Monday, March 9, 2009

Ask Aida Leaves A Lot Of Unanswered Questions

Plus Did You See What She Did With That Onion?

Ask Aida with Aida Mollenkamp
Veggies Rock
Vegetarian Pot Pie
Creamy Baked Pumpkin Risotto

Aida is doing two vegetarian recipes - a risotto and a pot pie. She tells us to keep the questions coming.

She peels and chops her onion for the pot pie. Oh my, only 30 seconds in and there is a REAL problem with the onions. She cuts both ends off. (I do too, but don’t let a French chef see you.) That’s NOT the problem. THIS is. She peels the papery skin off the onion, but leaves the next layer ON. It’s greenish and has bits of the brown skin still on. She chops THAT and adds it to her pan.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to eat the tough outer layers of the onion and I certainly don’t want to eat the brown skin! This is such a tiny minuscule point that has HUGE implications for the rest of the dish and, actually, ANY dish that starts with sautéed onions.

That greenish layer, not to mention the brown skin, will NEVER soften, no matter how long you cook it. The amazing transformation of a raw, crude onion that makes you cry into something sweet and smooth with a great depth of flavor is one of the miracles of the kitchen.

Those outer layers of onion MUST come off. I know it’s painful to remove so much, but don’t throw it away. Bag it up, including the skin, refrigerate or even freeze it with carrots shavings and celery and parsley bits and use it the next time you make stock. (The great thing is that you won’t have to use any new onions, you’ll have enough from your onion remnants.)

The outside layers of the onion are tough and if they have even a touch of green, they’re not suitable for entrance into the sauté pan.

So then how to proceed? Peel the tough outer layers away. Chop the onion and add it to your sauté pan with some salt and pepper as Aida does. Stir them around until you get a nice sizzle and then cover the pot and leave them on low as long as you can. 10 minutes, 15 minutes, even 20 minutes for a fantastically, soft, sweet result.

At least, Aida DOES say to be sure to use a heavy bottomed pan. In her case, though, the pan is a bit bigger than she needs for the amount of vegetables she’s using. THAT puts them in danger of scorching and we certainly want to protect them from that.

Incidentally, Aida’s recipe calls for HALF an onion. The only time I’m that parsimonious in my use of onion is when I’m using it uncooked. THEN, there’s a huge difference between half an onion and a whole one, but cooked? Not so much. Just use the whole onion, but cook it properly.

Now that I’m in minute TWO of the show, let’s see what happens next.

She adds butter to a huge sauté pan and chops carrots. Noah throws in a question about eating carrot tops. She claims she does eat them, after blanching. She says you can add them to a salad or to pasta.

The carrots go into the sauté pan.

This is annoying. Noah SAYS the next question is “What is the difference between anise SEED and fennel SEED?’ The question on the screen is “What is the difference between anise and fennel?”

Aida says aniseed is a little bit smaller, a little bit sweeter. She uses it in her baklava and on ice cream. EW, why? ”Fennel seed is a little bit more of an assertive flavor and fennel seed is sooo good with roasting.”

My answer would be less oblique.
They are both - in their green leafy form - members of the family Apiaceae and, yes, aniseeds are much smaller than fennel seeds.

But to put it simply, this is how I think of the difference between them: While by no means true in all cases (in other words with plenty of exceptions), in general, aniseed is used in sweet recipes – biscotti, pizelle, pfeffernusse and in flavoring spirits; and fennel seed is used in savory ones - sausages, rye breads and in spice blends for hearty meat dishes.

Aniseeds CAN be found in sweet AND savory recipes, but mostly fennel seeds are used in savory ones. I suppose that’s what Aida meant when she said it’s “good with roasting.”

I’m not a great lover of fennel seeds OR aniseed, so I find her uses for fennel seed less than prizewinning. Throw it in with some butter and roast a chicken with it, she says. Sprinkle it on fish. She’s so vague that this advice is practically useless.

The funny thing is she’s not even using either of these today. She’s using fresh fennel.

She slices up the fresh fennel to go in with the onion and carrots.

Noah asks if she’s BROWNING or SOFTENING the vegetables. She did say earlier she was browning the onion, but now, apparently, she’s softening them, saying you COULD brown and caramelize them if you want. What I want is for her to have a point of view and stick with it.

That’s why the answers to her questions are so unsatisfactory. If someone doesn’t know how to use fennel seeds, don’t say, “Sprinkle it on fish.” Give them a 2 second recipe. Say: “The next time you make a beef stew, after you’ve softened your onions, add some fennel seeds and cook them on low heat for 2 minutes and then proceed with your recipe.” Tell them something they can actually USE.

She cuts up a potato (leaving an eye clearly on there) and adds it to the pan. She slices 12 ounces of button mushrooms and puts them in the pan and stirs them around.

She sprinkles a ¼ cup of flour over the vegetables and cooks it to remove the raw flavor. She says 30 seconds to a minute. I say 2 to 3 minutes on the lowest heat possible. She stirs in a cup of mushroom broth. She didn’t mention where that came from or how to make it. She stirs in a cup of milk and brings it to the simmer.

