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Friday, March 30, 2007

Speaking of Sandra Lee

I just found a drinking game to play with her show. There is already a great Rachael Ray one that I have posted on my MySpace blog.

I saw a much simpler one for Giada DeLaurentis. You have to drink when she says “crunch or crunchy," “crisp” or “crispy,” or "light" or "fluffy". You kill the whole drink if she uses two of those words at once, like if she says something is crisp-crunchy.

I think you can make a drinking game with Barefoot Contessa too. Just drink whenever she says, "It adds a lot of flavor," or "It gives so much flavor."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Food Network: Whom is it for these days?

Why do I watch cooking shows? I can't think of any one particular reason I do. Part of it is I just like to eat and I enjoy watching food prepared. Part of it is that they inspire me to either try new recipes or to invent my own recipes. Another part of if is that I hope to learn some techniques and tips. The host's looks and personality really don't play much into it unless the host in question has a really annoying presence on camera. A good cooking show gets my mouth watering and gives me something to aspire to in the kitchen. It might teach me something I don't know about preparation of particular ingredients, or teach me something about their history.

Why is it, the Food Network, an entire channel devoted to food and cooking, doesn't inspire me much anymore?

It seems to me that the Food Network has dumbed itself down to the lowest common denominator, trying to make everything from the hosts to the food they prepare as non-threatening as possible. The network honchos seem to assume that no one wants to be challenged and no one wants to learn anything new. Audiences just want a pretty face and an engaging personality. So many of the most prominent shows seem to be tailored to people who don't really want to cook and don't want to learn how.

The Food Network had a decent lineup of trained chefs. Emeril Lagasse and Tyler Florence are graduates of the Johnson & Wales. Sarah Moulton and Michael Chiarello both attended the CIA. Bobby Flay attended the French Culinary Institute. Mario Batali, although has little formal training, did apprentice with top chefs including two years in Italy.

Good chefs are dropping like flies. Sarah Moulton's show was cancelled. She is a CIA-trained chef that worked for Julia Child and Gourmet magazine. It seems she didn't have enough extreme personality even if she was an expert cook who explained her recipes clearly and thoroughly. Now Mario Batali is going too. He has personality, but I guess he's not handsome enough, or perhaps his cuisine is a bit exotic. "Italian" food is supposed to be chicken parmigiana and spaghetti with tomato sauce, don't you know? Would Emeril Lagasse, who creates some very complex recipes, still be with the Food Network if it weren't for his flamboyant style? Would Tyler Florence and Bobby Flay still be there if they weren't so handsome?

What are we left with now? Tyler Florence does a show where he skillfully prepares and presents recipes for things many good cooks already know how to make. Emeril crams too many recipes into one show in a constant effort to top himself. Giada DeLaurentis, trained at the Cordon Bleu but lacking the serious credentials of some of her peers, is starting to repeat herself. Sometimes it's painfully obvious she's running out of ideas (but she looks so pretty). Alton Brown is entertaining and informative, but he all too often tries to highlight foods that aren't that appealing. Paula Deen and Ina Garten manage to keep their shows fresh, but Paula is becoming a bit too much about personality and is starting to show signs of over-exposre. She is also starting to rely a bit too much on shortcuts and convenience foods.

But after all of that, I believe the biggest symptoms of the Food Network's problem are Sandra Lee and Rachael Ray.

Sandra Lee's recipes are barely recipes. They're more like assemblies. Although she studied at The Cordon Bleu, she has expressed contempt for everything she learned there. She makes it clear that she has little interest in cooking with much in the way of real food. She would obviously rather put the time, money, and effort into decorating instead of making a a much better meal. Why she didn't become a decorator instead of a chef is beyond me. She appeals to the Food Network standard of assuming that no one has the time or inclination to cook.

Then there is Rachael Ray who has also expressed contempt for putting any time and effort into the kitchen. She has no formal training and started teaching 30 minute meals to sell more food at the market where she worked. She is a master of logistics, figuring out the best way to get from Point A to Point B in her well-organized studio kitchen. Her belief is that faster is better. In Rachael Ray's world, making a cheap imitation of a food quickly (like "osso bucco" made from ground veal in soup) is better than making the real thing in a little more time. Over the years her recipes have become dull and repetitive. We don't need another ten recipes for burgers or meat loaf, but she keep chucking them at us. The show began at a very basic level and she has continued to dumb it down ever since. For example, an early show once had her making real tiramisu` with sweetened marscapone and ladyfingers in a glass. A more recent show had her scooping ice cream over Nilla Wafers and calling it tiramisu`. (For those who really enjoy Rachael bashing, her show has inspired the Rachael Ray Sucks community, where everything she does is picked apart daily.)

