If you can slice an onion, you can cook almost anything. That's the first premise of this book. There are dozens more, all underlining the happy thought that cooking is easier than they tell you it is.
The recipes and tips here--and there are many--are simple: it's flavor that counts, not a list of ingredients longer than a kitchen cabinet can bear. The methods are uncomplicated (mix vegetables and olive oil right in the roasting pan; why bother with a bowl?). Kitchen mythology, we learn, is one thing, and food history another. Mythology: the need for expensive slot-top box holders for knives. History: Did you ever wonder who Granny Smith was?
How to Slice an Onion demystifies the culinary arts, making cooking simple for the beginner and opening new possibilities for the experienced cook. It's a kitchen companion, a friend at hand when you stand at the stove, a fascinating and amusing look at the history of the food we eat, and a charming guide to the fundamentals and finer details of good home cooking.
For the beginner, the accomplished chef, and even for those who just like to read about food, this book is a good friend to have in the kitchen.
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About the Author
Bunny Crumpacker, a New York native, has been a professional caterer, editor, newspaper columnist, and school community relations officer. Her book reviews appear in The Washington Post. She is the author of The Sex Life of Food, Perfect Figures, and two cookbooks based on food and recipe pamphlets issued from 1875 to 1950--a chronicle of American cooking in those years. She and her husband, a record producer, lived in the Hudson River Valley region, just north of New York City.
Bunny Crumpacker (1933-2010), a New York native, has been a professional caterer, editor, newspaper columnist, and school community relations officer. Her book reviews appear in The Washington Post. She is the author of How to Slice an Onion, The Sex Life of Food, Perfect Figures, and two cookbooks based on food and recipe pamphlets issued from 1875 to 1950--a chronicle of American cooking in those years. She and her husband, a record producer, lived in the Hudson River Valley region, just north of New York City.
Read an Excerpt
How to Slice an Onion
Cooking Basics and Beyond - Hundreds of Tips, Techniques, Recipes, Food Facts, and Folklore
By Bunny Crumpacker, Sally Mara Sturman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Bunny Crumpacker
All rights reserved.
THE KITCHEN BATTERIE
Equipping Your Kitchen
Pancakes and fritters,
Say the bells of St. Peter's.
Two sticks and an apple,
Say the bells of Whitechapel.
Kettles and pans,
Say the bells of St. Anne's.
— "The Bells of London," anonymous
The only equipment you need in your kitchen: a pot, a pan, a knife, a fork, and a spoon. That's what it all comes down to. (And in a pinch, you could give up the fork.)
But everything comes in small, medium, and large ... and there are dozens of varieties of each ... and there are so many other things it would help to have ...
Just know that you can spend a fortune equipping your kitchen — but you really don't need to. Shiny pans do not a good cook make. Most good cooks use battered pots and pans they've had for years, and they love them and wouldn't part with or replace any of them. Bon Appétit magazine, some years back, asked a variety of well-known cooks and chefs about their favorite kitchen equipment. Julia Child chose an old nonstick frying pan, one she used with butter and oil — that is, not as nonstick — because it was just the right size for what she needed most often and the sides sloped the way she liked; the handle was metal, so she could put it in the oven. Other cooks chose such unexpected things as a compost bucket, a French coffee press, a glass teapot, and a whisk. Yes, somebody chose a copper pot — always nice, but so expensive — and somebody else, a heavy-duty mixer. But a surprising number of choices were for the simple and mundane. A teapot and a whisk.
There are a lot of myths about kitchen equipment. Most, it seems to me, have to do with knives. Yes, you need to know how to handle a knife. And, yes, your knives should be sharp. (Sharp knives cause fewer accidents to your fingers, because they need less pressure to cut. Jacques Pépin adds that if you do cut yourself with a sharp knife, at least it's a clean cut. Cold comfort when you're bleeding? Probably.) But knives needn't be wildly expensive. And above all, they needn't be — shouldn't be, for my money — stainless steel or carbon steel. High-carbon knives are a little harder to find than stainless steel knives, but they hold their edge much longer, and are much easier to resharpen. They're on the expensive side — but you'll keep them longer and find them easier to work with. Amazingly enough, you can find good ones on eBay, which can save a great deal of money. Last time I looked, the first two listings were for the Sabatier knife company's high-carbon chef knives at just over fifteen dollars each. (Sabatier guarantees their high-carbon knives for a lifetime.) New, they cost in the neighborhood of a hundred dollars and up. High-carbon knives are never shiny, except maybe on the day you buy them. They're quickly discolored by the acids in food; they tend to rust; they don't glow the way stainless steel knives do. But they're so much better to work with.
