Wednesday, September 2, 2009
If I were to take a survey of how many people watch some sort of cooking show in a week's time, I would guess that at least three-quarters of you watch some sort of demonstration or commentary on food. While the Food Network is not part of my basic cable package, I do tend to frequent shows like "Top Chef," and occasionally I catch someone making something delicious on PBS.
In a related question, how many of you read food writing, either in the form of blogs, magazines and even here in your local alternative weekly? The numbers will show that we are a population of food-fascinated people.
The last question is: How do you even begin to make the things you salivate over; how do I make it look like that?
Food is an art in itself. My day job involves integrating arts learning into education, and those of us in this line of work delight in talking to people about multiple intelligences and how people learn. Howard Gardner, author of the theory of multiple intelligences, conducted and gathered research to show us that every person learns differently. Some of us are spatial, or visual learners while some of us absorb information with the aid of music or movement or even learning by engaging in nature.
In the culinary world, the way you view your food becomes an important part of how it tastes; engaging all of your senses really makes a meal happen. But how do cooking shows influence us? While the cooking shows offer a valuable culinary education, consider the practicality of many of those dishes. How many times have you watched a show, found yourself inspired and then immediately gone to the store to gather the 20 ingredients you don't keep in your home? Did you buy them only to become frustrated by your task, or did you give up before you even started? Many times the problem lies in the food's appearance. You liked it because it looked appetizing or could imagine plating it for dinner guests and indulging in their 'oohs' and 'aahs.'
Maybe you have a staple dish or something that friends always request of you. What are ways you can give your casserole or basic dish that food-show glamour? It's possible, I promise. Consider keeping a few ingredients on hand for garnishes to add a "pop" to those dishes.
Red and orange bell peppers are a wonderful ingredient to have on hand, just slice or chop and add. Not only do they add a subtle crunch (if raw) to a dish, they also add a mild sweetness, and the color itself is a perfect addition to many dishes. Green garnishes like parsley, basil, cilantro and fennel (the latter three have their own beautiful flavors) can brighten up any plate. East Side Café, one of my favorite establishments in Austin, Texas, plates everything to look just like a home-cooked meal, but they add an edible flower to the plate for that slightly needed color.
Another suggestion for adding color to your plates is to consider substituting ingredients and experimenting with new food pairings. Instead of serving your regular mashed potatoes with a meat dish, consider mashed or candied sweet potatoes. That cream and butter you added to the russets or baby reds can be added to sweet potatoes instead, and the sunset orange will add brightness to your otherwise plain plate. Instead of opening that can of green beans, buy fresh asparagus or fresh snap beans, snip the ends and either steam on your stovetop or drizzle with olive oil and sea salt and roast them in a 350-degree oven. The brighter greens of fresh vegetables always beat the drained colors of canned foods. For a little while longer, you'll still be able to get squash in lemon yellows and grass greens at the farmers' markets. And speaking of lemon, a thin slice or wedge of lemon or lime is all it takes to brighten a fish plate.
It doesn't take a 20-ingredient dish to impress your dinner companions, whether guests or family. While those complex cuisines can be lovely and potentially mouth-wateringly divine creations, if you don't have the time or inclination to dig into a new dish, consider just adding color to your plates. Everyone can be a food artist.
Sweet and Spicy Potatoes
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/2 a thumb of ginger root (peeled)
1/2 cup milk or cream
1 Tbsp. butter or margarine
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Mexican vanilla
Boil cubed potatoes in slightly salted water until fork slides easily into a cube. Drain water and return pot to stove on medium. Add butter, milk/cream, vanilla, salt, nutmeg and finely grate ginger into mixture. Stir well and continue to stir while heating on medium. As all ingredients mix in, turn heat to simmer and lightly mash potatoes in pan. Serves four as a companion to mildly spiced meats or goes great with garlic-almond green beans.