Meeting Alex Guarnaschelli: Iron Chef, Chopped Judge
She’s always seemed very real to me, and her cooking demo and book signing this past Sunday at Let’s Get Cookin’ in Westlake Village, California, proved this to be true.
I was ecstatic to get the tickets—a whopping $110 for the demo and signed cookbook—since celebrity chef demos usually get sold out on release. (Didn’t make it past the waiting list for Fabio Viviani of Top Chef fame.)
Old School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook
Released on April 9, 2013
Available on Amazon.com for $20.85
It was definitely worth every penny.
By the time fellow-foodie, cousin Becca, and I got there—45 minutes early—the only empty seats were in the last and second-from-last rows. We were in the company of some serious foodies and Alex fans—although the lady sitting right next to me didn’t even know who she was!
Me and Becca with our cute plastic food trays.
The line was out the door for the open book signing, in the hour preceding the Cooking Demo.
No wonder Alex already looked a little wiped when she got to us, but still managed to be charming and very entertaining. She has a cute, devilish smile and wicked sense of humor, and wasn’t phased by anything; not even the sometimes spotty camera work of LCG’s owner, Phyllis Vaccarelli—chasing the camera with the food very playfully. She’s clearly used to being surrounded by big fancy cameras; requesting that we not take pics or record the demo, because she can’t resist playing to the camera.
Most impressive was the way she handled the self-admitted ADD sufferer in the front row—the rest of us were getting way more annoyed than she let on, until about the twentieth comment/question prompted her to snap (just a little), but she immediately recovered with a sweet smile and quip.
A band of chefs hustled to prepare the four selections from Old-School Comfort Food for us to try, while Alex demonstrated how to make them.
I loved how nonchalant and relaxed she was with her cooking, ironically instructing us to “carefully place the meatballs in the sauce,” while cheekily dumping them in. Good lesson for me—control freak that I am!
I was amazed at her ability to multi-task: preparing all four dishes below, while answering questions and sharing lovely anecdotes of her experiences as an only child in a foodie family, and being mom to an almost-six-year-old daughter—who chooses to watch Ina Garten over Mom.
And all with a smile. Very impressive!
I guess this is nothing compared with competing on Next Iron Chef; or actually being an Iron Chef—which she joked earns her accolades over the exact same dishes she made before earning the coveted title.
Baked Clams with Bacon
Clams are not usually my first shellfish choice, but these were very tasty—with butter, breadcrumbs, and bacon, how could they not be?
Arugula and Strawberry Salad
Surprisingly light and refreshing dressing, despite the mayonnaise, and the poppy seeds add wonderful flavor and crunch.
I’m officially an arugula convert; I think the key was that she chopped the arugula a few times so I didn’t feel like a giraffe grazing from a tree.
It was quite comical the way everyone was asking if you could add or substitute other things in the salad—this was before we even tasted it.
Lady 1: Can we add other fruit?
Alex: No. Go and make a fruit salad and get it out of your system. Then make this salad.
Man 1: Can we use low fat mayonnaise?
Alex: Sure, use whatever you like. I’m not the mayonnaise police, I’m not coming to your house to try your salad. (something like that)
Lady 2: Can we substitute Pine Nuts for the Poppy Seeds?
Alex: I’m not coming over to your house to eat your salad, so go ahead and put whatever you like in it.
Me (to myself): Don’t keep asking her what else you can put in the salad instead of what she created—if you don’t like it, don’t make it!
It always amazes me how some people are just oblivious to the fact that the other 51 people in the class aren’t interested in every single comment or question they have; censor yourselves people!
Beef Meatballs and Sauce with Rigatoni
The meatballs had a delicious charred flavor—can’t wait to make them. I could have done with more parmesan cheese, and found the sauce a little watery and separate from the pasta—not “married” to one another. I wish I could have tried the one Alex actually made herself.
- She spreads the meat around the bottom and up the sides of the bowl to season.
Beats my usual method of salting the one side of the chunk of beef and then pretending to myself that I’ve turned it over, and salting the imaginary other side. (I know, I should never have admitted that in public!)
- Sometimes she purees half the sauce; she prefers a chunkier sauce.
- She uses fresh tomatoes as well as canned (recent convert to San Marzano), because the pectin acts as a natural thickener.
- She likes the “grassiness” of the curly parsley; probably because that’s what her Dad used to use.
And for the Pièce de Résistance…
Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting and Caramel Top
One of the highlights was watching her “crack” the hardened caramel with the heel of the knife.
This couldn’t have come at a better time because Sam’s birthday is coming up, and to my dismay, he requested his favorite chocolate cake: Duncan Hines Devil’s Food Cake with Betty Crocker Chocolate Frosting.
