Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Sick Day with the Food Network

I seem to be coming down with a case on bronchitis, so I told Kevin to go see to the horses today and stayed in. I decided to curl up with the Food Network and see what's going on with all of the shows lately. I watched for a few straight hours and almost wished I hadn't.

The Schedule:

30 Minute Meals: I just caught the tail end. Rachael Ray was standing in her ugly orange kitchen making mac 'n' cheese. At least she can make it homemade. She was making it "Lorraine" style. Great Rache. Bastardize yet another dish. Quiche Lorraine isn't that hard to make. Really, it isn't. I would even forgive you if you used a store-bought pie crust. Please stop doing crap like this.

Healthy Appetite: This is one of those shows that makes me go, "Meh." Ellie Krieger has decent food knowledge and she makes simple, healthful, and easy-to-follow recipes. On that topic, she's a better influence than Rachael Ray by a mile.

For this episode she made fish tacos, "refried" beans, chipotle cream. I like how each component was very simply flavored. She knows enough not to cram 16 unrelated spices in a dish. The fish had lime, the mashed pinto beans had cilantro and ancho chili powder (I saw Sara Moulton do something similar a couple of years ago), and the cream just had the chipotles.

Next she made teriyaki chicken thighs that looked decent for a weeknight meal. I've done similar things with chicken. Her teriyaki sauce wasn't premade. She made her own with soy sauce, ginger, garlic and sugar. That's a good idea. Bottled teriyaki has a lot of crap in it. Then she made soba noodle salad. I don't get why she boiled the noodles first before she prepared the dressing and veggies for the salad. I would have prepared that all first and then cooked the noodles.

She discusses the nutritional content of the food. That's another good idea. People need to know why they should eat something.

She measures things! With real measuring instruments!

In summation, Krieger doesn't really surprise me with anything. She makes a lot of the kinds of stuff I make, but I've been known to sneak in a pat of butter or a jigger of real cream here and there.

What is up with her voice? She always sounds like she's stuffed up. Did I read somewhere that she used to be a model. Maybe she lived the glamorous partying model lifestyle and spent some time with the spoon up her nose.

Quick Fix Meals: *snore* I just can't get into this show. I don't hate it the way some people do. This show just doesn't inspire me. She makes nothing I would want to make or haven't made before. Today's show was a rerun though and it did feature the one recipe I ever did make from this show - cream of broccoli soup. It was gross.

She's another one who doesn't measure. She'll tell you the measurement, but doesn't actually use a measuring spoon or cup.

Her idea of having a "freezer library" of frozen chopped vegetables isn't a bad idea. It's more economical to chop your own veggies and freeze them than it is to buy small amounts of pre-chopped stuff. It seems like a lot of trouble though.

What's with the music on that show. I HATE HATE HATE the theme song. But the music during the show is constantly changing. It's jazzy at one point and almost new-agey at another.

Semi-Homemade: This is the show that makes Rachael Ray look like a 5-star chef. I like how some folks call this food SLop, because slop is what it looks like.

The theme was "Heirloom Recipes" because there were recipes that were handed down in her family. They were of course bastardized to the point of being unrecognizable.

First she made a repulsive looking crab rangoon dip. She made chips by deep-frying wonton wrappers. Deep frying is a pain. Why will she do that but not cook with more homemade ingredients?

Next came an orzo salad. I like orzo. She made a dressing with BOTTLED oil and vinegar dressing. She pointed out that it had all sorts of herbs and spices in it. Then she added herbed feta cheese. So we now have the herbs and spices in the bottle of dressing plus the herbs in the cheese? Then she added fresh mint to the whole thing. I think some mint, orzo, oregano, salt, and pepper would have been just fine with just plain olive oil and red wine vinegar and plain feta as a dressing. I'll bet there were a gazillion milligrams of sodium in that salad.

The dish that followed was a chicken scallopine dish with spring vegetables. She mixed leek soup mix with wine and then threw that sloppy sauce into the crock pot with the vegetables. The resulting veggies were overcooked, limp, and gloppy. The chicken was dredged with more leek soup and sauteed. It is that much harder to sautee some onion and shallot and put some flour-dredged chicken broth in a pan and maybe add some white wine? How about steaming those veggies and tossing them with a little olive oil and garlic?

She made a carrot cake in the slow cooker. It was another variation on Grandma's recipe. Grandma must be spinning in her grave by this time.

Her cocktail took three hours to make in the slow cooker. What's the point of a cocktail you can't drink right away?

It was really annoyed at how she said, "Lllllllllllllllllllllllllemon juice."

Paula's Home Cooking: I never complain too much about Paula. The theme was breakfast in bed. Her husband said he wanted to bring her breakfast in bed, but she would have to make it. How nice!

She made a cake first that used cake mix and instant pudding. Oh Paula! You're so much better than that.

Her savory dish was spinach and mushroom pinwheels. She kept saying that it's unusual to have vegetables for breakfast, even those. Hello! Spinach quiche anyone? How about a mushroom omlet?

She finished with a Dutch apple pancake. Yummy. No comment on that one.

This show, overall wasn't too bad. I still love Paula.

30 Minute Meals AGAIN!: Todays theme was comfort food. She's done that one 100 times. This time the comfort food was pasta fagioli. Oh great. How will she bastardize this one? Personally, I don't think of pasta fagioli as comfort food. What's so comforting about beans? I don't think beans make things very comfortable for the people around you.

