Friday, March 28, 2014

The Malady That is the Modern Cooking Show

I recently read an interesting article from the Huffington Post.  In this article, the author explains and espouses her belief that food TV is a terrible way to be a fan of food.  I could not agree more.  Most of the programing that makes up today's food TV takes the focus away from the food and squarely on the people around the food.  When I was in culinary school I remember at the orientation the chefs telling us that if we watched and enjoyed watching the Food Network that chances were we would change our minds by the time we were done.  How right they were.

The food TV that I have most problems with can be categorized into three categories: food wars (competitive), food porn (voyeuristic), and food celebrity.  For the sake of full disclosure, I will say that I don't dislike all food TV and enjoy some shows such as actually cooking shows or anything done by Anthony Bourdain.  It is just that today's food TV seems to be more about flash than substance.  It is all insincere, fake and more often than not feels forced.  It plays out like bad TV.

The category I dislike the most is the food wars.  Shows like Hell's Kitchen, Next Food Network Star, or even Chopped eliminate everything that is good and beautiful about preparing delicious food.  They place people in artificial environments with the goal of outdoing each other for the ever slight chance of riches or glory.  It brings out and showcases the worst of people.  It also destroys one key element of working in a real kitchen.  Teamwork.  A real kitchen cannot and will not function if the attitude is everyone only looking out for themselves.  The kitchen can only work if everyone is pulling towards the same goal.  While you might not always get along with your kitchen makes at all times, teamwork is fundamental for producing your food.  You all have one objective and are pulling in the same direction. Without this you might as well just shut down your kitchen.

Another reason I really dislike food wars is because of the ultimately subjective nature of the judgement.  I am not saying things can't be appraised, especially absolutes such as if chicken is undercooked and still pink.  What I am saying is that more often than not it comes down to peoples opinions.  I have seen two judges on the same show having the exact opposite critique about a dish.  Now I know that someone is always judging food, whether it be the executive chef at a real kitchen or ultimately the customer eating the food. What bothers me about the judgement levied on these shows is that they are trying to quantify things with made up values.  More often than not these judgements are passed down by people who have an air of superiority that really should not be there. All of this is done to once again add the dramatization of the show which feeds into the artificiality of it all.

Food porn is more about the spectacle of eating than the food itself.  Shows like Man vs Food or even Bizarre Foods fall into this category.  The food in these shows only serves as a vehicle for outlandish characters and circumstances in which the food is eaten.  It is never about look at this food and how delicious it is, but rather about look at how ridiculous this is due to the shear quantity of food or because it is something that the viewers don't normally eat.

Last we come to the celebrity food.  In this case, the food takes a back seat to the person who is making/presenting the food.  Here it is all about the celebrity in front of the camera.  What they make does not matter as long as they have a great catch phrase, eccentric hair, or an outlandish personality so big it has its own trailer on the set of the show.  The fact that the show they are in happens to be about food is just happenstance.  Big personalities of people making cooking shows is nothing new.  Just look at Julia Child.  The thing is that with her you never got the impression that she wanted most of the attention.  She just wanted to show people how to make good food.  The roles of her and the food are reversed than what you find on most cooking shows now.

Do I hate food TV.  No, I really don't.  I just dislike what it has become.  I still enjoy shows that focus on the food.  Shows that are informative and leave me feeling like I learned something are also great.  Unfortunately in today's world of reality TV I'm afraid the good food shows are just becoming harder and harder to find.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Simple But Tasty: Strawberries with Balsamic and Walnuts

Who does not love dessert?  I certainly do.  I can't deny it.  The struggle has always been to come up with something that is both delicious and not terrible for you.  I mean sure, the occasional splurge is OK, but what about the rest of the time?  The simplest answer is to eat something that is naturally sweet, good for you, and won't bombard you with a barrage of empty calories.  As it turns out I had gone to the grocery store and bought two pounds of strawberries (gotta love those HEB specials). However, I was not quite sure of what to do with them.  I remembered that when I worked at Central Market I once made macerated berries with balsamic vinegar and mint.  I decided that this would be a perfect use of my strawberries.  So I picked up some good quality balsamic and some walnut pieces and went to town! Here is what you will need:

2 lbs fresh strawberries
1/4 - 1/2 cup sugar (Splenda works well for this for the diabetics or anyone counting calories)
1-3 spigs of mint chiffonade 
2 tbsp good quality balsamic vinegar per serving
2 tbsp walnut pieces per serving

This recipe is so easy, but amazing good.  The first thing you are going to want to do is prepare your strawberries.  Just cut off the ends with the green leafy bit and half or quarter them.  This task is best done with a paring knife. Once the strawberries are cut just rinse them off well in a colander.

Next move your strawberries to a container big enough to hold the berries and some liquid.  Add your sugar and mint and gently fold them into your berries so they are completely coated.

 Now put your berries in the refrigerator and wait at least 20 minutes if not a full half an hour.  This will give the sugar time to do its job drawing out the juices of the berries as well as giving all the flavors time to mingle and get to know one another.

Once the berries are ready all you have to do is portion them out into individual serving and drizzle them with the balsamic vinegar.  I do want to make one note about the balsamic vinegar.  You really want to have a good quality vinegar because the cheap stuff is often too harsh or sour to compliment the fruit the way its supposed to.  Good balsamic vinegar has a nice balance of sweet and sour. If you are feeling adventurous you can try to make your balsamic vinegar into a syrup.  All you need to do is heat up your balsamic vinegar in a small sauce pan on low heat an allow it to reduce slightly until it becomes more viscous.  If you are not that brave just stick to the liquid vinegar.

The last step to making your berry dessert is to sprinkle on the nuts and enjoy! This dessert works really well with all berries, so mix and match your favorites.