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Beginner's Questions

by Elaine Corn

On a recent "gig" as the, um, entertainment at a co-ed bridal shower, I got to hear what 30 beginner cooks wanted to learn. We chopped onions, minced garlic, seeded and chopped tomatoes, and learned how to mince a green herb, such as parsley. For this day, the green herb was cilantro, because all the food we had chopped together was fast becoming a fresh salsa.

Among the little details they inquired about:
1. How to get an avocado out of its shell/skin.
2. How to saute sugared nuts.
3. What salt does.

The all-knowing cook might be insulted. But when told it's OK to ask, beginners come up with great questions.

As you might guess, the bridal shower's class menu was Mexican munchies. As we got to the avocados, which we were using to make guacamole, two young women stared at what looked like, to them, to be a dark, nubby, oval barricade. Neither had ever taken avocado out of its skin.

All right, knife in hand, one of them stepped forward. Taking verbal cues but doing all the work herself, she cut a circular incision lengthwise into the fruit. She realized her knife was blocked from going all the way through by an enormous pit. When she was able to open the avocado, the pit stayed in one side. She looked at me. "Now what?" I told her she'd done it correctly, and that now she was to whack the blade of her knife into the pit, and to use a modicum of force. This she did, and withdrew the pit, which stuck to the knife. She was smiling by now, and freely confessed she didn't know what to do next. I told her this:

Use a paring knife to cut slices into the avocado pulp -- going to, but not through, the skin. It's a sort of scoring technique. I did this by holding the avocado in one hand and carved the flesh with a knife in the other hand. She thought I would slash wounds into the palm of my left hand, but the avocado's shell, she learned, is way too thick for that. Now taking a soup spoon, I scooped the slices out of the shell and dropped them into her mixing bowl. Wow. You should have seen how pleased she was when she hand-mashed the guacamole into a beautiful dip.

Sugared nuts confounded another woman. She loves them as a nibble but also likes them in salad. Easy enough, you might say. But not for her. She did this entire process on her own:

Sugared nuts

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup pecan or walnut halves
1/2 teaspoon salt MIXED WITH 3 tablespoons sugar

1. Line a cookie sheet with wax paper.
2. Put the oil in a medium skillet set on highest heat and keep the heat high for the entire process.
3. When the oil is extremely hot, add the nuts. Stir fast until you smell a nut aroma. This will take a matter of minutes.
4. Sprinkle in the salt-sugar mixture. Keep stirring until the sugar dissolves and the nuts shine.
5. Quickly pour the nuts from the skillet onto the cookie sheet. Watch out, they're hot! When they cool down, break them apart with your hands and store them in a cookie tin.

As we nibbled on the nuts, another young woman told me she never salts the food she cooks at home. Is this wrong? I wondered what the problem was when less than 8 percent of the American population is at all sensitive to salt. She had the idea that avoiding salt somehow improved her health. I believe that omitting salt isn't wrong. It's a missed opportunity.

A salt-tasting experiment was quickly staged.

When the salsa was being mixed, it contained chopped onions, garlic, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice, and tomatoes. Have you ever tasted tomatoes without salt? We did. The salsa was OK, but it didn't shine. The flavors were there, but flat and unmarried. We incrementally added salt. After adding 1 teaspoon salt and giving a few quick stirs, the salsa instantaneously began to sparkle.

Was it enough? Could we take the flavors higher?

The crowd gasped as I added another full teaspoon. A few more turns of the mixture, and a taste. The flavors were positively vibrant. And not only that, they were specific to tomato, to garlic, to lime, and so forth, yet nicely blended.

Yet the mixture was in no way "salty."

The benefits of salt outweigh hypothesized health hazards. If your life is flat, maybe it's because your food has been tasting that way.

It was a great way to conclude a bridal shower.

Elaine Corn is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and cooking teacher as well as the author of two books, Now You're Cooking for Company and Now You're Cooking

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