Archive for December, 2008

End of Year Post

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food on TV on December 31, 2008 by restaurantouring

Red Navel Orange and Lime curd

Unlike some of my friends, who went overseas for the holiday season, I’m still in the year 2008 — and thank goodness for that, because 2008 has been a very, very good year to me. So, I’m a little bit sad to see it go.

But 2009 looks like it will be promising. There are a lot of things I want to blog about. I’ve got a few new toys in the kitchen that I want to take out for a test ride. There are a few new shows that will be debuting on TV (including the Food Networks new show, “Chopped,” which looks like a lame rip off of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” minus the blatant ad placements, especially for Glad and all the Gladware). Finally, I’ve got some tasty new recipes that I want to share with you, and I’ve been to a few new restaurants, which I will blog about for sure (I AM supposed to be a “restaurantourist,” after all). Just last week, I went to this new Korean BBQ place that had LIVE OCTOPUS! Creepy!

Offering you all condolences for the loss of 2008, and wishing you all an equally fantastic (or better!) 2009.

– Conway

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How to Choose a Chinois

Posted in Books and gear, General food knowledge on December 24, 2008 by restaurantouring

Chinois

A while ago, during Thanksgiving, I was reading Michael Ruhlman’s blog.  In the comments section, someone asked what distinguished a good chinois from a bad one.  It was late at night and I had work early in the morning, so I wrote a freaking essay in response to the question (I have problems).  Anyway, I’m going to be lazy here and copy and paste the question and my response here.  Don’t be too angry at me for recycling please.

Without further ado:

Semi-related question:

Does anyone have any insight on what distinguishes a good chinois from a bad one, for the purposes of stock, etc.? Is it simply a matter of getting what you pay for?

DJK,

As far as a chinois goes, it (unfortunately) really may come down to how much you pay. For straining stocks, sauces, purees, etc. you want a fine mesh. A fine mesh ensures that all the tiny bits and particles (bits of fat and coagulated blood in stock, fibers and cellulose from fruit and veg purees, etc.) get caught, especially if you’re trying to make a very clean, refined soup or sauce (carrot soup, for instance). In my experience (I prowl the aisles of every store that sells kitchen gadgets for fun. I lead a sad existence.), the “best,” finest-meshed chinois (what’s the plural form of “chinois”???) are found in high-end kitchen gear stores (Williams-Sonoma, for example). Other chinois that I have come across have mesh that isn’t nearly fine enough for my tastes, and some even had fairly large-sized holes rather than a mesh.
But don’t worry. You have options. Unless you’re set on getting a chinois (which are pretty expensive), you can find fairly good metal strainers with a decently fine mesh that can substitute for a chinois. I bought a fairly good one at an asian grocery store for 9 bucks. It doesn’t work as quickly as a chinois, but I was willing to make that sacrifice.
Alternatively, you can use any combination of layers of cheesecloth, a clean bandana or handkerchief ($1 or less at arts and crafts stores), or coffee filters to achieve the same or a similar effect. Obviously, just be sure to remove as many of the larger particles before attempting to strain through cloth or filter, since they can get clogged quickly, which kills your attempts at straining.
Remember to never push the liquid through, to force it to strain faster. If you think about it, pushing (with a ladle, spoon, or spatula, etc) may force those particles through the mesh, which completely defeats the purpose of trying to strain your liquid in the first place. This is another reason why I didn’t buy the $70 chinois (too expensive for my poor ass) at Williams-Sonoma — it came with a wooden, cone-shaped . . . thing. The instructions on it said to push your liquid through with the wooden thing (it looked more like an awkward and painful sex toy more than anything), which is so obviously wrong to me (on many, many levels).
Get a strainer or chinois of a sensible size. Make sure it is not too small, large enough for your purposes (which may not be apparent until you start using it), and not so large as to be cumbersome and awkward (a chinois is too large and awkward for my small and awkward kitchen).
Finally, buy what makes sense to you. Buy what is most useful first and decide whether or not it is worth the extra expense on a higher-end, finer item. This applies for every item in your kitchen. For me, this means a $15 non-stick skillet (mostly for eggs. I’ve had it for 3 years and there’s hardly a scratch on it.), a 12″ cast iron skillet (less than $10 at a yard sale and I wouldn’t sell it for less than $100), and a 10″ All-Clad copper core fry pan / sauteuse ($185). This also means an $8 serrated knife from Amazon.com and a 285 dollar 10″ Shun Kaji chef’s knife (good Lord, I wish I got kickbacks for name-dropping/advertising). And obviously, as I mentioned, this means using a combination of a clean handkerchief inside a fine mesh bowl-shaped strainer (I use binder clips to hold the cloth in place). I think I get pretty good results.

Apologies for the wordiness. I have a problem.

Updates and Christmas, etc.

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts with tags on December 22, 2008 by restaurantouring

Imperia Pasta Roller

*note: I managed to work around the picture uploading problem by uploading the picture onto my flickr account. Adding tags to this post, however, is still a problem. Either it’s WordPress or I’m just an idiot (my money’s on the latter) so as soon as things get ironed out, I will tag irresponsibly!)

I think I’m going to stop apologizing for not posting more frequently.  It’s getting old.  Besides, I have a life (albeit a sad one) and I’m sure you understand that some days are just busier than others.  It’s true.  Things get hectic sometimes.  Especially around the holidays.

Speaking of how sad my life is, I found out today that the people who work at the Williams-Sonoma in Westfield, NJ know me.  One worker, Kimberly, remembers me from when I bought my Shun Kaji 10″ chef knife (which I will blog about in the next few days, I promise.  It’s awesome enough to get its own post).  I’m pretty sure the boss, Don, remembers me from that same incident as well.

