Sorry, but some foods just require a little fat Eating: Tastes change, and some cooking smells overstay their welcome. Consider fish, for instance, or kidney stew.

July 18, 1998|By JACQUES KELLY

ALL MY LIFE I've heard debates about exactly what it takes to make a good crab cake. Broiling, which is popular in health circles, became the rage a number of years ago. Unfortunately, it's wrong. Traditional Baltimoreans believe that a worthy crab cake has to be fried.

Frying is a fighting word in smart-food circles. People say they disdain fried foods, but they aren't always religious about it. I've seen many a professed healthy eater order the salad then slip in a plate of french fries.

Before I go too far, I have a deep, dark confession to make: I was born with an intolerance to Maryland seafood. I just can't get the stuff down. This was painful in a household of superb cooks who received two large shopping bags of seafood every Thursday from the late Johnny Nichols, a Cross Street Market dealer. I dined (unhappily) on cream of tomato soup and watched the others gorge on crab, shrimp and fish.

But that doesn't mean I didn't observe my ancestors at work in the kitchen. The crab cakes I knew were all fried in a venerable iron skillet. And the work began with the fat can, an integral part of the kitchen supplies that sat by the side of the stove.

A couple years ago, I got a lesson in food flavor from George Wetzelberger, the sausage maker at the Heil's meatpacking operation in Hampden. "The taste is in the fat," he said. And he's right. Try a slice of fat-less cheese and you'll know what edible plastic is.

In the old Guilford Avenue house where I lived for 27 years, there was an extra large fat vat. In addition to using it for cooking, we made scrubbing soap from it once a year, always in the fall.

As a child, I used to get embarrassed when neighbors would ring the doorbell and drop by with their extra fat. They knew that when the soap was made they'd be given a bar.

Fat is only part of the art. You have to be good with a frying pan. This is a far different technique from deep frying, which never went over with the cooks in my house. Deep frying was what you got in restaurants on seafood platters.

Back in the 1950s, the cooks I knew weren't as wedded as people are now to making crab cakes with lump meat. Many confided that they actually liked some of the cheaper meat, the "special," in their cakes because it made them tastier. The cooks I knew had one guiding principle -- taste first and always.

In recent years, I've detected a swing away from food that possesses a strong, distinctive, almost gamey taste. Shad and roe are not nearly as popular today. Seafood dealers tell me the perfect fish -- the one that sells the best -- is one that doesn't taste fishy.

Restaurant owners know why seafood dishes sell so well. Their patrons don't like to smell up a home kitchen by cooking fish.

Summertime kitchen aromas, especially those sent up on a warm and humid day, are quite sharp. The one that floated over the whole corner of Guilford Avenue and 29th Street was the day, about a month from now, that my grandmother cooked down the tomatoes for her ketchup. Wow! That was strong. Another corker was the smell of kidney stew being prepared. That musty vapor could spread from cellar to roof.

The other day a friend of mine set me straight about the uses of outdoor gas grills, an appliance I don't own and therefore view with a jaundiced eye.

He reports a nifty use for a gas grill on Christmas morning, when his family traditionally enjoys homemade kidney stew. He makes the stew outside so the kidney won't battle the Christmas tree for the honor of the strongest perfume in the house. And when the pot comes off the grill, he puts it in the snow, if there is any, to cool it down.

Pub Date: 7/18/98

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