Thursday, May 29, 2008

Top Chef Chicago, Episode 12

This episode brought to mind being pregnant with my first son. After being nauseated for three straight months, my appetite returned in the fourth month with a vengeance, and I craved RED MEAT. Big, honking slabs of red meat -- something that had never been high on my list. I would have been the perfect judge for the Quick Fire challenge -- and I probably would have plowed through those medium-rare steaks. OK, probably not all of them, but definitely the ones basted with butter as they cooked. Yum.

But enough about me ... the Quick Fire. The chefs go to a meat purveyor to cut beef -- an appropriate challenge for Chicago, which was the hub of the U.S. livestock industry in the 1800s. Spike says his grandfathers were butchers, so he's good at cutting meat. Well, my grandfather and great-grandfather were both butchers and I would be completely intimidated by the challenge, which was to cut huge slabs of dry aged beef into Tomahawk chops -- in 20 minutes.

"It was so easy, it wasn't even funny," Spike said, and indeed, he made it look easy. The rest of the chefs seemed to have a harder time of it.

Then it was back to the kitchen, and Padma was there (in unflattering pants) with Rick Tramonto, a well-known Chicago chef who is who is from ... Rochester! He got his start at the Strathallan Hotel, which is a smallish upscale hotel here. But as I think about it, this is the last episode in Chicago and they didn't include Charlie Trotter -- the chef who incited a brouhaha for taking foie gras off his menu? Or Richard Melman - who has opened a bunch of very popular theme restaurants in Chicago? That would have made for an interesting restaurant war, although the chefs would have hated it. And they didn't go to a blues club? Oh well, I guess not even 12 episodes can really do justice to the great city of Chicago.

The QuickFire challenge continues with them having to cook their Tomahawk chops, (which were HUGE) medium rare. It was interesting to see the various techniques the chefs used. To judge the steaks, Chef Tramonto cut open each steak, but didn't take a bite. Are you kidding me? (It looked like the chefs got to eat them later.) Spike was the winner -- surprise, surprise. He had seared it on the grill and finished it off in the oven. Later, he said the spirit of his grandfather was with him. Hmm ... me cooking with the spirit of my grandfather in his butcher days would make for an entertaining evening, as Dots, as we called him, liked drinking and having a good time.

The elimination challenge was to cook an appetizer and entree at Tramonto's new steak house. As Quick Fire winner, Spike got first choice of proteins from the restaurant's cooler. He had five minutes to make his choice. He pulled the Tomahawk chops (seen in the QuickFire) and he said he had his mind set on using scallops, so he grabbed a bag of frozen scallops -- a decision that raised eyebrows among the other chefs. (The fact that Tramonto's restaurant had frozen scallops in the cooler has also raised eyebrows, as you can see in the comments about this article. But both Tom Colicchio and Rick Tramonto explained on the Top Chef blogs that frozen scallops are not used in that restaurant.)

Stephanie chose to use sweetbreads, which are thymus glands, and she says that they are like Chicken McNuggets if they are done right. Lisa made peanut butter mashed potatoes. Richard shaved Hamachi like bacon and topped it with nuggets of crispy sweetbreads. For his main course, he chose to use filet. That's an interesting choice, because most chefs seem to think that filet is overrated -- tender to the point of being mushy, and low on flavor. Hmmm ... lots of interesting choices.

Antonia using a mandoline was a thing to behold. She uses her flat palm to move potatoes over the super sharp blade. One bad move and she doesn't have skin on her palm. Crazy.

Tom announced that he was expediting the orders that night, so he could watch how the chefs work in the kitchen. The chefs seemed to enjoy the experience. He also introduced the chefs to the guest judges -- the winners of the previous three seasons, who are asked what advice they'd offer to the cheftestants. Howard says to be true to yourself (sounds like him). Hung says to cook to win, not be fan favorite (also sounds like him, but I liked Hung). Ilan says not to shave any heads (sounds like him -- what a jerk -- all of the chefs that remain in the competition are more professional and talented than Ilan). I'll bet the past winners enjoyed the experience of being on the other side of the table.

As the six judges were dining and discussing the dishes, a thought occurred to me. They all were discussing the dishes with the names of the chefs attached. In most of the cooking competitions I've been in, the food has been judged without names attached. If the Top Chef competition was ONLY about the food, as the judges say it is, wouldn't at least some of the judging be done blind? Hmmm.....

After service is over, the chefs toast each other with Michelobs. Think any of them will drink Michelob beer after the show is over?

"No matter what happens, no matter who goes home, we've been through a sh*tload, and we've all rocked these challenges, and everyone's f-ing awesome and I hope we stay in touch," says Lisa in her toast.

Um ... well, I hate to point it out ... but three of the chefs rocked the challenges -- Richard, Stephanie and Antonia. Spike and Lisa, not so much. They have been on the bottom about as much as they haven't been.

At judges table, it becomes clear that Spike made a very bad decision about using the scallops, and flailing in desperation, Spike points out that the scallops had been in Tramonto's cooler. Tramonto gets ticked off and tells Spike that it was his bad decision to use them. As Spike is leaving the room, he shakes Tramonto's hand and says "it's an honor," clearly to dig himself out of a hole. When will these contestants get a clue that it's a bad idea to disrespect the judges?

Richard's appetizer was the favorite appetizer and the favorite dish of the night. In fact, Harold, on his blog, said it was one of the best dishes he's had in the past five years, and used "impressive" and "ridiculous" in describing it. (Harold's blog, by the way, is my favorite on the Bravo site. He is a straight shooter and has perspectives that I wouldn't consider, like why it wasn't right that Bourdain sat in for Colicchio last week ... you can read about it here.) Richard's main course missed the mark, though. Antonia's steak dish was Tom's favorite steak dish, and Tramonto loved her gratin, but her salad with poached eggs didn't get rave reviews.

The winner: Stephanie!!! Hooray!!! She gets a copy of Tramonto's new book -- she said she has the other ones -- and her own suite of GE kitchen appliances. Nice.

Richard and Antonia were then named to be in the finals in Puerto Rico. Hooray for the top three! It is satisfying to see the nicer, more professional chefs finish on top.

The bottom two were Spike and Lisa -- not exactly a surprise. And Spike is eliminated. That leaves Lisa going to Puerto Rico to compete in the finals. My husband only catches snippets of Top Chef, but his reaction to Lisa: "She scares the sh*t out of me." My husband is a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, so that's saying something.

In the end, three of the four chefs in the finals are women, which I think is great. Richard is going to be hard to beat, but my money is on Stephanie, as it has been from episode one. Go Stephanie!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

To much rockin' for the opera...

This month's Daring Bakers challenge was an opera cake and oh, what beautiful examples of the opera cake can be found on the other DB blogs!

Unfortunately, preparing for CRB's gigs (Friday and next Wednesday) have made me too busy to complete this month's challenge. We're doing several new songs, including one in which I'm going to play the violin for the first time in public! Yikes! I've been practicing like a fiend.

