Previously in Corby's Table:

No Taste Like Home (June 13, 2001)
Corby Kummer extols the simple pleasures of David Page and Barbara Shinn's Recipes From Home, an all-American cookbook.

A Fortunate Crossroads (May 9, 2001)
Corby Kummer on Fred Plotkin's La Terra Fortunata, a portrait of a region with "one of the worthiest and most complex cuisines in Italy."

Pasta With a Passion (April 4, 2001)
Corby Kummer offers selections from Piero Selvaggio's The Valentino Cookbook—"one of the few Italian cookbooks I plan to keep on my shelf."

Israel on a Bun (February 28, 2001)
Corby Kummer looks at Joan Nathan's new book on the food of Israel, a country not exactly known for its cuisine.

Napa Valley Blend (January 31, 2001)
Corby Kummer on Terra: Cooking From the Heart of Napa Valley, and its authors' unique mix of Mediterranean style with a Japanese sensibility.

Revelations of Greece (December 20, 2000)
Corby Kummer on Aglaia Kremezi's revelatory new Foods of the Greek Islands, a book that offers "a short course in how Greeks cook for themselves."

Confessions of a Cookie Eater (October 4, 2000)
Corby Kummer makes a shameless plea to readers of Nick Malgieri's new Cookies Unlimited.

The Bygone World of the Bialy (August 31, 2000)
Corby Kummer on Mimi Sheraton's The Bialy Eaters, a food critic's account of her seven-year, still-incomplete search for the origin of the distinctive little onion roll that is often mistaken for a bagel.

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

Atlantic Unbound | July 18, 2001
Corby's Table
The Curious Cook


Glazed Zucchini
Stew of Charred Tomatoes, Pasta, and Cranberry Beans
Sliced Melons in Lime-Mint Syrup

How to Read a French Fry

How to Read a French Fry and Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science
by Russ Parsons
Houghton Mifflin
334 pages, $25.00

uss Parsons edits the newspaper food section I read most closely, in the Los Angeles Times. He's also a wonderfully enthusiastic cook and writer, sending dispatches to the newspaper every week from his kitchen.

His new book, How to Read a French Fry, is not a collection of columns, however. It's a carrying forward of his natural and great curiosity about why ingredients behave the way they do under pressure and over heat. Parsons wants to know the reasons behind cooking dicta: why flour and cornstarch must first be mixed with butter or water before being added to a sauce (otherwise the starch granules will clump together and become impermeable to water); why pie crust is so hard to master (in order to achieve a flaky texture, the cook has to do two contradictory things with the fat; shells for fancy fruit tarts are actually much easier). And he challenges some culinary conventional wisdom—he details why it's okay to salt the cooking water for beans, and he explains why soaking beans before cooking or adding special herbs to the water does nothing to decrease their digestive troublemaking. Parsons aims to understand the science underlying common cooking techniques, that is, and he's willing to do a good deal of research to distill only the principles that a mildly investigative cook needs to know or has the patience to follow and remember.

This sort of writing has a distinguished and long lineage. Julia Child was its pioneering exponent in postwar America, and she had been much influenced by Mme. Saint Ange, who in the 1920s wrote step-by-step instructions that guided French women through the intricacies, and also the simplicities, of cuisine bourgeoisie. Madeleine Kamman, Child's would-be rival as American doyenne of French food, took a more rigorously scientific approach in her many books on cooking techniques, which culminated in the encyclopedic Making of a Cook. In 1984 Harold McGee, trained in science and literature, published On Food and Cooking, raising the standard for all writers interested in the mechanics and science of cooking—and in his next book he laid claim to a title Parsons might well have taken, The Curious Cook. Only Shirley Corriher has dared follow in McGee's very large footsteps, with her explanatory, personal, reassuring CookWise.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Corby's Table: "Culinary Arts and Sciences" (November 26, 1997)
In CookWise, Shirley Corriher helps readers get wise to the whys of cooking.
Parsons writes in shorter bites, and with his clear news training knows how to extract tips that even the hurried reader and cook will appreciate knowing before going to the grocery store or starting a meal (I sense here the relentless lucidity of our mutual book editor, Rux Martin)—for example, "Even fried eggs should be cooked gently. Use medium heat rather than high to keep them from forming that tough, brown, frizzled bottom." He fills his essays, which are divided broadly by category (fruits and vegetables, meats, starches) with always-wanted-to-know asides such as "Adding salt to eggplant that is going to be fried results in a softer, plusher texture, but it has little or no effect on eggplant that will be grilled." Or, "To get really bright colors, cooks frequently blanch vegetables in boiling water. Usually a cold plunge in an ice-water bath follows. Chefs say this 'sets' the color; what it really does is stop the cooking before the colors can fade." The author's friendly voice sometimes takes on a teacherly tinge of "It's very simple, really," but it is always engaging and to the point.

What sets this book most clearly apart from others of its kind is the quality of its recipes, which show Parsons's own taste for a very of-the-moment style of cooking, one emphasizing freshness and the strong flavors of Italian and Mexican food especially. I'm particularly drawn to dishes that take advantage of the farm-stand abundance happily hitting most parts of the country just now: zucchini glazed with a bit of olive oil and water, which forms a small amount of intensely flavored sauce and can be adapted for many other vegetables; a stew of charred tomatoes, pasta, and cranberry beans that combines several techniques to make a full-flavored and also very adaptable summer supper; and sliced melons in lime-mint syrup, which takes one of my favorite fruit-citrus combinations and turns it into a perfectly elegant dessert. It's even better served with simple, cinnamon-scented snickerdoodles. These cookies, unlike most of the recipes, are not utterly illustrative of any of the principles Parsons works so hard and well to make us understand. "This is one of my mom's recipes," Parsons writes—and obviously one of the best he knows.

