Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Watching Food Television Again

As I said last time, I’m finding it difficult to find something I like watching on the Food Network these days. Ever since the Paula scandal, when they dropped her faster than a hot potato, they’ve been a bit in my bad books. (I’m not saying I don’t understand WHY they did it, but I don’t have to agree with it.) And other than Ina and Giada, there’s just not that much there that I’m interested in.

However, there IS a food show elsewhere that I’ve really been enjoying lately. I love this chef, I love his shtick and how he presents his stuff in a very entertaining way. I’m talking about Jamie Oliver and his 15 Minute Meals.

Honestly, watching him makes me want to watch food television again, even though it's on a network I don’t associate with great (or any) cooking programming AND, even though (to me) the whole 15 minute thing is more of an encumbrance than a reason to watch.  

I’m a Jamie fan anyway. I like his fast-paced moves, his stellar knife skills and how he uses his hands instead of spatulas, spoons and mixing devices. I also like that his cooking is fresh, the food has zing to it and that we’re watching someone with pretty great technique.

Each show features 2 different quick meals. I don’t care about that part, but everything needs a hook, I guess, and this one makes Jamie’s energy in the kitchen even more fast and furious than usual. There’s also a really weird twist to this show, which took me a while to cotton on to. More about that later…

On this particular show, he’s making Spicy Jerk Pork, even though he admits that Jerk often means marinating for some time. Magically, Jamie is going to get a lot of flavor into that pork loin without marinating. Luckily, if we make this at home, we can marinate it all we want.

To accompany the pork, Jamie grills corn for a salad. He uses a stove top grill pan, which does a beautiful job at making dark crusty grill marks. His pan looks brand new. How in the world do you get them to stay like that? 

Check out the end of this post to see my beautiful Mario pan. It works really well, but it looks well used now. I clean it the way I clean a barbecue or stove top grill burners. I ball up foil and hold it with tongs to scrub off the burned-on stuff. It works well, but the pan never looks brand new again. 

Anyhoo, Jamie puts the corn straight on the grill pan and turns it regularly to get those nice grill marks all over.

Next he makes a cool tortilla bowl. Jamie places corn tortillas in an overlapping pattern into an oven-proof bowl. He’s forming an actual bowl out of the tortillas. He cooks that in a 300°F oven for 6 to 8 minutes and ends up with a nifty salad container that becomes part of the meal.

While that’s cooking, Jamie cuts the pork loin into little individual fillets. Then he punches each one down with his fist, just to flatten them a bit. I never thought to manhandle a fillet that way, but it works!

Here’s the weird part. All through the show, these “helpful” (NOT!)  “SAFETY FIRST!” messages keep appearing on the screen. When Jamie sticks his hands into the super hot grill pan to turn the corn, it says “SAFETY FIRST! Use tongs when turning food in a hot pan.” At one point, we’re watching him chop and the banner of the message actually obscures what he’s doing, while proclaiming that one should chop slowly and carefully FOR SAFETY! Oy, it’s as if lawyers are standing over Jamie in the kitchen, issuing warnings on every potentially dangerous thing he does (which is basically everything). Why do we have to have our viewing constantly interrupted by inane messages? Cooking is a risky business and if people are dumb enough to stick their hands in a hot pot, without knowing how to do it nimbly and without ill effect, it’s their problem!

Jamie seasons the pork with salt and ground coriander (from a height, which is important because it distributes the salt and spices more evenly).  The one time I don’t mind the “SAFETY FIRST!” message is when it alerts folks about washing hands after handling raw meat. Jamie is also working with the pork on a piece of thick kitchen paper, so it can be thrown out when the pork goes into the pan.

Jamie cooks the now seasoned pork in a tablespoon of olive oil on medium high heat for 2½ minutes on each side. (He uses his hand to move the meat around. No warning. I guess the food police blinked.)

Into a not particularly impressive-looking blender, Jamie adds a bunch of fresh cilantro. Next he adds some Scotch bonnet, telling us he loves the apricot-y flavor. He uses an entire half, but warns us to start with less. A “SAFETY FIRST!”  message warns us about touching our eyes after handling hot peppers. Okay, I don’t mind this one either and I would even have added something about wearing gloves.