She said she got the idea for this recipe in Italy. Her weird method was apparently legitimate. Okay. I won't get angry with her for making some bizarre pasta fagioli recipe. But I still don't get this whole, "Girl next door," thing. Yeah. She's ALWAYS talking about her travels in Italy. How exactly is an ordinary girl like me supposed to relate to that? Yet I keep hearing about how "relatable" she is. Ordinary people go to Italy on a regular basis all the time.

She commented on the necessity of canned chicken stock because in her world, no one makes stock anymore. Why do they not make stock? Apparently it's because no one cooks whole birds anymore. Everyone just uses boneless, skinless breasts. I wanted to sit her down and force her to read my roast chicken blog. I love to roast a whole chicken. That to me is real comfort food. I don't make my own stock regularly, but when I roast a chicken, I always stick the carcass in the freezer and when I have time, I boil them up for stock.

Simply Delicioso: Sue warned me that Ingrid Hoffman is very different on her show when her mother isn't in the kitchen with her. How right she was. Ingrid is so manic. To her credit, she seems to enjoy herself, and she seemed less scatterbrained on this show than she was on the last one I saw. I really think she enjoys giving a performance. I just wish she would put more of that energy into her cooking. I can't get into her food.

She did that stupid finger-snapping framing device. Whatever. Then you see her dancing over the opening credits. Girlfriend can't mambo worth a hill of beans. I want to drag her to my dance class.

She started with the turkey tamal pie. It looked so underwhelming. Ground turkey breast? BOR-ing.

Please, for the love of all that is good and holy in the world, STOP WITH THE SALT THING. That goes for you too, Rachael Ray.

On that note, STOP SHOVING FOOD IN THE CAMERA. We can't smell it, and we never will.

She's another one who "eyeballs" the measurements. Don't you realize beginner cooks can't always eyeball amounts? If you're aiming a show at beginner cooks, teach them to measure for god's sake.

I could definitely start a drinking game with this show. Drink whenever she says, "baby".

Nothing makes me happier when I ask what's for dessert and I hear, "Jell-O" - NOT! If you don't like to bake (LAME!) and have to bring a dessert somewhere, pick up some nice cookies or a cake from the bakery or something. Jell-O shots are what you use to get drunk quickly. They are not dessert.

The beer drinks looked totally gross. I'd rather just have Jell-O shots (with those bakery cookies).

Well, I've had enough. These cooks are just lame. I'm afraid I will have to skip Giada, Tyler, Ina, and whoever else is on today. I've watched so many bad cooks that I can't even watch the good ones. I just can't stomach anymore. (No pun intended - okay, maybe I intended a little pun.) This network is just getting too lame to handle.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Thai Me Down

Sorry for the bad pun. Have I mentioned how much I love Thai food lately? I suspect the Thai food I love isn't "real" Thai food, but New-York-style, Americanized Thai food that is totally inauthentic. I'm sure some true aficionado is will gladly tell me that. Still, I love what I commonly think of as Thai food.

Last week I discovered my new favorite Thai ingredient, srirachi. Last week I made Spaghetti Squash and Pork Stir Fry from the latest issue of Eating Well magazine. One of the ingredients was sriracha chili sauce. I had never bought it before, but I did find a bottle of it at Wild Oats. I'm sure it's been used in many dishes without my being able to identify it, but I had never tasted it by itself. I took my first taste and fell in love. It's perfectly spicy and pungent. It's everything a hot sauce should be. I was inspired to use it more.

This week I decided to make some Thai-inspried meals for myself. It's a big risk. My attempts to replicate Thai food at home, much like my attempts to replicate Chinese food, have never been all that successful, but I was determined. I wanted my sriracha dishes.

I started by cooking up a chicken. I simply boiled a whole chicken using a method outlined in The Frugal Gourmet. Once it was cooked, I shredded it up.

The first dish was one of my own invention. I mixed the breast meat with the sriracha, rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, honey, ginger, garlic, scallions, and sesame oil. I wrapped it up in lettuce leaves. It may not have been strictly Thai, but it was really tasty. I'm afraid this was one of my seat-of-the-pants dishes where I just added things to the bowl without really measuring and just experimented with what tasted good. Anyone reading this who wants to replicate it at home will just have to trust his or her instincts and adjust the recipe according to taste. It was a successful experiment. I am excited that I still haven't used up all of my srirachi so I can make this again. Maybe next time I'll think to measure and actually write the recipe down.

The next dish was my own attempt to replicate my favorite soup in the whole world, Tom Kha Gai. I love coconut soup. I love it, love it, love it. Believe it or not, I had never tried to make it before. I have always been afraid of not doing it well. I guess there is something about sriracha that makes me bold.

I was fortunate enough to have some homemade chicken stock in the freezer, so that was my base. I added a can of lite coconut milk, the juice of four limes, a couple of tablespoons of fish sauce (we're back to that seat-of-the-pants thing again), a thai chile, several stalks of lemon grass, some sliced buttom mushrooms (I'm not fond of straw mushrooms) and the thigh meat from the chicken. I threw in a handful of cilantro at the end. The resulting soup was decent, but had it's flaws. The first flaw was the overuse of the limes. The soup was a bit too tart. The second flaw was the lemongrass. I bought a stalk at the grocery store, but it must have fallen out of the bag on teh way home, because it was gone when I went to make dinner that evening. All I had was a very old jar of dried lemongrass. I must have had to thow in the entire jar to get any flavor from them at all. The third was the lack of kaffir lime leaves. What is it about kaffir lime leaves? I know they exist somewhere because Thai restaurants use them, but there is no store I know of that carries them. I can't find them anywhere. I don't know how big of a difference it would have made if I had had them, but I would have liked to have known.

