Unnecessary food review

Ever buy some goofy new food item just because you have a coupon for it?

Well, my purchase in that category this week was Kraft Fresh Take03079CF, a seemingly-ridiculous product idea that actually turned out … not half bad.

You find it in the refrigerated section next to the cheese. It’s basically a big zip-top bag with two sections – one containing a shredded cheese mix, the other a seasoned breadcrumb mix. There are several different flavor varieties, differing in the types of cheese and the way the breadcrumbs are seasoned. The idea is that when you open the bag, you break the seal between the two compartments, and you shake the cheese and breadcrumbs together. Then, you use the zip-top bag full of cheese-and-breadcrumb mixture to bread pieces of chicken, pork or fish, just as you would with Shake ‘N Bake. Because of the size and texture of the cheese shreds, they warn you that the breading won’t completely cover the meat, but you do the best you can and then sprinkle and pat the excess on top once the pieces are on a greased baking sheet. That actually ends up giving you pretty good coverage on top, and as long as you don’t look at the bottom (why would you?) you’re good to go.

Then, you bake – just as you would with Shake ‘N Bake.

I had some chicken thighs at home. When I opened the package to see the directions inside, they were for pork chops, fish or boneless chicken breasts. I figured that if I skinned and deboned the thighs and watched for doneness, they’d work just as well, and they did. The cheese gives the crust a different texture than breadcrumbs alone would give, and it’s actually quite good. Of course, it could probably be done just as well, and more cheaply, by buying shredded cheese and breadcrumbs separately, and adding your own seasonings, but that’s an experiment for some other time. (These breadcrumbs were more heavily seasoned, and towards more specific flavors, than the “seasoned breadcrumbs” you buy in the store.)

I’m not very hungry tonight, owing to the huge breakfast-for-lunch I had at Cracker Barrel in Florence, Ala., following the UNA Spring Football Game, but I had one of the thighs with a little bit of rice just now (I cooked the rice with the bones and stray bits of chicken thigh) and I’ll save the others for lunch tomorrow and Monday.

Does the title of the review mean that the food is unnecessary or that the review is unnecessary? I shall leave that to you to decide.

It’s not a good thing

Martha Stewart is making stock on PBS. She is using a small sieve to skim the foamy gray stuff that gathers on the top when you first start to simmer broth or stock, and she keeps referring to it, over and over, as fat. No! The grey scum is a form of protein, and it’s a completely different substance from the clear chicken fat (which a sieve wouldn’t be much help with).

Obviously, there’s fat gathering at the top of the stock as well, but you can easily wait until the stock or broth is finished before removing it (which Martha does). When you chill the stock, the fat will rise to the top and solidify, and you can easily spoon it off the top. If you need to use the broth immediately, and don’t have time to chill it, you can use one of those separators that pours from the bottom.

Another difference is that the foamy protein scum can only be thrown away. Some cooks save the chicken fat, as unhealthy as that sounds, and do things with it.

The fat and that protein foam are two different things, and someone presenting herself as an expert ought to know the difference. Martha should watch Alton Brown, who actually knows what he’s talking about.

It only occurred to me just now that there’s a joke to be made about Martha Stewart and her criminal treatment of stock. That wasn’t my original intention.

The Mind of a Chef

If you’ve been missing Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel, and are waiting for the premiere of his “Parts Unknown” this spring on CNN, you may be interested in another show – executive produced by Bourdain, narrated by Bourdain, but not about him or featuring him on camera.

“The Mind of a Chef”  is a travelogue food show with Chef David Chang interacting with other chefs each week – as the name implies, it tries to explore a chef’s thinking, how he or she looks at food and cooking, and so on. It airs on weekends on your local PBS station, but you may have to look for it in the listings or your DVR guide.

 

Watch The Mind of a Chef – Preview on PBS. See more from PBS.

 

The man in the bow tie

kimballAlthough Food Network and Cooking Channel (both owned by Scripps and sharing resources and even some of the same programs) are collectively the 900-pound gorilla of food-related television, it’s amazing sometimes how little creativity they show in their instructional programming. They seem to think that success comes, not from imaginative or new approaches, but from finding some new and highly-marketable personality, someone like Guy Fieri or Ann Burrell who can move product. But they plug those personalities into one of two or three pretty-standard format. In the original format, it’s just the chef in a kitchen cooking and talking to us. There’s also a second format with a little bit of a story to it – “My friend Sally is coming over later, and I’m going to make her favorite dessert,” with some obviously-staged scenes at the end of the program where we see the chef serving Sally the meal and Sally oohing and ahhing over it.

