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Corby's Table
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How to Cook (and How it Should Look)

Risotto, Pilaf, Fluffy Rice, and Paella
How to Roast Vegetables
Determining Doneness

January 20, 2000

James Peterson is an authoritative teacher who has written definitive and award-winning books like Sauces (1991), Splendid Soups (1993), Fish and Shellfish (1996), and Vegetables (1998). The last two especially show his comprehensive approach to distilling his enormous amount of professional expertise -- acquired as a chef in Paris and Greenwich Village -- into what will be useful to home cooks.

Now he has set his sights both lower and higher, creating a picture book that aims to be a kitchen primer for the beginning cook. In fact Essentials of Cooking is of great interest to experienced cooks too, because Peterson has obsessively documented the preparation and cooking of vegetables, fruit, fish, poultry, and meat as no one has since Jacques Pepin published two large books on technique.

Discuss this column in Post & Riposte.

Previously in Corby's Table:

Encyclopedia Gastronomica -- December 22, 1999
Corby Kummer makes his way through The Oxford Companion to Food -- and still finds Room for Dessert.

Italian Soul Food -- October 14, 1999
Corby Kummer serves up selections from Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Italian Country Table.

Countercultural Cooking -- September 15, 1999
Corby Kummer on Chez Panisse -- the influential Berkeley, California, restaurant that started as a countercultural collective -- and the new Chez Panisse Café Cookbook.

Charmed by Chile -- August 18, 1999
A new collection of home-style recipes reflects the Chilean way of life.

Hail to the Chef -- July 15, 1999
A tribute to Patrick Clark, a chef who was a model for many young African-Americans and an inspiration to other chefs.

Persian Appeal -- June 3, 1999
A look at Najmieh Batmanglij's A Taste of Persia, and the subtle yet persistent spices of Iranian cuisine.

Help! My Child Is a Vegan! -- April 28, 1999
Stephanie Pierson's useful new guide for teenage vegetarians, and those who love them anyway.

Seasons and Seasonings -- March 3, 1999
A seasonal guide to cooking from the garden by Amanda Hesser, a young woman who knows and loves food.

Seductions of Rice -- January 27, 1999
Selections from a new guide to the universal grain's many flavors.

A Passion for Pastry -- December 17, 1998
Two books that will have you dreaming of the perfect holiday dessert.

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

James Peterson
James Peterson   

Peterson differs from Pepin in choosing fewer subjects and placing less of an emphasis on classical French cuisine, although that is his training and still his preference. Also the book's photographs are in color, while Pepin's are in black and white. Startlingly, Peterson himself took the photographs, and his decisions on what to show -- where to put the knife between two rib lamb chops, how to reconstitute sheets of dried seaweed as a base for miso soup, how deep the bouillon should be over two medallions of salmon in a straight-sided poaching pan -- and the almost blindingly straightforward, focused pictures differentiate this from any other illustrated guide I have seen.

Like all great teachers, Peterson assumes nothing on the part of his pupils and therefore gives everything, with great economy and concision. This book is relatively short, the chapters relatively few. But it is a lifetime of working and teaching that has enabled Peterson to make his choices.

Most layouts in the book rely, of course, on pictures. But here are two sections that are readily comprehensible in text form: making risotto and pilaf (and the difference between the two) and roasting vegetables -- extremely fashionable right now for the concentrated flavor and silken texture the method gives low-flavor and humdrum vegetables, particularly the root ones available during winter. I also include Peterson's notes on determining the doneness of foods, which appear in the book without photographs, to show how much information Peterson can compress into very little space. Any young cook will welcome Peterson's tips; any experienced cook will be fascinated.

    -- Corby Kummer

Excerpts from Essentials of Cooking, by James Peterson

How to Cook Risotto, Pilaf, Fluffy Rice, and Paella

Some rice dishes, such as risotto, emphasize the natural starchiness of rice and are designed to help the rice grains cling together in a natural creamy sauce while other dishes, such as pilaf, keep the grains of rice separate and relatively fluffy. Each of the dishes here uses a different kind of rice and a different technique to underline the desired effect.

To make plain boiled rice so that none of the grains sticks together, use firm, long-grained rice, such as basmati, and boil it in a large pot of boiling water as though cooking pasta.

Rice pilaf is made by first cooking long-grain rice in a small amount of fat to cook the starch before the liquid is added. Flavorful ingredients, usually onions and sometimes garlic, are cooked in the fat along with the rice before the liquid is added.

