Thursday, February 26, 2009

Top Chef TV Spottings

I rarely watch daytime TV but I'm under the weather today so I'm relaxing and watching TV...

Fabio was on Ellen today. He was charming and adorable, as I'd expect. He made a simple dish of sauteed zucchini with tofu (ugh - I hate tofu), topped with greens with a vinaigrette and roasted almonds. He did a flambee with Grand Marnier. I'm not sure how it fit into the dish, but it was quite impressive. I do hope Fabio and Carla both wind up on TV somewhere -- I'd watch them in a minute.

Also, I saw a familiar Top Chef contestant on Iron Chef America. It was Amanda Freitag vs. Bobby Flay in Battle Alaskan King Crab. I would have LOVED to have been a judge on that episode -- the food looked amazing! Anyway, who was the sous chef for Freitag? Arian Duarte. Interesting because Ariane has her own restaurant... I wonder when the episode was filmed.

I have my short chat with Stephanie Izard to write up but my cold has me feeling dopey ... it's coming...

A new Top Chef - eh

So another season of Top Chef is over ... and I just don't have much to write about the last two episodes, because they both were a letdown.

Oh Fabio ... wasn't his leather jacket and the pink scarf the coolest outfit ever? He was eliminated in the penultimate episode because his cooking wasn't Cajun/Creole enough -- but I think he did the right thing by staying true to his style.

In the finale, I had a hunch Carla would be sunk by listening to Casey's suggestions to sous vide the beef and to do a souffle. I was really bummed for her. But she did herself proud by competing "with love" instead of nastiness.

In the end, I found it unsatisfying when Hosea won. He and Stefan both have annoying personalities, so it seemed fitting that the chef who dominated throughout was the winner. And, by the way, I would happily eat Stefan's pedestrian dessert any day of the week.

In any case, I hope we see more from Fabio and Carla. I would happily watch either one on their own cooking show.

Coming up ... my chat with Stephanie Izard, last year's Top Chef!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Grandma's Oatmeal Raspberry Bars

I just returned from a bittersweet trip to Florida. It was a welcome break from our winter weather and we had lots of fun. Unfortunately, while we were there my 94-year-old Grandma, who was also visiting, took a turn for the worse and wound up in the hospital. I'm worried about her ... so in her honor, I thought I'd post a favorite recipe of hers. It's a yummy oatmeal bar that takes about five minutes to throw together.

Speaking of oats, the good people from Quaker Oats offered me an interview with Stephanie Izard, winner of Top Chef season 4! I should be interviewing her tomorrow ... if you have anything you'd like me to ask her, please leave me a comment.

Oatmeal Raspberry Bars

1 1/2 cups oats (I prefer Quick Oats)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup melted butter or margarine
1 12-oz jar raspberry jam or preserves (peach also can be used)

Mix together all dry ingredients. Mix in the melted butter. Press half of the oatmeal mixture into a greased 9 x 13” pan. Spread the jam on top (I stir the jam to make it more spreadable). Sprinkle remaining crumb mixture on top. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 - 25 minutes.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Top Chef: The Last Supper Episode

I loved, loved, LOVED this episode! My favorite episode this season, by far. Some examples of what I loved:

- I love that Leah and Carla both became chefs after doing something else. It is inspiring you can start on one path and take another one.

- I loved the QuickFire challenge because I love eggs, and I was wowed by everything the chefs created.

- I loved Padma's outfit in the QuickFire. That asymmetrical black top was cool looking and suited her. If I had her shape, that's exactly what I'd wear for a CRB gig.

- I don't have a reaction one way or another to Wylie Dufresne, but I enjoyed the butchery of his name. Fabio: Doo-fres-ney. Leah: Doo-fray. He was critical of the chefs but constructive and respectful -- something that Brit judge could learn from. Have I mentioned that I'm not feeling the love for Toby?

- I loved that Carla won the QuickFire challenge -- not only because she's one of my favorites, but also because she did it without using molecular gastronomy.

- I loved that Fabio drew Lydia Bastianich, and his reaction to drawing her. He has had some bad luck in the "draw knives" situations -- remember the Green Bay venison? His luck turned around at the right time.

- The Last Supper was kind of a morbid theme, but it made for an interesting episode.

- Carla: "No way am I giving up Jacques Pepin ... and he wants PEAS!!??? Jacques, we are like this with peas." Later, "I think Jacques and I are two peas in a pod -- ha, ha." There's no good way to write her wacky expressions but I love her personality. She seriously has to have her own show. I'd watch it in a heartbeat.

- I was cool when they went to Perilla to see Harold. He was a great first Top Chef. And you've got to hand it to Bravo -- they keep their past cheftestants, even the ones that didn't do particularly well, in the limelight.

