Just one thing!" Perla Meyers exclaims. "If I can teach people just one thing, it is this: Food must be fresh!"
Freshness is an absolute passion for Ms. Meyers, an internationally known chef, cookbook author and cooking teacher. It is a gospel she has been preaching since she wrote "The Seasonal Kitchen," a book that won best cookbook of the year, among other awards, when it was published in 1973. And it is a message she continues to emphasize in her most recent book, "Art of Seasonal Cooking" (Simon & Schuster, 1992, $27.50).
"It's a philosophy that has really guided me, and it's why I started teaching," she says. "It's about freshness, seasonality -- that spontaneous moment in time when you pick up an ear of really fresh corn."
A lot of people look at a cookbook, pick a recipe, then run around from store to store collecting all the ingredients, Ms. Meyers says. In her book, that's absolutely backward. First you go to the store, then you look at the cookbooks. "You go to the supermarket and you find something absolutely fresh, and you say, 'I'll find a recipe for this.' "
Following the seasons can be a very satisfying way to cook, Ms. Meyers says. "There's something lovely about leaving fennel and going on to zucchini and then leaving that and going on to mushrooms. If you use everything at once, it's boring."
Ms. Meyers, a slim, vibrant woman with a huge laugh, was in Baltimore recently to give a lecture-demonstration at the new Cooking Demonstration Theater at the Baltimore International Culinary College. The event was sponsored by Diversions Inc., a Baltimore company that arranges cultural events and outings for its members. Culinary events are always popular, a Diversions spokesman said; Ms. Meyers' lecture was sold out. There are two more cooking events scheduled, one in September involving three Baltimore chefs and another in October with New England cookbook author Sarah Leah Chase.
As Ms. Meyers cooked, she lectured and joked and offered advice and answered questions, mixing wit and wisdom in rapid-fire fashion. Some examples:
*"I use only extra-large eggs -- I find there's something with chickens these days, they just seem to hold back."
*On when to season while cooking: "Anything with natural juice, you should not add salt [during cooking], because you'd just be drawing that liquid out."
*On sampling as you cook: "God only sees the food you eat while you're sitting down. The calories don't count when you're standing up."
*On testing the temperature of a sauce by sticking your finger into it: "Of course, if you're smart, you'll use someone else's finger."
*"Seafood loves white pepper. And by the way, when you're buying pepper, if it says only 'black pepper,' don't buy it, because it comes from Brazil. The best peppercorns come from Indonesia. It should say at least 'Java black pepper.' "
*"The shallot is your best friend in the kitchen. It will sweeten a sauce, and it will round off a dish . . . Any fruit sauce you make should have lemon juice. Like the shallot is for savories, lemon is for fruit."
*"The truth is, we all want something we can do ahead of time. We all want to be guests and hostesses, no one wants to be the cleaner-upper."
*On rinsing and drying raw chicken: "None of this 'Pat dry with paper towels' -- You want to hit it hard. Pat a dog, not a chicken."
*"Taste every dish three times. The first time you taste only on your tongue, the second time only in your mouth. Only the third time does it get to your brain."
*On the possibility that a dish might not be perfect: "Be generous with yourself. Never apologize. Sit there and smile and say, 'It's de-lic-ious.' It's only a meal, it's only food."
*To a member of the audience who asked, "Excuse me, Perla, how much thyme was that?": "It doesn't matter. Put in what you want."
Her recipes are only suggestions, Ms. Meyers says; spontaneity is another quality she prizes highly. She began her demonstration with the dessert, based on creme Anglaise, or English custard, explaining that the difference between English custard and French custard is the proportion of egg yolks. Once you have mastered the basic technique, she says, you can create a custard or a frozen sabayon or even a mousse, depending on what you have on hand or what you feel like cooking. "Right there," she says, pointing to the saucepan, "is your moment of creativity. You can think" about what you want to do with the dish.
She gives her audience plenty to think about. There is, for instance, a mini-lecture on herbs.
"There are two kinds of herbs: character herbs, which you use dried, and accent herbs, which you use fresh. A character herb is one that when it comes in contact with oil, it increases in volume and capacity of taste." She lists some examples: dried oregano, thyme, bay leaves, sage, rosemary, marjoram. "An accent herb is one that the minute the knife touches it, the flavor is gone." Examples: dill, parsley, fresh tarragon, chives.
The delicate flavors of the accent herbs work well together, she says. "They love one another." On the other hand, just one of the character herbs can overpower a dish. "The most dangerous thing in the kitchen is a bay leaf."
She speaks of "cooking with your mind," and "eating with your TC eyes." "What you're looking for in food," she says, "is layers of taste."
And she definitely practices what she preaches. Despite her busy schedule, she says, "I cook every day. If I don't go to the supermarket one day, I have withdrawal symptoms." She laughs, and shrugs. "Other people go to department stores, I go to supermarkets."