Friday, February 22, 2008

All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Food Network

Weekend's here and with it, finally, the chance to sit in one place long enough to write. Thank you, dear readers, for your patience. (Got to warn you - this entry is a little on the long side. Thanks for your patience with that, too.) 
It's amazing how the study of some specific topic can sometimes yield lessons that apply to all aspects of life. With the hours I used to spend sitting on my butt in front of the computer now used for, among other things, sitting on my butt in front of the television watching Food Network, I'm finding new insights to bring to the table, metaphorically speaking. (Ok, not everything here is from Food Network, but allow me a teensy bit of license for the sake of a title.) Although I am still trying to figure out how to get people to applaud every time I put garlic into a pot, there are some other things that have occurred to me.
1. Get those pots heated and ready at the beginning. Rachael Ray says we shouldn't be waiting for the pots, the pots should be waiting for us. She's right. We're each in charge of our own lives. Don't let yourself be controlled by other people, circumstance, or household appliances.
2. Bobby Flay says don't keep standing over the grille, turning this and fussing with that - "Let the grille do its job." Don't micromanage. Surround yourself with the right resources and then make use of them so you can spend your time where it's better used.
3. Your mise-en-place shouldn't be limited to food ingredients; make sure the pots and other apparatus you need are in place as well. (Figured that one out for myself after one too many times of having everything mixed and then finding out the pan I need is in the sink waiting to be washed.) On any project, it really is the small details that most often trip us up.
4. Speaking of mise-en-place, embrace the fact that it can take longer to gather and prepare your ingredients than it does to cook them. Give this process the time it needs and you'll be rewarded. Mr. Lincoln was right: "If I had eight hours to cut down a tree, I'd spend six of it sharpening my ax."
5. A chef with whom I studied pie-making at a local community college taught this magnificent lesson: "I laugh when people ask for how long the pie should be baked. The pie should be baked till it's ready." People, circumstances, and pies are all different. Go at life with a pre-determined one-size-fits-all approach and the pie's not the only thing that will either get burned, or not be well done.
6. From the same chef I learned that part of the art of cooking something is finding a way to do it that minimizes the cleanup. Some folks have people cleaning up after them. The rest of us have to approach things in a different way.
7.  Reducing the amount of fat in baking recipes is good; if you reduce it by too much you can ruin the recipe. Being bad, in moderation, can be good for you.
8. Mario Batali once said one of the greatest cooking lessons he learned was the value of using fewer ingredients when possible. Having ingredients in one's food - and in one's life - is good as long as they add something. If they're there just so you can say they're there, leave them out.
9. My pies were a disaster - and trying to manage the dough for the crust was an ordeal - until I took the class alluded to a few items above and learned what I was doing wrong. Don't let your passion lead you to go off half-cocked. Take the time to learn your trade. You'll be better off.
10. I was appalled that the strawberry muffin recipe called for frozen strawberries and smugly insisted mine would be made only with fresh strawberries. A batch of horrible strawberry muffins later, I learned that frozen strawberries act differently in batter than do fresh ones - in this case, in ways that benefited the recipe. Don't judge people, situations, or strawberries based on preconceptions. There's sometimes more to something than is initially obvious.
11. Sandra Lee's "Semi-Homemade" program uses packaged ingredients in combination with some fresh ones. While it's not the way I like to approach things, she also plates and serves what she's made in wonderfully interesting and creative ways. There's something to learn from everyone, regardless of how their approach to things may differ from yours..
12. Bending the fingers into a claw-type shape makes it safer for holding vegetables and whatever else you're using that sharp knife on, but it was hard and fatiguing for me because I'd always stiffen my hand when I did it. I couldn't imagine doing it any other way until I watched how relaxed Rachael Ray's left "claw" hand is when she's cutting with her right. Just take a deep breath and relax. It makes everything go better.
13. I've learned to use plum tomatoes for anything that requires tomatoes be seeded. Since they're long and narrow, they only have to be cut in half to be seeded. Saves a few seconds over short, round type tomatoes that have to be cut into quarters to be seeded. The difference isn't much for three tomatoes, but it's quite a lot for three pounds of tomatoes. Little things can eventually add up to big things.
14. Food Network's website,, is usually the first place I go to find a recipe I'm interested in, and not just because they have so many good ones. One of their hugely helpful features is reader commentary on each recipe. "I tried this and it's the best I ever had." "This came out better when I reduced the sugar." "This recipe sucks and I'm never watching Food Network again." Feedback and constructive criticism are immensely valuable resources. Seek them. Use them.
15. In connection with the above, a buttermilk biscuit recipe posted by one of the network's best known chefs was rated a unanimous disaster by the user responses. Turns out there were some mistakes in the recipe, and when a corrected version was posted it received equally effusive praise as the best the various comment-writers ever had. In another recipe - I'm forgetting at the moment what it was for - honey was listed as an ingredient but nowhere in the recipe did it say to use it. Be careful - even recognized experts can make fundamental mistakes.
16. Looking at, of all things, an IHOP menu, I saw an item that mentioned the reason their omelettes are so fluffy is that they add a little pancake batter to the egg mixture. I tried that in my quiche filling and it gave it the lighter quality I'd been trying to get. Good ideas sometimes show up in the most unexpected places. Keep your eyes - and your mind - open or you could miss them.
17. When hesitant about adding more of an ingredient, or adding a completely new one to a recipe, I remember the countless times I've heard Emeril, the Babe Ruth of chefs, say something like, "What, are you afraid the <name of ingredient> police will come after you?" Don't just do things by the book. Do you know who wrote "the book?" Nobody. Experiment. Be creative. It's ok.
Unrelated Item:
Packing things up after class earlier this week, I realized I'd just finished lecturing to students for the better part of two hours with my shirttail hanging out in the back. It made me realize how much stress and anxiety I avoid simply by not having any sense of dignity.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I'm Not a Cardiologist, I Just Play One on Television