And I so wanted to do a rockin' twist on the opera cake! Oh well ... rock on, Daring Baker opera cake makers! And if you're a Rochester reader, hope you'll come out to the Landing in Fairport on Friday night -- it's going to be a great time!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Top Chef Chicago, episode 11

The episode began with the chefs being woken at the crack of dawn by Tom Colicchio. Talk about robbing the chefs of some dignity. Was that necessary? I would have a problem being taped as I rolled out of bed. Although maybe they gave them a couple of minutes to pee and primp, because Richard's hair was standing at attention by the time the chefs lined up in the kitchen to find out what was what. Surely it doesn't stay that way while he sleeps.

I have to admit, I always watch Top Chef once just to enjoy it, and then a second time to write about it. The second time through this episode I found myself thinking about what would have happened if seemingly minor things had been different ... and how much luck plays into this competition.

The Quick Fire was to work the egg station at a Chicago restaurant called Lou Mitchell's (I don't know the place). Helene, the owner, had a personality that seemed as though she would like to eat newbie chefs for breakfast. Spike did a great impersonation of her. By the time the challenge was over, she said all of the chefs did a "remarkable" job -- was that good? She was torn between two chefs -- Dale and Antonia. Antonia got the win. What if she had chosen Dale?

Next, they head over to a warehouse-type building with a cool looking interior, with rustic hard wood floors and beams. Padma announced that Restaurant Wars is on. Antonia gets to pick her team and she unsurprisingly picks Stephanie and Richard. What if she got only one choice, and the rest drew knives?

Antonia's team decided to open Warehouse Pub, a gastropub (a fine dining restaurant with a relaxed atmosphere). The other team had experience with Asian food, so they come up with "Mai Buddha," a fun Asian restaurant. Lisa and Dale both wanted to be executive chef, and they flipped a coin and Dale wins. What if Lisa had won the coin toss? Or ... what if Dale had strategically let Lisa be executive chef, knowing Lisa is difficult to manage, and knowing the executive chef is usually first on the firing line?

In walked Tony Bourdain, announcing he's filling in for Tom Colicchio, bringing his "warmer, sunnier" disposition. Honestly, I don't see him as being more or less sunny than Colicchio. In fact, accounts from people who have met Bourdain indicate he's a really nice guy.

Bourdain being guest judge understandably made the Buddha team nervous. Bourdain has done a lot of traveling throughout Asia and knows that kind of food well. Bourdain comments that the gastropub menu seemed safe. "Mai Buddha," on the other hand, could be a disaster or a home run. Given the team's past, what do you suppose happened?

The judges headed to Warehouse Pub first. Guest judge was Jose Andres, a chef from Spain. Stephanie, who was working the front of the house ina dress that was way too low cut for her, greeted and seated them.

The beet and goat cheese salad (a combination I love) and linguine with clams received high marks. The two main courses are trout with cauliflower and lamb "squared" - loin and braised shank. ("Squared" must be the same as "two ways" from previous seasons.) Both received high marks from the judges.

The dessert course was interesting to me, because the two chefs I've pegged for the finale, Stephanie and Richard, went head to head. Stephanie's dessert was a savory Gorgonzola cheesecake served with a sweet potato puree and concord grape sauce. Padma said she thought she'd hate it (which was also my reaction), but she loved it. Ted gave her points for difficulty.

The other was Richard's banana scallops with chocolate ice cream -- identical to a dish Richard did a few episodes ago, plated slightly differently. To be fair, this photo doesn't do justice to his plating, because the ice cream has melted. But the judges commented on the plating, which was a paintbrush smear of chocolate ice cream topped with some kind of a garnish and a quenelle of chocolate ice cream.

"I'm not a fan of the smear," said Bourdain.
"Especially not brown," said Ted Allen. "It reminds me of the New York City sidewalks."

Bourdain said the cilantro with the bananas didn't work for him, and I have a hunch I'd feel the same way -- probably because I don't like cilantro.

Over the course of the season, Stephanie has successfully made three desserts: banana bread with meringue and caramel sauce, a beautiful chocolate wedding cake, and now this one. Desserts are usually avoided by the chefs, and she has done a great job with three of them. Richard has done one and repeated it. Advantage: Stephanie.

Next the judges moseyed over to Mai Buddha. The first comment was on the decor.

"Silver and purple?" cracked Bourdain. "I feel like I'm in the back of Prince's van."
"Is it more Prince or Aerosmith from the mic stand?" quipped Ted. OK, this rocker doesn't get it .... someone want to fill me in?

First course: Lisa's Spicy Shrimp Laksa soup and won tons. The judges love the won tons but pan Lisa's Laksa.

Next comes a braised short rib that they love, and Dale's scallops with butterscotch sauce, which they hate.

"It's like Willy Wonka scallop," says Bourdain.

The dessert course is Dale's Halo Halo, another repeat dessert. The dessert has an avocado component, which turned brown when Dale made it, and it seemed to put him in freaked out mode for the rest of the evening. What if the Halo Halo had gone as usual?

Bourdain found the Halo Halo familiar (what wouldn't be familiar to him?), while Jose liked it, enough to wan to put it in his next cookbook. Padma calls Lisa's mango sticky rice an atrocity, and the rest of the judges seem to agree.

The winning team was the gastropub. And the winner was Stephanie! I'm not sure why they chose her over the other two, but good for her! She wins a culinary tour to Spain.

It clearly came down to Lisa and Dale for elimination. Spike kept his nose clean in the front of the house and was very willing (to the point of being gleeful) to distance himself from the culinary failures of the team.

Spike's true colors were revealed when the judges asked who picked out the tablecloth and napkins. Spike, who had heard the judges' quips, answered that all three did, even though it was clear from Lisa's and Dale's eye rolling that Spike did it. And lo and behold the judges said they liked the front of the house, and Spike couldn't take credit! Ha ha!

In the end, it was Dale that was sent home -- disappointing, because his skills should have landed him in the final four. All it would have taken was any of those minor elements to go a different way, and it probably would have been Lisa who was eliminated. I would have preferred to see the surly Lisa go home, because she has been on the chopping block several times, but I don't think it was unreasonable that they eliminated Dale.

But the biggest surprise of the whole episode was Dale sobbing at the end. Totally unexpected. I suspect that some of that was pure exhaustion, but it also showed how much he wanted to win.

I once had a coworker, Jane, who had a saying that some people's emotional pendulums swing wider than others. Some people -- like Stephanie -- have a relatively narrow emotional pendulum. Her reaction to winning isn't dramatically different from being in the bottom three -- she operates on an even keel. Dale has a wider emotional pendulum -- ranging from being thrilled to meet Chicago Bears legends to being furious when his team lost the relay race. When I worked in advertising, I too was known for my wide emotional pendulum, so I could relate to Dale. There's nothing wrong with having a wide range of emotions, but you do need to be able to keep them under control. It's too bad that Dale's inability to do so may have gotten him eliminated before his time.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A quick meal for a crazy week!

This time of year is nutso for me. A Tae Kwon Do tournament for all the guys in the household last weekend. One son's baseball season is in full swing. The other son's rock band has a big gig tomorrow (his band is the youngest band competing in the Battle of the Bands at the Water Street Music Hall). CRB has a big gig next week. I'm working part-time at Wickham Farms, and gearing up to be PTA president next year. You get the picture...

