What the Food Network Stars are Doing

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about Food Network, although Food Network programs make up a large percentage of my television viewing. I haven’t written anything because nothing has changed in the past several years. There are still a lot of competition shows and a handful of straight cooking programs. Certainly they made some changes at the height of the pandemic as to which shows were taped and how they were taped. For the most part, however, Food Network has been pretty stable.

What frustrates me is that the top, most skilled Food Network chefs focus on competition shows when they could be teaching us innovative recipes.

Food Network logoAnne Burrell once had a good cooking program called Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. Now she focuses on Worst Cooks in America, which must be popular as the network renews it season after season. Tyler Florence once had a show I really enjoyed called Tyler’s Ultimate. Now he’s all about The Great Food Truck Race. Bobbie Flay, once known for his grilling and brunch programs is tied up with Beat Bobby Flay and BBQ Brawl. On the other hand, Valerie Bertinelli spends a lot of time on Kid’s Baking Championship, but still finds time for Valerie’s Home Cooking. It’s just that her recipes the past several weeks haven’t caught my attention.

I have to give the hosts of The Kitchen credit for giving proper attention to that program, which Terry and I both enjoy, while they still do other work. Alex Guarnaschelli, the newest Kitchen host, stays busy both as a competition host and competitor. Sunny Anderson works as a judge and Jeff Mauro his own competition shows, but we still see them consistently on The Kitchen. Geoffrey Zakarian is frequently off on QVC promoting his merchandise and has the occasional competition program on Food Network, but always offers interesting recipes on The Kitchen. We don’t see Katie Lee Biegel on competition shows, but she’s busy raising her daughter.

I know Food Network is there to make money, and I know they will invest in the programs that get the highest ratings. Perhaps it’s futile, but I can still hope for more straight cooking shows.


Getting Star Trek Right

Those of you who know me know that I have long been a Star Trek fan. You may even know that Terry and I had a Star Trek-themed wedding in 1994. Obviously, then, we were interested in the Star Trek successors arriving on streaming video.

We subscribed to the old CBS All Access to watch Star Trek: Discovery. We watched part of season one and did not like it much. (In fact, I wrote about that.) Season two promised to be more about exploration and less about war, but we never really got engaged. I was recovering from my surgery and setback, so we were behind schedule, but the whole “red angel” arc didn’t motivate us to keep watching. (Season four apparently goes 900 year into the future. Say what?)

Then there was the series Picard, starring Patrick Stewart, which we thought looked promising. We watched the first episode, which seemed terribly dark, as did the preview of episode two. We gave up and canceled our CBS All Access subscription (again).

Strange New Worlds logoCBS All Access rebranded as Paramount+ and the new service promised us an original series prequel, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Ten episodes were shot and produced, but Paramount+ kept us waiting. Finally the release date was scheduled for May 5. I re-upped with Paramount+ on May 3.

We watched the first two episodes and were delighted. Captain Pike commands the starship Enterprise, Pike in Star Trek lore being Captain Kirk’s predecessor on the ship. We have a credible Spock, and some capably strong women on the bridge: second-in-command (“Number One”), the head of security, the helmswoman, and the communications expert, Uhura. In this series Uhura is a cadet, not a lieutenant, but her character has lots of room to grow.

In the first episode there were many references to the original series (TOS) that any fan would get, and the shuttlecraft that the admiral flew to visit Pike in Montana (in order to insist that be get back onto the Enterprise) was straight out of TOS. The episode included a classic Kirkian speech from Captain Pike to an alien civilization where he (of course) had violated the Prime Directive.

The second episode included tributes to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters, and (thanks, Terry) to Alien. The episode had a plot about protecting other worlds from disaster, while (this time) adhering to the Prime Directive. Number One had a heart-to-hear with Pike as Dr. McCoy might have had with Kirk.

There are only ten episodes in season one, but Paramount+ has renewed the show for a second season. If social posts from Jonathan Frakes (Riker from Next Generation) are to be believed, he’s in Toronto directing at least one episode of season two.

Make it so!


Wondrium

You are no doubt aware of my fondness for The Great Courses. For many years I listened to the audio versions of the courses while walking, first on my iPod then on my iPhone. I punctuated these with the occasional DVD set. In the new world of streaming I shifted my focus to that medium. All of it entertaining and educational.

The folks at The Great Courses have done a good job of keeping up with technology and have for a while had a streaming subscription service called The Great Courses Plus. They recently rebranded it as Wondrium, and along with the traditional Great Courses lecture series they offer additional content, including documentaries and other material.

Wondrium logoSince I’m a long-time Great Courses customer they had been pestering me to subscribe to Wonderium. Recently they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was for an annual subscription at an attractively discounted price. I took the bait.