A news item featured by AOL caught my eye this morning. You may have seen it as well.
It was an article that appeared in the NY Times earlier this week about those ads that Dr. Robert Jarvik has been doing for Lipitor, the cholesterol drug. Lipitor is not only Pfizer's biggest seller; it is, according to the article, the world's best selling drug. (I assume "drug"  is, in this instance, a wistful euphemism for "legal drug.") Having cholesterol issues myself, due primarily to a genetic predisposition to eating pizza and hot dogs, the ads - more precisely, Dr. Jarvik's participation in them - held great interest for me. Though obviously a paid endorsement, this is one of medicine's most respected professionals, developer of the artificial heart, for goodness sake, not some b-list tv actor trying to pay the mortgage in between sitcom jobs. I'm not big on endorsements in general, but clearly Dr. Jarvik's would be one to take seriously.
While the value of Dr. Jarvik's contributions to medicine cannot be questioned, the article makes a few points that, given his high standing in the medical community, shake the foundation of credible endorsement. It turns out that while he is an accomplished researcher, Dr. Jarvik is not a cardiologist, is not licensed to practice medicine and can't prescribe Lipitor or any other medication. The ad even goes so far as to show the good doctor, as someone who himself takes Lipitor, performing athletic activities that, we now learn, were actually done by a body double. (What's the message here: take Lipitor and you, too, can get your cholesterol low enough to hire a body double?) We expect - and accept - a certain amount of misdirecting rhetoric in ads generally, of course, even those that pitch prescription medicines directly to consumers. The problem is that when the spokesman is a widely respected medical professional it would seem reasonable to expect it's because a higher standard is being followed. 
While some endorsements of products or even political candidates by celebrities, politicians, and celebrity-politicians are more laughable than others (coughcoughChuckNorriscoughcough), we know not to take any of them too seriously. (Ok, I'm an optimist.) We need to be able to trust doctors more than we do entertainment personalities; when we find out that Dr. Jarvik's qualifications to endorse Lipitor may be limited to his having been prescribed it by another doctor - presumably, one who is licensed to practice medicine - it's disquieting to say the least.
Here, by the way, is a link to the NY Times article:
Unrelated Item:
On February 15, a movie called "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is scheduled to be released. I know nothing at all about this movie, but since it has the word Chronicles in the title I figure I should start getting e-mails pretty soon either telling me our children will be saved from Satan if I see it, or that the world as we know it will be destroyed and everyone (except, of course, the folks who agree to forward the e-mail to everyone they know) will be banished to eternal damnation if I see it. I'll decide what to do after I see the endorsements.