Friday, May 29, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode Eleven

Welcome to the end of Week Eleven! Is everyone still relatively sane out there? I know I get close to wigging out sometimes, but so far I have kept it together. No shame if you haven't, of course. Some people are having a hard time with all of this isolation. I'm not a people person, and I actually like staying home, so it's less difficult for me than for others.

While it's still Pandemic Central in the US, with who knows how many weeks to go, we're almost done with this season of Top Chef! Two weeks of finale and that's it. I feel like it flew by pretty quickly, especially compared to the last couple of seasons I watched. (They were interminably long, at least 47 weeks each.) This season has also been helped greatly by the handsome presence of Bryan Voltaggio. I'd better be getting two more weeks of him!

So what happened this week? First, we got the results of Last Chance Kitchen. Kevin was the reigning champ, and he kept his title by beating last week's ejection, Karen. But that wasn't enough! Once Karen was out, the final five cheftestants swaggered into the kitchen. They weren't late to the party, they were the next part of the challenge. Tom announces that despite his exhaustion, Kevin would need to fight three more matches, and if he won 2 of the 3, he'd get back into the main competition. His new opponents were of his choosing: Bryan, Malarkey, and Gregory. The latter two went down, so Kevin was back in the game. We knew that was going to happen, right? But suppose he didn't beat 2 of 3? Would Last Chance Kitchen have been an exercise in futility? Well, apart from Karen coming back a few weeks ago. But she was eliminated again, so yes, maybe futility is the right word.

The next day, after Kevin gets some well-deserved rest, the now-six cheftestants head to the Top Chef Kitchen and find tipsy Padma, drunk on Champagne, lounging in airline-style seats with Jonathan Waxman. Waxman is a pioneer of California Cuisine, but Padma says his biggest achievement is being her friend. Hello, Champagne Padma! (Thank you, Stephanie, for that nickname.) This alter ego reminds me of the old Cannabis Padma--a little off. Definitely slower. Perhaps more fun. Or not. I'm not sure Padma is ever fun. (Keep in mind, Padma's Lawyers, that I am being satirical here, also, offering an opinion.) Anyhoo...the Quickfire Challenge involves making a memorable meal that might be served on an airplane. It must include salad or veg in addition to a main course. Items need to be only as tall as the service trays, as they must be able to fit in an airplane cooker.

Bryan laments that he hasn't yet won a quickfire. Maybe if he followed the rules once in a while? But he's oblivious - he's just cooking VOLT food all the time. It's as if he doesn't own other restaurants that don't serve tweezer food. He's decided to make braised chicken thighs with green lentils and a side salad with green goddess dressing. Will that be enough to win him a prize? (I can't eat lentils, not even for Bryan. If I were a judge, the answer would be...of course he wins! I am biased.)

Meanwhile, Champagne Padma offers Jonathan some nuts to nibble (not hers). She also inquires as to his favorite (probably his own).

Knives down! Padma and Jonathan stay where they are--seated, with champagne--and the cheftestants bring the food to them. Padma struggles with the parchment that Stephanie used for her rockfish en papillotte, and with cutting Malarkey's tough pork chop. Are both dishes really that difficult to deal with, or is it the champagne? Annnnd....Bryan's lentils are undercooked. Champagne Padma dings the three of for their offenses. Meanwhile, both she and Jonathan enjoyed Kevin's meatballs, though they were a bit too tall. Melissa's beef curry served with tofu salad was the biggest hit of the day, however, earning her the win and a benefit in the next challenge.

Champagne Padma then reveals the location of this season's finale: Tuscany. Only five of the six remaining cheftestants will go. Everyone wants to go. I want to go. (Maybe not right now, but someday.)  First, the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by the food and philosophy of Michael's Santa Monica, an iconic restaurant celebrating its 40th anniversary. Jonathan Waxman worked there, along with a pantheon of cooking greats: Roy Yamaguchi; Sang Yoon; Mark Peel. Even Top Chef winner Brooke Williamson. The cheftestants will visit the restaurant for dinner and to meet owner Michael McCarty, a pioneer of California Cuisine.

After the chefs shower and change, all six of them pile into one Sponsorship Mobile and head to the restaurant. Bryan is driving, as usual. He must enjoy sitting in traffic. Once at the restaurant, they are served some classic Michael's dishes by current chef Brian Bornemann. They include an angel hair pasta with chardonnay cream sauce and diver scallops, grilled quail, and heirloom beet risotto with monkfish wrapped in crispy prosciutto (courtesy of Brooke Williamson, who was a sous at Michael's by the tender age of 19). Then comes sweetbreads with veal loin, chanterelle mushrooms and white truffle, followed by grilled lamb saddle with potato galette and red currant cassis sauce. Finally, they get duck two ways, a grilled breast and confit thigh with wild rice and blood orange sauce. The knife block appears, and Melissa gets her advantage. She chooses the dish she wants to reinterpret first. The remaining chefs choose knives.

