Cooking Bobby Flay’s Mole-Rubbed Steak and Eggs with Chocolate Stout Beurre Blanc

One of the many nice things about the new house is our far more robust cable package. With it comes Food Network subsidiary The Cooking Channel, which, as the name implies, features far more actual cooking shows. In addition to buying a new house, my mom also moved out to New York to join my dad who’s been here for a few months. She’s been coming over and watching the kids during the day which allows me to get my work done more efficiently and also start cooking dinner without as many interruptions. But, if we get lucky and both kids fall asleep at the same time, we like to watch food shows.

Last week we happened upon an episode of Brunch At Bobby’s that revolved around chocolate. I didn’t care for the most part, but then he got to his recipe for Mole-Rubbed Steak and Eggs with Chocolate Stout Beurre Blanc and I was all ears. It made it onto my menu the next week and turned out pretty swell.

Instead of using the variety of chili powders mentioned in the recipe, I used my mother-in-law’s chili powder concoction which is always on point. Aside from that, I followed the rub recipe and covered the steak, but I did forget to put the canola oil on first, so instead I cooked the steak in some (maybe a little too much, actually) oil after letting it sit for the 30 minutes.

In the meantime I got everything together for the sauce. Since I used a bit too much oil while cooking the steak, the sauce was a bit oilier than I think it should have been, but still turned out to have a really interesting flavor profile. Part of that came through because I used Shocktop’s Shockolate Wheat instead of a straight-ahead chocolate stout. While the citrus and wheat elements did come through, I don’t think the resulting sauce was as thick in consistency or flavor as the recipe as written. Next time I’ll try it Bobby’s way.


Making Sunny’s Homemade Ketchup

A few weeks back I caught an episode of Food Network’s multi-host culinary talk show The Kitchen that was all about burgers. There were some tasty looking variations on there, but the real star for me was Sunny Anderson’s Homemade Ketchup.

In the mood for another homemade challenge, I decided to give it a try to go along with some homemade burgers, buns and mayo on Fourth of July. As you do, I went to, searched around and found the recipe linked above. But, like many of the commentors, I was surprised to find that it differed from the one presented on the show. Two major ingredients — a cinnamon stick ans a star anise — were nowhere to be found and I want to say the cooking process was a little different than on the show, but I couldn’t fully recall.

So, I decided to follow the recipe as posted while adding the star and the stick, but cutting the sugar to a heaping half cup. The rest of the process is pretty simple but does take some time. I’ve heard that homemade ketchup winds up tasting pretty different from the store-bought stuff and that’s definitely the case with this recipe, especially if you use the anise. After I took the handblender to the cooked tomato mixture I was surprised to find that, not only was it too sweet, but also nearly overpowered by that rich licorice flavor from the star. From there I stirred in a combination of salt, apple cider vinegar and regular vinegar to subdue some of that sweetness. Eventually I had to move on to other things so it went into the fridge to cool.

The next day I tasted the ketchup and, while it’s still pretty far from Heinz, I’ve got to say that it’s mighty intriguing. It’s basically ketchup’s sassier cousin with the crispness of the tomatoes along with the acid notes from the vinegar and that overarching unique sweetness from the star anise. It might not be what I’m used to, but it worked really well with the burgers and has served us well since. When I try this next time, I might leave the anise out just to see what the results are like.

I did all this a day or two before I was going to use it so it would have enough time to cool. I also wound up dividing the condiment into three parts, one going in a squeeze bottle I picked up at the grocery store and the other two in individual freezer bags.

Cooking Giada de Laurentiis’s Naked Spring Rolls

While my attempts to make Giada de Laurentiis’ Thai Curry might not have netted the best results, I will say that I had much more success her recipe for Naked Spring Rolls which were both part of the same Thai-themed episode of her Food Network show. It also happened to be a super simple and delicious recipe to put together.

The sauce in the recipe was really easy to put together and doesn’t need much in the way of commentary. I will say that it was tangy and delicious thanks to the combination of lime juice and fish sauce. To augment the dish, though, I also decided to make some sriracha mayonnaise. For this I just squeezed about two teaspoons of the hot sauce into the remaining homemade mayo I had in the fridge after making Banging’ BLTs and Lemony Tarragon Chicken Salad which was about a 1/4 of a cup. The only change I made in the recipe was swapping out agave (which I didn’t have on hand) for honey.

With the condiments created, I got to work on the actual spring rolls. As with every other kind of meat, I started out with whole, partially frozen pieces, cut them up and ran them through the meat grinder. Since I was already getting the grinder out, I figured I’d try running the carrot and shallot through there too. It worked pretty well, but there was an intense, tear-jerking blast as the shallot went through. All that went into one big bowl with the other ingredients which got wrapped in plastic and sat for the required 20 minutes.

After that point, I looked at the mixture and realized it was not going to stay together in the oven. So, I grabbed the two ends from our latest loaf of wheat bread, rubbed chunks between my hands to create tiny crumbs and mixed it all together with my hands. I got 15 of the spring rolls out of this and put the foil-wrapped pan under the broiler.

I served these with lettuce leaves, though they’re not super necessary. I dug how this meal came together, but my wife loved it, saying it was one of her top five favorite things I’ve cooked. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but I am a big fan of this dish. It worked really well for us as it was, but could also make for a great party food (if made smaller) or a delicious sandwich. In fact, my only complaint was that the thinner sauce didn’t stick to anything which bummed me out because it was so delicious. If this was a sandwich, though, you could pour that sauce right into the bread to infuse that flavor! Dang, that idea’s so good it makes me want to start a food truck (not that it would take that much cajoling to do that anyway).

Cooking Jeff Mauro’s Chicken Shawarma with Tomato Cucumber Relish and Tahini Sauce

This was another dish I saw prepared in the limited time during the weekend when Food Network actually shows cooking programs that  I mentioned in yesterday’s post. In that one hour I saw four recipes I want to try and have already made two of them.

Like a lot of people, I first heard of Shawarma thanks to that post-credit sequence in The Avengers. Oh, I’d probably heard of it before in passing, but never really thought about it. Within the next year, I wound up at Chickpea and tried some with my wife. It was quite good, so why wouldn’t I want to try and make some in the comfort of my own galley kitchen?

Before making this meal, understand one thing: tahini’s kind of expensive. The 16 oz jar of the sesame paste I got was about $8, but you only use a quarter of a cup, so hopefully I won’t have to buy it again for a while. Aside from that, though, you’re dealing with pretty standard ingredients though you might need to add a few spices to your rack.

Speaking of which, that’s the best place to start with this recipe. I usually like to chop up all my veggies first, but since you need to marinate the sliced chicken thighs for a half hour, I cut up the thighs after I put the shawarma spice mixture together. This is the first time I’ve worked with boneless chicken thighs, but I tried to get a good deal of the fat off.

With the meat doing it’s thing in the refrigerator, I got to work on the Tomato Cucumber Relish (more of a salad really) and the Tahini Sauce, neither of which were difficult but did take a bit of time (well, at least for the former). For the relish, you just chop, measure, mix and you’re good to go. The sauce is even simpler.

Now, Jeff put the marinated meat on skewers and grilled them on the episode. He said it was because he wanted to recreate the spit roaster he saw at the restaurant he visited. That seemed like a lot of extra work, so I just tossed the contents into a cast iron pan and got cooking.

I also tried to cook the pitas the way he did in the episode: by putting olive oil on one side and heating it on the girl. It didn’t work out so well for me so I stopped. When I served myself a plate, I tried putting all the ingredients on top of the pita as you can see in the picture, taco-style. But, the problem there was that there’s a lot of liquid going on here and everything fell apart. I was a little upset until I remembered that a lot of Middle Easter food is eaten with the hands, scooping whatever’s on your plate into the pita or naan and then into your mouth. With that in mind I dug in and had a good, old time.

