Billy Joel didn’t start the fire

This is my day to get to the paper an hour earlier than normal, and so I took a long lunch today and ran to the grocery store for a few items. While there, I picked up some frozen egg rolls and brought them home for lunch. No problem there, but I also bought some hot Chinese mustard to go with them. I almost didn’t buy it, because it was more than I wanted to spend (especially when you compare it to regular mustard, one of the cheapest condiments out there).

I wish to now state, publicly, that the hot Chinese mustard was a poor decision. I would also like to send a special shout-out to the makers of Pepto-Bismol.

Alton and Giada

I was thrilled, and blogged about it, a few months back when Alton Brown started his podcast, The Alton Browncast. One of the reasons I was so excited about it was that I thought it would be more like Alton’s long-running show “Good Eats” and his wonderful limited series “Feasting on Asphalt” and “Feasting on Waves,” and an alternative to what seems now to be his day job as the Ryan Seacrest of food competition shows.

I have, as regular readers of this blog know, become sick and tired of food competition shows. Food Network ruined itself by moving almost entirely into competition shows, and now its sister channel,  Cooking Channel, is starting to catch the disease as well. I used to enjoy the competition shows; I was a huge fan of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” and I was originally a big fan of “Iron Chef America,” which Alton hosts. But they’ve been done to death – and that means they’ve had to become more and more gimmicky, and with more and more phony, hyped-up dramatic content. I’m sick of them.

I had hoped that “The Alton Browncast” would be Alton’s way of returning to his roots, and maybe represented a way of feeding his passion even as he paid the bills by hosting competition shows.

But Alton apparently considers the competition shows more than just a paycheck. The interview segment is the largest single part of “The Alton Browncast,” and except for ice cream mogul Keith Schroder every single guest he’s had has either been a competition show host, contestant or executive. Alton apparently still loves the form and is excited about hosting 43 different food competition shows.

That doesn’t mean the podcast isn’t worth listening to, though. Thankfully, the interviews aren’t exclusively about food competition shows. The latest episode, featuring Giada De Laurentis as the interview guest, gets into everything from gender roles to the nature of beauty. You also get a soap-opera-like tale of the six months when Giada refused to speak to Bobby Flay.  There’s also  news that Giada, Alton and Ina “Barefoot Contessa” Garten will be doing a live Thanksgiving dinner special together – and while Giada knows both Ina and Alton, the latter two have never met and each is intimidated about meeting the other.

The episode also, during Alton’s opening food talk segment, drops a bombshell about cooking pasta. When Alton was making “Good Eats,” he repeated the conventional wisdom that to make pasta, you need a huge volume of water, which you bring to a full rolling boil before adding the pasta. But Alton admitted that he’s now changed his mind on that – for shaped pasta, he now starts the pasta in cold water – and the pasta is done by the time the water reaches a simmer! That method may not be as practical for spaghetti, fettuccine and the like; long noodles sometimes stick out of the top of the pan until they’ve softened enough to slouch down into the water, but Alton said it would work for spaghetti too if you have a large enough pot.

In Giada’s honor, after the interview Alton talks about meatballs.

Listen to the episode here.

I believe I can fry

I just finished a portion of wonderful homemade french fries.

The men’s club at First UMC Shelbyville normally has breakfast on the second Sunday of each month. We’d been taking a summer break which I had thought, until last night, would be ending this morning.

I’m a part of the kitchen crew for this, and my normal job is to dice potatoes and onions and cook our home fries. The dicing takes about half an hour, from the time I arrive at 6:30 until about 7.

I had seen one of those as-seen-on-TV gizmos, a piston-style contraption that cuts a potato into perfect batons for french fries. I thought this might speed up the process; use the gadget to cut the potato lengthwise, then all I’d have to do with a knife is cut a stack of batons crossways into perfect dice. And it wasn’t that expensive; only $9.99 at one of the national drug store chains. I picked one up while I was out shopping yesterday.

I touched base with Andy Borders, the master of all things culinary at FUMC, last night to confirm that we were going to have breakfast today. Good thing I did; Andy had decided to put things off a bit longer.

Well, I decided to go ahead and get some use out of my gadget anyway – for its intended purpose. I bought a potato at the grocery store after church, and came home and fried it. The as-seen-on-TV gadget worked just fine, and was easy to use once I actually looked at the directions.

