Food Network celebrity Alton Brown lost 45 pounds this summer. How did he do it? He ate sardines. Seriously. He ate sardines every day, along with anchovies and pickled herring.
"I went from 213 pounds to a size 32 waist in five months," said Brown, the star power behind the Food Network's Good Eats. "And I did it by replacing the red meat in my diet with little fish."
Brown was the headliner Saturday afternoon at the first annual Southern Food & Wine Festival in Nashville, where almost 1,000 revved-up fans attended his cooking demo at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. With quirky antics (he snapped off the head of a trout in close range of the video camera) and a bit of science, Brown pushed the sustainability and health benefits of a food many of us find, well, a little disgusting. He also cooked, demonstrating how to filet, smoke, and pickle rainbow trout, a fish he brines first in a quart of water mixed with one-half cup of salt.
"Brine chicken or any kind of fish for three to five hours," Brown said. "It gives the fish a firmer texture."
Although I can't remember why brining works (something to do with salt water changing the molecular structure of the meat), Brown convinced me to give it a try, along with escabèche, a Spanish dish he prepared of seared trout marinated in onions, spices, and white wine.
In addition to cooking, Brown tossed out practical advice: There's no need to marinate meat for more than 20 or 25 minutes; store fragile food in the bottom of the fridge where it's coldest; and eat farm-raised tilapia from America (not Asia) because tilapia are vegetarians.
Later in the evening, Memphis' own Pat and Gina Neely delivered their soulful mix of advice on barbecue and relationships to a smaller but equally enthused crowd.
"Thanks for bringing sexy back to the kitchen," one fan yelled from the audience. "I'm wearing my pink shirt for you, Gina," offered up another. "It says, 'Oink if you love pig.'"
The Neelys, who parlayed Neely's Bar-B-Que restaurants into the cooking show Down Home With the Neelys, demonstrated how to make pork ribs, slaw, barbecue spaghetti, and Lynchburg Lemonade, a Jack Daniel's cocktail made with Limonata and maraschino cherries. They were fun and funny, teasing one another like this:
Pat: "Always rub your meat low and slow." (He was applying dry rub to a slab of ribs, but he really did say that.)
Gina: "Yeah, baby! Go high and fast and you're spending the night on the couch."
For more of the Neelys, watch the premiere of their hour-long profile on the Food Network's Chefography series. The special, scheduled for August 15th, at 7 p.m., was filmed in Memphis earlier this year.
In between cooking demonstrations, I sampled my way around the festival's exhibit hall, looking for products sold locally. My favorite find was Mama Turney's Homemade Pies. Made near downtown Nashville, the bakery churns out 240 nine-inch pies every 55 minutes.
"That's a lot of pies," agreed Michael Turney, the company's president. "But they still taste like you pulled them out of your own oven."
Based on family recipes and sold locally at Kroger and Piggly Wiggly, the pies come in chocolate, chess, pecan, and lemon chess, a flavorful and creamy variety added this year to the lineup.
For more expo products and recipes from Brown and the Neelys, see the Flyer's Hungry Memphis blog.
Maybe you missed this news: Trader Joe's, the gourmet and whole-foods grocery from Southern California, has opened a store in Nashville. It's the only Trader Joe's in Tennessee.
Located in a former Wild Oats store near Vanderbilt University, the place was bustling Sunday at mid-day, and here's why: Trader Joe's sells a remarkable assortment of fresh, frozen, and packaged foods at affordable prices, thanks to aggressive private labeling.
Impulse buying? You bet. I spent $100 in 20 minutes, tossing these favorites in my cart: pomegranate juice, wasabi mayonnaise, cocoa-covered almonds, organic oatmeal, almond biscotti, shea-butter soap, and a can of sardines. (I know. I'm a pushover.) Next time, I'll take a cooler.