The chicken had some nice heat and spice to it without going over the top. Even if it was, the tang and crispness of the relish would have cut through it, aided by the thick, substantial tahini sauce. Mixed all together and scooped into pitas, this was a killer meal that I will definitely make again.

I don’t have any pictures of this, but that same week I also made Real Simple’s Spiced Mini Burgers With Couscous Salad. This not only added a bit of continuity to the menu that week, but allowed me to use  up the leftover relish and tahini sauce for this dish. I ground up the beef and made the burgers as advised, but for the couscous salad, I used the leftover relish and just added a few more cucumbers, tomatoes and some couscous I cooked in homemade chicken stock. The tahini sauce then got used to make Alton Brown’s Hummus For Real recipe, though one that used canned chickpeas instead of slow cooked ones. I really enjoyed the spice mix used for these burgers and could imagine going either way size-wise with them: smaller for appetizers or finger food or larger for full on burgers. Both of these recipes get the thumbs up from me!

Cooking Giada De Laurentiis’ Thai Curry

Food Network has really changed over the years. It used to be packed with people making interesting foods and teaching us how. Now, even though they act like that’s still the main focus on shows like Next Food Network Star (which should probably be retitled The Next Food Network Game Show Host), you’ve got to search around more to see cooks telling you how to cook interesting and amazing food. While flipping around a few weekends back, we happened to stumble upon one of those wonderful times. That’s where I got the recipe for Giada De Laurentiis’s Thai Curry and figured I’d give it a shot.

I do want to say a few things right off the bat. I had trouble finding yellow curry paste at my grocery store. I bought curry sauce and just kind of eyed it. I couldn’t find a simple conversion chart for curry paste to curry sauce, so I basically poured in a little under 1/4 of a cup after giving it a taste. I think that’s the key to making sure you’ve got the right.

I will also note that shrimp can be a bit expensive. I dropped about $12 on deveined, deshelled ones, just to give you an idea of what you’re dealing with. It’s not a bank-breaker, but definitely something to take into account when planning out your meals.

I also completely dropped the chili, swapped out unfindable Thai lime leaves for actual lime juice and throwing the limes in (I realize I should have zested them) and skipped the step where you fry the noodles in canola oil which not only made this dish a bit healthier and cooled down the kitchen on a hot day but also took out a fairly involved step. Aside from those alterations, though, I followed the recipe as written.

Especially without the fried noodle portion, this is a super easy soup to put together. Open a few cans, pour a few things in a pot or Dutch oven and get those veggies in once it’s simmering. Let it sit for 30 minutes, then throw in the noodles and shrimp and let cook. That’s pretty simple.

And the results were pretty good, but I think some of my changes weren’t for the best. The dish lacked heat, which is a key element in Thai cooking. This wound up being good for my kid, because she’s not a fan of the hotness, but made the dish a bit bland. It also could have used more salt. Whenever I’m eating Asian food, I tend to skip the regular salt and go with soy sauce because it feels more in line with the flavors. Adding that to my bowl and then the larger dish when I put it away in the fridge definitely helped.

This is the first time I’ve ever cooked shrimp in what I consider my modern cooking timeframe. My mom taught me how to devein and shell them a long, long time ago, but I decided to cut that step out and just go with ones that had already been cleaned. Towards the end of the cooking process I realized I didn’t know what cooked shrimp was supposed to look like, so I brought one out to my wife, showed it to her and got the thumbs up. They turned out nice, plump and flavorful. I don’t generally cook shellfish, but this positive experience definitely gave me more confidence to do so in the future.

Making Rachel Ray’s Tuna Puttanesca

Puttanesca is a sauce that I am really growing to like. Between having it on vacation last year and then making my own last month, I’ve come to really enjoy that salty, briny flavor you get by combining tomatoes, capers and olives. So, when I was looking around Food Network’s website for easy to make, cool-ish dinners and came across Rachel Ray’s recipe for Tuna Puttanesca, I figured I’d give it a shot.

On the heat side of things, it’s not exactly the coolest because you’re making pasta and making a pretty simple sauce, but if you get them going at the same time you’re only dealing with a 15 minutes of heat and then you’re good to go. So, I wouldn’t save this for the hottest day of the year, but it definitely does the trick when things are starting to heat up outside.

It’s also very simple to make because you’re dealing with mostly canned or jarred ingredients. I took it easy on myself and got both black and kalamata olives pre-sliced to save myself some time. On that same note, I went with crushed jarred tomatoes instead of whole. When it’s hot out, you don’t want to be messing around trying to hold down slippery tomatoes or olives to cut.

So, some olive oil goes into the pan with garlic and then the tuna. You throw in the capers and olives, then some wine to cook down before adding the tomatoes and you’re pretty much there. Drain the pasta and put that in the pan to finish (I wished I had used the Dutch oven at this point because, as you can see, my pan got awfully full) and you’ve got yourself a nice easy dinner. I should say that the flavors in this dish got nowhere near close to the more intense ones I mentioned above. Instead of smelling a flower in all its glory, you’re smelling it while you’ve got a cold. All the elements are there, just not as full-forced. Still, quick, easy and pretty good are what I’m looking for with meals like this.

Cooking Chicken Salad Veronique & Tomato Feta Pasta Salad

Like I said before, it was over 90 degrees last week and I was desperately looking for dinners that would not blast heat throughout the house. I came across a pair of Ina Garten recipes for Chicken Salad Veronique and Tomato Feta Pasta Salad that looked cool and both featured elements I could make earlier in the day and use during dinner. It was supposed to be an easy, relaxed dinner spread out over the whole day, but I wound up needing to make mayonnaise, so things got a little hotter than expected.

It started out well, though. I tossed four chicken breasts covered in olive oil, salt and pepper in to the oven and let cook for 40 minutes like the recipe suggests. When that was done, I let the chicken cool and then put it in the refrigerator until I needed it later. When it got closer to dinner time, I got to work on the rest of the salad which only really needed some cut up grapes and celery tossed in a bowl with the chopped chicken and mixed with mayo and tarragon from the herb garden.

Then I realized I didn’t have any mayo, but did have all the things I needed to make it again and decided to do that. I started out trying to make a half batch because we don’t really eat that much mayonnaise in our house, but I think I screwed up the ratios and had to then make closer to a full batch. This was a bit of a mess and I had to do it twice and busted out the electric whisk, something I’ve never used before, but it got the job done. In went the homemade mayo, out came chicken salad.

While I was sweating bullets mixing this at first by hand, a pot of water was boiling on the stove for the Tomato Feta Pasta Salad. This helped add an extra side to the menu, but also use up some of the pasta we got for Lu’s birthday party after my wife and the inlaws went shopping at BJ’s. Anyway, aside from the boiling pasta water, this was easy peasy to put together. Make pasta, throw a bunch of stuff for the dressing in a food processor, cut up some veggies and you’re done. I accidentally put some of the cheese into the processor, so the dressing came out kind of chunky instead of smooth, so I had to really mix it more, but it turned out really tasty.

I enjoyed both of these dishes and will definitely make them again. The chicken salad reminded me of the kind my mom used to make, especially with the grapes and celery, so it not only tasted good but also had a nice memory to it. Definitely give these recipes a shot if you don’t want to heat your house up too much this summer or want to take an easy dish to a cook out with friends.

