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Looking for drama, excitement and larger-than-life personalities on TV?

Let me suggest watching a cooking show.

Step into one of the many kitchens that are available on public and cable television. Watch Emeril "The Bear" Lagasse charge the camera and let loose his famous war cry, "BAM!" Feel sorry as chefs cooking against an unforgiving clock on the Food Network's Ready, Set, Cook! are obligated to respond to the terrierlike yapping of host Sissy Biggers.

There's more _ a lot more. Cooks representing a broad spectrum of skill, culinary interest and ethnic background are eager for exposure. Producers and programers, aware that cooking shows can appeal to a much broader audience than just committed home cooks, encourage them.

Overall, the ideal may be to educate, to kindle a spark of culinary desire. But the power of personality cannot be overestimated. It is essential to establish a rapport with viewers, who are faster with a remote control than the chef is with a chopping knife.

There are dozens of chefs to click on or off. Public television stations, which pioneered cooking shows starting with Julia Child, still provide a big menu, and commercial broadcasters now include food segments on many local and network news and talk shows.

Switch to cable, and the choices multiply. Discovery, the Learning Channel, even TBS and shopping channels serve up some food on video. The ultimate feast for cooking-show gluttons, the TV Food Network, 24 hours of food, wine and cooking shows on a rotating schedule, is becoming increasingly available on cable systems around Tampa Bay.

As for the shows' content and quality, long hours viewing a sampling of programs revealed what follows: a mixed bag.

For overall quality, a show rates 1 to 4 apples. A few deserve a rotten apple but must settle for none at all. The reviews also note what each show does best: entertainment, information or recipes.

(Note: The Tribune Co. is an investor in the Food Network.)


Learned, thoughtful and never condescending, Pepin is the Mr. Chips of television cooking teachers. He loves his subject and loves teaching. His craggy good looks, rich French accent and fast-track career (in his 20s, he cooked for the president of France) further his appeal. Whether teaching solo or tutoring his daughter in another PBS series, Cooking With Claudine, his presentation is relaxed, flexible and encouraging. What show does best: information, recipes. (Pepin's Cooking Techniques will air on WEDU-Ch. 3 at 1 p.m. Saturdays beginning Dec. 27. It also will air on WUSF-Ch. 16 but is not yet scheduled; Cooking With Claudine will air on WUSF-Ch. 16 at 10:30 a.m. Thursdays beginning Nov. 27.)


Much has been written about the effusive Emeril Lagasse's upbeat style and his ability to reach viewers who are "just folks." Although the New Orleans chef comes on too strongly for some viewers, beneath the gyrations and between the cries of "Bam!" are some tasty Louisiana recipes and lots of information. In some ways, Lagasse, the John Madden of television cooks, is the antithesis of the cool and polished Pepin. What they share, however, is respect for pristine ingredients and a love of distinctive flavors. Best at entertainment, recipes. (Food Network).


Here's a pleasant surprise: Caprial Pence, an earnest young Oregon chef with a casual, unintimidating approach who shows no sign of having been bitten by the fusion bug. The food she prepares is straightforward and uncomplicated, closer to Ladies' Home Journal than Gourmet, and her presentation is laced with practical hints. Written recipes are shown, though only a shorthand specialist could write down all the information. Best at information, recipes. (10:30 a.m. Mondays, WUSF-Ch. 16.)

TWO FAT LADIES: 3 apples.

The biggest gamble in cooking programing since Boston's public television station took a chance on Julia Child. (Child, a culinary icon, can be seen in reruns of her PBS series Baking With Julia at noon Saturdays on WEDU-Ch. 3 and at 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays on WUSF-Ch. 16.) Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright, neither young nor thin but blessed with vivid personalities, cruise the British countryside in a motorcycle with sidecar, stopping to look, cook and offer pithy commentary on whatever comes to mind. Food preparation just happens. There's no fuss or ritual to it. Depending on your sensibilities, the ladies are fun or farcical. I vote for fun. Best at entertainment, information. (Food Network.)


Endlessly curious, proud of the tidbits of knowledge he has collected and ready to record a recipe whenever someone in a white chef's jacket appears, this polished reporter represents all of us who, as kids, would turn a globe and dream of travel. Like Gourmet magazine, his program deftly intertwines food and travel. It also benefits from terrific research and technical support. Recipes available in a $39.95 book. A new series, Origins With Burt Wolf, has just begun. Best at information, recipes. (Origins airs on WUSF-Ch. 16 at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays.)

MOLTO MARIO: 3 apples.

Solid and sensible with a pleasant personality, New York City restaurant chef Mario Batali manages to add New World twists to Italian classics without demeaning the originals or distorting their flavors. Best at recipes, information. (Food Network.)

QUENCH: 3 apples.

Here's a breakthrough, a beverage-oriented program for those with a thirst for the good life that's lively, fun and non-pontifical. Quick cuts and unusual camera angles, up-tempo music and informative guests (most of them youthful) are pluses. So are hosts Andrea Immer and Steve Olson. Best at information, entertainment. (Food Network.)


Some find Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, Los Angeles chefs and partners in a restaurant, as abrasive as sandpaper. Others audit their running banter for information and cooking tips and are richly rewarded. Though confined to a New York studio, their imaginary "world tour" will provide some delicious recipes. Best at information, recipes and entertainment. (Food Network.)


The Galloping Gourmet of the 1960s now moves at a canter, and the once-dashing leading man comes across as a well-intentioned uncle. But his colorful shirt and suspenders draw your attention even in the rare moments when he is standing still. Kerr knows technique, and his recipes are sound. A born preacher, he uses them to sell his quite sensible approach to healthful eating. Best at entertainment, information. (TLC.)


