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'The Nimble Cook' can help you become more creative in the kitchen

Bonnie S. Benwick For the Washington Post
Former Austinite Ronna Welsh, left, and the Austin-based illustrator Diana Vassar collaborated on the new book, "The Nimble Cook." [Contributed]

This is a cookbook that might be too clever for its own good.

Why begin a review this way? Chalk it up to mixed feelings. Dig into "The Nimble Cook," and you are guaranteed to discover a technique or three that will be new and of use to you, no matter how well acquainted you are with your pots and pans. It could change the way you cook — a result other cookbooks have promised but failed to deliver. However, there is so much to take in that this guide comes across more like a textbook at times.

Author Ronna Welsh is not yet widely known in the food universe. Welsh spent a decade learning to cook in professional kitchens in America and abroad, first in Austin in the 1990s, when she worked at several local restaurants, a now-closed Clarksville food shop called Lilly & Co. and as a food writer for the Austin Chronicle, but then she moved to Brooklyn to continue her career as a chef and culinary instructor.

After living abroad in France, Spain, Greece and Sicily, Welsh ended up opening Purple Kale Kitchenworks in Brooklyn, where she continues to teach cooking classes, but this year, she published her first book, "The Nimble Cook: New Strategies for Great Meals That Make the Most of Your Ingredients" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). This cookbook, illustrated by Austinite Diana Vassar, explains how to take the strategies she learned in restaurants, namely time management and efficient use of ingredients, to make home cooking-friendly foods. Welsh has been in Austin this week for an event at BookPeople, and she has a cooking class on Wednesday at Central Market on North Lamar.

She says she learned the most from her students. From single people living on their own to parents with little kids, so many of them open their refrigerators, stare at edible ingredients and think, "There's nothing to eat."

"We think in terms of dishes and recipes, rather than ingredients," Welsh says. "Nimble" will teach you to find a leek in that refrigerator and run with it. Braise leeks' tender white and light-green parts in wine, then combine them with linguine and ricotta; use them in dumplings and meatballs. The tough greens get going as well: first blanched to soften, then chopped for pesto; creamed as a side dish; and folded into cream cheese for bagels.

An illustrated flow chart helps you imagine the possibilities inherent in leeks, as well as for celery, watermelon and more. Welsh enlisted the artistic talents of Diana Vassar, a former cooking school assistant, whose drawings grace many pages. They reference formally and informally written recipes simple and straightforward, many calling for no more than a handful of items. Welsh's smarts are most evident in the small improvements you can make. In her methods, a pattern becomes clear: invest a little effort to reap a greater reward.

You know how to use drippings from your roast chicken to make a pan sauce, perhaps. But have you ever saved them — they keep in cold storage for weeks — to deepen the flavor of a chicken-based soup, whisked them into softened butter for a savory spread on toast, or tossed them with greens? You keep hard-cheese rinds to drop into a stew or sauce, but have you ever made a cheese-rind stock? Bolstered with sherry vinegar and garlic, it is the kitchen ingredient you can call on to enhance risotto and meatless soups.

Welsh offers a lettuce-storage system that beats anything I have ever tried. Instead of stashing a plastic-wrapped head in the crisper drawer, cut it from top to bottom into wedges, through its core. Discard torn or discolored leaves, swish the wedges in ice water and let them drain in a colander. Then, I quote: "To dry, roll out a length of paper towels six times the width of the wedge. Place a wedge facing the lower left corner of the line of towels, core end down, and roll up as you would a bouquet of flowers, tucking in the towels at the bottom and leaving the tops of the leaves loosely exposed. Roll sturdy lettuces like romaine tightly; roll tender ones like red leaf and butter lettuce gently."

The bundles are refrigerated laid flat, where they will hang out for more than a week. If the cut sides turn a rusty color on the edges, trim that away before you use the lettuce. Hardy greens get similar treatment.

