Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham
by Marion Cunningham

1999. 303 pages, 150 recipes.

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"They (her students) tell me how they learned that going home at the end of the day, after busy work pressures, to a quiet time of cooking can be the best kind of therapy. That feeling is one of the best gifts that cooking at home can give us..."

Mexican Corn Soup

Almond Butter Cake

•Hearty Salad of Potatoes, Eggs, and Green Beans

•Baked Salmon Steaks

•Mexican Lentil Soup


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Even before you open the book, the cover photo of author Marion Cuningham makes you feel you will be safely tucked under the wing of a warm and wise teacher. And in fact Cunningham (a striking 70 year old, whose beauty appears to be untouched by cosmetic surgery or air brushing) more than enough to knowledge to share. She has written numerous cookbooks including the last two editions of that classic cooking bible, The Fanny Farmer Cookbook as well as a book on cooking with children.

Recognizing that teaching adults is different from teaching children ("as we grow...we become apprehensive about learning new skills"), Cunningham prepared for writing this book by gathering together adults (ranging from 20-somethings to 60-somethings) who were "anxious but eager learners" for a series of Saturday sessions in her kitchen. She would give them recipes to try and then work with them, learning what they understood and what they didn't.

Cunningham deals effectively with the issues that puzzle or bedevil novices, including some which are often overlooked in how-to cookbooks (like how to get that shard of egg shell out of the bowl you just cracked a raw egg into). In addition to recipes, her students told her ..."they wanted to learn to think about cooking for the week ahead". In response, she has given leftovers respectability and desirability with lots of good suggestions (roast two chickens at once, use leftover cornbread as a yummy pancake substitute for breakfast the next day, make last night's vinaigrette as a veggie dip).

Learning to Cook has a clear, friendly, learn-as-you go format. There's a wealth of truly helpful sidebars and step-by-step photos elucidating techniques or ingredient information relevant to the recipe at hand. (The egg shell dilemma is dealt with in the Chicken with Dumplings recipe.) The book's index is excellent in its thorough cross- referencing. For instance, if a new cook faces the egg-shell predicament, she (or he) will be directed to the right page by looking up "egg, shell, removal from bowl" in the index.

Learning to Cook is not just for those just learning to cook. The recipes are easy but they're not dumb. Most of the dishes in here are ones that seasoned, savvy cooks would be happy to make as well. (OK, I have my doubts about the soup recipe that calls for canned creamed corn and canned tuna.) Cunningham has a thoughtful mix of 90's favorites like Focaccio and Salsa Verde as well as vintage classics like Baked Ham and Pineapple Upside-Down Cake. (But why bother with Celery Victor?) Learning to Cook has become one of my favorite sources for quick and tasty lunchtime soups. (Check out the Mexican Corn Soup- amazing how the simple addition of masa harina can catapult it out of the ordinary.) And, worth the price of the book in itself is the recipe for Almond Butter Cake. It's every cook's fantasy come true: a marriage of simplicity and elegance whose taste causes those who eat it to gasp with pleasure.

Thanks to Learning to Cook, I've seen a flowering of culinary confidence and capability in my daughter Belle, whose previous cooking forays were focused on oatmeal cookies and Rice Crispies treats. Recently I asked her to pick one dish from Learning to Cook that she could make for an upcoming dinner party. She chose the Tiny Roasted Red Potatoes with Rosemary which required almost no supervision on my part (I tried not to hover, really I did) and turned out to be incredibly delicious. "They were so easy!" marveled Belle, as if she expected something this "grownup" to require far more expertise. Furthermore, she had the cook's pleasure of basking in the praise she received for her efforts. That's the beauty of most of the recipes in Learning to Cook: they are, as Cunningham hoped they would be "...so satisfying that you'll be convinced that learning to cook is worth it."