Prove It

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 0 comments
With the autumnal TV season upon us, I really need to get into gear to wrap up and talk about the shows I watched over the summer. I've got one episode left of a massive cultural hit that I will have some...contrary opinions about. For today, though, let's talk about an old favorite. The other shows might get rolled into a single post, but something as special as The Great British Baking Show deserves a space of its own.

Any regular reader already knows how I feel about this show, but for the uninitiated, I think it's the best show in recent history, and when it entered my life, it skyrocketed to the top of my favorites list. There are metric tons of both food shows and reality shows on the air, but none of the others come close to capturing the warm, life-affirming tone this show does. You can even listen to a friend and I wax rhapsodic over it if you like.

If you follow the show at all, you know that nothing good lasts forever, and the better something is, the more you'd better treasure it while it exists. We'll get to that momentarily, though. For now, let's talk about this most recent season. As far as the general structure goes, it was as fantastic as ever. Beautiful photography, engaging contestants, good challenge design, fair judging, fun hosts... You've heard it all from me before, and nothing's changed. The initial contestant pool was perhaps not as stacked with intriguing personalities as in seasons past, but once we got down to the final handful, I was as in love with the bakers as I always am. Early standouts included Flora, who often sacrificed flavor for ornate decoration, Paul the prison warden who struggled in early challenges but consistently nailed the Showstopper, and Mat, the adorable fireman. The final three were also an intriguing bunch. Ian was inventive, Nadiya was intensely-focused, and Tamal was a wizard with flavors. Oh, and on a personal note...also super-hot.

So, everything was top-notch as far as the production went, but circumstances surrounding it impeded some of the joy I'd usually get out of my favorite show. Whoever is in charge of scheduling at PBS is clearly in the final throes of dementia. Episodes had no consistency in their airing, be it the day or the time. When it came down to the final two episodes, my local affiliate decided to take a few weeks off from airing it at all. The season's winner was spoiled online. It was as if people were actively trying to ruin a good thing.

And that's not even getting into what's coming next. News is still rolling in about this, so by the time I post, it may well have changed again, but here's how it stands now. First, BBC had the rights to the show bought out from under them by Channel 4. That means it's going from a station funded by governmental license fees to an advertising-supported one. If you're American, this would be akin to Masterpiece Theater going from PBS to NBC. That's not a good thing.

Know who else doesn't think it's a good thing? Hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, who quit the show when it was announced it was making the move. Know who else doesn't think it's a good thing? Judge Mary Berry, who quit shortly thereafter. Right after that happened, it was announced that Paul Hollywood is sticking around as judge of whatever the new version of the show will look like, and that Mel and Sue have already scored a new show of their own.

A new season of Great British Baking Show is currently airing in Britain, so we've got that to look forward to. Plus, there are the three initial seasons that never aired in America, so tracking those down could keep this amazing program in our collective consciousness for a while. But as far as what the future will bring in terms of this franchise? It would appear that the cookie is crumbling.

The Great British Baking Show - Season 3: A
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American Plate - Bite #91: Microwave Popcorn

Friday, September 2, 2016 0 comments
And, the wave of knocking out the easier Bites continues! Part of my interest in the American Plate Project stems from an interest in not just the foods endemic to our culture, but how those ingredients of yore evolved into some of our more modern tastes. Corn is obviously an extremely part of American food history - so important, that it's the only food to get multiple entries; O'Connell devotes three of the 100 Bites to it. One of those three entries is about the subspecies of corn that explodes into fluffy goodness when it's heated, but despite this Bite's title, popcorn has a history that extends to far before the microwave could even be conceived of.

Native Americans introduced it to Europeans, who heartily embraced it. People began thinking about different ways to enjoy it, whether it was by fashioning wire baskets to cook it over an open fire, sticking bits of it together with molasses or syrup, or stringing it together to use as decoration on their Christmas trees. After the Civil War, the technology of popcorn consumption kicked into high gear, and with each new invention, popcorn got a firm grip on a facet of American society. In 1885, the steam-powered popcorn maker was devised, which led to its popularity at stadiums and arenas. In 1925, the electric corn popper came along, and was immediately adopted by the burgeoning movie theater industry. As a cheap snack, the sale of popcorn kept a lot of struggling movie houses afloat during the Great Depression, and it's had a permanent home at the cinema ever since.