As Thai experiments go though, this was one of my more successful ones. I'm glad I tried it. One day I'll venture a coconut curry.

Friday, September 21, 2007

How I Fell in Love with Tyler Florence

For a long time, if you asked me what I thought of Tyler Florence, I would have just said, "Meh. I watch him sometimes." I just didn't think he had much going for him. I didn't see anything wrong with his food, his skills, or his shows, but I was never really impressed with them either.

Tyler Florence is no showman. Many FN personalities are indeed performers. Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse, Paula Deen, and to a lesser extent, Mario Batali are all showmen. They know how to work the cameras and put themselves out there. They could probably succeed on TV without the food. TV cooks don't have to be performers of course. The lamented Sara Moulton and Ina Garten aren't performers and they don't have to be. They are also wise enough to stick to their own sphere of the kitchen. Giada DeLaurentis and Rachael Ray aren't so wise. Giada is fine in the kitchen, but she needs to stop doing travel shows or other documentary-style shows. As for Rachael Ray, she's horrible on camera, but compensates by being annoying and obnoxious. She's bad enough on her cooking show, but her talk show is a train wreck. She yells, waves her arms, and talks over her guests. She's so focused on herself that I swear she suffers from Narcissictic Personality Disorder. Ingrid Hoffman seems to have good performance chops, but she can't combine them with her cooking. I don't really care if the cooks on TV are showmen or not. The problem is that a bad showman (like Rachael Ray) can make me tear my hair out, and the bland ones don't always get my attention. That was the problem with Tyler Florence. He never really got my attention.

Tyler's other flaw, as I saw it, was a lack of focus. I would watch his shows and think, "What is his specialty?" Giada is Italian-American cuisine. Mario is regional Italian cuisine. Emeril is Creole. Paula Deen is Southeast. Bobby Flay is Southwest. What exactly is Tyler? I kept asking, "Does he have something in particular that he does well? What can he do that other chefs can't?" There wasn't a whole lot to distinguish him from the likes of Sara Moulton or Ina Garten.

I kept watching his shows though. He may not have always had my attention, but he never annoyed me either. He seemed most at home giving one-on-one instruction. If he had any schtick at all, it was that he was like a "cooking coach". I kind of preferred the snooty French guy in How to Boil Water (I just liked the idea of two very different personalities working together in the kitchen), but Tyler handled it well enough. I thought it was a good show because it taught basic cooking skills without talking down to the audience and without making real cooking seem too difficult. I always thought the approach was far better for beginner cooks than the 30 Minute Meals approach of dumbing down every recipe into burger form. He applied the same coach technique to his Food 911 show. It was during Food 911 that I really began to apprciated him. He was faced with so many different types of cuisines on that show. For a jack-of-all-trades chef, he competently handled all of them.

One day on Food 911 the requested recipe was jerk chicken . I love spicy Carribean food. I had to hang around and watch this one. The recipe he provided was Jerk Chicken with Roasted Mango and Habaneros. As I watched him go through the steps of preparing it, I knew I had to try it. The recipe was unique and filled with complex flavors. I made it for my mother's birthday dinner a couple of weeks later. The dish was every bit as delicious as it looked on TV and was a huge hit. It's a bit expensive to make, but it's worth every penny. Once I tasted this recipe I realized that Tyler Florence is an excellent chef.

I made it again last night. Unfortunately I was unable to marinate the chicken as long as I wanted to. I put the chicken and marinade in a plastic bag and had it in the refrigerator for about an hour and fiften minutes. The flavor didn't suffer too much. When my husband came home from work he said he could smell it all the way down the hall. I served it alongside Island Red Beans, a recipe I found in the latest issue of Eating Well and a nice cooling salad of oranges and avocados tossed with a lime-orange vinaigrette.

It doesn't look like they currently have new shows running for Tyler Florence other than the current incarnation of Tyler's Ultimate. I have an appreciation for that show now. The show is very well edited. Rather than make the show about Tyler and his personality, it is really shot to make the food stand out. I understand what Tyler does now. He just wants to make sure that people have the basic skills to make the classic version of anything. Maybe he isn't going to delve in obscure dishes in regional cuisines, but he has good solid foundations that can make just about any popular dish in a given cuisine. When I needed a shrimp scampi recipe for a dinner party, I went to Tyler. When I needed a better chicken marsala recipe, I went to Tyler. Look at his online recipe collection and you'll see he has everything from chicken cordon blue, to gazpacho, to fish and chips. I would bet most of those recipes are great. He's a chef you can rely on to help you understand how to make something and make it well. If you don't totally love the recipe, he gives a foundation to help you make your own version.

I have now officially converted. I love Tyler Florence.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Kitchen Nightmares

I have never watched Hell's Kitchen or any other Gordon Ramsey reality show in the past, but I found myself very drawn to Kitchen Nightmares. It must stem from the fact that I hate seeing good restaurants go downhill. When it comes to restaurants, I really like to root for the underdog. I am definitely intrigued by the idea of turning around a restaurant's menu, kitchen, decor and service and seeing whether or not it will create a success.