Care and Sharpening of Knives
Knife sharpening is part real, part myth. Real: You need a steel — the long, cylindrical blade that works like a file; it can be metal or ceramic. You run the entire length of the knife blade up and down the steel, holding the knife at about a twenty-degree angle, and doing both sides of the knife. That realigns the blade's edges. Official advice is to use the steel every time you use your knife. After I do that, I run my knife blade across the bottom of a stone mug — the unglazed bottom is rough, and helps keep knives sharp.
Every so often, no matter how diligent you are about using the steel, your knives will need more work. The best thing to do is find a knife sharpener — a person, I mean, who sharpens knives. You may have to mail your knives; if you're lucky, the knife-sharpening man will be local, and you can just bring your knives over. The Yellow Pages will help.
If you can't do that, use an electric sharpener or a sharpening stone. With a stone, use the rough side first, with a light coating of mineral oil, and run the entire length of the blade across the stone, heel to point, holding the knife at about a twenty-degree angle again. After you've done that on both sides several times (several means twenty or so, until it feels almost sharp), turn the stone over, repeat the mineral oil coating, and again run the length of the blade up and down the stone — both sides of the knife.
It helps to take good care of your knives. Keep them clean and dry. Don't put them in the dishwasher. (Use the steel, use the knife, wash it, dry it, put it away.) Don't use knives on hard surfaces like plates — they'll dull very quickly if you do that. Cut and slice on cutting boards made of wood or plastic; if you don't have a cutting board, add several to your list of what you need to find. (It helps to have at least three separate cutting boards — one for onions and garlic, one for chicken and meats, and one for everything else.) Knives shouldn't bang into each other, but you don't need a knife holder (one of those slanted boxes with slots on the top for knife blades).
Know, too, how to hold a knife. That's not kitchen equipment, but it is good kitchen practice. Don't extend your index finger to the top of the blade; that may feel right at first, but it doesn't work as well; it doesn't give you as much control or power as holding the knife with all your fingers curled around the handle. The fingers on your other hand — holding the food you're cutting — should be slightly curled under, so the knife works against your knuckles and doesn't cut into your fingers.
What size knife do you need? The standard answer begins with a chef's knife. A chef's knife is a large utility knife with a triangular blade; it can mince, chop, and slice, and is probably best known for "rocking" over a mound of herbs, onions, or garlic, chopping them quickly. The important thing is a knife you feel comfortable with — a knife that feels right in your hand. That's why I'm not going to say an eight-inch knife, or a twelve-inch knife — or even just a chef's knife. Hold various knives in your hand; whatever feels right works. That is not always the most expensive knife. Plastic-handled knives are fine. Some paring knives are so cheap (under five dollars) that you don't need to worry about resharpening them on a stone — when they get dull, buy a new one. I use very few knives: a five-inch paring knife is my favorite — I use it for almost everything. (Paring knives look like smaller versions of chef's knives.) I have another, slightly longer knife with a serrated edge; it's handy for things like slicing lemons, tomatoes, and — surprise! — sandwiches, because it doesn't press down on them as it slices. I also have a chef's knife, which I use much less often, a boning knife, a large bread knife, and a santoku knife (mine is not Japanese, and has hollowed-out scallops on either side of the blade). The only knife I couldn't work without is the paring knife. That's what feels best to me, and that's what matters. Whatever works works.
Pots and Pans
What, then, are the other kitchen essentials? And what would it just be nice to have? Pots and pans are essential, like knives, but they, too, needn't be top-of-the-line. I have several copper pots that I never use anymore — despite their excellent heat-conducting abilities, I don't want to spend time polishing them and I feel guilty if I don't; even worse, when they've been used enough, they need to be retinned, which means time, energy (taking them somewhere or packing them up and mailing them), and money. The pots I use most often are a set of four stainless steel saucepans in varying sizes, the kind with layered bottoms (aluminum, copper, and stainless steel); they were gifts an amazingly long time ago. If I had to, I could give up one of them, leaving me with small, medium, and large. One of the pots came with a double-boiler insert, which is very handy; it sits inside the two largest pots. (I also use the insert when I'm making ice cream without a machine, to put directly in the freezer.) But my favorite pot is bigger — it's an old Cuisinart pot, wide and deep, with a steamer rack insert. I use it to boil water for pasta, to steam vegetables and dumplings, and to make stock, soup, stew, braises, relishes, and jams, and it can go in the oven when I want it to. It, too, is stainless steel. It's a very happy pot.
