EARLIER THIS year, several professionally prominent chefs, teachers, food writers and home economists were asked by phone and by mail, "What advice would you share with new cooks?"
Their replies included a combination of common sense tips and nifty chefs' secrets.
Responding from kitchens as diverse as those at The White House, New York-based national magazines, restaurants, cooking schools, food company testing and tasting labs, a sheep farm, an herb farm and a London-based society catering establishment, their advice began:
1) DO buy the very best equipment and ingredients you can afford.
2) DON'T buy anything unless -- and until -- you need it. Here is more of what they wanted new cooks to know: Equipping a First Kitchen
"Beg, borrow or buy a restaurant quality saute pan at least 10 inches in diameter, a 7-inch French chef's knife and a swivel-blade vegetable peeler," said "Food and Wine" magazine executive editor William Rice. "With these tools and a stove, you can manage to cook just about anything."
Get an oven thermometer, wrote cookbook author and chef Richard Olney from Sollies-Pont, France. Oven temperature controls aren't always accurate -- and that can sabotage the cook.
Remember a meat thermometer, said Marcia Pimentel, Cornell University senior foods and nutrition lecturer. This should prevent roasts from getting overcooked, dry and tough.
Collect good quality saucepans in various sizes, offered Anne Willan, owner of La Varenne Cooking School, Paris.
"Really good knives and only those that feel comfortable in your hand," added Richard Nelson, a Portland, Ore., cooking school teacher and past president of the International Association of Cooking Schools. "Start with a slicing knife, a chopping knife and a paring knife. Keep the blades sharp. There are far fewer accidental cuts when using sharp knives."
Nelson added, "Don't be talked into buying sets -- knives, pots and pans, bakeware, cooking utensils or anything else."
Good advice, agreed executive chef Henry Haller at The White House, explaining there was no point in overloading the kitchen. Machinery does not make the cook, nor does it do all the work for you. "Remember, your best tools are your own hands."
Measuring spoons and cups, strainer, long-handled wooden stirring spoon, spatula, turner/lifter and whisk make cooking easier.
"Sit down and carefully read the instruction pamphlet that accompanies any new equipment before operating it for the first time," cautioned Redbook magazine's food and nutrition editor, Elizabeth Alston. She coated walls and ceiling with spinach soup when she neglected instructions and incorrectly assembled her first blender. Organizing a First Kitchen
All pots, pans, knives and gadgets should be accessible without a wild search through kitchen drawers, said Dominique D'Ermo, cookbook author and owner of Dominique's Restaurant here.
Keep your height and work habits in mind, said cookbook author and chef/lecturer Jacques Pepin, from his home in Madison, Conn. Equipment too high to reach or stored far from intended use does not create a favorable cooking environment.
Don't keep spices near direct sunlight or the stove, added Louis Szathmary, food writer, cookbook author and owner of The Bakery restaurant, Chicago. Heat is the worst enemy of spices.
Local cookbook author and food writer Lisa Yockelson made her kitchen efficient by dividing it into areas: 1) food storage equipment, 2) food preparation equipment, 3) cooking and baking needs, 4) serving and clean-up needs.
She recommended divided trays to organize utensils kept in drawers and turntables for those small bottles and tins of seasonings stored in cabinets. Cooking in a First Kitchen
"Read the recipe all the way through before you start cooking," wrote America's best-known food personality, Julia Child, from her kitchen in Cambridge, Mass. "Visualize each step, each ingredient, each implement. Then, when you are ready to begin, you'll know what you're doing and you'll learn much more easily and cook much faster and happier."
"Don't be afraid of a failure," added Richard Olney. "It is no disgrace and may very often be more instructive than a success." Entertaining in a First Kitchen
"Never be over-ambitious. Go for one unusual dish which everyone can talk about and let the other courses be as simple as possible, even if it means you serve platters of really good cold cuts and salad," wrote London-based culinary history writer, lecturer, and society caterer Michelle Berriedale-Johnson.