Cooking Guy Fieri’s Bacon & Tomato Pasta

Three years ago, I made Guy Fieri’s Baclon and Tomato Pasta. I know this because, I printed the recipe off from Food Network’s website and kept the paper. I don’t remember anything about that first attempt, but considering this is a pasta recipe that also involves bacon, I understand why I chose it in the first place. For this week’s menu, I decided to flip through the ol’ recipe binder, saw this one and gave it another shot.

It’s a really simple recipe, which I like. I stayed true to the recipe though I was a little short on basil because our herb garden isn’t replenishing itself as much as I’d like. Anyway, I got the water boiling and then did a bunch of chopping so I’d only have to put the right things in the pan at the right time. This made things super easy, kind of like when I cook in the wok.

You can scope out the recipe yourself to see all the steps. Like I said, it’s an easy one and it yielded a pretty tasty meal. I wish I had cooked the bacon just a little longer to get it crispier. I didn’t realize it beforehand, but going with thick cut meant it didn’t cook nearly as fast and took pretty long even to get as crispy as it did, which wasn’t a lot. I like how the red wine works in there, though I think next time I might use more tomatoes. I would like this recipe even better if it was a bit saucier. Still, I devoured it that night for dinner and again as leftovers the next day, so it’s not like I can say I didn’t like it.

Cooking Green Goddess Rice With Chicken

I’ve only seen a few episodes of Claire Robinson’s Food Network show 5 Ingredient Fix, but I almost always see something I want to try. One such thing was her recipe for Green Goddess Rice, a side dish that involves adding a basil, lemon and avocado sauce to rice. I made this once before as a side dish for something I can’t quite remember, but when I made it last week, I decided to add some grilled chicken and make it an entree.

The meal itself couldn’t be simpler. You throw the Green Goddess sauce ingredients into a blender or food processor after making your rice and then grilling up some chicken. I went a little heavy on the lemon this time around, but it wound up being a really good compliment to the avocado, basil, rice and chicken flavors.

For the chicken, I just spread on some good olive oil, salt and pepper then got to grilling. When it was done, I chopped it up and mixed everything together in a big bowl. I was so excited to eat that I forgot to take a picture of the chicken added in or my usual plated shot which should give you an idea of how great this recipe is.

Cooking Jeff Mauro’s Hawaiian BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich with Grilled Pineapple Relish

As I said back during the last season finale of Food Network Star, I was pretty happy that Jeff Mauro won. I dug his Sandwich King idea of taking regional sandwiches and giving them a spotlight while also turning recipes you wouldn’t usually put between bread and doing so. I even watch his show when I stumble upon it, which is something I can’t say about most Food Network shows. I happened to see an episode he did about making a few different kinds of barbecue and decided to give his recipe for Hawaiian BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich with Grilled Pineapple Relish.

This one was actually pretty simple, though you need time to get it done. The first step was making a dry rub out of brown sugar, coriander, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, black pepper and cinnamon. I rubbed the rub on the pork butt and then wrapped it up in plastic wrap for a few hours in the fridge. Two hours later, I popped it in my Dutch over and then put it, covered, in the oven for three hours.

With about an hour left in the oven cooking, I moved back into the kitchen and put the pineapple relish together. That involved slicing a pineapple and grilling it, chopping up some onions and ginger. I had already used my limes on another recipe, so instead I used orange juice which seemed to work out well. Oh, I also skipped the cilantro and the jalapeno for this because my wife hates the former and I’m not a huge fan of super heat.

After that, it was time to put the chili sauce together. Again, this one was pretty simple. The only changes I made were not crushing the red pepper flakes because I just couldn’t get them to grind with my mortar and pestle. What I did instead was actually strain the sauce as I poured it onto the pulled pork.

And it’s really that simple. I think not replacing the ingredients I left out of the relish might have negatively effected that flavor which wound up being a little more acidic than I think it was supposed to be. I also completely forgot to make or get red cabbage which bummed me out because I think the red cabbage I’ve made before and love would have been the perfect compliment to these flavors. I think that’s what seemed like it was missing from the flavors as they combined with this sandwich. That’s something to remember for next time.

Initial Reactions To The Season Eight Premiere Of The Next Food Network Star

So, last night the new season of Next Food Network Star premiered. This eighth season of the popular competition series flipped the script by changing up the format of the series. This time around, Bobby Flay, Alton Brown and Giada De Laurentiis have each chosen five contestants to be part of their team. The teams do some kind of challenge and then the two teams that don’t win send one person into the Pitch Room along with the coach and they have to defend themselves. I’ll admit, I didn’t see all of the episode because Mad Men was on. I also wasn’t very impressed with how obvious they edited this overly long two hour episode to very clearly let you know that Cristie and Josh were going to be in the bottom. With so much run time, you’d think they’d do a little more to throw you off base, but they really laid it on heavy.

Anyway, I just wanted to run through the teams quickly and offer up my first impressions. I’ll be honest, looking at the list on Wikipedia, I don’t remember roughly half of them and only find myself wanting to watch a small handful teach me how to cook. I probably should not be writing this post based on only seeing half an episode, but isn’t the internet designed for sharing half-formed opinions?

Let’s start with Alton’s team. Cristie got sent home which was no surprise. The few times I flipped over after 9:00PM she was struggling with just about everything. That was more of a mercy elimination than anything. You keep people like this around too long and it gets painful to watch. Emily really wants you to know she likes the 50s, but you know what? I do not care about that schtick. Her theme is supposed to be cooking 50s style meals today which is somewhat interesting, but she’s just too much for now. Judson likes bow ties, seems okay, that’s all I got. I really liked Justin and he’s my current favorite. A young guy who likes really messing around with food? That’s right in my wheelhouse. Martie was entertaining enough, but I’m not sure if I want to watch her talk about cooking.

Team Giada came close to losing Josh which would have been amazing because that dude is just grating. Who says, “Rock and roll!” in a group of people? I bet his band sucks and do not care about what he has to say about anything. I don’t remember anything about Linkie aside from her name. Martita also got on my nerves with a quickness. How many ay dios mios can you throw in, editors? I’m also sick of people playing off the “fiery latino” thing. We get it already. Ippy’s my other favorite right now. I like his attitude, but also the fact that he’s Hawaiian and that’s an area of cooking I’m very unfamiliar with. Yvan was alright and could easily become a favorite or one of the over the top kind of people that just gets annoying.

We end with Team Bobby, which was an interesting group. I really like Eric’s point of view of making everything by hand and think the editors will as well, especially if he keeps pushing things to the very edge of time in order to make his food. I remember next to nothing about Kara and Malcom, but did find myself enjoying Michelle. The question here, though, is whether they’d pick someone who so clearly looks like the love child of Guy Fieri, Anne Burrell and Robert Irvine. Finally, Nikki feels like the Penny of this cast, she’s too conniving and too bitchy which makes her an interesting reality show contestant, but not the kind of person you’ll want teaching you to cook something.

What’d you guys think? Did I miss anything huge in the second hour? It seemed like they were really dragging out that tasting of the restaurant wars-style challenge, but I guess that make sense considering it’s the first episode. Hopefully next week, there won’t be such a big conflict.

Cooking Jeff Mauro’s Greek Tacos

As anyone who read my early posts about Next Food Network Star, I was pulling for Jeff to win. I liked him as a person, he seemed to make good food and I didn’t want Penny to win. However, I’ve only seen a few episodes of his show and haven’t made any of his recipes just yet. Why’s that? Well, the show’s on at an odd time and I tend not to make sandwich type things for dinner. I worked in a sandwich shop for years and don’t find putting them together as relaxing as cooking more traditional meals. However, when I stumbled upon his recipe for Greek Tacos, I figured that was far enough away from my job and enough in my wheelhouse to give it a try.