The restaurant featured last night was Peter's, an Italian place in Babylon, L.I. I swear they chose this place because of the character of the owners. The family that owned this place looked and acted like they came straight out of some mafia movie. It was every NY/Long Island Italian stereotype come to life. The brother and the sister were the co-owners. The sister tended bar and tried desperately to keep things in line. The brother, Peter, was a huge egomaniac who was willing to spend money on a new watch, a new suit, and a new Mercedes, but put no money into the restaurant. He never seemed to do any work either. He just walked around the restaurant and schmoozed. He would demand drinks and cappuccinos from his sister all night. He had that whole, "You talkin' to me?" attitude as if it were pulled straight off the Hollywood gangster movie assembly line. His sister was powerless against him. Their parents were involved in the restaurant, but they didn't seem to do much. The restaurant was in debt and a couple of times the "bill collector" came around. Mr. Bill Collector was a well-connected loan shark, or at least tried to come off as one. Peter was always trying to pick a fistfight with him. Again, it was more movie-style drama.

The kitchen was gross. Most of the stoves didn't work. The walk-in cooler was a mess. The chef and sous chef were incredibly frustrated with the fact that they weren't being given the equipment to do their jobs properly (I was amazed they continued to work for these people). The waitstaff were also frustrated because the kitchen staff couldn't get food out in a timely fashion with such limited equipment and the waitstaff had to bear the brunt of customer complaints. They were bleeding money because Peter had to keep comping wine and dinners to keep the angry customers happy. At one point a table began to complain and Peter began picking on a waitress in front of the customers. Even the people at the table commented on how hard he was on her. She was the only person who let him have it and broke down crying in the kitchen.

Ramsey provided new stoves, new plates, and a new refrigerator and had the walk-in cooler cleaned up and repaired. He then revamped the menu. In order to distinguish Peter's from the other 10 Italian restaurants in Babylon, he designed a family style menu. The chefs were pretty cool with that. I got the impression that the chefs were pretty good and could adapt well to whatever kind of menu they were presented with. Their problems seemed to stem more from lack of funds for decent ingredients and lack of decent equipment. They had their opening night with the new menu.

Opening night had its own set of problems. Peter still refused to pull his weight. At one point I saw him go to the bar and demand a cranberry juice from his sister. I thought he was ordering a drink for a customer, but then he said he wanted pineapple juice instead. The restaurant was bustling and this guy was lollygagging and ordering drinks for himself . Then he decided he was really hungry, so he walked into the kitchen and grabbed a plate of baked clams and began eating them. This did not go over well with the table who had ordered the clams. More wine had to be compled for this. Despite this, the first night was a success.

At the end of the evening, Ramsey gathered the family together to give his assessment of the future of the business. He really began ripping into Peter. He talked about how rude it was that he would let tables full of customers go hungry while walking around eating. He criticized Peter's selfishness. He concluded his speech by saying the restaurant would run much better without him. You could see that just about everyone in the room was thinking, "I've been wanting to say this to him for years." The chef in particular was smiling during the whole speech.

Oddly enough, Peter didn't take too much offense to Ramsey's critique. He actually took it to heart and came to his senses. He practically got down on his knees and kissed Ramsey's feet for showing him the way. I was really surprised he didn't become seriously defensive. Peter immediately began mending his ways and getting involved in the operation of the restaurant. There were clips of him actually carrying food to the tables.

Was the show edited to make Peter look like more of a pig? It probably was. I think it was edited to make things look like they happened in a different time frame. The scene with the crying waitress happened in the middle of the show. The end of the show had Peter hugging her and apologizing. To me the scene looked like the same scene from the middle of the show. I think they kissed and made up shortly after her tantrum, but they opted not to show him apologzing until the end of the show after he reformed. Had he apologized right away, it would have ruined the jerky image they were trying to maintain throughout the show. That's the problem with reality TV. The "reality" is recreated by the producers to alter the audience's perception of the situation.

The show ended with Ramsey bringing in a priest to bless the restaurant. Now if that's not trying to play up some Italian stereotypes, what is?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Krispy Kreme

I just don't get them.

If I were to put together a list of the most overrated foods and food establishments on earth, Krispy Kreme would definitely be on the list. Why does everyone think they're so great?

I was so excited to try my first one a couple of years ago. I am a huge fan of boston cream doughnuts, so that was the one I tried. The filling tasted off and the doughnut itself was just so small. Krispy Kreme fans said I ordered the wrong doughnut. It's the original glazed that's so incredibly delicious. Well, I have yet to see what's so delicious about them. Time after time I have tasted a glazed Krsipy Kreme and every time I've been disappointed. Today someone brought three boxes of original glazed into the office. I took the chance and ate one. It was still nothing special. Several coworkers made comments that Krispy Kreme is "lighter" than Dunkin Donuts. They weigh you down. I think it's the substance of Dunkin Donuts that makes me like them. I like the way biting into a Dunkin Donut makes me really feel like I have something nice and rich in my mouth.

The thing that's supposed to make Krispy Kreme so special is that you can get them hot. I will admit I've never had the pleasure of ordering them hot. However, if you have to heat a doughnut to make it tasty, I don't think it could have been that good to begin with.

