Friday, November 13, 2009

An evening with Jeffrey Saad

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If you watched season 5 of The Next Food Network Star, you'll remember Jeffrey Saad, who almost won - but didn't. I got the chance to meet him tonight at a small event, where he demoed a few dishes and handed around tastes. Everything he served fit with his spices-make-the-world-go-round outlook: butternut squash soup with an allspice cream, Chinese five-spice shrimp sliders with an Asian slaw, and turkey topped with a cranberry-harissa-mint sauce.

Note: Jeffrey's jar of Chinese five-spice powder was from Penzey's, whose catalogs I believe should arrive in the mail in a plain brown wrapper, so high is the food porn content within. He admits that he sometimes goes in just to stick his nose into various jars and inhale. Me too. It's a better high than drugs (I imagine).

So one very interesting thing about Jeffrey is his level of energy. And animation. And just plain in-your-face intensity. It's easy to see why he grabbed us from behind the TV camera. Look at these snapshots, and the expressions I happened to catch within a two-minute span, and you'll see what I mean:

Of the dishes he made, I was most intrigued by the shrimp. He salted them, coated them in Chinese five-spice powder, then sauteed them over high heat for just about a minute total. I thought the spices might burn and turn bitter, but they didn't at all, because the cooking time was so short. He took the shrimp out of the pan, threw in some shallots, then deglazed with rice wine. He added the shallot mixture to the shrimp (chopped up) with a little mayo, and put the shrimp on a small soft roll. The Asian slaw that topped it was just julienned cabbage tossed with seasoned rice wine vinegar, salt, and some shredded carrots. It made a tasty little bite with an interesting savory-aromatic overtone (the five-spice blend).

The cranberry sauce Jeffrey served over the turkey was also notable. He cooked fresh cranberries with water and sugar, then added toasted cumin seeds, harissa (a spicy Moroccan paste), and chopped fresh mint. I didn't taste the harissa - I'm sure he toned it down so as not to offend anyone with too much heat - but the mint was a great addition to the cranberries. I'm definitely going to try that come Thanksgiving. (Here's the cranberry sauce recipe on Jeffrey's blog.)

And here's the single most important thing I learned from Jeffrey Saad: "There are three reasons food cooked at home doesn't taste as good. The pan's not hot enough. The oil's not hot enough. And the food is wet." Dry your meat, poultry and fish, people, before you put it in the frying pan! Don't be afraid to crank up the heat! That's the only way to get a good sear, that brown goodness that keeps the inside tender and makes a beautiful crust on the outside.

Jeffrey's not on the Food Network yet, but he will be, I'm confident. Meantime, before he gets to television, you can watch the videos on his website ( I just watched his video tutorial on how to poach an egg, and I'm ready to conquer my fears. Now if he'd only do a video about pie crust....

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