As you can see from following the link, he breaks the meal down into three parts. You’ve got to cook the lamb and then also make the Feta Mint Tzatziki and the Cucumber Tomato Relish. In an effort to pace myself well, I decided to do them in reverse order of that, starting with the easiest part: making the relish. You’re basically just chopping up vegetables, putting them in a bowl and mixing with olive oil, red wine vinegar and pepper, so I got that done and put it in the fridge.

Next up, I tackled the tzatziki sauce which was a bit more labor intensive, but not by much. I’ve never grated cucumbers before, but that’s what the recipe said and that’s what I did. Once finished, those went into my pasta strainer and sat for the designated amount of time. While that dripped, I chopped the mint and garlic and put those in a bowl with the yogurt and feta. Once the cukes were a little more dry, then went in. Mixy mixy and you’re done.

Lastly, I went after the ground lamb. You cook it in a pan, then, once it’s brown, take it out and cook onions in the juices for five minutes before adding oregano and garlic. Follow that up with some tomato paste, let things caramelize and then put the meat back in the pan. Deglaze with red wine and you’re good to go.

I set the table up the same way I would for regular taco night which meant lots of bowls filled with lots of things. I also toasted the small non-pocket pitas on the fire and we had a really tasty meal. I think this might be a fun way to get kids who might be skeptical about trying new foods to try something new. It’s familiar (if taco night is a staple in your house like it has been in mine since I was a kid) but with some fun new elements. I’d never cooked ground lamb before but I thought it turned out well and my wife–who generally doesn’t like ground lamb–even like it, so there’s that.

Cooking Emeril’s Pasta Primavera

I won’t get too much into the hows of making Emeril Lagasse’s Pasta Primavera recipe because it’s very simple, but I will note that, back when the weather was very nice, it was a simple, tasty and fresh meal. As I’ve said many times before, I actually like prep work. Chopping stuff up is kind of zen for me and this recipe includes lots of that. I’m not so sure about the whole blanching thing, which I did do. I think next time I might steam the asparagus and carrots instead. But, at the end of the day, the veggies really play well with one another and make for a nice, light dish with a lot of natural flavor. This will be another one I’m returning to.

Cooking The Neelys’ Mama’s Lasagna

Yesterday, I wrote about making Cauliflower With Tomatoes. I figured that would make a fitting pair with lasagna, even though you don’t really need a veggie side with all the tomatoes. Anyway, I’ve made lasagna before and not just the Pumpkin one from last fall. I’ve made the basic Betty Crocker one and a few others, but I think I found a real winner when I came across The Neelys’ Mama’s Lasagna on I think this is the first of their recipes I’ve ever made, but I will definitely be giving them another look on the site.

The only thing I changed from their recipe is that I used meatloaf/meatball mix from my grocery instead of ground turkey or beef, but I followed everything else to a T. I like to get things ready ahead of time not just because I like to be prepared, but it also makes space on my very limited counter space. So, I first got to work on the cottage cheese mixture. With that done and in the fridge, I got to making the meat sauce. Once I got that to a place where I had some free time, I started shredding the various cheeses and that was pretty much it until construction.

Oh, the only other thing I changed was, I didn’t use oil in the pan. I learned a trick from another recipe where you just rub meat sauce around on the pan and you’re good to go. I got that in the oven and waited until everything was done. And, as I mentioned above, I think this might be my new go-to lasagna recipe. My wife and I both really liked it. I think the cottage cheese really brought something great to the table. It also tasted great with the cauliflower and possibly even better when we reheated it for lunches throughout the rest of the week.

Cooking Alton Brown’s Swedish Meatballs

When my wife suggested I make Swedish Meatballs, I was all for the idea. As I mentioned when I made Beef Stroganoff, I’m a big fan of the meat/gravy/sour cream combination in any and all forms. All I needed to do then was find a recipe. I didn’t realize my wife had her mom’s in the big black binder she uses as a cookbook, so I gave a search and settled on Alton Brown’s because, well, dude knows his stuff, right?

First off, I’ll note the changes I made by going down the ingredients list. I used a few hot dog buns instead of bread, regular butter instead of clarified and sour cream instead of heavy cream because I always wind up buying and using just a portion of the stuff and throwing the rest out. I probably should have just followed that part of the recipe, but I’ll get there.

I’m still working on the post I did about making beef stock, but since I made this recipe after I made the stock, one of the first things I did was grab three cups worth of it, put it on a flame and started defrosting. Meanwhile, I got my water set up for the egg noodles (oh yeah, we like to eat our Swedish Meatballs on egg noodles) and then got to work on the meatballs. I didn’t weigh each one like the recipe suggests and just eyed them. Weighing each and every one would have been a pain!

At this point, I fired up the heat for the noodle water and got to cooking the meatballs. I did about 10 at a time and would add them to a baking sheet when they were good and brown. I’ve cooked meatballs in the past and wound up chopping them up testing to see if they were done, but putting them in the oven finished off any pink spots and help hold the balls’ structural integrity.

Once all the balls are cooked and in the oven you basically make a roux and then a gravy. Toss some flour in the pan, stir until clumpy and then add the broth, sour cream and whisk until thickened. I’m not sure what the scientific difference between sour cream and heavy cream is, but I saw it in my pan as it took forever to thicken and even after 20 minutes or so wasn’t super thick. I pulled it and poured it over the noodles and meatballs, though it was thinner than I would have normally liked.

Even though the gravy wasn’t as good as it could have been, I don’t know if I’ve ever made a better non-Italian meatball. The nutmeg and allspice were a great combination with the beef and pork and came out super tasty. I also made the mistake of using olive oil to keep the noodles from sticking to one another which really threw the flavors off (it took me a few bites to figure out what the heck I was tasting that was a little funny). Even with all that, I still liked the meal. Next time, I think I’ll follow Alton’s recipe more closely or try and decipher my mother-in-law’s, but the important thing (aside from enjoying the meal and the leftovers) is that I learned from the process.

Food TV: The Layover Series Premiere

I don’t believe my appreciation of Anthony Bourdain is any surprise to regular readers of his blog. I love his show No Reservations, I love his autobiography Kitchen Confidential, I liked the Fox comedy based on said memoirs and I’ve enjoyed reading through his Les Halles Cookbook. So, of course, I was excited to realize today that his new Travel Channel show The Layover premiered tonight at 9:00PM. Unlike No Reservations, which is more like a travel show with food as the basis, The Layover is a food show based in places to travel to. But, to differentiate things even more, Bourdain only has a short amount of time to get around, which actually counts down as the episode carries on.

The first episode was based in Singapore, an interesting choice that showed off the new format well. Not only are there a variety of different kinds of cuisine in the country, it’s also relatively small, which lent itself well to the concept. The purpose of The Layover is to really show you where to go when you’re in a place and don’t have a ton of time. It has a much more travel guide feel to it than No Reservations as Bourdain not only lists additional places and dishes to check out, but also shares screen time with locals and ex-pats discussing their favorite places to eat and visit.

There are plenty of other little differences between The Layover and No Reservations–including showing multiple scenes at once on screen in various panels to show even more of the place, making it feel like you’re trying to cram in as much as possible–but at the end of the day, if you like Bourdain’s main show, you’ll like this one. I did. And, if you’re left not wanting to book tickets for Singapore immediately, you probably shouldn’t bother watching future episodes.

