Culinary lessons for reluctant cooks

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May 05, 2004|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN FOOD EDITOR

Want to take cooking lessons but don't have the time or money? Celebrated California chef John Ash provides the next best thing with his latest book, Cooking One on One (Clarkson Potter, 2004, $37.50).

Ash gives 20 lessons on three broad subjects - flavor makers (salsas, vinaigrettes, pestos, sauces and marinades), techniques (on making soup, oven-drying, pot-roasting, grilling, making souffles and making pasta) and main ingredients (chicken, dried beans, mushrooms, salmon, shrimp, soy foods and desserts).

Chapters on salmon, soy and mushrooms but not on bread, beef or salads? Well, yes, but Ash is quick to point out that he is not trying to write just another cookbook with all the familiar categories. And he readily admits that this is not the only cookbook you will or should buy.

His goal is to teach reluctant cooks, both those who are bored with making the same old thing and those who are so new to cooking that the thought of picking up a chef's knife sends them into a panic.

Each chapter contains introductory material on ingredients and techniques, but if you don't have time to read it all, just skip to the recipes. For the most part, Ash gives you all the information you need there.

Ash was one of the pioneers of the California cooking movement that emphasized fresh, seasonal ingredients, so it's not surprising that his recipes emphasize fresh foods, often with Latin and Asian influences. In the warm spinach salad, the pungency of an apple-cider dressing is offset by the sweetness of oven-dried grapes.

Throughout the book, Ash maintains the reassuring voice of a patient teacher. Afraid you'll overcook your souffle? "Souffles will puff and crack before they are done, so don't worry," Ash says.

Looking for an easy culinary trick to boost the flavor of fruit and vegetables? Try partially drying them in an oven. "I urge you to try this sometime without any recipe in mind," Ash writes. "Just follow the instructions to oven-dry some mushrooms, some tomatoes, some plums. Then taste the result and see where it leads you."

Photographs are interspersed throughout the 338-page book, but they are more decorative than informative.

Warm Spinach Salad With Bacon, Apple-Cider Dressing and Grapes

Serves 4

1/4 pound good-quality bacon, cut into 1/4 -inch dice

3 tablespoons finely sliced shallots or green onions (green and white parts)

Apple-Cider Dressing (see recipe)

12 ounces young spinach leaves, any coarse stems discarded

1 cup oven-dried grapes (about 4 cups fresh) (see note)

In a saute pan, cook bacon until crisp. Transfer it to paper towels to drain and pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pan. Add shallots and cook over medium-high heat until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the Apple-Cider Dressing to the pan and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat, add the spinach and grapes, and toss for a few seconds or until the spinach just begins to wilt. Serve on warmed plates, topped with bacon.

Note: To dry grapes, cut in half and place on tray in 250-degree oven for 2 hours.

Per serving (with dressing): 336 calories; 8 grams protein; 14 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 49 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 16 milligrams cholesterol; 372 milligrams sodium

Apple-Cider Dressing

Makes about 1/2 cup

2 cups apple cider, preferably unfiltered

3 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a small saucepan, combine the cider and vinegar and bring to a boil. Continue to boil until the liquid is reduced to little more than 1/2 cup; this will take 10 to 12 minutes. (Put 1/2 cup water in the pan before you start so you can eyeball the quantity you're aiming for.)

Remove the pan from heat and whisk in Dijon mustard and olive oil. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Store covered in refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Per serving: 93 calories; 1 gram protein; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 16 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 75 milligrams sodium

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