Melissa: quail
Kevin: duck
Stephanie: scallops
Bryan: lamb
Gregory: monkfish
Malarkey: veal

After dinner there's shopping. Back at the Top Chef Mansion, bros Kevin and Bryan chatter about being able to go to Italy together. And Malarkey facetimes his kids Sailor and Schmailor. It's their 9th birthday, and dad's a schmuck because he has to be away, feeding his enormous ego in yet another cooking competition, missing time with his family. Womp womp.

The next day, the chefs travel to Michael's and get set up in the tiny kitchen, which is apparently 80s style. It's so jam packed with pans, squeeze bottles of condiments, and other kitchen paraphernalia, it looks like my kitchen. I hope they have more counter space than I do. Everybody tells us what they're going to cook, and I groan when I hear that Malarkey is going to make a duo. Duos are pretty much the kiss of death on Top Chef, and he knows it. But he filled his shopping cart with pomegranate and other fruit that aren't going to work with truffles, and he has to use them somehow. Gregory is making a risotto, which also tends to be unpopular with the judges. Melissa is going to Asian-ify her quail, which makes sense from a culinary standpoint, and Kevin's decision to turn duck confit and wild rice into a croquette sounds amazing. Bryan is going to elevate the shit out of his lamb, because that's what he does. I can almost hear the tweezers clicking.

Jonathan Waxman joins Tom on the Sniff N Sneer. He's such a pleasant-seeming person; I always enjoy seeing him.

Out in the restaurant, the judges arrive and take their place at a long center table, with other invited foodies filling the remainder of the room. Champagne Padma is nowhere in sight. Instead we get regular Boring Padma. Will someone please bring her a bottle and a glass?

Gregory's dish comes out with Stephanie's. His monkfish and beet risotto was meant be accompanied by a crispy prosciutto chip, but he remembered them just as time was up--too late. Jonathan claims to love his interpretation, but was expecting that porky bit. Though everyone seemed to enjoy Stephanie's version of scallops and pasta, served with fancy little caramelle, Roy Yamaguchi opined that it was one dimensional. Bryan's treatment of lamb, served with fondant potato, was simple and refined, but lacked "wow." Kevin's duck dish was a hit, especially the croquette.

Some of Malarkey's specially-plated dishes didn't make it to the judges; apparently other diners got to enjoy them. But the judges were probably full by then and were willing to share. As usual, there were too many things on his plate. His "duo" was essentially two separate and disparate dishes, ones that didn't taste good together. Finally, Melissa's quail was deemed to have highlighted the bird itself, always a plus.

Back at the kitchen, Melissa wins and is the first to reserve a seat to Tuscany. Jonathan tells Stephanie that the race was close between her dish and Melissa's, so she's going to Italy as well. And so are Bryan and Kevin, who jump up and down and embrace each other. But will it be Gregory or Malarkey getting that final plane ticket? While the judges missed Greg's crisp prosciutto and felt the fish got lost, Malarkey's dishes didn't evoke the original Michael McCarty dish. Malarkey starts a speech about being exhausted and having had a great ride. Padma wants to know if he's quitting.

He doesn't have to quit. Malarkey is out. Finally. (Not that I don't like him, I just find him annoying.)

Next week: Part one of the finale, in Italy!

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Monday, May 25, 2020

Appreciating What We Have

Today is Memorial Day, and I know many of you are griping that you cannot celebrate the holiday the way you would like. There will be no large family gatherings (at least, there shouldn't be) or neighborhood block parties (again, there shouldn't be), or gatherings of clustered maskless folks in enclosed spaces (once more--there shouldn't be). Honestly, I don't care what your state tells you is ok, it's most likely not. (I welcome you to come back in 6 weeks if there hasn't been a spike of cases and tell me I was wrong.)

This whole situation has been going on for ten weeks now, and honestly I have gotten pretty used to spending 80% of my time in my own dining room with no company other than my husband and our dog. Last week, however, we had the opportunity to get out of the house and socialize. It was Dara's birthday, and she invited friends to come over and sit on her lawn, 6'+ away from each other, to enjoy cake and company. We were to arrive in shifts, and fortunately our shift overlapped with that of other friends, the Keefers, whom we have not seen at all in 2020. We spent a good hour or more discussing life after Covid, the current season of Top Chef, and the local restaurant industry. I haven't had such a good time in, well, at least 10 weeks! And I realized that such simple pleasures--sitting in the sun, talking with friends--are among the most important things in life. Not haircuts and manicures or going to bars.

Stay well, readers. See you on Thursday for our next recap.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Friday, May 22, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode Ten

Episode Ten, or, The Panna Cotta Caper.

Did I think, when I started recapping this season of Top Chef, that I'd still be doing it from home in Week 10? Yes, actually. I was thinking we'd be home at least 12 weeks, but it's looking like it will be far longer--for me at least. I feel like I have some form of Stockholm Syndrome. Not that I have fallen in love with my "captors," but that I have come to strongly agree with the whole stay at home thing and am not planning to go anywhere anytime soon. Sure, I miss hanging out with people, one or two in particular, but as an introvert, I don't crave it. I did get to spend a little time with a few friends this week--outside, 6+ feet apart, on a windy day--and it was nice. We talked about food, the fate of restaurants (one friend was a chef, another the doyenne of the Baltimore food scene), and Top Chef. My chef friend thinks Gregory has what it takes to win it all. Maybe Melissa. You all know I'm rooting for Bryan, but I don't dislike anyone this season. Hell, I'd be happy if Stephanie won, as she is very much the underdog in this competition.

