Blog note: This article originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press, October 19, 2008
I recently had a chat with Martha Stewart. Yes, that MARTHA -- the queen of crafts, the doyenne of cooking and the grand professor of how to do, well, just about everything.
On Tuesday, Stewart is out with another cookbook, "Martha Stewart's Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook" (Clarkson Potter, $45). And chatting with her by phone about the book was no different than hearing her on radio or TV. It was that trademark Martha Stewart tone that fans are fond of: authoritative, confident and convincing.
Local folks will get to sample some of that Martha flavor at a book signing at Borders in Birmingham on Oct. 29.
Stewart said she had plenty of inspiration for the new book because she gets over a million questions a year from readers and viewers of "The Martha Stewart Show." Those questions birthed the book's theme.
"I am a teacher, so I thought this would be a good time to use all of our knowledge and put it down as a cooking school," said Stewart, who turned 67 in August. "We have people coming on the show all the time using some of these techniques, and we've never organized them as we have in this book."
Julia Child paved the way
Stewart suggested that people approach "Cooking School" the way she did with Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (Alfred A. Knopf, $40).
"I cooked every single recipe; now they're making a movie about what I did," said Stewart. "Julie & Julia," scheduled for an April 2009 release, is about a secretary who decides to restore her ambition by preparing all 524 recipes in the Child classic.
"Not only I did, many of my friends (did). We cooked every single thing in those two volumes of 'Julia Child'."
Her new book, Stewart explained, is like a simplified version of Child's.
"Here we go through the different techniques -- the braising, the poaching, the steaming, the oven roasting, the sautéing so that you really know what you are doing when you say you are sautéing," she said. "And the recipes we give are really jumpstarts for you to then be able to sauté something else. You are going to sauté a piece of chicken cutlet and you will be able to do veal if you wish, or beef or something else."
"Cooking School" is built around technique. The chapters are called "Lessons," with each explaining and showing the how-to's of stocks and soups, eggs, meat, fish and poultry, pasta, vegetables, dried beans and grains and desserts. In some ways it's like a textbook, with the lessons numbered 2.1, 2.2, etc. and "extra credit" sections such as making soup garnishes or homemade mayonnaise in the egg lesson. There are plenty of illustrations and pictures along with step-by-step instructions.
The book has more than 500 pages, 200 recipes and is loaded with color photos. It's also a hefty book, weighing about 4 pounds, and is geared to today's cooking style and trends.
You can cut costs, too
Given what has been going on in the economy, I asked Stewart if knowing how to pull off the techniques in the book will help people save money. "Very, very much so," she said. "We're all about that.
"I think all the how-to's, the do-it-yourselves, are totally reflective of what's going on in the world today," she said. "Paying a lot of attention to nutrition and homemade is exactly where we need to be right now."
The basic techniques in the book will help home cooks save money. For example, when you learn to make stock, you will save money because you are using inexpensive chicken parts or ones that you have saved from cutting up a whole chicken.
"I am a very economical person and I have always cut up my own chicken," Stewart said. "I don't remember buying a chicken breast -- ever. Because I will use the rest of the chicken for something else."
While some parts of the book will prove helpful in daily cooking, others provide a pure culinary knowledge boost, such as learning how to prepare or french your own rack of lamb.
"I think it will be interesting once people see this book. I think it will make them more curious about how they can prepare their own food and how they can economically create delicious meals."
Stewart also spoke with me about the importance of good cooking tools; really goods knives, maybe a chef knife and a paring knife, are essential, she said, as are the perfect sauté pan, the perfect omelet pan and a food processor. The tools are outlined in a basics chapter in the book.
"The right tool for the right job is very important," she said.
'You have to want it'
Make no mistake, "Cooking School" is not for those who say they have no time to cook or can't cook.
"It's not about saying: 'Oh I can't do this. You have to first want to do it,' " Stewart said. "And then once you do start doing it, I think people will really enjoy it. I think people just don't realize how good it is."
Stewart hopes readers will discover that they really like to cook. She said she knows, however, that some people just don't care.
"But I think mothers, especially, should know how to prepare variant, nutritious dishes for their families," she said. "I mean it's their obligation. Don't have a family if you don't know how to feed them."
So what's next for Stewart and her staff? "We're working; we're not slowing down," she said.