Wednesday, October 13, 2004

As seen on tv

The mole sauce I made for H's welcome-home dinner last night was excellent. I have never made mole sauce before; all of the recipes I have seen have been so complicated as to be intimidating. But finding a good mole sauce at a restaurant in Vermont is sort of like, um, searching for great French cooking in rural Mississippi, so if we're going to ever have decent mole, I figured it would need to come from my kitchen.

What gave me the confidence to tackle this classic Mexican recipe was an invention that I otherwise loathe — the television. In my book, tv is good for only two things: PBS Kids (a godsend for harried parents, known in our house as "the electronic babysitter"), and PBS cooking shows. Every Saturday if I can, I make the kids play upstairs or outside, make some tea or pour a glass of wine, and plunk down to watch, at the very least, Rick Bayless's Mexico, One Plate at a Time, and sometimes others.

Bayless's show, which featured mole this past week, is my favorite because of its healthy blend of travelogue, sociology and cultural history &mdash it's not just the Great Chef In His Kitchen. Every episode includes a healthy does of Rick in his kitchen, demonstrating a few recipes, but it also usually features a trip to his extensive rooftop garden, and of course scenes shot on location in Mexico, more often than not including mouth-watering panoramas of beautiful produce stacked up in the markets. New Scandanavian Cooking is another favorite, its Norwegian chef a bit like a younger David Attenborough, always sounding slightly out of breath as he rows down fjords to collect mussels or climbs up onto glaciers to make ice cream in a hand-cranked machine.

Ironically enough, my fondness for cooking shows was triggered by the stomach flu. Years ago, when E was still quite small and S not yet conceived, I was laid low by that malicious disease that makes cooking and eating impossible, and renders the last taste in your mouth prior to its onset (in this case, green tea) a trigger of nausea for weeks or months to come. At that time, we still paid for "broadcast cable," which provided us with Canadian broadcast stations from Montreal as well as the ones we could actually receive on our antenna. Weakened and laying on the sofa all day, I eventually got bored enough to flip on the tv, which was tuned to CBC, and discovered The Urban Peasant, a CBC cooking show hosted by an affable middle-aged man named James Barber. Unlike the shows I now most like to watch, this one didn't feature any trips anywhere, but part of the appeal of the show was that all the recipes were simple and quick enough to be made during the actual duration of the show — there was no "and now let's look at a sauce that I have been simmering and reducing for two hours," and he actually chopped the onions, peeled the garlic, measured the flour on the show in front of your eyes. It's from this show that I learned how to cook green beans in a skillet.

I didn't need the simplicity of his recipes to convince me to start cooking, I was already doing that and enjoying it, but what that show communicated in a way that cookbooks have a very hard time doing was the sheer joy of being master of the kitchen, of proceeding with confidence, that options and substitutions are things that you can make on your own initiative, not just when the recipe gives you a multiple-choice. And that's how I came to make the mole.

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