Both Lee and Ray are attractive and perky, which seems to count for more than actual kitchen talent these days. The shows are on TV constantly, continuing the assumption that no one feels like cooking, but want to feel virtuous about not ordering takeout.

Somewhere in a corporate board room, a group of Food Network executives are deciding that cooking is too difficult and time-consuming for anyone to want to deal with it, so therefore we have to only watch shows as complex as the recipes you get off the back of a Cool Whip package or in the advertising pages of Ladies Home Journal. This just isn't true. I'm a pretty busy person, but I manage to get a homemade meal on the table most nights. It doesn't take me 30 minutes all the time, but 60 is usually sufficient. For example, I had a previous blog about roast chicken. It may take some time to roast a chicken, but the time that chicken sits in the oven can be used for any number of other activities and it wasn't a complex recipe.

Some meals take time, some meals take effort, and some meals take both. They don't have to take both all of the time. The best meals are often the ones we put some effort and thought into. I won't argue that ice cream scooped into store-bought cookie crumb crust and topped with caramel sauce tastes good. However, there is something so much more special and delicious about a homemade chocolate cream pie or a plate of just-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. Even on a weeknight, I'd rather serve roast beef than hamburgers. I prefer to have some flavorful sauted broccoli over a bagged salad. Quickie meals have their place, but the Food Network seems to assume that none of us know how to prepare them and that's all we want to hear about.

I'm sure I'll never stop watching the Food Network, because I'll watch anything food-related and I do still get some good recipe ideas and nuggest of cooking wisdom. But I would love to see someone on the Food Network who knows I can cook and wants to take me to the next level.

Maybe Anthony Bourdain said it better than I did

Monday, March 26, 2007

That Place Nearby You Never Go To

Is there a restaurant right in your neighborhood that you have never been to? Maybe it has been there for years and you keep thinking, "One of these days I'm going to go there," but you never do.

There are several of those restaurants in my neighborhood. My street is filled with restaurants. I'd say within about 6 blocks there are 20 of them. But Kevin and I are like most people and our time is limited. We've tried maybe 75% of them and some only once. It would be tough to try them all. We tend to stick with the tried and true when we go out with places like The Mamaroneck Diner or Cafe Mozart. Sometimes when it's late at night you're just too tired to come up with some new place to eat.

We were trying to be very adventurous last night and had planned to try a new place a few blocks away with a Latin/Tapas theme. However, it was a chilly night. I hadn't brought a warm enough coat with me. Within a block of our building we saw The Jolly Trolley. The Jolly Trolley has been in our neighborhood for years. We actually pass it on our way to the diner. We never could bring ourselves to take the risk and go in. Last night, too cold to keep walking and too sick of the diner to go there again, we decided to give it a try.

The Jolly Trolley has a cute sports-related decor (lots of vintage sports equipment) and combines steakhouse with bar food. The menu wasn't terribly creative (nor did it cater to anyone watching her calories), but there were enough things on it for Kevin and me to want to eat. He had crab-stuffed shrimp. I had petite filets. I can get very silly and happy over the smallest details, and I just loved the presentation of my steaks. Each little filet sat on top of large beer-battered onion rings. I thought it was a very clever idea. The steaks were decent (although not top steakhouse) quality, good tasting, and prepared as ordered. The margaritas we drank with our meal were ginormous. I was glad we live in walking distance of the restaurant because driving home would have been difficult.

There was a very tempting dessert menu, but our meals were too filling to go for more. I'm confident we'll try them in the future. Now that we've opened our hearts to a different restaurant that's so close by, there is no reason not to go back.

Although I do hope we eventually make it to the Latin place.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Ultimate Comfort Food

Is there any meal more comforting than a roast chicken? A chicken in the oven has the most irresistable smell. It fills the kitchen with warmth. Then once it's ready to eat, there is nothing more fun than picking it apart.