Turning Anne Burrell’s Braised Chicken with Tomatillos and Jalapenos Into Soup

As I said the other day, I made Anne Burrell’s Braised Chicken with Tomatillos and Jalapeno, but my wife wasn’t super into it and I wasn’t hungry, so I decided to just turn it into soup. It was actually super easy. I pulled the braised chicken out of the broth, added the rest of the chicken stock I had and added some celery (just because I had it). As the broth cooked, I pulled the meat off of the chicken, ripping it up into smaller pieces. Once that I was done, I popped the chicken in, tasted for salt and pepper and cooked down. It wound up being super, super tasty. I even added in some of the lime sour cream that’s also part of the original recipe to give it even more of a citrusy kick. I highly recommend this change to the recipe.

Cooking Anne Burrell’s Braised Chicken with Tomatillos and Jalapenos

I don’t watch a lot of actual cooking shows on Food Network, but I do like checking out Anne Burrell’s show when I stumble upon it. I like her because I know she’s legit, not only being a bad ass chef in her own right, but also because she was Mario Batali’s sous chef on Iron Chef America. I’ve cooked a few things I’ve either seen on or on her show Secrets Of A Restaurant Chef. I stumbled upon her recipe for Braised Chicken with Tomatillos and Jalapenos the other day before heading to the grocery store for the first time after being sick. I liked the recipe because it was kind of involved and really wanted to jump in. I’m also a fan of the lime and tomatillo flavors involved.

I still haven’t made my own stock yet (this week hopefully!), so I went with store bought. That was really the only change I made to the recipe. Actually, now that I think about it, I couldn’t find a Spanish onion either, so I went with a yellow one. There might have been a lot of chopping and several different steps, but overall the recipe was really easy to follow. I also liked that you could do one part of the recipe and then move over and do something else, like putting the super simple and really tasty lime sour cream together.

This is usually the part of the post when I would talk about how the food tasted, but I didn’t actually eat any of it. I hadn’t eaten lunch that day, was feeling light headed and picked up a Whopper from Burger King on my way home. Those guys are bigger than I expected, so I was full by the time I finished cooking. My wife tried it and wasn’t a huge fan because of the chicken being on the bone and the fact that the sauce was really watery (probably should have boiled it down more). With so much extra liquid and chicken, I figured I’d turn the whole thing into a soup, but that’s a post for another day!

Cooking Pumpkin Lasagna

I’ve mentioned here and there that our oven hasn’t been working. My father-in-law got a good deal on the stove and we moved it into our house months ago only to discover that while the stove top worked, the oven itself did not. Well, after longer than it should have taken, I finally called an appliance company that sent a guy out last week. He spent about 20 minutes with it and explained that it was just a safety switch of some kind that was flipped. Ah well, at least it’s working. To celebrate, I decided to make something that would utilize our newly working appliance. Enter: Robert Irvine’s recipe for Pumpkin Lasagna thanks to Food Network’s website.

I’d never had or made pumpkin lasagna before, but have always been a fan of pumpkin pie and have had a few savory dishes that use the big orange veggies like ravioli. I figured this would be a fun fall dish to try out, so Lucy and I headed to the store, I got all the ingredients and got cooking. The only alterations I made to the recipe were using sweet sausage instead of spicy and not getting Romano cheese. I had a feeling that that one would just sit around for a while after I finished this dish and didn’t want to waste the food or the money.Oh, I also went with dried parsley and basil for the same reasons. I miss my mini herb garden now that it’s fall!

As always, I started with prep: straining the pumpkin puree, combining herbs and chopping up onion and garlic. From there I just followed the recipe. I just realized I made one other small change to the recommended ingredients, I went with oven0-ready lasagna noodles instead of ones you have to cook. I also accidentally purchased whole tomatoes instead of a tomato sauce, so I just tossed the can’s contents into the blender with some salt, pepper and the herbs and that was my sauce.

The recipe was really easy to follow and produced a great lasagna. The zucchini seemed a little out of place, like it should have been cooked or breaded or something instead of just placed in there. I also think I should have cooked the whole thing a little longer than the 40 minutes I went with because I like the cheese to be a little more brown. I also think I might use more pumpkin next time I make this because it was too subtle. You’d get a hint of it here and there, but I want it to be all up in my palette. Even with those changes I would make, I still really enjoyed the dish. It was fun to try something new and it served us well as leftovers for the rest of the week, keeping its flavor with every later serving.

Cooking Beef and Black Bean Chili with Avocado Relish

I felt like chili last week because it’s been cold and rainy lately. So, I looked through the folder I have on my desktop filled with recipes, most of which are from the Food Network site. I stopped on the first one, which is Bobby Flay’s Beef and Black Bean Chili with Avocado Relish (the recipe also tells you how to make Toasted Cumin Crema, but I skipped that in favor of good, old fashioned sour cream). I’d made this recipe once before and, if memory serves, it turned out really spicy, though I didn’t remember that until much later. It called for pasilla chili which I didn’t have and didn’t buy, so I just went with ancho chili powder, cumin and a shake or two of cayenne. The only other change I made was not including the ancho chili paste because I don’t know what that is and therefore did not have any.

Before really getting started, I got all the spices together in a small bowl. I like to get as many things like this done ahead of time. I also chopped up the onion and garlic before getting to the beef. I made short work of two pounds of London broil, quickly turning it into cubes and popping them into a bowl. With everything ready, I put a stock pot–wasn’t sure if it would have fit in a Dutch oven, but it probably would have–got the oil warming and then dropped the cubes in.

Once the beef was browned and I sprinkled some salt and pepper in there (I should have done this earlier in the process, but it slipped my mind). I then drained out all of the grease and poured about three tablespoons back into the pot using a two cup measuring pourer. The onions and garlic went in next along with all the spices, which turned into a kind of roux. After the designated two minutes, I poured in the dark beer (we had a Saranac sampler pack in the house so I chose the Black Forest type) and continued the recipe as it’s written.

While the chili cooked, I put the Avocado Relish together which was super easy. You basically chop up some avocado (I had three, instead of the recommended two), red onion and the tiniest Jalapeno I could find and throw that into a bowl. Then I squeezed one and a half limes into the bowl, sprinkled some salt and pepper in, mixed and was done! My wife hates cilantro, so I skipped that.

I forgot to snap a picture of the bowl, but I also shredded some cheddar cheese and put out the sour cream. I’m not sure if people normally put sour cream on their chili, but I started doing it after going over to a party at my friend Jimmy’s parents’ house when I was a kid. They had a crock pot of chili going, cheese and some sour cream out along with all the other food, so I put it on top. I mentioned it to my parents and they’d never heard of it, so maybe I accidentally invented something, but I doubt it. This chili turned out to be pretty darn spicy, though not as bad as last time. The avocado relish and sour cream really cut down on the heat, which was nice. There was still a kick, but it wasn’t too overwhelming.

By the way, does anyone know about pasilla chili? Is it super-hot? I haven’t encountered other recipes with it, but I’m curious what flavors it adds. Thanks!

Food TV: The Great Food Truck Race Season 2 Finale

Sorry for the lack of posts this week. I was on a fantastic vacation that you can check out over on my photo diary blog The Monkee Diaries and am working on some posts about the great food we cooked and ate on that trip. In the meantime, we got home in the early afternoon today, which meant we had plenty of time to watch The Great Good Truck Race‘s second season finale. In reality, I wound up missing the first 10-15 minutes because my wife was putting our daughter to bed while I was caught up in the Steelers/Colts game.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who read my previous post about this show, but I was rooting pretty hard for Hodge Podge. Not only are they from Cleveland–my mom’s home town and where my grandmother still lives–but the Lime Truck really didn’t sit well with me from the beginning. They just seemed so full of themselves, superior and looked down at every town they were in because it wasn’t sophisticated like California. I hate that shit. Did anyone else notice that the interview scenes shifted away from the really cocky kid–the hype man of the group–and shined the spotlight on the dudes who were actually the cooks? I wonder if that was a result of fan feedback or the fact that they wound up winning and Food Network didn’t want their winner to come off as total D-bags. By the end, I actually wound up liking the two chefs a lot more, but still had trouble with that guy.