Today, I went back because Williams-Sonoma is having a sale — 20% off.  I went back to see if I could get $60 back from when I bought that $300 knife.  The woman who helped me, Sally, turned out to be the same woman I harassed helped (when trying to decide whether or not to purchase an All-Clad roasting pan) at Bed Bath and Beyond, shortly before Thanksgiving.  That was embarrassing.  I’ve even helped out a couple of customers who were looking for various items (knives, pots, nonstick pans, etc.) because I’m probably one of the biggest friggin’ dorks on the planet.  Today was no different.  A woman was looking to buy a boning knife for her husband, who goes fishing a lot.  The worker she asked admitted to knowing nothing about knives, so I volunteered to help.  See what I mean?  My life is sad.

On the upside, I was [jokingly] offered a job.

Anyway, I got my money back.  Of course, instead of doing the intelligent thing and saving it, I went ahead and bought a pasta roller (actually, in my opinion, buying a pasta roller was undoubtedly the smarter thing to do.  Who saves these days?  Honestly. . .).

Finally, I hope you all enjoy the new look to the blog.  I plan on changing the colors of the hyperlinks to green or something, instead of a very Halloween-ish orange color, but of course I suck something awful at html and CSS and all that good stuff, so it most likely will never happen.  Just imagine the orange as green, and I’ll be happy.  Until next time, to all you cooks out there:  practice your craft!  Know your shit!  And help out the poor ladies at Williams-Sonoma, looking for more info about knives.

P.S.  If anyone can guess what the picture in my header is, you get a prize!  I’m not sure how I’ll give you prizes yet, or what the prizes will be, but you’ll get a prize.  It may have to be a future-prize though, since I’m pretty broke-ish.  Maybe I’ll make you pasta or something?

Top Chef, Season 5, Episode 6:

Posted in Food on TV with tags , , , , , , , on December 19, 2008 by restaurantouring

WARNING: This be spoiler city.  Ye be warned.

So this week’s episode of Top Chef was entitled the 12 Days of Christmas.  Things started off with some monologues from Eugene, Ariane, and the Euro pair [Fabio and Stefan].  These two guys are pretty damn funny, if you can get past the accents and stuff.  I even warmed up a bit to the usually cold and arrogant bastard, Stefan, in the opening scenes of this episode.  I’m betting that it’ll only last as long as he keeps losing.  Once he starts winning challenges again, it’s back to the asshole we’re used to.

The quickfire challenge: The Top Chef kitchen is decked out in Christmas decorations.  Padma sets up the challenge:  making a one-pot and wonderful Christmas-y dish.  Oh, by the way.  You have to cook for Martha Stewart, who just happens to be the guest judge [who just happens to be shamelessly promoting yet another book].  No sweat.  Right?

Forty-five minutes.  GO!

The chefs scramble and the editors splice in the monologues.  Eugene’s making a pork stew with a Korean pepper sauce base, because “one pot” means “comfort food” to  him.  Fair enough.  He decides to use corn starch to thicken his stew because he figures there isn’t enough time to have the stew cook down and reduce, even though he could easily have made a roux in very little time.  I mean, he even says he throws mirepiox into the stew, so I can’t believe that he wouldn’t think to make a roux — they’re both basic French elements in cooking!

Hosea is making a sausage, shrimp, and chicken paella.  Sounds like a fantastic idea, except I’m concerned that it won’t taste as good as it could be, since paella always seems to taste magnitudes better the next day.

Jeff is making a potato risotto.  The less that is said about that, the better.

Ariane’s making a cauliflower puree that she makes to fool her kids into thinking they’re eating mashed potatoes.  Jamie’s making a kale and potato stew with scallops.  Jamie talks about how she and Ariane have developed a habit of working next to each other to mutually support each other, taste each others’ food, and offer helpful suggestions to one another.  She also has a classic Freudian slip moment where she says that her food is more innovative — a little bit more modern than Ariane’s food.  Hey, whatever.  It’s true.  Everybody seems to be saying it, and I agree — Ariane’s food isn’t original.  It’s usually well executed, though.  That’s what really counts when your competition can’t even combine flavors that work together.

Fabio talks about how he was evil when he was six years old — a bad boy.  It’s pretty funny.  His grandmother punished him / prevented him from destroying the house by forcing him to stir polenta, so he’s decided to do a mushroom polenta with seared duck breast.

Carla makes a brined turkey breast with apple & dried cherry stuffing.  Someone needs to tell her that Thanksgiving was over almost a month ago.  Someone also needs to tell her that brining doesn’t happen when you only have 45 minutes to cook the whole dish.

Judgment:

Martha didn’t like Eugene’s dish.  She hated the corn starch he used to thicken the stew.  Plus, she thought it could have been more flavorful.  She also didn’t like Jeff’s potato risotto because it was too heavy and too starchy, which is a shame because risotto is apparently one of her favorite dishes.  I think she needs a little refresher course in basic nutrition, cuz the last time I checked, rice was pretty much entirely starch as well.  Also, risotto is dense stuff.  It’s usually got a lot of cream and parmesan in it, so it would also be heavy.  She also didn’t like the verjus that Jeff added on the top of the potatoes.  Finally, she also didn’t like Fabio’s dish because she wanted to see the mushrooms in the polenta.  This visibly irks him, and he proceeds to talk about how his grandmother would be so ashamed of Martha during his personal monologue response.

What Martha did like were Hosea’s, Jamie’s, and Ariane’s dishes.  She picked Ariane’s dish as the winner, and gave Ariane a copy of her new book, because every one of these guest judges has a new book and an agenda that they wanna shove down our throats.

I call shenanigans.  Although I’ve more or less sung Ariane’s praises in the past, I (and my friends) felt like Jamie really ought to have won this quickfire challenge.  It’s tough to judge, since we’re not tasting the food, but based on complexity and technical merit, it seems like Jamie’s dish was far superior.  It was the most original of the 3 dishes, and it was decently complex compared to everyone else’s attempts.  Hosea made a straight up paella — no twists or innovations at all.  And Ariane made cauliflower puree with herb rubbed filet of beef.  Neither were innovative or original in any way whatsoever.  I felt cheated.  I can only imagine how Jamie must have felt.

