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April 20, 2006

Food-Prep for Newbies

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Since this seems to have become Food Week here at 2Blowhards, why not enjoy the theme and indulge in a little food-linkage?

Although I woke up to the fascination of food over 30 years ago, I spent nearly all that time completely uninterested in food preparation. One morning a couple of years ago, though, I woke up thinking, "Am I nuts?" And since then, I've been edging my way in. Doing a little boiling and sauteeing ... a little chopping ... a lot of tasting and sniffing and feeling ... risking the occasional run to Whole Foods ... even taking a few classes. (Knife skills are a must.) Verdict: It has all been rewarding. Tastes! Nourishment! The pleasures of craft! Where's the downside?

Part of the fun has been swapping notes with visitor Bryan Castaneda. Although Bryan has raced far ahead of me, he started out along the food-prep path at about the same time I did, and it has been valuable and interesting trading impressions and tips with him.

Perhaps some people who are thinking about edging into food-prep but who feel a little lost might enjoy checking out some of the resources that Bryan and I have found most helpful. After all, so much seems to be taken for granted by those already in the food-know that it can be difficult to find early footing. And the experts who have access to the conventional press often have no idea how bewildering it can be to set off in a new field. Hey, isn't that one of the great things about blogging? Real people getting the chance to compare notes with each other about what it's like being a real person?


  • Bryan and I bond tightest over our enthusiasm for the Food Network's Alton Brown. Not to be too evasive about this: Alton Brown is the food-dude for the typical American male. He's a regular, if geekish, guy who happens to love the whole enjoying-food thing, and who has gone out and learned a lot about it, darn it. He doesn't even claim to be the world's greatest chef. ("I'm not into fancy presentations," I remember him saying in one episode.) Let's face it: Much of what's off-putting to many hetero-American males about the world of food is the way the vibe can seem snobbish, or feminine, or (gasp!) European. Alton takes away all those curses. He's as all-American-boy as can be -- in his eagerness, his energy, his curiosity, and his unpretentiousness. Which makes me wonder if women are as prone to be Alton fans as many men are ...

    Alton's show is as remarkable as his vibe and his advice. He doesn't just tell you to repeat after him. He gives you the whys and the wherefores: a little history, a little chemistry. And he doesn't just stand behind a counter and cook. Alton delivers a real TV show. (It's called "Good Eats," by the way). Media guy that I am, I marvel that people haven't made more of what an avant-garde and radical media-innovator Alton is. This is a cooking show -- but it's full of cutting, skits, scene-changes, camerawork, and jokes, all delivered in a disarmingly dweebish, unslick, and homemade way. Alton might work his goofiness a little too hard, and I'm not all that fond of his suburban-dork persona. But I always appreciate the effort. Alton keeps you watching and interested, and he makes you eager to get into the kitchen and have fun there.

    Here's a terrific Ed Hill appreciation of Alton and his show. Alton's own site is here. His first book is a super-good (and enjoyably-designed) introduction to cooking. You can find a number of Alton's recipes at the Food Network's website.

  • As for books and magazines, Bryan is a fan of Christopher Kimball's low-key and superb Cook's Illustrated. Cook's Illustrated's specialty is taking a subject and giving it a real workout: Of them all, which pie-crust recipe is best? When you cut through the claims and the publicity, which finally are the best kitchen tongs? Bryan also enjoys Everyday Food, one of the Martha Stewart magazines. Bryan has been urging me to spend some serious time with Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen." I haven't tackled McGee's book yet, but it's widely-recognized as a classic, and I certainly should take Bryan's advice.

  • My own favorite food-prep magazine is the Taunton Press' Fine Cooking, which issue after issue is a masterpiece of clarity, beauty, and elegant explanation. (I wrote here about the genius of the Taunton Press and its publications.) My favorite pop food magazine is the very friendly Every Day with Rachael Ray, which is full of good, fast ideas and unintimidating yet zingy recipes. I'm agnostic on books, but I do have another video favorite: PBS' Jacques Pepin, who makes informal but still hypersophisticated versions of classic French dishes. Pepin's recipes and techniques are almost all over my head, though it's a pleasure watching him work. (He's sometimes said to be the best technician in America.) But what I love about him is his persona: suave, relaxed, earthy, even roguish. Talk about inspiring! Jacques Pepin conveys a very appealing attitude -- that of course any sexy heterosexual man should know something about sauces, ovens, knives, and wine. Mais bien sur!

    I'll also take the opportunity to volunteer a small thought about cooking classes. I'm a big fan, even though some friends who are good cooks laugh at me for spending time and money on them. Why not just hang out in the kitchen and cook a lot? I take their point but I still enjoy the classes, which I've come to think of as an entertainment form in their own right. On a given weekend, I might see a movie, or visit a museum, or I might take a cooking class. However imperfect they sometimes are, I always have a good time. You meet people, you taste and handle yummy things, you grow more comfy in the kitchen, you pick up a few tips. It's always a sensual and a social experience. I've managed to drag The Wife (an excellent home cook) along to a few of these events, and we have had romantic, and sometimes even memorable, fun. So, instead of thinking of cooking classes as a chore, an expense, or an investment, why not think of taking a cooking class as an appealing entertainment option?

    * Bryan volunteers some other goodies too. He ran across a hilarious series of screen caps showing the Food Network's Giada De Laurentiis trying to navigate a cooking disaster on her show "Everyday Italian." And he points out that the filmmaker Richard ("Slacker") Linklater is preparing a movie version of "Fast Food Nation."

Many thanks to Bryan Castaneda. Eager to hear tips from others too.



UPDATE: Tatyana (who blogs here) sings the praises of Jacques Pepin better than I do in her comment on this posting.

posted by Michael at April 20, 2006


MB, did you just read my comment to Part I about Jacques Pepin?

Posted by: Tatyana on April 20, 2006 4:36 PM

I think I posted this posting at the same instant you posted your comment! Great minds and great tummies operate alike, I guess.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 20, 2006 4:55 PM


My favorite food site, especially for the pictures, is Noodle Pie:
A Brit journalist in Vietnam, and his culinary wanderings.


Posted by: fenster on April 20, 2006 6:07 PM

Thanx! Speaking of tummies: have you checked your 2 weeks?

Posted by: Tatyana on April 20, 2006 6:29 PM

Speaking for myself and a few friends, women LOVE Alton Brown, for the same reasons you list. I adore his show because he spends a lot of time explaining the science and fiction of food, plus the difference between them. Am a former food professional, and I can't tell you how many of those food myths get handed down as cannon through kitchens. Anyone who tries to separate the wheat from the chaff is A1 in my book.

Am fond of Bon Appetit magazine, but it's mostly for the food porn. The photography is amazing. Their web site,, is great because folks rate the recipes and write reviews with what they did differently while making them. Always handy to see if someone else only had a half cup of cream and used thyme instead of marjoram.

McGee's book is fantastic, really thorough, but you have to be really into food to appreciate it. Get the new revision. On a lighter tone, you might enjoy How to Read A French Fry by Russ Parsons.

Posted by: Sharon GR on April 21, 2006 10:43 AM

I used to like Alton Brown, but he's wearing out his welcome with me. My main beef is with his obsessiveness, especially when it comes to food safety. He goes on and on about spraying down the entire kitchen with bleach if a single chicken breast so much as breaches the door. I'm not a slattern, but I believe in some perspective, too.

At the risk of being a bore, I will again recommend Jeffrey Steingarten. All foodies should read _The Man Who Ate Everything_. How can you not love a guy who writes about food for Vogue? Talk about bearding the lion in its den!

Posted by: CyndiF on April 21, 2006 12:18 PM

Oh, and my other recommendation is to buy everything written by Patricia Wells, starting with _The Paris Cookbook_ and _The Provence Cookbook_. Her recipes are simple (though some call for relatively hard to find ingredients) but exquisite and her French treatment of food is highly appealing.

Posted by: CyndiF on April 21, 2006 12:24 PM

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