Stuart Blog 2: blog | Reviews index

Saturday, November 20, 2004

blog | Reviews index

blog | Reviews index

I should never leave my apartment. I was in Minneapolis for a short vacation/long weekend, and when I returned I was greeted with toppling piles of packages and an inbox it will take me weeks to catch up with. But the good thing about returning was the final additions to my Thanksgiving magazine collection waiting in my mailbox.

So today debuts a new series on the blog, a look at what's good and what's freakishly bad in magazines. This month is on the Thanksgiving issues of cooking magazines. I have to say, I was disappointed. Usually Cook's Illustrated has an outstanding issue, but their "The Last Word on Roast Turkey" was pretty much replicated in every other cooking magazine. And their turkey recipe -- pretty much "brine, then rub with butter and shove in oven" -- left much to be desired. Eating Well on the other hand decided to ignore Thanksgiving all together.

Gourmet Magazine

Geared towards: Rich housewives with a personal chef and kitchen assistants.

Number of Thanksgiving menus offered: 1

Vegetarian options: 1

Levels of difficulty: 10. One side dish instructs you to make twenty “purses” of sausage wrapped in Swiss chard leaves. They even demand you make your own “Parmesan cloaks” for your poached pears with quince paste. Gourmet doesn’t even bother to help out with a detailed timeline or a pull out grocery list. And if you’re planning on making their menu, be prepared to shell out some money. You’ll need a lot of specialty items and expensive ingredients.

The vegetarian option is not much more approachable, with its main dish of Roasted Delicata Squash and Mushrooms with Thyme. They do not, by the way, offer a substitution for those who have never heard of Delicata squash.

Recipes I might consider using: Roasted Beet Risotto

Most helpful feature: The taste test of chicken stocks.

Most unreasonable request: Gourmet does love to complicate the simple. Their two page spread on mashed potatoes managed to make the most simple dish on the menu a lot more time consuming. Don’t boil the potatoes, they instruct. Wrap them in foil and bake them. Do not just add butter, milk or chicken stock. Anything you add to the potatoes must be preheated. And don’t even read the gravy article unless you want to spend a week perfecting your browning technique.

Recipes for leftovers: none

Wine coverage: Pairing advice for both traditional menu and vegetarian menu, price ranging from $9 to $32.

Other items they think you need: a $200 tablecloth from France.

Overall: As usual, the photography is top-notch and the writing is a delight – including Ruth Reichl’s remembrances of a mother who couldn’t cook a turkey to save her life. But the food seems about as cozy as a roped off room in a museum. This is an issue to sigh over and look at, but not cook from.

Cooking Light

Geared towards: People who can watch Rachel Ray’s shows on the Food Network without wanting to punch her in the face. Also, people really into yoga.

Number of Thanksgiving menus offered: 2

Vegetarian options: 1

Levels of difficulty: 6. Cooking Light tends to be more reasonable than the other cooking magazines. The recipes are straightforward, with little mention of garnish and no superfluous flourishes. The recipes are also conscious of time issues, calling for canned beans instead of dried and mentioning when dishes can be made in the microwave to save valuable oven and stovetop space.

In contrast, the vegetarian option sounds a little crazy. The main dish is Phyllo Purses with Roasted Squash, Peppers, and Artichokes. Until you have mastered phyllo, it will make you want to die. The dessert -- instead of pumpkin pie, which is vegetarian last I heard -- is a Chile-Lime Pineapple with Cardamom-Lime Ice Cream, possibly the least autumnal dessert in all of the magazines.

Wine coverage: No wine information other than perpetuating the myth that really expensive wine glasses will make wine taste even better.

Recipes I might consider using: Herbed Bread Stuffing with Mushrooms and Sausage

Most helpful feature: Interview with Rick Rogers, author of Thanksgiving 101.

Most unreasonable request: That I cook for family not only on Thanksgiving, but also have dinner for them on Wednesday night and leftovers prepared on Friday, a “casual dinner” of three courses on Saturday, and brunch on Sunday. And that I do yoga.

Recipes for leftovers: If you once used chicken in a recipe, why not just use turkey now?

Other items they think you need: yoga

Overall: Once you get to the recipes, they’re usually very good. But Cooking Light is more of a lifestyle magazine, and it can be frustrating to flip through a hundred pages of yoga, herbal nonsense, finding the perfect “green” bed for your dog, and “I’m sad. Is it my snack choice?” articles to get to the food.

