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Like “Chopped”? How about “Cropped”? January 29, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I love interacting with cooking competitions like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America” on the rare occasions when our friend Ben and I are on the road and able to stay in a hotel. (We don’t get any of the cable channels at home.) I say “interacting” because I carry on a vivid commentary throughout the shows, critiquing the judges’ bad calls and the competitors’ bad choices, cheering them on when they get something right. As someone who loves cooking, it’s a great interactive experience for me, and I totally understand why these cooking shows are so popular.

But as a passionate gardener, I also lament the absence of comparable gardening shows. There was a time when programmers assumed gardening shows would be as popular as cooking shows, but they were wrong. Why? For the same reason how-to cooking shows, in the mode of Julia Child’s iconic “The French Chef,” have disappeared: The internet made sure that there were tons of other ways to find out how to cook things. Shows like Emeril Lagasse’s, immortalized in the movie “Last Holiday,” gave way to competitions.

Cooking shows adapted, but gardening shows didn’t, and so gardening shows died while cooking shows flourished. If, like me, you love gardening, imagine how a gardening competition would go:

First, you have a panel of snooty judges who want to hate everything in the worst way. Then, you get
landscapers and garden designers who are eager to win. But how do you reduce the size of the playing field to that of the display kitchens on “Chopped” or “Iron Chef America”? Yes, they’re big studios, but hardly acres of ground.

Easy: Just take a look at a flower show like the Philadelphia Flower Show. There, competitors build “garden” displays in small, room-sized areas. They add plants, from lawn to flower beds to trees, water features, paths, seating areas, sculpture and other lawn ornaments, lighting, and the like. From sustainable organic vegetable gardens to native bog gardens to wildly imaginative gardens dominated by bizarre sculptures, you can see it all.

So imagine this: A “Chopped”-style competition where the chosen contestants were given the equivalent of the basket of horrific ingredients that the poor “Chopped” chefs must deal with (grotesque combinations such as live sea urchins, cotton candy, peanut butter, and wheat grass), then given an hour to create a stunning garden in, say, a 6-by-12-foot plot. All have the same horrific combination of plants and accessories to work with; all have an assortment of good garden tools and willing assistants; and all have just an hour.

Your landscapers and designers rush around, trying their best to impress the judges by how they put their area together. Some can manage to put the clashing plants and other landscape features together more imaginatively than others. When the hour is up, the judges light into every attempt, then decide on whose effort beat the others. The worst among them would be roundly ridiculed and sent home; the others would face more weeks of challenges.

If you were a passionate gardener, would you watch this show? I think I would, simply because of the way I react to the cooking competitions on the very rare occasions when I can see them. The judges’ verdicts and contestants’ choices draw me in, making me comment, making the show a truly interactive experience. I’d love to enjoy that in a gardening competition as well. You?

‘Til next time,

Silence

My dream food show. January 25, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As a fan of food competitions and a vegetarian, I can’t help but notice that it seems like every food competition on “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America” is really heavy on meat (including fish and seafood). What I’d really love is to have an all-vegetarian cooking competition.

My dream panel of judges would be Tony Bourdain (who famously hates vegetarians more than anything), Madhur Jaffrey (the person most responsible for introducing America to Indian cuisine), Diana Kennedy (ditto for Mexican cuisine), Mario Batali (molto Mario!), and Alice Waters (founder of Chez Panisse, which launched the locavore movement, really included just to annoy Tony). None of these people are vegetarians, but that’s beside the point: All of them can appreciate good food. And vegetarian food can be as good as any food on earth. Hey, I’ve had amazing vegetarian food at a Zen monastery where every other aspect was dauntingly regimented and stark.

I’d nominate even more judges, none of them vegetarians, from France, Greece, Britain, Scandinavia, Africa, Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea, Australia, and on and on, but unfortunately, the show format seems to limit the judging panel to four judges and a host, and I’ve already named my five. Rats! Maybe I can add on if we’re renewed for a second season. Marcus Samuelsson, Masaharu Morimoto, Michael Psilakis, Anne-Sophie Pic, I’m looking at you!

I think the format should be a little looser than it is in most of the competitions, more like it seems to be going in the new show “The Taste”: The competitors should be able to choose what they want to make, as opposed to being slapped with insane combinations of disgusting or unknown ingredients and expected to beat the clock to make something edible out of them. Sure, they could be restricted on any given episode to the cuisine of a given region, be it the Andes or Normandy or the Deep South or Hong Kong.

