A Conversation with Cookbook Author Barry Bluestein

  • Leave a Comment
  • Max 5 stars
    My Rating
    (1 Rating)
A Conversation with Cookbook Author Barry Bluestein. Editor Cheri Sicard talks with Barry about fat-free cooking, the best cookies, where to eat in Chicago, essential cookbooks and more.

I recently had the good fortune to be able to "pick the brain" of Barry Bluestein, one of the country's more creative cooking talents -- especially in the low-fat arena. Barry and partner Kevin Morrissey are familiar to svelte cooks everywhere for their fabulous 99% Fat-Free series of books. But these authors don't limit themselves and they're nothing if not diverse. On the heels of Fat-Free cooking came The Complete Cookie, a comprehensive encyclopedia of everyone's favorite treats and The Bountiful Kitchen, which was nominated for a 1998 Julia Child Cookbook Award.

Barry comes from a long line of bakers, so his love of food and cooking is in the genes. Before beginning his prolific career as an author, he and Kevin were the owners of Seasoned To Taste, a Chicago store specializing in cookbooks.

On the phone from his Chicago home, Barry was animated and enthusiastic, displaying a natural good humor. Not only was he fun to talk to, he generously gave a lot of practical information that our readers will immediately be able to put to use in their own kitchens. So, enough of my rambling and on to the conversation with Barry Bluestein.

BookCheri Sicard: I see that your recipes are really diverse. You went from The Complete Cookie to 99% Fat-Free Cooking. Was that born out of a need?
Barry Bluestein: It was born out of a need, but it was in reverse. The fat-free cooking and the healthy cooking came about because of health needs and concerns of customers. Back in the dark ages of the early 1990s and late 1980s, Kevin and I owned a cook book store here in Chicago called Seasoned to Taste, which is now defunct. We noticed that what people were coming into the store for at the time, and no one was truly addressing, was really upscale good food. Real food, healthy cooking. That's where the Fat-Free healthy series came out of.

The cookie book came out of my lifelong love with baking. I am a trained baker by family. My grandfather was an old world baker. He actually was a bread baker for the Waldorf Astoria for 40 years from the turn of the century until he retired in the early 1940s. My grandmother also was a baker and had her own bakery and restaurant in New York City. So I was taught by them. The cookie book came out of that love for baking, especially baking cookies. At the time, there hadn't been a really big comprehensive cookie book for at least 10 years.

Cheri Sicard: Back to the Fat-Free books for a moment -- they really deliver on the promise of a lot of flavor without the fat, which so many fat-free books don't.
Barry Bluestein: The only time we use phony food is for what I think they were truly invented for. In other words, as far as I'm concerned, fat-free cream cheese is only good to be used as a gum. It's something to hold something together. Our whole intent is to use real food and real taste. The problem you come up with when you do low fat cooking is, it's the fat and the oil that carries flavor. So you have to be very heavy handed on the flavor to really taste and to have the flavor carry through.

BookCheri Sicard: Would you share your favorite fat-saving tip with our readers?
Barry Bluestein: It's actually not a new tip. It is a product that I fall in love with every time for low-fat cooking and that is buttermilk. Buttermilk, which is just a cultured skimmed milk, is very low in fat. It has properties that in some baking can replace butter. In our new book, Guilt Free Frying, it does something absolutely fabulous. If you go the old southern, black route of marinating chicken in buttermilk you are always told to do it for about two hours with a little salt. I learned if you do it for 36 hours with mustard, and you put skinless chicken on the bone into it with mashed garlic, and let it sit for 36 hours, the buttermilk actually creates a new skin. It creates a coating on the chicken! Then when you coat it in breadcrumbs and flour to create the crumb and then bake it at a high temperature in the oven, and you bite into it, you get that...you know when you bite into that "just-fried" fried chicken, there is that burst of liquid in your mouth, which is really the fat underneath the skin that gushes. In this case, what gushes in your mouth is the buttermilk. Because it has the garlic and the mustard, it does not have that tangy-ness of the buttermilk. It truly tricks you into thinking it's real fried chicken. Buttermilk, I have also learned, can be used in sauces to give a little buttery consistency on the tongue. It truly is one of my favorite all-time products.

