Off-Campus Cooking Adventures with Alton Brown
When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a chef. I watched The Food Network almost exclusively and started a fund to buy a rice cooker. I read Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” and despised Sandra Lee and her “Semi-Homemade Cooking” show –– add one part middle-aged skinny blonde woman with a packet of Betty Crocker and a multi-shot cocktail. One year my Christmas list for grandma included a cheese slicer. The following year, I wanted an onyx black, flame-decorated Kitchen Aide stand-mixer, just like the mixer that Food Network chef Alton Brown uses on his show, “Good Eats.”
Alton Brown was my Food Network idol, and I watched his show with a level of concentration I struggled to achieve anywhere else, especially in class or while doing homework. What I like about Alton Brown and “Good Eats” is that they explain food and cooking beyond recipes. Alton uses an indispensable cast of big foam props, bouncing balls, balloons, pool noodles, stuffed animals and a giant chalkboard in order to explain the science of cooking down to the molecules.
Each episode also contains a story. The show has a cast of characters including a James Bond-style “Q” parody named “W”, Alton’s arch-nemesis, “the mad French chef”; Alton’s own evil twin, “B.A. Brown”; Alton’s up-tight older sister, Marsha, and her son, a young Alton “mini-me” named Elton who looks like Jonathan Lipnicki from “The Little Vampire.”
In each episode, Alton has one dish to prepare. He explains the ingredients, the science of the cooking, shows a variation on the recipe and then teaches viewers how to serve and store the dish. All of this is paired with a kooky storyline. The show is goofy, there are weird sound effects and Alton pops out bug-eyed from behind things a lot. The show is everything that should be expected from a host who also plays a parody Colonel Sanders character named “Colonel Bob Boatwright.” The show is fantastic and informative, and it has the best recipes.
The recipes are easy enough for a commoner like myself to duplicate. One of my two favorite Alton Brown recipes is called the “Basic Waffle,” but it is utterly non-basic in deliciousness. This recipe comes from the waffle episode, “The Waffle Truth,” which naturally had a storyline involving testifying at court for some ridiculous waffle-related reason. In the show, Alton makes a basic waffle and a chocolate waffle. He also teaches viewers how to store the waffles in the freezer so that they can have one of their own waffles for breakfast instead of eating an Eggo.
In my own off-campus cooking, I try to emulate Alton –– I treat cooking as an adventure. I may not have an evil-twin or arch-nemesis (although I do have a southern alter-ego), but I get excited about the whole process of going from store to pan or oven to stomach, and then to fridge or freezer. When I cook a meal, I try to pretend like I’m in an episode of “Good Eats” and choose one main thing, like a meat, tofu, curry or pasta dish, and then dress it healthfully with simple sides. Some side ideas include a salad with balsamic, cooked greens in garlic, quinoa, rice or potatoes. This is helpful not only because I can focus most of my energy on the main dish, but also because I can use my cooking time efficiently.
My housemate Alex takes a cooking approach similar to that of many off-campus chefs I know. Twice a week, he makes one big main dish, like lasagna, casserole, chicken and veggies or enchiladas. Then he works his way through it during the week. It is an economic and time-effective method for those who don’t mind eating the same thing for days on end. Normally I like mixing things up more. That said, it often takes me an hour or more to make dinner from start to finish, and of course sometimes I just don’t have time.
When I don’t have an hour, half an hour or even 20 minutes to make dinner, I rely on microwaveable or stove-top ready things around my kitchen and in my fridge. I like to store extra canned goods and dry goods in the event that I get sick, have no time at all or run out of produce. I usually have a few cans of black beans, garbanzo beans, diced tomatoes, vegetarian chili and a couple canned soups. I also choose to buy alternative milks like almond, soy or rice because they are cheaper than cow’s milk, and they keep longer. With freshness in mind, I store pasta, rice, quinoa, sugar and flour in mason jars and other clear and air-tight containers.
When I know in advance that the week will be hectic, I cook extra pasta or quinoa ahead of time. Normally I choose quinoa over rice because it is nutritious and it keeps better in the fridge without coagulating into one unpleasant, dry mass. Day-old rice is good for fried rice –– throw an egg, leftover chicken and some chopped veggies in the pan with high-heat cooking oil like canola or peanut. However, day-old quinoa is good for many other things, including quinoa “fried rice.”
Sometimes I turn around and there are only eggs, lots of condiments, four pieces of kale, potatoes and onions in my kitchen. I can’t always avoid the sudden realization that there is nothing in my fridge. In addition to keeping cans of chili and soup, a good way to avoid eating endless eggs and onions and potatoes (which make a great frittata) is to put up a grocery list on the fridge and write things down as they are running out. Let me repeat: Write the things down before they are completely gone. If I know what I am running out of, I have a really nice safety net until I can organize a trip to get more groceries.
My advice to other Whitties who cook is to be adventurous. When cooking something for the first time, read multiple recipes before you start and then choose the best one. Also, know what ingredients are procurable here in Walla Walla, and be sure to check your kitchen cupboards twice before breaking any eggs or turning on any appliances. I highly suggest Alton Brown’s recipes, but he doesn’t make everything. Overall, I’ve found the greatest success eating healthfully and creatively off campus by keeping my kitchen stocked with simple ingredients, planning dinner in advance and having a guest or a housemate to help out and make the meal more fun. I also always wash dishes the same day I dirty them, but that is a personal preference.