TV: The Good, The Bad & the Bland

I watched two cooking shows last night – one good, the other not so good.

The Good – The Incredible Spice Men. These guys are terrific – they’re funny, knowledgeable, clearly LOVE cooking in addition to being good at it (quite often you don’t get the sense that some of the cooking presenters don’t actually enjoy what they’re doing. Maybe they did at one point but … ) But Cyrus Todiwala and Tony Singh – they love it. They love talking about food, cooking it, sharing it. And the delight they take in it is infectious. If nothing else, you want to sit in that madhouse of a kitchen set and watch them create these spiced up versions of classic British dishes.


If they can get across nothing else other than the idea that spice does not equal burn, they will have accomplished a lot and I think they are well on their way to that. They are using a vast arsenal of spices in this program for both sweet and savory dishes (adding the vanilla beans to the cheese? Brilliant and I can’t wait to try it) and showing that spices are ingredients worthy of attention, not after thoughts. There’s often a moment I have while watching the show – like when they put cinnamon and pepper with strawberries – when I think “Of course! It seems so obvious now that I’ve seen it done.” Another cinnamon moment was the pulled pork with cinnamon and clove. Pulled pork is a BBQ staple from my childhood and I love it but variety is the spice of life so I have no hesitation about changing up the flavor profile on this childhood favorite, especially as – another “OMG! Of course” moment – both those spices would play so well with pork. Also – because they explain what they are doing and why, extra useful information is imparted as well. I didn’t know how to pick out a decent chunk of ginger before – but now I do.

I’m sure there will be complaints about artificiality – some who don’t care for the puns, the gallivanting around, the “set ups” where we’re led to believe tension is high as spicy fish and chips are presented to “scary” biker gang (which was the mellowest, most clearly non-threatening biker gang I have ever seen in all my days). But it’s a TV show – and by definition it is an artificial construct. The secret to GREAT TV cookery shows is when the viewer feels like they are being talked to as opposed to being talked at – and this show, these men succeed beautifully in that regard.

Jamie Oliver on the other hand …

The Not So Good – Jamie’s Money Saving Meals. I’ll be honest – I’ve never much cared for Jamie Oliver as a TV presenter. His early cookbooks were really interesting and a useful read. But watching him on TV has always been a bit of a slog for me, even in the early days when he was “Gosh-Golly, Who Me?” Jamie. I just don’t think he’s very good as a presenter.

In the early days there were moments where he seemed to forget he was on camera and in THOSE moments, moments where he was just talking about the food to whoever was prompting from off to the left, worked. As soon as he recalled that he needed to hit his mark or hold to get an angle, it fell apart.

Now that he’s “Tilts At Windmills” Jamie, I find him even harder to watch. Not because of the tilting at windmills (he’s often gotten hold of a legitimate issue but then gets a bit ‘bull in a china shop’ when addressing it). No, I find him hard to watch because instead of becoming more at ease with the fact that he’s on TV, he seems to have forgotten how real people move and talk. People complain that Nigella is now a parody of herself, arch beyond words and over the top. But she’s got NOTHING on Jamie Oliver. With every successive show, he is more and more like someone playing Jamie Oliver, all his ticks and schtick while the cooking has all the depth and detail of a cooking sketch on a TV variety show. Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child comes to mind.

J_OLast night was perhaps the most glaring example to date. I commented mid-show that it was more infomercial than cookery show but I should have said it’s like a bad infomercial because there have been infomercials in my life that have imparted more information per sequence than last night’s show. Yes, the tips of storing fresh herbs was useful but mostly because it reminded me I needed to harvest the herbs outside before the weather gets properly chilly. Using leftovers is a great way to cut down on food waste but I can think of several equally interesting, quicker and MUCH cheaper ways to use leftover brisket and I can do it without the relative pantry and equipment luxuries he seems to assume are at hand.

Look, I don’t agree with eviscerating the man for pointing out that fewer and fewer people bother or know how to cook these days (he’s right). The articles last week, shrieking that he’s down on the poor for buying ready meals are clearly built around carefully picked comments from conversations about how PEOPLE (all of them) are subsisting on ready meals or take-aways. But that won’t sell as many papers so it became “Rich man criticizes poor for having audacity to eat.” As tedious in its way as Jamie himself and even more predictable.

