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Alton Brown Has Them Eating Out of His Hands


“Don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

In four simple words, Alton Brown laid out his approach to parenting when it comes to picky eaters. It’s not the terrorists – er, children – who get to decide what to eat, the celebrity chef told a sold-out crowd at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts recently.

But even Brown, the host of such Food Network shows as “Good Eats” and “Cutthroat Kitchen,” knows that pint-sized willpower can be formidable. So, when faced with a request like serving chicken fingers at his daughter’s slumber party, it’s best to remember one basic fact:

“Chickens don’t have fingers.”

Ask any ornithologist. You’ll hear the same thing. Chicken and fingers are not part of the same equation, Brown said, to the great amusement of an audience made up of plenty of parents and more than a few kids.

Alton Brown

Alton Brown (Photo: David Allen)

Brown’s way of dealing with the chicken finger request was to give his daughter the closest approximation he could come up with: He fried up some chicken feet, which he served to her gaggle of girlfriends, much to their shrieking horror.

It was a classic Alton Brown story, filled with the trademark humor and storytelling skills that he has displayed for the past 15 years on his TV shows. But the surprise for some of us was that Brown so easily transcended the limitations imposed by the formats of his various shows and shaped an evening of more than two hours that was consistently engaging, even when he was rapping or singing about the dire consequences of eating a bad shrimp in an airport restaurant.

The evening started with a list of culinary truths that Brown has been able to discern in his career. They included the grotesque: “Trout don’t belong in ice cream” And they covered the sensible: “Don’t leave out the NaCl (salt).” Each was accompanied by a story from some point in the chef’s life and career.

The salt story stemmed from the time that Brown left the salt out of a batch of bread he was making for a restaurant where he worked. Bread without salt? “Two words,” he said. “Communion wafers. … Nobody asks for seconds.”

That would be too short to be the whole story, of course. So, Brown went on to tell of how his salt-less dough, which he tried to hide in a dumpster, soon became a blob that kept expanding and “burping and farting” as it grew, he said.

“It’s alive!” he screamed, echoing Dr. Frankenstein.

An Alton Brown show wouldn’t be complete without some of the chef’s outlandish gadgetry, which appeared complete with audience participation and a cameraman who followed close on his trail. One was an ice cream maker that produced frozen chocolate fun in a matter of seconds. The second was Brown’s adult response to the Easy Bake oven that he had as a child and melted when he swapped out the 100-watt light bulb for a 150-watt beauty. Brown’s Mega Bake was so bright it could reach a brilliance level of more than 1 million lumens. It was so bright, it could be “seen from outer space,” he boasted.

Brown took the Mega Bake and showed how you could cook pizza in 3.5 minutes. But first he and audience member Millie demonstrated how to toss pizza dough while enjoying margaritas. The chef also decided the two would use salsa instead of pizza sauce as a base, which gave the final product a great kick and proved to be the best time-saving cooking tip of the evening.

Brown closed out his show with some questions from the audience.

What is the chef’s single most important kitchen tool? Spring-loaded tongs.

What was his favorite “Good Eats” episode? The garlic show from season five.

What is his favorite guilty pleasure? “Bourbon,” he quipped, before explaining that he loved Fritos dipped in caramel sauce. “Freaking awesome,” he cried. That discovery came about when he was once again trying to make something for his daughter and her friends.

What would his Final 4 of pastries be? Brown started with two savory choices: buttermilk biscuits and croissants. Then he chose two sweets: strawberry-rhubarb pie and glazed doughnuts. After settling on biscuits and doughnuts as the finalists, he crowned doughnuts the winner.

The real winner was the audience, though, for Alton Brown confirmed why he and his shows have remained popular in a cutthroat industry and attention-deficit market. He even throws in a few devastating comments about or impersonations of fellow hosts like Sandra Lee and, of course, his “Food Network Star” co-star Giada De Laurentiis at no extra charge.

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Alton Brown Is Coming to the Tobin Center


Food Network star and cookbook author Alton Brown is headed for San Antonio.

Alton Brown and friend

Alton Brown and friend

He’ll appear at the Tobin Center on April 3. Tickets go on sale Nov. 14.

His appearance is part of an extension of his current Alton Brown Live! The Edible Inevitable Tour of North America.

