Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Iron-deficiency chef: Let the battle begin!


I'm in training to become the next iron chef. As long as the contests do not involve actual ironing. Or actual cooking.

My quest in the ultimate gourmet challenge started as do most dreams, falling asleep at the TV.

My nose was stuck in a copy of Men's Health when I heard swordfight sounds onscreen. Well, I like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and I thought this must be the scene where Indiana Jones meets scimitar guy. But when I look up it's not Harrison Ford drawing his gun but men in loose-fitting white uniforms running around with knives in their hands.

Hmm, I think, that's an unusual approach to cross-training. Maybe I can learn something for my fitness routine, or maybe one of these guys will wind up like scimitar dude.

As usual, I'm just oblivious. These guys running with knives are chefs in a hurry, and this household is about to get hooked on another cooking reality show.

Since we're dieting in this household, staring at food seems not as much addictive as pornographic. And with the cheesy music swelling, this must be the sexy scene. Sure enough, the food was being stretched out on the plate. Just ... so. The camera lingers on the shot, then cuts to a commercial for something to quit smoking.

Cooking on TV is never what it seems. If it's not a substitute for sex, it's a competition sport. Same thing.

This fall the cable guide is full of macho food-sport choices like "Iron Chef," "Throwdown," "Dinner: Impossible" and "Glutton for Punishment." I don't know what's on "Dinner: Impossible," but I get this picture of Tom Cruise trying to make good on a half-hour pizza delivery guarantee. Papa John will disavow any knowledge of his actions. If the spies can't get it done, there's "Cupcake Wars," which is a contradiction in terms that not even the Pentagon can resolve.

And if I look away I'll be jolted back with more explosions than a spy movie too, although they turn out to be closely miked encounters with hot oil. Talk about selling the sizzle, not the steak. The cooktop sounds are so intense that the TV remote needs a button for the exhaust fan.

Anyway, I can relate to this competitive environment as an off-hours cook. The minute I'm home from work, the clock starts on how quickly I can cook dinner. My wife is either waiting there hungry, or coming back from the gym hungrier. So just like the cooking shows, the doomsday clock from "24" is always ticking away. If the cook can't jack up the grill in time, Jack Bauer grills the cook.

Mystery ingredients are a big part of performance cooking. That's when a roomful of chefs discover they have to make an entree using peanut butter, cream cheese, gummi bears and garbanzo beans. Hasn't everyone made that meal? When you can't get to the Jewel, you work with what you have.

In my case, I go to the Jewel without a shopping list and come back with macaroni and a couple cans of tomato sauce. This likely is what got my wife started on cooking shows, in self-defense: By planning menus her evening wouldn't start with my Garbanzo Bean Helper with crushed potato-chip topping.

So now I get to work with a shopping list of those impossible-to-find food-magazine ingredients. Sherry vinegar. Vegetable chutney with garlic. Prepared mango salsa in the special 14.25 ounce size. It's obvious that this is clever product placement by the Distilled Vinegar Council, which is supported by companies that sell food in 14.5 ounce jars. I'm pretty sure I can just substitute catsup. But my wife has seen the movie for this dish, and she wants it just ... so.

Shopping is not so much Food Network, more HGTV. You have to choose from three different jars of salsa. One's from an upscale neighborhood, one needs fixing up with chopped cilantro leaves and one looks like your grandmother canned it in 1987. At check-out, you pray you get your loan.

Back in the kitchen, the "24" clock starts ticking again. The first event in competitive home cooking is to match the ingredients from the shopping list with whatever recipes inspired them. The beef needs thawing, the fish needs marinating and the chicken needs grilling. The path to my best time ever is clear: Become a vegetarian.

Although I often talk up the vegan lifestyle, I've exhausted the meatless options early in the week so tonight I will have to play with a handicap and check the seafood pages of Cooking Light.

The actual recipe isn't obvious even though it's bookmarked: All marinades were placed by the Distilled Vinegar Council. I may get halfway through before hitting a catsup-substitution moment. That's when I have to face a man's most agonizing question: Should I just drive on, or ask my wife for directions?

I might be able to back off that precipice with a risky maneuver that eats precious minutes off the clock: I can read the recipe before starting to make it. Here's a warning to competitors: TV producers hide ingredients just to make the contest more interesting, and food magazines have set obstacles to make the race more challenging.

There are secret instructions, words invisible to most chefs. So when you the recipe calls for ¼cup plus a pinch of salt, do not, repeat do not overlook the secret word "divided." Choose wisely whether the sauce needs the pinch of salt or the quarter-cup.

Iron chef is not an elimination event. You don't get to work on the side dishes, wait for the judges' scores, then return after a commercial and start the entree. It all has to be timed perfectly to Jack Bauer's clock. So our fish menu today is the ultimate challenge. Do we dare prepare the salad while the fish is baking, and risk pulling a smoldering mass of shoe leather from the broiler?

In this contest the family takes the judging roles, and all judges are Gordon Ramsay, the "Hell's Kitchen" enforcer: If you've burned the glaze, you will be hazed. No wonder as we await the verdict, the chefs back in the kitchen are hitting the cooking wine.

Can you hear the music? The dinner hour is mere hours away and soon iron chefs will enter the heat of battle. Your time starts now.

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