I know there are better doughnuts out there than Dunkin Donuts. I have had some indepenent bakery doughnuts that are outstanding (St. Moritz in Greenwich makes doughnuts that taste like pure butter). I just don't think Krispy Kreme is one of those better doughnuts.

Friday, September 14, 2007

L'Shana Tova

Last night Kevin and I quietly rang in the Jewish New Year. It wasn't much of a celebration as I'm a gentile and Kevin is non-practicing. Still, I felt I needed a little observance, so I tried to make a butt-kicking meal that incorporated a few traditions.

I made a sweet chicken dish. I browned some leg quarters and breasts in oil until they were nice and browned. Then I added my sweet sauce made with a cup of fruity white wine, a big fat glop of honey, cinnamon, and freshly-grated ginger. I also threw in a handful of chopped dried apricots. I simmered the browned chicken in this until it seemed cooked through. (Have I mentioned that I tend to cook by the seat of my pants sometimes? I'm sure I've never said that. /sarcasm)

I roasted a giant jewel yam, an apple, and some parsnips and pureed this together. I used three parsnips, which was a bit too much. The parsnip flavor was a bit overwhelming. I like countering my sweet veggies with spice, so I used plenty of salt with some cayenne and chili powder.

I also sauteed some spinach in butter and mixed it with a handful of roasted pine nuts, a handful of dried cranberries, and a grating of nutmeg. Not surprisingly, no one said, "Hmmmm...what is that?"

I should have at least purchased a dessert like some ruglach or a honey cake. I got lazy.

I considered making latkes, but I wasn't in the mood to do something so labor intensive. If the labor were worth it, I would have gone for it, but I'm not a good latke maker. I never get the consistently quite right. They're almost always heavy and greasy. When they're good, I never figure out why they're good, so I don't guarantee getting it right the next time.

Traditional Jewish cuisine is not something I do a lot of. I have to admit I'm not always fond of the traditional recipes. I often find dishes too bland or too sweet. I don't have a lot of guidance when it comes to cooking these things either. Kevin's mother doesn't like cooking much and he will admit she wasn't much of a cook when he was a kid (although he loved her homemade chicken soup). It was his grandmother who was the great cook and made all of the great traditional foods. It's unfortunate that she died before I had a chance to meet her. Kevin said she would have loved me. I would have loved to have had some of her guidance in the kitchen. Maybe she could have helped me perfect my latkes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A TV Cook I Miss

As so many food lovers mourn the lack of good chefs on the Food Network, we look to the past and long for the days when Julia Child ruled the airwaves. She certainly was the reigning queen of cooking shows when I was a child. Julia was not the most dominant presence on television when I was first learning to cook though. I don't have the same memories of her that others have. My inspiration came from another show.

Last night I wanted to cook a nice simple and tasty chicken dish for dinner, so I decided to go with my longtime standby, chicken piccata. I hadn't made it in a while, so I wanted to make sure I had all of the proper ingredients. That meant I had to go through my cookbooks and pull out my classic recipe. The cookbook I pulled the recipe from: my yellowed, tattered, paperback copy of The Frugal Gourmet.

I first saw Jeff Smith on TV when I was in high school or college. At first he annoyed me in the same way Rachael Ray annoyed me. I hated his hyper manner and high-pitched voice. I thought his constant swap-outs were a huge waste of food. Despite not liking his manner, I would watch the shows through to the end. He cooked things I wanted to eat.

Throughout high school I was a baker, but not a cook. I only made desserts. I really wanted to learn how to cook real food. I figured that I learned to bake just by reading and following recipes. If I could do that with baking, I could do that with cooking. I began going through some of my mother's favorite cookbooks and creating meals, often using some of her favorites. I wanted a cookbook of my own though. I wanted to have my own favorite recipes.

At the end of my junior year of college I was hanging out with my roommate in our room during exam week. We were finished with our exams and weren't going home for another day or so. We were bored out of our minds. Exam week was still going on, so there was nothing happening on campus. It was a weeknight, so there was nothing happening in town. We decided to just go to K-Mart. It would be a nice long walk to get us out of our room for a while and maybe we'd buy something. I thought perhaps I would look at their book selection and see if they had any good cookbooks as I had planned to spend the summer doing as much cooking as possible.

The K-Mart book selection wasn't great. The cookbooks offered were all Sandra Lee-type style cooking. Then I noticed that among the popular cookbooks of the day, was The Frugal Gourmet. I wasn't terribly enthusiastic when I picked up the book. I wasn't sure that annoying Jeff Smith guy was the one I wanted to get my future signature recipes from. Despite this, I looked through the book and the recipes seemed interesting and doable. It offered the best recipes of all of the cookbooks I saw. I bought it.

Throughout the summer I began going through that cookbook enthusiastically. It was a cookbook that would never fly in today's market. It was a small paperback that didn't stay open when you cooked. It contained no photos of the meals. The most illustration it had was an occasional black and white drawing illustrating a recipe or technique. Still I found it a treasure trove of useful information, great cooking tips, history, culture, and recipes. I made that chicken piccata recipe for my mother's birthday dinner that year and it was an instant hit. When I turned 21 that summer, my mother gave me The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine as a gift. It was very appropriate.