I’ve gone over this before, but if you’ve never made homemade french fries there’s a secret to it. The secret is that they have to be fried twice. After cutting the fries, you want to soak them in water (the longer the better, but I settled for a very brief soak today). Then, you fry them twice. You fry them once, at a lower temperature, until they are limp but cooked completely through. Then you remove them from the oil and set them aside to cool off. You crank the oil up to a higher temperature and fry them a second time, much more briefly, just to put a perfect golden crust on them.

This is also how the frozen french fries used by restaurant chains work. The first fry takes place at a factory, and the potatoes are flash-frozen afterward. Then, the fries are thawed and fried a second time at the restaurant. If you buy frozen french fries from the supermarket, you can either fry them a second time or else substitute that second fry with some time in the oven, which is what most of us do, and they come out just fine. The package generally gives you the directions for either approach.

But there’s something special about freshly cut, twice-fried french fries at home, seasoned just how you like them. They were fine just as they were, but I had a little A1 sauce on a few of them.

Culinary genius

A month or two ago, I made some preserved lemons and added some peppercorns to them. The peppercorns were a good choice, and I’ll definitely use them the next time.

I’ve now eaten all of the lemon peels, which is the only part of a preserved lemon you eat. What I had left over in the Mason jar was the pulp (the part of a citrus fruit you would normally eat, but in this case, much too salty), with the lemon juice (which becomes a little thicker than normal juice, I assume because of starch leached out of the peel) and the peppercorns.

Inspiration hit me.

I pureed the mixture in a food processor, and then dehydrated it yesterday afternoon and overnight on one of the plastic sheets one uses for fruit roll-ups. Today, I took the dried pulp, with all those peppercorns lodged in it, and put it in a blender. I put it on the highest setting until it was a fine powder.

I now have lemon pepper seasoning.

Homemade lemon pepper seasoning.

Good homemade lemon pepper seasoning.

There’s not a lot of it, but it’s a nice little dividend anyway.

Rhapsody in bleu

I’ve made at least a token appearance every night of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration … until tonight.

I had to cover a county meeting at 4:15. It lasted about 45 minutes. I thought about stopping somewhere for dinner and then heading to the grounds. Then, I remembered tonight is the second of two “dollar nights,” and if I wanted to I could get cheap items from several of the concession booths. I figured I’d head on over to the grounds and kill some time at the Celebration Trade Fair until the gates to the arena opened at 6.

Well, there wasn’t much to the trade fair – some more vendors are expected starting tomorrow, although one of the current vendors told me everything was going to be on the concourse this year, without any of the vendors on the arena floor as in the past. I whizzed through the trade fair, walked around through the barn area, and realized it was still 20 minutes until the gates would open. I decided maybe tonight was a good chance to take a break from the show.

A few days ago, I got a great deal on a wedge of sheep’s milk roquefort cheese at United Grocery Outlet. I ran by Kroger tonight and got some salad greens, croutons and the like. I made a terrific salad with the cheese crumbled on top, and I even threw in some of my preserved lemons.

I had bought an envelope of the Kroger store-brand-equivalent to Good Seasons salad dressing. When I got home, I discovered that while I have no fewer than three Good Seasons cruets, I cannot find the plastic lid to any of them. I had to cover the cruet with a tomato-sauce-can lid and hold it in place while I shook the dressing.

Anyway, the salad turned out great, and was a great change from the junk food I’ve eaten this week (and would have eaten again tonight if I’d gone to the show).

Yes, we have no bananas

A couple times, using coupons or sales, I’ve tried the new line of Fruttare frozen milk and fruit pops. I loved both the strawberry and coconut varieties, and so one week when the product was on sale I decided to try the banana flavor.

I love bananas, but I have never been a fan of the fake banana flavor in store-bought banana pudding mix. When I go to Mountain T.O.P., and it’s the night that we have banana pudding for dessert, everyone oohs and ahhs like it’s the second coming and I just shrug my shoulders. I’ll have a little, but it’s nothing special to me.

And the Fruttare banana pops have the fake banana flavor amped up quite a bit more than the pudding.

But even after trying the first pop, I didn’t want to waste them. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that dusting them with a little cocoa powder makes them a lot better.

A loaf in the gadget

I hadn’t used my bread machine in months – I’d been pre-occupied with a couple of other recipes. Last year, at the Times-Gazette cooking show, I picked up a recipe for flatbread where you would make up a quantity of dough ahead of time, keep it in the fridge, and then pinch off a handful and cook it on the George Foreman grill (!!!) whenever you needed it.

