Friday, July 12, 2013

TV Takes: Food Network Star

It's been a while since I wrote much about food TV (other than oblique references, that is) — which is odd, since it was binge-watching Top Chef that put me on the road to emerging foodiehood in the first place — but earlier this week, a friend at work point this Andy Greenwald piece criticizing Food Network Star, and I just have to respond. (Truth to tell, I think my friend was more interested in the picture of Giada De Laurentiis than the article, but just the same....)

Greenwald makes a few indisputably good points… but it seems to me the going-in baseline for his remorselessly sneering piece is a basic dislike of Food Network in particular and, really, TV in general. Of course it’s artificial: It’s entertainment, and all entertainment is artifice. And of course they craft a POV: Neither Greenwald nor anyone else would actually watch a TV show that was just generically “about food,” without any concept or focus, and it's hardly "Orwellian" to coach would-be TV performers to be, you know, watchable. Even Julia Child had a “culinary POV,” fer criminy’s sake! Food Network Star is, basically, a look into the sausage factory of food TV (aka "a show devoted to celebrating the artifice of television"... artifice; you say that like it's a bad thing...), and some of us actually do want to see how the sausage is made, notwithstanding the old line; Greenwald seems like someone who not only doesn’t want to see the process, but doesn’t much actually like sausage to begin with.

With the notable exception of American Idol, none of the “launch a new star” reality shows has a high success rate: AFAIK, no winners of The Apprentice (the original, noncelebrity version) has gone on to a big career in business; a few America’s Next Top Model winners have gotten some visible work, but not one of them has become a supermodel; only one (that I know of) America’s Got Talent winner has gone on to a big Vegas showroom career; So You Think You Can Dance winners probably get work in movies or on Broadway, and a couple have gone on to careers working with the show itself as choreographers or rehearsal leaders, but none of them has become a star in the more general sense; and to date no Project Runway winner has become the must-have designer for that class of celebrities whose designer’s names people know. And let’s not even mention the similar “next star” competitions on other niche networks like HGTV.

Compared to these shows, FNS actually doesn’t do too badly. Guy Fieri (much as I, personally, can’t stand watching him) is a bona fide star whose fame actually extends beyond the world of food TV; Jeff “The Sandwich King” Mauro’s (Season 7 winner) show just finished its 4th season (on Food Network, not Cooking Channel), and he had a second show as a spinoff last year (no word as of yet whether it’ll be renewed); Aarti Sequeira’s (Season 6 winner) show ran for 3 seasons (also on the mothership); Melissa D’Arabian (Season 5) has been working steadily on Food Network/Cooking Channel and related websites since her win, and published a cookbook last year; and all of these winners (none of whom Greenwald even mentions) make frequent guest appearances on other Food Network shows (e.g., on anthology shows like The Best Thing I Ever Ate/Made, or as judges or celebrity/”all-star” contestants on other competition shows like Iron Chef America or Chopped). In addition, besides Kelsey Nixon (who actually is “young and blonde and chipper,” but who is by no stretch of the imagination so irresistibly adorable that she “would have a show on the Model Train Network if she owned a pair of overalls and such a thing existed”), numerous other nonwinners have had some degree of success within the Food Network family of outlets (e.g., Adam Gertler,  Jeffrey Saad, Tom Pizzica) or parlayed their “culinary POV” into non-FN success (e.g., Debbie Lee, who turned her Korean soul food concept into a successful LA food truck). So while FNS may not have created many real stars, it has given no small number of people at least a shot at making a living in their chosen field… which is as much as most of its peer shows can claim.

BTW, the suggestion, in re Kelsey Nixon, that Food Network wants bland, pretty, generic TV star types is belied by the fact that Nixon only finished fourth in her season, which was won by a black man from New Jersey, who was in turn succeeded by a short, round, dark (albeit also “chipper”) Mumbai-born/Dubai-raised woman (Aarti Sequeira) as the next winner. Last season’s winner, Justin Warner, was a skinny, geeky-looking kid who more resembles Bill Nye the Science Guy than he does Mr. TV Star™ from Central Casting. Even normal-white-guy winners like Jeff Mauro (and Guy Fieri himself) often aren’t typical “pretty” TV types, and one of FN’s biggest stars – Alton Brown – is a balding, middle-aged food geek in a bowtie. And don’t even get me started about Anne Burrell, who looks like a female defensive tackle and has hair that suggests she walks around with a Tesla coil in her pocket. Beautiful people like Giada and (so I’m told by my female friends) Bobby Flay notwithstanding, FN really can’t fairly be accused of being overly looks conscious.

