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Cookbook Review: When Those Great Easy Meals Aren't So Perfect On The Food Network

How many times are we going to say the magazine-cum-cookbook seems to be the publishing trend du jour? One more time, apparently, when the The Food Network Magazine releases Great Easy Meals: 250 Fun & Fast Recipes in the coming weeks. The press release promises the magazine's first cookbook "has all the features America loves about the bestselling magazine, and more." A cookbook that promises to be packed with glossy PR-pitches, perfectly styled recipes, and Food Network celebrity smiles? Oh goody.

Actually, this cookbook could actually be good. The television network, after all, is one of the few media outlets that can still boast a big test kitchen staff. And the book gets major brownie points for not being yet another platform for an individual Food Network celeb to tell us why everyone just loves their cooking so much. Instead, we are greeted in the Table of Contents by the pearly-white smiles of several celebs who promise to keep their soliloquies about their innermost kitchen lives to one-page via profiles throughout the book. But unfortunately, like the magazine, there is a glaring pitch-feel to those celebrity write-ups.

Guess What The Product Giveaway PR Was With Chiarello's Book?
Guess What The Product Giveaway PR Was With Chiarello's Book?
flickr user chtk

Not to mention just plain silly soapbox comments. Consider the Neely's: "Probably the biggest misconception people have is that we don't cook because of all that cooking on TV," says Pat Neely. Really? We've never thought Food Network personalities actually cooked much of anything on the shows themselves. That's what the test kitchen/prep staff is for.

Fine, we should expect a Food Network cookbook to toot its own horn. But we're still having a really hard time justifying the book's "Food Network Kitchen's Secret Ingredients" glossary. Sure, it's perfectly fine to offer us photos and descriptions of rice vinegar and panko bread crumbs, even if arguably both have long since earned their pantry staple status in most home kitchens. But why must the photo of panko be a box of Progresso bread crumbs rather than some enticing shot of the bread crumbs themselves (there is no sidebar saying why Progresso is better than other brands)? It turns out that Food Network personality Michael Chiarello, who is featured in the cookbook, also happens to be a Progresso spokesperson. That chipotle photo? A front-and-center shot of Goya brand smoked jalapenos. Google "Food Network + Goya" and guess what comes up? Yup, a recent New York Times article describing the company's advertising expansion that includes a multi-million dollar Food Network campaign.

As this is a cookbook, perhaps we can fast forward the blatant advertorial and go straight to the recipes. After all, that's why we bought the book. Unfortunately, the recipe photos look like they spent entirely too much time getting their sesame seed makeup done. That most are shot on a clinical white background doesn't help, as it manages to make chicken enchiladas that should be oozing with tempting cheese, and what should be a fantastically messy chile relleno burger, look like they've just checked into the psych ward. That sort of perfection may work under the bright television lights, but in a cookbook it makes one wonder whether the food stylist forgot to bring along her Ritalin.

But we're trying to be objective, so we closed our eyes and pretended all of those clinical photos weren't there -- on every single page. But the recipes still just aren't that interesting. Mini meat loaves, cheese-stuffed pork chops, black bean soup with turkey. The sort of dishes we've made in some form or another so many times, by now we already have a favorite recipe. Or we don't even need a recipe anymore.

Wait, might one argue this is the same sort of thing Chris Kimball and crew do over at America's Test Kitchen in similar books like The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook? The difference is the products ATK endorses are not backed with advertising dollars, and the ATK crew actually spends hundreds of hours perfecting that meatloaf -- and afterward gives you way too much detail about how they came to some sort of tomato paste revelation. Not here. Great Easy Meals simply lists a recipe, no introductory note, and moves on to the next perfectly coiffed photo and basic recipe. Pretty formulaic. But hey, so are most Food Network celebrities.

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