Forget Food Network, PBS is where it's at for great food programming

America’s Test Kitchen, which resembles in format Alton Brown’s Good Eats, is hosted by Cook’s Illustrated's editor-in-chief Christopher Kimball. The chefs deconstruct everyday dishes such as fried chicken and key lime pie and rework the recipes, demonstrating the techniques so the home cook may avoid pitfalls and common mistakes. They also review food products and kitchen equipment without bias as they are not corporate sponsored.

Lydia’s Italy is hosted by Lydia Bastianich, the matriarch of Italian cooking. You will never crave fresh pasta more than while watching her show. On a side note, her son, Joe Bastianich, a restaurateur and wine expert, is a judge on Gordon Ramsey’s latest amateur cooking competition, MasterChef, on the Fox network.

Steven Raichlen’s Barbecue University teaches us how to respect and properly cook meats on an open fire (and puts Bobby Flay to shame, in my humble opinion).

World-renowned chef Rick Bayless’ show Mexico: One Plate At A Time highlights dishes from all regions of Mexico, along with some interesting food history.

Charismatic chef Jose Andres, credited with introducing tapas to mainstream America and arguably the "King of Spanish cuisine", hosts Made in Spain.

Author and former New York Times food critic, Ruth Reichl, is co-producer of Gourmet Magazine’s Diary of a Foodie and host of Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth. Both shows are similar to Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations on the Travel Channel, as Ruth roams the world in search of epicurean delights from all cultures.

Spain - On The Road Again features former Food Network chef and orange Crocs wearing Mario Batali, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols. I have mixed feelings about this show -- while it presents the cuisine of Spain in all it’s finery, the hosts’ pretentiousness is palpable. It’s fascinating, educating and infuriating all at the same time, as I know I will most likely never have the privilege of taking such a thorough gastronomic tour of any country, in Europe or elsewhere, and this is unapologetically rubbed in my envious face by Batali and company. It irks me that Gwyneth Paltrow is even invited along, as she is a vegetarian. I have an almost irresistible urge to reach through my television’s screen and smack her as she turns her elitist nose up at a platter full of Iberico ham and straight-from-the-boat sardines, grilled and sprinkled with sea salt.

[image-1]The most entertaining and atypical cooking show on PBS that I have seen is New Scandinavian Cooking. Covering Norway, Finland and Denmark, the chef hosts are natives to the icy landscapes, utilize all locally-sourced ingredients, and almost always cook outside in the snow on makeshift heat sources. Granted, most of us won’t be whipping up a batch of moose stew with root vegetables any time soon, but watching these Nordic chefs cook over an open flame in sub-zero temperatures somehow makes it look so good.

These are just a handful of the entertaining and informative cooking shows broadcast on PBS. Explore your local PBS stations, and after watching, if you feel compelled to cancel your cable TV subscription, make sure you invest your savings wisely. Buy some nice rabbit ear antennae, donate to PBS, then purchase some Iberico ham, queso Oaxaca and some lingonberries and let your eyes and palate take a trip around the world.

I refuse to subscribe to cable or satellite television. I would rather spend that $50 to $100 a month on a memorable meal and a great bottle of wine than on 200 channels of mostly simple-minded garbage. I have had cable TV in the past, and in fact, at one point recently, my local cable company inadvertently connected my home to basic cable while installing my internet service. In a very short span of time I became hooked on The Food Network, The Travel Channel and Bravo. I’m still of the opinion that it was a ploy to reel me in, only to snatch it away when they realized their “mistake”, confident that I was fully and hopelessly addicted by then and would break down and pay their astronomical fees to get my fix. I did not give in, though it was heartbreaking for a while to hear my peers discussing the latest episode of Top Chef knowing I would probably never see it.

I eventually recovered, aided by the digital revolution and the now-standard converter box. With rabbit ear antennae proudly pointed to the sky I now receive 8 different PBS stations. You see, I refer to PBS as the original Food Network. I grew up on PBS in the years before cable TV even existed. In between Sesame Street and The Electric Company, I remember watching culinary icons Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and Steven Yan creating exotic dishes using ingredients my young Midwestern palate had never heard of, much less tasted. Now my appreciation for such chefs and their shows is tenfold.

Locally, Sunday afternoons are the best time to catch the cooking shows but check the PBS website for complete listings. These are a few of my personal favorites:

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