Maybe it was because both Martha and Ariane are from Jersey?  Maybe it was the older woman thing?  Maybe Martha just didn’t like Jamie cuz of her look, lesbianism, and tattoos?  Again, without tasting the food, I can’t be sure, but it sure as hell looked like Jamie shoulda won this one.

Whatever.  On with the elimination challenge:

Cater an event for 250 people for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).  The theme to this challenge is suddenly introduced by the Harlem Gospel Choir, who march into the kitchen, singing the 12 Days of Christmas.

This may be mean, uncalled for, and totally unnecessary, but they sounded really out of tune and off-key to me.  They more or less pulled it together by the end of the song, it seems, but right off the bat, I was thinking “oh muh god mah earz.  wtf are they doing???”  I was looking at pictures of lolcats, apparently.

Draw knives!  Each of the 11 remaining chefs draw numbered knives, which correspond with one of the lyrics in the song.  Don’t remember what your true love gave to you on the 10th day of Christmas?  No worries.  The Harlem Gospel Choir will remind you — by bursting out into loud and obnoxious (sorry) song.  Awkward.

The chefs have 3 hours of prep and an hour before service the next day.  250 people.  Dear God, I would never survive this challenge.

Natasha Richardson and Michelle Bernstein are introduced as the two guest judges for this event.

They all bought their stuff at Whole Foods.  Seems like they bought waaayyyy too much to me.  I’ve catered before, and for 250 people, I probably would have bought $800 worth of groceries, max.  Judging from the numbers I saw, they probably ended up spending close to $5000.  I guess I can understand it — they don’t want to forget anything or be caught with not enough food, so they buy extra.  They forget that there are 10 other chefs making food.  The only person I saw who had a modest bill was Stefan, which I was happy to see.  Part of being a Top Chef isn’t just cooking well and making good food — it’s about keeping costs down.  That, to me, is the greatest thing about the kitchen.  You can take scraps of meat and transform it into a wonderful sausage, for example.  You can take a failed soup and turn it into a sauce, or you can take a failed sauce and turn it into a soup.  Aromatic trimmings can go into the stock pot to flavor stock.  In my kitchen, I try to use everything, and let nothing go to waste.  The Top Chef kitchen obviously seems to waste a lot.  But I suppose it is okay, because this is television and not real life.  Real life budgets pale in comparison.

The twist in this challenge was that someone didn’t close one of the fridges, so this screws Radhika and Hosea.  Everyone pulls together to help them out.

Anyway, the chefs had to make a dish inspired by their corresponding number:

Stefan drew the knife with the number 12 on it — as in 12 drummers drumming.  He decides to make a chicken pot pie, using chicken drumsticks.  Clever?

Hosea drew the number 11, as in 11 pipers piping.  Interestingly, instead of thinking about musical pipes, he thinks of smoking pipes, and starts laughing uncontrollably.  Smoking.  As in smoking a piece of pork, I’m sure (cough).  He ends up making a smoked pork loin with smoked paprika, chipotle and roast corn mashed potato, apple and brandy jus.  He also has a bit of cabbage, too.  There’s bacon thrown in there for good measure, because everyone knows that bacon wins you Top Chef.

Jeff gets 10 lords a-leaping.  He wants to do frogs’ legs, can’t find any, so he does a Mediterranean island cheese tasting (it’s actually a salad) and spins it by saying that you’re “a-leaping” from island to island.  Seared halloumi and kasseri cheeses with roasted beets, pears, mint, and spices.  Sesame and nuts.  Natasha says that two cheeses was two (ha!) much.  It was “a bit like putting brie on top of camembert.”  Too bad you can’t express an accent very well through text. . . .

Fabio gets 9 ladies dancing, so he makes. . . . something with crab legs.  He figures that you have to use your legs to dance, so that’s what he’s thinking.  He comes up with a crab cake, because he says that female crabs dance around their eggs to cover them with sand.  Whatever.

Melissa gets 8 maids a-milking, so she makes some bullshit canape with NY strip steak and too much gorgonzola.  Sourdough crostini.  Cranberry vinaigrette.  I can get a steak with blue cheese on it at Outback.  I fucking hate Outback.

Jamie gets 7 swans a-swimming, so she’s making a crudo of scallop “swimming” in vichyssoise.  Lemon agrumato, leeks, microgreens.  Slimy.  Bad.  A shame.  She seems to be oblivious.  Also, she’s using scallops AGAIN.  Tom later says (and I was thinking the same thing) that he would have served it in a much saltier, acidic marinade — ceviche style.  That way, the proteins in the scallop “cook” in the acid.  I couldn’t agree more.

Ariane gets 6 geese a-laying, so she makes devilled eggs 6 different ways.  Crab salad, smoked salmon with dill, roasted red pepper with aged balsamic, basil with gremolata, crispy caper, and a traditional devilled egg.

Eugene gets 5 golden rings, so he makes poisson cru — he calls it a Tahitian style ceviche.  Gold yukon potato chip.  Pineapple ring.  It’s too sweet.

No one drew the number 4 (there are only 11 chefs left).

Leah drew 3 french hens, so she’s doing poultry too.  Braised guinea hen with puff pastry underneath.  Butternut squash puree, which sounds like a bad idea to me.  Sounds too much like Stefan’s pot pie to me, too — not the flavors, but the elements.  Heck, everyone seems to be doing crap on a crostini or something similar.  What the hell.

Carla drew 2 turtle doves, so she’s doing a mushroom cap and duxelle to represent the shell of the turtle.  It seems as if she is confused, but at least she’s not doing poultry.  Right?  Oh wait, nevermind.  There’s braised chicken in there, too.  Everyone’s doing poultry.  Hers is too salty.

Radhika gets the partridge in a pear tree.  Since her duck breasts spoiled overnight from the warm fridge, she uses the legs instead (Fabio helped her break down the legs, and everyone else pitched in to help too, it seems).  Indian spices on that duck leg.  Braised and shredded on top of toasted brioche.  Pear chutney.  Toasted pistachios.

