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TVFF Interview: Sandra Lee
Friday, July 27, 2007 | posted by Mike

I'm the first to admit that, here in the TVFF household, we don't make everything from scratch. There's the frozen pierogi, the jarred Indian simmer sauces and Goya flavored rice, all of which make regular appearances at my meals. But I do try to bring something original -- be it sautéed onions or fresh cilantro -- to make it just a bit more flavorful, healthy and fun.

This, of course, is the mantra of Sandra Lee, whose Semi-Homemade philosophy has made her a best-selling author and Food Network star who appeals to busy mothers and fathers and whose run-away success confounds self-professed foodie purists. Regardless of your position, Lee's lessons and recipes appeal to a large number of people who otherwise would solely rely on nothing but processed foods and take out.

A regular in the Food Network lineup, Sandra Lee will be debuting a new special this Saturday, July 28th at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

In Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade Grilling, Sandra throws the ultimate waterfront BBQ blowout. She shares her grilling tips and techniques along with clever outdoor entertaining ideas that everyone can do! The show has vehicles for everyone – from a slick motorcade of flashy hot Harley’s to a furiously fast convertible corvette that Sandra races around in while whipping up a tasty array of great grilled foods. The menu features fabulous recipes for Savory Sausage, Shrimp, and Veggie Skewers, easy spice-rubbed slow-smoked Chicken and a bourbon-marinated Tri-Tip steak that is grilled to perfection as well as much more. Later in the day, Sandra’s BBQ sauce competition heats up her guests’ taste-buds, just in time for a refreshing “Cocktail Time” served as the sun sets. It's all engines "go" when the party rolls up for a fun bonfire feast by the water.

This is all very, very good timing as I just bought a four-burner propane grill, despite the fact that I have close to zero experience with propane grilling. Should be interesting.

TV Food Fan had a chance to chat with Ms. Lee about her upcoming special, her influence on the Food Network and the importance of a signature cocktail. We caught her on the busy (and noisy!) streets of New York City, just after she wrapped up an appearance on Good Morning America.

TV Food Fan: Why are grilling and cookouts so important to America's food culture?

Sandra Lee: America is "known for its barbecue," perhaps more so than any other place in the world. Maybe Australia, but nowhere is it as "beloved" as it is in the U.S. The attraction comes from the western..."Bonanza, John Wayne movies around the campfire."

The draw of the cookout is that it's "quick, easy and enjoyable," and that it lets people take pleasure in the "joy of summertime."

TVFF: Grilling can be intimidating to the home cook. How do you get people to overcome that fear?

SL: "You need to jump in with two feet and do it," with an emphasis on making sure that you're properly prepared. "My grilling book walks you through this," and it's all about becoming "knowledgeable and being educated." In other words, "read your instructions!"

The important things to learn include which gadgets can enhance the grilling experience and creative ways of "adding flavor to your food by using things like woodchips."

TVFF: What is your best shortcut technique for grilling?

SL: "You know...a good marinade." Also, "making sure that your grill is properly heated, which will give you the grill marks and seal in the juices." Using alcohol in the marinade can cut three-quarters off of the marinating time, and can impart "great flavors," with the sugars in the marinade caramelizing for added taste.

She also suggested using the grill for other cooking methods, including poaching. Her sister's recipe for poached salmon includes the fish wrapped in sheets of aluminum foil and features butter, brown sugar and beer (an ingredient close to TVFF's heart!). The key thing to remember is that most of the ingredients where just "something you can grab out of your fridge."

TVFF: When it comes to ingredients, grilling can get a bit expensive and complicated. What gives you the best bang for your buck in terms of time and money savings?

SL: "There are so many things you can do with the good, old-fashioned American hamburger." This includes things like adding blue cheese from a previous meal's salad and using things like McCormick seasoning packets that include all of the necessary ingredients without "costing you something like $50 if you bought them individually."

Lee countered the common criticism about using pre-packaged ingredients by contending that "restaurants use the same packaged ingredients" and that it was silly to think that they don't find time-saving shortcuts.

"People are often afraid to experiment...but you can embellish, tweak and personalize and there is no rule that says you can't take credit for it."

TVFF: Food Network has moved toward shows for the home cook. As one of the first, how do you feel you've influenced Food Network's programming?

SL: "Rachael [Ray] and I headed that initiative up, which is why the shows were back-to-back when we launched." Lee stated that many shows for the home cook tend to "gloss over" which brands to use in recipes. "People used to say that Julia Child's recipes didn't work, but that was because they didn't know what [ingredients] she used."

This is why Lee makes it a point to recommend specific brands for her recipes. "We don't get paid by the brands," she said. Her job is to "be a guide through the grocery store," to make sure that the home cook is able to accurately recreate a recipe. "ReddiWip and Cool-Whip have very different consistencies."

"Open a can of broccoli soup...a can of Campbell's and a different brand...and look at it. They're different...it's a better quality ingredient. My job is to tell [the audience] which to use."

TVFF: Looking around the Internet, you generate quite a bit of commentary, some of it in good fun and some of it a bit more critical. Do you pay any attention to this and, if so, what is your reaction?

SL: "When it's personal, it's unnecessary." These are people who "haven't spoken to me" and "does anyone really care about it?" However, the discussion does bring attention, and with it viewers, who are able to "make up their own minds" about Lee and her show.

When it comes to criticism of the Semi-Homemade way of cooking, she contends that it's a great way to make sure that parents are available for their family. "Families are going through a fast food drive-through four times a week...but they would rather be able to make a home-cooked meal."

This is why her show was paired with Rachael Ray. Their programs provide "two ways of getting to the same message."

Lee also made sure to note the amount of work that she puts into her program. "You could write up a menu and record a show...but I really work on it. I'm only comfortable if I'm giving 120%."

TVFF: One thing that always gets mentioned is the signature cocktail. I know that the special features one. Why is this an important part of entertaining, and how can the home entertainer come up with their own?

SL: "I'm from the Midwest, and it's always cocktail time in Wisconsin, right?" The cocktails are just a "cute, fun" segment. Although she said that she enjoys a nice glass of wine, "who doesn't like a cocktail?"

TVFF: Finally, since your show focuses on entertaining, which three people would you like to have at a dinner party?

SL: "Kathy Griffin, who would be there to tell the jokes...Wayne Brady, to sing...and [Dirty Jobs star] Mike Rowe for the expressions on his face. He has the best reactions!" It would be a fun and interesting group and, of course, there would have to be some cocktails: "I think three a piece."

"And we'd have you on the grill!" Thanks for the invite...but let me get a little practice in first, OK?


Hi, I'm Mike and I created TVFoodFan.com as a place where you can come to get the latest news and views about what’s going on in the world of culinary television.

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