Category: Create


I Don’t Get It

Why FoodTV continues to give us crap shows, I will never know.  I’ve come to terms with my social soapbox-ish rant about Iron Chef America.  Where that entry may have come from a place of anger, I don’t know that I’ve grown that much since.  I still don’t understand why a television network named FoodTV gives us the worse food shows in this country.  Cupcake Wars, the now defunct Ace of Cakes, Triple D, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, Challenge, and over the last couple of years, the heinously bad Chopped.

The premise is simple:  Rustle up some talented chefs, dangle $10,000 in front of them and then….wait for it….give them crap to cook with and see how much of an ass they can make of themselves.  All the while, being critiqued by “renown” chefs and restauranteurs who’ve all gone into “kitchen stadium” [ICA] themselves and LOST.  And they had awesome ingredients to cook with on ICA.  Here on Chopped, it’s just the bizarre on top of bizarre.  After watching the Chopped All Stars, where master chefs such as Anita Lo and Nate Appleman go against one another, I have affirmation that Chopped is a show I just don’t get.  I don’t get why putting bizarre ingredients in front of chefs and asking them to cook in 20 minutes is good entertainment.  We don’t learn anything, we don’t want to eat the food they serve, and we certainly would never attempt to cook anything they prepare.  Why giving a chef fresh pasta sheets, dried papaya, chorizo, and bluefoot mushrooms is suppose to get my culinary juices running is beyond me.  Granted, the Chopped All Stars have a social undertone to it.  These chefs are not just competing for themselves, but they are competing for some really great charities they partner with.  I have this picture of the production offices of FoodTV, snotty MBA graduates sitting around the table saying to each other, “Let’s put raisins, pine cones, spinach, and bitter melon and see what these a-holes can create in 20 minutes”, followed by maniacal laughter.  Oh FoodTV, how low you have gone in your desperate attempt to come up with something like “The Wild Within”, “No Reservations”, and “Top Chef” that Bravo and the Travel Channel are kicking your butts in.

I wish I could “chop” this show along with 90% of all the other shows this network puts together.  There’s a reason Anthony Bourdain, after just ONE year of “A Cook’s Tour“, decided to ditch FoodTV and jump to the Travel Channel.  Emmy Awards later, I am sure he is glad he never agreed to the preposterous idea FoodTV threw at him to travel the US to find the best BBQ.  Thank goodness Anthony Bourdain gave them the all familiar suggestion rather than buckle to fame and riches, both of which he was able to achieve anyway in another channel anyway.  And my new favorite show, “The Wild Within” would never fly on FoodTV.  Why?  Because it’s actually good.  Not only that, it’s social.  It’s thought provoking television.  Even if you disagree with hunting in general, you have a better appreciation of what Steven Rinella is doing on that show.  And FoodTV?  Another cupcake show?  Another show to squeeze every last bit of Bobby Flay?

Yes, this is another angry rant.  No, I am not happy.  Who can be, with this network?  Watching Guy Fieri devour another chicken fried steak is not my idea of good television.  Let’s do some real television people.  Tune into “The Wild Within”, “No Reservations”, and “Top Chef”.  Those are the shows we ought to be watching.

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The Perfect Roast

 

While there really is nothing wrong with getting a roast chicken from your local grocery store for about $5.99, there’s nothing like making your own roast.  For those who are cost conscious, making your own roast chicken will cost more than picking one up at Ralphs/Vons/Safeway.  Drive, park, walk in, pick up, and purchase.  Depending on the drive time, takes what?  10 minutes?  For your own roast, there’s the prep time and cook time that we could be doing something else.  We could be at the park, hiking, rocking climbing, or doing something that would be bring the heart rate to a healthy level.  But really, would we?  Or would we be staring at the computer, chatting on line, or in front of the TV, watching another episode in the adventures of Snookie?

A perfect roast chicken is really, the easiest thing to achieve.  It takes as little as 3 ingredients [whole chicken, salt, and pepper] or as many as you would like depending on the herbs you want to use [thyme and sage being the most popular].  In following Thomas Keller‘s Bouchon roast chicken, there is nothing easier to make.  Yes, you have to prep the bird.  Take out the wish bone so that after it’s done cooking, you can carve out that breast without hindrance [if you’re new to this, about 3 minutes].  Rinse and dry the bird [1 minute].  Truss the bird so it cooks evenly and keeps the breast moist [2 minutes tops if you’ve never done it].  Stick it on a large iron skillet [less than 10 seconds].  In the oven for about 40-50 minutes depending on the size of the bird or until the thickest area of the bird reads 160F.  This entire process will take a whopping 1 hour, 40-50 minutes of which you’re not even doing anything.  Let it stand for 15 minutes and chow.