These are the weeks when I barely have time to put dinner on the table. This is the perfect time to throw together a quick meal, like Creamy Chicken Marsala Pizza, a finalist from the recent Pillsbury Bake-off contest. I made it recently and can report that it comes together quickly and has yummy classic flavors. It's one of those "I wish I had thought of that" recipes. The base: a tube of refrigerated Pillsbury pizza dough.

There are people look down their noses at such products, such as this blogger, who devoted a blog post to putting down the participants of the Pillsbury Bake-off contest.

"Kudos to all the participants," she sniffs. "Hey, at least they’re spending time in the kitchen rather than idling in the takeout lane at McDonald’s."

Nice.

Just to set the record straight, I can and do make my own pizza crust. Do a search of this blog and you'll find plenty of examples of "from scratch" pizza crusts, yeast breads, quick breads, cookies, and so on. But there are days where I'd rather spend that time helping my son with his pitching. Or watching both sons compete in Tae Kwon Do (my younger son won his division in board breaking, by the way). Or practicing for my band's gig.

A couple of years ago I spent a much greater part of my life devoted to food -- cooking, blogging, and developing recipes for cooking contests. It was my most successful year in the world of cooking contests, but it didn't work for me. As much as I love food, I didn't find it healthy or interesting to put that much of a focus on it. If that's the kind of life that blogger wants, good for her. She can have it. My life is often hectic and it's not perfect, but it works for me.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bananas for bananas!

My kids: "I'm huunnnggry.... what can I have for a snack?"

My usual response: "Have a banana."

I think they are nature's perfect snack food -- a sweet, satisfying treat in a handy package. Unfortunately, my kids don't always heed my recommendation and the bananas get black and squishy on the counter. That's when they are perfect for banana bread. In fact, I have some in that state right now and I have a new recipe for banana muffins in the queue for today.

Until I get those muffins made, the Banana Bread Round-up at Not Quite Nigella has 79 ideas for what you can do with your over ripe bananas. In fact, she is asking people to vote for their favorite! The recipe I contributed is probably my favorite banana bread so far, with six bananas packed into one loaf. If people could actually taste my entry, I think I'd have a shot at it. But my photo isn't a work of art, as usual, so I'm not holding my breath. Whether or not you want to vote, pop over there for some great ideas!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Top Chef Chicago, Episode 10

Some bloggers have noticed that the second person interviewed in Top Chef episodes seems to be the one who gets cut. This episode's second interview: Richard. NOOOOOO!!!!!

The Quick Fire: to make a sexy salad. Guest judge: sexy Sam, from season 2. Verrry nice to see him again. My pal Jenny got to see him in person and I was soooo jealous. (This is a photo she took of him.) My favorite comment on Jenny's blog post: "Oh have mercy Sam is a beautiful beast," by Flutter. Yep, what she said. He and Padma standing next together proves that God played favorites when he was passing out sexy.

Where was I? (fanning myself ...) Oh yeah, a salad. A sexy salad. And they have 45 minutes to make one, which seems to be a lot of time until I remember I couldn't didn't come close to turning out an un-sexy one in 30 minutes last week (see previous post). In the end, the one that catches my eye: Antonia's poached egg wild mushroom salad with a bacon vinaigrette and squash blossoms. When the yolk is pierced with a fork, the yellow goo runs over the salad. Dang, that does look sexy and delicious. Antonia is growing on me. She cooks well and has a droll sense of humor with a good chortle-y laugh.

Andrew is NOT growing on me but his salad with mangoes, strawberries, raspberries and Sriracha looks colorful and sounds interesting -- sweet and heat. Not sexy though. Maybe he should have saved his culinary boner for this week.

Antonia does wind up in the top three, along with Dale (Asian poached chicken salad), as well as Spike (Vietnamese beef salad with mint in it). Spike gets the win.

The bottom three: Richard, Stephanie and Lisa. It proves that Richard is human, after all. Stephanie ran into trouble and didn't finish -- the Quickfire doesn't seem to be her strength, but don't count her out. Lisa's salad had squid, lobster and banana -- flavors I can't quite imagine together.

They wheel out a big table full of the junk food that Chicago cops eat for lunch every day. Lisa comments that it looks good, and I kind of agree. I don't think Lisa is all bad, and neither is Dale. They both have intense moments, which I've been known to have, so I can kind of relate to them. Andrew and Spike, on the other hand, come across as borderline demented.

I thought the chefs might have to do a healthy twist on one of the junk food items, but no, they have to make healthy, hearty boxed lunches for Chicago cops. I like that they featured Chicago's finest, but it wasn't a terribly exciting challenge. Maybe they want to give the chefs something that's not terribly taxing after the wedding marathon.

Spike gets 10 extra minutes to shop -- and he rubs every one's noses in it. He also gets to pick a fruit, vegetable, grain and protein that his opponents can't use -- definitely a bigger advantage than last week's bride or groom choice. He selects chicken, tomato, bread and lettuce as the ingredients his opponents can't use -- talk about mundane ingredients. This means the chefs will have to think outside the box, so to speak. I wonder what Richard, who has proven himself to be a classy competitor, would have done. Toss them a soft ball? I'm guessing he'd pick a terrific dish for himself and then choose items that wouldn't duplicate the flavors. I wonder if Spike considered that if, by some wild stretch of the imagination, he made it to the end, he'd most likely need some of these people on his team.

Then they serve the lunches to the cops. Richard is mocked out for saying over and over, "do you like burritos?" Give the guy a break. He's just trying to make a dish with some unfamiliar ingredients seem more approachable.

The top two:
- Dale, for Bison "lettuce" wraps (using Napa cabbage) because Bison is very lean. Although I haven't tasted Bison, that was a good idea because Chicago cops will probably like red meat. I'm not a fan of the lettuce wrap, only because it's messy and awkward to eat, but they were a clever way to get around not being able to use bread.
- Stephanie, for a barley and butternut squash soup with meatballs. Going with a soup was a good idea. I love barley, especially in soup. I'd try the recipe (in the fall) if I trusted the accuracy of the recipes on the Bravo site.

Dale wins, and his prize is a fancy bottle of wine. He's definitely one of the stronger chefs. And has anyone noticed that his personality is much nicer when he's not taking part in a team challenge?

The bottom three:
- Lisa, for a shrimp stir-fry with undercooked shrimp and rice. She claimed that someone turned up her heat to sabotage her. Don't you think the cameras or another competitor would have noticed? She also points out to the judges that Andrew's dish didn't have a grain, a requirement of the challenge -- ironic, considering she was on the team that substituted chorizo for the required Polish sausage a few episodes back.
- Spike, for an uninspired chicken salad. Oh, how satisfying that he landed in the bottom three after the way he handled his Quickfire win.
- Andrew, for a mock sushi that didn't satisfy the cops or the judges. He blamed the judges' attitudes about healthy food, which never seems to be a smart strategy. I would argue that that Andrew's attempt had a higher level of creativity and difficulty than Spike's pedestrian chicken salad, so I would have preferred to have seen Spike cut. But I'm not terribly disappointed to see the guy who coined the term "culinary boner" pack his knives and go. And I vow that the term "boner" will never be used again on this blog. Ugh.

