through college, but he took a detour before making it his life's work. During the 1960s he worked for NASA in its public relations education program.
He left NASA and opened a restaurant using microwaves to do much of the kitchen work. "That was my baptism by fire. I found out everything they could do and also everything they can't do."
That restaurant experience led to his next venture, opening a string of microwave appliance stores. It was here that he began to teach microwave cooking. He then sold off his interest in the business and started doing cooking shows on public television. "Real Food Microwave" is his fourth book, but the first with nationwide distribution.
Throughout the book and in a separate section in the back, Mr. Fandre gives numerous "zap tips" -- ideas for using the microwave in unusual and creative ways.
One is to use the microwave to shuck oysters. "If you have oysters in their shell and you're going to use them for a stew, a soup or casserole, if you just microwave them a little bit, about 30 seconds, they'll open up, and you can slide your knife in and open them so much easier than jamming the knife in through the hinge."
This method only works if you're going to be cooking them afterward -- not serving them raw -- because they come out of the microwave slightly cooked.
He uses the microwave to bring wine to room temperature after it's been sitting in the refrigerator. It takes about 10 to 20 seconds. Warming refrigerated cold cuts and cheeses to room temperature also brings out their flavors, he says.
Whole cloves of garlic can be cooked in the microwave. Separate the cloves, soak them for a couple of minutes in water, wrap them in plastic wrap and microwave on high for 10 seconds. The cloves can be slipped from their skins and spread on French bread or pizza.