Picks and Pans Main: Video
Back when she had her PBS series, Julia Child was a lot chattier. (Remember her telling how she once beaded headdresses in Girl Scouts?) In Child's six-tape videotape series The Way to Cook (Knopf, $29.95 each), there is plenty to learn about cooking but not much of the banter that made her such fun to watch. She zips through each 60-minute tape with a no-nonsense briskness, covering the basics of cooking these food groups: Poultry; Soups, Salads and Bread; Meat; Fish and Eggs; Vegetables; First Courses and Desserts.
Pricey as it is, this encyclopedic set is not as expensive (in per-minute viewing cost) as some other titles in a market already puffing up like a soufflé. Videotakes, a Red Bank, N.J. software distributor, notes that during the past year the number of food titles has soared from fewer than a dozen to more than 75. Even with that many tapes now available, Child's is a hard-to-beat choice for the home cook concerned with fundamentals. She spends for example nearly eight minutes—an eternity in video time—on how to cook a turkey, from roasting to assembling pan gravy (the segment took a day to tape) and in 20 snappy seconds demonstrates how to cut an onion.
Child's tapes are thoughtfully organized. At the beginning of each one she presents a table of contents. A number appears on the screen for every dish, corresponding to a numbered recipe in the excellent accompanying booklet, so you can follow along easily in print. Precise measurements—Child is casual about doling out pinches of salt or spoonfuls of parsley—are listed on the screen. Child's culinary philosophy is still refreshingly practical. A duck pâté is "a kind of a meat loaf," she explains, "only a very fancy one." All cooking she has said is related: "Cauliflower and broccoli are mostly done the same way. You learn the techniques, and then you can use them anywhere."
Child and her crew of 15 converted an abandoned Santa Barbara, Calif. restaurant into a demo kitchen, and so the video scenes are indoors. By contrast, Craig Claiborne's admirable New York Times Video Cookbook (Warner, $29.98) was shot at Claiborne's country home in East Hampton, Long Island, and there are frequent glimpses of trees and distant waters. A New York Times critic for 28 years, Claiborne selected 20 of his favorite recipes, starting with a fancy-sounding but simply done chiffonade of lobster Chez Denis. Among the more difficult techniques he demonstrates is that of boning a chicken leg for a wild rice and mushroom stuffing, a dish he learned from French chef Michel Rostang. (Claiborne usually gives culinary credits.) Many of his offerings have an international cachet, such as a Scandinavian-inspired appetizer of gravlax (salmon with dill), a Polish cold beet soup called chlodnik or Mexican guacamole. Claiborne does come home with such dishes as Buffalo chicken wings and his own recipe for pecan pie, inspired by a Southern childhood. Best of all he scatters helpful hints throughout the 106-minute tape: "Canned tomatoes taste better than fresh in a dish like this," he says of Indian keema with peas.
Claiborne has cut, sliced and measured the ingredients before the camera rolls and thus focuses on uninterrupted sequences of actual cooking, a pleasing change from the cut-presto-it's-done style of kitchen demos. He's not as polished a guide as Child, however; he ad-libbed his script and shows little flair for it.
Off-the-cuff and off-the-wall best describes Joe Cahn, the exuberant Louisiana chef and food-store proprietor who presides over the New Orleans School of Cooking Workout Program (New Orleans School of Cooking, $39.95). Wild and crazy—by cooking teachers' standards anyway—this 75-minute video starts with a breakfast of beignets (what you get in New Orleans instead of a croissant) and proceeds through lunch and dinner with such Creole and Cajun dishes as jambalaya, gumbo and the popular blackened redfish. He ends with desserts, including a spectacular flaming bananas Foster. Along the way Cahn defines and describes such local ingredients as filé (dried sassafras leaves), demonstrates how to season cast iron pots and tosses in sights of New Orleans: a riverboat, the French Quarter, a fish wholesaler. The workout program is a gimmick. Cahn does only cutesy exercises—try a little aerobic stirring. But if his delivery leans toward frenzy, Cahn's instructions are wonderfully concise. Seeing a roux turn a chestnut brown is worth a shelf of cookbooks.
All three of these videos include a lot of helpful overheads and close-ups; Julia Child's fluffy whipped cream is a joy to behold. Still there's the occasional missing step. Cahn doesn't pan to the finished, and presumably frothy, café au lait, and Claiborne sometimes takes things for granted. He doesn't specify what type of flour to use in a pie crust, nor does he explain why he pricks the bottom of the crust before baking it, a procedure that Child is most explicit about. (It helps to keep the dough flat.) But Child herself neglects to show how to concoct a beurre manié that she uses to thicken sauce, which Claiborne demonstrates. While the method is printed on the bottom of the screen and in the recipe booklet, that's hardly the same. (The other videos also have printed recipes.)
All the videos are informative, entertaining and mouth-watering. What with retaping and voice-overs, there are no cataclysmic goofs. Complicated instructions are clearly illustrated, taking the mystery out of, say, how to carve a tomato rose. Says Claiborne: "It's easy on camera, it's tricky in print." And you can watch these lessons over and over. As Child says, during a delicate turning of hash: "Luckily you are looking at this on a video cassette. You can turn back and see the flipping motions, the hand and the body English." For video-era cooks, rewind is the way to go.