I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been binge watching, but I’ve been doing a lot of watching. I saw a series on the Medici that was fascinating, but which I probably wouldn’t have bought outright. Similarly, I enjoyed a series on self-editing which was focused on fiction. I don’t write fiction so I would not have purchased it, but as part of the subscription it was worth my time. A lecture series on genetics and how people respond to seeing their genetic ancestry results was enlightening. I am currently enjoying the video version of a lecture series I listened to on audio a few years back about the world of the Old Testament. The visual enhancement is nice. And a series I am also watching now about effective written communication is great stuff. It will likely merit its own review here.

Wondrium allows subscribers to download the course guidebook, just as you can when you purchase a set. The only downside compared to purchasing a class from The Great Courses is that if you were to let your subscription lapse you would no longer have access return to a course you had previously watched.

That’s a minor matter compared to the advantages of a Wondrium subscription.


a great cooking and recipe resource

If you were to look at the list of programs recorded on our DVR you would see that most of them are shows from the Food Network. No surprise there, right? All of those programs have been promoting the Food Network Kitchen app for some months now. (Not to be confused with my favorite television program on the Food Network, The Kitchen, which airs on Saturday mornings.)

Rising above the cacophony of Black Friday sales was an offer of Food Network Kitchen at half price: $19.95 for a year, as opposed to $39.95. I couldn’t resist. The content is available across all of one’s devices, including the PC, where it is accessed from the Food Network web site. That means that I can save a recipe on my desktop and then access it from my laptop where my recipe software is. That’s a lot easier than the intermediary text file I have been using to save web address for quite a long time now.

Food Network Kitchen logoThe heart of Food Network Kitchen is classes: both live and recorded. These are real-time instructional videos. I believe that the original intent was that these classes be broadcast from the spacious Food Network kitchen facility in New York City. But COVID-19 and corresponding stay-at-home and social distancing orders made that unworkable. So what I have been watching is skilled chefs offering instruction from their own homes. These folks live in New York City (Brooklyn and Harlem, for example) where housing is expensive and apartments are small. A small apartment means a tiny kitchen and we get to peer into these tight spaces. (In two kitchens the toaster oven sat on top of the microwave. In another kitchen the refrigerator door hit up against the butcher block food prep island.) The chefs don’t apologize; they simply show us what great food one can cook in a small space.

There is much that I love about these classes, and at the top of the list is the fact that they are strictly cooking. There is no underlying plot point, as seems to be mandatory on most Food Network cooking (as opposed to competition) shows. (“Aunt Freida is coming over for dinner this evening, so I am making three of her favorite dishes.”)

The Food Network stars on The Kitchen, the Saturday morning television program, have been taping the program from their homes during the pandemic. Jeff Mauro, Katie Lee (Biegel), Geoffrey Zakarian, and Alex Guarnaschelli have let us see their large, fully equipped, to-die-for kitchens. (Sunny Anderson has not let us into her kitchen at home. We only see the outdoor grills on her deck. I’m not sure why.) But the rank-and-file staffers who bring us the live Food Network Kitchen classes from their cramped cooking spaces really know what they’re doing. I am impressed by their skills.

Food Network Kitchen is designed for a tablet. It needs more real estate than a smartphone offers, and the pause and rewind functionality doesn’t work on the PC when you watch a live class. But whatever platform you use, you can type in questions and have a good chance of getting an answer.

I received a generous thirty-day trial and have kept the subscription going. This is cool stuff.


Taste the Nation

I first became aware of Padma Lakshmi in a rather odd way. In an effort to save a little money I was borrowing audiobooks from the public library rather than buying them from Audible. This meant that the most recent and most popular titles were checked out and unavailable. Scrolling through the available titles I encountered her autobiography Love, Loss, and What We Ate. I had not been previously familiar with her, but I thoroughly enjoyed her book (which she read herself) in which she describes being born in India and then, as a child, following her mother to the United States after she completed her education and found work as a nurse.

Taste the NationYou may be familiar with Padma as host of the television program Top Chef on Bravo, but if you have been reading this blog you know how I feel about cooking competition television shows. There is a lot more to Padma than Top Chef, however, and after listening to her audiobook I started following her on Instagram. I was pleased to learn that she was developing a television program on which she sampled immigrant food around the country.

The series, entitled Taste the Nation, dropped on Hulu this past spring and is still available if you are a subscriber. It is a real delight. She samples Mexican food in El Paso, German food in Milwaukee, and Gullah food in South Carolina. She cooks Indian food with her mother and samples the food of the one group that does not have immigrant roots: Native Americans. (As one woman makes clear, Indian fry bread is not truly native American. It is what they made do with they were gathered up by the white man, put in camps, and given flour to cook with. True Native American food derives from what can be hunted and harvested in the desert of the American Southwest.)

If this sounds very similar to Marcus Samuelsson’s PBS program No Passport Required, it is. But each show brings its own perspective. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and immigrated to the United States. Padma brings her Indian American perspective. Both programs remind us of what we owe immigrants for the variety of food and culture we experience throughout the country.

Taste the Nation was produced pre-COVID-19, so Padma freely interacts with people, eating in their restaurants and homes. It is a delightful series to watch. I’m happy that a second season has been commissioned.