In the 1950s, overwhelmed housewives were delighted with the arrival of Jiffy Pop, which was an inexpensive and entertaining distraction for their kids, and required no clean-up. Finally, in the 1980s, microwave technology became affordable enough for the average American household to acquire, and it was only natural that one of the first foods developed for it was popcorn. Once again, it took over, and nowadays, a full 65% of popcorn consumed is by people microwaving it at home.

As you can see, a search of my pantry yielded a couple different kinds of microwave popcorn. There are a lot of flavors to choose from these days, but really, if you just avoid the fake butter topping, it's a pretty healthy snack. It's also fun to experiment with different seasoning blends. People tend to just dust popcorn with salt, but there are tons of things that liven it up, from cayenne to dill. It's found another natural companion in the rise of streaming media, and there's no better way to pass a snowy Thursday evening than by firing up the Netflix, settling on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, and going to town.
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Cookie Party: Volume 7

Monday, June 20, 2016 0 comments
I don't know what it is about cookies that brings out the mad scientist in me. When it comes to savory dishes, I'll tinker with recipes, but mostly do so in an attempt to refine a dish to its best classical form. When it comes to cookies, though, I'm apparently happiest when the result is monumentally weird. My radar went off when a friend of mine posted a lovely shot of some shortbread cookies she'd recently made, and when I saw that they incorporated fresh basil into the dough, I knew I'd have to give them a whirl.

Lemon Basil Shortbread Cookies
An English Garden in Every Bite

It's the perfect season to try these out. Lemon and basil are so refreshing in the June heat, and while shortbread can tend to be overly dry, summer refrigerators are usually stocked with cool drinks. This recipe requires a lot of butter, but aside from the lemon and basil, none of the ingredients are different from any other standard shortbread.

I used my mixer to cream the butter with powdered sugar, vanilla, lemon juice, lemon zest, and the basil, then mixed in some flour and salt. This was the point where I reached the biggest challenge of the process. The recipe asks that you take the resultant sticky dough, separate it into two balls, then roll them out to a quarter-inch thickness and cut shapes. My dough was far too soft to even consider rolling, let alone cutting shapes. Anything I cut would immediately fall apart, as the softened butter made the dough too pliable to work with. I wound up just tearing off balls of dough to flatten into circles with my palm.

I'm not sure how I'll correct for this issue next time. I could either add more flour to make the dough stiffer, or perhaps try chilling the dough for a while to firm it up. I believe I'll try the latter, since excessive flour can make the cookies dry and impairs the flavor. While the cookies baked, I whipped up the glaze, which consists of powdered sugar, milk, and lemon juice. I should have seen the next problem coming, since I was baking more cookies than the recipe stated would result. I didn't have enough glaze to cover all the cookies, and for the ones that did get glaze, some of them got short shrift.

Still, I was pretty happy with the flavor. As with most of my odd cookie creations, the response I got from other people was decidedly one of confusion. I'm not sure these were entirely successful, because the black pepper/cumin cookies are far stranger than these, but got a better reception from the people I gave them to. I liked them, though, and I think that with some tweaks, I can turn out a better batch next time. Maybe I'll even get to finally use the alphabet cookie cutters I've been itching to try out.

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Top Chef

Sunday, June 19, 2016 0 comments
Back in 2012, I listed the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi as my #3 favorite movie of the year. It's not hard to see why. Combine a compelling topic with an innate love of sushi, and toss in some fantastic food photography, and of course I'd be magnetically drawn to it. When I heard that director David Gelb was developing a similar documentary style as a television series for Netflix, I was overjoyed.

That first season of Chef's Table has been out for a while now, but it wasn't until I heard that Season 2 episodes were being released that I finally carved out some free time to wrap up those first six episodes. Each of the episodes focuses on a single chef, and delves into not only his or her most well-known dishes, but their backgrounds and what made cooking such an important part of their lives. The overwhelmingly beautiful food photography is back, and it's fascinating to see how fine dining has diverged into such wildly different concepts, depending on the creative mind behind it.