- I love that the final five all seem pretty friendly, with the exception of the Hosea/Stefan rivalry. Stefan seems to enjoy pushing Hosea's buttons -- and it's kind of amusing.

- I loved the clowning around between Fabio and Stefan while they were in Whole Foods.

- Of all the last suppers, I liked Hosea's idea the best -- a really good BLT. Mine would have to have a freshly picked late August tomato, lightly salted, and the sandwich would be on good whole-grain bread, lightly toasted. And most important, I'd want something decadent and chocolate for dessert. I can't believe there was no dessert for everyone's Last Supper! That's the most important part of the meal!

- POOR Fabio! Did you see his finger bent at that crazy angle? It looked painful. But I LOVED his response: "Hospital? I'll chop it off and sear it on the flat top so it doesn't bleed any more and tomorrow I will deal with nine finger." Later, as he struggles to make his meal with a broken finger: "I got so many keek in my ass that sometime when I'm in the bathroom I still pull shoes out of my ass." Where does he come up with this stuff? Bravo usually does a T-shirt with a quote on it, but this season they may need to do a series with Fabio quotes. Anyway, Fabio's response to the finger makes him a badass.

- More Fabio: "I don't think I want my last meal prepared by contestants on Top Chef. My last meal should be prepared by my grandma. She died two years ago. She was the best cook ever. I have to cook my home food. I have to cook my grandma food. I have goosebumps, look at that." A baddass who LOVES HIS GRANDMA. Maybe that's why this season has gotten better and better. Fewer chefs = more Fabio!

- The one moment I didn't like was Tom Colicchio asking the chefs not to embarrass HIM. In what way was that helpful? Obviously the chefs don't want to embarrass THEMSELVES. Could you be any more self centered, Tom?

- I loved Jacques Pepin. He found the positive in the dishes, and had constructive criticism. He seems like a gentle, thoughtful, lovely man. I hope Tom and Toby both learned something from that man's wonderful personality.

- I loved the chefs helping each other out in the kitchen, as they seemed to all season long.

- Fabio in the kitchen: "I start to butcher the chicken with the cleaver like Jason on Friday the Thirteenth. I'm just slaughtering the chicken." Ha ha. And I cracked up that he turned up his accent to full tilt as he presented his dish to Lydia.

- I enjoyed the differences of opinion about how things should be cooked during the discussion of Carla's squab. Count me among Lydia and the older generation. I don't like the trend toward rare/raw everything. I prefer my food cooked through (but not overcooked).

- I'm curious about Carla's peas -- described as perfection and scrumptious. What on earth could make peas so wonderful? I'll have to try those when fresh peas are in season.

- I loved Fabio's cockeyed grin when the judges told Fabio that his chicken had made Lydia happy. And he was the winner!!!!

- My other favorite, Carla is also in the top two and is on to the semifinal -- hooray!!!

- I loved that Stefan was given a dose of humility. And I was glad that Leah was the one sent home, as she seemed to be the least deserving of being in the finale. Even she seemed OK with it.

Next episode: Fabio with a mohawk. WHAT???!!! I may NOT be feeling the love for THAT!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Wife Swap -- I'm ashamed I even thought about it.

I belong to a great Web site called Cooking Contest Central Web site. I pay about $25 a year, and I get weekly emails telling me about recipe and food-related contests in the United States. It's well worth the money -- I have never not recouped the $25 in wins since I joined in 2005.

The Web site also has a forum of people who enter cooking contests. Mostly it's friendly chatter among people who have a common interest in cooking and cooking contests. In December, there was a post, with the title "Reality TV Calling" that caught my eye (the "I" in this quote is one of the forum administrators):
I got an e-mail from a Casting Producer with ABC Television and they are looking to feature families who cook competitively for the program Wife Swap. (I strongly suggest you watch this program before you think you may want to do this.)

She said: "We know how popular cook-offs have become and we’d love to meet families who are passionate about passing their love of competitive cooking on to others. We're looking for fun loving families who live to have a good time. In case you are unfamiliar with the show, Wife Swap is a family show on ABC primetime. The premise is simple: two moms from two very different families get the opportunity to swap lives for one week to experience what it's like to live a different lifestyle. This also provides them the chance to see what they can teach another family about their own philosophy. The goal of our show is for two families with different viewpoints on life and family to both give and take away something positive by “stepping outside the box” for one week.

"We are looking for two parent families with children between the ages of 6 and 17 who have outgoing personalities! "

(HERE IS THE INTERESTING PART:) "All featured families receive a $20,000 honorarium as a thank you for their ten day filming commitment. Families must reside in the continental U.S."

