Monday, March 4, 2013

Another Cauliflower Risotto Post {It's Just Cooking, After All}

As a professional food writer, food blogger,  and sometime paid cook, I believe people generally expect me to be obsessed with cooking shows in general, and cooking competition shows specifically. And I used to be. Sort of.

My original interest in the genre began before I could fry an egg,  back when I was living in NYC and Bobby Flay had not yet sunk his ginger claws into the Iron Chef franchise. (He was instead busy grilling things and using ancho chiles in everything with Jackie Maloof on Food Network.)

In those days, Iron Chef was not the macho American show it is now. It was only shown, untranslated from the original Japanese, exclusively on Sinovision TV. Although Poppa Trix and I couldn't understand what anyone was saying, we found it irresistible to stay up into the wee hours to watch the members of the kitchen army scramble for the secret ingredient unveiled by the bizarre Chairman Kaga - would it be wiggling octopus? lobster? sea urchin? - and then create a multi course feast using said ingredient. Even though we often had no idea what was happening, the visual language of food was enough to tell a story of sorts.

Soon after, Food Network acquired rights to the show and dubbed it in English, and Poppa Trix and I would watch, nearly as confused as before, yet fascinated with the voices used to dub chefs Morimoto (Iron Chef Japanese), Chen (Iron Chef Chinese), and the motley assortment of judges - usually consisting of some combination of imperious food critic,  giggling Japanese actress, and  circumspect fortuneteller.  (I later interviewed Morimoto and learned that he is in fact much more soft spoken, shy, and polite than his rather dastardly-sounding dubbed voice would lead one to believe.)

Looking back, those were such innocent times as far as the cooking competition genre goes.

Soon this quirky and entirely original production would give way to an army of increasingly generic offshoots, until the culinary competition viewing landscape we have now was forged - Chopped, Master Chef, Kitchen Nightmares, Top Chef, Just Desserts, et al.

I freely admit that I quite liked the early seasons of Top Chef, almost to the point of addiction. I found it easy to give myself over to the fiction that these chefs were doing something Important and Thrilling;  that they were equal parts bad ass and artist. And besides, the cooking challenges seemed fresh and original, and many of the resulting dishes were downright inspired.

But soon, as things tend to do, innovation gave way to cliche; creativity to tired tropes. I think my breaking point may have been the Reynolds Wrap foil challenge in this past season of Top Chef. Or maybe it was the umpteenth time that one of the cheftestants pretended to spontaneously remark upon the impressive legroom in the Toyota (or whatever sponsor it was) that was ferrying them from point A to point B.

Or perhaps the whole myth of the chef-as-rockstar is just plain tired. It's just cooking, after all. Isn't it?

And so, you may be wondering by now - what does all this have to do with risotto?
Everything, and nothing at all. Risotto, as a concept,  feels a bit tired. It's a de rigeuer post  on any self respecting food blog, and I believe the convention is to humble brag that while most home cooks are afraid of making it, it's really quite simple if you know what you're doing. I know because I have done a version of that very thing  right here.

Risotto is also the savory Achilles heel for so many chefs on these shows. A contestant will opine that others have been sent home for attempting it, but of course they will suffer no such fate. Then, they mess it up (it's too sticky, too al dente, too mushy, too salty, not salty enough, and never, ever, just right) and that's the end for them. If it weren't such a boring and predictable convention, it would almost be interesting.

But still ... just as I will inevitably tune in for next season of Top Chef, if for nothing else than to see what new variation of the pantsuit/romper Padma will wear, I will always come back to risotto.

If you have read this far, I assume you know how to make risotto. Or that you know how to Google how to make risotto. So I will simply tell you what humble bits I brought to the basic formula: an entire head of roasted garlic stirred into the finished product, along with a whole head of seared cauliflower on the top and a smattering of crispy green onion.

It was exactly what I wanted; nothing more, nothing less.

It's just cooking, after all, and sometimes that's really all it needs to be.


  1. "Or perhaps the whole myth of the chef-as-rockstar is just plain tired. " Bingo. Except for Bourdain of course. Because he is one. But I do get the idea lately that even he is tired of himself and looking to reinvent. Truthfully, when people mention the 'chef shows' to me I can't visualize which one they are talking about. Top Chef, et al, all merge in my mind into one bad, narcissistic, blah-fest. Taking good food competitive has turned just about everything they make so un-relatable that I'm bored. So bored, in fact, that I yearn, no crave, the simple and elegant, wondrous food such as this risotto. Who would turn down this bowl in favor of ANY of that show-offy crap they make on those shows? I do admit sometimes watching "The Taste" but that is only because I like to see people's hopes and dreams crushed while they lose all self-confidence in their own cooking abilities. I also have a crush on Ludo Lefebvre and enjoy imagining him ordering me to do unspeakable things, um, in the kitchen. Its the exception that proves the rule.

  2. I love risotto, but some times I have to remind myself that essentially it's like making rice pudding with stock instead of milk and cream and not stress out about the process. (I was not trying to offend anyone with that comparison). I enjoy seeing how other people change it up and make it something a little different. I think with a dash of hot sauce or chili paste, the cauliflower would be a perfect addition. Count me in.

    I did love the old dubbed-over Iron Chef's - although I must admit a few of the ingredients did cause some minor trauma in our house (like the time they cracked the turtle in half).

  3. Never been a fan of cooking shows. I know shoot me now, lol. Once in a while I may see one and they can be fun inspiration but I prefer to come up with my own stuff. This is a lovely risotto, cauliflower needs more spotlight too and you did a great job here.

  4. I used to be glued to the Food Network in its early I hardly ever watch a cooking show. Your risotto looks marvelous...especially with that whole head of roasted garlic....mmmmmm.

  5. The awesome amount of garlic and cauliflower used here, I think, pretty much ensures this is a risotto for me!

  6. Adore risotto (even though it gets "that" reputation on shows. Love cauliflower so you've just made about a perfect one!

  7. The original Iron Chef was simply an addiction of mine. I absolutely loved the odd foods they put together. I was more captivated by the different palate than the show itself. This might sound odd, but I have never watched any of those cooking competitions. Chopped, yes, but nothing else has captured my attention. I should lose a food blogger badge for this. And this risotto looks SO delicious and perfectly creamy.

  8. I love your writing Trixie because we agree on so much and because you always give us so much to think about. We don't get those cooking shows here and quite honestly I'm happy about it. The only current food related show I've been able to handle is Anthony Bourdain's travel show, everything else to me seems like one on-going commercial.

    Your risotto looks and sounds perfect! I have yet to make risotto myself. Thanks for sharing!

  9. I remember untranslated Iron Chef! We used to love it too...but now I rarely watch any food TV, because as you say, it's really just cooking and it's become a little over-exposed.

    A beautiful, homemade risotto is much better inspiration anyway. Theresa