Will definitely be keeping up with The Incredible Spice Men (and quite likely buying their book as they seem to share the TransAtlantic Towers outlook on what food and eating it about) and giving Jamie a miss. Might thumb through the book should I come across it in the shops – then make a call on the book separately but if the rest of the series is like last nights, no reason to miss something more interesting. Like emptying the dishwasher.

Jump Into Some June Food Fun

Normally I note the daily observances but the truth is – there are monthly observances as well. For example, June is:
fruit bowl

  • Candy Month – which I might have placed in October for convenience sake but no one asked me
  • Dairy Month – the timing of this seems to me like someone looked at the daily holidays and decided since all this ice cream was around, might as well throw the dairy doors open wider
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Month – June makes complete sense for this to my mind. ALL that citrus-y goodness and weekends of “pick your own” – delicious
  • Frozen Yogurt Month – god, it’s been ages since I had a first class frozen yogurt
  • Papaya Month – I’m still very much on the fence about papayas. Maybe I’ve just not had really good ones.

Of course, we’ve examined some of the daily June observances in days gone by with monthly round ups, things like German Chocolate Cake Day and how German doesn’t mean German in the way you think. Or how we skated lightly over Peanut Butter Cookie Day (thanks to my personal distaste for all things peanut butter) and then made up for it by offering a plethora of choices for those interested in a Rockin’ Rocky Road Day.

But who wants to sit home all summer READING about all this food when you could be out and about among the food and other foodies. Food festivals are the answer and June is awash with Food and Drink Festivals across the United States:grilling

But what about if you are not in the USA (as – let’s face it – most of the world isn’t). No worries. Food festivals speak the international language of YUM! In the UK? Check out:

mangosLooking to wander a bit further afield? If all this talk of food making your thirsty, maybe you should think about the World Of Beer event in Montréal this weekend. Perhaps you’re someone who likes to play with your food. Go on! Mom isn’t watching. Head off to Spain’s Festival of Wine Drenching  in Haro, capital of northern Spain’s Rioja-producing region. Yes, you read right – wine drenching. Just you, a white shirt, water pistol full of cheap red wine and 5000 other people with the same. Hijinks – as they say – will ensue. Also on this month around the world?

  • International Mango Festival might be a good way to observe Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Month – all you have to do is be in New Delhi, India on June 30 to July 2, 2013. Apparently it is QUITE the long standing event, having been established in 1987 and offering an ABUNDANCE of pickles, jams and the like as well as mango-eating competitions, tastings, quizzes and a mango market.
  • The BC Shellfish Festival is a great reason to check out Vancouver Island in June
  • Taste of Amsterdam is the four day Amsterdam arm of the “Taste festivals” (the same gorup that does Taste of London) and this year it is being held from June 6-9

Site Seeing and Tasty Reading

Just a fly by post at the moment, my friends as I have much on my plate – no pun intended. No seriously, none intended. Didn’t even see it coming until it was on the screen. But here’s some of the stuff I’ve been checking out lately and some things I will very likely be coming back to comment on. In the meantime, what  food news have you perused lately?

Back with more soon, my friends… eat well and enjoy

Food News Peruse: March 2012

UK Food News Peruse:

Some of the local (oxfordshire) food-related Twitter feeds I’m following:

  • @BarCornerstone is here in Didcot. Excellent baked goods and brunch! ?
  • @oxfork – need a place to grab a quick coffee or snack in Oxford? Check out Oxfork
  • Millets Farm – fantastic farm shop and cafe
  • Food of the Ox hunts out and reveals many of the eateries I wouldn’t have found myself
  • Oxfordcupcakes – CUPCAKES! What else do I need to say, really?

Taking National Cocoa Day Global

Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the — what? Oh, the sun’s out. The weather isn’t all that bad after all. Well, never mind that – it’s still holiday season and nothing says holidays better than a festive, steaming mug of hot cocoa.* This must be why National Hot Cocoa Day (Dec 13) sits so comfortably smack in the middle of December and all its holiday chaos.