Judgment:

At judges’ table, Natasha is seen in a different red dress, which is a real shame, because her previous dress was fantastic[ally revealing].  The top chefs were Radhika, Jeff, Stefan, and Hosea.  The bottom of the barrel consisted of Jamie, Eugene, and Melissa.

Melissa claims that she’s not sure why she’s there, because she got a lot of positive feedback from the guests who ate her food.  Hey, Meliisa. . . here’s a clue:  THEY WERE LYING TO YOUUUUU.

Hosea ends up winning the challenge, which I think is bullshit.  First of all, his food spoiled in the fridge.  If it weren’t for the other chefs, he wouldn’t have had anything at all.  Second of all, he ended up using a pork loin instead of the tenderloin he had marinated and smoked, so he was working with inferior product.  Jeff was the next closest competitor, in terms of how many people at the reception liked his dish best.  Personally, I thought Jeff should have won it, hands down.

Either way, Michelle Bernsteins awards Hosea with a copy of her new book.  I’m telling ya — everybody has a book they’re trying to push.  Also, she gives books to everyone there, in the spirit of Christmas, because everyone helped each other out (and probably because her garage is shoved so full of copies of these rather shabby looking books that she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

In the spirit of Christmas, Tom decides not to send anyone home, so everyone is still here.  It’s a shame, because I’d really like to see Melissa go home.  Eugene has been underperforming as well, even though I initially cited him as my favorite (I still love the fact that he started as a dishwasher and is now a chef, though).

It’s also a blessing, because had they decided to eliminate someone, I’m pretty sure Jamie would have been eliminated.  We would have had another Dale on our hands (from last season).  It’s always sad to see great chefs go home because of one lousy dish (especially scallops, since that’s what Dale was eliminated for as well.  Who remembers the butterscotch scallops?).

The others have been pretty strong, with Hosea and Ariane picking up steam and cooking better and better.  Stefan seems to be losing steam, so he needs to step it up.

Doesn’t matter.  Next week, there are no limits.  Every chef gets to cook whatever the hell he or she wants to, and they get judged on that.  This should be goooood.

Top Chef, season 5, episode 5

Posted in Food on TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2008 by restaurantouring

WARNING: Spoilers ahead.  Readers beware!

Gail’s Bridal Shower:

Sorry for the super late post, everyone.  I’ve been extremely busy lately.  I just got back from B&H with a ton of new photography gear, so expect to see the image quality around here improve drastically within the next couple of weeks.

This past week’s episode of Top Chef was another bittersweet episode.  Bitter because Gail is getting married (noooo!!!!) and because Jamie didn’t win another challenge (noooo!!!!) and sweet because that lunkhead Danny finally got the boot (woooo!!!!), that arrogant bastard, Stefan, was one-upped by some of the other cheftestants (woooo!!!!), and my homie Ariane won another challenge (woooo!!!!).

The quickfire challenge was “Name That Ingredient!”  This was a lame challenge because obvious things were eligible as ingredients and not everyone picked up on that.  Shame on them.  Basically, pairs of chefs had to taste a mystery sauce and then see how many ingredients they could name correctly.  The chef that claimed s/he could name the most ingredients rattled them off first, and if they were all correct, s/he would move onto the next round of *drum roll* NAME THAT INGREDIENT!!!

So, what was the lame part?  Salt counts as an ingredient.  Pepper, too.  And oil (although you have to specify which kind: olive, vegetable, etc.).  The bases for most sauces are going to have oil or butter, salt, pepper, onion, and maybe celery, garlic, parsley, thyme, and bay leaf or something.  Look at that.  I just named 9 ingredients.  The most anyone else (Stefan) could name were 8.  C’MON!

Anyway, Stefan gets eliminated when he wrongly guesses “tomato paste,” so the win goes to Hosea. He’s another lunkhead, IMO.  Maybe I’m just hating on him for being so flirty with Leah.  Maybe I should stop, cuz I’m actually not seriously obsessed with her, despite my numerous confessions of love (you HAVE to love a woman who prizes salt, olive oil, butter, garlic, and pork) and I’m taking it a little too far. . . . Nahhhhh.

The elimination challenge is to cook for Gail’s bridal shower.  There will be 45 guests and the cheftestants all seem to freak out.  I’m not sure why they’re freaking out, cuz catering for 45 people is a cake walk when you have two other chefs on your team, helping you.

The themes that help guide the teams to what they should cook are “old,” “new,” “blue,” and “borrowed.”  Team “old” consists of chefs Jeff, Hosea, and Stefan — a strong team.  Team “new” consists of Carla, Danny, and Eugene.  Team “blue” consists of Leah, Fabio, and Melissa.  Finally, team “borrowed” consists of Radhika, Ariane, and Jamie.

Team “old” goes with a trio of heirloom tomatoes (I SEE WUT U DID THERE).  Stefan makes a bland eggplant-wrapped heirloom tomato terrine.  Jeff makes a bombtastic tomato sorbet.  Hosea makes . . . I forget what he made, actually.  I’ll check and update this, maybe.

Team “new” goes with a disgusting mess.  Eugene fucks up sushi rice and instead of tossing it, tries to salvage it.  Dumb, dumb, dumb move.  He makes a DIY sushi roll, which he forgetes to explain.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s terrible anyway.  He also makes a yuzu sorbet/granita, which melts by the time everyone is supposed to eat it.  Carla makes a salad, which is lame, but probably the tastiest thing from the team.  Danny crowds his pan and steams his beef rather than sears it, so his dish is gray, tough, and flavorless.  Plus, he soaks some mushrooms in water and throws them everywhere in Carla’s salad.  It looked like she was about to stab someone when she found out.  She shoulda.  Now THAT would have been entertaining!  Reality tv, ftw.

Team “blue” goes with “the ocean” as a theme.  They make a blue corn crusted Chilean sea bass with a corn puree sauce, I believe (again, I’ll check and update).  Gail comments that the dish isn’t the most politically correct dish in the world (Chilean sea bass is overfished and endangered).  One of her girl friends comments that it’s like “old people food,” like something they’d serve in a nursing home.  Oh well.  The dish didn’t work, even though they sent Fabio out to charm the ladies with his accent, self deprecating humor (always awesome), and flattery.  Accent and flattery?  Check.  More than check — they ATE it up.  Loved it.  The food though?  Not so much.