"Make a list in advance of every ingredient needed for every recipe; check this against supplies on hand and make your grocery list from that. Even include seasonings," said Elaine Grossinger Etess, who owns Grossinger's Hotel in the Catskills.
And more lists! Before party time, decide on serving pieces. Tape the name of each recipe to the bottom of the corresponding serving piece, suggested Nathalie Dupree, director of Rich's Department Store Cooking School in Atlanta. Then attach to the refrigerator door both a list of menu items and serving pieces. You or your helpers should match the correct recipe to its serving piece, checking the lists as done. You won't wind up with food you forgot to serve or too small a container for the last recipe to come to the table.
Last but not least: "Make it a prime commandment to clean up as you go along. When the creativity is over, you can dine without facing a mess afterward," wrote Franco and Margaret Romagnoli, Massachusetts restaurateurs, cookbook authors and TV personalities. Chefs' Secrets for a First Kitchen
* Beautiful baked bread -- When baking bread in a loaf pan or on a cookie sheet, remove the bread four minutes before the end of baking time; let it finish baking directly on the oven rack. The loaf will be more evenly browned and have an excellent crust. -- Anne Greer, San Antonio-based teacher, cookbook author and lecturer on Southwestern cuisine.
* Beautiful baked goods -- When a baked item such as a tea loaf or pie contains a large amount of sugar, it may brown too fast. To prevent its getting too dark, cover the top of the product with foil when it is just brown enough, then finish baking. -- Linda Smithson, director of consumer service, The Pillsbury Company, Minneapolis.
BUTTER, CREAMED -- When a recipe specifies this, cut the stick of butter into squares and cream those rather than allowing butter to sit at room temperature and get too soft. The squares will cream quickly, but won't soften too much. As a result, extra flour will not be required in recipes and cookies, and cakes and other baked goods will be more tender. -- Carol Cerny, food service manager, American Dairy Association, Rosemont, Ill.
BUTTER, HERBED -- Combine by hand or in processor 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, 1 teaspoon tarragon, 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh garlic, 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice and generous dashes each of hot pepper sauce and cayenne pepper; beat until smooth. Wrap in foil or plastic; chill until firm or freeze. Slice in half-inch portions; serve on toast, hamburgers, steak, corn on the cob. -- Carol Mason, local cooking school teacher and caterer.
CHEESE, SERVING -- When it's a soft-ripening cheese such as brie or camembert that ripens from the center, slice portions in wedges from center to edge. -- William Rice.
EGGS, HARD-COOKED -- To eliminate a greenish-gray color and rubbery texture, eggs should be hard-cooked rather than hard-boiled. Bring pot containing eggs and water to boiling point. Turn off heat. Put lid on pot. Wait 15 minutes. For soft-cooked eggs, wait only 3 minutes. -- Howard Helmer, eastern representative, American Egg Board, New York City.
EGGS, STORAGE -- Leave eggs in the carton if the egg rack in your refrigerator doesn't have a cover. Egg shells are porous; odors from other foods can alter the flavor of the eggs. -- Howard Helmer.
ENERGY, TO CONSERVE -- Consider baking two separate dishes at the same time, such as baked potatoes and baked chicken or a casserole. -- Jeanne Voltz, food editor, Woman's Day Magazine.
FLOUR -- Old recipes nearly always called for sifted flour; more recent ones call for spooning the flour into a cup and leveling with a knife. Dipping the cup into the flour is another method, but it gives the cook the most flour and could result in inaccurate results in a critical recipe. You get the least flour with sifting. The most accurate method is to do whatever the recipe calls for. However, many baked recipes are tolerant enough so a small difference in the amount of flour will not result in failure. -- Linda Smithson.
FREEZING, LABELING -- Too much human energy is wasted trying to fathom what something pink and square and frozen is, and too much food is wasted. Label food before it goes into the freezer. -- Elizabeth Alston.
