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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, August 7th, 2001


 

How to Read a French Fry: And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science

by Russ Parsons

A review by Corby Kummer

Russ Parsons edits the newspaper food section I read most closely, in the Los Angeles Times. He's also a wonderfully enthusiastic cook and writer, sending dispatches to the newspaper every week from his kitchen.

His new book, How to Read a French Fry, is not a collection of columns, however. It's a carrying forward of his natural and great curiosity about why ingredients behave the way they do under pressure and over heat. Parsons wants to know the reasons behind cooking dicta: why flour and cornstarch must first be mixed with butter or water before being added to a sauce (otherwise the starch granules will clump together and become impermeable to water); why pie crust is so hard to master (in order to achieve a flaky texture, the cook has to do two contradictory things with the fat; shells for fancy fruit tarts are actually much easier). And he challenges some culinary conventional wisdom – he details why it's okay to salt the cooking water for beans, and he explains why soaking beans before cooking or adding special herbs to the water does nothing to decrease their digestive troublemaking. Parsons aims to understand the science underlying common cooking techniques, that is, and he's willing to do a good deal of research to distill only the principles that a mildly investigative cook needs to know or has the patience to follow and remember.

This sort of writing has a distinguished and long lineage. Julia Child was its pioneering exponent in postwar America, and she had been much influenced by Mme. Saint Ange, who in the 1920s wrote step-by-step instructions that guided French women through the intricacies, and also the simplicities, of cuisine bourgeoisie. Madeleine Kamman, Child's would-be rival as American doyenne of French food, took a more rigorously scientific approach in her many books on cooking techniques, which culminated in the encyclopedic Making of a Cook. In 1984 Harold McGee, trained in science and literature, published On Food and Cooking, raising the standard for all writers interested in the mechanics and science of cooking – and in his next book he laid claim to a title Parsons might well have taken, The Curious Cook. Only Shirley Corriher has dared follow in McGee's very large footsteps, with her explanatory, personal, reassuring CookWise.

In CookWise, Shirley Corriher helps readers get wise to the whys of cooking. Parsons writes in shorter bites, and with his clear news training knows how to extract tips that even the hurried reader and cook will appreciate knowing before going to the grocery store or starting a meal (I sense here the relentless lucidity of our mutual book editor, Rux Martin) – for example, "Even fried eggs should be cooked gently. Use medium heat rather than high to keep them from forming that tough, brown, frizzled bottom." He fills his essays, which are divided broadly by category (fruits and vegetables, meats, starches) with always-wanted-to-know asides such as "Adding salt to eggplant that is going to be fried results in a softer, plusher texture, but it has little or no effect on eggplant that will be grilled." Or, "To get really bright colors, cooks frequently blanch vegetables in boiling water. Usually a cold plunge in an ice-water bath follows. Chefs say this 'sets' the color; what it really does is stop the cooking before the colors can fade." The author's friendly voice sometimes takes on a teacherly tinge of "It's very simple, really," but it is always engaging and to the point.

What sets this book most clearly apart from others of its kind is the quality of its recipes, which show Parsons's own taste for a very of-the-moment style of cooking, one emphasizing freshness and the strong flavors of Italian and Mexican food especially. I'm particularly drawn to dishes that take advantage of the farm-stand abundance happily hitting most parts of the country just now: zucchini glazed with a bit of olive oil and water, which forms a small amount of intensely flavored sauce and can be adapted for many other vegetables; a stew of charred tomatoes, pasta, and cranberry beans that combines several techniques to make a full-flavored and also very adaptable summer supper; and sliced melons in lime-mint syrup, which takes one of my favorite fruit-citrus combinations and turns it into a perfectly elegant dessert. It's even better served with simple, cinnamon-scented snickerdoodles. These cookies, unlike most of the recipes, are not utterly illustrative of any of the principles Parsons works so hard and well to make us understand. "This is one of my mom's recipes," Parsons writes – and obviously one of the best he knows.


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