Next week: Restaurant wars! Yeah!

P.S. A couple of Rochester restaurants -- Dinosaur BBQ and California Rollin' -- are mentioned on this week's Team Top Chef Blog! The blogger defends sushi as a concept that, when creatively executed, can meet the definition of "hearty." Apparently California Rollin' serves a Dinosaur BBQ tempura roll with tuna and drizzled with Dinosaur BBQ sauce -- which pretty much typifies Rochester's approach to fusion cuisine. The blogger raves about it so even though it doesn't immediately appeal to me, I might have to give it a try. (I checked California Rollin's menu and didn't see the roll the blogger mentioned ... but I still want to check out California Rollin')

Thursday, May 15, 2008

My "Iron Chef" experience

It is a long way from participating in the Pillsbury Bake-off to competing across from the ladies' bathrooms at the 102-year-old Rochester Public Market. But that's what I did on Saturday ... and I'm hard pressed to say which was more stressful.

The contest: an "Iron Chef"-type format in which ingredients are not known in advance, and contestants have 30 minutes to prepare a dish from them. The prize: various items valued at $750 and a chance to compete as part of a team in Slice, Dice and Spice NY. My biggest fear: in a fit of hysteria, I would put nothing on the plate at the end of my allotted time.

My fears were grounded in the fact that I am a "recipe" cook. I rarely just throw stuff together. Even when I create a recipe for a cooking contest, I combine the techniques and flavors from a few different recipes. I start my process by writing a recipe on paper, and then I tinker -- and it usually takes a whole lot of tinkering before most of my creations are contest ready. So why did I do this particular contest? Well, I have spent a fair amount of time armchair quarterbacking shows like "Iron Chef America" and "Top Chef." I wanted to see how I'd do if I was in the action.

I plan to do a separate post about the Public Market, but it's like markets in any other city -- there's a huge assortment of produce, flowers, and other assorted items. I was warned in advance that about 35 thousand people were expected to be there that day, and parking would be a problem. As a result, I grabbed a $2 parking spot a few blocks away from the market, and hoofed it the rest of the way. I got to the market almost an hour in advance of my scheduled cooking time of 1:50 p.m. (I was told to be there at 1:35 to look at the ingredients and decide what to make.)

I scoped out where the contest would be held, and spotted it between the market office building and the rest rooms. I had been told they wanted the contestants to stay away from the contest area until it was close to their time to cook, so I wandered around the public market for awhile.

I haven't been there for a good 15 years for a couple of reasons: one, my Porter Farms CSA keeps me pretty well stocked with veggies throughout the summer and fall, and two, because I hate crowds. And man, the market was jammed. I found the combination of the crowd, the yelling vendors, and the sheer number of items to choose from to be overwhelming. I managed to buy two pounds of strawberries ($2 each) and wandered back to the contest area. When I got there, trying not to catch a glance at the ingredients, I found Michael Warren Thomas, who was running the contest, and he told me to come back in an hour. Groan .... if there had been an area to sit and read read the morning paper, that would have been just fine. But seating at the public market is a precious commodity, limited to a few crowded picnic tables around some of the food vendors. And it's not in a yuppy part of town where I could escape to a coffee shop. So it was back to wandering through the crowds. This time I bought some lettuce (50 cents each), garlic cloves (5 for $1 - a great score, until I saw that they were from China), a basil and a sage plant ($1 each), some cinnamon coated nuts, some garlic chives and a big artichoke. I also ate a couple of yummy empanadas. By 2:30 p.m., I noticed that some of the vendors were starting to pack it up for the day.

When I returned to the contest area, they still weren't ready for me and didn't want me hanging around. I mentioned to a nice man (Jim) that I was concerned that the area would be deserted when I was walking back to my car. He gave me a parking pass, so I walked to my car and moved it to a spot close to the cooking area.

After all of this, I was beat. Plus, I had band practice that night and wanted to get in some time on my guitar to prepare for it. I completely understand that a first-time contest isn't going to run like clockwork, so I wasn't miffed about that, but at that point I was ready to head for home.

But after a few minutes, Michael gave me an ok to look at the ingredients I had to work with (I had been told ahead of time that I didn't need to use them all):

Some wines
3 mustards -- one smelled very beer-y, one like a Dijon, and one with horseradish
Olive oil
Honey
Salt & pepper

Rosemary
Sage
Chives
Thyme
Garlic

Pasta, shaped like orzo

Potatoes
Asparagus
Tomatoes (I was dismayed at this out-of-season ingredient)
Mixed baby greens
Onions

A square flat bread, like for pressed sandwiches

Cheddar cheese
Swiss cheese
Fresh mozzarella
Butter
Heavy cream
Eggs

Every time I thought of something to do with the ingredients, I'd arrive at a mental road block. No meat/poultry. No vinegar for a vinaigrette. No fruit for a sauce for French Toast. No sugar for caramelizing the onions.

Since the greens looked to be the best fresh ingredient, my strategy was a salad, even though I would have liked to have had some vinegar to use. I'd use the greens and asparagus and maybe boil an egg for a garnish. I would brush the flat bread with some herb-infused oil and throw it on the grill and cut it up to to make croutons. Maybe accompany it with a cheesy toast type thing.

The two techniques that I thought would set me apart would be used in my vinaigrette. I thought that if I roasted the tomatoes on the grill, I'd bring out what little flavor they had, and I could puree them and could use that as the acid in my vinaigrette. I would also roast garlic in olive oil on the stove and use the garlic and the garlicky oil in the vinaigrette. I'd also add some herbs and maybe some wine or honey to the vinaigrette.

I peeled a bulb of garlic and put it in olive oil on the stove, planning to roast it until it was soft and brown.

I put the tomatoes on the grill. I also put asparagus in the in boiling water (they had water boiling on the stove) for a few minutes until it was crisp-tender and put it on ice to stop the cooking.

I checked on my tomatoes and nothing was happening. Those firm red balls were as hard and red as they were when I put them on the heat. Michael was as helpful could be but the heat didn't seem to be working right. It was pretty breezy where we were so maybe the wind was either diluting the heat or moving it around.

At this point I was about 15 minutes into the competition and I decided that the salad wasn't going to happen. So I was left with some blanched asparagus, some garlicky oil (it was clear it wasn't going to fully roast in the time I had left), and the original ingredients. I decided to switch to making a panini.

I thought I'd try to caramelize some onions (not really possible in 10 minutes) and put them on the heat to saute.

I pureed some of the roasted garlic with some thyme and spread it on the bread. I topped it with fresh mozzarella, the asparagus (halved lengthwise), and sliced tomato that I had seasoned with salt and pepper.

In a last-ditch effort to imitate the flavor of caramelized onions, I squirted some honey on the onions on the stove. I tasted. Bleeeccchh. Those went in the trash.

More mozzarella went on top. (Why didn't I use the other cheeses? I just wasn't sure how they'd work against the garlic.) I melted some butter with the oil that had been used to roast garlic and spread it on the bread (no pastry brush, used a plastic tasting spoon to spread it around). I grilled it using the pot that had been used to boil water to press on it like a panini.