As in all cooking competitions, once they’ve acquired their ingredients, they should race the clock to prepare and present them to the judges. With one caveat: They should have all the time they need to prepare the stocks, sauces and etc. before the episode begins. The best food is slow food (or just-picked fruits and veggies eaten raw); you can’t rush cooking and get the same texture, aroma, and depth of flavor. But once the bases are covered, you should be able to make a memorable dish or meal in the hour most contests give their competitors.

The deal, in my dream, is that chefs and cooks should compete to make vegetarian food that’s so good, that’s so representative of a region, that it actually stuns the judges and makes them forget about meat. To give the contestants a chance to create or showcase dishes they’re sure will knock the competition out of the ballpark. To give them a chance to show their awesome personalities and tell us all the stories behind their vegetarianism/veganism. TV producers, are you listening?! We could call it “Vegetarian Idol.”

‘Til next time,

Silence

My brush with “Cupcake Wars” fame. January 24, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I love cooking, and I love spending quality time reading cookbooks and cooking magazines and watching cooking competitions on TV (when I’m lucky enough to see them). Because we don’t get cable channels here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, I typically only have access to cooking competition shows when OFB and I are traveling (not exactly a common occurence) and staying in hotels. Which means that what I’m able to see on the Food Network is pretty much limited to which night I’m in a hotel.

So far, I’ve seen a number of episodes of “Chopped” (my favorite), “Iron Chef America” (go Morimoto go, you’re my food-presentation god), and “Restaurant Impossible,” with a little Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay thrown in for good measure. But I’ve never seen “Cupcake Wars.”

This doesn’t mean I’m unaware of “Cupcake Wars,” though. An article in VegNews magazine spotlighted a vegan baker, Chloe Coscarelli, who’d actually won the cupcake wars. As a vegetarian myself, this stuck in my mind. Vegan cupcakes?! Visions of tofu for moistness and tapioca for binding came to mind. For a vegan to win must mean her cupcakes are really something. (And in fact, as I subsequently discovered, there have been at least three vegan bakers who have won the “Cupcake Wars.” Yow.)

But it wasn’t vegan cupcakes that brought me my brush with “Cupcake Wars” fame. Instead, it was a trip to Reading, PA with my friend Amy to celebrate her birthday. She wanted to go to a street full of quirky shops and restaurants in West Reading and spend the day poking around. We started with lunch at Aladdin, a wonderful, award-winning Lebanese restaurant. This cheered me up no end: Yum!!! What a great way to start any day, with baba ghannouj, olive salad, falafel, and etc. (I had plenty of leftovers for the next day’s lunch, too.)

We continued our peregrinations after lunch, visiting many one-of-a-kind shops and a used bookstore (the yarn store was closed, drat). And then Amy said that she wanted me to see a cupcake shop that had especially amazing cupcakes.

Uh, cupcakes? Well, okay, it was her birthday, and I was game. We walked down to a little store with an “Ady Cakes” sign out front. Amy kept pronouncing what to me was obviously “A-dy” as “addy,” but her hearing’s not the best, so I made allowances. (Eventually, it dawned on me that the name was a play on “paddy cakes,” and that Amy’s pronunciation was correct.)

Then I saw the sign out front: Ady of Ady Cakes had won the Cupcake Wars! OMG. I remembered her from reading about the show. I was going into the shop of someone who was a Food Network winner!

The shop itself was small, simple, and unpretentious. One wall was given to a case of elaborate wedding cakes, obviously models to inspire people to choose or create their own. The modest front counter housed a case of fresh-baked cupcakes. I was impressed by the intelligence behind the setup: Every cupcake was made to the same pattern, a cupcake topped with a generous swirl of icing. Using the same design for all the cupcakes would make it possible for Ady to make every cupcake, every single day, for her customers. A more elaborate setup would have meant that she’d need a whole lot of help to create the same number of cupcakes.

The cupcakes themselves didn’t look that stunning: They were cupcakes, for chrissakes, with some icing on top. But the flavors of those cupcakes were inspired, beyond heavenly. I was awed by the combinations of cake, filling, and topping flavors the cupcakes featured, from a Mimosa cupcake to Dulce de Leche, Pink Champagne, Red Velvet, Coconut Key Lime, Pistachio Cardamom, Cranberry Orange, and Pomegranate Ginger (ooh la la!). I’d have been happy to order one of each.

