Friday, December 19, 2008

Top Chef Digest

Sorry this is delayed a day, I got busy yesterday afternoon. My bad.

A series of accurate predictions and an unfair challenge left me a bit unfulfilled by this week's top chef. Plus, they all pretty much sucked it up.

We start off with the cheftestants relaxing in the morning. SprayTanAriane is happy, the Tryin' Hawaiian is pumped about fighting his way to the top, SuperFabioBros and BorkBork are now referring to themselves as "The Euros" and the Prophet is talking with his sister on his oh-so-obviously placed T-Mobile Sidekick.

At this point, we feel they're setting up Hosea for one of two outcomes - the losing "now I'll have more time to spend with my sick dad" or the "I'm going to win this one for the Gipper!" win. Meghann voted lose, I was pulling for the win.

So here comes the QuickFire, and it's guest-judged by none other than MARTHA, carrying her new book. The IMs were fast and furious at this point, mostly consisting of "WE MET HER!" and "WE HAVE THAT BOOK SIGNED!" and other nerdiness. The challenge was this: make a 1-pot meal, holiday-inspired. Easy, right? Not when you've got the queen of entertaining at home judging your stuff. I'd be freaked-the-hell out.

Here's what everybody made, with annotations:
BorkBork - veal goulash. Martha thinks its tasty and approves.
Prophet - traditional paella. Martha approves.
Melissa - braised pork tenderloin. Martha likes.
KitchenKen - potato "risotto" with pork and brussel sprouts. Martha disapproves, saying that it is too starchy and heavy. Jeff also fails with me because he seems to like to name dishes inappropriately (like last week's "tomato carpaccio")...potato "risotto" sounds to me like lumpy mashed potatoes.
Jamie the Sparkplug - Potato/kale stew with scallops. I say meh, Martha approves. Maybe I'm sick of people cooking scallops, especially her (see below).
SprayTanAriane - Filet with cauliflower puree. Martha approves.
CrazyCarla - brined turkey with cranberry-apple stuffing. Martha says "tasty"
SuperFabioBros - polenta and duck. Sounds awesome, but gets a harsh "Thank You" from Martha.
Eugene - pork stew. He says he doesn't have the time to thicken the stew normally, so he thickens with cornstarch (I immediately cringe). Now, I don't think there's anything criminal in using cornstarch, but I'm also not a professional chef. It really is cheating when you can make a quick roux or some beurre manie.

SprayTanAriane wins...maybe she's more talented than she lets on or the general public believes? Too bad she annoys the crap out of me. Alas, the trials and tribulations of watching this show.

So in walks the Harlem Gospel Chorus Choir Singing People, and thus begins the XMas Bludgeoning, where the producers of Top Chef begin beating all the viewers over the head with holiday campiness, just in case we forgot...even for a microsecond...that this was an Xmas-themed ep. They draw knives, and each get one of the lines from the "12 Days of Christmas".
Clever, and Bludgeoning! They have to put together a dish for an event for 250 people, which means that this is yet another episode of Top Caterer. Unfair, if you ask me (and Tom brings this up later)

Everyone goes to Whole Foods, and they're doing their prep, and they're all on point with their kitchen work. There really hasn't been any sort of tradgedies when it comes to prep and service, and they're all rushing around and they all seem to be doing a great job (the sole exception being Hosea's smoking up the kitchen while cooking pork). Except when they all come down the next morning to do some prep, they find the kitchen was warm and left open and OH NO! Hosea and Radhika's dishes are completely ruined. However, the Bludgeoning begins again because everyone helps out with scraps and leftovers and they help them bring it together and put a palatable offering out on this holiday episode of Top Caterer! GO XMAS SPIRIT!