Food lovers can expect Brown’s deadpan humor, talk show antics, a multimedia lecture, live music (he sings! he sings?) and a dash of “extreme” food experimentation (ponchos are provided for those in the first few rows) and puppets, of course. Enthusiastic fans and critics have raved about the interactive component where Brown invites audience members on stage to serve as his assistant.

“We have combined science, music, food, and a few other things no one in his right mind would allow me to do on TV, into a two-hour extravaganza that’s fun for the whole family,” says Brown. He has been cultivating the show’s material for about a decade and wrote most of the musical numbers which all take a comedic look at food.

Brown, author of seven books including the James Beard award winning “I’m Just Here for the Food” and the New York Times bestseller “Good Eats,” has hosted numerous food series including “Iron Chef America” and “Food Network Star.” He currently serves as host on the game show “Cutthroat Kitchen.” Brown created, produced and hosted the Peabody-award winning series “Good Eats” for 13 years on Food Network; “Good Eats” can still be seen on the Cooking Channel and Netflix.

Seats are available for $55, $60, $65 and $150, the latter of which includes a preshow meet-and-greet.

This is the second big food show to hit the Tobin. The first was a memorable visit with America’s Test Kitchen.

Tickets from Brown’s show are available in person at the Tobin Box Office, 100 Auditorium Circle, online at www.tobincenter.org or by phone at 210-223-8624.

For information about the show, visit www.altonbrowntour.com.

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Luca Della Casa’s Star Is Shining


Think TV doesn’t change a person? Ask Luca Della Casa, who recently spent a season on the cooking show, “Food Network Star.” He emerged from the show in second place, as the runner-up to cowboy chef Lenny McNabb, and he says the experience has helped him become “a better version of myself.”

It’s not just talk. Those who knew Della Casa before the show can sense a difference in the way he carries himself. There’s a greater poise in his manner as he sits down for a chat or greets his customers. His face is more open and welcoming, as he flashes his now-famous, dimpled smile. There’s more of a connection when he carries on a conversation. And, yes, it’s all because of being on TV week in and week out for an entire season.

Luca Della Casa sits down for a talk at Nosh.

Luca Della Casa sits down for a talk at Nosh.

It wasn’t easy work. Della Casa wasn’t used to being “judged so directly,” as he calls it. When a Bobby Flay or an Alton Brown takes you to task with a camera rolling, it’s tough. So, the Italian chef who runs the kitchens at Silo Alamo Heights and Nosh on Austin Highway had to learn not to take everything on an emotional level. “I learned to accept criticism in a more constructive way,” he says.

He also had to learn how to keep his energy levels up because there might be a long lull between shots. He drank a lot of coffee, which wasn’t always the best answer because “I would get nervous waiting,” he says. That came out when he had to pour a sauce over a dish he had to prepare for the judges, and his hand started to shake so badly that Brown reached out to steady it. “I wanted to stop it, but there was no way,” he says.

Then there is the stress, part of which comes from the whole setup. “TV is unreal,” Della Casa says, adding that during the filming of “Food Network Star” “there were hundreds of people around us at every turn. It was worse at the very beginning because there were so many of us.”

Still, “Food Network Star” fans could see Della Casa’s progress happen slowly but deliberately. It began after he got kicked off early in the process because he had failed to connect with the camera while cooking. His food, as local fans will attest, won raves, but he just didn’t raise his head as he prepared his food. So, he went to the online redemption show, “Star Salvation.” After several weeks of winning those judges over with his panini, his culinary skills and his engaging personality, he earned his way back onto the main show.

More changes began occurring. His first episode back was in Las Vegas, and he found himself surrounded by gorgeous women who had really taken to his charm, his good looks and his accent. It was something that had not escaped the attention of the show’s third host, Giada de Laurentiis. A sex symbol was being born. He looks back on that episode with a sheepish grin. “I’m flattered,” he says of all the attention. “But I didn’t earn it. It wasn’t anything I did.” He credits his parents’ gene pools with the way he turned out and leaves it at that.

Luca Della Casa thanks San Antonio for the support he's received while he was on "Food Network Star."

Luca Della Casa thanks San Antonio for the support he’s received while he was on “Food Network Star.”

