A Return to the Kitchen

Home cooking's hot again as more folks choose to turn out healthy dishes at the end of a busy day

February 17, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff

Now that many of your New Year's resolutions have vanished into the oblivion of good intentions, it's time to tackle the one that really matters -- the 1999 Declaration of the Stomach.

You know, a pledge to return to real food for dinner in a move toward culinary independence. The vow that lets you jettison the grocer's gooey rotisserie bird and skip those frozen microwave feasts.

With this promise, you are determined to return to the kitchen, a place where turning out easy, healthy dishes -- even in the midst of the daily rush -- becomes fun again.

You are not alone.

Cooking specialists from Federal Hill to Bethesda say there is a movement afloat to revisit the art of cooking, partially out of a need to balance the burnout of everyday life. Cooking Light magazine offers an article on "99 Quick and Easy Ways to Be a Better Cook in 1999" in its January/February issue.

And a number of cookbooks celebrating home cooking are cropping up in stores. "How to Cook Everything" (Macmillan, 1998) by Mark Bittman and "The New Joy of Cooking" (Scribner, 1997) by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker are attracting novice and veteran cooks.

A new back-to-basics book, "Learning to Cook With Marion Cunningham" (Knopf, 1999), will be published May 2. Cunningham, author of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," said she wrote the book to get people back into the kitchen.

The cooking renaissance doesn't surprise Mary Fox, owner of A Cook's Table at the corner of Light and Montgomery streets.

"Through the '90s, people have tended to work very hard," she said. "Whenn they got home, they did not want junk food or expensive, time-consuming food, so gourmet-to-go filled the gap. But I believe people were spending a lot of time behind computers and they were starved for activities that drew on tactile sensation.

"Today, what they are trying to do is turn out easy-to-prepare, delicious, nutritious foods and do it in a way that is manageable."

Fox should know.

Several times a week, an assortment of Baltimore chefs and cooking professionals come to the test kitchen in her shop to teach cooking classes that range from lessons on the basics to Thai cuisine and gourmet Italian.

"What I'm starting to see is people getting really knowledgeable about food with ingredients that are quick and easy to work with -- and special and wonderful," she says.

In Bethesda, Janet Gaffney's Art of Cooking school is doing the same.

From a rented church kitchen and sometimes in her own home, Gaffney teaches hundreds each year how to saute, puree, knead, chop and roll. A Virginia native who draws on folksy Southern charm, she believes today's cooks -- whether they be budding or seasoned -- are in search of a true north at the stove.

"People want the reward and they want to have foods they remember from their childhood, like their mother or their grandmother used to cook," Gaffney said.

"Today's generation of cooks are young executives and people with discretionary income who come out of a generation of working two-parent households and a lot of the natural rites of passage in the kitchen have been skipped over. What a lot of people come to me for are some basic techniques, the how-tos, so they won't embarrass themselves."

Gaffney credits the move to return to cooking with a desire for "nesting."

"There's a need to bring the family together -- we hear more and more about the importance of quality time in the home. I see people on a lot of different levels -- and people are coming to cooking classes to learn to cook for their family or even learn to cook something they remember as a child but never learned how to do. And it's all technique, technique, technique."

Jane Monaghan, one of Gaffney's students, leaves her busy retail job in the Washington suburbs and goes home to cook.

"It allows me too be creative -- and my job doesn't always allow that," she says. "I cook because it releases stress, and I can tell when I go into the kitchen and start going, I'm working something out."

Sandra Birnbach, an assistant manager at Williams-Sonoma at White Flint Mall in Montgomery County, said she works all day in the cooking supplies store -- and still goes home to prepare a meal from scratch.

She routinely attends Gaffney's classes, she says, to sharpen her skills. "It's just so satisfying and I love it when people like the food I make."

With classes that cost $53 each and a spring and summer curriculum that includes "Superb Savory Soups," "Not Just for Breakfast," "Summer Fishing" and "White House Favorites," Gaffney's school gives cooks the opportunity to perfect at least one specialty.

"Whether it's a great bowl of chili or a loaf of bread or that I pour a terrific drink, if you do it well, in today's lifestyle, you can fill in with already-made categories," Gaffney says. "People find there's a luxury in having people in your home -- it has more of an air of quality and extravagance."

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