Team “borrowed” “borrows” Indian flavors from Radhika and Radhika’s mom.  I forget what Radhika made, but this was an upset for Jamie, because she pulled off a vadovan scented carrot puree that required a lot of finesse to prepare, yet she lost the challenge to Ariane, who made an Indian spiced rack of lamb.  *shrug*  The lamb was cooked perfectly, had great flavor, and was the best tasting thing of the night.  The whole thing was Jamie’s idea, but she didn’t emphasize that.  Probably, if she brought it up at Judge’s table, things would have been different.  She didn’t.  Sucks.  Ariane wins her 3rd challenge (all right, technically her 2nd challenge.  The turkey should have counted, from the Thanksgiving episode, though).

The judges wanted to send all 3 of team “new” home, but they decided to send Danny home because, despite all the harsh criticism, Danny still thought their dish was a good dish.  Tom Colicchio mentions in his blog on the Bravo TV website that there’s a way to cook mushrooms (SEAR them in a really, ridiculously hot pan before they wilt and give up water, which kills the searing process) and that Danny obviously doesn’t know what that way is (soaking shrooms in water does not good food make, young [fat] grasshopper).

That’s all for now!

Top Chef, Season 5, Episode 4:

Posted in Food on TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2008 by restaurantouring

Warning: This entry contains spoilers.  LOTS of them.  If you don’t want me to spoil the episode, go watch it already.  Or do what I did and subscribe to the season on iTunes (it kind of sucks not having cable TV in the apartment, but I’m not paying 50 bucks a month for one or two shows.  Sorry.)

Let me start this post by saying two things:

1)  For all of the judgmental people who have been searching for posts about “why [you] should eat at Ariane’s restaurant if Padma spit out her dessert,” and “Why is Ariane still on Top Chef?” I’ve got two words for you:  Eat it.  Eat it eat it eat it freaking eat it.  The number of hits I got on average per day almost doubled after the Foo Fighters episode, and I had a full day’s worth of hits by the time I went to sleep the night of episode 4 — I tripled my daily average by the end of today.  Fickle, fickle, fickle people.  Ariane kicked ass with her turkey last week, and she kicked ass this week with a simple and delicious watermelon, New Jersey beefsteak tomato, and feta salad with balsamic syrup.  AND she did it all knowing that millions of people would be viewing her on live TV.  Way to represent the dirty Jerz, yo!  Ariane’s my homie.

2)  This episode was disappointing for me in a lot of ways.  I’ll get to it.

Intro:

The episode starts off with a recap of last week’s episode, as usual.  This is followed by Jeff working out his lateral deltoids (with terrible form, btw) by lifting two pathetically small weights to his side (Dude, haven’t you ever heard of compound exercises?  Do some freaking pullups instead.  Or make me a chicken sandwich).  Ariane pours coffee for herself and the scene cuts away to Ariane monologuing about how she’s feeling good after the Thanksgiving challenge and her awesome turkey breast and about how she needs to keep the momentum going for herself.

Then Alex talks about how strange it was for him, waking up in the morning without Richard as a roommate (Richard was eliminated last week, in the Foo Fighters episode, for his banana creme s’mores with chocolate ganache).  Also, because Richard is gone now, this is the first time that Alex has really felt alone in this competition.

So, it turns out that Rich left a letter for Alex, on his bed, which Alex then reads to Jamie and Carla.  The exerpt shown on TV said, “It may sound crappy to say this, but you’ve got a friend out of this competition — me.  That being said, here’s the crappy part:  fuck the rest of ’em.  Believe me — you don’t get to realize how much you really want this until they say your name and your chances to compete are taken away.  Now, you really gotta take your gloves off and go for the win, every day.”

The letter makes everyone emotional and sad, and Alex talks about how he misses being at home with his family and his fiance — he got married about 20 days after this episode was filmed.

The scene cuts away to Jamie, the only remaining member of Team Rainbow, after Patrick was eliminated in the first episode, and after Richard was eliminated last week.  She rocks a rainbow bracelet she made in honor of the two, and is wearing a sequined rainbow shirt.

Quickfire challenge: Cue awesome music.

Guest judge:  Rocco DiSpirito

Blatant ad placement:  Rocco’s new book (sorry, but I’m not linking to this one).

The challenge is to make an elegant breakfast amuse-bouche.  One bite.  Everything you are as a chef, refined into one perfect bite.

Rocco mentions that he likes bacon.  A lot.  So just about everyone makes a mad dash for the bacon.

In short order, this is what everyone made, with some commentary:

Stefan: huevos rancheros, served in an eggshell cup.  Although it was good, the criticism (as with almost everyone else’s dish) is that it is too large — not one bite.  It was not, strictly speaking, an amuse bouche.  The judges (Padma and Rocco) love the presentation, which was kind of easy for Stefan, since he has that special tool that you can use to perfectly cut off the top of an egg without getting a jagged edge.

Jeff: He comments that he’s got too many ideas around in his head, so it’s actually really hard for him to commit himself to any one single idea, especially since this will probably be the most important breakfast they’ll ever cook.  He made a little twice-baked potato, stuffed with creme fraiche and bacon.  Also, he made a honey frozen yogurt and paired it with skewers of fresh fruit.  Rocco expresses his disapproval by posing a statement as a question:  “So this is two different dishes. . . . right?  Is that the idea?”  Jeff shrugs, “sure.”

Danny:  cornflake-crusted zucchini flowers, stuffed with shiitake mushrooms and a potato-bacon hash.  He made this dish because, apparently, the breakfast he used to eat as a kid was a bowl of corn flakes and zucchini flowers in a pan.  Sounds like bullshit to me.  What kid eats zucchini flowers for breakfast?  Either way, Rocco said that the dish was overpowered by the corn flakes and that it would have been better if you could taste more of the zucchini flowers.