All that said, I actually have been disappointed with the current season: I liked the changes they made to the show’s format for last season, but they’ve fiddled with the format again for this season, mostly to the show’s detriment (fewer contestants, no mentors' teams, not enough Bob and Susie, etc.). And the cast of competitors has (so far) been disappointing: The (apparent) best cooks (e.g., Viet Pham) have either boring concepts or no screen presence, while the ones with the most interesting personalities and concepts (e.g., Rodney "Pie Man" Henry) consistently fail to impress the judges with their food. And many of them are recycled from previous appearances on FN (and/or other reality TV), as pointed out in Maggie Furlong’s HuffPo piece, which I think is actually a more thoughtful critique than Greenwald’s. Still, I’m hoping that this is just a down season (or half-season: Often in the past, things have looked bleak, and then a few competitors have hit their stride in the later episodes), rather than a sign that the concept is played out… because overall I’ve really enjoyed the show up to this point in its history.

(Note that the second half of Greenwald's column, about Paula Deen, is essentially a separate piece, and one I'm not inclined to comment about, having never been a Deen fan even before the current controversy.)

Continuing Adventures in CSA

Today I picked up the second week's basket (cardboard box, really, but "basket" sounds more Chopped-like) of goodies from the Futtner Family Farm CSA I wrote about last week. I haven't cooked or planned any dishes, but I intend to document each week's haul here as soon as I get it. I'll follow up with separate posts about anything specifically interesting I cook, but I also want to just generally document the CSA experience: What I got, and what I didn't use from the previous week's basket.

This week's goodies include 6 or 8 smallish ears of early sweet corn, a generous bag of mixed green beans and wax beans, a nice head of broccoli, two large tomatoes and two smaller ones, and a bunch of cut sage. Mostly, I imagine this will all end up as nice sides to other meals, though I'm starting to get jalapenos in my garden, and I've just bought a new grill, so I might try a roasted corn salsa.

From last week's basket, aside from the sauteed collard greens with bacon I already wrote about, I made a pesto from the basil, which I've used on sandwiches and on a nice buschetta (which also used a couple of the tomatoes). I still haven't done anything with the Chinese cabbage, which may be close to its sell-by date... but I'm still thinking. More soon....

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Have a Cocktail (Sort of): The Teddy Roosevelt

This is (obviously) not a proper cocktail recipe, and probably not really worthy of a blog post, but it made me literally laugh out loud when it floated across my Facebook feed:

Friday, July 5, 2013

Poor Man's Chopped: My Adventures in CSA, Pt. 1

I've been buying starter plants (hot peppers, assorted veggies, and herbs) for my garden, and occasionally a pint of fresh strawberries or a bunch of asparagus, at Futtner Family Farm in East Hartford for more than a decade, but this year I'm trying something new: I've signed up for their community supported agriculture (CSA) program. The concept of CSA is simple: You pay for a share of a farm's crop in advance, and then get regular (typically weekly) deliveries of food, varying as the season progresses. It's good for farmers, because it provides income security and higher total income; it's good for CSA members/customers because they get a regular and varied supply of high-quality produce, not to mention that they're benefiting their local communities by supporting local, sustainable, family farms like Futtner.

For an emerging foodie like me, there's another benefit, too: Each week I get a box of ingredients I didn't pick and may never have cooked before, and I have to figure out what to do with them in order to get my money's worth. It's not exactly Chopped or the "Mystery Box Challenge" from MasterChef... but for a decidedly non-Master non-Chef like me, I expect it to be challenge enough to be entertaining.