Over the years Smith has provided me with many go-to recipes. That chicken piccata was the first dish I ever cooked for my husband. Smith's pork roast with wine and grapes has always been a massive family favorite. The Frugal Gourmet didn't just teach me recipes and cooking skills. It taught me how to select wine glasses, how to pair wine with food, and what the difference is between dumplings and quenelles. Smith was a fascinating writer and had a tremendous base of knowledge. Food was his passion and it showed.

I became tolerant of the TV show and even began to look forward to watching it. I couldn't hate Jeff Smith for the same reason I can't hate Emeril Lagasse. There was real passion there when he cooked. He had an enormous love and appreciation of his craft and it showed. I understand that. I feel that passionate about my food and that's why I aspire to be able to cook it the best way I can. This is something the Food Network phonies like Rachael Ray don't get. Real passion means you want everything to be the best it can be. Smith inantely understood this.

I still remember having corn at my grandparents' house years ago and as we passed the butter, my grandfather told me something he had seen on TV that day. He said he had seen, "An old geezer with a long beard," who had cooked fresh corn and vehemently told the audience not to butter it as it would ruin the fresh flavor. I laughed becuase I had seen that episode too. I remembered exactly how passionate Smith was about his corn. I also had to laugh at Grandpa calling him an "old geezer" considering Grandpa had a good 25 years on Smith.

I guess we'll never know if Smith was guilty of the crimes of which he was accused, although it seems that there were too many witnesses to ignore. I'm sure many viewers wonder how that sweet old man (a minister no less) could possibly molest his assistants. I'm sure there are others who probably suspect he had a creepy side and were not surprised at all. I have read that he could often be difficult to work with. The man died without clearing his name (settling out of court is generally an admission of guilt). I suspect this whole accusation helped put him in his grave as he had a bad heart and it must have been a terrible strain on him. All I can say is that he was a minister, and if it's true, he would have believed that it was up to God to judge him.

Jeff Smith I still credit you with teaching me how to cook. I wish everything I heard wasn't true, and I hope you weren't the sick pervert everyone says you were. Let's hope someday there will be another enthusiastic, joyful and passionate chef on TV again who can cook well and be normal in his personal life.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Summer's Last Take

I had my Farewell Summer dinner party this weekend. Kevin said it's going to be our last party for a while. I agree. It's not just because summer is pretty much over and the farmstand bounty will soon dry up. It's that my Summer of Food has left me a bit burnt out. I've had enough heavy cooking for a while.

The Menu:
Pappa Al Pomodoro (made with farmstand tomatoes)
Pork Medallions with Peach Sauce (with farmstand peaches)
Fresh Corn Pudding (Farmstand corn)
Black Bottom Pie

I left most of these recipes as is. I substituted some of the chicken broth in the pork recipe with Riesling (about a half cup) and used fresh sage. My tip for this recipe is that if you're going to double it as I did, don't double the number of peaches you use. Maybe add one or two more, but eight is overdoing it.

The pie was the interesting part. This was a recipe of my own invention because I haven't been happy with most of the black bottom pie recipes I was finding online. I decided to make my layers traditional chocolate pastry cream and panna cotta.

First I made a very rich crust that used both butter and shortening. The recipe was for a 10" pie. My pan was 9.5". I'm not sure if the size was the issue, or if it was simply my stupidity. In any case, I was blind baking the crust and couldn't easily find anything to weight the crust with. I've baked many a crust in my lifetime without weights, so I figured I could skip it this time around.

Karma came and bit my butt because my crust, despite multiple prickings, shrank horribly! It shrank back so much that there was no way it could hold the amount of filling I had to put into it. I ended up dumping it. Too bad too. It was nice and flaky and yummy. I baked a new one and this time managed to dig some rice out of the cupboard to weight it. Lesson learned. I did have a little bit of a low part on one side of the crust. This is going to be key later.

I didn't look all that hard for a chocolate pastry cream recipe. I used the first one I came across, which was this one. I liked it well enough, but it really was a bit too sweet. It also made a ton of pudding. The pie is gone, but I still have lots of leftover pudding to snack on. I also don't get why the recipe says to add the vanilla when you melt the chocolate. I can't believe a seasoned chef like Emeril would do such a thing. I added my vanilla at the end with the butter as one should do when making a pastry cream.

I used this recipe for my panna cotta. Giada seems to make a lot of panna cotta desserts, so her recipe seemed to be the smartest one to use. I tweaked it with a tablespoon or two of rum, whose flavor never came through.

The second stupid part of the day came when I was adding the panna cotta to the pie. I waited until it cooled to room temperature and then poured it on top of the pie. That was the stupid part. I poured it. Remember that low side of the crust? Well, the panna cotta spilled over it and under the pie. Now my lower crust was extra-soggy. If I ever do this again, I will gently spoon the panna cotta over the pie. Due to the spillage, my panna cotta layer was really rather thin. It didn't set up as well as I had hoped it would either. I think that's because the gelatin was giving me problems early on, or maybe the rum was too much liquid.

I could not keep food from falling out of my cabinets the entire weekend. I lost a bottle of soy souce and a bottle of peppercorns. Pausing to clean up those messes made the whole weekend a bit more stressful.

Dinner was a success despite the mishaps. People ate and enjoyed the pie even if it wasn't quite as solid as it should have been. We had four bottles of wine for the 6 of us, and that always makes the meal go smoothly.

