Foodies are often polenta bullies. “You should have polenta in your pantry,” they’ll tell you. “I make polenta all the time,” they’ll brag. “I named my first born child Polenta,” they’ll confess. Foodies really love polenta.
And so tonight I adopted a “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy and fried up some polenta, which I presented on my new Ikea plate with fresh made Marcella Hazan tomato sauce. Check it out!
Has this turned me from one of the polenta picked-upons to a polenta picker on-er? Click ahead to find out…
There comes a time in every New Yorker’s life when he or she must ride the A train to 42nd street and 8th Avenue, snake their way past the crowds to the Port Authority, climb down the stairs and board the bus at Gate 5 for Ikea. This is a rite of passage for any new New Yorker, and though I’ve been here for a year and a half now it’s better late than never. Lisa joined me for the journey and the free shuttle shuttled us to New Jersey in little more than 30 minutes. My favorite part was going through the New Jersey Turnpike tollbooth: I felt like Tony Soprano, except thinner and less prone to murder. Here’s Lisa outside the bus upon arrival:
Now you may begin to wonder: why write about Ikea on a food blog? What does Ikea have to do with food? What’s love got to do got to do got to do with it? Click continue to learn the truth, the truth about Ikea.
The Food Network really doesn’t want me to tell you what I witnessed on Monday, January 23rd. Upon arriving at The Food Network studios in The Chelsea Market, they had my companions and I sign a piece of paper that made us swear we wouldn’t reveal any secrets from the episode we were about to see taped of Iron Chef America. Especially: which Iron Chef would do battle; the identity of the challenger and, most importantly, the secret ingredient. The penalty would be–according to the document–$1 million. Plus they’d send Mario Batali to walk on you in his orange clogs.
What follows, then, is a carefully guarded account of our experience there. Please don’t ask me any questions like “What was the secret ingredient?” because answering that [fennel!] might cost me my future livelihood. [Just kidding, it wasn’t fennel. Stop asking.]
News of the Iron Chef tickets reached my e-mail box a few weeks earlier. My wonderful agent, who plucked me from nowhere and placed me on the road to somewhere, informed me that she had two tickets: one for me and one for my editor at Bantam/Dell. The taping would be Monday at 2:30, we’d meet out front at 2:25. She also attached a letter from The Food Network that ended thusly:
“DRESS IS BUSINESS CASUAL. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM WEARING JACKETS, AND TIES. NO LARGE LOGOS ARE PERMITTED. SOLID DARK COLORS ARE PREFERRED. NO CAMERAS OR RECORDING DEVISES OF ANY KIND PERMITTED
ALSO, YOU WILL BE REQUIRED TO SIGN A COFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT WHEN YOU CHECK IN FOR THE PRODUCTION. ALL GUESTS OF THIS PRODUCTION ARE REQUIRED TO DO THIS.”
As you can see, they are VERY serious about this confidentiality agreement. I don’t know why you keep bugging me to reveal things like who the Iron Chef was [Sakai!], they’re seriously going to sue me. [Just kidding, Sakai isn’t on Iron Chef America. You got so rocked.]
Tickets for “Iron Chef America” are invite only, which is why attending the taping is so special. We gathered in a room on the ground level of the Food Network studios in the very back of the market. Sandwiches and cookies from Amy’s Bread were available and of course I couldn’t refuse a cookie. On a TV screen they showed previous battles as Food Network employees collected the signed forms and began to herd people into an elevator.
Before we got on, we were asked to turn our cellphones and pagers off. “You’ll have a chance to turn them back on after the battle’s over, before the judging.”
The elevator took us up six flights and they led us into another waiting room. From here, you could kind of see into the Iron Chef studio. The feeling was similar to that of waiting for a Disney ride: fog from fog machines rolled in through cracks in the curtain, and you could see bright spotlights up ahead.
