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Remember the old wives' tale about the watched pot that never boils? It's not a story recorded by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen or even Mother Goose, but an axiom supported by grandmotherly advice from every generation.

Well, Grandma missed the point in my kitchen recently.I boiled an empty pot that I watched over for 15 minutes before realizing I had the wrong burner heating.

A second pot full of potatoes sat on a cold unit - not boiling.

Upon discovering my mistake, I quickly removed the pan from the heating element, but the bottom fell off, melted the entire control panel and part of the stove top itself.

The pan bottom was a tidy, round sandwich of metal laminated in some way to my pan, but the excessive and extended heat separated the layer from the rest of the pan.

I watched that pot boil beyond repair.

Now my mom admits to a similar experience, but at least she had bean soup in the pot. A neighbor says her overheated pot ruined the floor as well as the stove.

That information offered consolation, but I failed to understand why the pan parts separated. After all, the layered application was so subtle, I hadn't even noticed its existence.

Joe Granato, owner of the kitchen specialty shop Spoons and Spice, offered both explanation and comfort.

"A stainless steel pan doesn't conduct heat efficiently," Granato says, "so manufacturers often seal a layer of copper or aluminum on the bottom of a pan to increase conductibility. The other thing people don't realize is that a single burner can produce between 800 and 1,000 degrees of heat. The power of a heating element is surprising."

Testing different types of cooking vessels produces a wide range of cooking experiences, according to Granato, but people don't always know what to expect from a particular style of cookware.

Qualities of different materials

Consumers prefer a base material that conducts heat well and evenly, cleans easily, is lightweight, requires little maintenance, doesn't react with foods and is economical, according to Steve Ettlinger, author of "The Kitchenware Book."

In addition, a nonstick surface that doesn't peel ranks as an important purchase criterion.

No single purchase meets all these expectations, but a combination of desirable qualities is available in the basic materials used to produce cookware: copper, aluminum, glass, stainless steel, cast iron and enameled steel.

- Copper: Copper is an exceptional conductor of heat but reacts with some foods, requires significant maintenance and is expensive.

"Copper is popular in waves," Granato explains. "It goes on about an eight- to 10-year cycle, long enough for people to forget what an immense amount of trouble it is to keep up."

The local dealer carries a brand that features an aluminum core, brass handles, and a stainless steel interior, thus eliminating some of the problems of copper cooking.

- Aluminum: More than half of the cookware sold is made of processed aluminum, the most efficient, even-heat-conducting metal. Most aluminum pots are coated with a variety of nonstick finishes, but high-quality metal cookware is electronically altered or anodized to seal the surface. The sealing process eliminates aluminum reaction with highly acidic or salty foods like tomato sauces, rhubarb or sauerkraut. Contrary to well-publicized rumors, Federal Drug Administration research found no conclusive evidence to indicate that "the normal dietary intake of aluminum, whether from naturally occurring levels in food, the use of aluminum cookware or from aluminum food additives or drugs is harmful."

Calphalon, a popular grouping of professional-style anodized aluminum cookware, recently introduced a line of nonstick-finish pans. Magnalite and Circulon also make anodized pieces.

Another aluminum line, Scanpan, features a superheated ceramic compound pressed into cast aluminum, a process that makes the pan virtually indestructible and easy to clean.

- Glass: Though not a good conductor of heat, glass works well with dishes that are stirred constantly and have lots of liquid. Glass lids, a feature in a number of cookware lines, provide easy observation of the pan's contents.

- Stainless steel: A strong, easy-to-clean material, stainless steel is often sandwiched with a copper or aluminum core to increase heat conduction. Second in sales with 43 percent of the market, stainless steel resists high temperatures, scratching and corrosion.

A new stainless steel collection from Farberware called Millennium features a nonstick finish that is guaranteed for 20 years. Cuisinart creates a commercial-style stainless line, while Chantal sells colorful pots crafted in Germany, Japan and Scandinavia, then assembled in Texas.

- Cast iron: The campfire cookware is famous for heat transmission, even heating, long retention of heat and durability, but its sheer weight is prohibitive for many users. Seasoning or a self-applied nonstick finish works efficiently, but the pans often retain flavors of previously cooked foods.

- Enameled steel: With the addition of a colored surface, enameled steel is popular in both low- and high-end price ranges.

"Brightly colored enameled cookware is a good combination of beauty and function," Ettlinger says. "It is designed to be used as a serving piece."

Quality cookware sets range in price from $200 to $450, depending on the line and the pieces. The price seems extraordinarily high at first glance, but cookware should be considered a lifetime investment, one to be carefully maintained, says Granato.

"When you select pans, think in terms of an entire cooking lifetime," Granato suggests.

Consider sizes and shapes

Consumers should also consider the overall types of cooking they do, then select pans that are appropriate shapes and sizes.

"Family size determines the type of cookware collection required," he added. "You may need a large-volume pot or a specialty pot that suits family requirements."

