Browsing articles from "July, 2014"
Jul 28, 2014
Jesse

What I Learned While Binge-Watching Chopped

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on March 18, 2014. 

What I Learned While Binge-Watching ChoppedAfter my cableless self tried and failed to access the Olympics through one of NBC’s ten thousand Olympics apps, I gave up and instead went for something with a similar level of diversity, competition, triumph of human spirit, but with more crepes.

Yes, while the rest of the world watched incredible athletes push things/themselves over ice a few thousand times, I binge-watched the Food Network’s “Chopped.” As stated, this show has everything: heart-warming stories, interpersonal drama, character development, exotic foods, clock-ticking excitement, accents, and finishing salt.

“Chopped,” if you haven’t seen it, is one of the Food Network’s most popular shows. It’s a cooking competition for professional chefs. Four chefs, usually from very different backgrounds, are given three picnic baskets, one per course, of insane, incongruous ingredients which they must creatively incorporate into a delicious dish and serve to the judges. The judges’ panel is made up of famous chefs and restaurateurs, some from the Food Network stable and some not. One contestant is eliminated at the end of each round, and at the end, the winner goes home with $10,000.

While some might argue that prime time Food Network has become less educational, I disagree. Not only have I learned about a bunch of ingredients and techniques from watching “Chopped,” I’ve also picked up some valuable life lessons.

1) You are not above any ingredient

The whole point of the show is to see what happens when trained chefs are pushed outside of their comfort zones with weird food and time limits. The fastest way for a chef to lose a round is to turn up their nose at an ingredient. “Um, I don’t even eat leftovers,” said one, twenty minutes before being sent home on a leftovers-themed episode. “Do you know how many chemicals are in this snack cake?” said another, before losing on a nostalgia episode. Why yes, yes I do know how many chemicals are in that snack cake, but that’s not the point. The point is you take that snack cake and you make me a beautiful meal that transforms those sprinkles, darnit.

Life lesson: You’re not above small tasks. The trash has to be taken out, the leftovers have to be repurposed. The fastest way to move forward is figure out what needs to be done and do it.

2) Sob stories get you nowhere

Oh, so the chef grew up in a tough neighborhood and brought himself up by the bootstraps and now he wants to win “Chopped” to prove to himself that he’s made it? Well, that’s great, but his competitor was hit by a train and he’s out to prove he can still use his arms and legs. (This was a really great episode, guys.) While, yes, a chef’s personal triumph is impressive and may have gotten him on the show in the first place, he can’t rely on that to get him to round two.

Life lesson: Your story is great, but it’s not going to win you any awards. When it comes down to it, you move forward because of your talent and hard work, not your past trials.

3) Keep a cool head

I see this time and time again: a chef goes to flambe a thing, and all of a sudden their whole stovetop is on fire. They have two choices: flap their hands and yell while their food burns, or stay calm and throw some baking soda on it or cover the flames with a pot lid. My favorite was when a chef blew up her food, and while she was still flapping her hands, her competitor turned around, dosed her station with baking soda, and went back to chopping onions without missing a beat.

Life lesson: When your life starts to go up in smoke, stay calm. Identify the problem, identify the solution, take care of it, and move on.

5) It’s not a desert without a cookie

It’s the final round, and the chef has made some beautiful ice cream and served it with sauce and some fresh berries. The ice cream is original, the sauce brings depth, and the berries provide freshness. It’s a beautiful, well-rounded dessert, or so the chef thinks. When she serves it to the judges, they screw up their faces. Yes, it’s delicious, but couldn’t you have included a tuile? Maybe a cookie might have rounded this out? Did you even turn on your oven?  This is dessert, for goodness’ sake. It’s not a proper dessert without a baked good, and it’s a better dessert if that baked good is a cookie.

Life lesson: Always have cookies on hand.

4) Being “chopped” is not the end of the world

So she forgot a basket ingredient, or she undercooked her chicken, or, heaven-forbid, she cut herself and bled onto the plate. And now Ted Allen is lifting the cloche and showing her failed dish. And now the judges are listing her faults. “And these are just some of the reasons we had to chop you” is ringing in her ears as she walks down the back hallway, out to do her final interview segment. Again, she has a few ways she can go: she can criticize the judges’ decision, she can fling herself into the depths of despair,  or she can be disappointed, but learn from her mistakes. The contestants who see their loss as a growth opportunity always leave the best taste in the viewers’s mouths.

Life lesson: Take constructive criticism to heart and use your failures as a way to move forward, not back

Are you a Chopped fan? Have you learned any great life lessons? Or are you more of a “turn the TV on, veg out” type?

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Jul 21, 2014
Jesse

Take, Taste, Toss: Trader Joe’s Frozen Foods

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on May 12, 2014. 