While we waited, we could watch what was going on in the studio on a TV monitor placed before us. We watched the challenger (who, I didn’t recognize and never learned the identity of anyway!) choose his Iron Chef for combat. We then watched him do it again. And again. These things, you see, require multiple takes.
Just then, some fanfare as a curtain parted to our left and the secret ingredient was wheeled in on a prop-like tray that looked like something from a poor man’s production of “Pirates of Penzance.”
“It looks like there’s a body in there,” said my agent.
“Maybe there is and that’s the secret ingredient!” I suggested. A woman to my right sneered.
Eventually they led us into the studio. The space was surprisingly small and fake-looking. Kitchen Stadium in Japan looks like a real stadium or at least a space that has some significance, even if the whole mythology is made up. Here: the room was a giant black box with a wheeled-on set. This is the same room, we later learned, where Emeril tapes “Emeril Live!” and (gag!) Rachel Ray shoots her show.
There are two sets of seats for audience members. The VIP seats, where we weren’t sitting, and the not VIP seats where we were sitting. These faced the Iron Chef directly; the Challenger’s side faced no audience.
To my right they pushed on Alton Brown’s set piece: the panel with computers where he does his color commentary during the show. And then out came Alton Brown, looking just like he does on TV only a tiny bit sweatier. What follows is a glowing paragraph in praise of Alton Brown.
Alton Brown is a genius. Or, to rephrase: he’s a genius at what he does. He’s a brilliant television personality. Whenever they shot a segment with him, he told them to turn off the teleprompters: he didn’t need them. And then he’d say something funny to make the director laugh or the crew laugh and each time he was a consummate professional–never fudging a word, always crisp and clear and smart. And then there’s the fact that for the entire one hour battle that ensues he speaks the ENTIRE time. It’s truly remarkable. The Iron Chefs are talented men and women, but for my money the show wouldn’t be watchable without Alton’s quick wit and intelligent observations of what’s going on. He’s the glue that holds Iron Chef America together.
[However, his earring is awful. Yes he has an earring. So does that useless sidekick Kevin. They both have the same earring. Are they in a cult? Or did they go through a joint midlife crisis?]
Alton aside, the experience of watching Iron Chef live is a bit like the experience of a child who believes with all his heart in tooth fairies catching his mother put money under the pillow. The whole thing’s a sham!
No, it really is. I’m sorry. When we sat down, both chefs had pots already boiling: sure it’s probably chicken stock or other kitchen essentials, but there was something very predetermined about what was going on. When they revealed the secret ingredient–ooh! ahh!–the chefs looked like they were being read the serial number from the side of a library book. There wasn’t a nerve in the air. And every action we observed felt the opposite of spontaneous. These people KNOW or at least have a very good idea of what the secret ingredient is going to be. And with all the stops and starts and editing and lack of music, a live performance of Iron Chef America is as tense as watching two 90 year olds play a game of hopscotch.
However, with that said, there is something wonderful about observing a brilliant chef in action. And in this case the Iron Chef was a pleasure to watch. The assistants too. Watching them buzz around the kitchen, grilling, sauteing, setting things on fire: it’s quite entertaining. That hour goes by very fast.
At the end, they have the five plates they’re required to finish by the time the buzzer sounds. Then they have an opportunity to plate the plates for the judging. Here’s where I was confused: the Iron Chef went first. Didn’t the Challenger’s food get cold? It takes 45 minutes to get through the judging. Doesn’t that put the Challenger at a huge disadvantage? Especially with foods that need to be served right away?
I don’t have an answer. I actually couldn’t stay for the Challenger’s judging, I was late for class. [My agent informed me who won over e-mail.]
The best part, though, came during the Iron Chef’s judging. Without revealing anything, the judges were ambivalent about a few dishes and then they raved over one particular dish. As they raved, one of the Iron Chef’s assistants came out to the audience with a plate of this particular dish. When it passed my way, I lifted a sample of this expertly prepared secret ingredient and placed it in my mouth. It was truly divine: a taste memory I’ll never forget. I can’t tell you more ’til the episode airs.