Ariane: French toast, stuffed with soft cream cheese, bacon, and chives.  Served with a chili maple syrup.  Rocco liked it because it was well balanced — not too sweet, not too savory.  Just right.  Again, Ariane-skeptics should eat it.

Fabio: brioche with bruleed banana and a shot of espresso cream.  He says that he’s Italian — he doesn’t have bacon or eggs for breakfast.  But what does make  him happy in the morning is something sweet, like brioche and maybe some fruit and a cappucino.  Plus, in the morning, if you had something heavy like bacon and eggs, you’d be sluggish and slow.  On the other hand, if you had something light and sweet like his breakfast, you’d be energetic and ready to go.  Of course, the skinny-ass model that IS the host of the show shoots him down by saying he contradicts himself when saying that, since his espresso cream was so heavy.  Feels like a pudding, she says.  Maybe she’s just too used to eating next to nothing to keep her figure?  Fabio looks stunned and has nothing to say.

Leah: a mini bacon, egg, and cheese.  She comments that everyone else’s amuse-bouche is too large.  So, by sticking to what the quickfire challenge asked for — a single bite — she hopes to gain some brownie points.  She fries up some bacon and fries the bread in the bacon fat.  Then, she pairs this up with some spicy tomato sauce and a sunny-side-up quail egg.  Pepper and fried sage finish the dish.  Rocco “mmm’s” while Padma says that it’s the perfect size while still chewing her food.  Leah shoots back by saying, “Well, it’s an amuse-bouche, so I tried to make it one bite.”  Now, everyone else is screwwwweeeedddd, hahaha.

Melissa:  Eggs in a nest.  French toast with an over-easy egg, some strawberries, some bacon.

Radhika:  She says she loves breakfast, especially a good, hearty breakfast.  She made a potato cake with a miniature fluffy omelet with bacon, chives, and hollandaise sauce.

Jamie: she initially laments that she sucks at making breakfast because she never eats it.  When she was younger, she used to eat things like canned chicken noodle soup or Chef Boyardee for breakfast, if she ever had anything at all.  Come service time though, she’s made a BLT with fresh basil and balsamic syrup on top.  Rocco likes it a lot.

Those were all the dishes that were shown.

Judgement:

Bottom two: Danny (cornflakes killed it), Fabio (dish would have been a great dessert, but Rocco likes savory foods for Rocco’s breakfast),

Fabio is hilarious.  He laments that he should have listened when Rocco said he liked bacon by saying (in his heavily accented English), “Nexx time, I’ma do-a piece of toast-a, bay-honna (bacon), and-a some bullshit eggs on it . . . and I’ll probably a-one of the top three.”  Amen, brother.

Top three:

Stefan:  Even though it was more than one bite, Rocco loved the container — the egg cup.  Of course, Stefan cheated a little, since he has that stupid egg-cutting tool.

Leah:  Great arrangement of flavors in the perfect bite.

Jamie:  Beautifully arranged.  Great amuse-bouche.

Rocco would have picked both Jamie and Leah, but since he has to choose one winner, he would pick . . .

Leah!  Hell yes.  Her second quickfire win in a row.  Her prize, besides immunity?  Rocco’s new book, of course.  Jamie is pissed, not because she doesn’t get a stupid book, but because, again, she was so close to winning a quickfire and she didn’t.

Elimination challenge:

Padma says, “You all know how important it is, as a chef, to raise your profile so that people know about you and your cooking.  The more people who know about you, the more we’ll seek out your restaurants, buy your books, and try your food.  So, for your elimination challenge, we want you to show us how you would want to introduce yourselves and your food to millions of television viewers.  You must create a dish for a 2 and a half minute presentation, suitable for a live television segment.”

They all have an hour to cook.  Then, they’ll present their food to the judges.  The judges pick the top 3, who will then go on to a sub-challenge.  The winners will have a major reward here.  Leah is “scared as hell,” hahaha.

Again, Fabio entertains by lamenting about how tough this challenge is for him, considering that he has 2 and a half minutes to explain something in “purrfeck Inglish, live TV.  While I’m coo-hing [cooking].”  I didn’t like him much at first, but this guy is pretty funny.  It helps that he’s an excellent cook, too.

Commercial break.  Shot of Whole Foods supermarket.  $100,  30 minutes to shop.  Fabio narrates.  Also decides to butcher his own tuna.  Priceless.

Eugene and Hosea eventually find their way to the fish counter too.  Eugene is planning on doing homemade sushi, since his culinary background is in sushi.  He finds out that they sell tuna in blocks, so he changes his mind and asks for the blocks of tuna.  In fact, he wants to cut it himself, so he does what Fabio does and goes to the back to butcher his own fish.  Hosea, feeling left out, does the same.  Priceless, man.  Priceless.  Smart, too.

Alex claims that he’s the only one with guts enough to do dessert, so he wants to do a rose scented creme brulee.  I’m cringing in my seat, cuz I already know that custards need to be mixed, baked slowly in a water bath, cooled, topped with sugar, and then bruleed.  They only have an hour.  What the hell is he thinking?

Apparently, he thinks that if he pulls this off, he’ll get a free pass due to the sheer level of difficulty.  It’s more like an impossibility, though, so he’s got the right idea.  Kinda.  Not really.

Jeff wants to do a shrimp malfouf roll.  I’m not sure what he’s thinking, either.  What happened to quick and simple?  Something the viewers could sink their teeth into (literally)?

Jamie is doing a frisee salad with lardons and a fried duck egg, which is topped with caviar.  Honestly, she gets more beautiful with every episode, which is disappointing because she’s a lesbian.

Leah is doing a seared duck breast with corn and blueberries.  She’s happy she has immunity, because the whole live television thing freaks her out.

Radhika decides to do a sweet and spicy shrimp dish, since her flavor profile is Indian, which uses a lot of different strongly flavored spices.

Carla is set on making a tortilla soup.  It was the first thing that came to her mind, and she does not want to be on the bottom.