Those are the saucepan essentials — one big pot and two or three smaller saucepans. Sauté pans also matter. Again, it's best to have two different sizes — a small (nonstick, if you like) pan that can be used to fry two eggs or make scrambled eggs or an omelet (it should have sloping sides) and a larger frying pan with straight sides. Metal handles are helpful, because they make it possible to put the pan in the oven. My favorite frying pan is ten inches across and has straight sides; it's very sturdy — but its handle broke off some years back. It was plastic, and I'm glad it's gone, though I didn't do anything to hasten its departure. The pan can now be used to brown and sear on the top of the stove, and then it can move along to the oven to finish cooking.
Short of my old stockpot, my favorite pot for stews and soups is a Le Creuset (heavy iron, coated with enamel) that can go on the top of the stove or in the oven and look lovely on the table. (My pot doesn't look lovely on the table, except to me.) They're available online, through catalogs, and in stores. Le Creuset pots and pans are heavy, sturdy, and handsome, and they're also expensive. (But they last a lifetime.) Iron pots (without enamel) are another possibility — they're considerably less expensive, last several lifetimes, become nonstick through good use and care, and almost always work well, assuming you have a lid, should you need one. Iron pots and pans can be found in hardware stores and at flea markets and garage sales. Unless you buy a factory-seasoned new iron pot, you'll need to season it, and used iron pots probably always need to be reseasoned.
That's what you need for the top of the stove, then: saucepans of varying sizes, a large stockpot, and at least two different size sauté pans. All can be made of stainless steel, plain or combined with other metals, or enameled cast iron, or just plain iron.
Seasoning Iron Pans
To season or reseason an iron pan, coat it with vegetable oil, solid shortening, or bacon grease (you'll have to cook some bacon first, but that's not too much of a hardship). Heat the oven to 250 or 300 degrees, and put the pan in the oven. Leave it for fifteen minutes, remove it, and pour out any excess grease. Put it back in the oven and bake it for two hours. Let it cool and wipe it dry. To keep it in good condition, use it at first with foods that are high in fat. Clean it while it's still warm by rinsing it with hot water and scraping away anything that has stuck to it — don't use a scouring pad, soap, or a detergent. Make sure it's thoroughly dry. Store it without a lid on top.
Mixing Bowls, Measurers, Tongs, Spatulas, and Whisks
Next up, in my own personal order of importance, are the things you need before you need the pots and pans: measuring cups and spoons, tongs, spatulas, whisks, and the bowls you mix things in. Mixing bowls don't have to be matched sets of three — though that's always nice. A mixing bowl, after all, is just something you mix in. If you're mixing a lot of things, you need a larger bowl. And if you're mixing small amounts of things — well, I don't need to tell you, do I?
I do my mixing, for the most part, in a large clear plastic bowl that looks like a giant measuring cup or a laboratory instrument. I use a small Portuguese bowl for smaller things — it's very pretty, but it's not part of a set. I have nothing against matching mixing bowls; I just happen not to have them, and I believe they aren't necessary. Matching, that is. Mixing bowls — whatever they may be — are definitely necessary.
You also definitely need measuring cups and spoons. Measure liquid in a standing cup — the glass or plastic kind that holds one or two cups. Measure dry things (like flour and sugar) in freestanding smaller metal or plastic cups, the kind that come in sets of four: one each for a quarter cup, third cup, half cup, and whole cup. (This is the kind you sweep the back of your knife across, when it's full, to level the measurement of flour, for instance — to be sure you have exactly what you think you have.) Measuring spoons come in bunches, too. I like metal ones — they're sturdier and a little easier to wash; they also feel good in the hand.
Tongs, spatulas, and whisks are all marvelous inventions. The best tongs are the long kind that you can lock into position when they're not being used. They're amazingly handy, like an extension of your fingers, and, among other virtues, they make it possible to move food around without piercing its surface. Spatulas are essential for folding whipped cream or beaten egg whites into a batter, and they work for many other things as well; if they're heat-proof silicone, they're handier. Whisks are wonderful. Purely wonderful. They bring together all sorts of things, eliminating lumps, smoothing surfaces, expertly blending mixtures ... I recommend two sizes: the normal, everyday size and a small one, handy for mixing things like salad dressings. Balloon whisks are considerably larger, and are essential if you're whipping cream or egg whites by hand.
