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The Click and Clack of the Kitchen

A small, almost 40-year-old treasure trove of tips. (Marty Barrick -- The Washington Post)

I picked up an improbably slim paperback called "How to Repair Food: Revised and Updated" the other day at La Cuisine, one of the Washington area’s true gourmet culinary shops.

Its authors, Marina and John Bear, with youngest daughter Tanya Zeryck spearheading the most recent edition, offer disarmingly funny, practical and sometimes outdated advice. The first edition was published in 1970 by Harcourt; the Bears consulted Peg Bracken for advice, then began gathering information for the book. Ten Speed Press put me in touch with John Bear just today. The couple lives in El Cerrito, Calif. (she, 67; he, 71), and within two minutes of phone-interview time, it was easy to trace the book's quirky voice.

"How to Repair Food" is akin to Heloise Hints, except without any mention of pantyhose -- at least none that I've come across. The book promises to provide solutions for foods that are over- or undercooked, stale, burned, lumpy, salty, bland or too spicy, mushy or tough, too wet or too dry, wilted, fatty, collapsed, curdled or just stuck together.

"We started carrying the book about 30 years ago," says Nancy Purvis Pollard, owner of La Cuisine. "It's been a customer favorite. I gave it to both of my daughters when they were trying to get off ramen noodles for dinner in their first apartments after college. It has helped me incrementally. ... I have used a lot of its techniques to correct stuff."

Nancy particularly likes the authors' recommendations for fixing oversalted soup. There are three listed in the edition dated 1998, which I have, but she also remembers from an earlier incarnation of the book that the authors suggested keeping stock on hand that is made with no salt. "Add some of that and it'll help ameliorate the saltiness of the soup," she says. "That has worked for me, too."

(The three tips are: add canned tomatoes, if it's "that kind of soup"; a few pinches of brown sugar or a few slices of raw potato, leaving them in just until they have become translucent. I'd heard about two of those.)

All that, in about 130 pages. How is that possible? I’ll be investigating, readers. So far I've found tips that seem both useful and perhaps not common knowledge, or at least not so commonly known among cooks of the 21st century. Some are kinda goofy/obvious, as in “if an apple is too mealy, use it to make applesauce.” Lemon juice and baking soda are the answers to many kitchen problems.

Then again, here are some techniques I’m interested in trying:

* To keep bacon from excessive curling in a heated pan, lightly dust it with flour.

* To create sweet cream when you have none, add a pinch of baking soda to some sour cream. Keep adding bit by bit, tasting along the way to achieve the desired sweetness.

* To keep frying fat from splattering in a hot skillet, add a dash of salt or cornstarch.

* To peel a grapefruit cleanly, including its pith, boil it for 5 minutes first.

* To quickly stop a pot of cooking pasta from boiling over, blow on the surface. It should give you about 15 seconds’ time to find potholders or the knobs to reduce the temperature. (Okay, I was so curious I had to give this a go right away. It worked, with the small advantage of not having to move a pot that was threatening to spill.)

* To stop food that has been burned in a pot from suffering further distress, quickly fill a larger heatproof container (such as a larger pot or the sink) with cold water and place the pot with the burned food in it (do not submerge). Use a wooden spoon to transfer the food that can be dislodged easily to a separate container. Taste the food; if it tastes burned, cover it with a damp cloth and let it stand for about 30 minutes. Taste again; if the food still tastes burned, it’s not salvageable.

John Bear, a former U. of Iowa professor, says sales have been sporadic but usually spike around Thanksgiving. In addition to the basic volume, the Bears also produced a condensed (!) version for Reader's Digest in the late 1980s and a vegetarian edition for Rodale after that. About six weeks ago, Ten Speed Press was bought by Random House, and TSP authors were informed that only about 25 percent of TSP titles will be retained. "We are most intrigued to find out if we make it through," John says.

Whaddya think, kitchen comrades in arms? Have you tried any of these? I'm inclined to offer a free copy to the comment-poster who comes up with the smartest, most unusual kitchen tip. Or does that set a dangerous, Free Range-like precedent?

-- Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  May 12, 2009; 12:40 PM ET
 | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, cookbooks  
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You can save chili that's gotten too liquidy with an extra can of kidney beans, drained and then smashed into a thick paste with a fork.

Posted by: Furf | May 13, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

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