Take, Taste, Toss: Trader Joe's Frozen Foods

Our contributors give you brief reviews of recent cookbooks/ kitchen gadgets/ recipes they’ve tried, and tell you whether you should take it home, just give it a taste, or toss it out.

I’ve said before that Trader Joe’s frozen meals are my go-to no-stress quick dinner. I probably eat one of their Indian-type frozen dinners a week, and I make sure I always have a few on hand for emergencies. Compared to other “healthy” frozen dinners, TJ’s taste the most like good take-out, if not home-cooked. (Note: yes, I call Trader Joe’s by a nickname. And, yes, everything Trader Joe’s sells is healthy. This is a proven fact as shown by all the leaves in their advertising. Shut up. I know.) So, here’s a rundown of some of my favorites (and maybe not so favorites).

Image from Brand Eating
Image from Brand Eating

Trader Joe’s Butter Chicken

Butter chicken is an Indian dish of yogurt-marinated chicken in a creamy tomato sauce, traditionally made in a tandoor. I do not have a tandoor. I do have a local Indian buffet, however, and TJ’s version tastes exactly like what I can get for $10.95 on my lunch break, but for less than half the cost . From what I can tell, there is more yogurt and cream in the dish than butter, but there is definitely a buttery silkiness to the chicken. Because the rice and the chicken are in separate compartments, you really have to pour the two together into a bowl, making this slightly difficult for, say, eating at work, but it makes sense that they need to be cooked separately in order to keep from turning to mush. I am just saying.

Verdict: Take

trader joes ancient grains pizza

Trader Joe’s Ancient Grains Pizza

I have had mixed results with Trader Joe’s frozen pizzas. They’re generally on the small side, making them 1.5 or so of a serving, which of course means that they are magically just one serving. Their crusts tend to be either too crackery or too doughy, which could be my unreliable oven, but I don’t think it’s just that. I am, however, very interested in this whole “ancient grains” trend, and, I mean, I am always willing to give pizza another chance. This pizza has my favorite crust of all the Trader Joe’s pizza crusts, including their pre-packaged bake-your-own crust. It’s nutty and wholesome-tasting in the best way, and this is probably because of the mix of grains. The first ingredient in the crust is still just regular whole wheat flour, but then comes a mix of millet, einkorn, spelt, sunflower seeds, and flax. A+ frozen pizza crust. The toppings leave a bit to be desired: the cheese is a bit too rich, the cherry tomatoes too sweet, and the asparagus too hard to eat. Like most things in life, these can be balanced out by adding some olives or capers. B- toppings, needs improvement.

Verdict: Taste, with capers.

Trader Joe’s Chocolate Croissants

Trader Joe’s Chocolate Croissants

Chocolate croissants are my gateway pastry. I was strictly a no-sweets girl until a college friend introduced me to chocolate croissants. Reader, I married them. Or at least started a long-term serious relationship with pastries that has since expanded to donuts and pie and all sorts of things I used to ignore. But I’m getting off-topic. Anyway. Chocolate croissants, my true love. I’ve wanted to make them at home for ages, but croissants apparently take several days and water directly from the Seine to make from scratch, so when I saw the frozen chocolate croissants at TJ’s, I knew I had to try them. When you open the package, you get what looks like four little pats of butter. These are the unproofed croissants. These need to rise for six to eight hours, which is not nothing, but it’s also not importing a french guy to make you breakfast, so. Also, watching dough rise is never not magical, and every time I make these croissants, I spend most of my time running back into the kitchen to see what progress has been made and texting pictures of it to my friends and family.

Now, because I love chocolate croissants so much, I’m fairly picky. There are many bad chocolate croissants in the world. These are good croissants. They’re light and fluffy and flaky, and you get to eat them warm out of the oven. There’s a good amount of chocolate, and, unlike many coffee shop croissants, the chocolate isn’t sitting like a brick on the bottom of the pastry. If nothing else, these are worth it just because you can wake up to a warm, fresh pastry without leaving your house.

Verdict: Take. Take them on a regular 6-8 hour rotation.

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Jul 14, 2014
Jesse

Ode to a Chicago Hot Dog

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on June 3, 2014.

Ode to a Chicago Hot DogThey were a family tradition long before I knew they were a Chicago tradition. I’d order “a cheese dog with everything but mustard, onions, and peppers. And no celery salt.” My dad said that you can’t call it “everything” if it’s actually missing four ingredients, but that logic didn’t trump the coolness of that “with everything.”