Yes, this bird will run you closer to $10 and you might be asking, “Why should I buy an uncooked bird for $10 when I can get one for $6?”  No arguments here.  But to me, there’s nothing like seasoning my own bird, infusing different flavors each time, and just waiting for it to cook.  There’s nothing like knowing what went in flavoring the chicken.  Again, I’m just saying that cooking home-y foods need not be complicated.  The 3 ingredient roast chicken will be moist and above all things, really damn tasty.  Get in that kitchen and invest about 15 minutes of prep time to get the perfect roast chicken.  If you want to be fancy, cut up some root vegetables [carrots, celery, onions] and some russet or sweet potatoes and throw them in a roasting pan with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then put the chicken on top.  The natural juices of the chicken will get all over those potatoes and vegetables and coat them with savory goodness.  At the end of the 60-75 minutes, you’ll have a meal for 3-4.  Happy days.

 

Reinterpretation

I’ve never been to the French Laundry.  I’ve never been to Per Se.  The closest to those restaurants I’ve been to is Providence here in Los Angeles, where the food is both playful [a dessert offering paying homage to a Seinfeld episode called “These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty”] and exquisite.  I am not at all trying to compare Providence to either of Thomas Keller‘s restaurant, but I think it is important to take comfort foods to a new level where we can experience something new.  Something so American, such as macaroni and cheese, can be reinterpreted to a higher level as Thomas Keller does at Per Se.  The picture above is his interpretation of macaroni and cheese.  A butter poached Nova Scotia lobster tail served over creamy lobster broth and mascarpone enriched orzo topped with a parmesan crisp.

I know a lot of people take offense when people like me say cooking can be considered an art form.  People might say, “It’s food for crying out loud!!!”  But like many art forms, you can reinterpret something that is so familiar to you that it creates a new experience.  To me, that’s part of art.  It’s part of what artists go through to interpret, and at times, reinterpret their surroundings and even their own experiences.  And it’s this reinterpretation of a classic American dish that allows someone like Thomas Keller to be inspired by something of the past to take the diner to a new place.  As he says during an interview with Charlie Rose:

People often ask, what inspires you?  Well, you can’t really say what’s going to inspire you in the future, but you can talk about stories of what inspires you in the past.

We don’t want to live in the past, where mac and cheese is done a certain way and there’s no changing it.  But there’s importance and artfulness in trying to transcend a dish that is so basic to something quite extraordinary.  While these new interpretations won’t evoke childhood memories perhaps, it is the same childhood memories that allow chefs like Thomas Keller to reach for the stars as we ride happily along with him.  We don’t all have to cook like Thomas Keller to imagine the possibilities of creating a new dish from an old dish.  It takes iterations to get the flavors right and balanced.  We don’t have to have lobster tail or mascarpone enriched orzo, but we do need some imagination and some adventure in our way of eating.  As Eric Ripert said during an interview for PlumTV.com, a dish normally take about 4 weeks from conception to bringing it on the menu.  We don’t have to go to French Laundry or Per Se to experience food in a new way.  We just have to be open to new experiences.  Sometimes they work out beautifully, and sometimes we wonder why we tried at all.  But life is not about going to Red Lobster every Friday night because that’s what you’ve done for the last 20-30 years.  Life is full of experiences and one can start by venturing out to something new.  It will be worth it in the end.  We may never look at macaroni and cheese the same ever again.

Behind The Curtain

 

I have been curious and in some ways, completely enamored about what goes on in the kitchen when we go out for dinner.  What is going on back there that’s making our food taste so good/bad?  One thing’s for sure, you cannot compare a franchise restaurant, like a Cheesecake Factory, to a non-franchise/big box restaurant.  It’s clear the menu at Cheesecake factory will be the same, pretty much 365 days out of the year.  They don’t care that asparagus is not in season, it’s on that damn menu.  But if you truly care about food [yes, that’s somewhat of an indictment on Cheesecake Factory, although I think it’s a fine place to eat], you bring in seasonal and locally grown ingredients.  Not because you want to be posh, but because it’s the responsible thing to do.  It’s the sustainable thing to do.  I’ve never worked in a kitchen, nor have I ever even worked in a restaurant, but it’s clear when you eat at a restaurant that truly cares about the ingredients and how it is prepared.  Here in Los Angeles, I’ve eaten at Providence, a 2 star Michelin restaurant on Melrose near Hollywood.  The food is exceptional.  You can taste the craftsmanship in each dish.  To be fair to the Cheesecake Factory, the cooks also work damn hard.  When it’s the lunch/dinner rush, that kitchen is a hot bed of cooks pushing out orders like there’s no tomorrow.  So why isn’t the Cheesecake Factory sporting any Michelin stars?  Everyone works hard in both restaurants, right?  Right.  But not everything is created equal.  The people who run and work at Providence is not just about turning tables all night long.  The food is the center piece of something more than just feeding hungry mouths in the dining room.  There’s thoughtfulness to the ingredients, creativity, balance of flavors and texture, finding that niche where it’s pushing the envelop of one’s dining experience.  And I think if you’re honest with yourself, that is not Cheesecake Factory’s M.O.

