Not too long ago our household made a technological leap forward when we got DVR, which is our cable company's low rent version of Tivo. And as soon as I was freed from the tyranny of actually having to watch shows when they're broadcast, I began recording up a storm of shows, particularly cooking shows.
I have never scheduled my time around watching a cooking show but every so often I do turn to my television for some mindless relaxation and inevitably there is nothing on that I want to watch. At whatever moment I find myself in front of a television and wishing to watch a food show I find that the Food Network is not showing a cooking show, or if they are showing a cooking show, it's Emeril. I cannot tell you how often I turn on the Food Network and find Emeril.
Poor Emeril, he's not the Food Network star he once was. I have nothing against him really although all that kick-it-up-a-notch-BAM stuff gets on my nerves and I am never interested in anything he's cooking. Lately though I find myself feeling sorry for him because whenever I do see him (in the fleeting moments before I turn off the television or change the channel) I notice that he's always kind of hunched forward with his shoulders pushing towards his ears in a way that completely reminds me of Richard Nixon. Tell me it's not just me and you can see it too. I completely expect to find Emeril emphasizing his BAMS! with a two-handed V sign.
In general, I have pretty much given up on the Food Network which seems to be moving away from cooking shows to more of an entertainment format. Even the cooking shows often seem geared towards people who are more interested in watching someone cook than cooking themselves. Or, in the case of Sandra Lee, the audience is interested in watching someone take processed food and pretend to cook. Truly, I do not understand the appeal of that show.
There are other Food Network shows that I will watch if I happen upon them and the food in the episode interests me, but after recording shows and then finding myself with more shows than I could watch, I realized the show I was most consistently watching was Oliver's Twist.
For some reason I find Jamie Oliver endearing. His accent, his speech impediment, his boyish enthusiasm, the way his hair appears to be permanently moussed into bed-headness as if he awoke each morning with his hair sticking in every direction, slapped some styling gel on it and called it a hairstyle -- I can't quite put my finger on what it is about him. I've never been inspired to cook a single thing I've seen him make so I guess it's not his cooking. In fact in the most recent episode I watched, where the premise was that Jamie was making late night snacks for his pals, he popped popcorn, tossed it with grated orange zest and a scraped vanilla bean and then baked it. This tells me that the show is running low on ideas for food that someone would actually want to make and eat.
Each episode revolves around a situation: Jamie getting his band back together and cooking a meal for them. Jamie visiting his old boss and cooking pasta for him. Jamie and his wife going out for the first time since their four month old daughter was born and Jamie's making a meal for the two woman from his production company that are babysitting for him. This last episode had me a little worried -- Jamie was busy pouring glasses of prosecco for the babysitters and then making them prosecco ice cream floats. It seemed to me that getting the babysitters tipsy before they were entrusted with your infant daughter might not be a wise thing.
One of the things I like about the show are its glimpses into London life: Jamie buying meat from the butcher, Jamie buying vegetables from the green grocer, or my favorite, Jamie buying fish from the mobile fish monger. Why, why don't we have a mobile fish monger in Baltimore!
PBS has been my other source of cooking shows. As with Food Network shows, I recorded PBS shows right and left -- far more than I actually had available time to watch -- and in choosing which ones to watch I realize the PBS show I like the best is Lidia Bastianich's.
Unlike the majority of Food Network stars, Lidia is a calm and non-manic presence in front of the camera. She doesn't do the swoony-orgasmic face when she tastes something; she isn't peppy and perky and bouncy; she doesn't have signature phrases. Actually she does have a signature phrase: she ends every show with "tutti a tavola a mangiare" and then translates it, "everyone to the table to eat" but like everything else about her, Lidia Bastianich's signature phrase is pleasing and pleasant, not grating.
The series is filmed in Lidia's kitchen in her waterfront home in Queens. Both her kitchen and her yard with its view of ... Long Island Sound? (sorry my grasp of the geography of Queens is hazy at best) are gorgeous. Her son or her daughter or her grandchildren often appear on the show. I have read that Lidia's mother and her mother's partner live with her and that Lidia routinely cooks for the extended family. It seems perfectly believable.
Her explanations of why and how you do things are intelligent. When I watch her show and read her cookbooks I feel as if I learn something. She's like having your very own Italian mother to teach you to cook. She is the polar opposite of a Food Network star.
I recently starting making this tomato sauce recipe from Lidia's Family Table which Mike, who loves tomato sauce so much he will happily eat spoonfuls of it right from the pan, really likes. It involves putting the tomatoes through the food mill (what's the correct verb here --food milling the tomatoes?) which is a pain but I like the smoother texture. Although let me mention again what a pain it is -- I have come out of these food milling sessions looking like I've done hand-to-hand combat with the tomatoes.
Simple Tomato Sauce
2 35-oz cans San Marzano or other Italian plum tomatoes with juices
1 large onion chopped in small pieces
1 medium carrot chopped in small pieces
1 inner rib of celery chopped in small pieces
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
2 cups water
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon honey (optional, after tasting)
1. Put the tomatoes and their juices through a food mill using the medium disk.
2. Put the chopped onion, carrot, and celery pieces in the food processor and pulse several times until you have very finely chopped small threads. Saute in oil over medium heat. Sprinkle with salt. Cook for about three minutes until vegetables soften but don't let them brown.
3. Add tomatoes and juice to the vegetables. Use the water to rinse out the cans and add that to the tomatoes. Stir in the bay leaves and pepper flakes. Turn up the heat, cover, and bring to a boil, stirring and checking frequently. Adjust heat to maintain active simmer with lots of small bubbles all over the sauce. Cover and cook for about 45 minutes stirring occasionally.
4. Remove the cover, raise the heat so the sauce is still bubbling energetically and gradually reducing. Cook for another hour or so, stirring frequently to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot. Taste for salt near the end of cooking and add more if needed. When the sauce has reduced by about a quarter, and is concentrated but still pourable, remove from the heat. Let the sauce cool, remove the bay leaves. Allow the sauce to mellow for an hour or two.
I only use San Marzano tomatoes for special ocassions. For everyday use I use a non-San Marzano plum tomato that comes in 28 oz cans and when I make this I usually use three 28-oz cans and less water. I also tend to go directly to step 4 after adding the tomatoes since my stove has an almost non existent simmer setting.