Apparently, I Go Gaga for Celebrity Chefs

One of my new cookbooks. Lots of good stuff inside, including Bobby Flay's autograph.

My sister’s Christmas present to me this year was two tickets to Mohegan Sun Winefest—specifically, to Winefest on the day that a number of Food Network stars were scheduled to give demonstrations and sign cookbooks.

Now, I’m happy to admit that I watch the Food Network all the time. I love to cook and learn new recipes. And, yes, I also love to watch chefs build 7-foot-tall cakes that come crashing down in the heat of competition. I’m even happy to occasionally attempt a competition myself. What I didn’t know about yours truly until this past weekend at Winefest, though, is that I’m also a huge fan of celebrity chefs themselves. I apparently get as excited in their presence as Los Angeles tourists do when Brad Pitt saunters by.

I first realized that I had a problem when I arrived at the table of cookbooks for sale. I immediately bought three—for the primary purpose of having them autographed later that day. I then, at regular intervals throughout the afternoon, abandoned the all-you-can-drink wine tasting area for the stand-in-line-and-get-a-signature area. I felt positively drunk on life as Bobby Flay, Robert Irvine, and Mary Ann Esposito (of PBS fame) all gave me their John Hancocks. I even managed to make Flay and Irvine laugh by asking them about another celebrity chef, my all-time favorite, Anne Burrell.

The moment when I knew for sure that I am some kind of junkie came as I was leaving the autograph line with Robert Irvine’s “Nice smile, Kim!” forever emblazoned in black ink on the inside cover of his cookbook. I still had it in my hand as I turned to see another Food Network star nearby.

“There’s Iron Chef Marc Forgione, right there!” I shouted pretty much directly into my friend’s ear.

She looked at me as if I were her teenage daughter screaming about Justin Bieber.

So there you have it. I’m a borderline celebrity chef groupie. And here I thought I was just a fan of home cooking and great recipes. Go figure.

Bobby Flay, Cat Cora and … Me?!?

My sister called me a few weeks ago. “Your kitchen,” she said, “is disgusting.”

Before I could protest (it’s not disgusting; it’s merely falling apart), she told me that she thought of my nailed-shut cabinets while reading about the Aetna Healthy Food Fight, a contest with a grand prize of $10,000 in new kitchen appliances.

“You’re a great cook, and a healthy cook, too,” my sister said. “You should enter one of your recipes and try to win.”

It was the height of summer here in the Garden State, with bins overflowing at every farm stand. So I entered “Salmon Smothered in New Jersey Summer,” which I adapted ever so slightly from the original recipe in Leslie Glover Pendleton’s 2000 cookbook “Simply Shrimp, Salmon, and Fish Steaks.” The recipe is not only healthy, but it’s also one of my biggest crowd-pleasers, with the fish doused in freshly diced heirloom tomatoes, basil, lemon juice, and olive oil. I serve it at least once a week every August alongside height-of-the-season New Jersey sweet corn, with local blueberries for dessert. Rave reviews every time, I typed  into my online entry form.

And then I promptly forgot about the contest. With thousands of entrants, I figured, my chances were slim.

The call came today, alerting me that judges from the Culinary Institute of America have selected my recipe as one of the top-scoring entries from my region of the United States. I now move on to Round 2, in which I will cook this weekend against about 45 other contestants. While Round 1 was judged on nutrition value alone, Round 2 is also judged on taste and presentation.

Ten of these Round 2 cook-offs are happening around the country, and the 10 regional winners will be flown to Los Angeles for Round 3, which is cooking a “healthy Thanksgiving dinner” from the same ingredients as the other contestants. Iron Chefs Bobby Flay and Cat Cora will be among the judges. The winner will take home the $10,000 in kitchen appliances.

I figure that if I win, it will actually cost me $10,000 because I’ll need new cabinets and counter-tops to go with the swanky new fridge and stove. Maybe I’ll put my name in at “Extreme Home Makeover,” too, just in case I’m the lucky 1-in-45 this weekend.


What a great name for an event, right?

I wish I could claim credit, but it’s the brainchild of Paul and Eileen Dalrymple, who own Plaid Piper Farm in Sussex County, N.J. You may recall this blog post that I wrote about them back in September, when I drove up to their farm to get my year’s worth of pig products like ham and chops—and thus support their efforts to sustainably farm the land, protect our ecosystem from pesticides and antibiotics, and treat animals humanely.

I was back at the farm this past Saturday for their first-ever Meatstock, an afternoon of fun for all ages. Paul and Eileen provided the meats and grills, we guests brought side dishes, and after a lovely barbecue lunch overlooking the Plaid Piper pond, we all toured the farm with Paul as our guide. He showed us everything from his mobile chicken coop (which  gives chickens plenty of free-range space and eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers) to his grazing cattle (which eat grass instead of being force-fed corn and antibiotics, and whose eating method naturally repairs land damage done by previous farmers).

