To my mind, there have been two major glory days of the Food Network. The first was the introduction of Emeril, Mario and Bobby…Tyler, too, should be included in that group.
The next was just a little bit ago - glorious Ina, great Michael and gorgeous Giada. Luckily, 2 of those three are still around. They trot out Michael leftovers at improbable times, currently weekdays at 11:30am, but they’re still among the best offerings on the Food Network today. (He’s also on the Fine Living Network.)
I needed a quality food television fix as an antidote to sullying myself with a Rachael Ray recipe the other day (no matter that it turned out basically okay), so I tuned into this episode:
Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello
Gone Fishin Picnic
Pappa al Pomodoro
Corn on the Cobb Salad Wrap with Grilled Onion Blue Cheese Dressing
Aqua Fresca di Frutta
Michael is rowing on a gorgeous lake. He wearing a cute fishing vest. Which “winery lake” is he talking about, I wonder?
Back on dry land, he picks out some cheese from a well stocked shop.
In the kitchen, Michael starts the grilled onions that will go into his dressing. He cuts off both ends from large onions and slices them into ½ inch thick pieces. He puts them on a baking sheet and brushes them with olive oil (no Pam for him!) and salts and peppers both sides. He grills them on a stove top griddle for 4 minutes on each side.
For the blue cheese dressing, he mixes together lots of mayo with 1 cup of sour cream and one cup of buttermilk. He seasons it with 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, salt and pepper. (He turns down the heat under the onions.) He whisks in 12 oz. of “the best blue cheese you can find” and a couple tablespoons of olive oil.
He chops up the, by now absolutely gorgeous, grilled onions, and stirs them into the dressing. Wow!!! He pours the dressing into 3 plastic containers, 2 for his picnic and 1 for to save for later. That would be great alongside grilled flank steak and spooned onto big baked potatoes. Into the fridge they go.
Next up is a fruit water that he learned from Latin friends in the restaurant business. For the Aqua Fresca di Frutta, Michael slices the ends off of a big watermelon. He stands it up on one end and works his knife down the sides to remove the peel. He slices and dices it into large pieces.
He processes the watermelon in the food processor until the mixture is coarse, but not until completely smooth or the seeds will get bitter. He strains the liquid and adds ½ cup of sugar (optional). He adds a pinch of grey salt, fresh lime juice and 1½ cups of water to stretch it a bit. Michael pours the finished fruit water into cute plastic bottles and into the fridge.
Michael picks eggs from a hen. He’s going to hard boil them for a salad wrap. Let’s see if his way is the same as mine.
He puts 3 eggs in cold water. OOPS! It’s different already. He says to bring them just to the boil, turn them off, cover the pot and leave them for 15 minutes; then plunge them ice water. I hate that method. As Democrats say about John McCain, you can like the man, but hate his policies: I LOVE Michael, but hate his way of hard boiling eggs.
Ina does this too, but curiously she boils them for 5 minutes and leaves them for only 5 minutes. This is what I said about her approach. The same applies to Michael’s:
I don't like this method. I think the time it takes for the water to come to the boil can vary so much from stove to stove that I prefer my own foolproof way. I bring a big pot of water to the boil. I pour in a smidgen of vinegar (white or apple cider vinegar), which will set the white immediately if an egg should crack. Then, very carefully I lower the eggs into the water. After the water comes back to the boil, I cook the eggs for exactly 11 minutes. Then I plunge them into a bowl of ice and water. Voila - perfectly cooked eggs.
Michael’s grilling chicken for his wraps. He seasons boneless chicken breasts with the skin still on. I guess we’ll be doing our own boning.* Actually, the recipe says SKINLESS chicken breasts.
He reminds us to season them on BOTH sides “always, always, always” and he “hits” them (WHY am I using a Rachaelism HERE – when I’m with a King Of Cuisine?) with a bit of olive oil, also on both sides. They go onto a hot grill pan, which reminds me of the concept that as long as you oil the food, you don’t have to oil the grill or spray it with Pam.
He cooks the chicken 4 to 5 minutes on each side. He turns off the boiling eggs. He fishes them out and places them in an ice water bath. He breaks one open to prove to us that there are no grey lines in the yolk.