At this point my 30 minutes were about up. It went fast. Michael told me that since I had trouble with my heat, I could have a little more time. At this point, I should have done a bare-bones salad to go with my panini, using wine in place of vinegar in a vinaigrette. But at this point I wanted this to be over with. So all I served was the panini. No garnish or anything.

I cut it in half, and then Michael told me to cut those pieces in half again so that he and I could taste it. As I did, some onlookers came by and asked if they could taste, so I cut my piece up and gave it to them (which probably was a no-no by New York's ridiculously stringent health department regulations). So I committed the biggest sin you can make on Top Chef -- I DIDN'T TASTE IT! I have utterly no idea what it tasted like. I was given a chance to explain the dish to one of the judges (market vendors) and I was so embarrassed by what I turned in that I didn't put any energy into explaining it.

In the end, I don't think I choked so much as gave up. I was tired and the crazy cooking conditions got the best of me. As I drove away, I thought about all the great egg dishes I could have made. But with the crazy heat? I don't know how that would have gone either.

Unsurprisingly, my fancy pants grilled cheese didn't get me the win. But I actually received a cool consolation prize -- two tickets to Slice, Dice and Spice NY! I had wanted to go, but the $50 price tag held me back. It's tonight. I'm taking my friend, Karen, who competed in the Pillsbury Bake-off contest (and won her category) in 2006. We can armchair quarterback the teams competing in the finals -- probably just as much fun as competing. Plus they'll have food and wine to sample (since wine makes me break out in hives --boo-hoo --Karen can describe the wines to me).

In the end, I'm glad I gave it a go. If I had a chance to do it again, would I? Heck, yeah. But I'd bring a fold-up chair and a good book and find a quiet corner of the market while I was waiting.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It's LiveSTRONG Day!

Today, the food blogging community is supporting LiveSTRONG Day with a blog event called a Taste of Yellow. LiveSTRONG Day is the Lance Armstrong Foundation's one-day initiative to raise awareness and funds for the cancer fight.

Maybe you'll want to commemorate the day by cooking something yellow. If so, you'll have 179 recipes to choose from at the LIVESTRONG A Taste of Yellow Roundup. Most of them, including my no-knead batter bread in the second part of the roundup, are probably a better choice than this one. But since I took a decent photo of the recipe, I thought I'd tell you about it.

When I selected the recipe to make for this event, I wanted a really good one. To that end, I thought I'd take on Banana Bread with Salted Caramel Sauce & Meringue, which garnered Chef Stephanie Izard high marks from the judges in this season of Top Chef.

I started with the bread. The batter was thicker than any other banana bread recipe I've made. But the thing that concerned me most was the full teaspoon of salt it called for. Despite my doubts, I dumped it in.

After the bread was done, I tasted a corner. It was dense and not as moist as my favorite banana breads. But bear in mind this was served as finger food on the show, so it had to be fairly sturdy. And, unsurprisingly, it was distinctly salty. On the show, it was served with a salted caramel sauce, so maybe the salt in the bread punched up the salty flavor of the sauce. Or maybe that teaspoon of the salt was a typo on the Bravo Web site, because it's hard to imagine that the judges complimented the bread I tasted.

I decided it wasn't fair to judge the recipe unless I had all of the elements of it, so I studied the recipe for the next steps -- the meringue and the caramel sauce. And then I got really perplexed.

The caramel sauce called for egg whites, sugar, water, and corn syrup. I thought that was odd, because I've never seen a caramel sauce recipe with egg whites. And the recipe called caramel meringue had no egg whites -- a key component in meringues -- and it didn't call for the mixture to be heated until it browned -- which is how a caramel flavor is achieved. Then it dawned on me that someone mixed up the titles -- the egg white mixture was the meringue, and it wasn't meant to be caramel flavored. The other mixture was the sauce. (They have since corrected the switched titles, although the meringue is still called "caramel meringue" and the teaspoon of salt remains in the bread.)

After that, I decided I didn't have enough faith in the recipe to expend the energy to make the meringue and sauce. But I wondered if a caramel icing might make the saltiness of the bread less pronounced. I used my go-to caramel icing and poured it on the bread. It helped somewhat; my salt-loving son gobbled it up. But honestly, I would make any other banana bread I've posted on this blog over this one.

Caramel icing

3 Tablespoons butter
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
3 Tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup powdered sugar

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the sugar and the milk. Bring to a boil and continue to boil for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, add the vanilla and gradually mix in the powdered sugar.

My original directions say this icing hardens up quickly so you need to work fast, and if it hardens up too quickly, add some more milk to thin it out. I haven’t found this to be the case – in fact, I find that I need to let it cool off long enough to thicken a bit, so it doesn’t run right off the cake. This makes a lot of icing – I drizzle it in layers on top of the cake.

Banana Bread
From Stephanie Izard on the Top Chef Web site.
This makes a dense, salty bread so I would at least change the amount of salt.

1/3 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
3 ripe bananas
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt (I would use only a pinch)
2 cups flour

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixer, cream together butter and sugar; then add in bananas and vanilla. Combine dry ingredients and slowly add to batter. Mix to combine. Butter or pan spray in 9x9 inch pan. Bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean when tested.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Top Chef Chicago, episode 9

This episode began with the women remarking that this is the first time that four women have made it to the top eight. So you just know a woman will be eliminated in this episode.

First, the Quickfire challenge: a culinary skills relay race, a favorite challenge from past seasons. They draw knives to choose teams. On one side: Dale, Nikki, Spike and Lisa. On the other: Richard, Stephanie, Antonia and Andrew. This season's tasks: to peel and supreme five oranges, to clean and turn an artichoke such that a neat heart and stem remain, to clean and filet a gigantic monkfish, and to make a quart of mayonnaise. The hot potato is the mayo.

Nikki and others say they haven't made mayo since chef's school, because they usually make it in a Robot Coupe. This is the second time in the show I've heard the chefs talk about a Robot Coupe. Since the line is subtitled, I have enough information to Google Robot Coupe. I find out it's a commercial food processor. Did Robot Coupe pay for that product placement? I can't decide. If they did, they are one of the smarter marketers in this show, because the chefs mentioning the product intrigued me enough to look it up. If those comments were accompanied by a three-second close-up of an actual Robot Coupe, I would have been annoyed by what was clearly a paid placement. Glad should take notes.

But I digress. Back to the relay race. First, Lisa and Antonia face off on the orange task. Lisa gets her team off to a huge lead and it looks like the apparent underdog team will prevail. Next up are Spike and Andrew on the artichokes. Spike breaks an artichoke and blows his team's lead. When it's time for Dale and Richard to cut into the monkfish (a fierce looking creature), it's neck and neck. Dale and Richard finish in a dead heat. Then it's on to mayo, and Stephanie prevails over Nikki. Major celebration! Wahoo -- maybe this will help Stephanie get her mojo back! Dale slams a locker and yells the f-word. I probably should think that's terrible but it does show that he's a fierce competitor.

The prize for the Quickfire isn't immunity. No, it's supposedly a chance to get an advantage in the elimination challenge. They introduce two guests -- a couple getting married the next day. Each team will serve 125 guests -- one, the bride's guests, and the other, the groom's guests. The winning Quickfire team gets to decide who to work with, the bride or the groom. They are given no information about either person. Huh? That's the prize for the Quickfire? I don't like the implication at all -- in other words, let's all stay away from Bridezilla.