Cheri Sicard: How about a favorite tool that you use in the kitchen to cut fat?
Barry Bluestein: For low fat/fat-free cooking, I have two favorite tools. One is the new pump bottle for olive oil. Quick Mister ? they have thousands of names. Some genius has made it in plastic and it is now less than $5, as opposed to the metal ones that were close to $20. By using those pumps and the vacuum, you control the quality of the oil. For a change, you could use really good olive oils. Most of the oils in the cans, the pre-made stuff, is not the highest of quality, let's say. The second problem is those cans have propellants and preservatives and all sorts of other stuff in them. When you use the vacuum misters, you are getting pure oil and you are controlling the quality of that oil.

Cheri Sicard: And the quantity.
Barry Bluestein: The other wonderful thing about it is that sprays equal about one teaspoon, depending on which kind of mister you are using. You are getting a fraction of a gram of fat. If you use high-quality olive oil, you can get a lot of flavor with very little fat.

Cheri Sicard: And your other favorite tool?
Barry Bluestein: There is a brand new set of inexpensive fry pans that are now produced with something from Dupont called "Scratch Guard." They are impossible to scratch. I have succeeded in cutting one, but I had to work real hard. Most pans are aluminum and are gauged by number, the lower the number the better the pan - 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 gauge. Calphalon is like an 8 or a 10 gauge. The weight is in the handle not in the pan. There are two brands that are 6 gauge, so they are very heavy pans. With the Scratch Guard on it, it really reduces the amount of the fat you have to use. You can use just a little butter and it will go a long way.

{pagebreak} Back to the Guilt-Free Frying where half the book is done in the oven, I have learned those half-sheet pans, from the restaurant supply, are the best baking sheets because they don't warp. When you do high-oven baking, the other bakeware that comes out of the grocery store, will warp, and your food will fly all over the oven.

Cheri Sicard: How about a favorite unnecessary gadget that you like? You know, like you could get by without it, but you really like it anyway.
Barry Bluestein: There are a couple. One is not a fat-free item at all. My newest is the immersible blender on the stick. You put it into a pot of soup and it will blend the pot of soup. A smart man, I'm not sure who it is, has invented a little thing that attaches to the bottom of the immersion blender to create a simple food processor. It is about a cup. It is the perfect thing to make salad dressings. Last night I made a ginger vinaigrette with fresh and pickled ginger. I didn't even grate the ginger. I used cloves of garlic and some cilantro and we had a salad dressing in no time.

The other one. that we will get to in my "Express Cooking" book, is the new electric pressure cooker. There are two companies now making them. One is very large, it comes from Korea and it almost looks like an incubator for a baby or for some chickens. It is so big. I think it originally spent its life as a rice cooker. That one is made by Salton. The other one is made by Revere Electronics. It is much smaller and very pretty with stainless steel. You don't have any of the worries about pressure cookers because these appliances are electric. They are totally programmable. You can set it to start cooking two hours in advance, leave the house and it starts cooking in two hours.

Cheri Sicard: Sounds like the timer on my bread machine.
Barry Bluestein: Just like a bread machine. I call it a slow cooker on speed. It does totally the opposite. It's like a robo cooker. You can set it for two hours in advance to start. It will cook for up to two hours, but nothing needs to cook that long in a pressure cooker. It will hold the food at warm for two hours. So you have a six hour window. It will cook at high or low speed and has all the advantages of a pressure cooker.

Until you've used one, you don't know how fabulous a pressure cooker really is. You don't have to worry about it exploding. You don't even have to worry about adjusting the heat. With the stovetop models you constantly had to watch over them and make sure that it maintained pressure. This you don't have to watch, you don't have to do anything. The funny thing is the Revere Electronics model, which I think also has the name of "Meals in Minutes", is less expensive than a lot of the top-of-the-line stovetop models. I think they retail for about $100 which is, for a pressure cooker, fairly reasonable these days. I think, maybe not this Christmas, but definitely next Christmas, it will be a big item.