And that’s essentially what the Iron Chef taping experience is like. Oh, but there are smells too. I forgot to mention that: the smells that waft over you as you watch are really wonderful. If Smellovision is ever invented, Iron Chef America will be the show to watch. In the meantime, I can’t tell you anymore. I’m sorry. Unless you send me $1 million and a picture of you in a Speedo. Then I might consider. Otherwise, in the words of my uncle: Allez cuisine!
Lauren can have my cat because Lauren’s a dog person and Lolita (who she lived with for two years) will remind her that cats are people too. Lisa can have my “Freaks & Geeks” DVD set because she hasn’t seen the end yet; Alex can have my VHS tape of the Martin Short special that aired on NBC in the 90s with Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks which I think is the funniest thing I own because she thinks it’s as funny as I do; Ricky can hang on to my “Pippin” DVD because he has it anyway and everyone else can divide up my remaining book, cookbook, DVD and CD collections.
I am writing my last will and testament because I had this for dinner last night:
After hamburgers the night before and pizza the night before that, this was the dish that pushed me over the edge to become a true glutton. John Wayne had “True Grit,” but I’m a “True Glutton.” So if heart failure keeps me from waking up tomorrow, we now know how to divide up my possessions. If I live, it’ll be a while before I make this again–not because it wasn’t outrageously delicious, but because it made me feel guiltier than a man who kills nuns with tweezers.
Do you want to feel that guilty? Does that picture above have you salivating? Do you have a death-wish too?
It’s REALLY easy to make. You probably have all the ingredients already, with the exception of slab bacon which I had left over from the Birmingham Beet salad from the other night. I loosely interpreted a recipe for “Spaghetti Carbonara” from Marcella Hazan which I will loosely reinterpret for you in the next paragraph. This dish comes together best when you do it all in a huge rush: the high octane charges the dish with dramatic flair.
You will need: pasta (spaghetti’s the most preferable, but as you can see I used penne) (this recipe is good for half a box); 1 strip of slab bacon (or pancetta or even regular bacon); some wine (I used old old old white wine that’s been in my fridge for months. I know it’s horrible to use wine you wouldn’t actually drink but since I was only using 1/4 a cup, I didn’t care. And it tasted fine.) FRESH Parmesan cheese. 1 garlic clove.
1. Boil your pasta til it’s al dente; [you want the pasta to finish cooking just as everything else is finishing, so the heat from the pasta will cook the egg]
2. In a large bowl, crack an egg and break it up a bit with a fork. Grate about a cup of parmesan in it and then grind some pepper in there too;
3. Cut up the slab bacon into 1/4-inch strips. Take a Tbs or 2 of olive oil and pour into a skillet; heat on medium heat and add the garlic clove. Let it flavor the oil til it’s golden then remove. Add the bacon and cook for a few minutes until crisp on the outside. Move off the heat and add 1/4 cup of wine. It will sizzle.
4. Then it’s pure assembly. Add the drained pasta to the egg in the bowl; stir around and coat. Then add the bacon and the bacon fat (all the liquid from the skillet) and toss around. Taste. It is delicious. Write your last will and testament and bon apetit!
Context matters. You can eat the best food ever made, but if you’re eating it in bicycle shorts surrounded by mimes playing Kenny G music on kazoos it probably won’t rock your world. That’s because the trappings that surround a dining experience often play a bigger role than you’re willing to acknowledge. Take, for example, the trappings that surrounded our meal at Cafe Asean:
I pass Cafe Asean all the time and it always seems alluring from the outside. It’s on 8th St. or 7th St. or one of those streets near 6th Avenue on the way to the Village. It has that welcoming hand-painted sign you see above and when you enter the room it’s homey without being too cutesy. I met Kirk and Diana there last week right before school started.