There have been occasional exceptions to the format, most of them no longer on the air:

  • “Emeril Live,” of course, featured a studio audience and a high-energy vibe keyed to Emeril’s personality. I don’t hold that against Emeril, because I think Emeril’s got a little bit more substance than Guy Fieri.
  • Hosts like Alton Brown or “Nadia G.” (Nadia Giosia) who combine entertainment with cooking, incorporating characters and sketch comedy elements. But Alton’s “Good Eats” has gone out of production, and Food Network now uses him (wastes him) mostly as a host for its inane and repetitive food competition shows. Thankfully, “Nadia G’s Bitchin’ Kitchen” is still going strong.
  • “Cooking Live,” which was hosted by Sara Moulton, was actually live (the “live” in “Emeril Live” referred to the live audience; the show itself was pre-recorded). She took calls from viewers and had to deal with mishaps or catastrophes in real time.
  • “Hot Off The Grill” was an early Bobby Flay show that apparently had some behind-the-scenes friction. But as a viewer, I thought it was terrific – it was set in sort of a dinner-party atmosphere, with Flay cooking and co-host Jacqui Malouf, who played the part of the viewer, peppering Bobby with questions and getting him to explain what he was doing and why. Bobby would recruit the other “guests” at the party into helping him with routine chopping or stirring, and the “guests” often included a wine expert, a meat expert and so on, who could be called upon for their expertise when necessary. Flay can sometimes come across as arrogant and self-absorbed, and I thought Malouf punctured that a little bit and made him more likeable.
  • “How To Boil Water” is a title that has popped up more than once in Food Network’s history. The original versions were standard single-host shows, giving both Emeril and Sara Moulton their first appearances on the network. Those were on the air long before I had access to Food Network. But there was a later version that featured a chef (Frederic van Coppernolle, later Tyler Florence) and a comic (Lynne Koplitz, and later Jack Hourigan, who despite her name was, well, a her). The premise was that one was teaching the other, which allowed Koplitz or Hourigan to serve as a viewer surrogate, ask questions, and so on.
  • Mario Batali’s “Molto Mario” featured, in each episode, three of Mario’s friends sitting at a nearby counter as he cooked. Again, they were viewer surrogates, sometimes asking questions, and reacting as Mario served them their food.
  • “Food 911” featured Tyler Florence traveling around the country to help viewers with their cooking problems. A typical letter might be from a wife trying to compete with her mother-in-law’s interpretation of some traditional old country dish. Florence would show up and teach the viewer how to make a tasty and authentic version. The show was was later remade with a different host under a different title, which I can’t remember to save my life.

I’ve mentioned the idea of viewer surrogates in cooking shows before, and I think they help keep things interesting. “Ask Aida,” in which Aida Molleknkamp cooked dishes based on viewer questions, was much more entertaining during its first season, when she had an in-studio co-host as a viewer surrogate, than during its second, when it turned into a standard single-host cooking show. (The in-studio co-host was a regrettably-hokey nerd stereotype, who sat in front of a laptop supposedly checking the e-mail for viewer messages and videos, but even so it was better than Aida by herself.)

I bring all of this up because I’m a long-time viewer of both  “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country,” which are basically two separate half hours of the same program. “America’s Test Kitchen” is affiliated with Cook’s Illustrated magazine, while “Cook’s Country” is affiliated with its sister publication, also called Cook’s Country. Both are hosted by bow-tied Christopher Kimball, who runs the magazines and TV shows, and both feature the same supporting casts of chefs and kitchen experts. Each is presented in a sort of magazine format. One of the chefs – say, Bridget Lancaster – will  demonstrate how to make a dish, explaining the process to Kimball. Then, we’ll have a segment where the kitchen equipment expert shows Kimball several different non-stick skillets and tells him which one the magazine recommends as the best value. Then, another recipe, with a different chef. Then, a blind taste test, where Kimball tries unmarked samples of dark chocolate and then is told whether his favorite matches that of the magazine’s testing panel.

The interaction between Kimball and the series regulars – all of whom are co-workers on the magazine, and all of whom engage in gentle teasing, enjoying the chance to needle their boss, Kimball, in front of a nationwide TV audience – is part of what makes the show fun. The magazine format keeps things moving and keeps it from being dull or repetitive. “America’s Test Kitchen” is the only show I can think of other than “Good Eats” that spends much time on kitchen hardware, surely an important part of culinary success or failure.

