John Catucci is my morning meditation.
During the pandemic, he gave me hope. He’s a comedian and he is funny – in a low-key way. He is endearing. The two TV shows he hosts — You Gotta Eat Here and Big Food Bucket List — are entertaining and educational. They are life-affirming. They are two of my favourite TV food shows.
A little history. While researching this blog post, I discovered Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book — the first North American TV cooking show. Lena Richard — an African American Creole chef, cookbook author and restaurateur — launched it in 1949 on a local TV station. It only lasted one year but it was popular.
Julia Child began her well-known series The French Chef on the public TV Boston station WGBH in 1961 — it lasted 10 years and she became a household name. She is still the most beloved host of a cooking show because of her plummy voice, down-to-earth manner and her humble, accessible approach to French cuisine. She made mistakes and gaffes. She gave people confidence and skills. And she was funny.
Julia was my friend and mentor. She liked the famous, hilarious spoof of her by the Canadian comedian Dan Aykroyd.
Louisiana-based chef Emeril Lagasse deserves a mention. He kick-started the U.S. Food Network with his popular show How to Boil Water. I have his excellent cookbook Essential Emeril. When he was in Toronto in 1998, I invited him to the Toronto Star test kitchen to judge several bread puddings — including his own. Here’s a short video of Emeril tasting the puddings.
I’ll start with my favourite Canadian shows.
You Gotta Eat Here is a mouthwatering round-up of restaurants, diners and cafés hosted by Toronto-based comedian John Catucci. On his two shows, he is in the kitchen and in the dining rooms. He helps the cooks, he dances, he sings and he yodels. He’s at his best kibbitzing with people.
The shows feature mostly humble fare — burgers, pizza, hot dogs, fried chicken, doughnuts and pies. He talks with diners, wipes their faces and shares – and/or steals – their food. He gets around – Canada, America, London U.K., Rome and Dublin. John says: “I have the best job in the world — eating.”
In my opinion, here are some of the best segments: John Catucci was at the family-run Pizzeria Napoletana in Montreal. The woman co-owner affectionately chides him because of his faulty assistance with her prep. By the time he leaves the restaurant, she says: “You won’t be just a friend, you’ll be family!”
Dr. Laffa is a hilarious Toronto segment — together with the dead-pan chef/owner, John prepares a falafel sandwich. He quips with a quirky owner at Café Radio in Carstairs, Alberta. I like the Poutine Edition and the episodes filmed in Italy. The Legends Edition includes Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal established in 1928 – it evokes bittersweet memories of my dad. Of course, I like the show filmed at the amazing Anna Mae’s Bakery and Restaurant near Stratford, Ont. Hear my podcast below.
John sums it up in an interview: “There are so many different layers that you look for in a restaurant. The vibe, the food, the energy, what people are talking about. You look for food that shoots beautifully — but really it comes down to taste.”
There are two cookbooks spawned by the show — I have both of them: You Gotta Here! and You Gotta Eat Here Too!
Here’s my podcast with John recorded in 2016. We bantered about our beloved Anna Mae’s Bakery and Restaurant in Perth County, Ontario.
Big Food Bucket List – the title says it all. It’s a newer show than YGEH and features the best of the best. It’s the same host — John Catucci whose talents range from acting and singing to stand-up comedy. The next season will be aired in September.
Cheese: A Love Story is a newish and brilliant show hosted by Afrim Pristine. Afrim is the owner of a cheese emporium called The Cheese Boutique in Toronto’s west end. He is immersed in and an expert on cheese. His passion is contagious. The name of his show is aptly titled. In the six-part series, Afrim is in his home town Toronto. He also visits Switzerland, France, Greece and, in Canada, Quebec and British Columbia — all in search of cheese.
His excellent book is called For the Love of Cheese. On the back flap, Marilyn Denis, host of The Marilyn Denis Show, writes: “Adam Pristine: the man who convinced me to try (and later love!) blue cheese.” I repeat: His passion is contagious. You can view all of the episodes on STACK TV or on Food Network Canada’s website.
