The Alleged Farm News – 18 September, 2014

This Weeks Share: Cilantro, Cucumbers, Machiaw eggplant, Garlic, Lettuce, Onions, Peppers, Newmex hot peppers, Satina potatoes, Tomatoes, Hakurei turnips, Jester winter squash

While trying to figure out how to connect Liz’s computer to our TV, we got sucked into watching the finale of Master Chef. It turns out you (by which I mean, of course, we) cannot easily connect the two devices. But no loss. Though we may have failed at basic electrical engineering, we got to see Gordon Ramsey and his weird sidekicks–they appeared to be a sort of clown and an undertaker–crown this year’s greatest home cook in the universe.

All right, they did not actually crown her or declare her best in the universe. But they did give her a check (and who would not prefer a check to a crown), an ugly trophy (what with this and the World Cup I am starting to wonder if trophies are just by nature ugly) and ridiculously lavish praise. And they promised that winning would change her life. Why her life requires changing I do not know, and as to whether it would be for better or worse they did not say. But wait, there’s more: she also gets to publish a cookbook. Which completely makes sense because she obviously has so much to share. After all, she is the best home cook anywhere in the galaxy. Or the solar system, anyway.

Actually, it was impossible to tell from what we saw how well she cooks. For a start, and this is of course a problem for all cooking shows, there’s no way to tell what her food tastes like. I don’t doubt that technology will exist some day (not a day I particularly look forward to). For the moment, however, we have to rely on the reactions of the on-screen tasters, and they are unreliable. Especially on a reality TV show. To complicate matters, while they did show her cooking, they did so in a way that made no sense. It was edited as though cooking were a sort of opera performance, a constant flow of improbably strong emotions tied to precious little plot. If you wanted to learn anything about how she actually made her dishes you were out of luck.

But then it is not really a cooking show. Cooking just provides the trendy context for what really matters: self-promotion. The contestants, of course, are vying to promote themselves to the top of the competition, which we get to hear them talk about a great deal (more than we get to see them cook). Even more importantly that that, though, they hope to promote themselves right out of the show into celebrity, a state of existence now available for cooks. Soon enough they will have a bartender version of the show, just as they would have a beekeeper or book binder version if we attended to such people with the same pointless fascination.

Even the contestants, however, are really just there as the context for the self-promotion of Gordon Ramsey and of the show itself. Almost all the absurd praise Ramsey and his weird cohorts heaped on the contestants served primarily to raise the stature of themselves and their show. And to the extent that it redounded to the contestants themselves, it served them too. Nothing like creating a star chef to boost your stature, your ratings and your profits.

I cannot muster the energy to pretend I am shocked by any of this. It is network television and Gordon Ramsey and a reality show. Of course it is cheesy, mendacious and smug. But I was not fully prepared for how obvious it was. It bore a much closer resemblance to professional wrestling than I expected, delighted to shove its carnival show hucksterism in your face. For all the subtlety employed, Ramsey might as well have stood on a bare stage and screamed “look at me, I’m the greatest.” Everything else it offered, including the actual cooking–especially the actual cooking–was just production value.

What puzzles me is that this brazen self-promotion seems to work. Due to some flaw in the human psyche, we apparently lack sufficient defenses against this, though you would think calculating the motivation of the self-promoter and consequently adjusting one’s assessment of his claims about himself would hardly strain the intellect of a small shrub. Perhaps we have evolved to value confidence or dominance so highly that we accept it even when it is clearly malarkey. If we start questioning that trait at all we could end up following considerate people instead, and then god knows where we will be.

If this new veneration of cooking braggarts served to satisfy our appetite for the type and left us free to choose more thoughtful leaders it would be sad for food but a boon for society. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that it works that way. It seems instead that our weird culture of hyper self-promotion is just gobbling up everything it can.

Not that a sense of self-confidence is anything new in kitchens, but cooks used to employ it in order to turn out good food, believing they would be judged by the quality of their work, not by the outrageousness of their boasts. I understand this puts out of sync with the times, but I cannot help feeling that putting your efforts and ego into making something real is better than striving to enhance your image through empty gestures. Perhaps this helps to explain how I ended up on my knees contentedly harvesting a nice crop of cucumbers–quite possibly, it must be said, the tastiest cucumbers ever–rather than out there in the real world squawking about my obvious superiority. Oh well, I think I will stick with cucumbers.


Vegetable notes: If for some odd reason you have grown tired of tomato salad, you could try making tomato soup instead. It is quite easy and will keep you warm on these cold nights. Roughly chop a medium onion (or about half of a giant one if that is what your farmer keeps giving you) and sauté over low heat in olive oil until soft and translucent. Add salt, pepper, herbs (a bay leaf or some thyme or oregano or rosemary or some combination thereof) and a pinch of hot pepper (I use smoked paprika). Saute another minute or so and add four or five tomatoes cut into largish pieces, a cup of stock, a little vinegar and, if you want, a splash of white wine or dry vermouth. Continue cooking over low heat until the tomatoes are soft (roughly 10 minutes) and puree (I strongly recommend an immersion blender for this task). Add a bit of cream and taste for seasoning. You can finish it with chopped fresh herbs.

Or you could make baked stuffed tomatoes. Cut a wide cone out of the top of several tomatoes. Work the seeds and pulp free and gently squeeze out. Mix bread crumbs with a finely diced shallot, grated parmesan, a crushed clove of garlic, herbs, generous salt and pepper and enough olive just to moisten the mixture. Shove the bread crumb mixture into the tomatoes and back in an oiled dish at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes until the tomatoes are completely soft and the bread crumbs starting to brown nicely.

You could also make pepper soup. Roast the sweet and Newmext peppers, peel and seed. Finely slice one huge onion. Put in a pot with a well fitting lid along with olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary and a little sherry. Give it a stir and cook, covered, over low heat until the onions are seriously cooked down and the liquid looks creamy. Turn up the heat and cook, uncovered, until the liquid has evaporated and the onion starts to caramelize. Add the peppers, 2 cups stock, sherry vinegar and smoked paprika. Cook over low heat about 10 minutes and puree (again, get an immersion blender). Taste for seasoning. You could serve with croutons and a sprinkling of grated cheese.