Bon Appetit

Geared towards: People intimidated by Gourmet and frightened by Cooking Light’s intended audience.

Number of Thanksgiving menus offered: 5

Vegetarian options: 1 (Surprisingly, it’s positioned right up front, not hidden in the back like most of the other magazines.)

Levels of difficulty: 5 – 8. The large number of menus and the wide range of styles means you can mix and match to find the perfect menu for you. You can either go super fancy, small scale, or family-oriented.

The vegetarian option is the best I’ve seen this year. Simple, but well rounded, and not so obsessed with being arty that it no longer sounds like a Thanksgiving meal. It even suggests pumpkin pie as dessert.

Wine coverage: Suggests a range of Rieslings, none of them over $15.

Recipes I might consider using: Potato and Wild Mushroom Gratin, Thyme-Roasted Turkey with Fresh Thyme Gravy

Most helpful feature: Cranberry Daiquiri recipe. I’ll need about ten before the family gets here.

Most unreasonable request: A coconut dessert on Thanksgiving?

Recipes for leftovers: Making me look forward to the day after.

Other items they think you need: $90 mushrooms

Overall: The Thanksgiving issue is always their best, but Bon Appetit really outdid themselves this year. They have significantly cleaned up their designs, their recipes are enticing, and the variety is excellent. The magazine’s writing could be better, but when I want to flip through back issues to find something for dinner, I always reach for Bon Appetit before Gourmet or Cooking Light.

Everyday Food

Geared towards: People who have never cooked in their lives. Ever.

Number of Thanksgiving menus offered: 1

Vegetarian options: none.

Levels of difficulty: 2. They have turned their promise of “simple steps to a delicious (and doable) holiday” into “we’re going to talk to you like you’re five.” Their tips include “store [butter] in the refrigerator” and “check temperature periodically” to determine when the turkey is done. They don’t even take into consideration that you might not own a food processor, and their piecrust recipe (so simple!) does not include alternate instructions for making it by hand.

Wine coverage: Revelations like, “Before serving [white wine], chill for about an hour in the refrigerator.” No specifics on pairings.

Recipes I might consider using: none.

Most helpful feature: Detailed shopping list and timeline.

Most unreasonable request: That I be an idiot.

Recipes for leftovers: two

Other items they think you need: For a magazine for people who can’t cook, they sure do expect you to have every appliance known to man.

Overall: I know this is Martha Stewart’s magazine for people who are scared of cooking, but you could get better recipes off the backs of condensed soup cans. There has to be some middle ground between this and Stewart telling us how to make Christmas decorations out of our Thanksgiving turkey bones. Find some middle ground. Please.

Food & Wine

Geared towards: California residents with very large wine cellars

Number of Thanksgiving menus offered: 4

Vegetarian options: none

Levels of difficulty: 8. While F&W do provide a nice range of options for Thanksgiving dinner, each recipe seems like someone asked, “Yes, but can we just add one more step?” There are side dishes that call for making your own herbed butter, desserts with more than one ingredient that explains “Recipe follows.”

Wine coverage: A defense of chardonnay as a Thanksgiving wine, also a wine pairing for almost every dish.

Recipes I might consider using: Spicy kale chowder with Andouille Sausage

Most helpful feature: The division of the dishes. Each dish is categorized as a starter, side dish, turkey, or dessert, and then each of those categories is broken into “Five Days Ahead,” “Two Days Ahead,” and “Thanksgiving Day,” allowing the reader to plan out their menu based on how much advance work they want to do, or how much time they’ll have on Thanksgiving.

Most unreasonable request: The dessert options are Pumpkin Pudding with Candied Ginger Whipped Cream, White Chocolate Cake with Orange Marmalade Filling, and Frozen Hazelnut Mousse Cakes with Armagnac. No thanks.

Recipes for leftovers: none.

Other items they think you need: a brand new, redesigned kitchen

Overall: Food & Wine tries too hard to be Gourmet without having the quality writers when it should be aspiring to have quality recipes like Bon Appetit. However, they do offer the smartest information on pairing wine with your food, but manage to do it in an unsnobby way. Their series on the makings of an oenophile has been very good, and highlights their approach: less guy-from-Sideways, more the nicest guy who has ever worked at your neighborhood wine shop. If only the Food half of their magazine was like that.
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