I've become an avid watcher of cooking programs. The Food Network, the PBS shows, Anthony Bourdain, and even the random cooking segments on the weekend "news" programs, if I'm clicking through on my way someplace else--I'm an equal opportunity watcher. My viewing has become a bit more tentative since I began my current reducing plan--I can only handle so much delicious food photography these days before I have to run away and eat a Rykrisp. And foodies and chefs are notoriously averse to, say, removing the butter simply to make a dish healthier. Taste is their master, and the rest of us just have to control ourselves.
Indeed, most of the these shows are really focused on special-occasion food, even though the most talked about show currently is probably Rachel Ray's 30-Minute Meals. (And her magazine, Every Day with Rachel Ray.) In general, these people are making entrees that helpfully include most, if not all, your daily calories. You know, so you save the trouble of eating more than once a day.
The weird necessity of narrating something as mundane as cooking makes many a show tedious, but I love tracking the stuff that comes up over and over. Like, every time someone busts out a shallot, you hear some version of, "Shallots have a mild onion-y flavor that won't overwhelm the [main ingredient]." Every. Single. Time. And lord, the chicken. Everyone MUST treat it as a biohazard. Alton Brown's instructions for breading chicken that's about to be fried is like something the CDC would come up with. Wash your hands or the terrorists win!
But I'm spending a lot of time on the food shows. And I'm not the only one.
One of my favorites is America's Test Kitchen on PBS on Saturday mornings. It appeals to my irrational belief that there is in fact a best way to do everything. That's the whole premise of the test kitchen and the magazine it supports, Cooks Illustrated. They'll take a common dish (today it was Chicken Kiev) and create what they can call a definitive recipe. (In case you were wondering, no definitive recipes are ever low-fat or low-calorie.) Perhaps I'm also drawn in by the fact that the magazine's editor is the show's host, even though he's kind of a smarty-pants know-it-all. But, in my experience, most magazine editors are smarty-pants know-it-alls, so I guess I shouldn't hold it against him.
Everyday Food appears periodically on the Saturday morning PBS lineup--it's on at 10:30 a.m. these days. It's a typical offering from Martha Stewart Omnimedia. The kitchens look art directed. The hosts, ingredients, scripts, tone are flawless, which can be a little off-putting. (Omni is such a good prefix for Martha. Everything about her is so damn ... consistent.) But this show led me to the magazine of the same name that I've been evangelizing about for a while. I love its design, the choice of recipes and how each has a limited number of ingredients, the way they feature specific ingredients (Have you tried dried figs?), the index, and the fact that every recipe is provided with accompanying nutritional information. Say what you want about Martha, but she puts out excellent magazines.
Rachel Ray's 30 Minute Meals on the Food Network is mostly unwatchable, I think. Her voice is like a perky foghorn. I can actually feel my hair blow back when her show comes on and she starts in with the yelling. I haven't tried any of her recipes, so I don't know if her cooking stands up. I can't get past the voice and over-enthusiastic manner. I could pick up her magazine, I guess, but she's photographed to be a faithful print version of her television persona: waxy, airbrushed, and aggressively cheerful. I do appreciate that unlike most people on TV, she has a normal woman's body and doesn't seem to feel the need to turn herself into a stick. That crap is especially disingenuous in cooking-show hosts.
Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network is enjoyable, though she's definitely true to the whole "special-occasion food" thing. Everything she makes seems to have a million calories, though, to be fair, her show is really about entertaining. Also, I wish I knew how she got her hair so shiny.
I kind of like the idea of Rick Bayless's Mexico, One Plate at a Time on PBS. He travels around Mexico talking about food in the different regions, and he's obviously passionate about the cuisine. But he gets too close to the camera and talks in this weird affected way. You just know that in person he's a close-talker who totally corners people at parties and discusses random topics too earnestly while stroking their arm in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
The food show that I loved more than all of these was Cucina Toscana. Two guys, Damian and his nephew Johnny, who are equal parts Italian-American and Texan. It was this mishmash of barbeque and Tuscan cuisine, with "y'all" and "ciao bella!" bandied about in the same breath. They talked a lot about their extended family. They always had music playing, and Damian was always randomly bursting into song--usually some old country tune. Why oh why won't PBS bring this one back? Oh, I have the biggest crush on Damian.
Tomorrow: Giant teeth and the horror of "tablescapes."