The Great Canadian Baking Show is modelled on the Great British Bake Off. Amateur contestants compete with assigned baked items. The two judges — pastry chefs Bruno Feldeisen and Kyla Eaglesham Kennaley — are knowledgeable and gentle on the participants. It is a good show. It has been renewed for a 5th Season – they are filming it now. It will be aired on CBC in mid-October.
I don’t like competitive cooking shows, especially with children. I dislike culinary wars, battles, brawls and showdowns. I make two exceptions from this rule.
Chopped is billed as a “a reality-based cooking show.” Ted Allen is the host — he’s calm and intelligent. Contestants have four ingredients — usually unusual and mismatched — to make a dish in a short time. The show inspires me to open the fridge and check what’s in there. The result: Impromptu cooking, recycled leftovers and usually excellent dishes. There are a few offshoots of the basic Chopped version: Chopped After Hours, Chopped Champions, Chopped Grill Masters and Chopped All-Stars. I don’t watch Chopped Junior because it’s borderline abusive.
Chopped has a rotating roster of judges, mostly great: Alex Guarnaschelli; Amanda Freitag, Marc Murphy, Geoffrey Zakarian, Scott Conant, Aaron Sanchez, Maneet Chauhan and Chris Santos.
Beat Bobby Flay highlights New York chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay. I don’t like him but he is a brilliant cook. Contestants and regular judges like Anne Burrell, Michael Symon and Marcus Samuelsson participate in the fast-paced show. Frequent judges, like Sunny Anderson, go too far in impeding Bobby. This show fits my criteria: Entertaining and educational. PS: Bobby Flay has 63% average of beating other contestants.
Guy’s Ranch Kitchen — The ubiquitous Guy Fieri has one outstanding show — this is it. He invites talented celebrity chefs like Michael Voltaggio, Antonia Lofaso and Eric Greenspan to cook in his outdoor California kitchen. They whip up great dishes. I learn from their cooking.
These straight and narrow demo-in-the-kitchen cooking shows are my favourites.
Barefoot Contessa aka Ina Garten has a big country house and an adored/adoring husband Jeffrey. They have been married for more than 50 years. She cooks uncomplicated meals for him and assembled friends. She often has good recipes, especially her streamlined version of the iconic Chicken Marbella.
Jamie Oliver is a telegenic chef and he is a good cook. He has a few shows. I love Jamie Cooks Italy. I discovered him 20 years ago when he had his first show called The Naked Chef. You can read my blog post here.
Nigella Lawson is the host of several cooking shows. She is brainy, beautiful and buxom. In addition, she has a passion for cooking. Her best show and her best cookbook are called At My Table. You can listen to my podcast recorded when she was in Toronto in 2015 here.
Honourable mentions: The best and well-known competitive cooking shows are Top Chef Canada and MasterChef Canada. I sometimes watch Rachael Ray capably doing her thing in the kitchen. I often watch Carnival Eats hosted by Noah Cappe – it’s a Canadian show and features deep-fried things and handy foods on a stick. Travel Man is an entertaining British show hosted by the dry-witted Richard Ayoade. It’s on YouTube and has many eating scenes.
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Here are some recipes from my favourite TV food shows. I’ve made all of them — they are tasty and easy to prepare.
Jamie’s Ginger Shakin’ Beef
I watched Jamie make this on the show Jamie’s Quick and Easy Food. I used bok choy, a similar Chinese green to pak choi. It’s a luscious lunch or supper for two.
12 oz/375 g sirloin steak (ideally 1.5 cm thick)
2-inch piece of fresh ginger root
1 tbsp miso paste
2 tsp runny honey
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
8 0z/250g pak choi or bok choy
Pull the fat off the sirloin steak, finely slice the fat and place it in a cold non-stick skillet. Put on a medium-high heat to crisp up while you peel and matchstick the ginger; add it to the skillet.