I think I'm going to limit experiments now that fall is here. I have a busier schedule at work, and my dance classes have started for the season. I think I probably won't be baking weekly. My coworkers will be so unhappy with that.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

So I Finally Saw Ingrid Hoffman

I was having a dinner party last night (will be a separate blog for menus and "hilarious outtakes"), so I stayed home from the barn yesterday and cooked all day. I took some time off from the pots and pans to sit down and watch Simply Delicioso.

I found that at least the first time out, I can sort of tolerate Ingrid Hoffman. I don't find her quite as annoying as Rachael Ray. Then again, I was able to tolerate Ray initially. It wasn't until I saw several episodes of 30MM that she got on my nerves. Hoffman would probably do the same after a few episodes. Her framing device for the show is a bit cutesy. She addresses the TV audience as if we were guests at her event, then tells us she's going to show us how she did it. She snaps her fingers, freezes the people onscreen, and then heads for the kitchen. I don't think it's really necessary and it distracts from what the show should be about - cooking. But you gotta have a gimmick right? You can't be on the Food Network if you don't have an act. I suspect some people like it.

I found Hoffman to be scatterbrained and distracted while she cooked. Like Ray, she overused the word, "guys". She tended to go off in different directions. It's really hard to follow her as she cooks. She also tended to forget things. She would suddenly remember she needed to add something to the pot. She had some useful information. She used the phrase "Chica Tips" a few times that reminded me of those stupid popups you see on 30MM. I found a couple of them useful such as the one where she talked about soaking plantains in water to make them easier to peel. Who knew? I didn't. I have to remember that a lot of these shows are assuming they're addressing an audience that doesn't know how to cook. She did that stupid salt thing that Ray does. She never got the memo that you are only supposed to do that when you spill the salt. She threw the salt at the camera for the audience. I have to give her some props for her attempts to engage the audience that way. Many viewers like to feel that they are being directly addressed and it carries on the theme that you are somehow invited into the kitchen. I personally think it distracts from the cooking, but that's just me. This woman knows what she's doing as a performer even if she doesn't know what she's doing in the kitchen.

As for the food, it's hard to say. Looking at most of the recipes on the FN website, I'd say very few of them appeal to me. This show she made a stew called Sancocho, a Colombian Aji salsa, and rice pudding. The aji looked like pico de gallo to me. I don't consider that a bad thing, but I wonder about it's authenticity. If I made that for a family dinner and told my sister-in-law that it was Colombian aji, would she say, "Yummy. That's great," or would she raise her eyebrows at me and say, "It is?" Being an unsophisticated food bumpkin, I know nothing about sancocho. I have no idea if her recipe was authentic or if it would even taste good. I was unsure if I thought it looked edible or not. At first I thought it did. Then she just kept adding more and more stuff to the pot. There were green plantains, then potatoes, then corn, then yucca, then squash, then black plantains. It seemed to me that it would be unbearably starchy. I also noted that she threw her chicken and short ribs in the pot together. I'm glad she cooked them a little bit before adding the stew ingredients, but I think she should have put them in one at a time and given them a good browning, then put them all back in the pot. Hoffman never bothered to tell the audience that you should brown up your meats well before adding them to a stew. That would have been a "chica tip" worth noting.

I got tired of the show by the time I saw the last 5 or 10 minutes, so the remote came out and I surfed a bit. I really wasn't interested enough to watch the whole thing through. Foodwise and entertainment-wise, it really wasn't attention grabbing. There are worse personalities on FN, but there are also more interesting chefs.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Do I really like Chinese food?

What is Chinese food?

Ever since I was a child I loved Chinese food. There was a time when it was hard to get me to go to any other kind of restaurant. I loved the classic Chinese restaurant. You know the kind I'm talking about. These were the places with red silk on the walls, tanks full of tropical fish, and a menu that featured all kinds of exotic drinks on the first page with illustrations of each one.

I considered myself a sophisticated diner. My father is quite the foodie. He was not one to encourage chicken chow mein or other American inventions. I ordered anything with the word Szechuan or Hunan in the title. I ordered things with Chinese-sounding names like Wor Shu Op or Kung Pao Chicken. I wasn't ordering American Chinese food. I was ordering the "real" stuff from a restaurant with red silk on the walls. I wasn't ordering that that cheap stuff you got at those Chinese-American takeout places.

I laugh at myself now. The tiny takeout places in my neighborhood serve the same food as the big Chinese restaurant at the end of the block with the fancy drinks on the first page of the menu. Who am I kidding? I really know very little about Chinese food.

New York may be a melting pot of cultures including many Asian ones. It may be home to some of the world's finest cuisine. Despite this, it never has been place where anyone who knows anything about Chinese food would want to eat. Going to the Chowhound boards, I always see the Chinese food in New York being disapraged. I didn't realize that in other parts of the world, the phrase "New York Style" Chinese food is defined as deep-fried chunks and heavy gloppy sauce from a bottle. The description really isn't that far off base. I don't know why this is the case. New York City has a Chinatown (albeit a small one). There is a fairly significant Chinese population in the metro area. Why are there no authentic restaurants? Do Chinese people just assume that they need to give people what they want and therefore only open "New York Style" restaurants?

I wonder if I have ever even eaten authentic Chinese cuisine? I can think of a few possibilities.

For a couple of years a group of my friends and I used to go for the special Chinese New Year dinner at Hunan Village in Yonkers. That restaurant had once been considered the best in the area. The food at that dinner was not what I normally ate in Chinese restaurants, although there were certainly some similarities. I remember the food as being much lighter. The restaurant is said to have gone downhill quite a bit in the past three years and was sold, so unfortuneately I won't be going back to further uncover the mysteries of Chinese food.