I would be remiss not to mention Welsh's flavoring of salts, which sounds like a fussy gourmand fool's errand right up until you taste what a difference they can make in your food. For her Bay Salt, grind 15 large dried bay leaves to a fine powder and combine with a tablespoon of coarse kosher salt. Store in an airtight jar for up to three months. You will sprinkle it on vegetables and seafood, and this alone could make you one of those cooks who get complimented at every neighborhood party.

When even one recipe from a cookbook becomes part of a cook's DNA, publishers consider that a triumph. I am betting a half dozen "Nimble" techniques and recipes will stand the test of time in my cookery. I poached dried Black Mission figs in balsamic vinegar with citrus juices and whole spices. In addition to pairing them with bacon to top polenta, I tossed them with spiralized beets and whisked up a dressing with tahini and some of their syrup. I always keep shallots on hand, but a few seem to go bad; now I roast them Welsh's way with sugar and white wine vinegar, and so far I have served them as simple side for chicken and added them to grain bowls. Pickling parsley and sage is not something I'll do all the time, but I loved adding that technique to my herb kit. Pickled parsley has upped my meatball game, not to mention my tuna salad.

Yet I can also see the downside of the book's bounty. You could get awfully busy, roasting the green bell pepper cores you may otherwise toss or add to the compost pile. (Seasoned and softened, they can go into sandwiches and relishes. Who knew?) The author's mission to change our what's-for-dinner dynamic calls for commitment, and lots of action.

Welsh makes the case, chapter by chapter, that a few extra steps will lead to smarter cooking. In this immediate, shortcut world, deliberate mindfulness does not win the day. And that means "Nimble" is not a book for everyone. But it is for the regular farmers market shopper and community-garden grower. It is for people who don't want to waste food. It can be an antidote to bagged mixed salad greens and pre-cut, flavorless produce.

It is also for anyone who is willing to learn new kitchen ways. If that is you, then just dip into "Nimble," rather than dig.

Additional material contributed by Statesman food writer Addie Broyles.

Green Beans and Corn with Ricotta Salata

In this salad, green beans — briefly blanched — are tossed with a compound butter seasoned with oregano, cumin, and lemon. Add raw, crunchy corn and salty ricotta salata, and you have an outstanding side dish. The salad is especially quick to assemble if you have corn already off the cob and beans already blanched. If you do not have precooked beans, you can blanch them right before mixing them with the seasoned butter, skipping the ice bath altogether. If you don’t plan to serve all the salad at once and your vegetables are especially fresh, you can store the dressed corn and beans in the refrigerator for a couple of days, adding the ricotta salata just before serving.

— Ronna Welsh

1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh oregano

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 pound blanched green beans, cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces (about 4 cups, see below)

2 cups yellow corn kernels

2 ounces ricotta salata cheese

Blanched Garlic Scapes or Green Beans

Blanched, green beans and scapes become crunchy, juicy, refreshing and a bit sweet. I often use them interchangeably, sometimes favoring the scape because it keeps longer. I like to feature cold blanched scapes or beans on their own plate, dressed with mustard vinaigrette and radishes, or with crème fraîche and pancetta.

6 quarts water

4 tablespoons coarse kosher salt

3/4 pound garlic scapes, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces, or 1 pound green beans, trimmed

Fill a large bowl with 2 quarts of the water. Add a large handful of ice and 2 tablespoons of the salt. Bring the remaining 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons salt. Add the scapes all at once, submerging them with tongs or pressing them down with a large strainer. When they are tender, 2 to 3 minutes for scapes and 1 to 2 minutes for green beans, drain them and plunge them into the ice bath. Stir them a couple of times in the ice water so they cool faster and evenly. Once completely cold, drain well. Serve, or refrigerate in a covered container for up to 5 days. Serves 4.

— From "The Nimble Cook: New Strategies for Great Meals That Make the Most of Your Ingredients" by Ronna Welsh (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)