Cheri Sicard: We will be looking for that and the new book is recipes specifically for electric pressure cookers?
Barry Bluestein: It's for pressure cookers of all types, but we do zoom in on this because we think that this is just such a nifty item. To be able to make risotto in six to seven minutes -- there is a recipe in the book for butternut squash risotto. Normally that would take three pots ? one pot for cooking the squash, one pot for the risotto and one pot for the stock. Then you have to do your slow little adding and it would take thirty minutes. This is all one pot, all at once, in seven minutes.

I was always afraid of using a pressure cooker. But a writer friend, who writes pressure cooker books, Lorna (?), basically did the tarantella on my head ? 'you've got to try it. Just try it once. Just make one chicken stock using one of the European models, the heavier duty ones, and you'll never do stock in anything else.'

She was absolutely correct. You can make chicken stock in less than forty minutes.

Barry BluesteinCheri Sicard: Changing subjects, how much does Chicago's regional cuisine influence your cooking?
Barry Bluestein: That is a very interesting question. When I first moved to Chicago in 1987, we came in November in the middle of a blizzard and everything was white. We went to the downtown "Loop" area of Chicago, the famous Loop area, and every person I saw was white. We went to eat lunch at the Walnut Room in Marshall Fields. What they served was peas in cream sauce. It was white. I kept saying, Chicago is cosmopolitan, there has got to be more things here than white food. This is very 1950s. I am not really sure what is Chicago regional.

However, what it does influence is that we have O'Hare Airport, which is a really important thing for a cook as far as I'm concerned. I can get things fresh that people can't get in New York City. I can get fresh shrimp flown into Chicago. In most other parts of the world, of the country, they are frozen. Chicago is the basic hub. We have products readily available that are not readily available in any other part of the country. Chicago still has fish markets that have live fish swimming in tanks. That is because of the high Asian population. Chicago is still reasonable for a major city. We still have tremendous ethnic enclaves that can't afford to live in New York City or even Los Angeles. Because of this, we have fabulous ethnic restaurants opening every day that are truly creative. That does influence me a lot.

Cheri Sicard: What favorite Chicago restaurants do you recommend?
Barry Bluestein: The one that influenced me the most, and I don't know if it's a favorite because it's gotten very expensive, I can't afford it like I used to, is Arun's. Arun's is probably the most upscale Thai restaurant in America. It is at 4156 West Kedzie Ave. I believe last year he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. The owner's last name I cannot attempt to pronounce. The plates are works of art. The chef happens to be his mother and his sister is an artist. She does the little sculpting of all of the vegetables. Arun does watercolors of the dish. His mother and sister recreate the plates. They are exceedingly creative, the dishes. (Editor's note: you can call Arun's at 773-539-1909.)

Cheri Sicard: Do you have a favorite Chicago restaurant that is more affordable?
Barry Bluestein: I have a couple. There is a restaurant...I am going to do this through the back door. Years ago when we were on a tour, we were sent to a restaurant in Seattle in the International District. A Chinese seafood restaurant called Ho Hos, which we fell madly in love with. Unfortunately we only get to Seattle once every two or three years. Since, a place has opened in Chicago, a storefront, ethnic restaurant called Mei Shung. (Editor's note: you can call Mei Shung at (773-728-5778). It's located somewhere about 5600 N. Broadway.

It is Taiwanese and they do the exact same things with dishes that Ho Hos does, especially something called their garlic crab. It is dungeness crab that is cut up and dipped into a flour salt garlic and jalapeño juice mixture, then deep fried. What happens is, in deep frying the shell gets very crisp so it literally snaps in your hand. You don't need to use those crackers. You just snap the shell, the arms of the crab, using your hands. The flavor is all on your hands, so when you pick up the meat and eat it with your fingers, the meat gets the salt and the jalapeño and the garlic flavor off your fingers. It is absolutely fabulous.

My last suggestion for a bistro is a place that is beginning to be chained across the country. The original is quite a lot of fun. It's called Mona Ami Gabie which has probably the best hanger steak in the country. It is run by the same man who runs The Cop, one of the top Chicago. It is in the same building. It's right across the hall.