My rare opportunity to bake a special-occasion-cake, and this is what he wants!
Happily, after my pics and mouthwatering description of this spectacular cake—her birthday cake of choice—he was excited for a real birthday cake! The cake was moist and delicious, and the decadent chocolate frosting was oh-so-creamy and smooth—in perfect contrast with the crunchy caramel and surprise burst of salt. Sublime!
Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t think of asking her what I could substitute for the Corn Syrup (which she uses to stabilize the Caramel), since he’s borderline allergic.
Alex Baking Tips
- Drop the cake pan gently a few times to even out the batter.
- She folded in the flour with a spatula. I wish I could remember if she put it back in the mixer after, or just did it by hand!
Does anyone remember?
Oil for sautéing: (Good question Becca!)
She never browns in Olive Oil because of the low smoking point, and the fact that she often burns things; she prefers Canola Oil.
She never uses Peanut Oil because of people with food allergies. (Very thoughtful, I thought.)
Kerrigold—which elicited a whoop from the crowd, so I’m going to have to purchase some. Happily you can find it at Trader Joe’s as well as Costco—I’m thinking the first time should be a smaller quantity!
“The expensive kind.” (She couldn’t remember the brand)
But she figures each bottle is giving you 70 moments of joy, so it’s worth it.
More Alex Tips
- She’s always burning things, so she keeps a squeeze bottle of water by the stove at all times.
- A bit of sugar really brings out the acid and flavor in things.
Cute Things She Said…
If you cook with a bit of butter, you’re less likely to eat a bag of Doritos later.
Every time you add something to the pan, pay your taxes in salt.
Love this. Great way of explaining that you need to season each layer.
I just love cake; it’s my favorite food group.
When everyone thinks I’m at home, dining on Caviar, I’m enjoying my Del Monte Creamed Corn, followed by Doritos for some crunch.
Alex’s Favorite Meal
I, too, grew up eating Sweet Corn—on Toast.
Judging from the amount of times she mentioned Doritos, I’m guessing they are her drug of choice.
One of the highlights was her candid rendition of competing with seemingly sweet and charming, but super-competitive mother—highly acclaimed cookbook editor, Maria Guarnaschelli—on All Star Family Cook Off; with Anne Burrell and her sister, and Robert Irvine and Geoffrey Zakarian and their wives.
I MUST get my hands on that episode!
I was so excited to have my moment with her after the demo, and share my famous South-African “Crunchies.”
I really hope she tried them! I packed up a beautiful tin with a layer of plain ones on the bottom and chocolate ones on the top.
Who better than a Chopped judge to tell me if I could do something with them! (Bit scary)
I know that a nice, fresh, chewy Crunchie (on the bottom layer of the tin) would be the perfect thing with her morning coffee when she’s stuck in her hotel room, away from home.
Chocolate Crunchies Coming Soon!
I do remember when some strange dude brought cookies to one of my performances at Lunaria Jazz Club, and I of course didn’t eat them!
Hopefully the fact that I have a food blog makes me somewhat legit; and less scary and weird for her to try my baked goods. (I really don’t want to be known as the groupie/stalker/cookie pusher.)
Do you think she tried them?
Old School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook was released on April 9, 2013.
Available on Amazon.com for $20.85
The book reads like an auto-biography and the wonderful pictures, anecdotes, and ‘old-school tips’ make you feel like she’s right next to you, and inspire you to want to make all of them!
A few recipes that really stood out to me
- Overnight Garlic Bread
- Spicy Cauliflower Fritters
- Leeks Vinaigrette
- Roast Beef with Small Potatoes, Pan Drippings, and Sichuan Peppercorns
- Braised Short Rib French Onion Soup
- Slow-Cooked Brisket, Cider-Glazed Parsnips, and Celery
- Braised Chicken Legs and Thighs with Ginger and Tomato
- Beer-Braised Carrots
- Indian Pudding
And of course… Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting and Caramel Top (she made it look so easy—I’ll let you know how it goes.)
My mouth is watering right now as I am typing! I can’t wait to sit down with a cup (or two) of coffee and read this book from cover to cover.
My next trip to New York City will definitely include a visit to Alex’s acclaimed restaurant Butter—where they make their own butter, sour cream and whipped cream.
Let’s Get Cookin’, Westlake Village, CA
Phyllis Vaccarelli, owner of Let’s Get Cookin’
If you’re a foodie in the Los Angeles Area, check out the Let’s Get Cookin’ Schedule online >>
They offer wonderful, hands-on classes for amateurs and professionals.
This was only my second class, and I can’t wait to try some more!