Let your senses guide you when shopping, cooking

September 13, 2006|By ROB KASPER

While we mere cooks depend on a list to help us fetch ingredients, chefs like Joanne Weir shop with their senses.

Weir, who has written a number of well-regarded cookbooks and presided over a trio of public television cooking shows, relies on her eyes, nose and fingers to get the goods.

"You never know what you will find at the market," Weir told me in a telephone conversation from her San Francisco home. For example, she said that when she was on a recent trip to a farmers' market, some good-looking shell beans caught her eye.

She bought the beans and some plump cherry tomatoes. She got them home, added some basil leaves, tossed them in a garlic mayonnaise and, presto, had a shell-bean-and-tomato salad.

It was, she said, the perfect accompaniment to salmon poached in olive oil.

I was with you at the salad, I told Weir, but got lost at the salmon poached in olive oil.

That, she said, was a salmon-cooking technique she picked up in France. You put a fillet of salmon in a pan, put in enough olive oil to cover the fish, then heat the oil until it is warm, but not hot. If white dots appear on the top of the fish, the fire is too hot. You cook the fish on low heat for about 18 to 22 minutes, she said.

I needed a few more printed instructions, or a demonstration, before I felt ready to poach a salmon in olive oil.

But Weir's recipes have, over the years, proven to be winners. Just a few weeks ago, her baked bass with herbed tomatoes -- fillets of striped bass sandwiched between layers of onions, herbs and tomatoes -- assumed the title of our household's most-favored fish dish. The recipe came from Weir's 1998 book, You Say Tomato.

Weir came to cooking from art school. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a degree in fine arts, Weir worked both with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and with Madeleine Kamman in New England and France. Her great-grandmother operated Pilgrim's Pantry, a turn-of-the-20th-century restaurant in Boston. Her mother, a chef, worked with cookbook author Charlotte Turgeon. Weir's first book, From Tapas to Mezze, first published in 1994, has just been revised, and when I spoke with her last week she had wrapped a 26-part television series on Public Broadcasting Service, Joanne Weir's Cooking Class.

This series, which is scheduled to air at 10:30 Saturday mornings on Maryland Public Television starting Sept. 23, shows Weir giving one-on-one instructions to inexperienced cooks. It was filmed in Weir's kitchen in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco.

One of the things Weir stresses to her charges is the importance of tasting as they cook.

"I have taught students all over the world," Weir said. "All they want to do is eat ... but there is a difference between tasting and eating."

Tasting, she said, is what a cook does as a dish is prepared. A chef tastes to see how a dish is progressing, if it needs more salt, if some flavor needs to be corrected, she said. Then, when all the flavors are in concert, the dish is served. "You taste before you eat," she said.

Weir was about to travel to Tuscany, Italy, to begin teaching cooking classes in villas there and later in France. Before she left, she gave me a few clues on how to select tasty tomatoes.

You should eye them, she said, and give one a good sniff.

"It should smell good, like the tomato of your youth," Weir said. As for the texture she said, "It should not be mushy, but it should have a touch of give to it."

So while Weir jetted off to Europe, I trundled up to my garden in Druid Hill Park. There, following her instructions, I eyed my crop. The tomatoes did not look gorgeous. Many of them, plumped by recent rains, were splitting their skins. Some had soft spots and were leaking juice. I picked them anyway.

I brought them home, cut out the soft spots, chopped the tomatoes and put them in a salsa recipe I had pulled from one of Weir's books.

It was terrific: tangy, rich with the flavors of my leaky tomatoes. It made a couple of grilled steaks taste heavenly. It will also, I bet, be the perfect accompaniment to that salmon poached in olive oil.


Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper. A recipe for Tomato Salsa Cruda can be found at baltimoresun.com/taste.

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