Sunday, October 28, 2007

Soup and Sandy

After four days away, I'm back in town, back with my bub, and back to my NTB beat. An account of where I've been will appear sometime this week so please stay tuned. Until then, operation soup is moving forward. On Tuesday evening, I made Beef and Butternut Squash Chili from Southern Living. The results were pleasant but not inspiring. I was hoping the butternut squash would provide a delightful flavor surprise, but the chili just tasted like, well, chili. Good chili, but not great chili. The article accompanying the recipe suggests that the power foods in the soup might help one fight the flu. Healthy chili at least.

About a two weeks ago, I made Pumpkin and Pear Soup with Maple Cream. The results were positive. The bub's babysitter sampled it and offered this feedback: "Good. Very good. Yummy." I liked it as well, though it was a bit lacking. The maple cream was just maple-flavored sour cream served on top, and I think I needed more fat spread throughout the soup. This recipe came from Sandra Lee. That's right, Sandra Lee of the Food Network's Semi-Homemade Cooking.

I almost did not write the soup up because I know my dear friend, loyal reader, and insightful commenter Actchy abhors Sandra Lee (especially in those episodes during which Ms. Lee calls herself "Aunt Sandy" and cooks for her nieces and nephews). Of course, Actchy is not alone in her disdain for Sandra Lee. Another friend of mine detests her as well, citing the repeated use of the word "tablescape" (if it's a word) as one of Sandra's great offenses.

I can totally see why and how Sandra Lee is an easy target for haters. There are her ultra-buoyant breasts and then her proclivity for wearing tops with plunging necklines. There is her blonde, blonde hair. There's the fact that her kitchen set is redecorated for every single show, NTB. There are those tablescapes and the fact that the time and money spent preparing them certainly compensates for any time saved in the kitchen by cooking semi-homemade. I get all this. I can totally see how and why she can grate on one's nerves. I am not a regular Semi-Homemade viewer myself, but when I do catch it, I find myself annoyed by the repeated references to the "regular grocery store" (though I do appreciate the fact that most of her ingredients can be found there). I find myself wondering what the point of making your own Chinese bao buns is if one of the steps is filling them with barbecued pork purchased at the mall food court (this really occurred on one episode). I also do not buy into the implied suggestion of the show that one of the goals of cooking is to trick your friends and family into thinking you've made more of an effort than you have.

And yet, I feel strangely, perhaps inexplicably, protective of Sandra Lee. Within reason (with the barbecue pork buns being a prime example of the unreasonable), I see no problem with recipes that save time by using spice packets, frozen vegetables, and some canned goods. I won't pretend that the results are as healthy and flavorful as more homemade efforts. Depending on the time and resources I have available though, sometimes good enough is good enough. I can definitely see that Aunt Sandy can be annoying and over-the-top, but I think she's creative and also think that for emerging or uncertain cooks, she is accessible (if one leaves out the tablescapes and the daily kitchen redecorating). She's not the girl-next-door Rachael Ray, but I feel more comfortable with her than with the Barefoot Contessa (who is no doubt the superior chef and likely a warm, genuine person . . . but her shows always leave me feeling like the unworldly Midwesterner who wouldn't really fit in at her casual Hamptons dinner parties). Plus, as I have told Actchy several times, Sandra Lee has faced a lot of challenges in her life. Her parents were wrecks. She practically raised her siblings (how she learned to cook and etc.). I felt protective of her even before I knew about her background though. I guess I can't for sure say why. Sandra Lee has an autobiography coming out that details her early days. And no, I'm not going to buy and read it. I am not, despite this post, obsessed with Sandra Lee. I am not the president or even a member of her fan club. I probably have not seen her show in months. I do, however, like her and generally wish her well. I do want to protect her but from whom or what I do not know. Sorry Actchy.


Anonymous said...

I like Sandra Lee. I am not interested in her recipes but find her tablescapes interesting food for thought. I guess I just can't picture myself going to the regular store, purchasing beef tips in a foil pan and serving them up as "homemade". I've already lost too much control just thinking about it. M

LAP said...

"Ultra-buoyant breasts?" Your descriptors, though great, are sometimes too much for me to handle. I'm trying hard to focus instead on those lovely tablescapes.

Actchy said...

I think I should clarify that it's not so much Sandra Lee's cooking methods that make me batty (hell, I'm certainly guilty of occasionally reaching for a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese and adding broccoli to it as if that salvages the sodium-bomb quality of the side dish and/or makes it 'homemade') as it is everything about her TV personality. I become especially exercised over her sign-off, which starts with “And remember” and is followed by at least four imperatives that begin “Keep it…” E.g.: “And remember: Keep it simple. Keep it sweet. Keep it saucy. Keep it all-time classic. And always keep it semi-homemade.” This is far too many things to remember. Also, some of these things are contradictory: can one create a meal or tablescape (groan) that is both saucy and an all-time classic? If so, would it really be simple? And isn’t all-time classic redundant? And do we really want things to *always* be semi-homemade?

I have to say that I love Ina Garten, and if I ever meet her I’m going to find out why her hair is so preternaturally shiny.

MEP said...

Actchy, I agree with you on the final imperatives. It is hard to imagine a tablescape as saucy. I am likewise wary of extremes, likely things need not be "always" semi-homemade. You make excellent points.

Also, looking back at comments on earlier posts, I discovered that you were the one who registered the objection to the word "tablescape" itself. The other individual I was trying to refer to just objected to the tablescapes themselves.

Also, Ina Garten's hair is quite shiny. I'm sure she's wonderful, but like I say, I worry that she would meet me and find me somehow lacking (though my hair is somewhat shiny), that she would somehow know that when I cook I don't always use "really good vanilla" and "really good olive oil."

Actchy said...

To be fair, I think it's worth noting that between the two of us, *I* seem to be the one who is obsessed with Sandra Lee. I mean, this is now my forth comment that concerns the woman.

I always wonder about the holiday special episodes on the Food Network, during which the chefs pair up to prepare different dishes. Bobby Flay is usually by Sandra Lee's side. This is interesting because during his show, Bobby Flay tends to visit his own restaurant and take, like, huge containers of Spanish saffron (~$400/oz) for his cooking -- not exactly the "regular grocery store." I picture them preparing for the taping of the special, Sandra walking around the aisles of Shop Rite, looking for Duncan Hines yellow cake mix and Bobby in Mesa Grill, borrowing a cask of truffle oil. Maybe the chefs draw straws to see who has to cook with Sandra?

MEP said...

You will be be surprised/sad to hear this, but a Sandra Lee cookbook I own has an introduction written by none other than your boy Tyler Florence. He tries to tie Sandra's style to his show were he goes in and helps people fix their recipes. He uses the phrase "real kitchen" (in quotes) to describe Sandy's approach. There's plenty there to analyze, though I doubt Tyler really means to invite us to do so.

My theory on the Christmas specials is that no one wants to work with Bobby because he has a reputation for being an a-hole, at least that's what I read last year in the Chicago Tribune Magazine article that described an Iron Chef competitor who was really out to get him.

CJR said...

Yesterday we had a whole chicken from the crock pot -- no carving necessary, it just falls into delicious, magical pieces. It's football cooking genius I tell you.

MEP said...

CJR, now try that whole chicken in the crock pot (or a big pile of chicken breasts) and add a bottle of Frank's Red Hot wing sauce or Montgomery Inn barbecue sauce . . . even more magical.

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