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May 28, 2003
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Food-science geek
Alton Brown will bring his funny, technical flair to Wegman's event


Of The Morning Call

May 28, 2003

Imagine The Food Network as a high-school classroom. Emeril Lagasse is the teacher's pet. Anthony Bourdain of ''A Cook's Tour'' throws spitballs from the back row. And Alton Brown, star of ''Good Eats,'' is the geek.

Brown has been interviewed by Mac User and Popular Science magazines and regularly updates the Web log on altonbrown.com. He also has been featured on Slashdot.org, where Internet denizens go to argue about the best servers.

His geek appeal flavors his performances on ''Good Eats,'' his half-hour show combining cooking, humor, pop culture and science. (The show airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. and midnight, Saturdays at 9:30 a.m., and Sundays at 9:30 a.m., 6:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m. on the Food Network.)

In one episode, Brown suggests freezing strawberries with dry ice. (The carbon dioxide better preserves the moisture than conventional freezing can.) In another, he uses a model Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton to illustrate the anatomy of a chicken. (Well, birds evolved from dinosaurs, right?)

''Everything in cooking is physics, chemistry, anatomy and biology,'' Brown says in an interview. ''There's nothing there but science.''

Along with Food Network's Sara Moulton, Brown is featured at this year's Wegmans Great Tastes Culinary Festival, which will be held June 6, 7 and 8 in Allentown's Cedar Creek Park. Brown's free cooking demonstration is scheduled for 7:45 p.m. June 7 on the Wegmans Celebrity Look Who's Cooking Stage, and, as the self-described geek says himself, it should be a wild ride.

''What my live shows are like … well, it's kind of a demonstration, a question-and-answer session and a free-for-all,'' he says. ''My shows are not staid, not 'today we're gonna cook.'''

Think before you cook

Brown's view is that cooking is a craft. He says that only when you understand and master the science behind it can you begin to experiment with artistry. Or, for the computer programmer, a recipe is like source code — understand it before you build on it. That's part of what prompted his first book, ''I'm Just Here for the Food: Food + Heat = Cooking,'' which treats heat as an ingredient.

The point of the book, Brown says, was not to present a large list of recipes. If the reader understands why recipes work, the success rate multiplies dramatically.

''I wanted to put down food proofs as recipes. They're only there to serve as examples of how recipes work,'' Brown says. ''If you got the concept, you'd be tempted to continue on using the recipe as code on which you could build your own application, so to speak.

''I cook like a mechanic — I tinker. The more I understand, the better I can make it. One of my mottos is think before you cook.''

It's a motto Brown says has paid dividends. For instance, he says he followed many recipes while attempting hollandaise sauce, with uneven results. But the light bulb went on one day as he was making lemon curd.

''If I'd just been looking at it as a lemon curd with different flavors, instead of just going by the old recipes … now I make the best hollandaise I've ever made,'' he says.

''Some people have good food radar. I don't. I can't just slap things together. Once I started understanding the food, on a scientific level, my batting average improved drastically.''

''Outsider'' acknowledged

The approach apparently caught the attention of the food community. The book was awarded a 2003 James Beard Award — a feat Brown said was shocking and very humbling.

''I don't have a restaurant, I don't wear white chef's coats anymore. I'm kind of an outsider,'' Brown says. ''Having the hard-core food community say 'you're OK' ... well, I don't think I deserved it, but I'm not giving it back.''

Brown, who worked in television before heading to culinary school and hatching ''Good Eats,'' has a second book completed: ''Alton Brown's Gear for your Kitchen,'' due in September, promises more of the technically-inspired thinking that's been his hallmark.

The chapter headings include ''Big Things with Plugs (a survey of major appliances),'' ''The Tool Box'' and ''Sharp Things.'' Brown said the point is to understand just what's lurking in your kitchen.

''Cooks don't have thoughtful, close relationships with tools the way carpenters do,'' Brown says. ''We don't often think through the tools we own. If we approached them thoughtfully, we might be better cooks.''

And that, ultimately, is Brown's aim — whether live, in print or on the small screen. He's currently in production of season seven of ''Good Eats,'' shooting in Atlanta.

Brown says episodes of the show — what he calls his labor of love — require an average of 400 pages of research, which, he says, has been revolutionized by using the Internet.

Right now work is under way to explain the sweet potato. It's a food Brown says he used to hate, but now tolerates.

