"The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" (Viking), by Kathleen Flinn: If you are going to read one book to change your diet and your life, "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" is it.
The second book by Le Cordon Bleu graduate Kathleen Flinn starts with her stalking a woman in the grocery store, but it ends better than you'd expect. Flinn is struck by the number of boxes and cans the woman is buying — and the grocery bill she's racking up — and spends the afternoon leading her through the store, explaining how she can save cash by buying a whole chicken, a pot roast and vegetables instead of ready-to-eat items.
The chance encounter leads to Flinn's offer on a local radio show to teach cooking to nine volunteers who are willing to open their kitchens and psyches to her inspection. The women range in age from their 20s to early 60s. Some are well-off financially, others are not. One woman who had a good job lost it to the recession and is on food stamps. One needs to watch her sodium. Others are watching their weight. None of them can cook a lick.
Flinn starts with basic knife skills and soon the women are chopping up vegetables like line cooks. They eventually learn to break down chickens, bake bread and butcher meat. Flinn teaches them how to liven up vegetables, make quick homemade pasta sauces and "salt to taste" — always a tricky order in a recipe.
They also learn how to make use of leftovers to reduce food waste and cut their grocery bills.
The nice thing about Flinn's book is that the reader can follow along. Her descriptions of technique are detailed enough to allow someone to saute, braise and grill along with the class. Each chapter ends with a short summary, quick tips and at least one recipe.
After the classes end, Flinn revisits her volunteers' homes to see how their kitchens and eating habits have changed. Some have made drastic changes. For others, it's smaller — substituting sandwiches for fast food, for example. Most roast chicken and make soup regularly. One eventually goes on to become a master canner and teaches others how to preserve food.
All say they are more confident, have cut waste, saved money and feel like they are eating higher quality food.
"The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" is a great book for people who want to learn to cook or break out of their box, close their cookbooks and make dinner without a recipe. It cannot replace a Cordon Bleu education, but for someone who wants to be a good home cook, not a chef, it's affordable and fun — and as Flinn notes repeatedly, there's nothing wrong with simply wanting to make a healthy dinner for yourself and your family.