Here's what everyone put out, with annotations, of course:
BorkBork - 12 drummers drumming: chicken pot pie. Meh. I'm sure it tasted great, and the judges thought well of it, but I didn't see how it related to the theme. I'd have made something with duck legs or chicken wings.
Prophet - 11 pipers piping: smoked pork with chipotle mashed potatoes. I think it looks delicious and I would order that at a restaurant for sure. The judges were impressed.
KitchenKen - 10 lords-a-leaping: seared haloumi and kasseri with roasted beets and spices. His idea was he was "leaping" island to island in the Mediterranean. I liked his first idea, though...frog legs! Delicious.
SuperFabioBros - 9 ladies dancing: crabcakes. Bad inspiration, greasy and dense...Fabio is not impressing anyone since the get-go. Steph suggested he could've gone with something from the Nutcracker. Sugar plum faeries? One of the cultural things? Not a bad idea.
Melissa - 8 maids-a-milking: steak with gorgonzola. Excellen idea, but too much gorgonzola wiped out any flavor from the beef. Only a little is needed!
Jamie the Sparkplug - 7 swans-a-swimming: raw scallops "swimming" in vichyssoise. Ew. She definitely not impress in this challenge. Warm raw scallops. Could have done something with sous-vide (you know, it's swimming in water!)
SprayTanAriane - 6 geese-a-laying: deviled eggs six ways. Now I LOVE deviled eggs, and the idea was good...but deviled eggs? That's what I make to bring to a potluck, not to win a professional chef competition. Stick with the egg theme, or do something with caviar. Not quite geese-a-laying, but it's fish-a-laying
Tryin' Hawaiian - 5 golden rings: poisson cru with a pineapple ring. Sounded tasty, despite his terrible story, but it ended up being overtly super-sweet. Alas, keep tryin'!
There were no 4 calling birds! You thought I wouldn't notice...but I DID!!!
Leah - 3 french hens: braised guinea hen on brioche. Not a bad idea, and they liked the taste, but she put it on a dry brioche crouton. Better to have just served it straight on the plate
CrazyCarla - 2 turtle doves: chicken with duxelle and mushrooms. Idea looked good, but they said it was too salty.
Radhika - partrige in a pear tree: duck legs with pear chutney. I still have my issues with Radhika, but man oh man can she cook and really get the theme. Way to go. I was a fan.

Meanwhile, Tom freely admits that this Top Caterer challenge was unfair to other past Top Caterer challenges because it was a solo vs. a team challenge. I personally think its completely unfair, but I'm not the show's producer.

Prophet, KitchenKen, BorkBork and Radhika are tops, with the Prophet winning one for the Gipper! Did I call it or what?!? Tryin' Hawaiian, BoringMelissa and Sparkplug in the bottom. I originally predicted BoringMelissa...well...because she's boring and brings nothing to the show. However, the Bludgeoning finishes off when "in the spirit of XMas we are not sending anyone home"...looks like its Xmas in July!

Tom Ripken Jr. tough-talks the chefs...which is about as predictable at this point as my old swim coach tossing us out of practice and dressing us down at least once in October. No less entertaining. Next week: Free rein in the kitchen! Cook whatever you want! Can't wait!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The verdict

I say "What a perfectly cooked and seasoned piece of chicken. The very essence of what chicken is supposed to taste like. Moist, tender and delicious."

Steph says "It was boring"

Now, we're both right in this case. Steph was not happy was a simple piece of chicken seasoned with salt and pepper. However, since I was following the recipe the first time I cooked it, and all it called for was salt and that's all it got!

The important thing was that IT WORKED. I was able to keep my water bath at a consistent temperature (160 - 163) and the vacuum bags did not puncture or leak or otherwise ruin my food. I'm rather excited to try this out and play some more, with attempting chicken that has been premarinated, with some steak (which would be seared after cooking) or maybe try my recipe for balsamic pork, but with some sous vide pork chops.

This was definitely time well spent. I am excited!

Adventures in Sous Vide

Inspired by a number of things, namely Top Chef, a blog I follow, and the Alinea cookbook, I wanted to try my hand at cooking sous vide. Sous vide is sealing some ingredients in a vacuum bag, then submerging it in a water bath for a given amount of time. I've seen it done quite a bit on TV and I've been reading alot about it (with what seems to be the best and most scientific guide here) and I wanted to get my hands wet (no pun intended) because pretty much all of the recipes in the Alinea book call for meat to be cooked sous-vide before searing/serving.