Anyway, as I said, I missed the beginning of the episode. I think there was something about their trucks getting towed away, right? I do know that they had to get to a certain amount of money before running to meet host Tyler Florence and getting the prize money. By the time I tuned in, they were getting shut down for the first night and had to go fishing. They had to turn whatever they caught into a meal that would win them a substantial prize. Lime won that one, but Hodge wound up getting a pretty good spot, so it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. The next day’s task was to serve only dessert, which worked out fine for both trucks it seemed. They did some plucky editing to make it look like both trucks got to the money marker at the same time and then Florence did a whole schtick with the Lime guys who got their first about how, if they open this brief case and it has money in it, they won. As it turned out, Lime Truck did win and they only got there about five minutes before Hodge Podge, which was a bummer.I don’t remember a lot about the first season of The Great Food Truck Race other than that I did watch it and think I liked it, but I have a feeling I’ll remember this batch a lot more. We started off with the cute vegan girls and the upstart dudes from Boston who wound up coming in third. Lime Truck played the villain of the piece, being dubbed the Slime Truck by some of the other teams. Hodge was the boisterous guy who seemed to get by on sheer willpower and of course you’ve got the Korilla truck who cheated and got sent home. I’m still surprised that there was no footage of them cheating or interview explanation of why they did what they did. I mentioned something like this on Twitter the day that episode aired and someone responded back that they thought they weren’t going to win, so they put extra money in. Don’t you just love when people explain what was just explained on television? But, nope, we were left with something being said as they drove away and that was it. Wild stuff.

Much as I did like this season, I think there’s a helluva lot more interesting show going on behind the scenes here that would work on a different network. You’re sending a group of young, heady people out all over the country, making them wear goofy uniforms and putting them against each other in increasingly odd challenges. The real show should be what these guys and gals do at the hotel between stops. Let’s see that show.

Cooking Tacos

While at the farm stand down the road on Monday I saw that they had tomatillos for about a buck a pound. That got the wheels turning. A while back I saved the link for Alton Brown’s Taco Potion #19, a homemade version of that packets you buy at the store. I wanted to give that a try, so when I saw the tomatillos I immediately thought to make tacos along with an altered version of Tyler Florence’s Roasted Tomatillo Chile Salsa. I’ve made the full enchilada recipe that this sauce accompanied, but have been wanting to try it with just regular tacos and will also be taking the extra along with me next week when I make those awesome fish tacos for everyone on vacation next week.

This meal wound up taking a while because there were so many steps. I started off making the Taco Potion which was super easy. The “hardest” part was blending the coriander in the Magic Bullet and the only trouble there was reaching for the Bullet. You literally just throw everything in a jar and mix it up, so there’s no real work there. I didn’t even have to buy anything because we had all the ingredients in house.

After that I put together the altered Tomatillo Chile Salsa. I skipped the jalapenos and cilantro because I’m not a fan of heat and my wife despises cilantro. I also didn’t have any actual limes in the house, so I went with some of that stuff that comes in the lime-shaped bottle. Also, since our oven doesn’t work, I just cooked the tomatillos, onion and garlic in a large pan with olive oil. To keep the heat in, I put the lid on and let them go on medium heat for 10-15 minutes. When they got blackish, I took them off the heat and eventually blended them up in the Cuisinart along with the other ingredients. I honestly didn’t notice a difference in taste with the different cooking method.

While the sauce cooled, I started cooking the ground beef for tacos in an iron skillet. I’ve made tacos enough using the directions on the taco kit box to know the basics. You brown the meat, drain the fat, add the taco spices and water, cook down and you’re done! When we have it, I throw some salsa or V8 juice in there which adds even more flavor. As the meat cooked I got the other elements of the taco bar together. I cut up some green onions from the cup with kitchen scissors, chopped lettuce, put out the tomatillo sauce, sour cream and hot sauce (my wife likes red while I like green) and shredded the cheese. Once the tacos were done cooking (ie most of the liquid had cooked off or been absorbed), I put that on a plate and started lightly toasting the tortillas on the stove with some tongs.

I’m always a fan of taco bar night going back to when I was a kid and mom made them, so this meal was great for me. However, the taco potion was a little off. I don’t think I’m a huge fan of the smoked paprika in there. The taco meat wound up tasting almost like sausage with it’s smokey flavor. It was an interesting taste, but didn’t exactly scream “tacos!” The tomatillo sauce was a great mix of tangy and sour, which is what makes it such a good taco companion. I highly recommend giving either recipe a shot next time you feel like heading south of the border. On a personal note, I like that I’m getting to a place where I’ve cooked enough recipes to know which pieces of them might make sense with other flavors and how to switch up some methods and come out with something pretty similar. I’m starting to feel like an actual cook!

Food Book News From Anthony Bourdain & Michael Ruhlman

Apologies to anyone who reads both this and my pop culture blog UnitedMonkee because I’m about to double dip a bit. As I mentioned over there in my link-blog post Casting Internets, there were a few bits of chef book news that I found pretty interesting. First up, Anthony Bourdain will be getting his own imprint through Ecco which itself is part of HarperCollins. I read about this over on The New York Observer who had the following quote from Bourdain:

We look forward to publishing an unusual mix of new authors, existing works, neglected or under-appreciated masterworks, and translations of people from elsewhere who we think are just too damned brilliant not to be available in English. We’re presently looking at an initial list composed of chefs, enthusiasts, fighters, musicians and dead essayists.

I’ve read and seen enough of Bourdain to understand that the man has a lot of influences both in and out of the cooking world that he will hopefully bring to better light. I’m curious to see what the three to five books per year he’ll have his name grace, at least as a logo. Meanwhile, in the world of books that are actually available at the moment comes Michael Ruhlman’s Ruhlman’s Twenty. I first experienced Ruhlman on the Cleveland episode of Bourdain’s No Reservations, which instantly endured him to me (I have a kinship for that city because it’s where my mom was born). He’s been on a few other episodes and even popped up as a judge on Iron Chef America. I don’t know a lot about him other than he’s really into cooking, smoking, curing and preparing meat, which I appreciate. I just started checking out his website, just in time to see him writing about this new book that posits there are only 20 techniques you need to know to cook anything. He explains himself better in a post on his site. I like the sound of this book because it’s part recipes and part text book. I think I can use a few textbooks on the cooking class that is life (ooh, that was deep…).

Food Epiphany: Buy Local

The thing about epiphanies is that they can be flapping around you for quite a while before finally finding a place to land in your brain. When they do, though, they can be headslapping revelations. “Why didn’t I think of this before?!” Fireworks. Things are different now. Even if it’s a subject you’ve thought about it before, but just didn’t focus on it or really mulled over, there might be that one thing that really makes you take notice. I’ve been hearing about farmer’s markets, buying local and the slow food movement for a while now, but it wasn’t until I saw (my wife will laugh at this because I talk about him more than I probably should) Anthony Bourdain in Provence, France on an episode of No Reservations last night that the idea of buying local really landed in my brain. It was probably the 20th episode I’ve seen where he talked about using local ingredients that are in season, but I think it was the beauty of the area, the bright colors and calming aesthetic of the place that allowed some of the background chatter in my brain to calm down long enough for the idea to really take up real estate in my head.