My friend Tara is a Cocoa Connoisseur – serious consideration is given to the taste, the smell, the texture of both basic and specialty hot chocolate. It doesn’t matter whether it’s left coast or west coast, a high end cafe or a food truck – to her, it’s the chocolate itself that matters. Tara adores the hot chocolate at Payard (NYC and Las Vegas) and with good reason. I’d go all the way down to West Houston Street** to indulge in this chocolatey goodness. I say “all the way” because I was up on 72nd Street and it was certainly a haul on cold wintery days. A haul but worth it. Then, Payard moved closer and my joy was boundless. Payard was part of the Plaza Hotel’s culinary concourse – on 58th street!***

Every February for the last 19 years, City Bakery celebrates hot chocolate with their Annual Hot Chocolate Festival and put different variations on offer every day of the month. Check out the cocoa line up from last year to get a sense of what fabulous flavors await those of us who make it through the holidays!

Of course, I can’t get to Payard or City Bakery at the moment as I’m in Oxfordshire at the moment. I’m look forward to hunting up some topnotch hot chocolate in the area but can anyone suggest a starting point for my search? I hear good things about Chocology (located in Oxford’s Covered Market) and their Valhrona hot chocolate. Yay or nay? Other recs? Suggestions further afield? I’ve had some excellent samples of the hot cocoa art in London (the Artisan du Chocolat stall at Borough Market^ sticks in my mind) and am always happy to wander in to try others. Have recently heard tell of a Spanish chocolate being served up at Tapas Brindisa ^^ as well.

Of course, it’s not necessary to go OUT for a first class cup of hot cocoa. My own preference is to make it at home (spiced up with some cinnamon or a bit of orange peel on occasion) and some of my friends do the same. Whether you use a mix or really  take the homemade thing serious and make it from scratch, you’ll no doubt want to try some of these yummy options such as:

  • Ellyn suggests: When using instant cocoa, add a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg or splash of vanilla. For something my grown up, start with amaretti (kirsch or Grand Marnier), 1/3 milk or 1/2 & 1/2, mix it up til a thin paste or thick syrup, the stir in the hot water (or hot milk) it gets all frothy! Jacques Torres Wicked Hot Chocolate is also high on her list.
  • Laura Anne (whose advice on many and varied culinary issues has always served me well) mentions “Vanilla bean and mint, into Very Dark Cocoa.” To this end, she says, shove a vanilla pod into the cocoa while it’s stored, then scrape the seeds and mash it with the milk. Result? An intense (and in my opinion AMAZING sounding) taste.
  • Maribeth likes her spicy with a bit of chili
  • Patrick follows the advice of the great Ina Garten and punches his cocoa up by adding a dash of coffee and cinnamon. It will, as he says, ” perk up even the dodgiest of store bought brands of cocoa…”

Which version sounds best to you? Have you got a hot chocolate “best kept secret?” Are you willing to share it? Come on, other hot cocoa lovers are waiting with mugs at the ready!

* OK a few things say holiday season more directly such as – a brightly shining menorah, a pile of presents under a twinkly tree, leg lamps (extra points for reference ID) and Burl Ives singing “Silver & Gold.”

** 116 West Houston Street. New York, NY 10012 (between Thompson St. & Sullivan St.

*** 1 West 58th Street. New York, NY 10019 (Concourse Level of the Plaza Hotel)

^ Green Market, near Southwark Cathedral

^^18-20 Southwark St, SE1 1TJ

Need Breakfast Quick. Want Breakfast Edible

As I perused this morning’s news, I saw an article about breakfast on the go. Now, if I am in the mood and have time, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. But alas, I don’t often have the time and according to this article, I am not the only one.

People are always grabbing something “on the run” while pulling on their jacket or as they slap on that last touch of lipstick. And because speed is of the essence, they aren’t thinking much about the nutritional value of what is in that paper cup or styrofoam container. Over the long term, this can have a negative impact on your health and in the short term, it’s not actually very satisfying which is why you’re always jonesing for something else to eat by 10:30 am or so.

Given all that. I completely understand why the editors of Health magazine would consider it time well spent to work with nutrition experts to come up with a list of popular chain restaurants breakfast options that are – maybe not healthy, per se – less unhealthy than others. There seemed to be something missing from their examination and assessment of which “go go go” breakfast option you are going to “grab and gulp.” Taste.