Corby Kummer

Excerpts from How to Read a French Fry, by Russ Parsons

Glazed Zucchini

Glazing is a technique that can be used for many different vegetables. First a bit of water is added to the oil in the pan, which helps to break down the cellulose, softening the vegetable and cooking it through. Then the water evaporates, leaving behind the vegetable's flavors mingled with the oil in a light, tasty glaze. Beware of undercooking: it's important that the vegetable cooks completely to develop the full flavor. Soaking zucchini in water before cooking firms it, because it absorbs some of the water.

4 servings

2 pounds medium zucchini (1/2 -3/4 inch thick and 5-6 inches long)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves


About 1/4 cup water

1 tablespoons thin sliced fresh basil

Trim the ends of the zucchini. Soak it in a large bowl of cold water for 30 minutes to freshen.

Drain the zucchini and pat dry. Cut it lengthwise in half, then crosswise into quarters.

In a large skillet, combine the zucchini, oil, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt and just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and cook over medium heat until the zucchini begins to soften, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the lid, raise the heat to high and cook, stirring, until the liquid evaporates and the zucchini is glazed with the oil and beginning to brown lightly.

Remove the garlic cloves. Carefully stir in the basil and more salt to taste (the zucchini will be somewhat fragile), and serve.

Stew of Charred Tomatoes, Pasta, and Cranberry Beans

Charring the tomatoes in a dry skillet is a technique borrowed from Mexican cooking that concentrates the tomato flavor and adds a subtle smokiness. Don't overdo the roasting: you want the tomatoes to be just slightly blackened. Fresh cranberry beans are not as plentiful as fresh favas, but you can often find them at farmers' markets in the late summer and early fall. If you can't get them, use another fresh bean, such as favas or limas.

4 servings

3 plum tomatoes

2 ounces prosciutto, minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 carrot, diced

1/2 yellow onion, diced

1 garlic clove, minced

1 small sprig fresh sage

1 pound fresh cranberry beans, shelled, or 1 1/2 cups dried

1 1/2 cups water


1/2 pound dried pasta shapes, such as orecchiette or medium shells

2 tablespoons torn fresh basil leaves

Slice the tomatoes lengthwise in half. Heat a stovetop griddle until hot. Place the tomatoes cut side down on the griddle and cook until they begin to blacken and char, about 5 minutes. Turn the tomatoes over and char the opposite side, about 3 minutes. Cool, then gently squeeze out the seeds and chop. Set aside.

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, cook the prosciutto in the oil until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the carrot, onion and garlic, reduce the heat and cook, covered, until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.

Add the sage, cranberry beans, tomatoes, water and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until the beans are soft, about 30 minutes if fresh, 1 hour and 15 minutes if dried.

Shortly before the beans are done, cook the pasta in plenty of rapidly boiling salted water until just al dente. Drain well. Add the pasta to the beans, raise the heat to high and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes to meld the flavors. Divide among 4 pasta bowls, garnish with the basil and serve.

Sliced Melons in Lime-Mint Syrup

By adding lime and mint, you can heighten the flavor of melons that might be less than perfect. But these complementary flavors will improve even great melons. This recipe is adapted from a dish served at Echo, a small treasure of a restaurant in Fresno, California. Partners Tim Woods and Adams Holland treat local produce simply and with respect. Their version of this dessert uses only mint in the syrup, but I've found that grated lime zest adds another dimension. Mix two or three melon varieties for an assortment of colors, flavors and textures.

The peeling method detailed here works well for firm melons. With riper, softer melons, it's better to cut them into slices with the rinds attached, then stack several slices and remove the rinds. If your melons are very sweet, decrease the sugar to 1/2 cup; if they're on the bland side, increase the sugar to 3/4 cup.

8 to 10 servings

2 cups water

2/3 cup sugar

2 1/2 pounds assorted melons

2-3 sprigs fresh mint

Grated zest of 1 lime

Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, whisking until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from the heat. Add the mint and the lime zest and let stand until cool.

Strain the syrup into a lidded jar, cover and chill.

Cut the melons in half and remove the seeds. Place each half cut side down on a cutting board and slice off the top 1/2 inch. Cut away the peel with a sharp knife, working down the melon in 2-to-3 inch strips. Cut each half lengthwise into quarters, then into 1/4-inch slices. (The melons can be tightly covered and refrigerated for about 2 hours.)

Arrange the melon slices on a large, deep platter, pour the syrup over and serve.


This is one of my mom's recipes, and it is the bane of my existence. No matter what I serve of my own for dinner, these always get the most praise.

About 4 dozen cookies

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup shortening

1 3/4 cups sugar

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Sift together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt into a bowl; set aside.

Cream the shortening and 1 1/2 cups of the sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Reduce the mixer speed and gradually add the flour mixture, beating well. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and the cinnamon.

Tear off pieces of dough about the size of a walnut, roll them into balls, roll them in the cinnamon sugar and place them about 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets.

Bake until the cookies are light brown and firm on top, 10 to 15 minutes. The tops will be deeply cracked and the centers somewhat soft.

Cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough. Store in an airtight container.

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More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

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

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
Recipes from How to Read a French Fry and Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science by Russ Parsons. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston. Hardcover, 334 pages. ISBN: 039596783X. $25.00. Copyright © 2001 by Russ Parsons.