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Pantry Raid II: Seeing Red - Recap

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Alton starts in the pantry – the symbol of preparedness. There he talks about canned tomatoes, without which he could not produce tomato sauce. He proposes a “binary tomato sauce” that tastes like it takes hours but actually takes only minutes. Along the way he’ll evaluate canned tomatoes and the tools used with them, discover the truth behind cutlery maintenance, and even delve into the zen of mirepoix.

Alton starts by recommending canned tomatoes over fresh ones. Why? Fresh tomatoes may not be ripe tomatoes. Growers often pick these green and gas them with ethylene. This turns them red but doesn’t actually ripen them. Like a lot of modern foods, tomatoes have become about what will sell more than what’s good. Alton recommends using fresh tomatoes only near the end of the summer when they are in season.

Canned tomatoes come in a lot of varieties. Which is best? Alton starts with basic canned tomato facts. All canned goods must be cooked at least enough to kill pathogens. Since Alton plans to cook his sauce further, he avoids tomatoes that have been heavily cooked. That eliminates the pureed and stewed tomatoes. Seeds make sauce bitter, and there’s no way the crushers can miss them all. To eliminate seeds Alton avoids crushed tomatoes. That leaves whole and diced varieties. Alton theorizes that less processing means a better chance food will taste “right” so he selects whole tomatoes.

Alton enlists the unwitting aid of E. Clement Hoss, president of Badger Industries, to explain the evils of electric can openers. Hoss wants to sell Alton’s viewers the “Can Badger 2000” – the “Ultimate Last Word in Electrical Kitchen Convenience!” Alton disdains such openers because they cannot be washed and that means they’re usually the dirtiest thing in the kitchen. A “health inspector” makes a cameo to mention that these openers are often the first thing inspectors look at in commercial kitchens.

Alton starts his sauce by straining his canned tomatoes. That packing liquid slows cooking and waters the sauce at this stage. Alton saves it for use later. After straining the tomatoes Alton demonstrates a simple way to remove the seeds by scraping. Seeds make sauce bitter so remove as many as possible.

Alton pours the packing liquid into a sauce pan with some sherry vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes, dried oregano and dried basil. This will be the flavoring of the recipe. Alton cooks it until it reduces to a syrup. When the bubbles start to “stack on top of each other” the sauce consistency is correct. While the sauce is reducing, Alton’s got chopping to do.

There’s E. Clement Hoss on television again! This time he’s extolling the “diamond dust encrusted wheels” of the Can Badger 2000 sharpening system. Alton warns viewers off these home sharpening systems - they’ll ruin a good blade. He explains the difference between honing a blade (a process that puts a blade back in true, but cannot restore a dulled edge) and sharpening (restoring a corroded or dulled edge). Every chef can and should hone blades before use. Dull blades require the attention of a professional.

Outside, Alton introduces that professional: Geoff Edges, “The Blade Smith.” Geoff discusses the best knife (the one that fits in your hand – that $100 knife is useless if it never leaves the drawer) and demonstrates how a professional can sharpen a knife using belt sanders and grinding wheels. Geoff guides his technique by how the customer intends to use the knife.

Geoff offers tips for keeping knives sharp:

  • Never cut on a plate or a glass board. Use a wood or plastic board.
  • Keep the knife clean and store it securely.
  • Don’t put knives in the dishwasher
  • Use a honing steel regularly.

Geoff demonstrates how to hone a knife: set the steel firmly on the counter and imagine you’re cutting a thin slice of it from the base of the knife to the tip. Repeat that several times, alternating sides. Make seven “cuts” and switch sides, then switch back for five “cuts,” three “cuts” and lastly a single “cut” on each side. Honing need not be done quickly.

With sharp knives in hand Alton begins the next part of the sauce: mirepoix. He starts with the basic rules of chopping: stand comfortably and securely grip the knife. He cuts carrots first, demonstrating proper knife use (drive with one hand, guide with the other). First he makes lengthwise cuts and then crosswise cuts. The diced carrots go into a roasting pan first (with a little olive oil) because they take much longer to cook. Onion and celery follow the carrot into the pan and garlic goes in last. Alton sweats these vegetables. This is a gentle cook that looks like a sauté but uses low heat. If you hear more than a gentle sizzle or see things browning the heat is too high.

After the vegetables are sweated Alton adds his tomatoes and some capers. That goes into the broiler for a little while; the dry heat intensifies the flavors. Watch this closely as it can burn easily.

Alton removes his vegetable mix from the broiler and uses a white wine to deglaze the pan. Shirley Corriher, food scientist, drops by to explain that some flavor components dissolve in water, some in fat, and some in alcohol. The alcohol in wine dissolves important flavor components and spreads them through the dish. Alton pours these solids and the glaze into a big pot and dusts it with black pepper.

Alton’s production crew ambles by with various foods, allowing him an opportunity to demonstrate how to use this sauce: for mussels use it full strength. For pasta, break out the masher and break up the whole tomatoes. Meatballs need an even smoother sauce; Alton unlimbers his stick blender for that one. For pizza and chicken cacciatore a still smoother sauce is needed; the stick blender comes in handy again. Gazing into his pot as the last of the crew ambles away, Alton realizes he has given away all of his sauce. Oh well – it WAS Good Eats, and he can always make more...