Richard announces that it's the bride's day and they'll pick the bride. That is so cool. I can't decide if he's a master strategist or just a nice guy, but I love that.

When I saw the preview about the wedding, my first reaction was to wonder what kind of crazy couple would have their wedding catered as a reality show challenge. Then they mentioned that the two of them own a restaurant and wedding location! Ah ha! They are using their wedding as PR for their business. How very romantic.

The teams will be working through the night to cater the wedding the next day. Come on -- what purpose does that serve? I stopped watching Survivor because I felt too guilty watching the contestants starve for my entertainment. I don't want to feel guilty about watching Top Chef, too.

Andrew has a "culinary boner" about working all night. What a wonderful picture that puts in my head. Ugh.

The bride and groom meet with their teams, and it turns out that the groom likes Italian food. This makes Nikki grin from ear to ear. She hits it off with the groom right away, and remarks that they have a similar palate. Plus, everyone likes Italian, don't they? Maybe the weaker team will pull it off.

The bride likes potatoes, pasta, pizza, chicken "if it's fried," steak and blue cheese. She is from Georgia and Richard lives in Atlanta, so that teams seems to have a good client as well. They decide their theme is meat and potatoes/the Midwest meets the South/comfort food. Sounds like an unexciting theme for a wedding buffet. I'm thinking the groom's team has the advantage when it comes to theme.

And, by the way, the teams get to make wedding cakes, too! One for the bride and one for the groom. I wonder if the couple had to pay for any of this. Sounds like a steal to me.

The bride's team seems to work well together. The only fly in the ointment is Andrew, who seems to be either jealous of or threatened by Richard. Or maybe his culinary boner is lasting for hours, like in the Viagara ads, and it's making him grumpy. (Yeah, that was terrible. I couldn't resist.)

The groom's team isn't feeling the love. They look to Nikki, the resident expert in Italian cooking, for leadership and direction, but she isn't giving it. I see trouble brewing for Nikki. Dale becomes more and more irritated as the night goes on, but channels his pent-up frustration into working like a dog.

To me the people who take on the cakes are the brave ones. Lisa is doing the chocolate-hazelnut groom's cake. The cake is rectangular and squat but looks and sounds delicious. Stephanie does the wedding cake, chocolate with lemon, and smartly uses flowers to decorate it. Looks gorgeous, but chocolate and lemon -- ewwww! I do not like chocolate and citrus together.

The guest judge is Gale Gand -- finally! As Stephanie said, she is one of the top pastry chefs in Chicago, so she should be there. I was lucky enough to be around her for a couple of hours a few years ago (terrible picture of me but I couldn't resist), and found her to be a friendly, down-to-earth person. I would be very surprised if she wasn't fair and kind toward those chefs.

The wedding is at a pretty location. Wonder if the bride and groom own it? I'll bet they do!

The bride's food seems to be well received. The filet and brisket get favorable remarks. The least favorite dish is Andrew's chicken nuggets. Seems as though they got kind of ... flaccid, maybe? ... as they sat in the chafing dishes.

The groom's food isn't faring so well. Nikki's homemade pasta is too sweet and "not good." The roasted veggies are unoriginal.

After it was all over, the chefs are the picture of exhaustion. Do you think they could have let the chefs go to sleep and had judge's table the next morning? No, let's continue torturing the chefs. Or maybe the chefs wouldn't have been able to sleep, waiting for the judges' table. Either way, I felt sorry for them.

The bride's team gets grilled first. Here's what's cool about Richard. The judges didn't care for the taste of the star anise that was in the team's creamed spinach. Even though Andrew made it, Richard owned up to having suggested the star anise. No matter, the team won. And the winner was Richard, for his leadership and cooking. Richard chose to give the win to Stephanie for making the wedding cake. Shrewd or nice? I'm not sure, but I agree that Stephanie deserved it. The prize: $2,000 to spend at Crate & Barrel. I wonder if how Richard's wife reacted when she saw that episode. If I were her, I might have told Richard he'd have to wait a while longer before they got started on making Baby Blaises! Product placement or no, Crate & Barrel rocks!

The groom's team loses. They ask who was the team leader and Nikki washes her hands of all responsibility. "In no way am I playing executive chef for this," she says. Dale is frustrated because he felt like he did more than his share of the work. They showed some debate but the decision was a no brainer. They chose the person who should have stepped up to being the leader -- Nikki. I agree with the decision 100%. Arrivederci, Nikki.

This is where the show gets interesting. Richard is clearly the front runner, but unlike many chefs from previous seasons, he comes across as a personable guy. It would be very satisfying to see Richard win this thing. In fact, I'm beginning to think that any other result -- other than maybe Stephanie coming from behind -- would be a major disappointment. Go Richard and Stephanie! Let the nice chefs finish first!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mothers Day!

That's me and my wonderful mom, who I appreciate more every year. I look like my Dad, as if you can't tell. I just wish the gene pool could have blessed me with Mom's long legs.

We will probably spend the day at a Red Wings game and a visit to Wickham Farms (free mini golf and ice cream for Moms on Mothers Day -- what more could you ask?)

I'll be back next week with my latest Top Chef recap and a report on my latest cooking challenge (but to save you the suspense, I didn't win). Have a good day!

Friday, May 09, 2008

What have I gotten myself into?

I was midway through writing my latest Top Chef post (which originally started as 15 minutes worth of random thoughts, and has grown into this long friggin' thing...)

Anyway, I just got a call that I'm "in" for the competition at the Public Market. See post below. I'm petrified.

Want to know what happens to me when I get really nervous? I get tired. Isn't that weird? I can barely keep my eyes open. I should be downstairs perfecting vinaigrettes or memorizing recipes but I'm going to bed.

I am a recipe cook -- and not a terribly creative one at that -- so I expect to crash and burn. But it could be an interesting blog entry! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Calling all Rochester cooks!

Cool cooking competition coming up on Saturday at the Rochester Public Market! I signed up to compete, but they will hold a drawing to pick the 12 people that will actually cook. Frankly the whole thing terrifies me, because I'm a "recipe" kind of cook, but my husband and kids convinced me to do it.

"What's the worst thing that can happen?" they kept saying -- which is something I say to them all the time. Guess I have to put my money where my mouth is. But please -- sign up, and make it less likely I'll actually have to do this!

“COOK-IN” KICKS OFF CHEF’S DAYS AT THE ROCHESTER PUBLIC MARKET

For more information, please contact: Michael Warren Thomas at (585) 328-8300 or Michael@SavorLife.com

Calling all amateur Iron Chef wanna-be’s! The weekly Chef’s Days Saturday kick-off at the Rochester Public Market will be Saturday, May 10, 2008 from 8am-2pm with a cooking contest to determine who will be a member of the Wild Card Team at the New York Wine & Culinary Center on May 14-15, for Slice, Dice and Spice NY. The “Cook-In” winner will participate in the Pro-Am, and also win a package valued at over $750, including a 2 night stay at the historic 1810 Morgan Samuels Inn in Canandaigua. Participants in the “Cook-In” only need to be present for their assigned 30 minute period.

