Learning a thing or two about food Cookbook: Author aims to teach people to fix what they like at home and expect it when they dine out.

January 07, 1998|By NANCY ROSS RYAN | NANCY ROSS RYAN,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Mitchell Davis understands that not everyone who loves food knows how to cook it. That's why his book, "Cook Something" (Macmillan, $19.95), combines the simplicity of a primer with the sophistication of a food-lovers' cookbook.

"It was written for people in their 20s and 30s who know about good food but don't cook it or can't cook it," Davis said as he prepared a dish called Cheese Thing, first made by his mom.

Davis, director of publications at the James Beard Foundation in New York, assumes that his book's readers are informed, given the deluge of information they receive from cookbooks, television food shows and restaurants. But information overload doesn't necessarily translate into the ability to cook, especially when it comes to the many types of cuisine that are now available: Italian food, French food, Mexican food, Asian food.

"All of that information makes it very difficult and intimidating for someone to start cooking," he said. "When you know what a good pasta should taste like and you can't make it, it's hard to start."

Davis makes it easy to start by providing everything anyone needs to know about ingredients, techniques and equipment in three chapters titled "Essentials," "The Basics" and "Do's and Don'ts." For cooks who want to jump right in, his complete-on-one-page recipes are keyed to skill and time required. Each recipe lists "Kitchen Stuff" (equipment needed) and "Required Reading" (cross-referenced information on how to melt butter, dust with confectioners' sugar, stir-fry, etc.), and "Links" (listing recipes that can accompany the dish).

Davis believes that the better the cook, the better informed the diner. When people learn how simple and economical it is to make respectable pasta or pancakes or roast chicken, they'll be more demanding of restaurant food and they'll think twice before paying restaurant prices for such basics, he says.

On the other hand, he encourages people to be active eaters, because he believes that "to be a good cook you have to be a good eater and pay attention to flavors you like and don't like when you're eating in a restaurant."

The guiding principle behind Davis' book is his belief that almost everybody would cook something if they were shown that they don't have to be afraid of cooking.

"The rewards are tremendous," Davis says. "I have made so much food in my life, but every time I pull a loaf of bread out of the oven or a roast that's glistening brown it's magic."

The recipes below are adapted from "Cook Something."

Cheese Thing

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Yield: 1 to 8 servings, with leftovers

1 pound penne rigate or similar tubular pasta

1/2 pound each: sharp Cheddar cheese, mild Cheddar cheese

1 can (28 ounces) whole, peeled tomatoes with juice

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Heat a large pot of salted water (at least 5 quarts) to boil. Add penne and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Don't worry if the pasta is a little undercooked, it will be finished in the oven. Meanwhile, cut cheeses into 1/2-inch cubes. Leave tomatoes in their juice and cut them into bite-size pieces with a knife or, for fun, squeeze them with your hands.

When the pasta is done, drain and return to pot. Add butter and stir until almost melted. Add cheese, tomatoes, sugar and salt; stir well. Pour mixture into 2-quart baking dish glass or ceramic is best. For optimal results, the Cheese Thing should sit for 12 to 24 hours, covered and refrigerated, before baking, although it can be baked right away. It can be frozen at this point for up to a month.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Set the Cheese Thing on a rack in the middle of oven; bake for about 1 hour or until bubbly and noodles poking out of the top have browned considerably. Serve hot as an entree with a salad, or as a side dish for meat, or cold for breakfast the next morning.

Per serving (based on 8): 545 calories; 31 grams fat; 90 mg cholesterol; 795 mg sodium; 45 grams carbohydrate; 21 grams protein.

ADAM'S BIG PANCAKE

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Yield: 2-4 servings

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 large eggs, beaten

1/2 cup each: unbleached all-purpose flour, milk

2 teaspoons sugar

pinch each: salt, nutmeg,

confectioners' sugar

juice of 1/2 lemon

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Place butter in 9-inch pie plate; set in oven to melt, about 5 minutes. Watch carefully to make sure it doesn't burn. Meanwhile, in a medium mixing bowl, whisk together all of the remaining ingredients except the confectioners' sugar and lemon juice.

When butter is melted, pour this mixture into hot pie plate; set the dish back in oven. Bake 20 minutes, or until pancake has puffed up around the sides and has begun to brown. When pancake is done, it will look like a weird cushion, with some butter floating in the depression in the center.

Remove from oven; dust with confectioners' sugar. Sprinkle with lemon juice. Slice into wedges; serve immediately.

85 mg sodium; 16 grams carbohydrate; 6 grams protein.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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