So which chains did they speak with (Starbucks, Subway, IHOP and Dunkin Donuts) and what “healthy” options were on offer from those chains:

  • The ‘artisan protein snack plate’ from Starbucks looks good in theory and in the pic (above) but it looks very unlike the sad apple slices and hardening cheese I’ve seen in person. And how is this “faster than having an apple, coffee and a muffin at home?” If I’m rushing so much that I can’t grab my stuff at home, how do I have time to

a) wait in the line at Starbucks and

b) arrange everything so beautifully on the plate.

And c) when was the plate every that nice at Starbucks?

  • All the criteria in the world won’t make the Western egg white and cheese muffin melt at Subway any more edible.
  • Even if it came with a tiara, I’d avoid anything called the “simple and fit veggie omelet” – doubly so if it came from IHOP. IHOP is for silver dollar pancakes. End of.
  • I love me some Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee but I admit to having have serious doubts about the true nature of the ‘egg’ and ‘sausage’  in the egg white turkey sausage wake-up wrap.

It’s all well and good to declare these fast food options “healthy” because they fit some pre-determined caloric/sodium/fiber criteria but no where does it indicate whether any of this stuff tastes any better than the container is comes in.

I’m all for making healthier choices and I’m all for making healthier choices that also allow me to get where I am going on time. But I can buy some gala apples, some raisins and coffee. Pair that small bit of bi-monthly planning with a coffee maker with a timer and I’ll be at work long before the folks stopping off for this stuff. And – bonus – I’ll be paying less for it as well.

Hooray for Hot Chocolate Month!

I’ve been musing elsewhere about the snow.  Well, musing and whinging. So it was with great joy that I stumbled across the City Bakery calendar of flavors for the 2011 Hot Chocolate Festival (their annual Feb event). Don’t think there’s enough varieties of hot chocolate to fill a whole month – even if it’s a short month like February. Well behold!

The month kicks off with Banana Peel on Feb 1 – and frankly, I’m a bit hesitant about that but starting on Groundhog’s Day with Cinnamon we have a line-up I can really get behind. Espresso on Feb 3, Tropical on Feb 4 and Caramel on Feb 5. Fabulous.

Nothing can – or will – lift my snow-weary spirits like hot chocolate or cocoa. And while I do prefer to make it myself (and not from an envelope, thank you very much) sit curled up with it under a duvet, I do love City Bakery and I do find that while out and about in the wintery city, the hot chocolate urge can hit and hit hard so – looking forward to February and a month of yummy choices.

And the herbal winner is . . .

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have an announcement to make. Apparently the Herb of the Year for 2011 is (drum roll please) . . . horseradish! Yes, yes – many are called but few are chosen – and in the case of Herb of the Year, only one is chosen.

I suppose that this means National Horseradish Month – July, according to the Horseradish Information Council – is gonna be a bigger than usual splash this year. Assuming it was last year. I really don’t know. This is the first I’ve heard of such a thing.  So congratulations, Horseradish on winning Herb of the Year. May your reign be happy and successful.

And, please – before you start whinging about thyme and basil splitting the vote or complaining that rosemary is the Susan Lucci of the herb world, I remind you that I didn’t make this decision. I simply reported it. If you take issue with the choice of horseradish, take it up with the International Herb Association. As soon as you recover from the shock that such an organization exists.

In light of the fact that they do exists, I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’ve been pulling this Herb of the Year thing for a while now and – if the list of previous and future Herbs of the Year – is to be taken as a given – clearly intend to go on with it for at least several more years. Behold the list:

1995  Fennel
1996  Monarda
1997  Thyme
1998  Mint
1999  Lavender
2000  Rosemary
2001  Sage
2002  Echinacea
2003  Basil
2004  Garlic
2005  Oregano & Marjoram
2006  Scented Geraniums
2007  Lemon Balm
2008  Calendula
2009  Bay Laurel
2010  Dill
2011  Horseradish
2012  Rose
2013  Elderberry
2014  Artemisias
2015  Savory

Now, by and large I don’t have strong feelings about this. In the same way I have no strong feelings about the Golden Globes or the BAFTAS or the Oscars. But I do love learning new things – and I will confess that I had not heard of some of these. I bet you hadn’t either.  I also have some questions – notably, what was happening in 2005 that Oregano and Marjoram both got the nod? Was there no to chose one or the other? Could the non-choice, not be the choice for the following year?