I have to admit that the notion of $20K for 10 days of my time caught my eye, and I toyed about the idea for an afternoon. I emailed a contest buddy to see what she thought. Some of her response:
The thought of the Wife Swap thing briefly crossed my mind as I could endure anything for 10 days-especially for 20K-that is one big chunk of change. However, the crazy psycho freak that would be around my children for 10 days is another story! They may be scarred for life! Have you seen that show-it is edited to make some people look like complete wackos.

Her point about a wacko being around my kids definitely put a damper on my interest. I could put up with a lot for $20K for a week, but to inflict it on my kids?

My friend and I also theorized who they might pair with a cooking contest family, because the show is always about opposites.

Someone who eats fast food all the time? My family wouldn't mind that for a week. No biggie.

A vegan? I wouldn't mind trying that lifestyle for 10 days. My family would revolt but it wouldn't kill them.

Then my contest buddy's husband noticed an article about people who dumpster dive for their food. Now THAT I'd have a problem with. And the idea was dampened a bit further.

I did some poking around online and curiously found that there wasn't a lot of information about the families who had been on the show. I found a few who said they had had a positive experience. I also found a few who said the show had been edited to cast them in a negative light, and they still were receiving hate mail. They said they'd never do it again. And I started thinking ... what if 10 days of my life was distilled into about 15 minutes, with only my most negative actions making the cut? What would be the spin they'd put on it? That gave me serious pause.

The final nail on the coffin of Wife Swap was my husband. I mentioned it to him and he said an emphatic "NO WAY." With an "are you crazy?" thrown in. And that was that.

I hadn't given it much thought since then -- I never watch the show -- until the following article caught my eye:

Husbands Behaving Badly

The husband was truly despicable, and the backlash is enormous. And I started thinking about the possibilities of what kind of horrible person my family could have been exposed to for 10 days.

I am truly ashamed that I ever thought about it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Top Chef: the Eric Ripert episode ... and a cool contest!

It's minutes before another episode of Top Chef, and I'm not done writing about the last one! My excuse: CRB had a gig last Saturday, and the week of a gig I spend extra time practicing, fretting about what to wear, etc. The gig ended up being a blast -- the Argyle Grill was packed and the crowd was great. If you're a Facebook person, check out CRB on Facebook! Become a fan, even!

Some quick thoughts and observations about last week's episode...

They started the with Fabio, then Eric Ripert -- I didn't know which chef to swoon over! Love both accents and both seem to be decent men.

The QuickFire was a three-round fish filet tournament. The whole thing was ... well, icky. Notable moments: Fabio nailing the delicate sardines filets (yay for him!) ... Leah giving up on the Arctic char filets and POUTING in front of Eric Ripert (are you kidding me?) ... the wiggly eels (ewwwwwww). And Stefan won ... he's getting to be like the Tiger Woods of this season.

I always Tivo Top Chef and fast forward through the commercials ... but just after the QuickFire, there was one commercial that made me stop and rewind. It was for a Quaker Oats Viewer QuickFire Challenge. Viewers can submit an original recipe made with Quaker Oats, and some will be chosen to compete in a Quickfire Challenge. The winner goes to a Top Chef taping!

"Looks like we'll be eating lots of Quaker Oats," my husband half laughed/half groaned.

To be honest, I've entered Quaker Oats contests before, and I've never won a thing, so I'm not liking my chances. The upside is that I have some good recipes ready to be tweaked and reentered.

I checked out the rules and found these interesting tidbits (I've paraphrased this stuff ... be sure to check out the official rules for yourself if you're planning on entering):

- Contestants must have nothing in their background that would be an embarrassment to Quaker® or Bravo, and contestants may not be elected officials or currently running for any political office (local, state or federal). If you are chosen as a potential Semi-Finalist you may undergo a background check conducted by Bravo! That is too funny! I have never seen that in any cooking contest I've entered.

- Limit one entry per person/ household/email address. I like this rule. Make one good recipe, submit it, and you're done. There won't be someone else submitting 50 entries to your one.

- "Contests and other competitions generate substantially similar submissions or entries ... entrants may subsequently see a presentation which seemingly incorporates an idea or concept or includes materials similar to that contained in their entry. Any similarity is purely coincidental and unavoidable in light of the volume of ideas..." This is SO TRUE! I've heard a few people gripe that someone else "stole" their idea for a contest. Seriously? Really, unless you're Wylie Dufresne or Ferran Adria, there's a high probability that someone came up with a similar idea.

- There will be up to 10 semifinalists, which will be posted on the Bravo Web site and voted on. Ugh! Cooking contest hobbyists are not fans of contests decided by voting. First, there's a fairness issue -- I've heard accusations that people with computer skills can run up the votes. Also, the winners are not necessarily the best recipes, but the people who have a large network of people to hound for notes.

- Each semifinalist must submit a photo. I'm not sure if it's a photo of the recipe or of the semifinalist. If it's of the recipe I'm OK with that ... not keen of submitting a photo of me (note the photo of my dog as my profile picture).