The first annual Slice, Dice & Spice NY Pro-Am Chef Challenge begins on May 12, with three days of competition, and ends with the Final Cook-Off on May 15, 2008. This event is a tourism initiative featuring the culinary and agricultural assets of the Finger Lakes region. Professional chefs from Ontario, Livingston and Wayne Counties will be teamed up with four local “wanna-be-chefs." Similar to the Iron Chef competition, teams will use common ingredients to produce innovative culinary dishes and highlight our region's natural assets. Canandaigua Wine Trail, also a partner in the program, will provide all the wines for the competition.

Local amateur cooking enthusiasts are invited to register by 12 noon on Friday, May 9th for a drawing to choose twelve people to do a 30-minute “Cook-In” demonstration at the Rochester Public Market as part of the Slice, Dice and Spice NY Pro-Am contest. Participants will be given a market basket of ingredients and access to spices, with 15 minutes to plan and 30 minutes to prepare their entry. The Rochester Public Market will provide a propane grill which also has a burner for pans during preparation. Time slots will be assigned between 8am and 2pm for May 10.

Local farmers will judge and pick one contest winner who will become part of the Wild Card Team at the New York Wine & Culinary Center on for the last preliminary round on Wednesday, May 14th. If the team wins that preliminary round, they will compete in the Finals at the Center on Thursday, May 15th with the grand prize winning team announced that evening.

Registration for the “Cook-In” at the Rochester Public Market can be made by contacting Michael Warren Thomas at (585) 328-8300 or Michael@SavorLife.com. The deadline for registration is 12 noon on May 9th. More information on the Slice, Dice and Spice NY event is available at www.SliceDiceAndSpiceNY.com, including the tickets for the Finals that are open to the public on May 15, $50 in advance, $55 at the door.

Chef’s Day Saturdays at the Market will continue each week throughout the summer and fall depending on the weather, with professional and amateur chefs providing demonstrations, recipes and advice, but no samples due to Health Department regulations.

Contact: Michael Warren Thomas at (585) 328-8300 or Michael@SavorLife.com

Monday, May 05, 2008

Peanut butter and tomatoes do too go together!

During the most recent episode of Top Chef, Stephanie Izard made a sauce for chicken that included peanut butter and tomatoes. Twice Tom Colicchio talked as if he was repulsed by the idea of the combination. As I watched the episode, I thought I had used those flavors together at least once. It didn't take much digging to find an example. But let me give you some background first.

When my kids were in third grade, the curriculum focused on various parts of the world, one of them being Africa. The unit culminated with an African "Harambee" night at the school, during which the kids performed African songs and dances (the 2003 performance shown here).

Before each son's performance, I hosted an African-themed dinner. The boys invited a few classmates and their families, as well as their teachers. The first time I did this, in 2003, I included some authentic dishes like Injera bread and Ugali, but after those were mostly uneaten, I decided not to get hung up on authenticity. Instead, I just decided it was good enough to give people a sense of the kinds of foods and flavors served in the various countries in Africa.

For both dinners, the favorite dish was probably West African Peanut Soup, from the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook. (Moosewood, by the way, is located in Ithaca, a couple of hours east of here.) In fact, the first time I hosted the dinner, it was gobbled up so quickly I didn't have a chance to eat some! My serving dish was practically licked clean. And both times, people asked me for the recipe. Two of the ingredients: two cups of tomato juice, and one cup of creamy peanut butter. While Stephanie's dish might not have been great, I rest my case that the two flavors can work together. I might add that the dish is a great example of a nourishing vegetarian dish that is inexpensive and has plenty of protein. Maybe I would have done that if I had faced that challenge as a contestant in Top Chef. Add a salad and a bread and you're good to go.

While I'm at it, I thought I'd include another favorite recipe from both African dinners -- ground beef Samosas.

Both of these photos are from 2003, before I had a blog, so I didn't take close-up shots of the food. This is the only photo from both evenings that included the food at all. I have to laugh at me in the photo -- I was wearing a heavy sweater while I was cooking and boy was I sweating. Duh!

West African Peanut Soup
(from Sundays at the Moosewood Restaurant, with my notes)

2 cups chopped onion
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cayenne or other ground chiles
1 tsp grated peeled fresh ginger
1 cup chopped carrots
2 cups chopped sweet potatoes
4 cups vegetable stock or water
2 cups tomato juice
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1 Tablespoon sugar
chopped scallions, for garnish
chopped roasted peanuts, for garnish

Sauté onion in oil until it is translucent. Stir in cayenne and ginger. Add carrots and sauté a couple minutes more. Mix in potatoes and stock, bring to a boil, simmer 15 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Puree the vegetables with tomato juice (and some of the cooking liquid if necessary) in a blender or food processor (or with a stick blender). Return the puree to the pot. Stir in the peanut butter until smooth. Check sweetness and add sugar if necessary. (I did add the sugar.) Reheat gently, using a heat diffuser if necessary to prevent scorching. (I did this in the crock pot). Add more water, stock, or tomato juice to make a thinner soup if desired. (I did not thin the soup.) Serve topped with plenty of chopped scallions and chopped roasted peanuts.

Serves 6-8

Samosas (also spelled Samoosas)

This dish originated in India. One of my sources said it was served in Kenya. Another one said South Africa. This is an amalgam of two different recipes I saw for this dish.

Filling:
1 pound ground beef
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 large onions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon red pepper

1 pound egg roll wrappers

Brown meat; add remaining ingredients, and cook together for about 30 minutes.

Cut egg roll wrappers in half (into two long rectangles). Imagine the top half as a square that you will fold in half along its diagonal. Put a tablespoon of filling in the middle of that half. Fold top half down over the filling diagonally, so that the top of your strip is now a triangle. Then fold this triangle over the next section of the strip so that you have a square. Finally, fold once again along the diagonal so that you end with a multi-layered triangle. (This is easier to demonstrate than to write). Seal all edges with water. Be sure there are no open corners, or you'll lose the filling during frying. Fry in moderately hot oil until brown and crisp.

These can be held in a warm oven but they get tougher.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Top Chef Chicago, episode 8

This week's Top Chef consisted of a 15-minute dish made with Uncle Ben's rice as well as dinner for four, prepared with kids, for 10 bucks. Welcome to my world. Ho hum. The guest judge was Art Smith, Oprah's personal chef, which struck me as another ho hum.

The first thing I noticed about this episode is that they showed a lot of Stephanie, and they always show a lot of the person who gets cut. I was uneasy that my early favorite is in trouble...

The Quickfire Challenge: a 15-minute meal using Uncle Ben's microwave rice. This is my arena -- I love a recipe contest with really restrictive requirements. But it takes me days or weeks to come up with an entry, not the minutes these chefs have.