For a long time, food was more social or utilitarian, something that filled my belly and gave family or friends the opportinity to catch up. There were good and even great meals in there, but overall, I didn’t really think much about the food I was eating. Even when I moved out on my own, the extent of my cooking revolved around tossing a piece of meat in a plastic bag with marinade and cooking it on the George Foreman. Since getting married, I’ve moved in and out of cooking on a regular basis, but in the last few years I’ve really jumped in. Grabbing a recipe and buying the ingredients from the store was never really anything I gave much thought to. Where else would I buy groceries than at the grocery store?

I’ve mentioned here and there that I try to make it out to the farmer’s market in nearby Cornwall, so I guess the whole local thing isn’t a completely new revelation. But, after watching that episode of No Reservations I realized how lucky I am to live in an area with so many farms. Depending on the season and my needs, I can get pretty much anything I’d want or need from eggs and milk to meat and veggies. Sure, I’ll probably have to go out of my way a little bit and maybe get a bigger cooler for transporting and even shift my schedule around to accommodate the dates of farmer’s markets (not to mention planning for winter way ahead of time), but I think it will be worth it.

To be clear, I’m not interested in buying local for moral reasons. I think the way beef and poultry is mass produced in this country probably isn’t the best or healthiest way to go, but it works for some people. I’m coming at this from more of a taste and health point of view. Food that hasn’t been frozen and just came off the vine/tree/whathaveyou is just plain fresher and tastes better. Then you get into things like animal feed and how that plays into how they taste when you cook them up, that’s a whole different level as well. In addition to all that, I like the idea of supporting local business people, especially farmers. My paternal great grandfather was a farmer, so I feel some kind of kinship there even though he passed away before I was born. Besides that, I also have a deep respect for anyone who works that hard with their hands.

I spent a good deal of last night looking around for farms and farmer’s markets in the area. I’ve got a few in mind that I’m going to check out. I’ll let you guys know how that goes. I’m also looking around for people making awesome cheeses and meats (dried, smoked, sausage). I feel like I’ve been listening to boy band music and digging that for years only occasionally hearing Led Zeppelin and liking it but not really jumping in. Now I’m knee deep in the catalog and branching out into all kinds of other things from Pink Floyd to Miles Davis. There’s a huge world of food out there that I’m excited about jumping into starting with the foods that around me. Now I just need to learn what’s in season and when!

Food TV: The Great Food Truck Race Season 2

I haven’t had the pleasure of eating from too many interesting food trucks in my time. The first one I experienced was at the end of a long day of drinking cocktails in the Village with some friends (that sounds so trendy, it doesn’t seem like I should be writing it). Our NYC dweller friend was following some dessert truck on Twitter. My wife got all excited when she brought it up so we schlepped a ton of blocks (could have been two for all I know, I was blitzed on mojitos and whatnot) to find this truck. Not being a dessert fan, I could have cared less, but even through the diminishing haze I realized that this was a cool idea. I had heard how important the then-new Twitter had become to food trucks who would send out their locations to followers who could show up or pass the info along to their friends. A community sprung up and where there’s a community, TV cameras usually show up.

Instead of a reality show, which would probably be more expected, food trucks appeared last season on Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race, hosted by Tyler Florence. I watched most of the episodes and thought it was a pretty good show. The challenges thrown at the contestants test their mettle and could possibly reflect real world problems, but are usually so over the top and ridiculous that you realize you’re watching a show that’s less about the food itself than it is about the competition. And that’s fine. I can feel tension through my TV, but I can’t taste or smell food.

The second season kicked off a few weeks ago with the second playing this past Sunday. Thanks to a rerun earlier in the evening, I got caught up. It seemed pretty clear right away who the first team to get sent home was going to be Sky’s Gourmet Tacos had the misfortune of popping a tire on the way to the first challenge location only to wind up in the same location as a more interesting truck that also sold tacos. I also wasn’t very surprised when Devilicious got sent home in the second episode because they seemed to be non-entities throughout both episodes. At one point during the first episode my wife asked what the red team had been up to. I responded with “I have no idea.” I didn’t exactly call it right away, but there was zero surprise in that reveal.

I’m sure like most of you, I’ve got a few favorites and not-so-faves already. I like Hodge Podge because the chef is from Cleveland (I’m from Toledo, my mom and grandma are from the Cleve), plus I want to put their food in my face. I’m also leaning towards the boys from Boston in the Roxy’s Grilled Cheese truck because they’ve been the underdogs so far and again because I want to eat their food. I’m kind of neutral on Cafe Con Leche (the woman’s a little much, but I want to try their Cuban coffee) and Korilla (who remind me of Korean Run-DMC for some reason). All of which leaves two teams: Seabirds and The Lime Truck. I don’t have anything particularly bad to say about the Seabirds, who make Vegan food, but they’re just so lovey and spacey that it pushes a button somewhere inside where my cynicism lives. I think the Lime Truck guys could relate to me because they are totally arrogant douchebags. I’m not even going to link to their page on Food Network, you can find it through the others if you’re so inclined. There’s a fine line between fun cocky and asshole cocky and these dudes are so far away from the line in asshole territory that they can’t even see it. You have to root against them or be drawn to their confidence. I’m sure the hipsters love them.

So, I’m sold for now. I’m a sucker for food shows, especially the competition ones, so TGFTR fits the bill and since I can either catch it in reruns or watch it when nothing else is on, we’re good to go. What did you guys think?

Congrats To Jeff, The Next Food Network Star

Vic, Susie & Jeff, The Final Three

Oh, spoiler warning by the way, I guess. But, let’s be honest, was there ever any question that Jeff was going to win Food Network’s talent search Next Food Network Star? Vick and Susie had great personalities, but there’s already people on the network with similar perspectives/specialties. Mexican food? Covered. Italian food? Covered. Dude guy? Covered. But funny sandwich guy? They don’t have one of those.

Tonight’s two hour season finale kicked off with a reunion episode that was kind of pointless. I’m not sure why certain networks insist on doing the reunion before the finale. Wouldn’t it be a lot more drama-filled if everyone knew who won? Ah well, there was still a bit of static between Chris and Justin B as well as some between Penny and pretty much everyone. The most surprising was that Mary Beth seemed angry at Jeff for reasons I didn’t quite catch. Mary Beth seemed to get a little more sneaky and bitter as the season went on, which is too bad because I think the perspective of a food writer in the cooking world could make for an interesting show. Maybe like a news show even?

The actual episode kicked off with the three remaining contestants, Vic, Susie and Jeff, cooking their ultimate meal. In a twist unseen before, only the top two would move on to film a pilot for their proposed show. Everyone’s meals seemed to be solid and they all had great stories behind their dishes, so it wound up coming down to the descriptions of the food, which, unfortunately for Vic, he didn’t get to. His story was great, but there was no prep or cooking talk, so he wound up missing the chance to film a pilot.

Both Jeff and Susie had a few stumbling blocks during filming, but wound up doing a pretty great job. Once they were done, they had to face not only the judges, but also a focus group made up of all of the voted off chefs. There were some negative comments, but mostly nice oncs, then it came down to judging and Jeff wound up taking home the victory.

These three contestants pulled ahead pretty early on with big personalities that were fun to watch on TV. Honestly, I’d probably watch any of them on a show and wouldn’t be surprised if they wound up on Food Network or The Cooking Channel. I don’t tend to sit down at regular times with the Food Network outside of their competition shows (Iron Chef America reruns are part of our daily routine at this point), but I would definitely keep an eye out for them. In the end, I think Jeff had the clearest, most unique vision, plus he’s the guy that everyone liked. As I said a few months back when I explained why Penny was playing the wrong kind of game for this show, people want to like their Food Network hosts and no one’s more congenial than Jeff. Congrats to him and I look forward to catching your show when I stumble upon it!