She adds a cup of frozen peas. Next question for Noah: Can snow peas be substituted for regular peas and what’s the difference? Wait...before we hear her answer, THIS is my answer. Not really, because they’re treated differently. You can put them in salads raw or blanch them quickly first OR sauté them and use them in a stir fry.

I would NOT throw them into a mixture that is going into the oven for thirty minutes.

And Aida says:
You DON’T want to be substituting the snow peas for the peas in this recipe. YAY!!! We agree.

Oh wait, listen to the reason she gives
. You eat the peas inside the snow peas and they’re itty bitty and you eat the whole thing, so it’s not going to work for the substitution. WHAT?!! That makes no sense and doesn't begin to answer the question. Seriously, what is she talking about?

Again, a simple answer would have sufficed. In general, the vegetables are cooked two different ways, so, NO, don’t use one for the other.

She chops chives and parsley and adds it the vegetable mixture. She adds distilled white vinegar. OH, come on, I use that in my laundry!!! She can do better than that. Red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar would be good. If she’s worried about the color, there’s white wine vinegar, or, of course, a squeeze of fresh lemon to perk up the flavor.

Aida spoons the mixture into an 8" by 8" baking dish and onto a foil-lined baking sheet. She places a sheet of thawed puff pastry on top and trims it with kitchen scissors. She tucks the edges into the sides. She cuts a few vents on top. She brushes the top with egg yolk to brown the crust and puts it in a preheated 400°F oven for 20 to 25 minutes. (Add a teaspoon of water to the egg yolk to get a less gloppy glaze.)

She says now she wants to address a very special topic…it’s very close to her heart. It’s a question from a kid, who wants to know how to make risotto.

Uh-oh! She starts her answer by saying that MOST people are going to say you have to stir and stir and stir on the stove top. That would be because that IS how you make risotto. But no, not Aida, she’s going to show this precious young girl, who was asking a serious question, some two-bit counterfeit way to make risotto…in the oven. I have nothing against a pilaf or paella type dish, but risotto IS made on top of the stove. You can use “risotto rice" i.e., arborio or carnaroli and do anything you like, but it’s not risotto.

Aida puts 2 cups of arborio rice in a large baking dish. Baking dish? She’s not even going to START it on top of the stove?! At least, she mentions carnaroli rice. She gets a point for that. But there’s no sautéed onion base, no winey reduction. Aida is going to add a bunch of raw stuff to the arborio and leave the poor thing to cook on its own…untended in the oven.

Meanwhile she takes out the very attractive vegetable pot pie and sets it aside.

For the risotto, she shows us how to peel a butternut squash. She cuts both ends off, stands it upright and cuts it in half lengthwise. She scoops out the seeds and then lays it cut side down on the board and runs the peeler down the sides. I usually peel it before cutting, but I actually tried her method and it works well. I can’t find where I learned this, but apparently the straighter, less pear-shaped butternut has fewer seeds and is sweeter. She dices it.

Noah calls a viewer, Mitch, about his risotto not turning out well. Aida says to be sure to use arborio and hot liquid. She spends only a second talking about how you add the liquid, but then goes on and on about adding cheese and oil at the end. THAT did not answer his question. She skipped over the most challenging part about stirring in the hot liquid until it’s almost absorbed.

She says if he has any more questions to just send them in. Why do I think that next time he’ll go elsewhere?

Aida chops up the other half of her onion and throws that into the pan. (Could she spare it?) Now this is interesting. she adds one can of pumpkin purée. That sounds good. Then she adds 5 cups of CHICKEN stock. I THOUGHT THIS WAS VEGETABLE DAY! She stirs that together, covers it and puts it in a 400°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes, stirring it every 10 minutes or so, which is a real pain with foil on top.

She even says if you want today’s vegetarian recipes, you can text for them. Hon, if you’ve added chicken stock, they’re not vegetarian. Obviously, you can substitute vegetable stock, but why would she not use vegetable stock and then say you can use chicken stock, if you want? Dumb.

This sounds like an okay dish, but IT IS NOT RISOTTO. And I would absolutely soften my onion (my WHOLE onion) in oil first and then add the rest of the ingredients and THEN throw it in the oven. BTW, Charlie Palmer has a great pumpkin risotto recipe AND it's a real risotto.

Aida spoons out the finished pot pie, Noah can’t wait to try it. He likes it.

She takes out her pumpkin risotto. She adds a 1/4 cup to a 1/3 cup of parmesan to the risotto and a couple tablespoons of mascarpone with 2 tablespoons olive oil and some fresh basil.

Oh no, there’s another question…this time about herbs. When is it okay to use dried spices, tubes (which I had never heard of) or frozen herbs? Aida says to use fresh if you can and then dried. Wow, that was informative.

Aida stirs in fresh basil and serves it up. It looks good, but not creamy. Noah says, “It’s really creamy.” Great.

I may have sounded harsh about Aida today, but that’s because a lot of what she said made her sound like a nitwit, which I don’t think she is. This question/answer format has her oversimplifying so much that the answers are useless. Many times she’s not even answering the questions that are asked.