Jamie adds more things to the blender - a bunch of mint, allspice, ginger, 6 squished tomatoes, 4 spring onions and 4 pressed cloves of garlic. He adds a tablespoon of soy sauce to enhance the flavor and a heaped tablespoon of honey. He turns it on and nothing happens. The blender is on, but nothing is moving. (Ahem! What did I say about the blender looking dicey?)

Jamie adds a bit of water (I think he was supposed to do that at the beginning) and says that will get it going. STILL NOTHING. Then he tips the blender (while it’s on) to get a deeper pool of liquid around the blade and finally it blends the whole thing. AFTER it’s smooth, he realizes he forgot the 2 tablespoons of vinegar which would have helped matters. Of course, we should add that first, and then less water will be needed to get things moving.

He turns the prettily browning pork filets, mopping up the juices as he turns them. 

“SAFETY FIRST!” tells us to wash our hands thoroughly after handling peppers. Huh? THEN it’s really too late. The trick is not to let them touch your skin in the first place.

What SHOULD you do if you DO get burned by hot peppers or chilies? Immediately coat your hands (as if you were washing them) with olive or vegetable oil and then wash it off with a thick layer of dishwashing liquid. It helps A LOT, but nothing is better than a complete barrier of plastic gloves or even plastic baggies attached with rubber bands. (Luckily, most of us are not taping television shows and no one can see the crazy things that go on in the kitchen.)

Jamie takes out the pork and adds the jerk sauce from the (jerky) blender to the pan and stirs it into all those drippings. He reduces it a bit.

Back to the salad, he adds lots of ingredients separately (and undressed) to the tortilla salad bowl. First, whole romaine leaves, then a pile of the grilled corn cut from the cob (“SAFETY FIRST! Be careful with the knife"…Ya think?) Then a pile of “garden cress” , which isn’t watercress and isn’t alfalfa sprouts, but in between those in size. He adds some chopped tomatoes and a squeeze of lime and pours a bit of olive oil and salt on top. “The olive oil will have a nice little journey all the way down.” I do love Jamie. 

Just as I’m thinking that I would like all those salad ingredients more if they were dressed BEFORE they went into the tortilla bowl, Jamie says that you may smash and mix it all up before serving. Well! THAT answers THAT. I also like that he thinks of this salad as being kind of a salsa too, with all its freshness and crunch. What’s not to like?

Jamie adds the pork back to the reduced jerk sauce and then plates it on the edge of the platter with his tortilla salad bowl. He tops it with a bit of yogurt and he’s done (in fifteen minutes).

He attacks the salad by tearing off some tortilla and topping it with all the vegetables. He also dips it in the jerk sauce. Very yummy looking.

Jamie moves on to his next quick meal of minestrone and poached chicken. He started by frying some pancetta and rosemary until both are crisp. He removes them from the oil and sets them aside to sprinkle over the finished dish.

Jamie adds a chicken stock cube. I’m not fond of that and I don’t get how that saves time. Why not just use chicken stock? This would be the perfect place for my concentrated vegetable stock paste.
Then we’re treated to another “SAFETY FIRST!” message as he’s cutting the ends off of carrots. “SAFETY FIRST! Only use knives with adult supervision”. Hold on a hot minute! Am I watching a kid’s show?

It suddenly occurs to me that this is airing during Saturday morning cartoon hours. IS this show for kids? Next he thick slices lots of vegetables in the food processor. “SAFETY FIRST!  Keep your fingers away from the feed tube." Really? OMG, this IS for kids. I THOUGHT it was weird that there was some pet vet show on too and also that Laila Ali had a show, but I didn’t pay much attention. You know what? I don’t care. I like Jamie and his recipes and I guess if I have to cope with a few (read that as MANY)  “SAFETY FIRST!” messages, it’s a small price to pay.

Jamie softens his sofrito – onions, carrots and celery. Then he adds cauliflower and the stalk of broccoli to the food processor with more “SAFETY FIRST!” warnings and stirs those into the soup base. He adds boiling water, which is his quick cooking tip. That’s because he’s English and has an electric kettle always at the ready. Good idea, though. It’s like that guy who says that he always puts a pot of water on to boil whenever he starts cooking.

