Hot tips. Impeccable sources. Home cooks are as hungry for insider information as lobbyists on Capitol Hill.
As a professionally trained chef who teaches others how to cook, Linda Carucci has been sharing insider information for 20 years. Some of her students have gone on to become chefs. But at heart, she is an advocate for everyday cooks. "Consider me your own personal kitchen buttinsky," the Oakland, Calif., resident often says at the start of a class.
And it is everyday cooks for whom she has produced her first book, "Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks" (Chronicle Books, $22.95, paperback), released this summer.
In it, she shares hundreds of tidbits. Among them: how to make risotto six hours ahead (refrigerate it midway through adding the stock); why you shouldn't put overly wet meat on the grill (it prevents the meat from caramelizing properly); and what the correct water temperature is for washing wash leeks (warm).
Cookbooks written by cooking school instructors are nothing new. What separates Carucci's from many of the other efforts is that it is unusually accessible and well organized. Its 103 recipes were triple-tested by 116 home cooks across the country. Since being a good teacher also means being a good listener, Carucci has incorporated many of the questions that came up during recipe testing.
The book's accompanying Recipe Secrets are set along the margins of most pages. For her Tomato-Cheddar Soup (see recipe, Page 2), Carucci explains the benefits of a mere quarter-teaspoon of baking soda; when it is added, the mixture should foam up a bit and then subside, which proves that the soda is active. To coax the most flavor from blanched vegetables, she advises salting them twice (the water they're cooked in and the ice-water bath afterward).
Carucci, 49, has a natural gift for instruction. It comes across in her book, which is already in its second printing -- a considerable achievement for a cookbook that isn't tied to a television-chef persona -- and during her classes. She is precise, but not fussy.
During a recent Saturday morning class at the Sur La Table store in Arlington, her instructions to a few dozen cooks were as clear as those in the book, and they took into consideration the conditions that home cooks face. Sur La Table's volunteer assistants that day could pick up tips just by watching Carucci set up. For instance, she took the label from the package of lamb and stuck it on the dish the meat was marinating in so she could remember its weight. Her prep trays were stacked on the wheeled rack in order of use.
Carucci has worked as a private chef, restaurant cook-manager and caterer. Along the way, she earned the respect of such well-known California chefs as Thomas Keller, who called her the consummate chef and coach. And in 2002, she was named Cooking Teacher of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
For the past year, she has been the Julia Child curator of food arts at the American Center for Wine Food & the Arts in Napa, Calif. She considers it a "dream job."
There's only one problem, familiar to home cooks: There's no time to make dinner.
"I had no idea while I was writing this book that I'd accept the full-time-plus food curator position, close down my home cooking school and join the ranks of working stiffs who come home after work every day and make supper," Carucci says.
These days, she typically resorts to taking salmon or pork chops out of the freezer in the morning for her husband to prepare. Fortunately, she says, he has a new cookbook to guide him.