But never mind that now. I have no doubt herbs are as rife with political infighting as everything else. I’d rather look at these new – well, new to me – herbs and see what they are all about. After all, they must really be something if they get to be Herb of the Year.

Monarda, Calendula and Artemisias. Never heard of them. Of course, I’m more eater than cook so maybe it’s just me but they don’t strike a chord with me at all and I’m surrounded by people who cook. A lot. And with great love, enthusiasm and knowledge. If they were that common, I’d have encountered them at some point. So I don’t think it’s just me and I will share with you what I have learned. As a public service. No need to thank me.

Monarda: First stop Monarda’s page on Wikipedia which gives me the more familiar names for this herb – bee balm, horsemint, Oswego tea, or bergamot. Now, bee balm I’ve heard of and I have the vague sense I’ve heard at least mention of bergamot before as well. What I know about bee balm is that it grows wild across North America, comes in various shades of pink, red and white – and has many traditional medicinal uses for everything from colds to cramps. I didn’t know – but now do thanks to the Ladybird Johnson WildflowerCenter at the University of Texas – that the early colonists used it to make tea when tea went scarce.  I should have know – or guessed – that it was good for treatment of bee stings. I mean, it’s called BEE BALM for crying out loud. But I confess, I often miss the obvious in very embarrassing ways.

Calendula: Sounds very much like a fan dance done with the calendars stores can’t sell by the beginning of the new year. But Wikipedia tells me that it’s not.  It’s a pot marigold. No – not a common marigold as in member of the sunflower family, used in perfumes and which were native to the New World. A pot marigold is a completely different plant – native to the Mediterranean and has been found to have anti-viral and anti-inflammatory effects. In fact the University of Maryland Medical Center Library Medical References section (hugely interesting, by the way and a fascinating way to kill time online if you geek out about stuff like that – which I do) details many of the uses, dosages and forms best for various conditions. If you like the idea of a medicine chest in your garden or window box, they are also supposed to be pretty easy to grow.

Artemisias: now, here again – as soon as I went to Wikipedia and saw the other more common names, I knew what this was.  Mugwort, sagebrush or wormwood, anyone? Yes, they are all part of this genus. So is tarragon. Which makes me wonder – why didn’t they just pick tarragon? How can such a HUGE genus – and a very diverse one – be herb of the year? Herbs of the Year maybe. But herb, singular? Maybe it was their stealthy way to spend more time with the wormwood. Goodness knows it’s interesting stuff – vermouth, absinthe – it all involves wormwood.

Of course, now that I’ve sorted some of of that out for myself (and hopefully for some of you as well), I really should go do something about dinner. I’m thinking of paying tribute to the 2004 Herb of the Year – garlic by making my garlicky white bean mash. It will do quite nicely with the chicken I’ve got in the fridge. Yes, garlic. That’s my herb of the year. What’s yours? Has your favorite made it to the top yet? Or has it been snubbed?

Good-bye Gourmet

60-70 years?  Not a bad run.  Lauded and loathed in turns, Gourmet was at the center of food writing for a very long time. It was aspirational stuff – most of us were never going to experience culinary travel like that or be in a position to compare and contrast the top ten truffle oils. But it was beautifully written aspirational stuff. Well, mostly. And maybe not quite recently. It was still good – but in my opinion, the writing had peaked and in chasing the last possibly dollar, they were trying to “play down” a bit.

On some level, Gourmet was “your mom’s cooking magazine.”  It was there if you needed it but it was slightly out of step with what seemed to be going on in the real world, on the ground. I don’t mean the “real world” of food tv – Gourmet couldn’t have cared less about that and I bless them for it. But real world as in what real people were doing food wise. Back to that aspirational thing. Maybe it was not achieving that balance of real life and aspirational. Don’t know. If I did, I would be the highest paid person in magazine publishing. I will say they did some find stuff on food and the environment – stuff I really wasn’t finding anywhere else with such a broad base.