Given my post-holiday waistline, however, I wasn’t about to go for dessert of any kind, be it baklava at Aladdin or a luscious cupcake from Ady Cakes. Amy finally settled on a coconut cupcake as a treat for her father. We were preparing to leave. And then, it happened: Ady herself, Ady Abreu, walked into the store. “Hello!” I said cheerfully. “Hello,” she responded. OMG!!! I’d actually seen and spoken to the creator of Ady Cakes, the “Cupcake Wars” winner, who presumably is normally hidden like the Wizard of Oz behind a curtain in the back of the store baking while her amiable frontman handles the orders.

I was stunned. It’s not likely that I’ll be rubbing shoulders anytime soon with the likes of Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali or Masaharu Morimoto. It would never have occurred to me that I’d ever have rubbed shoulders with anyone who’d ever appeared on a cooking show. Yowie kazowie, what a thrill/shock!

But you can do it, too, if you live within driving distance of Reading. Ady Cakes is located at 631 Penn Avenue, West Reading PA 19611. Check out her website at http://www.adycakes.com/. I say, go for it! You too can meet a Food Network celebrity and enjoy some of her amazing creations (and hey, they’re not even expensive)!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Fans of Tony Bourdain, rejoice! January 22, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As longtime readers know, I love cooking. And I love watching (and screaming at, I mean, offering helpful advice to competitors and judges) cooking competitions like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America” when our friend Ben and I are on the road and staying in hotels that actually get The Food Network. I also enjoy watching Anthony Bourdain’s series “No Reservations,” though I have to order it from Netflix.

But it’s frustrating not to be able to get any of these shows at home, since we don’t have cable reception. We get three PBS stations, and PBS has cooking shows, too, but in order to see them you have to have, you guessed it, cable. Grrrrr!!!

So you can imagine my excitement when I read that ABC—a station we actually receive—is airing the premiere of a new cooking competition series, “The Taste,” tonight from 8 to 10 Eastern Standard Time. (It will subsequently be aired in hourlong episodes, presumably at 9.) And one of the judges is none other than Tony Bourdain! (Fans of Nigella Lawson, you too can rejoice. She’s also a judge, along with Ludo Lefebvre and Brian Malarkey.) I hope the dynamics between the judges play out well, and that Tony is his usual snarky self.

From what I’ve read of the show, it’s unusual in that the judges coach teams of both amateur and professional cooks. I’ll be interested to see how that plays out. as I know from my own cooking, the skill sets required of amateur cooks and chefs are very different. I’ve never had to face the challenge of delivering four completely different meals to a table at the same time, all at the perfect temperature and perfectly cooked. It’s enough for me to get the same meal to everyone at the table at the perfect temperature and perfectly cooked! And imagine multiplying that table of four by 10, by 20, by 30… Yikes!

All a home cook has to do is dream and create great food. A chef has to be a general, overseeing his or her army of cooks, servers, busboys, and the like. Not my idea of a good time! Give me my peaceful kitchen, where I rule alone (at least, until the meal is over and poor OFB has to do the dishes, ugh), my music, my beautiful ingredients, and let me combine them and touch them and smell them and delight in them in my own good time. It’s quite a contrast to the hot, steamy, lightning-paced work that goes on behind a restaurant’s kitchen doors. But I digress.

At any rate, I’m really looking forward to tonight’s premiere, though admittedly I’m wondering how they’ll fill a movie-length program and keep it exciting. But if anyone could do it, that person would be Tony Bourdain! If any of you watch the show, please share your impressions with us.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Could I win a cooking competition? November 28, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I don’t get television reception out here at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. So when we happen to travel and find ourselves spending the night in a hotel, TV reception is a valued commodity. OFB would love to tune in to a football, baseball, or basketball game. But he knows he has no chance against one of the food channels and their cooking competitions.

Actually, he’s been really good about it, thanks to my gift for TV-focused performance art. When I see a show like “Chopped,” I scream volubly about the outrageous so-called food combinations that the poor competitors have to incorporate into each course. (Live sea urchins, cotton candy, rutabagas, and durians, anyone?) I scream at the unfortunate competitors who make grotesque errors attempting to combine the hateful, bizarre ingredients. I scream at the judges who say such precious, pretentious, plain old nasty things about the time-pressured chefs’ attempts to make edible concotions out of these atrocious combinations of ingredients.

OFB notes, probably with good reason, that watching me is far more entertaining than watching any TV show. For me, certainly, food television is an interactive experience. I can’t sit passively instead of participating in the inevitable debacle.

