Sandra Lee: Deconstructionist. Revolutionary.
One of Food Network’s most brash and audacious talents is Sandra Lee, who works almost exclusively in the medium of processed foods, and who has single-handedly turned traditional notions of food preparation on their head. On her Food Network show “Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee,” she regularly shatters the conventions of ingredient selection, radically re-alters traditional notions of cooking technique and develops groundbreaking approaches to building flavor, refinement of texture and presentation of her dishes.
Consider, if you will, her “Halibut Tacos With Peach Salsa”:
* 1 pound halibut
* 1 packet (1-ounce) hot taco seasoning mix
* 2 cups mild chunky salsa
* 1 cup frozen peach slices, thawed and chopped
* 1 teaspoon ground allspice
* 8 supersized yellow corn tortillas, warmed
* 1 package (8-ounce) coleslaw mix
1) Set up the grill for direct cooking over medium heat and oil the grates.
2) Place halibut on a plate and rub with taco seasoning. Cover with plastic wrap and cure in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
3) Place the halibut on the grill and cover. Cook for 4 minutes per side, or until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Remove from the grill and let stand 10 minutes.
4) Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine salsa, peaches, and allspice.
5) Cut the halibut into bite-size pieces. Place halibut pieces in warmed tortillas and top with salsa and coleslaw mix. Serve warm.
Diners encountering this dish for the first time must have been shocked and disoriented, in the same manner as the Parisian audience who attended the premier of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1913. While “Rite Of Spring” introduced intense polyrhythms and dissonance to contemporary music, here Sandra shatters convention by curing Halibut in taco seasoning mix, teasing our palate with the traditional flavor of the Americanized taco, and then pulling the rug out from under us with aggressively sweet peaches, a devastating shot of allspice and the sudden crunch of raw coleslaw. But it is her choice of halibut that adds an air of playfulness and mystery to her work. Why halibut? Why not turbot, or haddock, or tilapia, or mahi-mahi? There is no way to know why Sandra chose to work in halibut specifically, and exclusively – however, some have theorized that because halibut has been a staple food of native americans going back for centuries, Sandra is slyly referencing the taco’s origins in the corn-based diet of native and meso-americans.
But it was not until Sandra’s “Provence Style Chicken Breasts” that the culinary world – and particularly French culinary tradition, were entirely turned on their head. Such a bold statement reverberated through the cooking world, announcing the arrival of a new era where traditional flavors were simply no longer sufficient modes of expression for the culinary artist.
* 4 boneless skinless chicken breast fillets
* 3 tablespoons light olive oil
* 2 tablespoons lemonade concentrate
* 1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar
* 2 tablespoons herbs de Provence
* 1 tablespoon citrus herb seasoning
1) INDOOR: Prepare chicken as directed. Preheat broiler. Place chicken breast fillets on foil lined baking sheet or broiler pan. Broil 6 to 8 inches from heat source for 2 to 4 minutes per side. Do not over cook.
2) Rinse and pat dry breast fillets. Pound to 1/2-inch thick; set aside.
3) In a small bowl mix together remaining ingredients. Pour marinade mixture into large zip-top bag and add chicken. 4) Squeeze out air and place in refrigerator 1 to 2 hours.
5) Set up grill for direct grilling over medium heat. Oil grate when ready to start cooking. Remove chicken from refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
6) Place chicken on hot oiled grill and cook 2 to 3 minutes per side or until done.
Here, Sandra’s call for infusion of flavor into the chicken by marinating it in lemonade concentrate completely shattered all preconceptions of the nature of “provencal” flavor. You might ask “why not just lemon juice?,” but that would be entirely missing the point.
Sandra continues to challenge and confound the world of traditional cooking. We will occasionally be checking in with her as she boldly charts a new path in the development of American cuisine.