The subtitle of Seattle author Kathleen Flinn's latest book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, is "How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks." Flinn spent a year with volunteers of varying ages and social and economic backgrounds who all had one thing in common: None of them could cook.
"Trish" had cupboards and a refrigerator filled with quality ingredients, but was never very pleased with the results of her cooking. "Jodi" had a picky toddler in the house, "Terri" owned her own business, and "Donna" and "Shannon" had unsupportive family members. Through interviews, home visits, and cooking lessons, Flinn investigated the lives of these individuals (coincidentally all women; the one male volunteer dropped out of the project) to learn why they wouldn't cook so she could teach them how.
Flinn is as guilty as many of us are of snooping in other people's shopping carts at the supermarket. As a French-trained chef, however, she one day took it upon herself to give a wayward shopper advice, guidance, and cooking tips. Buoyed by this early success at introducing a stranger to fresher, cheaper, and healthier ingredients, Flinn was hooked. After watching an episode of What Not to Wear, she had an outline of the project she wanted to undertake. She wanted to introduce fearful, apprehensive, novice cooks to something akin to the 360-degree mirror and a credit card with $5,000 in credit. She would teach them how to cook.
Flinn visited each volunteer's kitchen and surveyed their cabinets and refrigerators, then asked them to cook a meal they routinely ate. Meals ranged from miniature frozen pizzas to "white trash garlic bread" made with hamburger buns, Gold-n-Soft margarine, and granulated garlic to reheated canned soup. In many refrigerators and freezers she found expired food and wilted vegetables. And in cabinets lurked bulk quantities of packaged food purchased from warehouse stores.
In chapters throughout the book, Flinn recounts the various cooking classes she led with the volunteers, and shares valuable tips, tricks, and recipes. There was a class on basic knife skills and how to shop for a knife, so the volunteers had confidence with chopping and could confidently chop vegetables in all the subsequent classes. There were tasting lessons, because many of the participants lamented that they didn't "know how it should taste." Flinn had them tasting canned tomatoes, nine kinds of salt, various Dijon mustards, chicken stocks, and many other ingredients.There were classes on how to break down a chicken, how to identify and cook various cuts of beef, how to make bread, cook eggs, vinaigrette, and more.
While this isn't exactly a cookbook, each chapter includes "recipes" at the end. Some are detailed ingredient lists and instructions, while others are general techniques. For vegetables, Flinn gives instructions for five different ways to cook vegetables--sauté, stir-fry, roast, steam, and grill--and lists which vegetables work best for each technique. She then has suggested "flavor splashes," or ways to mix a little fat, acid, herbs, and spices to any vegetable to make them a tasty meal.
Throughout the book is detailed information about nutrition--like how to read labels--and facts about food additives, food waste, and health problems that will make most readers want to break out the vegetable peeler and stockpot before they've even reached the last page. Cringe-worthy retellings and insights of how food marketers have given us a false sense of value while feeding us fattening, artery-clogging, processed food, will open reader's eyes forever to make us view the grocery store and packaged food in a whole new light.
Flinn's approach to teaching is simple and humble. She acknowledges the "foodie bubble" she usually inhabits, yet approaches each volunteer with compassion and understanding as she tries to nudge them towards healthier, tastier, and more affordable eating. It's less about guilt and more about living well. She makes you want to enjoy life and cook and eat well. And with this book, I am confident you will.
Kathleen Flinn kicks off her book tour in Seattle next week. Meet her at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Thursday October 6 at 7 p.m., for a reading, prize, and surprises, or at University Bookstore on Thursday, October 20 at 7 p.m., where she'll share bonus recipes great for college students on tight budgets.