Katzen, fresh and healthy-looking, is a good advertisement for the vegetarian diet. Working in a classy home kitchen setting, she prepares simple, pretty food in a well-organized, somewhat stiff manner that lacks the seasoning of humor. There's nutritional information but no bombast. Home cooks will not be intimidated by her cooking skills. Best at recipes, information. (Will air on WUSF-Ch. 16; not yet scheduled.)


As formal and ritualistic as the starched jackets they wear, chefs from the Culinary Institute of America present attractive recipes that are accessible to home cooks. What they don't do much of, surprisingly, is teach, in shows such as "Grilling Secrets of the CIA" that spotlight sponsor products. Best at recipes, information. (2 p.m. Saturdays on WEDU-Ch. 3; 11 a.m. Mondays, WUSF-Ch. 16.)

EMERIL LIVE: 1 apple.

Food preparation becomes a side show as chef Emeril Lagasse interacts with a studio audience and introduces guest celebrities in an attempt to be Jay Leno in a chef's apron. There's live music too. Best at recipes, entertainment. (Food Network)

READY, SET, COOK!: 1 apple.

Cooking as a competitive sport: Make something from virtually nothing, beat the clock, beat another chef. Good, clean fun on the Food Network with a chance to observe chefs' creativity and technique. What's not so much fun is the intrusive voice of host Sissy Biggers, who comes across as a disconcerting pest instead of a prompter helping the chefs explain their inspirations. Best at entertainment. (Food Network.)

CUCINA AMORE: 1 apple.

In a forgiving mood, it might be possible to blame the bad taste of this popular show on Los Angeles, where it is taped. Every Italian cliche in the book, from accordion music to a cast of diners seated at tables covered with checkered tablecloths, is found in a restaurant set. It is presided over by Nick Stellino, who does a spectacular imitation of Mario Lanza, had Lanza played a chef in a '50s musical. If you don't cover your ears to avoid the chef's singsong accent, you'll pick up some useful cooking tips. Best at information, recipes. (TLC; 11 a.m. Wednesdays, WUSF-Ch. 16.)


Fearing, a respected, personable chef, doesn't deserve to be stuck in this package of contrived celebration themes. Dressed in casual "civilian" clothes instead of chef's whites, he comes across as awkward and affected in a format that is far too ambitious in terms of menus and food preparations. Best at recipes. (Food Network)

HOME MATTERS: No apples.

Former Miss America Susan Powell, earnest and intent, is cast as a middle-class Martha Stewart in this home improvement/home preservation show. (Stewart rates network exposure, appearing weekly on CBS' This Morning (WTSP-Ch. 10). Her own show airs at 9 a.m. weekdays and 9:30 a.m. Saturday on WFLA-Ch. 8.) You will little note nor long remember what transpires on Home Matters. (Discovery)

DINNER & A MOVIE: No apples.

I like dinner. I like movies. I even combine the two at home. I also like to think I have a sense of humor. But despite being identified as "comedians," hosts Annabelle Gurwitch and Paul Gilmartin _ non-cooks and proud of it _ aren't funny, nor is the food they torture during breaks in a feature film appetizing. Stick to popcorn! (TBS)


Picture this: Three bored Dalmatians; two chatty grown men dedicated to preparing baked goods for the dogs; one tacky kitchen set. Click. (Food Network.)


PBS will offer four hourlong specials under the banner Tastes of America and a 13-show series, Little Italy with David Ruggerio, in which the New York chef takes a fresh look at rustic Italian classics. (Both will air on WUSF-Ch. 16 but are not yet scheduled.)

The Discovery Channel is showing the most recent editions of two long-running hits, Great Chefs and Great Chefs of the World.

Mollie Katzen's Moroccan Roasted Vegetable Stew

Olive oil

2 onions, cut in 1-inch chunks

{ pound baby carrots

1 tablespoon each cumin seeds and mustard seeds

Salt to taste

1 head garlic

6 tomatoes, not too ripe, cored

4 large red or yellow bell peppers

1 stick cinnamon

1{ cups cooked chickpeas or 1 can (15 ounces), rinsed, drained

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper

Cooked couscous, minced parsley for serving

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line two large baking trays with foil; brush with olive oil. Scatter onions and carrots onto one tray; drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with cumin, mustard seeds and salt. Place head of garlic on one corner of tray. Arrange tomatoes on second tray with bell peppers.

Place first tray on lower rack in oven and second tray on upper rack. Roast onions and carrots 30-35 minutes, stirring a few times, until carrots are just tender. Remove tray from oven; set aside to cool.

Roast tomatoes and peppers 45 minutes, turning peppers with tongs every 10 minutes, so they blister evenly. (You don't have to turn the tomatoes.) Transfer to large, heat-proof glass bowl; add cinnamon stick. Cover bowl with foil or plate; let stand 30 minutes.

Carefully lift out peppers, leaving their liquid in bowl; remove skins, seeds and stems. Cut peppers into strips and return to bowl. Pull skin off tomatoes; chop pulp and return to bowl. Discard cinnamon stick.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. When cool, separate garlic cloves; squeeze pulp into bowl of peppers and tomatoes. Add onions and carrots with cumin and mustard seeds; stir in chickpeas and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt, pepper and more lemon juice if needed. Mix well.

Cover stew; bake 30 minutes or cook in microwave 5-10 minutes. Serve over couscous, garnished with minced parsley.

Preparation time: 20 minutes. Standing time: 30 minutes. Cooking time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

Makes 6 servings. Nutrition information per serving: 175 calories, 240 mg. sodium, 3 gm. fat, 33 gm. carbohydrates, 0 cholesterol, 7 gm. protein.

Source: adapted from Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven (Hyperion, $27.50).