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Learn To Cook on the Net
by Elliot Essman
I've always had a soft spot for concepts, slogans, methods, and even people associated with the letter "E." Though cooking to me is hands-on first, I was delighted to discover recently that the venerable Corning Consumer Products Company has teamed with the college of Culinary Arts of Johnson & Wales University to launch their new Find Your Inner Chef(tm) E-School (www.corningware-eschool.com). Dedicated to alleviating the nation's widespread "cooking illiteracy," the E-School, which anyone can access at no cost, is being set up to cover basic home cooking subjects-baking, grilling, braising, and the like-on a "from the ground-up," step-by-step basis.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that people are cooking less and less at home because of busy careers, lack of time, and poor coordination of family schedules. "Surprisingly," states Lynne Recktenwald, vice president of marketing at Corning Consumer Products Co, "it's actually a lack of knowledge of basic cooking techniques that prevents more people from cooking family meals from scratch." Most people assume the average homemaker knows how to cook, but Corning's researchers found, according to Recktenwald, that "many of them are not confident in their cooking skills and subsequently are not enjoying their time in the kitchen."

Food trend watchers are generally in agreement that home cooking is on a steady downward pitch. Dining out may be on the rise, but "buying out" food to later eat at home is an even stronger trend. Walk into any supermarket and you are bombarded by an array of foods that have already been prepared: frozen entrees, microwave dinners, salad and hot food bars, even deli departments that have been expanded to offer mix-and-match dinner courses to suit every taste and need. Ironically, never before have home chefs had access to such a wide range of quality cooking ingredients. Even regular supermarkets are offering organic foods, ethnic specialties, and gourmet products. I watch the Television Food Network several hours a day. Despite "Food TV's" excellent array of how-to programs, I've noticed that most of the network's advertisers sell, not cookware or appliances as you'd imagine, but processed food products: pre-cooked meats, bottled salad dressings, prepared sauces, juice mixes, snack foods. We seem to be heading for an era of food stratification in which we will see the informed minority, who adore cooking, eat better than the majority, who eat to fill themselves. The home cooks will eat better (and probably be healthier), because they know how to shop better and cook better.

Health, taste, and home economics are not the whole story, however. Corning's proprietary research found a strong link between acquisition of cooking skills and "a sense of fulfillment in the kitchen." Only thirteen percent of the people Corning polled gave themselves high marks for cooking skills. Not surprisingly, these were the same people who admitted having "fun" in the kitchen. Corning found a significant interest among consumers in learning how to do something more than simply defrost and reheat. It found that a majority of home cooks truly believed they could learn cooking techniques if someone showed them a way that fit into their busy lives. Nearly all agreed that home cooking "from scratch" was healthier than store-bought food. Most looked forward to a day when cooking would be a truly satisfying activity.

Obviously, Corning wants to sell an oven-safe dish or two, but the company seems sincere, even committed, in dedicating its resources to improving culinary literacy. If they wanted credibility, they couldn't have picked a better partner than Johnson & Wales. J&W is the world's largest culinary school, with campuses and specialty training centers in Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado. The school is known particularly for it relationship with the food industry, and for stressing hands-on training for its students. Its most popular graduate is television super-chef Emeril Lagasse. J&W has developed a curriculum for Corning that is easy to use and didactically sound. Photos illustrate every step. The first comprehensive course to be introduced was "Roasting," followed by "Baking and "Grilling/Broiling." Courses to be introduced in the future will include "Braising," "Microwaving," "Steaming," "Poaching," "Sautéing," "Frying," and "Stewing." Higher level technique courses may be added, giving guidance in pastry making, knife skills, and other specialty areas.

I took a look through the "Roasting" curriculum, since I consider myself weak in that area. The first screen is designed to motivate you. It clearly explains that roasting is versatile, fairly simple, reliable (through the use of a roasting thermometer), practical (in that a roast can provide several days worth of meat), and "impressive; a roast turkey, butterflied leg of lamb or crown roast, or a beef filet will seriously impress dinner guests without taxing your cooking skills." Once motivated, I went through a step-by-step guide, each step nicely illustrated, from initial ingredient preparation, through pan positioning, searing, checking doneness, resting the result, making gravy, the finally to carving. Each lesson includes recipes developed and tested by Johnson & Wales faculty which demonstrate how the individual techniques can be used with a variety of foods. Being thorough, and timely, many of the recipes also include per-portion nutritional analyses and meal planning guidance. At numerous points in the curriculum, you can click links for tips, a glossary, and even food safety information.

E-learning has pluses and minuses. The major plus is that you can go through the course at your own pace. That's also one of the major minuses. When I was at cooking school, I had daily assignments, and I knew whatever I prepared would be cut up, tasted, and examined at the end of the day by someone temperamentally incapable of overlooking my faults. (I'm not complaining about that; it's how you learn). On the other hand, I'm ready to make the assumption that E-learning tends to attract those people who are already motivated. I also reckon that if a motivated home cook buys an expensive roast or a turkey, that cook will mostly likely follow the learning process through to what I hope will be a memorable meal for all concerned. The learning environment may be virtual, but the final result ought to go down smoothly-provided you first do a web search for an appropriate wine to complement your dish. Top -- Food Articles Home

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