Imagine a sitcom called “That’s My Lebovitz.” It takes place in Paris at the chateau of an emigre American pastry chef who loves to shake his rolling pin at old French women and humor the visiting American nebbish (played by me) who insists on learning things about Paris and baking and taking pictures of his food. Each episode begins with the pastry chef trying a new recipe and at the end, when the nebbish learns a valuable lesson, the nebbish declares in a sing-songy voice: “That’s my Lebovitz!”
This week’s episode–“Toffee Trouble!”–begins when the nebbish rings the doorbell.
Lebovitz: Go away! I’m making toffee butternut crunch! Look at this picture from my website, it’s going to be delicious.
Adam: Lebovitz, you crank, let me in. I have a class tomorrow with a teacher allergic to gluten!
Lebovitz: So switch classes.
Adam: I can’t switch classes. It’s my masters thesis class.
Lebovitz: Then switch teachers.
Adam: Lebovitz, that’s impossible. I’m breaking down the door.
[Adam breaks down the door. Lebovitz is wearing a feather boa and a tiara.]
Lebovitz: Damn you, look what you’ve done. I have a photo shoot in an hour. Is my tiara on straight?
Adam: Listen, that buffy torternut crunch…
Lebovitz: Buffy torternut? You mean Toffee butternut.
Adam: Oh, bless you. Buffy Torternut was my girlfriend in high school.
Lebovitz: Yeah right. Like you went to high school.
Adam: How do I make it? My teacher who’s allergic to gluten loves candy.
Jason Sholar is an exemplary human being. He ran the “Secret Cookbook Santa” for me this year and completely on his own accord sent me one of my most desired cookbooks from my Amazon wish list: “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table.”
This gigantic beautifully photographed book has an introduction by Pat Conroy who wrote “The Prince of Toydes” (as my mom would say) in which Pat calls Highlands Bar & Grill–Frank Sitt’s restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama–the best restaurant in America. I actually love this introduction: it paints a portrait of the chef quite beautifully. Let me quote from the final two paragraphs:
“Over a year ago, my wife, the novelist Cassandra King, and I joined Frank and Pardis [Frank’s Wife] for a spectacular meal at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in New York. It was a meal for the ages, and it was one of the great joys of my life to watch Frank smell each dish as it arrived steaming from the kitchen and his eyes light up with pleasure as he tasted each bite with discernment and lapidary pleasure. The restaurant was as formal and plush and forbidding as HIghlands is welcoming and all-inclusive. The meal was Proustian and fabulous and indescribable, as all great meals are.
When Cassandra and I bid farewell to Frank and Pardis that night and walked toward our hotel with all the clamor and splendor and mystery of the great city swarming around us, we both agreed that Alain Ducasse was a splendid chef, but that he was no Frank Stitt.”
For my first foray into Frank’s Southern Table I decided on his “Autumn Beet Salad with Spiced Pecans, Pears and Fourme D’Ambert.”
I think my attempt at this salad came out quite pretty though I made a few substitutions. I was out of pecans, so I candied almonds instead. This isn’t the greatest choice–almonds are difficult to stab on to a fork–but they added a needed nuttiness to an otherwise nutless salad. I could type out the entire detailed recipe, but I’ll just sketch it for you. You can actually look at the picture and figure it out. What makes it special is the combination of candied pecans, crisped slab bacon bits, sliced pear, fresh-cooked beets and bleu cheese. Take lettuce leaves (the fancy, bitter ones) and toss with oil and vinegar (or make a sherry vinaigrette, like Frank suggests). Then roast beets (Frank’s method worked well: put beets on foil sheet, drizzle with olive oil, red wine vinegar, some salt and pepper, fold up and roast in the oven at 350 for 45 to 60 minutes (until fork tender)). Slice a pear thinly and crisp the bacon bits. Mound the lettuce on a plate and “scatter the beets, pears, lardons, and pecans around and arrange a wedge of cheese on each plate.”
That’s it: a French classic given the Southern treatment. Like Madame Bovary as read by Dolly Pardon. With less cleavage.