But it was there. It was central. It was the magazine all the chefs wanted to be in, talking about the places we all wanted to go and making it all sound and look gorgeous. People ate it up. You can see how people loved it by looking at how people are reacting to the announcement that it’s going away.

So with all these people are singing Gourmet‘s praises and mourning its passing – you might wonder why it was losing money with so many dedicated fans. Because dedicated fans do not translate necessarily into dedicated subscribers and – here at least – the subscriber base it not the money maker. It’s the advertising.

And I understand what’s happening in the magazine publishing arena. I do. I recognize the bottom line when I see it. Is it fair to cut Gourmet and keep Teen Vogue? Not to many Gourmet readers but if Gourmet‘s advertising was down 50% and Teen Vogue‘s wasn’t – well, Conde Nast isn’t running a charity so it makes business sense.

Doesn’t make the loss of Gourmet suck any less. In the same way that knowing why doesn’t make the decision to close down Domino (for which I still haven’t forgiven them) suck any less. But at least traces of Gourmet will remain through the material online at Epicurious and in their book publishing – unlike the utter and complete disappearance of Domino.

It doesn’t surprise me that they stuck with Bon Appétit – after all, they just underwent a massive print and online redesign last year (which readers may recall I wasn’t overwhelmed by). And strictly speaking they weren’t aimed at the same target so while they were both about food, their readers were different, responded to different advertising, etc.  If Gourmet was covering things only just slightly out of reach, Bon Appétit was taking what was within reach and showing you how to make it sing. It also has an aspirational slant to it – especially any of the gift round ups – but they temper it with accessible, attractive options and alternatives. You don’t feel like you are stuck looking in through the window. You’ve found a side door.

Now you’re confused, right? Don’t be. Don’t get me wrong – I may not like the redesign of Bon Appétit (I don’t. It never grew on me and I can’t see it doing so in the future) but I do get quite a lot out of reading it. The content is good and I can ignore the appalling font, color and photographic choices if the content holds up.

I liked Gourmet. Maybe it was a bit stuffy at time. Maybe I felt it didn’t speak to me directly about how, what and why I eat what I eat . But it was interesting, well-presented, clearly thought out stuff. It was reliable without being flashy. Unfortunately, reliable doesn’t seem to be enough these days.

Food News Peruse: Sunday Link Love

Just some links I’ve found as I make a leisurely Sunday “stroll” through the usual foodie sites.  Settle down with some coffee and check them out.

Sure, we’ve heard many stories of odd, non-food items getting into fast food. Our reaction ranges from “meh” to “Oh dude that is GROSS!” depending on the item in question.  My only reaction to hearing the latest – that a man is suing McDonald’s because he swallowed a gold earring embedded in his sandwich – was “If you’d chewed your food properly, you might have noticed it before you swallowed it.” I’m sure I will be told I am being unkind, that it was a tiny earring or something. But if it was that tiny, you’d have thought they wouldn’t have had so much trouble getting it out of his throat.

No, there should not have been an earring in his sandwich. Yes, McDonalds should pay for all reasonable medical costs and lost wages incurred. Note I said REASONABLE. If this is one of those millions for pain and suffering situations, I call “shenanigans.”

And now, an amusing interlude from the New York Times. The Mayor in Snack Mode. Oh mini-Mayor, how very “do as I say, not as I do” of you!  Still, I know how you feel. We all struggle with cravings. But I must object to your statement that “I like a Big Mac like everybody else.” Mr. Mayor, I am a member of “everybody else” and I do not like Big Macs. I have never liked Big Macs and if presented with the opportunity to eat one in the normal course of events, I would shun it as I shun a sharp stick in the eye. Blech!

I’ve been street food obsessed lately but that obsession has been focused largely on New York (with a glance or two at London – more on that later) but things in Los Angeles street food are heating up as temps come down. I have a friend who is ALL over this topic and became my food truck eyes and ears when she was here in NY. Now that she’s in LA, she’s at the center of the action again. Maybe I can get her to chime in here!