{pagebreak} BookCheri Sicard: I know you you used to own a cook book store. What do you think is the most essential cookbook, at least in your library? Besides your own of course, which are wonderful.
Barry Bluestein: Thank you. The most essential...I think everyone must have a basic cookbook of some sort. I would recommend to always have one of two, one being the Doubleday Cookbook, which I think is essential because it tells you how to do anything and everything, including how to set a table correctly. The other one would probably be Julia Child's The Way To Cook. For simple "how do you roast a whole fish"? What do you do? Probably the third book, for timing only, Julia Child's taste combinations you can trust and go with, but for timing The James Beard Book Of American Cookery. To this day I don't think there is a book that is as precise and correct as that book. I just find the recipes a little...they're from the 1950s and a little bland.

Cheri Sicard: Now if you have a cook book store, I imagine you get into food books beyond cook books. How about food writers?
Barry Bluestein: I am going to recommend someone who has a brand new book, but she's not a brand new writer. She is a cook book writer for at least twenty-five years that I'm aware of. Her last name, I always have tremendous problems with, her name Betty Fussell as in Russell.

Cheri Sicard: I have that book. I just got it.
Barry Bluestein: My Kitchen Wars.

Cheri Sicard: I just read the intro a few nights ago. I haven't been able to get into it more, but I'm looking forward to it.
Barry Bluestein: That opening two paragraphs of the actual book is beautifully written. Another book for the importance of the kitchen, and this is going to be a very strange recommendation, Anna Quinlan's, One True Thing. Have you read it?

Cheri Sicard: I haven't.
Barry Bluestein: It is the story of a young woman who turns her back on the kitchen because she believes, as most feminists do, that strong women don't cook. Smart women don't cook, smart women become writers or lawyers. Her mother is the 1960s version of, well -- Martha Stewart wishes she was as good as this woman. Her mother gets cancer and she goes home and has to take care of her mother. She realizes what fun it really is to feed people and how rewarding and how good it is to be in the kitchen. Those are the books that I have always enjoyed more, even though yes I do like...I love M.F.K. Fisher. The concept of the role of food and kitchen and life and using the kitchen and food as an analogy for life has always appealed to me tremendously. There is a wonderful wine book I've got to recommend. First wine book I have read in I don't know how many years that is simple.

Cheri Sicard: I wonder if we're going to say the same book again!
Barry Bluestein: The Wall Street Journal Guide To Wine.

Cheri Sicard: Yes, it's fabulous. I'm reading it right now.
Barry Bluestein: It is fabulous. Not only is the book fabulous, but they are fabulous. Kevin and I started a radio show, here in Chicago about five weeks ago, on public radio. The radio station is WILL, as in Illinois. The name of the show is Stirring It Up With Barry And Kevin. We are on WILL 580 at 10 a.m. every Sunday morning. We come on before Car Talk. We had John (Brecher) and Dorothy (J. Gaiter) on. Not only is their book good, but they are a delightful couple.

Cheri Sicard: That really comes across in their writing. It's just like having your friends tell you about wine. It's not stuffy. It's just a really great book.
Barry Bluestein: Their recommendations, we have taken them and we have used them, and they are right. Usually with wine books, they are stuffy, they talk down to you, you are made to feel like you're a moron that you've picked this book up. Why are you reading this? You should know this. Here is a couple who obviously have discovered wine and enjoy it, and they are passing on the information. The wine recommendations are inexpensive and great.

Cheri Sicard: How do you and Kevin work together? Obviously, very well, but how do you divide the duties?
Barry Bluestein: We have a rule. When we started writing, which was twelve years ago now, we set a rule. I cook, he writes. He doesn't pick up a pan, I don't sit at the computer. We started once doing both and there were fights. Everyone thinks they are right. We realized that he is a much better writer than I, and I am a much better cook than he. So we go with our strengths. We feel it's one of those cases where the sum of the parts are greater than equal.

Cheri Sicard: That's evident in your books. They are really wonderful. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Barry Bluestein: Thank you for having me.