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The Kimball Challenge

The Google entrant in the broccoli casserole challenge

The Google entrant in the broccoli casserole challenge

Gourmet Magazine is no more.  As someone who scribbles about food I am disappointed but I must admit that as a consumer of food-writing I have never subscribed to Gourmet and have never purchased an issue from the newsstand.  I have probably used a few Gourmet recipes through epicurious.com.  Point is that I didn’t value Gourmet enough to pay for it while it was afloat.

Commentators were surprised that this happened and there has actually been an unusual amount of open debate about the underlying causes of Gourmet’s downfall.  Conveniently, The Agenda with Steve Paikin was doing a four part series about food this week and their panel discussion featured a lengthy Gourmet-related debate.  Frederick Kaufman–joining the panel by video feed from New York City–laid the blame squarely at Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl’s feet in very blunt terms.  (He really gets into at about the fourteen minute mark in the linked clip.)  I assumed that he must be an authority on the matter if The Agenda went to the trouble to video-conference him in.  It turns out that he did write a book called A Short History of the American Stomach (February 2009 by Mariner Books)  but once I checked its Amazon sales rank (874,312) I better understood why he is willing to make controversial statements on television (even TVO).

A more mainstream and tempered opinion came from the op-ed pages of the New York Times where Christopher Kimball, publisher of Cook’s Illustrated offered this opinion.  To my reading Kimball’s piece boils down to the feeling that we should value the expertise offered by magazines like Gourmet over the masses of information available for free on the internet but that the much better way to monetise this value is by charging a higher subscription fee (like they do at Cook’s Illustrated) rather than relying on advertising.  This argument resonates with me firstly because I have subscribed to Cook’s Illustrated and have purchased several of their issues before I had a subscription.  They do have a very good online tool and I even went so far as decorate my kitchen with framed back covers from CI.

Kimball drives his opinion home with this challenge: “Google “broccoli casserole” and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing.”  I like a challenge and I like broccoli so I figure why not?

The first important step is to properly spell the search term.  Two “c”s one “l” two “s”s and one “r”.  Google auto-complete will help with this.  Turns out that the first hit is an article on about.com but it is a list of broccoli casserole recipes so I’m clicking through.  The first recipe on the list is for “broccoli pudding” and looks to be pretty close to any broccoli casserole recipe I have ever seen.  We have a challenger.

As a quick comparison I pulled up the Broccoli and Cheese Casserole recipe from cooksillustrated.com.  I don’t think I’ll make both partly because Kimball guaranteed absolute disappointment with the results of a Google search not disappointment relative to what one can pay to get from CI.  Ironically, the cooksillustrated.com search feature is the one characteristic of that website about which I have nothing good to say.  In fact, it’s atrocious.  Using the search term “broccoli casserole” (quotation marks included) yielded six pages of results including an article about using the rubber bands from bunches of broccoli to open jars.  In other words it has no ability to search multi-word terms (frequent occurrences in recipes, no?).  The Broccoli and Cheese Casserole recipe showed up most of the way down the second page of results.

At first glance there aren’t many differences between the two.  The about.com recipe calls for frozen broccoli (not at all my preference) but I have seen CI recipes that use frozen vegetables in prepared dishes.  The about.com recipe even includes nutmeg which is a subtly flavoured ingredient that when called for in non-dessert recipes makes me think “french cooking”.  At first glance this doesn’t look inedible so I’ll give it a shot.

I should probably mention at some point here that I am sure I have never made a broccoli casserole before and I can’t remember too many other vegetable casseroles.  With the one exception of green bean casserole at holiday meals I’m not really a vegetable casserole cooker or eater.  To me vegetables taste best when simply dressed with salt, pepper, oil, and acid and steamed, sauteed, or roasted.  Maybe this is an inherent problem with the challenge itself: There might not be such a thing as a broccoli casserole that doesn’t disappoint.

The casserole assembled and ready for baking

The casserole assembled and ready for baking

The process is simple.  Cook the broccoli, prepare the sauce, combine the two and bake.  As far as I can tell all steps use the proper technique, for instance the eggs are tempered with a third of the hot sauce before being introduced to the rest.

The rather wet on-the-plate results

The rather wet on-the-plate results

Time for the results.  Everyone agreed that the casserole looks great in the cooking vessel.  Browned top with green spears of broccoli poking through here and there.  By a fortunate coincidence the protein for our dinner was moules mariniere, a dish that needs its own bowl, so the broccoli casserole was served on side plates.  Fortunate, I say, because the broccoli promptly leaked a bunch of water all over the plate.  Not technically a broken sauce, I think, because it seems the liquid came straight from the vegetables.  The texture was better than expected in that it was sort of a passable quiche.  The broccoli itself was quite over-cooked but isn’t that par for the course with casseroles?  Taste was good but as I mentioned in yesterday’s post about the pig ear loaf, does anything that has melted cheese integrated into it not taste good?  The casserole needed more spice (I added a dollop of my homemade fermented hot sauce) and I do notice that the CI recipe uses a pinch of cayenne.

What about a conclusion?  Was Chris Kimball right?  Am I disappointed?  It is tough to get past the fact that without this challenge I would never have made a broccoli casserole but in the end I guess I am disappointed in a way I never have been by a Cook’s Illustrated recipe (with the one exception of their Giblet Gravy for a Crowd which is under-thickened by half, but that’s another episode).  I didn’t learn anything from this recipe and the results had absolutely no “wow” factor for me.  There definitely is a place for paid, expert opinion in cooking.  Google and twitter have a much more diverse reach and if I apply what I know about cooking to their offerings (and amalgamate or choose from results instead of just taking the first one) I can cook a lot of food that Cook’s Illustrated and Gourmet could never cover.  When I want to roast a turkey, make applesauce, or bake blondies I’ll stick with the paid experts but if I’m fermenting peppers for hot sauce or cooking with pigs ears I’ll have to trust the more ecclectic and democratic expertise of a Google search.

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One Comment

  1. Jonathan Cooper says:

    I would say that Kimball’s challenge is a bit of a straw man argument. I have trouble believing that anyone would seriously claim that all recipes on the internet are good. However, there should be enough options out there that you’ll be able to find a good one. Of course, the internet is still no substitute for a reliable cookbook.

    I guess in hindsight it’s not surprising that the frozen vegetables were full of water I would guess that if you used uncooked fresh broccoli it would have been fine.

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