This might lead fans of these TV cooking competitions to ask, if I’m so great, how would I fare in one of these competitions? They have a point. Actually, two. As far as I can tell, these shows are judged on four criteria: speed/efficiency, taste, creativity, and presentation (“plating”).

All of these ultimately reflect on the fact that the competitors are professional chefs who head restaurants or catering companies and are working on a clock. And, as is true across the board with business, unless you’re willing to plow money in, you can’t have all four.

Time is the luxury typically required for taste, creativity, and presentation. This goes flat against speed/efficiency, the ticking clock that defines all these TV competitions. “Chopped” allows its competing chefs 20 minutes to create and plate an appetizer from its bizarre ingredients, 35 minutes to create a main dish, and 20 minutes to create a dessert. Good luck. Yet this is the challenge chefs face every day in restaurants around the world, minus the horror of bizarrely combined ingredients. And in real life, I’d hate to see the reaction if a diner were kept waiting 20 minutes for an appetizer or dessert!

Fortunately for the competing chefs, the show does plow money in for them in the form of every high-end professional time-saving gadget and piece of equipment known to man, plus a kitchen full of ingredients provided for their use, from a fully-stocked bar to a loaded fridge and spice rack. This also mimics the conditions in a professional kitchen, where time is of the essence, yet quality can’t be sacrificed. 

So, how about it, Silence? Yes, I can look at any insane combination of ingredients and, Sherlock Holmes-like, fit the puzzle pieces together to make actual food. Yes, I can draw on a pretty extensive knowledge of international foods and ingredients. Yes, I could dance around the kitchen (I sadly assume nobody would permit me to listen to loud music and sing while I’m cooking as I usually do), combine the ingredients, create something astonishing, and even, hopefully, astonishingly good.

Would I horrify my fellow competitors and judges? Undoubtedly, since they’d wonder why I didn’t seem stressed—in fact, actually seemed happy, as I in fact always am in the kitchen—and wonder again why I didn’t seem chained to the ever-ticking competition clock. Why wasn’t I using the food processor and other equipment? Surely I couldn’t expect to win with a paring knife, mortar and pestle?! 

Easy, I’d say. I’m a home cook. I don’t have to get endless and varied meals on restaurant tables according to a timetable coupled with diners’ eccentric requests and a sharp eye on the bottom line. I never have to conform my ideas of delicious food to those of diners who are paying for it. I cook exactly what I want, when I want, for whom I want. There’s no question of competition, in our home much less on television. 

Could I win a cooking competition? Almost certainly not, though I wouldn’t be averse to trying. As OFB would be the first to point out, my forthright and irreverent comments to the judges would make good television if nothing else. I’m not an aspiring restaurateur, I’m not a professional chef, I’m just someone who loves to cook and create innovative recipes. I have no interest in making money from my food, or I wouldn’t have spent all this time sharing my recipes with all of you on our blog. 

I love food. I love cooking, and creating my own recipes. I love sharing those recipes and cooking tips with all of you and getting your feedback. I also love watching cooking shows, which I find highly entertaining. But I think I’ll leave those cooking competitions to the realm of entertainment and watch them with enthusiasm when I get the chance.

After all, what would I gain from competing in one of these shows? Absolutely nothing. Instead, I’d deprive someone who dreamed of going into professional cooking of a chance to compete. Shame on me! Not to mention that I’d deprive myself of the opportunity to rant and rave at the TV show every time it was aired and I had the chance to see it.

To me, cooking is fun. Cooking should be fun. Watching cooking shows should be fun. And all of it is. I love to cook, I love to create new dishes, I love to watch those cooking competitions and put myself in there, opening yet another basket of outrageously combined ingredients and thinking through to what I could do with them to make a delicious combination.

But my working life as a business executive has taught me that there are factors you can combine to get certain outcomes, and no shortchange is possible. Those tend to reduce to time, talent, and money, and two of the three must be present for a successful transaction. Yes, you can get work done quickly and cheaply, but the quality will suffer; you can get work done slowly and cheaply, but your deadline will suffer. To get good work done in a timely manner takes money; to get good work done on a budget means sacrificing any idea of a deadline, and working within the creator’s own timeline. 

Chefs are among the hardest-working professionals in the world. I’m very happy to wish them well, urge them on, and comment on their mistakes as a member of the TV audience. If they’ve managed to make it onto national TV, I’m sure their careers will be very bright, however they fare on a cooking show.

             ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

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