MUSHROOMS USED AS SEASONING ("DUXELLES") -- Process 1 pound fresh mushrooms until finely chopped. Place in tea towel; squeeze out all moisture. Save this liquid to flavor sauce or soup. Melt 3 tablespoons sweet butter in skillet, add 2 tablespoons shallots or scallions, peeled and chopped fine, and cook on medium heat 1 minute. Add the mushrooms with a dash of nutmeg and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, about 10 minutes. When mushroom liquid has cooked down and mixture is dry, mushrooms are ready to store. Use as a filling for an omelet or to season stuffing or sauce. -- Vincent Price, cookbook author, Los Angeles.
PASTA, COOKING -- If pasta is to be topped with sauce or gravy, don't add cooking oil to water in which the pasta cooks. The oil will stop the gravy or sauce from properly adhering to the noodles; instead, it will slide off. -- Giuliano Bugialli, cookbook author and cooking teacher, New York City and Florence, Italy.
POULTRY -- If you are going to freeze chicken pieces, season them before packing for the freezer. The flavors will penetrate the meat more deeply. -- Stanley, Leon and Evan Lobel, Lobel Butchers, New York City.
SALAD, SIMPLE AND SUPER -- Mix the dressing directly in the salad bowl, using 1 clove garlic, chopped, with 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons oil, dash each salt and pepper. Place serving fork and spoon on top of mixed dressing. Break lettuce leaves (romaine, boston or bibb) into small pieces and place on top of utensils. Spoon and fork will keep lettuce separate from dressing. Refrigerate and toss just before serving. This is an especially nice light salad to follow a main course. -- Denise Schorr, cooking teacher and cookbook author, Natick, Mass.
SALAD DRESSING, MYSTERY INGREDIENTS -- Keep curry powder and soy sauce on hand. Use one or the other as a mystery ingredient in an oil-and-vinegar dressing. -- William Rice.
SHALLOTS, SUBSTITUTE -- Combine 1 small mild onion, chopped fine, with 1/8 teaspoon crushed garlic. -- Madame Jehane Benoit, food writer, cookbook author, TV and radio personality, Quebec, Canada.
STORAGE, FRESH FRUITS -- Some fresh fruits, such as strawberries, blueberries and cherries, are particularly perishable and should be used promptly. Some, such as apples and citrus, have longer storage periods and retain their quality for weeks. Other fruits, such as avocados, apricots, peaches, pears, plums, nectarines and bananas, can be stored for several days in the refrigerator. -- Sandra Strauss, director of consumer affairs, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va.
STORAGE, FRESH VEGETABLES -- Potatoes, sweet potatoes, dry onions and hard-shell squash are suited to long storage. But, generally speaking, fresh vegetables should be used within a few days for maximum freshness. -- Sandra Strauss.
THICKENING SOUPY MIXTURE IN PAN AFTER REMOVING BEEF BRISKET OR POT ROAST -- With food processor or blender, grind up 2 to 3 slices of caraway rye bread. Put all crumbs in liquid remaining in pot. Put heat on medium high. Let it get to a good bubble. Cook until bread taste is gone and is replaced by nice gravy flavor. Pour all over meat. As you slice the meat, it will carry the gravy into each slice. -- Richard Nelson.
TOMATO, FRESH PULP -- Plunge raw tomatoes into boiling water for 30 seconds, cool under cold water, peel. The skins should slide off easily. Slice each tomato in half (side-to-side); squeeze out seeds. -- Jacques Pepin.
TOMATO PASTE, STORAGE -- Rarely does a recipe call for 6 ounces of tomato paste, which is the smallest size can you can buy. Don't refrigerate the rest; it will go bad. Instead, freeze it. First, transfer the remaining tomato paste to a glass or plastic container with a fairly wide top. -- Carol Cutler, local food writer and cookbook author.
WHIPPED CREAM -- To whip several hours in advance and have it hold up for topping or piping at serving time, place a coarse linen towel over a bowl, making sure there is an inch of space between the towel and the bottom of bowl; secure with a rubber band. Place cream, after it has been whipped, onto that towel. At serving time, remove whipped cream with rubber spatula. The cream will be firm. Whey that collects under the towel can be discarded. -- Lillian Marshall, cooking school teacher, cookbook author, Louisville, Ky.