He's the Food Network's answer man

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Alton Brown is the science teacher you dreamed about in high school: funny, yet focused; intense, yet far from irrational; and a bit wacky, yet focused on procedural protocol.

As host of the Food Network's popular Good Eats (8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; 7 p.m. Monday to Friday; 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday), Brown is one part culinary instructor and one part mad scientist. Add a touch of Mel Brooks and that formula is gold.

His audience ranges from children to teens to young adults and to seasoned cooks.

"I don't think too hard about why kids or adults enjoy the show," says Brown. "I'm just glad the show works and they watch. Some things are just plain voodoo, and kids are one of those things. Kids respond very well to information and knowledge. They aren't threatened by it. And I believe the more a kid gets invested in the cooking process, the more the kid might eat the food."

Brown -- who is touring to promote his new book, I'm Just Here for More Food (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $32.50) -- is not the typical Food Network host.

It's the science that sets him apart from the other Food Network stars. He doesn't just demonstrate recipes, he intricately and wryly explains why the bread crescendos or cracks, why the meringue wimps or weeps and why the sauce curdles or coalesces.

A former cinematographer and video director, Brown spent much of his time between shoots watching television cooking shows, which he found to be as pallid as an uncooked roux.

The formulas for the shows he saw were accurate, but the programs lacked flair and flavor in production. Like a roux, things needed to be heated to get things going.

Convinced that he could do better, Brown trained at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt. Then, using his newly refined culinary skills, he developed Good Eats. His new book is a Good Eats text that focuses on baking -- well, actually, mixing, if you want to truly grasp the science.

"Everything that happens in baking is science, some of it is physics," says Brown. "The art of baking comes after you have made peace with the science."

The book took Brown much longer to write than expected.

"Halfway through I started over again," he says. "My approach was wrong. I realized I didn't know how to bake. Not that I didn't know how to actually bake, but from the perspective that I didn't have my head around the concept of baking.

"I realized that I was actually writing a book about mixing. When I started categorizing things by mixing methods, the baking book became clear."

This approach is part of the Alton Brown charm. Home cooks can have stacks of recipes, but without the respect for the process, it's a lot of words on paper and very little dinner.

"There's a lot of bad baking because elements of the recipe are difficult to describe. The [baking] recipes are not so much about ingredients as they are procedures," he says. "Actions matter and that's a hard thing to put into words."

These edible equations are a lot more than supper to Brown. As an adult, he came to understand how cookery can be a great teaching tool.

"I wish they had offered home economics when I attended high school. I might have done better in science and math. The science of baking gives equations context," he says.

"In biology they made me dissect a fetal pig -- a skill I have never needed since. However, if they had made the class dissect a whole chicken -- now there's a life skill."

Brown recently signed a three-year contract with the Food Network to continue making Good Eats and handling play-by-play commentary on the new Iron Chef America, which airs at 9 p.m. Sundays. He also will start work on a two-hour special about road food.

"I'm going to travel Route 66 on a motorcycle -- my other great passion -- from coast to coast," says Brown. "Road food used to define American cuisine. It showcased the country's diversity. We're losing more and more of these places, and I'm going out in search of what's there."

But he's not veering off his well-fed, mad-scientist course. Even the new Iron Chef America will have the Alton Brown touch.

The original Japanese cult classic delighted foodies with bad overdubs that rivaled Godzilla & Mothra: The Battle for Earth and ingredients such as sea urchin that were churned into everything from ice creams to savory custards.

In Iron Chef America, Brown revs up the interpretive dance to a rumba with live reports on the action in progress. Think Dick Vitale calling Mario Batali's moves: no script, just a game called on the fly with lots of splatter, sizzle and shtick.

"Each chef is provided a basic pantry," says Brown. "They can bring a certain amount of stuff as well, but [Iron Chef Masaharu] Morimoto, for example, might bring 15 kinds of kelp. Fifteen kinds of kelp! That makes my job a huge cram session."

Before the show, Brown receives a list of what the competing chefs will work with so that he can correctly identify anything out of the ordinary.

"My show [Good Eats] is not about strange, obscure ingredients. It's more like: 'Hey, we're making meatloaf.' On Iron Chef, I instantly need to be an expert on some bizarre wrinkly food.

"I'm blown away by the [Iron Chef] competition. These are master craftsmen competing against each other, the clock, the judges and themselves. There's no one coming in between takes to reset or restock. It's real food in real time."

Viewers can expect a not-subtle seasoning of education and the Alton Brown style.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Pesto Dinner Biscuits

Makes 18 (2-inch) biscuits

1 cup buttermilk, chilled

1/2 cup pesto

2 cups flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon lard, chilled

Place rack in center of oven. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Measure all ingredients. Chill or freeze fats.

Combine buttermilk, pesto; beat well. With 3 to 4 pulses, take flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt for spin in food processor. Place mixture in large bowl. Rub butter and lard into flour mixture until about half the fat disappears and the rest is left in pea-sized pieces. Place in freezer to keep fat solid.

Make well in center of flour mixture. Pour pesto mixture into well. Quickly mix using spatula. Stir until dough pulls away from sides of bowl. Dump mixture in center of lightly floured wax paper.

Use paper to shield your hands as you fold dough into 1/2 -inch- to 1-inch-thick rectangle. Fold in sides like a tri-fold wallet. Repeat three times, gently.

Using 2-inch pastry cutter, cut biscuits and place on ungreased baking sheet, just touching. Reshape leftover dough, kneading as little as possible. Continue cutting biscuits. Bake 15 minutes. Remove biscuits from oven and serve.

- Adapted from "I'm Just Here for More Food" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $32.50)

Per serving: 114 calories; 3 grams protein; 6 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 12 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 8 milligrams cholesterol; 290 milligrams sodium

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