Ariane, as I mentioned above, is making a beefsteak tomato, watermelon, feta salad with aged balsamic and herb fleur de sel.  Basil oil.  It’s a smart move because it’s simple, tasty, and easy to prepare in 2 and a half minutes.

Danny is doing a ginger soy marinated skirt steak.  It’s got pineapple and tomatoes.  He mentions that he aspires to be like Bobby Flay, and that his goal is to make you laugh and teach you how to cook.  I only now noticed that he’s 25 years old.  I could have sworn he was, like, 30 or 35.

Showtime:

The judges come in and announce that time is up.  It’s time to present the food.

First up is Ariane.  She rocks the house, showing everyone how to make basil oil, and how to put her dish together.  She finishes with like 15 seconds left on the clock.  Perfect.

Next up is Jamie.  She puts together her bitter greens salad with lardons, fried duck egg, and caviar.  Unfortunately, her egg doesn’t cook in the two and a half minutes, so she ends up serving a half-raw egg to the judges.  They are not appreciative.

Next is Alex, with his rose scented creme brulee.  Padma gives him a hard time by asking specific questions, like how much vanilla he would use, then reacting in surprise when he says that he’d use a teaspoon.  This makes him adjust the amount by saying that he’d probably use half a teaspoon.  What a bitch.  Doesn’t matter.  He runs out of time.  The food is inedible anyway, because the creme brulee hasn’t set.

Jeff makes his malfouf roll with shrimp and muhammara sauce.  Don’t ask me what that is.  It’s from the middle east.  I was cool with the middle easterners in college and I ate a decent amount of food from that region, but I don’t know what that is.  I’ll look into it and get back to you.

Fabio is up.  He comments that he’s watching everyone else, and they’re using weird ingredients that professional chefs know, but that his mom doesn’t know.  His mom is the one watching TV.  His mom wants to know about tuna, “hhccarross (carrots), and asparagus.  That’s it.”  Padma asks when he came over from Italy, and Fabio makes fun of himself by calling himself a FOB.  Goddamn priceless, man.

Daniel’s turn.  While searing his skirt steak, a lot of smoke is generated.  Rocco asks why he has his pan so hot.  Danny explains that he wants the soy sauce on the outside of the steak to caramelize.  Idiot.  Soy sauce doesn’t caramelize.  Plus, it’s a lot of freaking smoke!  To boot, it’s all in Tom Colicchio’s face.  I’d say that Tom looked worried, but I couldn’t make out facial features behind all that smoke.  It doesn’t matter though, because the judges love his food.  He proceeds to spew some catchphrases while winking and pointing at the camera.  My friend Catie comments that she’s starting to really dislike him.  Oh well.  He’s all right, I guess.

Stefan makes minestrone soup.  He does the classic television swap-out by replacing his pot of sweated vegetables and cold soup with a pot of soup that’s already made.

Hosea makes tuna coated with a crust of crushed wasabi peas.  Ironic, for me, because that’s what I was munching on.

Eugene makes sashimi, although he doesn’t seem to answer Rocco’s question about the difference between sushi and sashimi satisfactorily.  For the record (to the best of my knowledge), the difference is that sashimi is just raw fish, sliced, with no rice or “seaweed.”  Sushi, on the other hand, is a finger food, made by the chef, which is typically bound with rice and dried algae (the “seaweed” wrapper is actually dried algae).  Sushi contains all the wasabi (if any) that the food requires, as determined by the chef.  To eat, you may use your fingers or chopsticks (both are permissible) to dip a corner of it into a light soy sauce or soy-based sauce (no additional wasabi, please!  Etiquette demands it, although I usually don’t follow this rule for the hell of it.  Plus, I use my fingers in sushi restaurants, so I’m kind of a bastard).

Melissa makes blackened habanero shrimp which is neither blackened nor appetizing.  Everyone thinks the food is way too spicy (habaneros are the hottest naturally growing pepper.  The spiciest foods out there are either capsaicin extracts which are refined from chillis, or crossbred, hybrid, super chillis like the “ghost pepper.”  Melissa’s food is so spicy, in fact, that Tom has to spit the food out because he has spicy food problems.  Oof.

Carla hardly gets a shot.  She runs out of time when she thinks she still has two minutes left.

Ditto Radhika.  She mentions something about rice wine vinegar and that’s it.

Leah, too.  She only gets to put together the corn and blueberry part of her salad.  No seared duck breast.  Bummer.

Stew room:

Everyone vents.  Judges deliberate.  They remember Jamie’s raw egg.  They say Leah is really lucky for having immunity, considering that she was so nervous on camera, plus the fact that she didn’t finish her dish.  Tom says that Alex’s dish was “a silly choice,” because he didn’t have the time.  Rocco didn’t like Carla’s nervous energy, which made him uncomfortable.  She didn’t finish the presentation, but her soup was good.  The girls (Gail and Padma) loved his food and thought he was charming on screen, but too messy.  Tom didn’t like the fact that Danny “smoked out the entire studio,” and “mugged” for the camera.  “Over the top.”  *cue shot of Danny, with beer, making scary faces*

Stefan did all right.  The judges thought it was smart that he had the swap-out ready to go, plus soup was a great idea for TV.  Tom doesn’t like his personality, though.  I guess Richard can relax a little bit at home, since he still has a chance with the Colicchio (HA!).

Everyone unanimously hated Melissa’s dish.  Way too spicy.  Very off-putting.  It would scare anyone who ate it from ever wanting Melissa to come back and cook ever again.

The judges were impressed with Jeff’s confidence, level of complexity, and the fact thathe managed to finish his dish on time.

Everyone loved Fabio.  I’m beginning to do the same.

Padma and Tom loved Ariane and her dish.  Thought it was perfect (Eat it, disbelievers!).

Bottom three: Melissa, Alex, Jamie

Top three: Jeff, Fabio, Ariane

The judges send them all home to rest instead of judging there and then.