This week was the first of the CSA season. Pickup days are Tuesday and Thursday, and though I'll normally get my box on Thursdays, everyone picked up on Tuesday this week because Thursday was the 4th of July. My first box included 5 very nice tomatoes (two different varieties, but don't ask me what they are), a large bunch of basil, a "mess" of collard greens, a bunch (not a whole head) of Chinese cabbage, and a pot of thyme plants. The thyme went on my deck (with the bigger pot I already had); my wife made bruschetta with one of the tomatoes and a bit of the basil, and I made pesto with most of the rest of the basil (I'll chop and freeze what's left); and I'm still trying to figure out what to do with the cabbage (trying, really, to figure out how to make a little bit of kimchi). But tonight I did my first substantial CSA cooking: the collard greens, with bacon, as my contribution to tonight's Independence Day dinner.

Despite having deep roots in the South — my father's father was from Alabama and his mother from Georgia; my father grew up in northern Florida; and I was born in Florida and raised in Texas — I've not only never cooked collards, I've barely ever eaten them. I knew bacon was bound to be part of the mix — I can't remember my grandmother ever cooking green vegetables that didn't have bacon in them — so I just fed collard greens and bacon into the Google machine and came up with this simple recipe.

We only had half an onion in the house, and were uncharacteristically out of fresh garlic, so I substituted an eyeball-estimated half-onion-worth of minced garlic scapes (yes, more of the ones I got from my coworker) and about a quarter teaspoon of granulated garlic; otherwise, I followed the recipe pretty much exactly, carefully getting my mise en place "en place," cooking the bacon, adding the onions and scapes, then the sugar and seasonings, then the cider vinegar, and finally the collards and liquid.

Though I didn't eat collards as a kid, I did have turnip greens and mustard greens, and I was never a fan: In my experience of them was that they were typically boiled to mush, and even the bacon was typically an uncut lump of pork, boiled with the greens for flavoring rather than sauteed as an actual ingredient. This was a whole different matter: Perhaps because of my remembered wariness, I was careful not to overcook the greens, and the bacon became a distinct flavor and textural element. Interestingly, to my wife the combination of greens, bacon, and cider vinegar seemed German. In any case, everyone enjoyed it.

I imagine I'll see collards again in CSA boxes yet to come; I can't wait to experiment with other ways to cook them.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Actual Cooking: Farm Egg Baked in Celery Cream

I mentioned in my post about Miller Union restaurant in Atlanta that I'd had the Farm Egg Baked in Celery Cream appetizer (as seen on TV!). It was such a wonderful combination of deliciousness and simplicity that I just had to try it for myself. Luckily, the actual Miller Union recipe by Chef Steven Satterfield is right there on teh intertoobz!

So I decided that for Father's Day, rather than being waited on,father wanted a chance to cook brunch himself.

On the Saturday before we went on a lovely drive through the Connecticut countryside looking for fresh, local ingredients. We found fresh jumbo eggs and a small yellow onion at a roadside farm stand. The Fish Family Farm Dairy Store was out of heavy cream (though we did bring home some delicious ice cream), but we can actually get local cream at the "local megamart" through the Farmer's Cow group of Connecticut dairy farms. I had fresh thyme from my own garden, and from a coworker's I had garlic scapes (the same ones I used in my chipotle bacon sweet potato salad), which I substituted for the shallot in my single deviation from Chef Satterfield's recipe. The only major ingredients not locally sourced were the celery (even the farm stands had only California celery) and the Schar gluten-free rolls I used to make my wife's portion of bread.

Sunday morning bright and early I hit the kitchen. Following the recipe, I put the celery, onion, scapes, thyme and other seasonings in a pot with the cream, gently heating it all until I saw the first hints of steam, then removing from the heat to steep for 15 minutes. At this point, it was all I could do not to simply drink the warm cream: I was astounded at the delicious fragrance that filled the kitchen as that cream steeped.

While it did, I got to work on the fresh grapefruit salad that would turn this dinner appetizer into a Sunday brunch. I cut supremes from a ruby-red grapefruit (a technique I've seen a lot on cooking shows, but had never previously tried), tossed them in a lime tarragon mint vinaigrette based very loosely on this recipe and using fresh mint and tarragon from my deck, and arrayed them in cocktail glasses over mixed salad greens from the garden.

When the cream was ready, I strained it and set it aside. I buttered two shallow baking dishes and broke an egg in each, then spooned in just enough of the infused cream to cover the whites, and popped the dishes into a 350°F oven for about 6 minutes. While I waited, I cut slices of bread — from the gluten-free rolls for my wife and from a fresh French loaf for me — brushed them with olive oil, and toasted them in a hot grill pan.