''I still don't hop up and say, 'I'll have a sweet potato today,' but I am at peace with the yam,'' he says.

Then, precise till the end: ''But yams and sweet potatoes are two different foods.''

Here are three of Alton Brown's recipes, all from ''I'm Just Here for the Food,''

A PACK OF WILD CORN DOGS
Software:
4 cups vegetable shortening
1/2 plus 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 Tbsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 jalapeño chili, seeded and finely minced
1/3 cup fresh corn kernels, pounded slightly
1/4 cup grated onion
1 cup buttermilk
4 franks or pre-cooked sausages (I'm partial to buffalo sausages)
Cornstarch for dredging
Hardware:
Electric skillet
3 containers for dredging
Draining rack
4 Popsicle sticks
Application: Heat the shortening in an electric skillet. Set the thermostat to 350 degrees. (Do not go beyond this temperature or the shortening will burn.)

Combine the flour, cornmeal, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and the cayenne pepper. In a separate container, combine the jalapeño, corn, onion, buttermilk, and 1/2 cup water. Pour this wet mixture into the dry ingredients, stirring just to thoroughly combine.

Allow the batter to rest for 10 minutes.

Thoroughly pat the franks dry. Dredge the franks in cornstarch, being sure to shake off all the excess, then dip them in the batter. Immediately add to the hot fat. As soon as the batter is set on the bottom side, roll the corn dog over to cook the other side. Turn every minute until the outer skin is mahogany brown and crunchy, about 6 minutes total. Drain briefly on a draining rack. Grasp the corn dog firmly with the towel and push in a Popsicle stick for a handle. (Leaving the handles off until the cooking is over makes for a lot more room in the pan. Besides, there's no other way to keep the handle from getting greasy — and a greasy handle is the last thing you need when you're chompin' a corn dog.) Yield: 4 corn dogs

Recipe courtesy of Alton Brown, "I'm Just Here for the Food."

CHICKSICLES
Software:
1 Tbsp. coriander seeds
2 tsps. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. curry powder
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
2 tsps. sugar
1/2 cup peanuts (or more to taste)
2 tsps. sesame oil
2 lbs. chicken breasts, cubed
Hardware: Heavy skillet
Plate
Mortar & pestle (or electric coffee grinder)
Small bowl
Skewers
Gas or charcoal grill
Application: Place coriander and cumin seeds in a heavy, dry skillet and heat, tossing occasionally, over high heat. When seeds just start to smoke, remove from heat and pour onto a plate to cool. Then grind in a mortar and pestle or electric coffee grinder. Combine cumin and coriander with other spices in a small bowl.

Grind peanuts in coffee grinder until they are the size of small crumbs. Add to spices.

Add just enough sesame oil to mixture to form a paste.

Rub paste on up to 2 pounds cubed chicken and marinate over night.

Thread chicken onto skewers and grill over a medium-hot heat until just cooked through. (If using bamboo skewers, soak in warm water for half an hour before cooking.) Serve over coleslaw.

Yield: 4-8 kebobs, depending on the size of the skewers.

Recipe courtesy of Alton Brown, "I'm Just Here for the Food."

TROPICAL MASH
Software:
4 small sweet potatoes, perforated in several places with a fork or paring knife
1 large banana, poked same as above
1 cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons butter
Kosher salt
Freshly ground white pepper
Hardware:
Grill of your choice
Tongs
Small saucepan
Mixing bowl
Potato masher

Application: Fire up your grill with a couple of quarts of charcoal, or set the burners on one side of your gas grill to high.

Cook the potatoes on the grill over indirect heat, turning them occasionally until soft, about an hour. (If I don't have much charcoal, I build a smaller fire and place the potatoes around the charcoal down on the fire grate, turning them often, of course.)

When the potatoes are almost done, grill the banana over direct heat until the peel is black and the inside is very soft. Remove the potatoes and banana to cool.

In a small saucepan, heat the coconut milk and butter. Peel the skin from the potatoes and the banana and put them in a mixing bowl. Pour in some of the coconut milk and mash the potato and banana, adding more liquid as needed. Season with salt and white pepper. Serves 4 as a side

Recipe courtesy of Alton Brown, "I'm Just Here for the Food."

chris.krewson@mcall.com
610-778-7951

Copyright 2003, The Morning Call

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010