Della Casa gives plenty of credit to his wife, Marcella Algarra Della Casa, for the rest of his success on the show. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” he says. Marcella is an attorney who spends her some of her time addressing justices and juries, so she knows something about speaking in public. She drew on her background and Toastmasters to help him before more confident. “She told me, ‘You’ve got to get better at speaking in front of people,’” he says, adding that it helped him find himself in a way that made him become relaxed at ease in front of other celebrity chefs, his fellow contestants and the camera.

It helped that Della Casa is “a quick learner,” as he describes himself. His efforts, combined with his culinary skills, propelled him on to the finals, against McNabb and Nicole Gaffney. The outcome was voted on by viewers of the show, not the judges, and no one knew who would be the winner. “I thought Nicole was my first competition, which shows you what I know,” he says with a laugh. “I’m really happy for Lenny.”

This has been the latest chapter in Della Casa’s culinary journey from his hometown in Torino, Italy to the Canary Islands and then to Texas. “I didn’t go to culinary school,” he says. “I use the memory of certain flavors and I learned from other chefs,” as well as the grandmother he referred to often on “Food Network Star.”

“My food is the sum of all of these,” he says.

Ten years ago, he arrived in San Antonio to work for Massimo Pallottelli at Sage in the Fairmount Hotel. From there, he went to work for Andrew Weissman at Le Rêve and Il Sogno, and then Fralo’s before going to work at Silo and Nosh.

One night while visiting Copa Wine Bar on Stone Oak Parkway for a wine tasting, he noticed a woman who had come in to buy a bottle of wine. That turned out to be Marcella, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Luca Della Casa hopes his appearance on "Food Network Star" brings attention to San Antonio's culinary scene.

Luca Della Casa hopes his appearance on “Food Network Star” brings attention to San Antonio’s culinary scene.

When the opportunity to appear on “Food Network Star” arose, Della Casa pursued it vigorously; but he didn’t tell his boss, owner Patrick Richardson, until he had been accepted on the show. The chef was a bit nervous about that, but Richardson was excited for him and offered his support.

Della Casa is repaying that trust by pouring his energies into his work now that he’s back in town. “My first thoughts are about coming back to the restaurant,” he says. Fall menus are being planned and they could include some of the dishes he prepared on the show, dishes that made an appearance at a special meal Silo offered while the chef was still competing. There might even be a collaborative dinner with one of the other contestants from the show.

As if that’s not enough, Della Casa’s also helping local restaurateur and bar owner Chris Erck of Swig Martini Bar and Viva TacoLand, among other ventures, launch Panzanella Pizzeria, which will feature salads and pizza by the slice. The new eatery will open this fall with two locations, including one next to Erck’s Stay Golden Social Club on Pearl Parkway.

Della Casa is grateful for the encouragement he’s received from San Antonio throughout the “Food Network Season” and after it. “I couldn’t believe the kind of support I’ve received from everyone here and on social networks,” he says. “I feel blessed.”

Is there any more TV in Luca Della Casa’s future? “I’m confident that something good is going to come of it,” he says. “Where I am now is just the beginning.”

 

 

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Griffin to Go: Learning the Lesson


A frittata is a great way to use leftovers.

When I was on vacation earlier this summer, one of the lessons I learned from my friend Cecil was that a frittata was a great way of showcasing leftovers in a new and tasty manner. I’m glad I remembered that this past week when I found myself staying with friends on Canyon Lake for the week.

The night before checkout, we had a refrigerator filled all manner of odds and ends, including most of a dozen of eggs.

They’re the perfect binder for everything we had, which included the last bits of pork chop leftover from Perry’s Steakhouse (those 32-ounce servings do go quite a long way), some tear drop tomatoes from the Hill Country and shaved Reggiano. A few leaves of chopped parsley and literally the rest of the salt.

One friend can’t eat anything spicy, so some red pepper flakes I wanted to include would have to go on afterward.

But that’s the beauty of a frittata. You can make it with anything you’ve got on hand, as long as you have the eggs to bind it with. You can also serve it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s also great hot or cold.

But it’s also a good idea not to overload the dish. Think of a pizza with too many competing flavors. So, I didn’t need to add the porcini salami that was also in the fridge or the fresh lima beans that would have needed to be hulled. Thankfully, I didn’t add the rest of the spinach, which tasted too bitter when sautéed.