Why Penny Won’t Win Next Food Network Star

Originally published on UnitedMonkee, 6/17/11

I’ve been watching a lot of shows about food lately. Not necessarily cooking shows, but a mixture of traveling chef (No Reservations, Bizarre Foods when it’s not too gross) and food competition shows (Iron Chef, Chopped, Best In Smoke, Top Chef). I’ve been getting really into seeing how different cultures cook and how chefs use their skills in competitive scenarios. I want to be able to eat the things they eat and cook the way they cook. Maybe some day.

The most recent food show addition to our viewing schedule is Next Food Network Star, a pretty self explanatory viewing experience. What I like about this set up is that it’s being judged by people who do the thing the contestants want to do (actual FN stars like Bobby Flay) or who choose the people to be on said shows (FN execs). Given the show’s long running time (90-120 minutes per episode so far) I haven’t actually seen a full episode yet, but I have seen most of the first two. You’ve got your general cast of people, some have had bum luck, others clearly don’t have the stage presence or temperament to be TV chefs, but one has started to stick out like a sore thumb: Penny. I’ve missed the very beginning of the first episode several times, so the developing and heated rivalry between Penny and Alicia (who doesn’t seem to be able to speak like a normal person at a normal volume or give me any reason to want to watch her show) completely befuddled me. For whatever reason, Penny seems to have set her sites on Alicia and continued to give her trouble throughout the episode, which of course included her and Alicia being put on the same team. Did something go down between these two in the first 15 minutes? Did Alicia run over Penny’s cat on the way to the first day’s taping? I must be missing something because Penny spent the rest of the episode throwing shade, but she didn’t reserve it for interview time, she just kept spouting off insults and character assassinations left and right WHILE THEY WERE COOKING. I also missed the beginning of the second episode, but I gathered through context clues (ie, outright statements by other contestants) that Penny won a lesser challenge early on and was able to choose teams for the final challenge and possibly ingredients. She used this power to hamstring the first episode’s winner and early frontrunner Orchid. When asked about it later, Penny basically owned up to it. So here’s the problem. This isn’t Survivor or a VH1 dating show. The point of Next Food Network Star is to present yourself as the kind of person that Food Network viewers not only like, but want to learn from. What I’m saying is that Penny’s playing the reality show game, but this isn’t your typical reality show, so it’s not going to work. There’s that age old reality show quote that ALWAYS pops up where the bitchy girl or asshole guy says “I didn’t come here to make friends.” Well, that might be the case, but you did come here to impress us and to come off as friendly. Can you think of any jerky chef with a cooking show on the Food Network? Nope, that’s not the point. So, Penny, I’m sorry but you’re just playing the right game on the wrong show. You’re a fun reality show villain, but playing the role completely discounts you as a viable candidate for the show’s final prize. I wonder if that’s what she’s going for. If so, I’m not sure why. Maybe she realized how gross her “kitchen sex” attitude was and just decided to play the bad girl? Now that you’ve shot yourself in the foot, keep switching up the theme of your show until you finally lose out to one of your competitors who’s actually charming and please don’t try and do the midseason turnaround after realizing the error of your ways. In fact, go balls to the wall with it and maybe you can get a cooking show on VH1.

New Favorite Show: Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations

Originally published on UnitedMonkee, 2/28/11

Over the past few months, I’ve found a real love for Travel Channel’s No Reservations, a show featuring renowned chef Anthony Bourdain traveling around the world, sampling local food and waxing poetic about his encounters. I don’t want to paint the wrong kind of picture here. Bourdain’s no hippie beatnik, but instead a man who looks past the glossy images we’re presented with of most foreign countries and instead experiences them himself through the most communal of endeavors: sharing a meal. The best episodes happen to be the ones where things don’t quite go as expected. There was one where the production crew found themselves in a country ripped apart by civil unrest or revolution (I can’t quite remember which or what country at the moment). Instead of eating his way through the area, Bourdain got to really experience what it was like to be in that kind of situation and he has such a way with words that those emotions are well conveyed to the audience.

Tonight’s season premiere found Bourdain traveling through Haiti, a country that has been devastated by both earthquakes and a corrupt government. But even with all the death and hunger and poverty, as Bourdain points out, the people still seem to be in somewhat good spirits, create new art and music and do their best to keep their clothes fresh and clean. He and his fellow travelers like Sean Penn along with native hosts point out that the media has a tendency to show only the awful things that have happened without 1) showing the full story and 2) doing any real good. It’s gotten so bad that the people of Haiti don’t want to be photographed, something that I haven’t seen on any of the previous episodes I’ve had the pleasure of watching. It’s a lot to take in, which is why I like the show so much. It teaches you without being too heavy handed and shows off the world in a different light than I’m used to seeing.

So good is that show, in fact, that you almost forget it’s about food, which makes it an apt choice for the Travel Channel over, say, The Food Network. Yes the food is important, but it’s more of a way to get into the lives of people instead of the main focus. But man, sometimes, No Reservations makes me HUNGRY. I mentioned that my favorite episodes tend to be the ones where things don’t go quite as planned, but that’s not entirely true. I also adore the ones where Tony, a generally cantankerous man, finds himself completely absorbed in the pleasure of enjoying food and drink with others. There was one where he was in I believe Brazil, and the episode ended with him just hanging out and enjoying some cocktails and kind of zoning out. It looked pretty fun.

Is The Worst Cooks In America Too Hard?

Originally posted on UnitedMonkee, 1/10/10.Has anyone else been watching Food Network’s The Worst Cooks In America? The way the show works is that the worst of the worst cooks are split into two teams with a big time chef in charge of each of them. They’re given a series of challenges that they either pass or fail with the final challenge being that the finalists will cook a big meal with the diners thinking it’s the big time chefs actually cooking, thus, “putting their names on the line” kinda. Here’s the thing though, these people seem like they’ve never even seen a kitchen or eaten food. They’re really super duper bad at cooking and yet, the challenges are ridiculously hard. The first episode had both teams making a seafood dish. Tonight’s episode, which just ended, had them working on one of those big table grills that they use in hibachi restaurants and learning different ways to cut things. During the final challenge tonight, the contestants weren’t shown how to cook the whole recipe (fair enough), but it was written on a blackboard in the room, only to be erased part way through. What were they supposed to do? Memorize the whole thing? Yeah, I know, “write it down” would be a good answer, but I don’t know if they could. I don’t get it. These people are really really terrible cooks, they don’t even know the basics and they’re being asked to cook some really complex stuff. I feel like they’re being thrown under the bus with no possible chance of learning anything. It would be like taking a four year old, throwing her in a physics class and expecting her to do really well.

I’ve been learning to cook for about eight or so years. That might seem like a lot, but there were huge gaps in there where it made more sense for Em to cook or I was just doing basic stuff like throwing chicken on a George Foreman. When I started out though, I learned how to do some simple stuff like pastas and stir-fries, not sea scallops and duck. Heck, some of the people admitted to never even eating what they were cooking before. I don’t want to judge too early, but this show just doesn’t feel right, like the chefs are really trying to screw the contestants over and it’s not really fun. We’ll probably stick with it to see who gets sent home (there are some real characters on here like the nerdy hipster from Brooklyn and the high strung lady who just wants to be able to cook for her kids and cries a lot), but if TWCIA returns for a second season, I hope they chillax a little bit and actually try and teach these people how to cook like they’re doing over on Bravo’s Chef Academy. That’s a great show that at least seems like it’s trying to actually help people instead of screwing them over. Anyone agree? Disagree?