Cut off the sinew, then dice the steak into 2-inch chunks and toss with miso until well coated. Scoop crispy fat and ginger out of skillet; reserve. Add the steak chunks to skillet. Cook for 4 minutes over medium-high heat, tossing regularly, then drizzle in the honey and red wine vinegar. Toss for 1 more minute until shiny and sticky.
Meanwhile, halve the pak choi, cook in a pan of boiling water for just 1 minute so they retain a bit of crunch, then drain well and plate up. Spoon over the steak and sticky juices from the pan, and finish with the reserved crispy bits of fat and ginger root.
Makes 2 servings.
Chicken Stew with Potatoes and Kale
I watched the chef/owner of Highlands Kitchen in Edmonton, Alberta, make this dish on “You Gotta Eat Here”. I ran to my office and found the recipe in the cookbook aptly called “You Gotta Eat Here.” It has an Eastern European flavour with paprika and sour cream. I love leeks — they’re sweet and pungent — but you have to clean them well. I used Yukon Gold small fingerling potatoes and frozen chopped kale. This simple concoction is easy to prepare, delicious and healthy!
1 tsp + 1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp + 1 tbsp butter
1 cup chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only), washed and dried
½ tsp dried chili flakes
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp each: kosher salt and pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
2 tbsp dry white wine
1½ cups chicken stock
2 tbsp sour cream
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 cups fingerling or baby new potatoes, halved
2 cups chopped kale
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat 1 teaspoon of oil and 1 teaspoon of butter in large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add leeks; cook 5 to 7 minutes or until tender and golden brown. Transfer leeks to a large bowl.
In shallow dish, combine chili flakes, flour, paprika, salt and pepper. Dredge chicken pieces in flour mixture, shaking off excess.
Add 1 tablespoon each of remaining oil and butter to the same skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of the chicken pieces. Cook 5 to 6 minutes until browned on all sides. Add to leeks in large bowl. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces. Add white wine to skillet, scraping up browned bits. Add stock, sour cream and mustard. Bring to boil. Add browned chicken and potatoes. Cover; reduce to low heat and simmer 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Add kale; simmer about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper if necessary.
Makes about 6 servings.
I tweaked and streamlined Geoffrey Zakarian’s recipe. You can add your favourite homemade or store-bought pasta sauce to the gnocchi before serving. These are pillowy soft mini-dumplings. I prefer them to the usual potato gnocchi — they are easier to make and have protein from the ricotta. I serve them with roasted meat or medium-rare steak. 2 cups is about a regular carton of ricotta — 454 grams. You can fry the cooked gnocchi in oil and butter, toss them with a little tomato sauce and top with grated mozzarella – yum. I prefer Romano cheese to Parmesan – it has more flavour.
2 cups ricotta
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
1 tsp kosher salt
1 large egg
1½ cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting the dough
Shape dough on a well-floured surface with lightly floured hands into two (1-inch-thick) ropes. Cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces with a lightly floured knife. Put in one layer on a lightly floured parchment-lined baking sheet.
Cook gnocchi in two batches in a large saucepan of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until they float to the top. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain in colander.
Makes about 6 servings as a side dish.
Damaris’s Chocolate Pudding
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Nigella’s No-Churn Coffee Ice Cream
This is from Nigella’s book At My Table – it’s easy to make and is scrumptious. I didn’t have espresso liqueur; I used Grand Marnier. The recipe uses three-quarters of a small can (300mL) of condensed milk — you can stir the rest in your morning coffee. I made it in the standing mixer with the whisk attachment — it takes a few minutes on medium-high until soft peaks form.
1 cups chilled whipping (35%) cream
cup (175 grams) sweetened condensed milk
2 tbsp espresso or regular instant coffee
2 tbsp espresso liqueur
Whisk all the ingredients together just until the whisk leaves trails of soft peaks in the bowl, and you have a gorgeous, caffe-latte-colored airy mixture.
Fill one or two containers and freeze for 6 hours or overnight. Serve straight from the freezer.
Makes about 6 servings.