Things that are awesome about sous vide is the concentrated flavors that you get when you cook with it, and the near-impossibility of overcooking your food (since it obviously can't get above the temperature of the water immersion bath). It also can be relatively low in fat, if you choose (I could've added a tbsp of butter to each bag...but I didn't). The problems are that for consistently good sous vide, the best piece of equipment to have is a thermal immersion circulator, which provides consistent water temperature at all times, as well as a vacuum-sealing system (with options from the moderately pricey to the exceedingly ridiculous).

However, for the home cook on a budget (both money and space), I've taken some shortcuts that should hopefully work...

This recipe was taken from the Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking.

I brined 2 chicken breasts in a 5% salt solution for 30 minutes (that's 50 g salt in 1 Liter of water). After rinsing under cold water, drying and lightly seasoning with salt and pepper, the chicken breasts then went into their own Reynolds Handi-Vac Bag, and sucked out all the air.

Using my awesome cast-enameled Dutch oven (thank you in-laws!) and my handy digital thermometer, I rigged up a water bath at 160 degrees. In went the chicken, where it's been sitting for over an hour. I'm planning on taking it out in 13 minutes, then eating it with some roasted potatoes and shallots w/ olive oil and rosemary, and vegetable du jour (for Steph). I'll report back how it is when I'm done eating and cleaning!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bonnie's Rule of Cooking #1

The holiday season is rapidly approaching, which means that many of my friends start to throw holiday potluck dinners for all of us to be together and to eat and drink and be merry. I'm also usually in a bind because I'm never given any sort of limits to what I should make, and I frequently get the "make whatever you want, it'll be delicious" (my culinary skills are held in high esteem by my friends). I also find myself wanting to challenge myself and up my skills, but I'm held up by Bonnie's Rule of Cooking #1:

Never make a recipe for company the first time you are preparing it.

More after the jump to explain my dilemma.

The issue is that I don't have the time to test out a lot of the recipes I want to try, so invariably I end up whipping them for the first time. Blargh. Thankfully the rules are flexible enough that I can get through this holiday season without poisoning anyone and/or ruining anyone's taste buds.

Happy eating, everyone!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Top Chef Digest

I don't want to come out and play favorites, but I will definitely say I have issues with 2 of the cheftestants so far. Swedish Chef is an arrogant douche, but not in a Marcel/Steven lovable sort of way...he's just an ass. I also can't get behind the sort-of-backwards-trucker-hat look from Melissa. Please. Either wear some tasteful headgear or don't wear anything at all.

This episode had 2 of my favorite things - palate tests and group challenges. All in all, a good episode, and I honestly got my initial projection wrong. More after the jump.

First, we're treated to a quick montage of Swedish Chef being creepy and hitting on/stalking Jamie, who is humored and repulsed at the same time. Note to Stefan: making clothes and putting them on stuffed animals will not win over a lady's heart. You'd have better luck running up to her and screaming BORK BORK BORK! in her face.

The Quickfire this week was a variation on the "palate test" that has been done every season thus far, but this time it was a head-to-head taste test tournament, naming ingredients in a Liar's Dice sort of way. One cheftestant would say how many ingredients they could name, and the other would either up the bid or call bullshit, at which point the cheftestant would have to name their ingredients. A novel idea, especially with Swedish Chef bumping up everyone on purpose and being an arrogant prick. Shrimp and Lobsert Bouillabase for Round 1, Green Curry for Round 2 and Mole Sauce for Round 3. In the end, The Prophet had better taste buds than Swedish Chef, and was victorious.

Can we just agree for a minute though that claiming "salt" or "pepper" as one of the ingredients is a bit lame. Let me see, odds are that since humans put salt in almost everything, there's a REALLY good chance there's salt in this dish! Please.