Risotto is a creamy rice dish made with short-grain Italian rice. The rice, usually vialone nano, carnaroli, or arborio, is gently cooked in butter or olive oil. Liquid, usually broth, is then added a small amount at a time until the rice is cooked and bathed in creamy liquid. Risotto must be stirred almost constantly to release the starch from the rice so the starch thickens the broth, giving the dish its characteristic creamy (sometimes even soupy) consistency. The flavoring in a risotto may be very simple (as for a risotto alla Milanese) or relatively complex.

Paella is made by cooking Spanish medium-grain rice in a flavorful liquid and then nestling in ingredients such as chicken, sausages (chorizos), seafood, and, in some versions, snails. Traditionally, paella is cooked over an open fire, but it can also be cooked on the stove or in the oven.

Risotto alla Milanese

This classic risotto is flavored with chicken broth, saffron, butter, and finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (true Italian Parmesan cheese).

1. Rinse short-grained rice in a strainer.

2. Gently stir the rice in butter over low to medium heat until the grains are all lightly coated with butter.

3. Sprinkle over a pinch of saffron threads and stir in a small amount (about 1/2 cup) of chicken broth, or enough to just barely cover the rice. Continue stirring until all the broth has been absorbed.

4. Keep adding broth, just enough to barely cover the rice each time, until the risotto has a creamy consistency and the rice grains are cooked through (bite into one to test) about 25 minutes.

5. Stir in freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Kitchen Notes and Tips

  • In addition to the method used to make risotto, there are three other basic methods for cooking rice.

  • To cook perfect fluffy rice, add the rice to a large pot of boiling water and cook it just as you'd cook pasta. When the rice is cooked, drain it in a colander and serve it, tossed with a little butter.

  • To make rice pilaf, gently cook aromatic ingredients -- chopped onions are usually used -- in a small amount of butter or olive oil, then stir in long- or medium-grain rice. Cook the rice gently until coated in the butter or oil, then add a measured quantity of water or broth (count 2 cups liquid per cup of rice). When the gently simmering rice has absorbed all the liquid, it is ready. Rice pilaf is served as a side dish.

  • A paella is made by adding Spanish medium-grain rice to a flavorful liquid in a paella pan and then simmering -- traditionally over an open fire -- until the rice has absorbed the liquid. (A paella pan is a wide shallow two-handled pan with sloping sides -- it looks as if you could use it to pan for gold.) Ingredients such as chicken, sausages, snails, and seafood are then nestled in the rice as it cooks, with long-cooking ingredients added early on and quick-cooking ingredients added toward the end. There are all kinds of paellas -- but traditionally they're made with chicken or fish stock.

    How to Roast Vegetables

    Roasting pulls the water out of vegetables and concentrates their flavor. (Taste a roasted carrot next to a boiled carrot, and you'll see how roasting emphasizes the vegetable's natural sweetness.) Roasting works best for root vegetables, such as carrots, turnips, potatoes, and onions, and for vegetables that contain a great deal of moisture, such as tomatoes and mushrooms. I sometimes coat these softer vegetables with bread crumbs to add texture, as in a gratin.

    Sometimes you'll want to roast root vegetables in their skins: russet potatoes because we like to eat the skins, beets because they bleed and dry out once they're peeled, and baby vegetables because their thin skins are entirely edible. But usually we roast vegetables that have been peeled beforehand. Cut the peeled vegetables into sections or wedges, or turn them, and then lightly coat with olive oil or melted butter to prevent them from drying out in the oven.

    Vegetables can be roasted alone or in combination. Most of the time, all you need to do to roast vegetables is to slide them into the oven and turn them over from time to time so they brown evenly. A nice touch, however, is to pour a little good meat or chicken broth into the roasting pan about ten minutes before the vegetables are done. The broth quickly reduces in the heat of the oven and glazes the vegetables.

    Vegetables being roasted alone are shown here, but they can also surround roasted meats or poultry -- leg of lamb, roast beef, or roast chicken, for example. When you roast them this way, drippings from the roast mingle with and flavor the vegetables.

    To Roast Mixed Root Vegetables

    1. Same-size vegetables cook evenly: Here, carrots are peeled, sectioned, and cored (for an elegant presentation, they can even be turned). The spring onions are trimmed and left whole (or, if very large, quartered), the turnips are peeled and quartered, and the peeled parsnips are cut the same way as the carrots. Toss the vegetables in the roasting pan with a little extra virgin olive oil or melted butter.