The Next Day:

Tom wakes up the top three at 2:00 AM.  When they congregate in the kitchen, Tom tells them that the hosts of the Today Show will be judging their dishes and picking the winner.  Ariane is excited, despite her bed hair.  It’s fantastic.

They all get ready and head off to 30 Rockafeller Plaza to make their food for the show.  Jeff acts bad ass, saying that he’s pissed that it’s 6 in the morning and that he has to make complex, middle eastern food for ladies with “unsophisticated palettes.”  Easy there, Jeff.  Go fix your hair.

After cooking, the three of them are led to the Green Room to watch the hostesses pick apart their food (literally and figuratively).

The rest of the contestants wake up at the Top Chef house and discover that Fabio, Jeff, and Ariane are gone.  They find a big TV set up in the living room and congregate around it to watch the Today Show feed from the Top Chef camera crew.

They dig into Ariane’s watermelon, tomato, and feta salad.  Meredith something-or-other hates watermelon, so she picks around it.  Generally, they “love it!!”.

Next Fabio’s dish: sesame-crusted seared tuna with carrots, asparagus, and balsamic glaze.  Fabio watches in confusion, because he can’t understand what the hell they’re all saying, hahaha.

Next is Jeff’s dish.  Tom dumbs it down for them by saying that it’s a sauteed shrimp cabbage roll.  Some like it.  Kathi Lee gags and is about to throw up.  What a bitch.  Picky eaters really annoy me sometimes.

The judges deliberate (the women of the Today Show, that is).  They don’t seem to like unusual foods.  Freaking unadventurous palettes.  I hate that.

Finally, they say that although it isn’t the most original dish (where have we all heard that one before?), it was a good dish.  Ariane wins it!  She also squeals and jumps with delight behind stage.  Carla is ecstatic and likewise squeals from home.

Back to the Top Chef judge’s table:

Everyone says it was a great experience.  Ariane, being the winner, gets a prize from Rocco DiSpirito — a toolbag from a toolbag.  It’s got a thin fish spatula in it, an offset spatula or two in it, a big metal spoon, and a couple other things that I can’t make out.  There were about 24 tools in all, he said, but we only saw maybe 8 at home.

I was disappointed again because it was at this point that I found out that I missed the episode of the Today Show that aired this morning.  Apparently, Ariane was live on there.  Sigh.  If anyone finds it on YouTube or something, let me know!

The winners go out and the losers come in:

Melissa defends her dish — says that she thought the dish was well balanced.  Rocco expresses his disbelief, considering how spicy habaneros are.

Jamie defends her actions by saying that she knew the egg wasn’t cooked, but she wanted to get her dish done.  She should have flipped the egg over.  Rocco didn’t like her attitude, since she “recoiled” and crossed her arms, as if she were really angry.  Of course, she was angry at herself and not the judges, but that wasn’t the way some people (COUGH rocco COUGH.  Wow, I can’t believe I just did that) saw it.

Alex had to defend his choice in making creme brulee.  I don’t think he was very successful at defending himself.

Melissa then pipes in about how much she really wants to be here, which seems like she’s implying that other people don’t want to be here.  Tom calls her out on this, but she denies it.  Padma then goes back to Alex, who somewhat lamely defends himself and why he wants to be here again.

The bottom three get sent out and the REAL judges deliberate.  Rocco disagrees with Tom when Tom says that Jamie’s dish was very close to being a good dish.  Rocco says that raw eggs and cooked eggs are worlds apart, which is true, but he misses the point that Jamie only had 2 and a half minutes to cook an egg.  I would argue that he couldn’t have done it better himself.  Rather, I would argue that he probably would have done worse.

Rocco again brings up Jamie’s reaction after time was up — how she recoiled and got angry.  Hey, Rocco . . . WHO THE HELL CARES?!?  Leave it alone, man!

Back in the stew room, Alex wonders if Melissa is trying to throw him under the bus.  Either way, it’s too late to defend himself now.  The judges have heard enough.

Cut to commercial.  The show cuts back to a scene of Leah and Hosea flirting hardcore.  Bastard.  Just kidding, haha.

Back to the judges table:  Tom recites the list of offenses to the guilty party.  Padma passes judgment.

Alex goes home to write his vows and get married.

Next week: everyone cooks for Gail’s bridal shower.  Whyyyyyyyy is Gail getting marrieddddd???  How disappointing.  Sigh.

Squirrels and Acorns

Posted in Food in the news with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2008 by restaurantouring

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An article in the Washington Post caught my eye and has me a little bit worried about the future of our food supply.  It seems that acorns all over North America have seemingly all but disappeared this year.  From white oaks to red oaks to black oaks, it seems these magnificent trees simply aren’t producing acorns, which is very strange and disconcerting.  The cause is still unknown, but one theory says that perhaps it is because of the fairly wet season we had previously, which is causing the trees to not produce any acorns.  This theory seems to be pretty spurious, so hopefully a better theory will emerge.

In the meantime, it seems that many squirrels are starving to death.  In their frantic search for food to fatten up before the coming winter, squirrels are raiding bird feeders and other supplies of food.  Many run frantically out into the street and are killed by passing cars.

I personally have seen many of these squirrels die on my way to work.  They seem to be skinnier than I remember them, and I also have not seen many / any acorns around, even though there are plenty of oak trees in my area.  I’m a bit worried.

A picture taken with a point and shoot camera many, many years ago

A picture taken with a point and shoot camera many, many years ago

As far as our food supply is concerned, I’m actually more concerned about naturally raised hogs fed on acorns than I am about the squirrels, haha.  Squirrels are cute, but pork is delicious.  Pork from naturally raised hogs is supposed to be magnitudes more delicious than commercial pork, and I’ve really been meaning to get my hands on some.  I’m hoping that this acorn famine won’t affect things too much.

In the meantime, go out and buy some nuts or peanut butter, everyone.  These squirrels are starving.  I’ll be smearing what peanut butter I have left in the apartment on a tree tomorrow, and I urge others to try to do the same.  The least we can do is help, until a solution emerges.