“The Chew,” which airs weekdays on ABC, also uses a magazine format and multiple hosts (including Batali). I’ve only seen it a few times, but I’ve enjoyed it. I need to start DVRing it every now and then.

All of which raises the question – why can’t Food Network/Cooking Channel come up with anything half this creative? Why can’t they shake up the format? Why are they locked into standard single-host shows, with over-theatrical hosts, usually chosen by means of “The Next Food Network Star,” trying to differentiate themselves with catch-phrases or gimmicks?

That kind of food programming leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth.

If you knew sushi

They say there is no free lunch, but today I had two.

First thing this morning, I won a Whopper combo on WLIJ-AM during their daily be-the-correct-caller-and-name-the-song giveaway. (Thanks, Brad Paisley!) I picked up my Burger King gift certificate from the radio station and ended up eating lunch relatively early.

Then, Doug Dezotell stopped by the newsroom and offered to take Sadie Fowler out to Yamato, a Japanese steak-and-sushi place. He asked if I wanted to come along, and I told him I’d already eaten. Doug left, planning to meet Sadie at the restaurant a while later. A few minutes after Doug had left the building, my cell phone rang.

“Don’t you at least have room for six pieces of sushi?” he asked.

With all due respect to the makers of Jell-O and their classic slogan, there’s always room for sushi. So Sadie, David Melson and I joined Doug at Yamato and I had six pieces of the Philadelphia roll (smoked salmon, avocado, cream cheese). I usually go for the raw tuna, but I like smoked salmon and figured I’d give the Philadelphia roll a try. It was good sushi and good company, and I appreciate Doug talking me into coming along.

Loafing on a Saturday

I have really enjoyed the recipe I got during last fall’s T-G cooking show for a yeast-raised flatbread dough which you keep in a bowl in the fridge, using a bit as you need it. It keeps up to two weeks in the fridge, and the yeasty flavor changes and improves during that time. It stirs together in a bowl, with no kneading required.

So, I found this recipe for a loaf bread which works pretty much the same way. It makes enough for three or four loaves. Like the flatbread recipe, you don’t knead it; you stir it together into a sticky dough. You let it sit on the countertop loosely covered for a couple of hours for an initial rise, then cover it tightly and put it into the fridge.

When you get ready to bake a loaf, you sprinkle a little flour on the surface of what’s in the bowl to make it easier to handle, then pull out the desired amount and shape it easily into a little round loaf. You let the round loaf rest on the counter for 40 minutes or an hour before baking. The yeast is still quite active, and the loaf rises well in the oven. You bake it on a pizza stone on the middle rack, with a pan of water on the bottom rack to provide steam, which helps the crust.

When you pull it out of the oven, it looks a little – no, exactly – like this:

bread2

I’m about to go for a walk, and when I get back it will have cooled and I’ll get a slice and taste it. It smells pretty darn wonderful.

As with the flatbread recipe, the dough lasts for two weeks in the fridge. The recipe says that, also like the flatbread, the yeast flavor develops during that time.

Another option for baking the loaf is to use a slow cooker, and I may try that next time. If the crust isn’t brown enough to suit you using the slow cooker method, you just put the bread under the broiler for a few minutes.

The cider press rules

I am taking a day off work today – not because I have to, or because I had any special plans, but just because it’s the holidays and I’ve always envied people who get a lot of days off between Christmas and New Year’s.

I was delighted to see an episode of “Food Jammers” on Cooking Channel this morning. I didn’t realize they were still airing it at all. When Scripps Networks (which also owns Food Network) decided to convert Fine Living Network into Cooking Channel, the channel’s schedule made heavy use of programming imported from Canada (and, to a lesser extent, the U.K.). “Food Jammers” was one of its original shows; Cooking Channel aired the first season, even though by that point the show was on its third season in Canada.

“Food Jammers” is sort of hard to describe, which may be one reason it wasn’t a runaway hit for the network. If you like both “Mythbusters” and some of the culinary contraptions Alton Brown used to build on “Good Eats,” you’d probably like “Food Jammers.” It’s a show about three young men — Micah Donovan, Chris Martin, and Nobu Adilman – who build various food-related contraptions. In the season that Cooking Channel originally ran, some of the projects included:

  • A taco vending machine – totally impractical, but fun, it actually assembled tacos to order;
  • A giant stainless steel hot-dog roller, big brother to the ones you see in convenience stores and concession stands, to warm a homemade, 10-foot-long sausage for a party. The same episode featured a sort of gyroscopic rotisserie which revolved a chicken in every possible direction as it roasted;
  • A sofa-side living room soda dispenser, connected by tubes to a spare refrigerator in the kitchen which housed a CO2 tank and various homemade syrups;
  • A homemade deep-fryer, with a vent hood made from an actual car hood.