The Elimination Challenge is presented via knife block, dividing the chefs up into groups "Old", "New", "Borrowed", "Blue" - pretty obvious they're doing something involving a wedding. Out comes Gail (who I admit I think is rather cute) and says they're catering her bridal shower lunch, with a dish inspired by one of the four bridal thingys. The only limitations she puts on them is no veal and no black beans. I can understand the veal, from a certain POV (more on that later) but black beans? Must be a personal thing. Also, one of the chefs mentions (something I noticed immediately) is that Gail probably invited a bunch of her coworkers...who all work for Food & Wine Magazine. Tough crowd, this one.

Here I will describe the trials and tribulations of each group, culminating in service:

Something Old (The Prophet, Swedish Chef, Kitchen Ken): Wisely, they get to Whole Foods and realize "Even though this is going to air in December, we are shooting it at the height of tomato season...let's do heirloom tomatoes!". Swedish Chef rubs everyone the wrong way, telling them how to cook their dishes without worrying about his own. They go with heirloom tomatoes in old-school preparations. Prophet makes a gazpacho, BorkBorkBork makes a tomato terrine (which got panned by someone on-screen) and KitchenKen makes tomato carpaccio with a tomato sorbet, which gets rave reviews. (Can I just rant for a second: tomato carpaccio? Come on!) The dish is successful, with no adverse service problems.

Something New (Tryin' Hawaiian, Chops, Crazy Carla): Chops is going on about pickling spices (which does not say "new" to me), Eugene the Tryin' Hawaiian (thanks Meghann!) wants to make some sort of "new sushi" and Crazy Carla is just keeping everything bottled up. They "settle" on a "surf and turf sushi", but Eugene overcooks the rice, and tries to hide it by adding more ingredients (NOTE: Adding more things to food that has already been messed only ensures one thing - more messed up food). Chops then adds mushrooms at the bottom of the wonton cups under Carla's salad...and she doesn't say anything! To compound everything, Eugene "forgets" to explain how to eat the dish to the diners...nothing made me laugh harder than Dana Cowin flapping 2 nori sheets around her head.

Something Borrowed (Jamie the Sparkplug, SprayTan Ariane, Just Because My Name Is Radhika Doesn't Mean I'm Cooking Indian Food): Can anyone take a guess what THIS group is making? They're "borrowing" Indian flavors from Radhika's cultural background!?!?!?! ARGH!!!!!! Let me just repeat again I would have no problem with this if she hadn't said she didn't want to do it in the first episode! Anyway, they cook up a marinated lamb with an Indian-spiced carrot puree and it looked delicious (even though I thought it was rather raw from a far shot, it was actually cooked perfectly). They had issues with timing and plating was going to be tough, but some of the other cheftestants helped them out with plating and all was well. This should be a lesson to everyone else: better to make sure your main protein is cooked right and rush your plating, rather than having improperly cooked meat and failing miserably. SprayTan Ariane gets the win for this challenge, with a boatload of Calphalon kitchen electrics (LUCKY!)

Something Blue (SuperFabioBros, Leah, Melissa the Trucker): There is no such thing as blue food, as our heroes quickly surmise. SuperFabioBros wants to make something from the's blue...good idea. They do a blue cornmeal-crusted Chilean sea bass with a corn puree and some greens. I immediately call that it's a mushy fish, combined with mushy greens and a mushy puree...bad idea (turns out I was right). However, the most inane part of it was when Fabio is explaining how their dish is "blue" and he says "in the color spectrum, yellow and green make blue". You're playing in my sandbox now, big boy, and let me tell you that yellow and green certainly DO NOT make blue. You stick to cooking food and saying silly things, leave the science to the scientists. In the end, the dish is destined for failure because it is too safe and too boring (and Tom Ripken gets a good shot in, telling Fabio it's not that hard to cook 40 pieces of fish. PWN3D!)

In the end, Chops still insists they put out an awesome dish, which ultimately leads to his packing his knives. Alas, Chops, we hardly knew you! Sad though, I thought he could've been a contender.

Frontrunners: Sparkplug, KitchenKen, BorkBorkBork

Next week: MARTHA! Sweet.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Guilt-Free Chicken Parm

First, let me just say a few words about Top Chef. I've been a slacker, I admit. All I have to say is this: it should be a HUGE clue to people who watch the show that you can telegraph who is getting the boot simply from seeing whether or not they decide to "show their versatility" by making dessert. Coincidence that the last 2 cheftestants to get the boot have tried their hand at dessert? I think not.