- Three finalists will be flown to New York to compete in the Quaker® Oats Viewer Quickfire Challenge. (I love New York, especially when it's on someone else's dime.) Each of the finalists will be required to create an original dish utilizing Quaker® Oats as an ingredient and the kitchen amenities and ingredient options provided by Bravo. (I actually tried a contest like this on a much smaller scale and crashed and burned ... but who knows, maybe the second time would be better.)

- The grand prize: a three day/two night trip to the host city of Bravo’s seventh season of Top Chef for Grand Prize Winner and one guest. The trip will include airfare and hotel, and will participate in a taping of a Top Chef episode during which the Grand Prize Winner and guest will get to taste the cheftestants’ prepared dishes! Holy cow! I hate the voting thing but I just may have to throw my hat into the ring for this one ... hmmm...

Back to the episode ...

The chefs were excited to dine with Eric Ripert at Le Bernadin. Eric says they have selected six dishes ... with six chefs dining ... I've gotta believe the chefs knew they'd either be recreating or putting their own spin on these dishes.

"No foo-foo ... not too many components on one plate," Fabio said about the food.

"He's super sweet and cute," Leah said about Eric Ripert.

"I'm bored with this kind of food ... it's not something I'm inspired by," said Jamie. She really didn't like a black bass and braised celery dish, and thought the sauce was weird -- so you just knew she was going to have to recreate that dish.

Did you notice that the chefs -- at least Jamie -- were wearing different clothes during their mini interviews? I wonder about the sequence of those interviews.

Eric and his chefs watched as the cheftestants worked, then he tasted the dishes and gave some guidance. Frankly, I was impressed with all the chefs. Not only did they seem to do a good job recreating the dishes, they all seemed to pitch in and help each other.

Toby Young continued to be rude. I don't think he offers anything to the show and hope he's shipped back where he came from.

I learned something new: monkfish needs to rest after it's cooked. I've never had much success with monkfish and I wonder if that may have been part of it.

Top three: Fabio, Stefan, Carla. I was happy for Fabio and Carla ... I wish one of them had won the challenge. But clearly Stefan has skills -- even though he is boastful, he has the skills to back it up. And he doesn't seem nearly as obnoxious as many of the personalities from past seasons.

Bottom three: Hosea, Leah, Jamie. It seemed to come down to Leah and Jamie. Back in the stew room, Jamie went and sat on Fabio's lap, which was a curious thing.

I was a bit surprised that Jamie went home, because she seemed to be one of the stronger contestants. Even though the judges discussed Leah giving up during the challenge, I think they truly focus on the food. You can be a ditz or a jerk ... but if your food is great, that's what's going to win Top Chef.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Meatball cookies -- getting closer!

Last summer, I wrote a post about wanting to make a cookie that Rochesterians call meatball cookies. They are round cookies, tender but not cakey, and covered with glaze. The local bakeries carry them in vanilla, chocolate and lemon flavors, and my favorite is the lemon. At Christmas time, I made a bunch of cookies to try to approximate them, but I never came close to what I was looking for.

Just as I was about to despair of ever making them, a lovely lady named Jeannie left a recipe on the original post. She said thought this recipe, for Italian Sprinkle Cookies, was what I was looking for. I baked up a batch and they were very close. They could be a tad moister, and I need to figure out the lemon flavor. I used sprinkles because the recipe called for it, but the color of the sprinkles ran in the glaze, so I'd omit them next time (besides, sprinkles are not found in Rochester's meatball cookies). But all in all, they are close, very close! Thanks Jeannie!

Italian Sprinkle Cookies

6 eggs
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups confectioners sugar
2 Tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup shortening, melted
1 Tablespoon almond extract
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon extract

1/2 cup warm milk
1 tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 3/4 cups (1 lb) confectioners sugar
colored sprinkles or sugars

Using a stand mixer on high speed, beat eggs until light and foamy, about 5 minutes. Set aside. (I transferred the mixture to another bowl so that I could use the stand mixer bowl for the next step.)

In another mixing bowl, stir together flour, sugar, and baking powder. Gradually add shortening and extracts until a bead-like texture is formed. Gradually add in beaten eggs (dough will be stiff).

Roll dough into 1 inch balls. Place on ungreased baking sheets. Bake at 350 for 12 minutes. The tops of the cookies will not brown, but the bottoms should brown slightly.

For glaze, combine milk and extracts in a large bowl. Add sugar and whisk until smooth.

As soon as the cookies are removed from oven, quickly immerse two or three at a time into the glaze. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on wire racks to drain. Quickly top with sprinkles.

Let dry 24 hrs before storing in airtight containers. Makes about 7 dozen.
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