Alinea is considered the best restaurant in America today.  It’s surpassed the French Laundry and Per Se to become the star of the culinary circle in this country.  It is ranked number seven in the world and it has, of course, 3 Michelin stars.  I’ve never eaten at Alinea.  Shoot, I’ve never even been to Chicago [egregious, I know].  I don’t know that I will ever get to eat at Alinea, where people wait in line to pay over $200 per person for a 20 course tasting menu.  It’s a restaurant that isn’t for everyone.  In fact, the sheer intensity of chef and owner Grant Achatz will probably turn off a lot of potential diners.  I think many of us want something familiar to eat, even if we think it’s so drastically different.  Alinea pushes the envelop to the nth degree.  They do it, not out of arrogance, but out of total respect for food and their diners.  They do it because, as chefs, they are in many ways, artists themselves.  To picture Picasso, Van Gogh, or Michelangelo giving anything less than their creative best would be unthinkable.  As masterpieces are created, artists go through a process of creating, executing, failing, and starting over again.  One can argue that I’m being extreme in calling chefs artists, and maybe so, but to understand just a little of their thought process in creating dishes would help us see that they are not that different than painters and composers.  They all go through a creative process in throwing out bad ideas and embracing new and exciting ones.

So, what goes into running and cooking at a place like Alinea?  Why is it the best restaurant in America?  What would make anyone pay $200 per head to eat at a place like this?  The video below shows how utterly dedicated these men are to their craft.  Led by Grant Achatz, these men discuss, debate, and embrace a world where their starting point is the Sistine Chapel, not Michelangelo’s sketch drawings.  It is a menu development meeting where you get to experience 2nd hand, anyway, the kind of creative process and healthy debate on how they want to give their customers the very best they can possibly give.  It’s amazing to me the passion and soulfulness of their approach to something as simple as squid and green beans.  Many out there may think, “Who cares?  Give me a slice of pizza and I’m in heaven.”  And that would be missing the point.  It’s not just about preparing food, it’s about excellence and most of all, a true passion to create something new and exciting.  This should inspire us to do the same in our own lives.  Push the envelop, even if the process is slow, as Grant says.  That’s OK, but we always have to be mindful of what’s “out there” in the landscape and strive for being the best.

But, What Is It?

Banana bread.  Beautiful banana bread.  When done correctly, it is one of my favorites.  Moist, warm, and full of banana flavors.  It’s amazing how simple ingredients can turn into something quite wonderful and yet so tasty.  Many people will tell you what their favorite kind of banana bread is.  Pillsbury with walnuts, Betty Crocker with pecans, or even Sara Lee’s already made banana bread. Quick, simple, and just add liquid [often water].  But, what is IN the boxed banana bread mix?  And is it really that much faster to make?  Doing a quick Google search yields the following ingredients in the Pillsbury Banana Bread mix:

ENRICHED BLEACHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, NIACIN, IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), SUGAR, DRIED BANANA, WHEAT STARCH, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, DEXTROSE, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: BAKING POWDER (BAKING SODA, SODIUM ACID PYROPHOSPHATE, MONOCALCIUM PHOSPHATE), DEFATTED WHEAT GERM, CORN STARCH, PROPYLENE GLYCOL MONOESTERS, SALT, CELLULOSE, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES, POLYSORBATE 60, NONFAT MILK, TBHQ AND CITRIC ACID (ANTIOXIDANTS

I have to be honest, I don’t know what half the ingredients are.   Although growing up on this kind of stuff, for the past 10 years, I am trying to wean myself off of the artificial ingredients out of my diet [this goes beyond box mixes].  When they have to use the word “natural” in their ingredients, that kind of scares me.  To make the Pillsbury banana bread, you put the mix in a bowl.  Add the water and mix.  Then put it in the loaf pan and bake for about 45 minutes.  Total time is about 50-55 minutes.  I suppose that’s pretty quick to make banana bread, but still, what is “cellulose” doing in my banana mix box?  And what is “nonfat milk” doing outside the refrigerator?  “TBHQ”?  It doesn’t even have a vowel!!!