I had supposedly authentic dim sum in a restaurant in Chinatown that my friend John had discovered. It was a lovely spot, oddly juxtaposed in a shoddy little mall under a bridge. The food was amazing. Was it tourist food? John said there was no way tourists could find the place. The waitstaff barely spoke English. However, none of the other diners were Chinese.

A few years ago my father discovered the Brooklyn had a Chinatown of it's own. Amongst the butcher shops with dead ducks in the windows, we found a huge Chinese restaurant. A lot of what we ordered that day seemed to be pretty much the same stuff I normally eat in Chinese restaurant. I remember eating a steamed ginger chicken that my stepmother said she didn't like because it reminded her of her (Jewish) mother's boiled chicken. The restaurant's menu contained a lot of stuff that perpetuates the stereotype of Chinese people eating really gross foods. It didn't contain any cat or dog meat, but it did contain jellyfish and fried pig colon.

My memories of that Brooklyn restaurant bring me to the major question. Would I even like real Chinese food if I ate it? Chinese cuisine is rich in seafood after all.

On top of that, I have to question the whole concept of "Chinese" food. Does a country like China have just one cuisine? There are provinces in China like Sichuan and Hunan and Canton. Each has its own unique cooking style. After all, many Americans share certain tastes in food, but specialities do change regionally. Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, and Emeril Lagasse all specialize in cuisine from the US - from the Southern half of the US in fact - and yet each cuisine is unique. Paula's southern home-cooked favorites differ from Emeril's Creole delights, which differ from Bobby Flay's Southerwestern flare. New England is different from the Pacific Northwest. Even pizza - thought to be an American classic - is different in New York and Chicago. How can I say I like "Chinese" food when I suspect that a trip through China would give me quite a range of tastes across the board.

I have so much to learn about world cuisine. I'm just really beginning to learn what real Italian food is and what the specialties of each region are. Here in the US it really is hard to appreciate authentic cuisine of any country. I can still remember reading a funny bit about how Jennifer Lopez was once interviewed by Italian journalists and she said she loved Italian food. One of them asked her what her favorite dish was and she said chicken parmigiana. The journalist actually asked her what that was! What's even funnier was that when she explained it, the Italian journalists thought it sounded disgusting. The resulting article that was published said soemthing like, "Her favorite food is a chicken dish served in the Bronx." (What we think of as classic Italian becomes classic Bronx cuisine to Italians. Now that's funny.) Do most Americans really know anything about the cuisine of other countries, or is it our goal to just ruin them?

I don't know the answer. I don't know if I'll ever eat or enjoy real Chinese food. I do know that the General Tso's chicken at my local takeout place tastes really good whether it's authentic or not. Looking at it from that perspective, I guess I really shouldn't worry if it's authentic or not.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Surprise: A Bundt Cake Saved the Day!

You wouldn't think with all of my Bundt cake ranting that I would so easily change my mind, but this weekend I ended up doing everything I swore I wouldn't do and was so happy I did.

Friday afternoon I was still looking for some good recipe ideas for the party on Saturday. I had one or two ideas, but then a coworker made a suggestion. She said her mother's chocolate pistachio cake was one of her favorite cakes in the whole world and was really easy. I told her to send me the recipe and I'd take a look.

The Recipe:
Mix 1 box yellow cake mix with...
1 package instant pistachio pudding
1 cup orange juice
4 eggs
1/2 cup oil
(My version also included a cup of mini chocolate chips)
Pour half of the batter into a 9x13" greased and floured BUNDT PAN.
To the remaining batter add...
3/4 cup Hershey's syrup.
Pour the chocolate batter on top of the plain batter and swirl with a knife to marble.
Bake at 350 for an hour.
(My version was topped with royal icing flavored with amaretto)

Yes. I made a Bundt cake. The cake was not inadequate in size. It filled the pan nicely for the most part. It may have fallen a little short, but it wasn't bad. Maybe the key to a good Bundt cake is to use a cake mix?

It's funny though. I usually can't stand using mixes. I love the satisfaction I get when I do it all myself. I will admit that my ego likes it when people are impressed that I made something from scratch. I gave my ego a rest and despite the fact that the cake wasn't totally homemade, it was a big hit at the party.

The story doesn't end at the party though. I ended up throwing a list-minute dinner party last night. I had been trying to get together with my father for his birthday, which is in early October, but no one seems to be available in the next few weeks. I decided to just have Dad and Beth over for dinner last night.

This month's issue of Food and Wine is centered on Italy and I have been dying to try some of the recipes in it. I am hoping this will be a preview of a trip to Italy I want to take next year. I made a "Tour of Italy" menu.

Dinner began in Sardinia with a Watermelon and Arugula Salad.

We spent the rest of the meal partially in Sicily with Orechette with Pistachio Pesto, which is the best pesto I have ever eaten. It was just so delicious and rich tasting.

With the pasta we had Pollo Diavola, a recipe from a trattoria in Umbria. It was very simple and tasty.

Dessert was the last of the pistachio cake, served with a scoop of ice cream and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.

Sometimes I need to stop fighting against simplicity and just make things that are easy and tasty. Not every meal or dessert has to be a show-stopper.