I love chicken parm, there's no getting around it. I eat it so rarely because there's not much worse for you than deep-fried chicken cutlets smothered in salty tomato sauce and gooey cholesterol-laden mozzarella cheese. Comfort food is great, but I always feel so guilty after eating a chicken parm sandwich, I just feel absolutely weighed down with grease and salt and blah. Fortunately, I've got a killer recipe for a lighter chicken parm that has all the taste, without any of the guilt. Stephanie and I housed this tonight, without even breaking a sweat. I also made some Barilla Plus spaghetti and tossed it with some of the leftover sauce. Delicious.

Lighter Chicken Parm
For the sauce:
14 oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 tsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tbsp tomato paste
dash red pepper flakes
1/2 tbsp minced fresh basil

For the chicken:
1 cup dried breadcrumbs
1/2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan (with more for serving)
1/4 cup flour
3/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tbsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 egg whites
2 tsp water
vegetable oil spray
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, halved into cutlets
1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella
1/2 tbsp minced fresh basil

Preheat to 475.

Puree the diced tomatoes (with juice) in a miniprep until...well...pureed. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil then cook the tomato paste, garlic and red pepper flakes until slightly brown, about 2 minutes. Pour in the pureed tomatoes and stir and cook until thickened, about 20-25 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the basil and season with salt and pepper.

While the sauce is cooking, combine the breadcrumbs and oil in a large skillet and toast over medium, stirring until golden. Spread the breadcrumbs in a dish and cool. Stir in Parmesan. In another dish, combine flour, garlic powder, salt and pepper. In another dish, whisk together egg whites and water. Dip the chicken cutlets in flour mixture, then egg mixture and then breadcrumb mixture. Put on a rack over a baking sheet (sprayed with vegetable oil spray) and spray tops of chicken with...well...the spray. Bake for 15 minutes. Take out of the oven, spread some sauce on the top of each piece, and top with shredded cheese. Put back in the oven for 5 minutes until the cheese is all bubbly. Finish with basil and Parmesan and serve with spaghetti. Delicious.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Almond Butter

I love almonds, as I can eat a 1/4 cup (which is a surprisingly large amount) per serving, which is quite a filling snack. They also have that added side bonus of (supposedly) helping to increase my HDL and lower my LDL counts, both of which will make my doctor happy. I used to eat the roasted/salted ones, but I've gotten into the habit of buying the roasted/unsalted, since cutting back on my sodium is also a good thing.

Recently, I got the idea that I should make my own almond butter, from seeing a video of someone making their own peanut butter and from when I worked at Godiva when I was 15, where I used to sneak almond butter domes from the back room every chance I could get. So here it is - one of the easiest recipes ever.

Almond Butter
1 cup roasted unsalted almonds
1/8 to 1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Process the almonds and salt in a mini-prep until finely ground and clumping together. Add the vegetable oil in a slow stream while processing. Add more oil to thin out the texture, if you like. Keep covered tightly in the refrigerator.

That's it!

Dirty pans

Nothing is sadder than waking up in the morning and seeing a pan that I still need to clean. The saute pan that I dirtied beyond belief when I lost track of searing steaks is mocking me from the sink, even after I let it soak in hot water and soap overnight. It's just sitting there, reminding me how I charred the fond and made a huge mess of things.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Comfort food

There's something comforting about a chicken cutlet, coated in some seasoned bread crumbs and quickly pan-fried. With a little Israeli couscous and a salad, it's a perfectly delicious dinner. Yum.

In other news, I was the happy recipient of a double e-mail from my great friend Meghann and her man Aaron, inviting themselves over to our house for a day of cooking and eating and drinking. I can't say that I mind - they're two of my favorite people on the planet. I am PUMPED, and I'm already full of ridiculous ideas. I'm also positively sure there will be pictures and blog postings galore come January 3rd.