Next Jamie has one brilliant idea and one idea which is not so great. He tells us that he gathers all his leftover pasta in one big jar to use in soup. So whenever there’s a bit left in the box, he adds it to this jar. He’s going to use that in the minestrone. THAT IS REALLY SMART. I’m always wondering what to do with the dregs of one box of pasta. Great tip.

What I do NOT love is that he adds the pasta directly to the soup, which drinks up all that flavorful liquid. DON’T DO THAT. Cook the pasta separately (in that handy boiling water) and add it shortly before serving the soup. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did. It also prevents you from adding too much pasta.

To make this a main course situation, he adds two chicken breasts to the top of the soup and gets to working on his salsa verde. He adds a bunch of parsley and mint to the food processor and just a bit of pressed garlic. Then, from the pantry, he grabs jars of cornichons, capers, anchovies and mustard.

“Don’t try to balance too many glass jars!” Okay, this MUST be for kids! If not, they think real morons watch Jamie! (Don’t comment on that!)

Jamie adds all those jarred things to the food processor and scrapes it into a bowl. He stirs in 3 tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of vinegar and then some hot broth from the minestrone pot. He says that “little bit of heat just wakens up those herbs”. Well put.

Maybe the messages for The “CBS Dream Team That’s Epic!” should have given it away, but I still don’t think most little kids are making a salsa with cornichons and capers on a Saturday morning.

Jamie removes the chicken from the pot and adds broccoli florets, frozen broad beans and sweet peas to the minestrone. Lastly, he adds a bag of spinach and immediately puts the lid back on to steam it quickly.

The salsa verde goes in a bowl and he plops some extra on top of and around the chicken on the cutting board. As he cuts it, it’s getting a nice blast of flavor. (Doesn’t Michael Symon slice his steak on a cutting board, sitting in a pool of olive oil and salt? So smart.) He slices the chicken on an angle. “SAFETY FIRST! Keep your fingers away from the edge of the knife." Ugh! The chicken looks perfect. He says to cook it for 6½ to 7 minutes, depending on how high your soup is boiling.

Jamie places the chicken on the salsa verde and adds a little boiling water to the minestrone to loosen it up. That would NOT have been necessary if he had cooked the pasta separately. Last, but not least, he adds all the crispy bits of pancetta and rosemary to the top of the chicken. He sprinkles over a few basil leaves (which I had to see with the close captioning on, because his pronunciation of Bahhhh-zill is nowhere close to mine – Bay-zul. I thought he was talking about Brazil.)

Jamie keeps some Parmesan “on standby”, just to remind us that we’re “in Italy” and the meal is done. In 15 minutes? Who cares? This looks really glorious and simple and worth as much time as it really takes.

One problem with Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals, which was shown in Britain (and elsewhere) a few years ago, is the CBS website. It is absolutely pathetic. When you can finally find mention of a particular show, there seems to be a video clip. However, EVERY show’s clip turns out to be the same exact promo of the series, NOT an individual show. And good luck finding the recipes. Some of them are available, but many are not. CBS has done a terrible job of providing all the extra stuff that we’ve become used to. A LOT of the recipes are here, but a lot aren’t.

Despite the idiotic warnings and lack of recipes, I love watching Jamie and his crooked smile. I also love his lispy English accent, which Brits may find annoying, but I find lovely (as they would say). Plus his food is so colorful and fresh and pretty that you can’t help but run into the kitchen and start cooking. And THAT'S what makes a good cooking show.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Where Have I Been And WHAT Has Happened To The Food Network?

Oh guys, I’m here, I really am, but clearly I haven’t been putting blogging at the top of my to-do list. And if you’ve been watching the Food Network lately, it’s not too hard to understand why. But there are a couple other things that have been going on to explain my absence, which, I fully admit, are probably pretty boring to anyone not living within my four walls.