The picture is my homemade banana bread.  The ingredients are as followings:

UNBLEACHED FLOUR [MIX OF WHITE AND WHEAT], BAKING SODA, BAKING POWER, BUTTER, RIPE BANANAS, WHOLE MILK, BROWN SUGAR, ORANGE ZEST, NUTMEG, AND EGGS.

I know what these ingredients are.  But you’re probably asking, “But how LONG did it take you to make banana bread from scratch?  Like 3 hours?  Do you knead the dough until your arm falls off?”  Here’s what you do.  Melt the butter and put it with the eggs and sugar in a stand up mixer.  On low speed, alternate adding the flour and mashed bananas in three batches until just mixed.  Pour in loaf pan and bake for 50 minutes.  Total cook time is about 70 minutes.  I admit it takes longer to make this banana bread than the Pillsbury.  And even though I haven’t had the Pillsbury banana bread in over 15 years, I don’t have a doubt that in a taste test, Pillsbury doesn’t stand a chance.  No, my banana bread is not necessarily “good” for you – it has butter, sugar, and eggs.  You won’t lose weight eating it.  But these ingredients are already natural.  I don’t need to qualify them by using the word “natural” as an adjective.  There are no artificial flavors or ingredients.  So, while the Pillsbury Banana Bread instant mix may seem quick and simple, I implore people to cook/bake without artificial flavors.  Companies like Pillsbury and Sara Lee wants you to believe that pouring water into an already made mix is faster and easier.  Don’t believe the lie.  I know you can all do it.  I know we live busy lives, but we really have to try and carve out time in our day to really cook.  It doesn’t have to be French Laundry worthy.  It just has to be from the heart and with real ingredients.  We need to break our dependence on these instant/frozen meals where all they are are sugar and sodium ladened junk food.  We need to start fighting for our lives and it needs to happen now.


Coffee is one of those beverages that people digress about, talk about, debate over, and really, just plain love.  I don’t know if that’s because Starbucks has gotten all of us to think and drink coffee twenty four seven, but a “hot cup of coffee with a good book on a rainy day is bliss”, a lot of people declare.  I know people who roast their own coffee because it’s better tasting.  To them, I say, “I am not worthy.”

We discovered Lavazza, the Italian coffee maker, while vacationing in Italy.  To me, it’s got the right amount of bitterness, roast, taste, and aroma.  Lavazza is tough to get here in the States at a grocery store, where I still feel that it is dominated by crappy instant coffee like Folgers.  Some are getting upscale and stocking Starbucks whole beans, but even that is not Lavazza to me.  Lavazza is more of an experience.  The experience of sitting at our friends’ balcony at their Tuscan flat along the coast in July, where the smell of the sea quietly drifts through the town.  Talking about life and how different our two countries are, not just statistical factoids, but culturally and historically.  The sound of the percolating coffee in the Bialetti stove top espresso maker, signaling it is ready to be consumed.  All of that come roaring back when I use my own stove top coffee maker once or twice a week to enjoy a cup of Lavazza.

The science of percolation, especially with coffee grinds, is one where the Italians and other European countries have perfected more than Americans have.  Here in the States, we want things now, we want things fast, and we want things cheap.  Or probably more accurately, we feel entitled to things now, fast, and cheap.  There in Italy, it’s about the quality and experiencing life more fully.  They still work very hard, as my friend does, so the stereotype of Italians taking afternoon naps is not accurate.  But they get six weeks of vacation a year, which is pretty normal.  And culturally, August is a time when they all go on holiday to the sea or mountains for some rest and recuperation.  They appear more passionate about living a good life, not hoarding everything they can with the least amount of effort like we do here.  And the Italians have done that with their coffee.  Certainly, Lavazza is not the only coffee they have there.  Nor, perhaps, the best.  But the process in which they extract flavor from the coffee beans through percolation is magical.  The solvent, or water, passes through a permeable substance [coffee] and it extracts the flavors from the beans to a rich and full bodied cup of coffee.  You can’t set up a time to have it ready.  It doesn’t turn off by itself.  And if the heat is too strong, you can destroy the water chamber of the espresso maker.  The old adage of “patience is a virtue” is true for Lavazza.  It’s worth the wait for that cup of espresso that will take me back to the Italian coast.  And that’s always a good thing.