Sheet Pans, Loaf Pans, Roasting Pans, and Racks
There are specialized pans that make various cooking projects easier and better: sheet pans for cookies, for instance. They should be heavy and sturdy — cookies on lightweight pans burn easily. Silpat baking pads on top of the pans make cookie making much easier when it's time to remove the cookies. Silpat is the brand name for silicone and fiberglass mats that come in various sizes and eliminate the need for pregreased baking sheet pans. Loaf pans work for bread, meatloaf, and paté, though all can be made on plain baking pans. Eight-by-eight-inch square pans are especially versatile and very handy to have. Supermarkets usually sell glass square pans in their pot section, no matter how small it may be. Big roasting pans work well for turkeys and roast beef — much better than the heavy-duty foil pans you can buy at the store. Those aren't heavy enough to be really sturdy, but I'm not nuts about cooking in foil, in any case; whether or not it's bad for you, it simply doesn't feel healthy to me. You don't use roasting pans terribly often, but when you need one, you need one — they're kind of hard to improvise. They need to be heavy and sturdy, with good handles, and if they come with their own rack, so much the better. Racks are a good idea, in general — under a chicken (if you choose not to use sliced onions, the way I do here), or for cooling cake or cookies, rather than keeping them in their pans, where they continue to cook, or piling them on a plate, where they steam as they cool and begin to look like something out of a Dalí painting. Also helpful is a smaller roasting pan (about nine by thirteen inches), to be used for all sorts of things, from lasagna to a batch of brownies.
A double boiler is a tower based on water. It's a short tower, just two pots high — but two, it cannot be argued, is more than one. The bottom pot has to be larger than the other; it holds water, kept just below the boil. It's a fine way of making some sauces, melting chocolate, and — should you have the time and the patience (I rarely do) — scrambling eggs. It can be improvised, with two pots of different sizes, one sitting atop the other, but it's a great luxury to have one of your own. Double boiling in the oven means a large pan holding a smaller one, or several little heat-proof dishes; the larger pan holds hot water, to act as a blanket, steadying temperatures, for the inner pan — especially fine for making things like cheesecake and custard; the even heat works to their advantage and it's much safer than simply braving the oven, no matter what they say about how if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. No; if you can't stand the heat, use a double boiler. There are always choices.
Colanders, Strainers, Peelers, Skimmers, Graters, Mashers, and More
Kitchen toys are wonderful. You just have to restrict them to those that are moderately essential — not only because of money, but also because of space. There are limits to what can be squeezed into the kitchen junk drawer. Mine holds things I've had for years and have never used (three ice cream scoops, two ice picks [why?], and a variety of other gadgets) — but I'm not ready to part with them. Yet it also has stuff like a cherry pitter and a milk frother, perfect when I need them, even though I don't really need them often. I have learned not to buy too many new gadgets. I look at them, admire them, am tempted by them, and say to myself, "But where would I put it?" and my resistance is thus fortified.
Excerpted from How to Slice an Onion by Bunny Crumpacker, Sally Mara Sturman. Copyright © 2009 Bunny Crumpacker. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION - Cooking Is Easier Than They Tell You It Is,
1 - THE KITCHEN BATTERIE,
2 - THE ONION LEGACY,
3 - LIQUIDITY,
4 - HEAVENLY SOUP,
5 - THE BIRD,
6 - AND THEN THE EGG,
7 - PASTA NOW AND FOREVER,
8 - THE BIG DISH,
9 - SIDES TO THE CENTER,
10 - THE DAIRY,
11 - DESSERT 101,
12 - THE ANT AND THE GRASSHOPPER,
13 - AND ...,
ALSO BY BUNNY CRUMPACKER,
FURTHER READING — Some Favorite Books,
A BRIEF GLOSSARY OF COOKING TERMS,
What People are Saying About This
"Simple, attractive recipes."--(John Thorne, Outlaw Cook and Simple Cooking)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I hate cooking, but I LOVE this book! It's intelligent, encouraging, inspiring, funny, and actually makes the chore of food prep interesting and - I can't believe it! - even pleasant. Ms Crumpacker uses no stern imperatives. She makes wonderful food possible and fuss free without requiring hours of tedium. An excellent book for beginning cooks, and anyone else who likes delicious food without aggravation.