    2. Roast the vegetables at 400°F until they start to brown on top, about 20 minutes. Gently stir so they will brown evenly, and continue roasting for about 20 minutes more, until the vegetables are evenly browned and a knife penetrates easily. If desired, add broth and continue roasting until the broth has evaporated and the vegetables are coasted with a shiny glaze.

    Determining Doneness

    Roasted Meats

  • Roasts can be tested with an instant-read thermometer, but professional chefs often just insert a skewer into the meat and then touch it to their lip to determine doneness. Train yourself to do this by first checking the temperature on an instant-read thermometer, then immediately touching the end of the thermometer to your lower lip: You'll quickly learn what 120°F, or 140°F, feels like on your lip. Tender cuts of meat that are poached, such as tenderloin for boeuf á la ficelle, can be tested in the same manner. When checking the internal temperature of a roast, remember that the temperature will rise about 5 degrees while the roast rests.


  • It's awkward to use a thermometer to check the doneness of steak. Other than cutting into the meat and judging its color, the best way to determine doneness is to press on the meat with your finger and feel its texture. (Raw and very rare meat feels fleshy and soft and releases no juices. As soon as the meat begins to spring back ever so slightly and tiny beads of red juice form on its surface, it is rare to medium-rare. Meat cooked to medium springs back completely, feels firm to the touch, and releases larger amounts of pink juices. As meat cooks beyond medium, it feels increasingly firm to the touch and starts to release large amounts of brown juice.

    Braised and Poached Meats

  • A meat thermometer is never used to determine the doneness of long-braised meats, because the temperature is irrelevant: The meat reaches maximum temperature (say, 180°F) long before it's cooked to fork-tender, which is what you want. The best way to determine when long-braised, stewed, or poached meat is done is to stick a knife or skewer into the meat. If it slides in and out easily, with no resistance, the meat is done. However, the doneness of short-braised or poached dishes, such as sweetbreads or boeuf á la ficelle, is determined by temperature or texture in the same way as for roasts and steaks.

    Poultry and Young Rabbit

  • Check doneness of cut-up poultry and tender rabbit as you would a steak, by pressing on the flesh with your finger to feel the texture. Cook chicken until the flesh springs back when you press on it, and there's no hint of a fleshy feeling. Duck breasts, however, should be cooked to between rare and medium-rare -- just to the point where there's a slight hint of firmness and a less-fleshy feeling when you press on them.


  • A general rule of thumb is to cook fish for 7 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness, but you can judge the doneness of fish steaks and fillets by texture. Press the top of the fish with your finger. During the first few minutes of cooking, the fish will feel fleshy. As soon as the fish begins to feel firm, it is usually perfectly done. (Tuna is an exception, since it is best cooked very rare and will still feel fleshy when its ready.)

  • You can also check the doneness of whole fish by sliding a knife into the back of the fish along the backbone and peeking in. If the flesh has lost its translucency and can be pulled away from the bone, the fish is done. A thermometer can also be slipped into the back of a whole fish or into a thick fish steak or fillet. Perfectly done fish has an internal temperature of 135°F (again, tuna is an exception.)

    Flans, Custards, and Soufflés

  • It's sometimes hard to tell when baked liquid or airy mixtures such as flans and soufflés are done. Professional cooks judge doneness by giving the mold or pan a gentle back-and-forth shake. If a flan mixture or custard is still runny and undercooked, it will slosh around in the mold or ripples will be visible on the surface. As the mixture cooks, the sloshing stops and any ripples restrict themselves to the center. When the mixture is done, there are no ripples. Soufflés are tricky because even the raw mixture is fairly stiff. It is possible, with practice, to see the moment when the mixture has just barely stiffened on the inside -- and the soufflé is done. If you cut into it and it's still too runny inside -- it should be somewhat runny in the center -- slide it back into the oven. Unless overcooked, soufflés are surprisingly stable.

    Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Joy of Coffee.
    More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound.

    Copyright © 2000 by Corby Kummer.
    Recipes and links from Essentials of Cooking by James Peterson. Artisan: New York, New York, 1999. Hardcover, 299 pages. ISBN: 1579651208. $TK. Copyright © by James Peterson.
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