Recipe book offers hot tips on open-hearth cooking

September 11, 1995|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Sun Staff Writer

Forget ovens. If you've got a fireplace, you can cook everything from roasted chicken and casseroles to cakes in the manner of Colonial America.

Mary Sue Pagan Latini of Ferndale can show you how. "At the Hearth: Early American Recipes" is her 159-page book of recipes. For the timid, there are tips on transferring the meals to a conventional oven.

It took Mrs. Latini about three years to complete the book, which has been published by American Literary Press Inc. in Baltimore. The $14.95 volume should be in local bookstores and museum gift shops within four to six weeks.

Along with the recipes, the book has tidbits on the role such recipes played in the dietary habits of Colonial Americans.

"They had to salt, dry, pickle or smoke their food. Canning hadn't come in then," said Mrs. Latini, 71, founder of the Friendly Thyme Herb Club. Meals tended to be plain, and the pickled foods brought them flavor, she said.

Mrs. Latini's route to hearth cooking started when she retired after 18 years at the Naval Academy, where she was a management analyst. Her interest in volunteer work led her to the Baltimore City Life Museums. While training to work at the Peale House, she heard that the museum would be opening the 1840 House and that the exhibit would reflect how people lived during that period.

The house, she heard, would have a kitchen and a fireplace. Mrs. Latini decided to switch to working at the 1840 House. She said she regarded volunteering at the house as a chance to combine her interests in early American history and cooking from scratch.

"This seemed like something I would really enjoy doing. I just fell in love with cooking at the hearth," said Mrs. Latini, who learned this style of cooking from others.

"Cooking at the hearth is a challenge. You have to learn how to control the fire rather than it controlling you," she said. "Once you learn how to set your pans in relation to the fire, how low or how far away from the fire, you're pretty much on your way."

She uses a Dutch oven, tin pans and roasters; sets them before a hearth well-heated by coals; and watches. A heavy iron pan is best for cooking directly over hot coals, she said.

Mrs. Latini offers workshops on hearth cooking and can be found on weekends whipping up something, perhaps a stew, at the 1840 House in the 800 block of East Lombard St. in Baltimore.

Jenny Heim, former site manager of the 1840 House, said she has sampled about half the recipes in Mrs. Latini's book. "There's something about food cooked over the hearth that's delectable," she said. "It's hard to describe. It adds a certain tone to food." She said the museum plans to carry Mrs. Latini's book.

"It's a wonderful resource for any cook, whether you're experienced at cooking over the fire or whether you're just interested in cooking recipes that have been around for centuries," she said.

Although Mrs. Latini doesn't expect people to give up ovens for the fireplace, she said those who try the hearth "will be surprised to see how easy it is to make things from [natural] ingredients."

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