Over the years, my tastes matured and I slowly added more ingredients to my hot dog, until I could order the traditional “everything”: sesame seed bun, Vienna sausage, onion, tomato, cucumber, bright green relish, mustard, celery salt, a pickle spear, pickled sport peppers, and, occasionally, melted American cheese.

(You could also substitute a Maxwell Street Polish [strong vowels on that, please, like you were born here: MAx-wel Street PO-lish SA-sich], the Chicago dog’s near cousin, slightly spicier, with grilled onions, mustard, and maybe some sport peppers. That would be acceptable. But that is not what we are talking about today.)

You’ve probably noticed something missing from the ingredient list. Can we talk about ketchup? And why it doesn’t belong on a Chicago hot dog? Is it because we have some sort of anti-Heinz vendetta? No. It’s because ketchup is mostly sugar, and sugar is a flavor killer. (This is why so many little kids put ketchup on everything: it dulls the taste of whatever it is they’re uncomfortable eating.) The Chicago dog is a symphony of vinegar (see: relish, pickles, mustard, sport peppers). The high sugar levels in ketchup dull the vinegar in the ketchup itself, and it would kill the beautiful balance of the dog.

You may use ketchup on your fries.

A Chicago hot dog can come from a chain restaurant (Portillo’s always works), but it should come from a humid hole in the wall named “Frank’s Red Hots” or “George’s Hot Dogs” or “Tony’s Steamers.” A proper dog is steamed, not grilled, and the process, combined with the sticky Chicago summer, should make the restaurant feel like a sauna. I suggest you eat outside.

I would argue that the steam is what makes this food feel like Chicago. We built our city on a swamp, and now we nearly drown in humidity when it gets warm. The steamed hot dogs and buns are the wonderful, terrible heat, and the fresh vegetables and bright vinegar are what get us through. The land and the lake. For me, they’re a tie to the city and the suburbs I grew up in. A chance to exercise my accent. A reminder of Sunday drives with my family. For me, a Chicago hot dog is a Chicago summer.

 

 

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Jul 7, 2014
Jesse

Five Tips for Cooking for One

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on April 14, 2004, and was picked up by Huffington Post here on Apri 18, 2014. 

Five Tips for Cooking for One

I often hear people describe cooking for one as depressing, and, while I usually nod sympathetically, I have almost never found that to be the case. (I do admit to finding it to be sometimes exhausting. Did you know that I expect to eat dinner every single day? I can be very high maintenance.) Usually, though, I consider cooking for myself to be a creative outlet at the end of a long day of staring at a computer screen, and unlike crocheting or writing, when I’m finished cooking, I get to eat the fruits of my labor. After a few years of cooking for one, I’ve figured out a few strategies to make it a little less arduous.

Cook in Batches
Try cooking in big batches. Most recipes are made for 4-6 people anyway, so go forth and eat your leftovers. I like to make a vat of soup on the weekends and bring it to work for lunch for the rest of the week. The afternoons seem to go a lot more smoothly after I’ve had an interesting and filling lunch. I also save a lot of money this way, and am less tempted to run out for fast food on impulse. Win/win.

Reuse Ingredients
I’m not talking about using that curry powder more than once (but, that, too). Reuse ingredients that take extra work. These are the often the ingredients that give foods complex flavors and textures, so don’t waste them. If you’re going to spend half an hour caramelizing onions for a pizza, set some aside for a sandwich the next day. Roasting corn for a salad? Throw some in your soup. My favorite way to do this is to make Naturally Ella’s vegetarian masala, and then use the leftover masala paste for her sweet potato masala skillet.

Have a Plan
There is nothing worse than coming home from a long day of work to see what your live-in chef has prepared for you, only to realize that not only has she not made dinner for you, but she didn’t even do the grocery shopping, and worst of all, she is imaginary. Meal planning sounds like something that people who use “coupon” as a verb do, but having an idea of what you’re going to eat for the week is a great way to eliminate a lot of stress and way-later-than-you-meant-them-to-be meals. Twenty minutes of googling recipes and making a list can save a lot of stress during the week.

Experiment
One of my favorite things about cooking for myself is that I can make whatever I want. I’m not held back by anyone else’s voluntary or involuntary dietary restrictions. I don’t even have to worry if the food tastes good, because the only one affected by the potential food disaster is me. I got the creative experience out of it, which is part of the reason I made dinner in the first place. Try something new! Recreate something you ate in a restaurant! Grab to random ingredients from your fridge and make them into dinner!

Relax
You live by yourself. One of the benefits of that is the flexibility. If you don’t feel like cooking, you don’t always have to. I usually plan for at least one frozen dinner night, because it’s likely that I’m going to be too busy or too tired at some point. And, hey, Trader Joe’s makes delicious frozen dinners.

Okay, your turn. Got any cooking for one tips for me?

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