The six chefs that the first season revolves around are from all across the world, and all have different motivations for wanting to excel in the food world. One will want to spread a message of sustainable eating and how the next generation will source its ingredients, while another got her start just wanting to prove to her family that she has the skill and drive necessary to be a success.

As with Jiro Dreams of Sushi, part of the appeal is getting behind the magic of the beautiful food to get at the stories behind it. Food as a business is constantly locked in a struggle between artistry and commerce, and I'm always interested in seeing how people succeed or fail at threading that needle. Here are six stories of people who hit the bullseye, and whose cooking has attracted worldwide attention. It's wonderful to see people achieve their dreams and achieve such a vast measure of success, of course, but in a weird twist, these chefs' prominence is also the series' biggest flaw.

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there was no illusion that Jiro was an ordinary guy. He is rightly depicted as the king of his castle. He may be artistic, but he's also a stern and demanding taskmaster, whose rigidity has made him a reliable and consistent force in the culinary world. Chef's Table takes the weird tack of trying to sell a "common thread" narrative, positing that since food unites us all as people, these chefs should be hailed for building strong fellowships and a sense of community.

That just doesn't work. As nice as some of these chefs are (and most seem like perfectly decent sorts, if a little emotionally distant), they are not "of the people". These are the best of the best, and while it's perfectly acceptable to celebrate their talent, that talent is only shared with diners with sizable bank accounts and the connections necessary to getting a sought-after seat in a very small dining room.

That misstep aside, this is still a must-watch for anyone as obsessive about the world of food as I am, or for those who like to see what drives the creative spark behind some truly impressive art. I just wish the show would stop pretending that any of us plebeians will ever get to experience it.

Chef's Table - Season 1: B
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American Plate - Bite #33: Ice Cream

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 0 comments
Wow, I'm really whipping through the simple ones, aren't I? I suppose it makes sense to front-load the entries for the Bites that enter my life most often, but at some point, I'm going to have to start tracking down the rarer stuff. Not today, though! Today is all about an American favorite that's all too easy to lay our hands on. Hot weather is upon us, and that means it's time for our annual love affair with ice cream.

Not that the love affair is in any way new. Ice cream arrived on the culinary scene in the late 1600s, and by the mid-1700s, it was being served at fancy colonial parties. Ice cream got its biggest boost from Dolley Madison, who by all accounts was one hell of a hostess. She served ice cream at James Madison's second inaugural ball, and it became a kind of signature dessert served at her White House dinners. That sparked a national craze for ice cream that has never abated.

Still, ice cream was tough to make, requiring a lot of physical labor and a massive amount of chipped ice (a tricky ingredient in itself, at it was difficult to prevent from melting). Enter two unsung pioneers. The first was Augustus Jackson, an African-American cook who had once worked in the White House and invented a prototype ice cream churn in 1832. Unfortunately, he didn't get a patent, but that didn't stop him from establishing himself as a popular ice cream purveyor. In 1843, a Philadelphia woman named Nancy Johnson received the first U.S. patent for a hand-cranked "artificial freezer". Made from a pewter cylinder, it became the basis for all the ice cream machines that have come after. Once ice cream became a more attainable treat for all, its place in America's heart was forever cemented.

The American Plate ends its entry on ice cream there, but as a proud citizen of St. Louis, it would be remiss of me not to mention ice cream cones. OK, fine... There was a 1903 patent for ice cream cones for Italo Marchiony, a New Yorker. But any ice cream lover worth their salted caramel knows that the ice cream cone was independently invented and popularized in America at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. As the story goes, a Syrian immigrant named Ernest A. Hamwi was running a zalabia cart at the fair. Zalabias are waffle-like pastries, and when Hamwi noticed his neighboring vendor Arnold Fornachou had run out of serving dishes for his ice cream, he formed his zalabia into a cone, and the idea took off from there. Later, Hamwi would form the Missouri Cone Company, and the Show-Me state became a manufacturing hub for ice cream's best friend.