A basic purchase should include four pieces, according to Granato:

- A 10- to 12-inch fry pan with a curved side.

- A 2-quart saucepan.

- A 4- to 12-quart stockpot for soups and pasta.

- A true saute pan with deep, straight sides.

For a lifetime of cookware quality, study the wide variety of purchase options available before making a selection . . . then watch those pots to make certain they boil properly.

This story was compiled with information from "The Kitchenware Book," by Steve Ettlinger and Irena Chalmers (Macmillan, 466 pages, $30). The book is an illustated, encyclopedic reference to every piece of kitchen equipment.



2 pounds asparagus, trimmed

4 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh or freeze-dried chives, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

Add washed and trimmed asparagus to tall pot of boiling water; simmer until tender, 1 1/2-2 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Combine butter, chopped herbs and pepper in a small bowl; blend thoroughly. Just before serving, melt the herb butter in a heavy skillet. Add the asparagus and gently toss to heat through, about 2 minutes. Transfer to warmed serving platter and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Makes 6 servings.

- From "The New Basics Cookbook"

- Each serving contains 123 calories; 9 gm fat; 162 mg sodium; 24 mg cholesterol.


1 whole salmon, 6-8 pounds

Court Bouillon:

3 quarts water

1/2 cup white wine vinegar

1 cup onions, chopped

1 cup carrots, chopped

1 cup celery, chopped

10 black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

For bouillon, combine all ingredients in a large pot, bring to boil and simmer 10 minutes. Strain before using.

For salmon, bone entire fish. Tie fish with cotton twine every 2 inches and place on rack of fish poachers. Add enough court bouillon to cover top of fish. Turn heat to high, and when liquid starts to boil, lower heat to simmer and poach 20-25 minutes.

(A good rule of thumb for poaching, whether it be a whole fish, steaks or pieces, is to poach 10 minutes to the inch, measured at the thickest part. A 1/2-inch steak would need 5 minutes, a 2-inch piece, 20 minutes. Start timing once simmering begins.)

Add more stock or water as liquid evaporates, always keeping the top covered. When done, remove fish from poacher and place in refrigerator 6-12 hours. Peel off skin, remove dark, fatty flesh along midsection and serve on platter, garnished as desired. Makes 12-14 servings.

- From "The Fishmonger Cookbook"

- Each serving contains 219 calories; 8 gm fat; 1391 mg sodium; 81 mg cholesterol.


3 eggs, separated

1/3 cup sugar

2 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoons butter, melted

1 3/4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

Applesauce or jelly, if desired

Beat egg whites until stiff; set aside. In another bowl beat together egg yolks and sugar, add buttermilk and melted butter; stir in sifted dry ingredients; blend well. Fold in egg whites. Bake in preheated ableskiver iron, spooning a bit of applesauce or jelly into center of each ableskiver before turning, if desired, or serve with syrup, jam or powdered sugar. Makes 2 dozen.

- From "Mormon Country Cooking"

- Each serving contains 61 calories; 2 gm fat; 161 mg sodium; 29 mg cholesterol.


1 cup onion, finely chopped

2 teaspoons butter or margarine

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 cup long grain rice

1 green pepper, finely chopped

1 sweet red pepper, finely chopped

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled

1-1 1/2 cups chicken broth

1 pound large shrimp, shelled and deveined, or 1/2 pound cherrystone clams and 1/2 pound shrimp

1 cup peas, frozen

In a large skillet, saute onion in butter or margarine and oil until onion is softened. Add rice and cook, stirring for 3 minutes. Add peppers, garlic, basil, saffron and 1 cup of the broth. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring. Lower the heat, cover pan and simmer for 10 minutes. If you use clams, add them to the pot after 5 minutes.

Add, but do not stir in, shrimp, peas, and if all the liquid has been absorbed, the remaining 1/2 cup of broth. Cover the paella and simmer for 8-10 minutes until the shrimp are pink and firm and rice is tender. Makes 4 servings.

- From Jane Brody's Good Food Gourmet

- Each serving contains 383 calories; 14 gm fat; 497 mg sodium; 34 mg cholesterol.


1 tablespoon olive oil

3/4 cup purple onion, diced

1/2 cup carrot, diced

1/2 cup turnip, diced

1/2 cup zucchini, diced

3/4 cup tomato, diced

1-2 tablespoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 teaspoon paprika

1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth, undiluted

1 cup couscous, uncooked

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat; add onion and saute until tender. Stir in carrot, turnip and zucchini; cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomato, cumin, curry powder and paprika; cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add chicken broth; bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Add couscous; cover and let stand 5 minutes or until couscous is tender and liquid is absorbed. Stir in salt and pepper. Fluff couscous with a fork and transfer to a serving bowl. Makes 9 servings.

- From "Cooking Light Cookbook 1993"

Each serving contains 57 calories; 2 gm fat; 77 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol.