The Gleeful Gourmand: January 2012

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In Defense of Paula Deen (Sort Of)

I’ve been mulling over this Paula Deen debacle for about a week now, figuring out how I felt about it, and I think I’ve finally come to some personal conclusions and opinions. (In case you’ve been living under a rock, Deen confirmed last week that she has Type 2 Diabetes.)

I have been watching Paula Deen since the beginning of her career on the Food Network, back when she was filming out of Gordon Elliott’s home kitchen in New York, and her restaurant in Savannah, Ga., The Lady and Sons, was just becoming a huge hit. My mom was the one who insisted that I watch her show, so I gave it a try. And now, I love Paula Deen.

I do, I love her. I actually adore her like she’s a family member. When she revealed that she had Type 2 Diabetes and was taking a paid endorsement, it pained me to then hear Dr. Nancy Snyderman on the “Today Show” call her actions egregious. Deen has been called far worse by critics these past few years, so I’m sure she’s used to it. And I do think her diagnosis was inevitable. But it wasn’t always that way. When I started watching her, she wasn’t so much into glorifying fatty food (hello disgusting burger between two doughnuts) as she was about making all the dishes so famous in the South, the kind you’d find at Sunday dinner, the kind a lot of us grew up with. Back then she didn’t make any bones about the fact that she used butter, and back then it was endearing. She used butter, so what? Anthony Bourdain called her “the worst, most dangerous person to America,” yet Bourdain himself has often pointed out that what makes the food we eat in restaurants, and the food that he has made, so great, is…butter.

I loved watching her not because I wanted to necessarily make her food – in fact, I have a lot of her cookbooks, and have only made some desserts, never any entrees or sides – I just loved watching her. She was so real, and so approachable, and she always made me laugh. She looked like she was enjoying the hell out of cooking, talking, and eating, just like the rest of us. I fell in love with her, and watched her every day. We even went to Savannah and ate at The Lady and Sons (best fried chicken ever, anywhere, hands down). But something changed over the years. She never lost her approachability, but it was almost like she became a caricature of herself. She took her own personality over the top, making outrageous food, and taking huge sloppy bites of the food she tasted. Watching her eat kind of became gross.

It really doesn’t matter to me whether or not Deen has Type 2 Diabetes. I believe that if anyone watches her show and thinks it’s a great idea to eat that way all the time, or even most of the time, that person is a fool. I believe that it was her right not to tell anyone that she had the disease, and I don’t believe her actions are “egregious” as Dr. Snyderman said (Dr. Snyderman said that in connection with the food she eats, not necessarily how she went about her announcement). I do, however, think her timing was off-putting and wrong. To wait until she was paid by a drug company to come clean certainly paints her in a money-grubbing type of light. I think it’s her right to be paid, but she should not have waited until she was getting paid for endorsements to share her secret. She should have either A) Been up front with her audience right away or B) Not said anything at all, but also not taken the paid endorsement. (By the way, this is not the first time I’ve disagreed with Deen’s actions. I also dislike that she endorses Smithfield ham, but that’s a totally different story.)

She is under no obligation to now be the poster child for healthy living. She does that and the brand of Paula Deen dies. I know to some health fanatics that would be just fine and dandy, but that’s not who she is, and it’s not her responsibility to change her ways for her audience. As she is so fond of saying, she’s not your doctor she’s your cook. She isn't making America sick and overweight - we are doing that to ourselves, and would do so even without her. You wouldn’t go to the chef of your favorite burger restaurant and ask them to change what they’re doing, would you? No, you just wouldn’t go there anymore. Plain and simple, if you think your diet needs a change and you want to change your health, it’s your responsibility to turn off your television and do something about it, not hers.

Myself, I don’t watch Paula a lot anymore. I still adore her, but I do wish she’d tone it down and go back to her roots. I know that won’t happen, though. I wish her well in her fight against diabetes, and still dream that someday I’d be able to sit down and share a meal and a laugh with her.

P.S. – I want to take a moment to say that I do lead a healthy lifestyle. I enjoy eating healthy and being active, which is perhaps why I don’t make many of Deen’s dishes. The point is: It is possible to love Paula Deen, watch her show, and not get fat. It’s a choice. I know lots of people just like me who can make the same claim.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Making A Great Cook, Brought To You By Ramona Quimby

My most cherished books as a young girl had to be the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. Cleary’s take on what it’s like to be a young girl trying hard to grow up is so spot-on it’s almost scary. A lot of fun, hilarious, and interesting things happen to Ramona along the way, and one of my favorite stories is from “Ramona Quimby, Age 8”. In it, Ramona and her sister, Beezus, have been complaining about the cow’s tongue their mother has served for dinner (because it’s cheap and nutritious). They enjoyed it fine before they realized exactly what it was, and decide not to eat it. Their parents turn the tables on them, though, and tell them that the next night they will be the ones to make dinner for the family.

Ramona tries to come up with excuses: But I don’t know how to cook. Her mother replies cheerfully, “You can read. If you can read, you can cook.” Those words have stuck with me over the years. I know, it sounds silly, because what her mother is saying is so obviously true that it’s the perfect response to shut a kid down. But it got me thinking.

Yes, if you can read, you can cook. You can follow a recipe to the best of your ability and create something in the kitchen. But does that necessarily mean you’re a good cook? I think a tremendous amount goes into whether a person is a good cook or not. There’s a lot of subtext between the lines of a recipe card that isn’t written down. There's a natural, comfortable ease to good cooking. So where does that come from? First of all, I think it matters whether your parents enjoyed cooking and/or were good at it. I say and/or because I do think a person can be a good cook and not actually like the process. Maybe they simply love good food – sometimes that can be enough. But having a parent who enjoys it, and is good at it, helps.

Take these three examples. 1: My mother is an excellent cook, and I can count on one hand the times she served us a serious misstep that we simply couldn’t choke down (hey, it is bound to happen at some point). I loved dinnertime in our house, knowing that the food would always be good. My mom got me to help when I was old enough by asking me to stir things, and then talking to me about the food while I stirred. When I got a little older she invited me to help her bake, and my love for baking was born of those shared times. Today we love working in the kitchen together, and we’re constantly learning from each other. Except when she gets testy because I tell her she needs real measuring spoons. (Kidding, mom! Sort of.)

2: My mother’s mother loved to cook and was also good at it, but she didn’t allow anyone to help her in the kitchen. She pretty much didn’t want anyone in her kitchen, ever, so my mother didn’t really learn a lot from her about the process. When she started out as a married woman, mom was starting from ground zero. Except, I don’t think she necessarily was. She already knew what good home cooking should taste like, what it should look like. She had a basis for comparison, so to speak. She found her way not from being taught, but maybe she was helped on quite a bit because it was in her blood.

3: A dear friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, likes to cook. But she isn’t very good at it (her words, not mine). She’s desperate to learn and get better, not just for herself, but also her family. One night a few months ago I heard her mother talk about how she was terrible at cooking, and absolutely hated the process. Ah-ha! I thought. Now I understood where my friend was coming from. And yet, here was my friend, maybe not a great cook (yet), but eager to learn and try.

And so all this brings me around to my previous pondering. What does it take to make a great cook (not a chef, a cook)? I think background certainly helps. If you had a parent, or a relative (my husband’s Auntie Moki taught him how to cook delicious Hawaiian food for example) who loves cooking, it’s a great start. The next thing you need, as my friend proved, is a great desire to want to cook, or to even start learning. I do think that if you hate the process and don’t want to learn, you’re not going to be a good cook. Then I think you need to get some more education. No, I don’t mean everyone needs to run right out to their nearest Culinary School. Simply reading about food helps, and so does watching it. My base was my mom, but a lot of what I learned came from reading, and another large part came from watching the Food Network. Seriously. I’m not ashamed to admit that. Lastly, you need to practice, a lot. You won’t always get it right, but each failure and each success is a stepping-stone towards becoming good.

The dinner that Ramona and her sister made turned out okay. Their parents pretended to enjoy it, even though the sisters knew it wasn’t really as great as they said it was. And the kitchen looked like a tornado had ripped through it. I wonder where we would find Ramona today and her stance on cooking, especially cooking done when it’s not a punishment. I like to think she grew up to enjoy the process, and used her super creativity to make some truly wonderful dinners for her friends and family.

So what say you, readers? What’s your philosophy on what makes a good cook? Leave it in the comments!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Christmas Eats All Winter Long

Christmastime is over. Isn't that just about the saddest thing you can say this time of year? Okay, you could probably say some other things that are significantly more tragic, but still. It's pretty sad. January looms bleakly. And here in Virginia it gets bitterly cold, but we rarely see snow. Mostly we see bare branches and despair for spring, and complain to anyone who's listening about having to bundle three small children, then unbundle three small children. But wait! January can be fun too, can't it? You could throw an annual potluck or dinner party, and call it the "There's Absolutely Nothing Going On, So For God's Sake, Let's Do Something" dinner. Or something even more witty.

Take some cues from our Christmas dinner. When we gather for that festive meal, we don't make it a Thanksgiving redux. We choose one really good, show-stopping main entrée and work from there. This year, Buck made a Spicy Fruit-Stuffed Pork Loin with Roasted Pears and Onions from Southern Living Magazine that was truly excellent. This would be a perfect main course for any winter dinner party, and it wasn't that hard to do. To round it out my mom made her annual Potato-Fennel Gratin which was superb (it makes for a very cozy, filling side dish you'd really only want in the wintertime), plus her Cranberry Bread, and my sister-in-law Heather made a spinach salad.

But wait, I need to back up a minute because Heather also made off-the-hook appetizers of a cheese plate with fresh strawberries and blackberries, and these Stuffed Baby Peppers. They were the perfect little bites, and she relates that they're so easy to make, she's made them several times since, except she's used regular-sized bell peppers and stuffed them with the filling for a side dish.

For dessert I made, for the first time ever, a real honest-to-goodness Bouche De Noel. I researched it quite a bit, and finally landed on a recipe that you can find here. The others were passed up because a lot of them required things like almond paste, and we have nut allergies in our family. I decorated it with rosemary sprigs and cranberries, and purchased meringue mushrooms from William-Sonoma because there was no way I was going to try making my own mushroom meringues when I could just buy them for $9. I also dusted it right before serving with powdered sugar to make it look like snow, but I forgot to take a picture of that so you'll just have to imagine it. As a side note, the recipe for this yule log says to frost it with buttercream, and I just happen to love Ina Garten's buttercream recipe that goes with this spectacular cake: Beatty's Chocolate Cake. And yes, the yule log has a lot of steps, and it took the better part of the morning, and yes I ended up completely covered in powdered sugar, but it was worth it. And if you decide to make it for your next dinner party but are worried that guests will balk that it's a Christmas dessert, just ask them if logs dusted in snow exist anytime after Christmas. Or fill their glasses (and yours) to the very top with wine and pretend you didn't hear them. Once they start eating it, I guarantee they won't mind.

P.S. - The pictures are of Buck's Spicy Fruit-Filled Pork Tenderloin, and my Bouche De Noel.