These days, there's a huge variety of ways to enjoy ice cream, only a few of which are pictured here: There's the ultra-fancy scoop of vanilla streaked with caramel and topped with salt flakes, and an outstanding standing banana split, as well as a shot of me enjoying a spicy scoop of ginger ice cream that just about burned my taste buds off. In a good way. That's hardly the extent of the ice cream types I've eaten recently, though. From a bland, discount tub of plain vanilla to the rich decadence of chocolate/peanut butter Häagen-Dazs. From the zany mixture of Ben and Jerry's Chubby Hubby to experimental goat cheese milkshakes from the local sandwich shop. From a high-end scoop of light, refreshing lemon/olive oil verbena to shame-eating Edy's cookie dough in front of the TV, ice cream has been well-represented in this American's diet. And despite my alarmingly expanding waistline, I wouldn't have it any other way.
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American Plate - Bite #100: Sushi

Monday, May 9, 2016 0 comments
Frankly, I'm amazed that this wasn't the first entry of this project. True, I was first drawn to it by the allure of exploring our nation's history through the evolution of our culinary habits, but let's just say it: Sushi is amazing, and I'm head-over-heels in love with it. I'm extremely fortunate that its popularity has blossomed in the United States, because it might not ever have happened.

As recently as the 1970s, sushi was a niche food, enjoyed almost entirely by Japanese citizens in California and New York City. It had already had a long and prosperous history in Asia; archaeologists have discovered prototypes of it that date back almost 2500 years, and by the 1800s, sushi as we understand it today was being eaten in Edo (Tokyo). It's been filtering out ever since, and when the American diners wandered into those small sushi places of 1970s, our country finally caught on to something special.

Opening a restaurant in Tokyo was a hellishly complicated and expensive process (and likely still is), so some chefs decided to seek opportunity by opening places in America, where their risks paid off. By the early '80s, sushi was starting to capture the national attention in larger cities, although it was still pretty mysterious to most Americans. It developed a reputation as being one of those weird foods that only rich people eat, and the middle classes stuck to their pork chops and meatloaf for a while.

Once people got a taste of the wonder that is sushi, though, it's no surprise that its popularity exploded in the late '80s and through the '90s. People like new and exciting cuisine. Once upon a time, Chinese food and Tex-Mex were the culinary frontier. Those became so thoroughly integrated that we needed a new thrill, and sushi stepped up to be the exotic food of the moment. Sushi restaurants began appearing everywhere, and they're a happily common sight across the American landscape today.

It makes sense to round out the journey of American historical tastes with sushi, as it still enjoys a bit of novelty as an exotic and unfamiliar cuisine to many people, yet has enough widespread popularity to be considered intrinsically linked to modern American tastes.

That linkage to American tastes carries some dangers, though. Wonderfully traditional Japanese flavors began to get blunted for American palates, leading to the invention of bland, disappointing things like the California roll (avocado and tasteless fake crab) and the Philly roll (filled with cream cheese). When I go out for sushi, those are banned from the table. Other American flavors can be more successfully incorporated, like deep-fried shrimp, but I'd always rather get something as close to the authentically Japanese experience as possible.

Sushi is incredibly important to me. When someone asks me what my favorite food is, it often feels like being asked to name a favorite child, but you can bet that sushi is always hovering at or near the top of the list. Does my love of sushi make me feel any less American? Absolutely not. To me, it's as much a part of America today as pizza.

Just as sushi displaced other foods to be the poster child for welcoming strange and exciting new flavors to our country, so too will it be displaced by something else. But like pizza, I have trouble believing it will fade out of popularity, like tang and aspic casseroles. Whatever the next food that steals America's heart turns out to be, a portion of mine will always be devoted to sushi.
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Emancipation Snacks and the War of Legume Pronunciation

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 0 comments
Hello, Spring! It's nice to see you in all your perverted glory, from loud mating animals to sudden torrential downpours. A changing season is always a time that our culinary tastes shift, and it's exciting to start getting into all the fresh deliciousness that these next couple of months will bring. To that end, hows about you hop on over to the Four Courses site and give Episode 25 a listen? Guest host Tiffany Greenwood and I will be waiting there to welcome you!

Topics include Weber Grill, the joy that peanuts and peanut butter bring into our lives, a history lesson about our friend the potato, and the tasty rituals surrounding Easter and Passover. Please enjoy!
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