Then, I found a recipe for a loaf bread that worked much the same way, and I’ve made that many times since the first of the year, including making loaves of bread for the Times-Gazette’s Relay For Life bake sales. The loaves are round and sort of lens-shaped; they bake on a pizza stone.

But tonight, for some reason, I felt like just dumping everything into the bread machine and pushing the “start” button. The machine is showing its age – it makes this slipping sound on and off when it’s kneading, and I have no doubt that it’s just going to stop working one of these days. But for the moment, it still works. There’s a loaf cooling in my kitchen right now, and the apartment smells wonderful.

I still remember reading a description of a bread machine, before they became affordable or plentiful, in the old DAK catalog. It cost hundreds of dollars, but it sounded amazing. You just dumped in the ingredients, and a few hours later, voila!

Later, after the machines became commonly available, someone gave my parents one as a gift. They used it either once or not at all, and it wound up in a yard sale. When I asked about a price, Mom quoted something, but then later decided she was going to give each of her children in attendance one item they wanted from the sale, and I wound up with the bread machine. I used that one for several years, and when it broke down, maybe five years ago, I bought my current machine, for about $45, at Walmart.

Yes, it’s a gadget. It’s a guy thing. It’s what Alton Brown dismissively calls a “unitasker” on “Good Eats.” But it’s still a pretty amazing thing.

Allez cuisine

I’ve been a huge fan of Alton Brown ever since I first got Food Network and started watching “Good Eats,” within a year or two after its premiere in 1999. The show, now out of production but still in reruns on Cooking Channel, combines food, science and comedy. An episode about potatoes was a parody of “Misery.” An episode on stuffing / dressing used a “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” metaphor as a formula for helping you combine ingredients and flavors. There were various recurring characters, and sometimes Alton himself appeared in character (my favorite being a gracious Southern colonel).

I’ve cooked more Alton Brown recipes than every other TV chef put together. My normal recipes for whole muscle beef jerky, quiche, and other dishes are the ones Alton used on “Good Eats.”

In addition to the Peabody Award-winning “Good Eats,” Alton also hosted two miniseries of “Feasting on Asphalt” and one of “Feasting on Waves,” some of the most informative, intelligent and fun food travelogue shows ever done.

I used to be a big fan of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” and when Food Network began producing “Iron Chef America,” I thought Alton, with his wit and knowledge, was the perfect choice as host.

But there are a couple of problems. Food Network stopped being about cooking and became more and more about competition shows, and the competition shows became more and more repetitive, which meant they had to rely more and more on personal drama, hyped up by producers and editors, to sustain interest. And Alton seems to be one of the go-to guys for hosting such shows – “The Next Iron Chef,” “[The Next] Food Network Star,” and now – worst of all – “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a show which actively encourages the contestants to try to win by sabotaging each other rather than on their own merits.

How can one of the smartest guys in food television get caught hosting this dreck? I realize he’s got a family to support, and I figured his thinking was that having a job was preferable to not having a job.

But in the latest installment of his excellent podcast, Alton has a conversation with Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. I like Alex Guarnaschelli but hadn’t kept up with “Iron Chef America” in so long I didn’t realize she was now an Iron Chef. She, like Alton, brings an intelligence and perceptiveness to her food-related programming.

Judging from their conversation, however, they don’t share my misgivings about competitive cooking shows. From the tone of this conversation, Alex Guarnaschelli is as thrilled to be a competitor as Alton Brown is to be a host. I just don’t get it. I think Alton is wasted as the Food Network’s answer to Jeff Probst. I want him to make the next “Good Eats” or “Feasting on Asphalt,” whatever that happens to be. The podcast is a great start, and has already become regular weekly listening for me, but I want more – and I suspect I won’t get more as long as he’s pre-occupied with the competition shows.

It’s a shame.

Chili con Carney

The turnout for tonight’s regional chili cookoff is less than expected, although they’re still hoping for a good crowd at the state championship tomorrow. Tonight is somewhat relaxed, with Shelbyville’s Dicky Thorpe facing teams from Michigan and Texas. Dicky’s stove malfunctioned and the Texas team is letting him use one of theirs, under their tent. As someone explained, chili cookoffs are not like barbecue cookoffs.

The official “people’s choice” competition is not being held tonight, but there are spectators and others here tonight anyway, and I’m guessing they’ll get to sample once the official judges’ sample has been dished up by each of the three teams. There’s also some setup going on for the Uptown City Fair tomorrow.
I’m just killing time until it’s time to judge.