You get the idea. The three hosts have an almost stoner-like demeanor, although they are a bit more productive and competent than one might expect stoners to be.

Anyway, the episode that I saw this morning was from the show’s second season in Canada. Maybe Cooking Channel is giving the show a second chance by sticking it in the daytime hours, when the stakes are a little lower. In this morning’s episode, the boys built a homemade cider press so that they could produce their own naturally-fermented hard apple cider.

I’ll have to set the DVR to look for this again.

Tied up in knots

When the Times-Gazette hosted the Relish magazine Cooking Show this fall, the recipe that attracted my attention was easy flatbread. This makes a huge quantity of sticky yeast-raised dough which you keep in a bowl in your refrigerator. Any time you like, you flour your hands, grab a golf-ball-sized hunk of the dough, stretch it out into a little disk and cook it on your George Foreman grill. Seriously. It’s wonderful, and really easy. The dough lasts up to two weeks in the fridge, and actually gets more of a yeast flavor (and beer smell!) as it goes along.

You can also flatten a larger wad of dough into a circle and use it for mini-pizzas.

I’ve made several batches of the flatbread dough, and there’s an experiment I’d been wanting to try. I love soft pretzels. I’ve tried making them at home, but it always required a long rise time. I wondered if you could take some of this easy flatbread dough and use it to make a pretzel.

It turns out, you can.

pretzelsNow, if you see a recipe for homemade pretzels that advises using an egg wash to give the pretzels that distinctive glossy surface, ignore it. That’s not actually how pretzels (or bagels) are made. The glossy surface comes from baking soda – specifically, you take the pretzel and give it a dunk in boiling water to which a handful of baking soda has been added. It will sink to the bottom and then float to the top. Flip it over, give it a few more seconds, and pull it out of the boiling water. Then you salt it (if desired) while it’s still damp, and bake it, at a high temperature, for that glossy brown appearance.

I did not make my little snakes of dough narrow enough, and these aren’t the prettiest examples. But they’re warm, chewy, and I know exactly what’s in them.

Another pretzel recipe I found today suggested brushing them with melted butter right after you pull them from the oven – more for flavor than gloss. That wouldn’t be a bad thing either. If you wanted hard pretzels, you could put them back into the oven at a low temperature to dry them out. But why would you want hard pretzels when soft are available?

Get cracking

Earlier in the week, a former co-worker brought by a couple of thoughtful holiday gifts for the newsroom – a fruit basket and a small basket of mixed nuts, still in the shell.

We’ve been munching on the fruit, but the nuts were just sitting there, with no way to crack. This afternoon, the editor asked me if I wanted to take them home.

For many years, my mother made Chex snack mix – which we know in our family as “nuts and bolts” – each holiday season. This led to a Thanksgiving tradition of everyone, on Thanksgiving Day, cracking nuts as we sat around the living room watching TV. A week or two after Thanksgiving, Mom would hand me a big margarine tub full of nuts and bolts, which I would take to the paper and share with my co-workers.

We kept up that tradition even after Mom’s passing, with Dad making the nuts and bolts. But this year, we had a strange family schedule. We ate out, and we weren’t really hanging out during the day. Dad is still on the mend from nearly losing his thumb.

Anyway, when Sadie offered me the basket of nuts I eagerly accepted. I bought a nutcracker this evening at Kroger.

I also bought a box of Chex; I may try to make a small batch of snack mix. It won’t be like Mom’s or Dad’s. I may season it to suit myself. I need some pretzels; I think I’ll skip the Cheerios, since this will be a small batch anyway.

I’ve already cracked about half the nuts. I’m taking a break and I’ll get back to them later in the evening.

Turning frozen pizza on its axis

I bought a couple of frozen pizzas a couple of weeks ago — the brand is “Ristorante,” with the manufacturer being “Dr. Oetker.” The packaging boasts that “Ristorante is Italy’s #1 Frozen Pizza.” The parent company, Dr. Oetker, is based in Germany. It sounds odd that the number one frozen pizza in Italy would be from a German company, but then again I’m guessing they don’t eat a whole lot of frozen pizza there. The pizza’s not bad — the mushroom, which I had a week ago, had a much more intense mushroomy taste than you normally find in frozen pizza, which can be good or bad depending on your preference. (I liked it.) I’m about to put a pepperoni-and-ham model in the oven.