The lesson I forgot was to start cooking the eggs on the stove top before placing the dish in the oven, so it took much longer to cook. When the top wouldn’t set after cooking for more than 20 mintues, it took turning on the broiler to get the top as done (another tip from Cecil) as the rest. It worked, but the following technique is much better.

The recipe is from celebrity chef Alton Brown, and it’s a great base. The only staples you need are the eggs and, at least in my opinion, the salt. All of the rest can be whatever you have on hand.

Frittata

6 eggs, beaten
1-ounce Parmesan, grated
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon butter
1/2 cup chopped roasted asparagus
1/2 cup chopped country ham
1 tablespoon chopped parsley leaves

Preheat oven to broil setting.

In medium size bowl, using a fork, blend together eggs, Parmesan, pepper, and salt. Heat 12-inch non-stick, oven safe saute pan over medium high heat. Add butter to pan and melt. Add asparagus and ham to pan and saute for 2 to 3 minutes. Pour egg mixture into pan and stir with rubber spatula. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until the egg mixture has set on the bottom and begins to set up on top. Sprinkle with parsley.

Place pan into oven and broil for 3 to 4 minutes, until lightly browned and fluffy. Remove from pan and cut into 6 servings. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

From Alton Brown/FoodNetwork.com

 

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Alton Brown’s Welsh Rarebit


Rarebit2Welsh Rarebit

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup porter beer
3/4 cup heavy cream
6 ounces (approximately 1 1/2 cups) shredded cheddar (see note)
2 drops hot sauce
4 slices toasted rye bread

In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, being careful not to brown the flour. Whisk in mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper until smooth. Add beer and whisk to combine. Pour in cream and whisk until well combined and smooth. Gradually add cheese, stirring constantly, until cheese melts and sauce is smooth; this will take 4 to 5 minutes. Add hot sauce. Pour over toast and serve immediately.

Note: Grate your own cheese for this dish. Already shredded cheeses include potato starch or corn starch to prevent it from sticking. That starch can cause the dish to thicken too much.

From Alton Brown/Food Network

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Welsh Rarebit Comes in Many Forms


Rarebit4Welsh rarebit — or rabbit, if you prefer — is one of those dishes that has somehow slipped out of fashion. Yet mention it to people of a certain age and often a floodgate of memories will open.

For those not familiar with it, the dish is not made with rabbit. It is made with melted cheese on toast, which is a great combination no matter how you slice it. What you do from there often depends on the ingredients on hand or the tradition your family followed.

The dish actually originated in Wales, and it seems to have been born from economic necessity. As Caroline Russock phrases it on seriouseats.com: “In 18th century England, rabbit was the meat you ate if you were poor, and the Welsh were so poor that they couldn’t afford rabbit, so they ate cheese.”

What exactly  they did with their cheese back then remains in doubt. One version that claims to be traditional is found in Jeff Smith’s “The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors.” It mixes cheddar, butter, Worcestershire sauce, flour, dry mustard, and beer in a velvety sauce guaranteed to make you make you forget there was no meat.

But flour isn’t the thickener in many other recipes you’ll find. Most, like legendary food writer James Beard, incorporate egg at the last minute.

The hunt for rarebit recipes sent me through my cookbook collection. The oldest recipe I could find was in a reprint of a cookbook from the 1700s called “The Williamsburg Art of Cookery; Or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion: Being a Collection of Upwards of Five Hundred of the Most Ancient & Approv’d Recipes in Virginia Cookery.”

Quite a mouthful, and slightly modernized because the style then was to use an “f” instead of an “s,” so the intended audience was actually the “Accomplifh’d Gentlewoman.”

Still, the recipe for “Welch Rabbit” is as follows: “Toast the bread on both sides, then toast the cheese on one side, lay it on the toast, and with a hot iron brown the other side. You may rub it over with mustard.”

In other words, open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches, panini-style.

Right after it on the same page is a recipe for English Rabbit: “Toast a slice of bread brown on both sides, then lay it in a plate before the fire, pour a glass of red wine over it, and let it soak the wine up; then cut some cheese very thin, and lay it very thick over the bread, and put it in a tin oven before the fire, and it will be toasted and browned presently. Serve it away hot.”

Both were copied from another cookbook, “Hannah Glaffe’s Art of Cookery,” printed in 1774. (Or was that Glasse?)