First, I’m doing a relatively small renovation which has turned into a really big time sucker. And I’M not even the one knocking down the walls. My town puts many roadblocks in the way of doing things to one’s house and it’s taken a lot of nitpicky action to get things going AND we don’t even start the actual work for a couple of weeks. But, as anybody knows who’s ever done work to his or her house, lots of things, actually EVERYTHING has to be chosen and ordered in advance.

The second thing that’s taken my attention away from blogging (I really buried the lead here) is that my daughter is getting married…in the fall…in California. YAY!!!!!!!

There are a lot of details to work out since it’s an out of town wedding for many of us. The best part of the whole thing, though, is that my daughter is the least Bridezilla of any bride in the universe. She’s concerned about her family and her guests and we haven’t disagreed about anything! (Well, she DID nix the doves…) And a wonderful side effect is that we talk or IM or text many times daily and, frankly, I don’t really care what it’s about. It’s just nice to be in such close communication. I’ve asked her if after the wedding, we can still talk as much and while the answer has not been that reassuring, I’ll take what I can get for now.

But back to my first point… In the last few years, there’s been a lot less of interest to watch on the Food Network and, thus, to write about. Ina and Giada have been banished to Sunday mornings and The Kitchen, which should really be called The Chew 2, has taken a prime Saturday morning spot. And, of course, now competitions rule. I love this article, which talks about how junky the Food Network is getting...literally.

Allen Salkin, author of From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, is quoted. He “sees the junk-food cooking as a sign of decline for a channel that once minted celebrity chefs and acted as something of a middle-brow vanguard for raising America’s culinary knowledge. Now, he says, executives are just ‘regurgitating old show ideas and presenting new ways to make ourselves fatter and sicker.’ ”

Somehow when I watched Paula (remember her?) cooking unbelievably unhealthful food, I looked at it as pure entertainment and not something I would actually replicate in the kitchen. (And you always got the feeling that Paula was in on the joke.) Now, they’re serious!

Plus if the Food Network could clone Bobby Flay, they would. They’ve stretched him from straight cooking shows to competing in cooking competitions, to judging, to mentoring, to mentoring WHILE judging AND competing and every variation therein. Soon they will be happy just to put his name in the title of the show…or maybe the credits. I happen to love Bobby, so seeing him everywhere isn’t the problem. I’m just sorry they don’t think his cooking is good enough to carry an entire show, but apparently just showing his face is good enough to carry an entire network.

There IS one cooking show that I’m very excited about. I’ll tell you about it next time…and soon.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Trick To Making Chocolate Covered Strawberries

Happy Valentine’s Day!


There is only one trick I know of for making pretty perfect Chocolate Covered Strawberries, but it’s not one that I like to admit to. Don’t tell anyone that I told you that adding CRISCO to your chocolate is just the thing to make the finished product perfectly glossy and nicely hardened.

I have written it about it before, but I’ve changed the recipe a tiny bit, so I wanted to mention it again. Now I use less Crisco and the result is still stellar.

I don’t generally weigh ingredients, but for this I do. For every 8 ounces of chocolate, use 1 tablespoon of Crisco. (I used to use 1 tablespoon for every FOUR ounces of chocolate.) Melt the two together however you wish – on the stove over a double boiler or in the microwave. In the microwave, melt the chocolate and Crisco in a deep (not wide) bowl or measuring pitcher. Heat on 100% power in 30 second intervals, stirring after each one until chocolate is melted. Note: Make sure that all your utensils, bowls, pots etc. are completely dry. A few drops of water will make the chocolate seize and you’ll have a total mess.

This time I used milk chocolate, which I usually don’t like, but it was really good with the strawberries! Also I coated them a lot higher up than I usually do. (More chocolate!)

Let the coated strawberries sit on waxed paper until hardened. An hour is a safe amount of time. Don’t refrigerate them before serving or their glossy finish may turn dull.

Use white, dark or milk chocolate or two different chocolates, dipping first in one, letting it harden and then dipping in the second variety. Or use a different chocolate for drizzling over to make a nice contrast. Melt each chocolate the same way (with the Crisco). 

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Use the leftover chocolate to coat graham cracker squares for a nice treat. Sprinkle with some pretty colored sugar. (These would make a good base for S'Mores too...)