Friday, July 20, 2012

The Mystery Chef Cooks with Gas

by Sheila Connolly

Marion Cunningham passed away this month, at the age of 90.  For those of you who don't recognize the name, she was a well-known West Coast chef who revised the classic Fannie Farmer Cookbook in the late 1970s, and was also one of Alice Waters (of the iconic Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse) early supporters.

I'm sure I've discussed this cookbook before, since I own four copies of it:  my mother's, my grandmother's, an even older one I found at a flea market, and a paperback version that was the first cookbook I ever purchased for myself.  But what amused me was the way the obituary, which appeared in the New York Times, was phrased.  The header included "Home Cooking Advocate."  In the text, a colleague was quoted as saying that Cunningham "gave legitimacy to home cooking."

And that was where my jaw dropped.  We need to legitimize home cooking?  What the heck have we been doing since some inarticulate ancestor discovered how to capture fire, and realized that cooking meat made it easier to chew?  I know—more and more busy families with kids spend more or more time and money eating out, which no longer means at a nice restaurant with tablecloths but more likely a fast-food place where you can get dinner for a family in five minutes without taking out a second mortgage.  I get it, really, I do.

But whatever happened to home cooking?  I'm not going to regale you with Ms. Cunningham's recipes—I'm sure you can find them anywhere.  Instead, I'm going to share you another one of those antique pamphlets I love.  It's called "Be an artist at the gas range; Successful Recipes by the Mystery Chef."  Yup, mystery chef—that's us.  It's dated 1935 and was distributed free by your friendly local gas company.

The Mystery Chef says in the Foreword:  Remember that in the preparation of meals in your home you are doing more than cooking and serving food—you are building memories that in years to come will make men and women talk about those wonderful meals that Mother used to cook—those wonderful biscuits and pies that Mother used to bake—they'll never talk about those buys and biscuits that Mother used to buy, nor the cans that Mother used to open. That's what we call "home cooking."

The first couple of pages sing the praises of The Modern Gas Kitchen, and then the Mystery Chef launches into recipes (including four recipes for biscuits right up front).

Actually there are quite a few decent recipes in this small booklet, interspersed with helpful household hints for both cooking and cleaning.  There's even a chapter devoted to "Famous National Dishes," one from each of a number of countries (the Famous French dish is labeled "Uncle Victor's Ragout" and includes curry powder and Canadian bacon—I think I'll pass).

Many of the recipes are practical and probably familiar—distinguished here by the enthusiasm with which the "heat regulator" was mentioned.  No more guessing at temperatures, thanks to modern gas stoves!  Here is The Mystery Chef's Own Master Fish Recipe, from an innocent, pre-cholesterol time. (Would you be more impressed if I labeled it "Saumon poché au beurre brun"?)

For any and all fish

A one-pound filet of salmon

Wash the fish by running cold water over it, making sure all scales are washed off.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Place 4 Tblsp (half a stick) of butter in a baking pan.

Put the pan in the hot oven and allow the butter to turn a rich golden brown (not just melted). [Note:  the butter I use is one of those regional brands with a smiling child on the package.  It turns out to have a lot of milk solids.  Your butter may be different.]

The browned (and foamy) butter

 Sprinkle each side of the fish with salt and pepper. When the butter is browned (not burnt!) put the fish into the sizzling hot butter (if it has a tail, hold it by the tail and drop in quickly into the butter, then quickly turn over; otherwise just use tongs or a spatula to flip the pieces).

If you like onion flavor, cut a small onion into very thin slices and place a few slices on each piece of fish.

Return the pan to the oven and bake for about 10 minutes (the original recipe said 20, but I thought that was overkill), basting once with the butter in the pan. (You don't need to turn it.)

The fish, cooked

Remove the pan from the oven, and remove the fish from the pan and place on a platter.  Baste with the hot butter–the fish will absorb it.

The result, while not exactly low-fat, yields a tender, flavorful piece of fish—it's all but impossible to overcook it.

Now you're cooking with gas!

Orchard Mystery #6, coming August 7--
with recipes!


  1. Thanks for the salmon recipe. This is easy peasy and I love it.

  2. It *is* easy peasy. I love this recipe, too. How did it taste?

    Whatever happened to browned butter? I remember my mother browning butter a lot when I was growing up.

    Great blog, Sheila. I read something similar about Marion Cunningham. Too funny.

    ~ Krista

  3. Helena GeorgetteJuly 23, 2012 at 1:44 PM

    Marion Cunningham is a favorite of mine! Her biscuit recipe is heaven as is her scone recipe. I loved watching Marion & Julia Child cooking together!

    “People are living like they are in motels. They get fast food and take it home and turn on the TV. Schools and sports groups have soccer practice or what have you during what used to be called the dinner hour. We don’t need more competitive sports. We need to sit facing people with great regularity, so we are making an exchange and we are learning to be civilized.” Marion Cunningham