Servings of Knowledge Help yourself to recipe solutions in Shirley Corriher's 'CookWise' book

September 17, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Did you know that you should remove the seeds from tomatoes before pureeing, because the seeds will make the sauce bitter? Did you know that using a tall pot to make stock limits evaporation? Did you know that cheeses such as mozzarella and Swiss become stringy when cooked because the heat unwinds proteins that are then linked end-to-end by a calcium compound?

You would know these things, and a zillion other arcana of the cooking world, if you hung out for any length of time with Shirley Corriher, the self-described cooking problem solver who's helped Julia Child sweeten her baby spinach, helped Jacques Pepin find his stock bones and helped Nathalie Dupree wash her dishes.

"I get so excited over knowing how things work," Corriher said recently in a phone interview from her home in Atlanta. "A little technical knowledge allows you to be super-creative."

Corriher, who will be in town Sept. 28 for the second annual Baltimore Book Festival, is the author of "CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking with over 230 Great-Tasting Recipes" (William Morrow, 1997, $28.50). Her cooking knowledge comes from what she calls her "three-faceted background."

She was a chemistry major at Vanderbilt University and worked after graduation as a research chemist in the college's medical school. Later, she and her first husband opened a private boys' school in Atlanta, where she cooked three meals a day for 140 boys for 11 years. Occasionally she had help, but "in the beginning several years, I did it all," she said.

And then there is her training in classical French techniques, learned partly while she worked for Dupree, also in Atlanta, setting up and cleaning up after cooking classes, and partly from experiences at the Leith School of Food & Wine in London, and at La Varenne in Paris.

While she was still cooking for the boys' school, she said, "I used to go to cooking classes whenever I could. I needed all the help I could get." That was where she met Dupree, and when Corriher and her former husband divorced, Dupree offered her a job.

Corriher also aided such visiting chefs as Pepin and Giuliano Bugialli. While some celebrity visitors were ferociously concerned with having their favorite ingredients on hand, Pepin cared only about his stock. What kind of bones do you have? he would ask. "I always had every kind of bone imaginable," she said.

As for the learning process, "I've always said it's a matter of washing your way up," she said. "First you wash up for the smaller names, then you get to wash for bigger-name people, and finally you've got somebody washing for you."

One Baltimorean who benefits from her expertise is Ann Wilder, of Vann's Spices of Towson, who has known Corriher for several years. "Shirley has been absolutely wonderful to everyone in this food business," Wilder said. "I thought that I was special, I thought I was the only one, that I could call her up morning, noon and night and ask a silly question, and get an answer right away. And then I found out she does that for everyone!"

Among the things Corriher has explained to Wilder are why the meringue dessert called Pavlova doesn't work in the rain (the egg whites absorb too much moisture) and why, if you toast spices, you get an entirely different flavor from them (becauses toasting brings the sugars to the fore and caramelizes them).

Corriher admitted, "I spend an awful lot of time on the phone, just problem-solving. Sometimes I know the answer right off the top of my head, and sometimes I have to say, 'Hmm, I'll get back to you on that.' "

But it's impossible for Corriher not to tell people things, she is so brimming over with information. Her new book is crammed with tips and charts, such as "The roles of ingredients in bread" ("Salt: Tightens glutens, enhances flavor, slows yeast activity, controls bacterial growth"), and "Approximate amount of starch needed to thicken 1 cup of liquid," divided into opaque gels (cornstarch, flour, rice starch) and clear gels (arrowroot, potato starch, tapioca starch, quick tapioca pudding).

And, she said, "The book is full of stories, because I think you remember things better if you have a story to relate to."

Or like the bitter baby spinach. "Julia called," Corriher related, "and she said, 'Oh, Shirley, I had the most wonderful baby spinach, and I just sauteed it in a little butter and I tasted it and it was wonderful. And then I added a little cream and when I tasted it, it was terribly bitter! What went wrong?'

Corriher explains: "When you cook fruits and vegetables, it's like mass destruction. The cell walls disintegrate and begin to fall apart. You have about 7 minutes [of cooking time] before you get major destruction. You can see this clearly in green vegetables. [In the raw state], the chlorophyll is in separate compartments from the acid. When you destroy the cells, acid leaks out and turns the vegetables Army gray.

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