I’m so thrilled to be a customer of Plaid Piper Farm, and I encourage every meat-eater out there to join me. They still have some pork and chicken available for this fall’s customers, if you want to order using this online form.

If you’re interested in learning why I believe farms like Plaid Piper deserve support from us all, then check out books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” or watch the documentary “Food, Inc.” They explain the corporate farm system that controls most of the U.S. meat supply, and how that system differs from the traditional farming methods that Paul and Eileen are using to reduce ecological problems and animal cruelty.

Here’s the trailer for “Food, Inc.,” which explains the system Paul and Eileen are abandoning (with my utmost gratitude and support):

A Fact as Sweet as Honey

I finally just got around to watching “Julie and Julia,” the movie about a would-be writer who cooks her way through Julia Child’s cookbook of French cuisine, blogging all the while.

There’s a scene in which Child meets Irma Rombauer, who wrote the original “The Joy of Cooking.” Rombauer admits that she paid $3,000 to self-publish the first edition. And that’s in 1931 dollars. Today, it’s the equivalent of about $40,000.

I suddenly don’t feel quite so bad about having paid a grand to iUniverse to self-publish Dream Cruises after I couldn’t find a traditional publishing home for it. True, it’s not (yet!) a national bestseller like “Joy,” but I can now place them on the same bookshelf with a delicious sense of satisfaction.

Going to Get My Pig

plaid-piper-farmI never thought I’d be a person who gets so excited about slaughtering season, but here I sit.

After reading Michael Pollan’s outstanding book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I decided that I no longer want my family’s meat purchases to support corporate farms. I want no part of paying for animals full of growth hormones or antibiotics, I want no complicity in the act of poisoning the ecosystem with pesticides, and I don’t want to eat chickens that live their entire lives in cages without ever getting to spread a wing. I’m a bacon, steak, and chicken eater, yes, and I don’t think I could ever go vegetarian, but Pollan’s book convinced me that I can at least be a more responsible meat eater than I’ve been in the past.

That’s why I’m so excited that it’s slaughtering season. Today, I am visiting Plaid Piper Farm here in New Jersey, where farmers Paul and Eileen will have my very own pig ready for me to take home. It was raised without any of the above nonsense and has been humanely slaughtered on their watch, so I will be able to look them in the eye and say “thanks for a job well done” as I collect my year’s worth of ham, sausage, bacon, chops, roasts, and more.

Even better, because I’m buying the whole pig at once, I save a heck of a lot of money versus shopping week-to-week at the local organic store. And I get to support a really nice couple who are keeping a family farm running from an ethical perspective that I wholly support.

Yum. I can taste the goodness as I type…

A True Gut-Check Moment

cakeI get it. Some cakes are fancier than others. I really do get it.

In fact, I so appreciate the talents of decorators on shows like “Food Network Challenge” that I decided I wanted a specialty cake for my husband’s 40th birthday. I took a ride out to Carlo’s Bake Shop in Hoboken, N.J., home of “The Cake Boss” from cable’s TLC. I didn’t get to meet Buddy himself, but I did get to sit down with Remy, one of the bakers regularly featured on the show.

He gave me a book of “standard specialty cakes,” things like sheet cakes with NFL football logos and cakes made to look like champagne bottles. Starting price for the few that caught my eye? $800.

The design I’d envisioned for my husband–which involved a bunch of little people fashioned from molding chocolate to represent our family–would have run me somewhere in the $4,500 range.

For flour, sugar, and eggs with little edible people on top.

Luckily, not every baker is as famous as “The Cake Boss.” And in the long run, it’s a tasty piece of cake that the birthday boy will want to swallow. I can get that in a lot of places. No need for me to stomach this particular alternative.

Sweet Fruit of Labor

balsamicOne of the great things about covering the luxury yacht charter industry is that I often find myself around gourmet food. During my trip to Italy last month, I took the opportunity to participate in a tasting of balsamic vinegars. Until that tasting, the only balsamics I’d ever known were the ones on the shelves at the Shop-Rite. Boy, was I missing out. Some of the balsamics that are aged 10 and 20 years are as memorable as fine wines.

I splurged on a top-end bottle to bring home, and last night used a few precious teaspoons of the stuff to prepare a dinner of beef carpaccio, roasted vegetables, and risotto for my husband and a foodie friend. They now think I’m Julia Child, based on the second helpings and satisfied murmers. Truthfully, it was one of the easiest dinners I’ve ever brought to the table.

Cooking, in this sense, is quite a lot like writing. If you take the time to gather and work with good ingredients, the finished product is almost certain to be a success.