Dishing with Julia

Here is something tailor made for these stay at home, quarantine, social distancing days. It is a new PBS program entitled Dishing with Julia Child. Simply calling it delightful doesn’t do it justice.

Dishing with Julia ChildThere are six episodes in the series. My local PBS station, PBS SoCal, is airing them in batches of two each Friday evening. If your PBS station isn’t showing the series it is available through your cable provider’s on demand service, or via streaming for PBS Passport and Amazon Prime members. In each episode professional chefs watch an episode of The French Chef and comment on it.

I DVR’d the first two episodes and mistakenly watched the second episode first. In that episode Julia shows how to bake bread. Sara Moulton and Carla Hall comment together, as do Marcus Samuelsson and Vivian Howard. They note how Julia loves butter, sneaks in tangentially-related cooking techniques, and provides alternate methods for doing a given task in the kitchen. In the first episode, which I watched second, Julia demonstrates preparing fish while José Andres and Eric Ripert point out how the camera started and just kept running. The program was not edited; if Julia made a mistake she recovered and went on.

If you’re looking for something to put a smile on your face in these bleak days Dishing with Julia will do it.


oh, that’s very different

Emily LitellaI wrote here not long ago about cutting back on our streaming subscriptions. I dropped Hulu and CBS All Access. That was just before we were all told to stay home except for grocery shopping and medical appointments.

And, of course, the library is closed so that cuts off a source of DVDs for Terry. She asked me to subscribe to Acorn to which I agreed when I saw their thirty day free trial and their very attractive annual rate. (For BritBox fans, I have read that Acorn has a larger selection of shows, both BBC and ITV, and they stream the Lucy Lawless series, My Life is Murder, in which she plays a detective in England, something that Terry wanted to see.)

Given current circumstances I had to rethink dropping Hulu. They do have a great selection: Xena (speaking of Lucy Lawless), seventies comedies such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Bob Newhart, quirky series such as The Mindy Project, and originals like the new favorably reviewed mini-series Little Fires Everywhere. So, sipping a Scotch and Crystal Geyser (my standard weeknight drink) on a recent evening I reinstated my subscription. And bless their technological hearts, everything I had stored in the My Stuff section was there and preserved for me. Thank you, Hulu.

So in the words of the marvelous Miss Emily Litella, “Neevvverrr Mind!”


heading downstream

Roku packageTerry and I first got serious about streaming video when CBS announced their CBS All Access streaming service and the launch of Star Trek: Discovery. Before that we had Netflix and Amazon Prime which we accessed via our Blu Ray players. With the launch of CBS All Access we bought a Roku device, since our Blu Ray devices didn’t know about CBS All Access.

We knew that we both had surgeries coming up: Terry with her knee replacement surgery in October 2018 and me with my gastrointestinal surgery that ultimately happened in February of last year. We added Hulu as a streaming service and bought a second Roku device for the bedroom. After my surgery and then my setback, which meant a second stay in the hospital, I added CuriosityStream.

As it turned out, neither of us watched a whole lot of streaming video during our respective recoveries. Star Trek: Discovery was a disappointment, as was the first episode of the much-anticipated Star Trek: Picard earlier this year. After some initial streaming of programs like The Mindy Project and WKRP, I rarely watched anything on Hulu, and in spite of its quality content I watched very little on CuriosityStream.

So this month we did the opposite of cord-cutting. We did some stream-narrowing. I cancelled Hulu and CBS All Access. I also cancelled CuriosityStream, but reinstated it when I got an offer for an absurdly low annual rate. That leaves us with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video along with some free services, including PBS and AllArts, which is pretty darn cool.

That will nearly cover the difference in our higher cable bill as our promotional period comes to an end.


a different Discovery

I wrote last year that Terry and I had given up on Star Trek: Discovery. We found it too gloomy and dark, focused on war and violence. It was the antithesis of what Star Trek should be.

Star Trek DiscoveryAfter the first season ended we began reading about the plan for season two. The producers decided to give up on the war motif and focus on exploration interpersonal relationships. We were hopeful and when season two started in January I re-started our CBS All Access subscription.

After watching the first few episodes, we have not been disappointed. The second season is about exploration, the relationship between science and belief, and the interaction between the characters.

It’s a really nice change.


a simple tech fix

I wrote a while back about buying a second Roku for the bedroom so I could watch streaming programs while Terry was watching something else in the living room. I mentioned that the television in the bedroom is an inexpensive not-smart TV with only two HDMI ports. Since one port is connected to the cable box I had to disconnect the Blu-Ray to connect the Roku.

HDMI switchI didn’t like the idea of the Blu-Ray being disabled, however, and I thought that since there are USB hubs for computers there must be HDMI hubs for televisions. There are. And they’re not that expensive. The HDMI switch I found on Amazon was $9.98 and using my Amazon VISA points the device cost me $1.63.

That means I just punch the button on the HDMI switch to toggle between the Roku and the Blu-Ray.

How cool is that?