Earlier this week I was watching the Chefography show on Nigella Lawson. There were some footage from some early appearance she made on someone else's talk show. They roasted a chicken together. Once the chicken was cooked, they began ripping it apart with their hands. The host asked Nigella what the best part of the chicken was. She flipped it over and began ripping skin off the back. "Try the oyster," she said. I watched the man's eyes widen with joy as he unapologetically ate one of the fattiest parts of the chicken. That's exactly how I like to eat a roast chicken. It's wonderful to eat back first. Oh sure, I carve it up nicely for Kevin when I'm serving if for him, but if I could just rip the whole thing apart savagely I would. I'd lick my fingers without apology.

Tonight I'm making a roast chicken for dinner. My Bell & Evans chicken will have butter and thyme stuffed under the skin. Then it will be sprinkled with salt, pepper and lemon juice. I'll put thyme springs and lemon slices in the cavity. When it's prepped, I'll roast it at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, which will make the skin really brown and crispy, then lower the temperature to 400 until it's cooked.

I have plans for the leftovers too. Chicken pot pie will be on the menu sometime in the next few days. I'll save the carcass for a tasty chicken stock in the future.

Mashed potatoes are a necessary side dish. I've never been a huge fan of any kind of potatoes in the past, but I have devised ways to make mashed potatoes delicious. I don't like russets, so I always use Yukon Golds. I boil them until they're tender and then drain them and leave them in a hot pot to dry out a bit. I mash them by hand until they're as lump free as possible. Then I add warm milk. A head of roasted garlic and some rosemary leaves are a must for flavor. Irish butter is the best kind of butter to use and it's also nice to mix it with equal parts olive oil.

A simple romaine salad is an adequate vegetable accompaniment. While meat and potatoes is not the most nutritionally sound way to look at one's meals, this must be a meal where the meat and potatoes are the stars. Everything else is just there for the fiber and a few token vitamins.

Good comfort foods aren't just about comfort. They're about love, passion, and devotion as well. Comfort foods should inspire and they should nurture. There is something exceptional about the sensory experience of our chosen comfort foods that comes from the fact that the food itself may not be exceptional. It's often something rather ordinary.

What kinds of food inspire such devotion from my readers?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Welcome to My Food Blog!

Welcome. I'm Rachel and I've created a blog to share my love of everything food-related to the world.

I'm not a "foodie" (whatever that is) or a food snob. I love a good five-star restaurant and a good ethnic restaurant. But I also love dives and diners and greasy-spoon-type places. I'm not a chef, a restaurant critic, or a professional food writer. I have no training. I just love to cook and I love to eat.

I am the kind of cook who derives a lot of satisfaction doing things myself. If I have the time and the confidence in my skills to do it from scratch, I will do so. I'm not against short cuts, but I do try to keep a limit on convenience foods in my kitchen. Cooking a good meal doesn't have to take long or be complex.

I don't like mass-marketed chains and fast food places. I believe in supporting "Mom & Pop" businesses. Food should originate from the person cooking it, not a corporation. There are some exceptions that I don't mind eating at once in a while though. It happens from time to time.

I don't eat seafood of any kind, peas, olives, blue cheeses, lima beans, certain types of wild mushrooms, and grapefruit. In generally my favorite foods are pork products, ice cream, pie, chocolate and anything covered in melted cheese (as long as it's not blue cheese). I have a weakness for fried foods too, especially fried chicken.

This blog will cover my recipes (my own and discoveries from other cooks), my thoughts on food and life, and reviews of restaurants I have eaten at. (I live in the NYC area, so I'm afraid the restaurants I talk about will mostly be in Westchester and the surrounding area though.) I will also welcome recipes from my friends, so please feel free to email me your favorites so I can share them.

I warn you though that I tend to cook in a free-form style. Sometimes I follow a recipe to the letter. Sometimes I tweak it. Sometimes I use it as a jumping point for me to invent a recipe, and sometimes I come up with things off the top of my head. That sometimes means that the measurements and cooking times I provide may not always be exact or perfect. Any original recipe I give comes with a warning. If I use another cook's recipe, I will tell you where to find the original if I can.

Oh, and I don't really like rhubarb pie that much. I just think it's funny.