I mixed the residual juice from the grapefruit with some orange juice, grenadine, and club soda to make a Virgin Sunrise, and our brunch was complete:

Not a bad visual imitation of the original, eh? And, as it turns out, not a bad flavor imitation, either. In deference to my wife's preferences, I deliberately made the egg a tiny bit firmer than they serve it at Miller Union, but it was still rich, creamy, and delicious. The bread was perfect, and the salad and drink rounded this simple but luscious app up to a real meal.

I urge anyone who can to get to Miller Union and try the real thing... but if you can't, I urge you to "try this at home."

Dining Out: Miller Union (Atlanta, GA) - Emerging Foodie Roadtrip, Part 1

This spring I attended a work-related convention in Atlanta, followed by my annual trip to the Team America Rocketry Challenge national finals in Northern Virginia and a visit with my daughter (the George Washington University graduate student in American Studies) in the DC metro area. More than 10 days on the road, half of that on my own and with an expense account?1 That could only mean... Emerging Foodie Roadtrip! Over several posts, I'll be recalling for you, my faithful readers, the best of my gustatory adventures from that trip.

When I learned I would be going to Atlanta, I made it a point to DVR and carefully study the Atlanta episode of Anthony Bourdain's Travel Channel show The Layover. One segment that stuck in my mind was his visit, with Alton Brown, to the Miller Union farm-to-table restaurant; I just knew it had to be one of my stops.

Miller Union wasn't my first blogworthy meal of the trip, but it's definitely where I want to start. Described by Alton Brown as "not the only farm-to-table restaurant in Atlanta, but it's the best farm-to-table restaurant in Atlanta," I scoped the locaton out on my first night in town, though I didn't make it there to eat 'til my last night. It was worth the wait!

The only reservations for 1 available were either very early or very late; I chose the former, arriving at (as I recall) 5:30 pm, one of the first parties of the dinner service. The early evening light actually showed off the place's marriage of clean, modern design and country farmhouse motifs beautifully:

 And, of course, it was after 5:00 pm, so naturally I began with a cocktail, the Miller Thyme, made with Millers gin (according to my excellent waiter, that name is a coincidence; it's not a house brand), lemon, and fresh thyme.

Naturally, as a starter I had to have the very farm egg baked in celery cream that I'd seen Anthony Bourdain lap up on Alton Brown's recommendation. As promised, it's such a simple thing... and yet such a rich, delicious, beautiful thing. The delicate aromatic flavors of the cream; the richness of the egg; the chewy goodness of the grilled rustic bread... I could've almost ordered a second one as my entree.

 But of course, I didn't. Instead, I ordered duck breast with celery root purée, dandelion greens, and green garlic, along with a side of roasted beets with orange and olive oil. The latter, my waiter assured me, was a signature dish, like the egg appetizer, and I can well believe it. I was a late-in-life convert to beets, but I've quickly come to love them, and these were the best I've had. The duck was amazing, too: I've just about concluded that the duck is almost as noble a beast as the swine. (Almost!) And the celery root purée filled in checked off one of those foodie ingredients I mused about years ago... although, honestly, I'm not sure I could even now isolate that flavor from all the other wonderful ones on the plate.

 When I'm just eating for fuel, I usually don't order dessert, but I was determined to have the full Miller Union dining experience, so I ordered not one dessert, but two: a cornmeal cake with rhubarb jam and rose-hibiscus cream, which I so eagerly dove into that I barely remembered to take a picture...

 ...and a scoop of the most amazing mint ice cream (which was actually part of a different dessert on the menu, but I asked if I could just order it by itself). Mint ice cream may not sound all that amazing, but this was made with cream deeply infused with garden-fresh mint, and the result was utterly different from the usual candy-like mint flavor that most mint ice creams (including my homemade ones) have. I'm determined to try to duplicate that flavor with my homegrown mint... but frankly, I'll be shocked if I can get it half as good. This was a truly wonderful way to end a truly wonderful meal!


1 Just to be clear regarding this and other posts about eating out during the Atlanta portion of my trip, I only ever expensed a reasonable meal cost, and covered any extravagences (including alcohol) myself. Jus' sayin'....