MC dices the chicken into big pieces and breaks up the yolks and chops the whites.
He tells us his next dish is not really a soup, and it’s not really a salad, but something in between. Why do I hear “Stoup, Stoup” echoing in my brain?!! Make it stop! OMG, I’m just scared that Rachael has infiltrated the American psyche, MY psyche!, to the point where I’ll be thinking WWRD? WWRD?
Concentrate, that’s what I have to do. Concentrate on Michael’s steady hand as he guides us faultlessly through his recipes.
He chops an onion and tells us how Italian cooking is about preserving fresh food to have it later, like prosciutto or olives; or preserving leftovers to serve them again in a different guise. This Pappa al Pomodoro is basically a leftover tomato sauce served the next day in a different way.
Michael dices the onion in the beautiful classic way and adds 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 sliced garlic cloves to a pan. He adds the onions and tossy tosses the pan. Gosh, I miss that. NO ONE does a better toss than Michael Chiarello. He adds a bit of salt and then chopped tomatoes. He brings it up to the boil.
He pours 2 cups of water over ½ pound of stale ciabatta (with the crust). He works that together and tears the bread up over the tomatoes with the water. He cooks it until the bread is completely incorporated, about 7 or 8 minutes. MC says you shouldn’t be able to tell where the bread ends and the tomatoes start. He adds a cup of chopped basil, pepper, and some fancy schmancy olive oil. He simmers it for 10 minutes more.
After a break, we come back to that shop and see the prosciutto being sliced (beautifully). He puts EVOO in the pan. (DID YOU HEAR WHAT I JUST SAID?” Things are worse than I thought.)
Michael shows us his bundt pan trick of getting corn off the cob, so that "you don’t have a yard sale of corn kernels”. He places the shucked ear in the center of bundt pan, which holds it in place. Then he cuts down the ear on all sides and the pan catches all the corn, so it doesn’t spray everywhere. Very clever.
The prosciutto stops making noise in the pan. Michael says it's just like when kids are playing in the other room and suddenly you don’t hear anything. He checks them and moves them around a bit. (The prosciutto, not the kids.)
He adds the corn to a big rectangular plastic container tipping it into the corner and pushing it into place with watercress. He adds the chicken and then the eggs and then diced romaine lettuce. The prosciutto gets quiet again, he takes it off.
Michael dices avocados and tomatoes and mixes in lime juice. That goes into the container with sliced iceberg lettuce. The prosciutto goes in last and because it’s filled up so tight, nothing will move. For seasoning, he mixes grey salt and pepper together.
He packs up the Pappa al Pomodoro into little containers, sprinkles some cheese over and tops it with a tiny bit of EVOO. I can’t stop.
He's even bringing warms towels. He pours boiling water over towels in another plastic container. He folds them tightly and wraps each one in foil, and replaces the lid. He packs everything up.
THAT is some spread. Most people would be lucky to get a hard pretzel and some Gulden’s, so this will be deluxe.
Over at the lake, there’s Michael in his little vest and geeky fishing hat. He’s so cute. He seems to have picked up these random young folks to join him.
Michael says he has a great ant repellent - peppercorns, chili powder OR cinnamon. He sprinkles cinnamon on the ground all around the blanket. For mosquitoes, he says to put basil around the perimeter. Then he starts zesting a lemon all around their picnic spot. He’s kind of like the goofy uncle at every family gathering.
He fills tortillas with lettuces, avos and tomatoes, chicken, prosciutto bits and a little dressing. He folds one side over, then the bottom, then the top and rolls tight. His guests all take BIG bites. They like the aqua fresca and the tomato soup. He presents them with the warm towels. They’re all happy.
The only misstep of this episode was that that huge chicken wrap was much too big a lunch for their relatively small outlay of energy. All they did was fish for five minutes. Why not hike around the lake a bit, or at least stroll to the water and back? It would probably make the food even more Yum-O. Oh gosh, what is happening to me?
*My kids find it incredibly funny, when I talk about chicken and boning. I can’t imagine what they’re thinking, but whenever I bring up BONING a chicken, much hilarity ensues. They implore me to use the expression “DEBONING a chicken” instead.