There’s a running joke in the first episode of Michelle Obama’s new Netflix show, Waffles and Mochi, about whether tomatoes are a fruit or vegetable. This quandary deeply perplexes the two titular characters who, by the way, are puppets that work at a magical grocery store. They ask chefs from Samin Nosrat to José Andrés. Halfway through, there’s a musical interlude, where they search for the answer—through song.
Waffles and Mochi is, yes, a program meant for children. However, with scenes like this, it has its adult charms too. (After all, even for those advanced in age, the designation of a tomato is disputed.) Add in cameos from foodie favorites like Nosrat and Andrés, who show off their cooking chops by making a tomato basil pasta (Nosrat) and gazpacho (Andrés), it is also even an enjoyable binge.
Waffles and Mochi isn’t the only sustenance-themed show that’s providing solace lately. When Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy began airing on CNN in mid-February, it immediately became beloved for its enthusiastic aura. There was Tucci, zipping around Naples for the best pizza, swooning over rigatoni all'amatriciana in Rome, sipping on aperitivos in Milan. There was no stress, no conflict, no drama—just deliciousness. ( "Love Stanley Tucci,” Ryan Reynolds tweeted on March 17, speaking for all of us.) The show received such a positive reception that by episode two, CNN had renewed it for a second season.
Then there’s The Great British Baking Show. Primarily about polite British people baking cakes and being nice to each other, it’s long been heralded as the ultimate “soothing show.” The worst thing that happens in that English countryside tent? Fruit sinking to the bottom of a cake (aka the dreaded “soggy bottom,” or a “stodgy” sponge). The latest season achieved a record-high audience rating in the United Kingdom. And, although Netflix only releases select viewership numbers, the show currently holds a spot in the “Popular on Netflix” homepage carousel. Nadiya Hussain, winner of 2015’s GBBO, also recently found success with her recent eight-episode show, Nadiya Bakes. “Nadiya Hussain calls baking her ‘happy place.’ With her new Netflix show, it can be yours, too,” reads a glowing review in Eater.
It wasn’t always like this. In the mid-aughts, if you couldn’t stand the heat, you had to stop watching the kitchen. Shows like Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares focused on toxic, competitive culinary environments. Bleeped-out expletives were blurted out a mile a minute. There was yelling, towel throwing, quitting, and, well, an alarming amount of health-code violations. (Multiple episodes of Kitchen Nightmares involved cockroaches.) Even the most innocuous concepts—who can make the best cupcakes?—took on an aggressive tone: Cupcake Wars.
Yet, in this pandemic age, those shows are slowly being inched out of the culinary canon. Instead, we’re flocking to programs that nurture our inner chef while we explore home cooking ourselves. For much of 2020 (and now 2021), we passed the time by experimenting, to varying degrees of success, in our own kitchens. We watched over sourdough starter. We stress-baked banana bread. We tried out the #fetapasta from Tiktok. Obviously, most of our attempts were imperfect ones. But they brought us joy (or at least a brief respite from boredom) nonetheless.
So it is any surprise that we don’t want to watch a show where harsh judgement falls upon those who fail to meet high expectations—as we, ourselves, just try our best? Instead, we want to watch everyone else fumble around too. If they succeed, amazing. If they don't? Well, it's not the end of the world. And we would know, as it currently feels like we are living through it. When everything in our life feels like such high stakes, it's a relief to immerse ourselves in the low.
Now, go forth and watch Stanley Tucci, or Samrin Nosrat, cook pasta al dente on Netflix. And, if you're so inspired to DIY, the latter shared her recipe from Waffles and Mochi:Pasta With Cherry Tomato “Candy”
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 6 hours (mostly inactive!)
2 pints (800 grams) cherry tomatoes, stems removed
1⁄4 cup (60 milliliters) extra virgin olive oil, divided
1⁄2 teaspoon sugar
Fine sea salt
1 pound (450 grams) short pasta, such as penne, farfalle, rigatoni, or orecchiette
3 ounces (85 grams) freshly grated Parmesan, to yield about 1 cup grated (look for Reggiano from Italy — it’s extra delicious!)
16 fresh basil leaves
Preheat oven to 225°F/105°C. Set an oven rack to the middle position. Line a baking sheet with parch- ment paper.
In a large bowl, toss tomatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil to coat, then add sugar and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and gently toss again to coat. Use your hands, but don’t squish the tomatoes — be gentle! Spread the tomatoes out onto the baking sheet in a single layer and place in the oven on the middle rack. Every
30 minutes or so, jiggle the tomatoes to make sure they’re not sticking and rotate the pan 180 degrees to keep the tomatoes from cooking unevenly. Roast until the tomatoes are semi-dried and shriveled and start to taste like CANDY, about 5 hours.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add enough salt to make the water taste pretty salty (about 1 heap- ing tablespoon fine sea salt to 7 quarts water). Add pasta, stir, and cook until it is just under al dente, 1 minute less than package directions. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, and drain the pasta.
In a large bowl, combine pasta, tomatoes, Parmesan, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Tear basil leaves into pasta in large pieces. Stir everything together, and if needed, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta cooking water to help the cheese and basil cling to the pasta. Taste, adjust seasoning with salt as needed, and serve immediately, with more Parmesan!