I do think Aida is a sweet girl and she knows a lot. Perhaps, she has the same problem that Danny has. It’s more the SHOW, than the host. The format is kind of ditzy, and, obviously, they haven’t allowed enough time to answer the questions in depth. So why bother with convoluted, incomplete and sometimes completely off the mark answers?

Honestly, I don’t watch the Food Network to grouse and complain…mostly. I LIKE to learn. I like to see new stuff. I like to watch great food being put together by enthusiastic hosts. Aida’s got that last quality in spades, but maybe they should go back to the drawing board to come up with a better vehicle for her skills.


The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

I admit to not watching the show, but what little I've learned from bloggers (or probably mostly from you) is that Aida doesn't seem to really address the questions people ask her. Like someone asked how to make french fries and she made oven fries. Why not show how to properly fry french fries? I suspect that's what the caller wanted to know. Tyler Florence did a show where he made homemade french fries. It wasn't a big deal.

Now she can't even say how to make risotto? Are people really that lazy that they can't spend 20 minutes on the stovetop with a spoon? Really? A couple of weeks ago I watched Anne Burrell, who is a bit annoying with her mannerisms, but at least does the one thing more FN hosts should do - she teaches technique. She made risotto in this one show and said somehting like, "Risotto isn't a dish. It's a technique." It's like people who think "bruschetta" is a bunch of chopped tomates. No, it's grilled bread!

Sue said...

Hey Rach,
Yeah, that was me who went on about the oven fries. I just don't get it. If the premise for the show is answering viewers' questions, they should do it A LOT better.

I love that quote from Anne about risotto. So true! And "Are people really that lazy that they can't spend 20 minutes on the stovetop with a spoon?" should be your mantra...and mine.

DebCarol said...

Like disOrder I also admit to not watching Aida. But it seems it would be a better show if she addressed only one question per show and gave it her complete attention - Rather than answering multiple questions poorly. And wow that picture of the onion is gross. Who would want to eat that?

Tom said...

Hi Sue,

Since I don't have cable and have to watch FN at the gym, I don't usually get to see the shows you post on, but I did see this one and I agree with you. I'd never seen Aida before. It wouldn't take much tweaking to make her show better. Sarah Moulton is probably the only person who can answer people's questions coherently in a "live" sort of way. The show is obviously edited (unless they're lucky enough to have the studio background music synchronize perfectly with her stirring) so it shouldn't take much thought to go back and edit it to put in more information, even if it cuts down on the sort of live-ish atmosphere they're trying to foist on us. In a 15-second taped segment edited into the show appropriately, she could not only provide a good explanation but transition into what she's cooking and still (mostly) keep the casual mood.

My real question, though, is what's with Noah? He doesn't cook, he doesn't add anything, and he drains personality from Aida. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he really needs to be better eye candy if he doesn't have anything else to do!


Emily said...

Wow, this was a packed post with lots of great information. I didn't know that about the butternut squash and its seeds.

I always feel guilty about peeling away the outer peel of the onion, but I agree that it's necessary. I noticed mom and dad are a little flaky on that. You could also use your vegetable trimmings for compost to use in your garden. That's what we've been doing.

I still haven't seen this show, but it does sound like they're not giving her enough time to really answer the questions. Why aren't youuu hosting this show! Or writing the answers to the questions?

Anonymous said...

Funny how most of the posters haven't seen the show . . . Well, I've watched a few times and yes, she doesn't fully address many of the questions. In the first episode, someone asked her how to use a dry vs. wet marinade on meats vs. fish and how long to marinate each. Her answer was extremely vague and I immediately said "this is a waste of my time." And yes, Noah does take away from her presentation. I was surprised she is on her second season.

Sue said...

Hi DC,
That’s a good idea to keep the show to one question...properly answered.

The onion peeling was a huge mistake.

My real question is how you live without any cable at all. You don’t mean that you actually have conversations, read books and go out and DO things?!! That’s so retro of you.

You are so right about Sara Moulton. I forgot about her show where she answered questions live and people cooked along with her. But she was a maestro at teaching.

Your point about how much better they could do this show is what is so annoying. They have a perfectly serviceable host and they choose to use her in this dumb way. Of course, they could edit in little pieces on different techniques, which would go a long way towards answering the questions better. I suspect, though, that in the first season of a show, they do as little as they can get away with; and shooting and editing in extra footage is certainly in that category.

I have tried to be nice about Noah, although his presence IS 100% pointless. He’s affable enough, but he certainly doesn’t qualify as eye-candy. Funny that so many of the female hosts do.

Don’t feel guilty! It’s a necessary surgical maneuver to ensure the excellence of the finished dish. I totally meant to mention composting the onion remains. Thank you for doing it for me.

Your dog, if you had one, could do a better job answering the questions on this show.

Hey Anon,
I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s noticed the vagueness with which Aida answers questions.

I agree about Noah. Isn’t there some show on Disney where the characters have a show on the web? Noah would be perfect as the computer geek to a bunch of 13 year old girls. He definitely does not belong in the kitchen…but I bet he’s real nice to his mom.