Some notable dishes:
Stephanie: a pancake with scallops. "I have no idea what it tastes like...," she says. Uh oh, I'm thinking that's not good. "Very clever," says Art Smith when he tastes it. He seems like he's trying to find something positive to say to each contestant, which I like. Those chefs deserve a pat on the back for the stuff they pull off.
Antonia: rice in a salad, something she grew up with. She talks about it like it's this really unusual idea. I've made rice salad for years, so I don't understand what's so unusual about it until Art remarks, "I like the hot in the cold." Hot rice in cold greens. Hmmm...
Mark: Miso-glased turkey breast ... noticing a lot of miso this year -- and the camera catches him double dipping in his sauce! Again -- after the judges told him to clean up his act! Ugh. I am almost certain this goes on in restaurant kitchens all the time -- at least those in which the chefs care enough the taste the food -- but you'd think you'd be wise enough to not do it in front of the camera!
Richard: a "little play on" steak and tomatoes. It's funny that are all of his dishes seem to be a play on something else. He makes a seared tuna steak that's very rare on the inside. I've never liked tuna done that way.
Dale: a fried rice that includes scallops and long beans - one of his favorite veggies. It looks the best to me, like something I'd order at a restaurant.

Bottom three: Mark (for dry turkey), Stephanie (for heavy pancakes), and Lisa, for an unoriginal Southwest dish. Come on Stephanie! Get your mojo back!

Top three: Dale's fried rice, Richard's salmon dish, and Antonia's rice salad. And Antonia's Rice Salad with Skirt Steak. Surprising.

The Quick Fire was heavy with product placements – the Uncle Ben's challenge, close-ups of Glad plastic wrap. I understand why companies want to promote their products this way, because in this era of Tivo and fast forwarding through commercials, people are watching fewer commercials. I could live with the product placements if they resulted in fewer commercials ... but noooo! In my impatience to watch this show, I watched it in real time -- which I NEVER do -- and the commercials were interminable. They made me want to scream with impatience.

The elimination challenge: a delicious, nutritious meal for a family of four with a budget of $10. She says it should be simple enough that “even a child can help make it.” Andrew calls the challenge impossible. Richard, frightening. Antonia gets it – people don't always have lots of money to spend on food.

When they shop, most of the chefs run to the meat counter, and most get chicken. How unimaginative. I wanted to yell at the TV, like my husband watching a Bills game (OK, maybe I did). VEGETARIAN!!!! Are you freaking stupid???? Pasta! Eggs! I think only a couple went the vegetarian route.

The chefs are joined by – surprise! -- no really, Padma gave it away during the introduction – some cute kids.

I did like that the episode gave us a chance to see the human side of the chefs. Antonia is a single mom with a daughter. Dale became a chef because his stature meant pro basketball wasn't going to work out. Spike lost a lot of weight by cooking for himself. Nikki cooked for herself from a young age. They all seem to enjoy working with the kids.

Tom Collichio spends the whole time in the kitchen – to make sure they are putting the kids to work, or behaving appropriately? Maybe that's why I don't hear a lot of profanity in the episode.
And then they show a shot of Tom looking over Dale's shoulder, with Dale's kid sous chef looking on, as Dale double dipped while tasting his dish! Again, this may well be a common practice in kitchens, but they raked Mark over the coals for that! Very inconsistent, if you ask me. Tom did his tasting in the kitchen, by himself.

The dishes:


Richard: Roast chicken with black beans and a salad that contains beets. Looks good. Art criticizes his including the skin, because you don't need skin. WRONG -- chicken has better flavor and is moister if it's roasted with the skin on. If you don't want to eat the skin after it's cooked, don't eat it.

Lisa: Roast chicken and black beans (are you seeing a trend here?) and a dessert of french toast with apples and peanut butter. Art says the chicken doesn't have a lot of flavor – that's because she took the skin off!!! Duh.

Dale: The brats with potatoes and cabbage -- not terribly original but it sounds good. I love brats. Padma thinks the flavors in the dish have to be more "universal" to appeal to varied tastes in a household. What works for one household is very different from what works in another household, so that comment doesn't hold water for me. In my household, everyone would eat the brats, although some would douse them in ketchup or hot sauce.

Spike:
Pasta Puttanesca, carrot soup, and semi-baked apples. He did pretty well with his impossible task! Kids were excited about "spaghetti" -- glad nobody explained to the kids the meaning of "puttanesca."

Nikki: Roasted chicken (surprise!) with mixed vegetables, cooked in the one pan, and a salad. The skin was definitely on. Judges liked it.

Mark: Vegetable curry, cinnamon rice and a salad. Padma (who probably knows curry) thought it was too sweet and they said there wasn't enough protein.

Antonia: Stir-fry whole wheat noodles with a little chicken. Judges liked it.

Andrew: Chicken paillard with a salad. Delicious and well executed, said the judges.

Stephanie: Couscous, topped with a chicken in a sauce with peanut butter and tomato, and some apples, cooked with maple syrup, and topped with granola. It was panned by the judges. Gail says it's the sign of a restaurant chef that doesn't cook at home.

They show the contestants waiting in the kitchen with a big shot of Glad Cling Wrap in front. Enough already! Then a shot of Richard saying he wants to go home and make some baby Blaises. All the best to you, Richard. If you do, be sure to make some time for them.

Top three: Nikki, Andrew, and Antonia. Antonia gets the win. But NO PRIZE for this winner! What is up with these prizes?

Bottom three: Lisa, Stephanie and Mark. Mark says that he's there because Tom doesn't like him. What an idiot. Mark gets sent home (another whew! for Stephanie -- hope she turns it around). Tom says he wants to go out for a pint with Mark. I'd go out for a pint with Tom any day.

So the ho-hum episode turns out a pretty ho-hum blog entry! Nothing to get gleefully snarky about, no dung on a plate, no cool Chicago places.

But it did give me a clue about something I have often wondered about -- why there seems to be few chefs in the recipe/cooking contests that are open to both amateurs and professionals. As an example, when I went to the (sadly, now defunct) Southern Living contest in 2006, there were 15 finalists and only one was a chef. I would think that with the big money at stake (Southern Living had a $100 grand prize), chefs would enter them, and with their training they'd whup the amateurs' butts. But maybe chefs don't cook the way that home cooks do. And maybe after cooking all day, the last thing they want to do is go home and cook. Could be...

And it looks like next week, the chefs put on a wedding, and have 14 hours to do it. It makes me wonder -- who would ever plan a wedding that way? I guess we'll see next week.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Gig tomorrow at Wickham Farms!


















I am in the process of writing my Top Chef recap but CRB has a gig tomorrow at Wickham Farms! Weather cooperating (cross your fingers!) we'll be playing on the porch on the right side of the picture.

I need to bone up on a few songs, particularly some new ones, including a Miley Cyrus tune we're doing just for the kids.

And while I'm on the subject of Wickham Farms, I have to do a quick plug for them. It's a great spot for families and anyone looking for some good chow.

In the real barn, with its great pine scent, there are ice cream choices galore -- 32 flavors of scooped ice cream as well as soft custard -- plus some really good baked goods, like homemade cookies.

In terms of "real" food, they have a limited menu with items that are well done, including a homemade, all white meat chicken salad that I think is the best in Rochester. Another favorite is the Farmhand sandwich -- three cheeses and bacon, grilled to gooey goodness on a panini press.

Anyway, kids can't get enough of the place -- there's miniature golf, playground equipment, and more.

So go for the gig, or go another day!

Back to practicing!
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