By the time of “Mrs. Owens’ Cook Book” in the late 1880s or early 1900s (my copy has lost its title page and copyright), the mustard had disappeared from the recipe, leaving it a mere bread and cheese snack.

By 1909, cayenne pepper had been stirred into the mix. That was the year master chef Auguste Escoffier’s “A Guide to Modern Cookery” appeared and in it was his “original” recipe. (As much as I admire Escoffier and like the addition of cayenne pepper, I doubt it was in many Welsh pantries.)

I have no Prohibition-era cookbooks, but this seems to be the era when milk edged out beer in the sauce.

A host of variations also began to spring up at this time.

Tomato Rarebit, also known as Woodchuck, uses canned tomato soup.

Gebhardt’s of San Antonio, which introduced chili powder to the marketplace, included three Mexican variations in its “Mexican Cookery for American Homes,” released in 1936. The recipes vary from tomato soup to beer, but one includes bacon (never a bad addition); a second features corn and green pepper; and a third features something called Gebhardt’s Deviled Sandwich Spread.

Jeanne Owen wanted to help people face “the difficult period,” as she called war-torn 1942, with a little “good food carefully prepared.” So, she made her rarebit far fancier than the Welsh ever dreamed. In her “Lunching and Dining at Home” Owen offers rarebits made with crab meat and finnan haddie. Must have been hard to do in a time of rations.

“The Home Institute Cookbook” of 1947 offers a series of variations, including Sardine Rabbit, Tuna Fish Rabbit and Welsh Rabbit Sandwiches. After six recipes, the authors offer Cheese Rabbit With Beer, which is, ironically, the one closest to tradition.

Changes kept coming through the years.

The 1953 edition of “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook” includes a recipe for Rye-bit made with mushroom soup, ripe olives and green pepper folded into the melted cheese.

In the 1960 collection, “The Best-of-All! Cook Book,” there’s a recipe for Portland Oyster Rabbit mixing cheese, eggs and butter with West Coast oysters.

Rarebit1The 1966 “The New York Times Menu Cookbook” by Craig Claiborne includes a recipe for a Golden Buck in which Welsh Rabbit is crowned with a poached egg, a pair of anchovies and chopped parsley. Caraway Macaroni Rabbit, meanwhile, uses caraway seed in the cheese sauce, which is poured over macaroni.

By the 1970s, the popularity of the dish had begun to fade, though you can still find it in a number of Junior League cookbooks as a reliable standby. And many budget-conscious housekeepers still use it as an economical and easy-to-prepare dinner choice.

No good dish ever disappears completely. In recent years, a growing number of cooks have begun to remake this favorite in new ways.

Food Network star Alton Brown likes to make his with porter, instead of the more commonly used pale ale or lager, as well as heavy cream and Dijon mustard. His cheese sauce is poured over toasted rye.

A website, everything2.com, offers the following suggestions to top the dish: olives, bacon bits, ham or Spam cubes, hamburger, sausage, soy crumbles, choy mein noodles, microgreens, chicken, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, salsa, shrimp, diced apple, slivered almonds, and raisins or other dried fruit.

The richness of rarebit cannot be denied. It even formed the basis of an episode of “Gomer Pyle” in which the goofy marine suffered bad dreams from eating too much of it before bed time.

You’ll have bad dreams, too, if you take the short cut I did, which was to use already shredded cheese. Instead of a creamy sauce, I ended up with a blob of cheese that, while it tasted good, was too thick and rubbery. The reason? Shredded cheese is caked with potato starch or corn starch to keep it from thickening. Cook with it and it thickens beyond what any amount of beer could keep thin.

In the end, we’re left with one burning question: Is it “rarebit” or “rabbit”?

My 1971 edition of “Joy of Cooking” has the best answer I’ve encountered:

“Our correspondence is closed on the subject of rarebit vs. rabbit. We stick to rarebit because rabbit already means something else. But we can only answer the controversy with a story. A stranger mollifying a small crying boy: ‘I wouldn’t cry like that if I were you!’ Small boy: ‘You cry your way and I’ll cry mine.’ ”

Rarebit3

A Traditional Rarebit Recipe With a Dressed-up Presentation

oysters

Add Oysters to Your Rarebit

pepper

Rarebit a la Mexicana

Rarebit2

Alton Brown's Welsh Rarebit

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