I wasn't really feeling this episode. It wasn't exciting to me. But then very little is these days.

When the cheftestants enter the Top Chef Kitchen, they find Padma standing with Sherry Yard, pastry chef extraordinaire. Yard has won 3 James Beard awards and spent nearly 20 years as executive partner for Wolfgang Puck's restaurant group, in charge of pastries for Spago, etc., and is eminently qualified to judge the Quickfire Challenge.

Each cheftestant must create a dessert to wow Sherry. They have access to a basic pantry of flour, eggs, butter, etc, but they must "win" more exotic ingredients via a blind taste test. This Quickfire is my favorite every season, and it's nice to see it get a little twist. I get a perverse pleasure of watching people put strange things in their mouths. (Get your mind out of the gutter!) A spoonful of gloppy/milky/mealy ricotta cheese or hot sauce makes for some interesting facial expressions. This season, each chef gets 5 minutes to taste and identify as many of a selection of 20 items as possible. Items that are identified correctly may be used in their dish; also, the more correct, the more time they get to cook. Two chefs with the highest score get an hour, the two lowest get 30 minutes, and the two in the middle get 45 minutes.

Everyone leaves the room except Bryan, who starts off the blind tasting. His palate is good enough to score him 45 minutes of cooking; the same goes for Melissa. Stephanie has the highest score, with 15 of 20, and gets an hour, Gregory also gets an hour.

Karen and Malarkey suck balls at this game, correctly identifying 8 and 7 ingredients (out of 20) respectively, and get a mere 30 minutes to work. Honestly? Are their palates that bad? I'd love to participate in a blindfolded tastings and think I'd do pretty well.

I don't know why chefs choose to make panna cotta in a competition with a time crunch. Like Chopped. Thirty minutes isn't enough to get gelatin to set, even in a blast chiller. Karen finds that out the hard way. Malarkey is smarter, choosing to bake a cake in the wood oven. If one of those things can cook a pizza in 90 seconds, a cake shouldn't take much longer, huh? He also makes ice cream for the third time in this competition. Melissa was smart to have several desserts in her arsenal already, including an olive oil pistachio cake that she makes in a muffin tin and serves with a custard she turns into ice cream with the help of liquid nitrogen. Stephanie also uses science to make the ice cream to accompany her peach and tarragon crostata because the ice cream maker is still full of Malarkey's residue.

 And then we have Gregory and Bryan. Bryan has created desserts for his restaurants, so it's not like he doesn't know what he's doing. But maybe he doesn't? He serves a bowl of wet sawdust that is allegedly lychee curd with macerated peaches and coconut. Gregory also makes a bowl of that involves coconut and milk chocolate curd and a whole bunch of toppings but also looks like wet sawdust. Or even worse--oatmeal. I dunno. If I was served a bowl of curd with stuff on it in an expensive restaurant (which means it would be a $12 bowl of curd), I'd probably throw it at the chef and demand some cake.

Padma and Sherry are especially stone-faced. There seemed to be far more smiles and compliments during the last 9 tastings. These ladies find the most fault with Karen's un-set panna cotta, and Bryan's bowl of sawdust...not because it was sawdust, but because the ingredients were too flavorful and competed with each other. Melissa's and Malarkey's cakes put them on top, with Melissa getting the win and an advantage in the Elimination Challenge. Which is...

The Cheftestants will cook for a group of elite Olympic athletes making dishes inspired by Japan. Huh? Well, the Summer Olympics were going to be held in Japan this year. Yeah, I completely forgot this was an Olympics year, too. Emphasis on was. The event has been reschedule for 2021, and there's no saying it will happen then, either. But when Top Chef was filmed, last fall, there was no hint of the coronavirus disaster that would put much of our lives on hold. Ah, don't we all long for those good old days, those innocent times, to return? Those days of sitting in traffic as we commute to work, flipping the bird to those assholes who cut us off on the beltway, and buying gas more than once every 10 weeks! Those days of being able to push our shopping carts right up against the person ahead of us in line because we are in such a goddamn hurry to put our stuff on the conveyor belt! Those days before every toddler in the neighborhood had a skateboard, scooter, or bike and got in my way as I attempted to walk my kid-hating dog! (I quite miss those toddler-free days, actually.)

But I digress.

Before the chefs do anything, they get to eat some fancy Japanese grub. Niki Nakayama and Carole Iidi-Nakayama, co-owners of the restaurant n/Naka are on hand to feed the cheftestants and discuss the art of kaiseki, or a multi-course dinner of very special dishes. The challenge is for each chef to create one course of a 6-course progressive dinner to be served at the LA Coliseum. Now, I'm not sure why they felt the need to use the word "progressive." When used to describe a meal, it normally means that each course is eaten somewhere else, be it a home or restaurant. Though each course will be prepared by a different chef, it will be served in the same location to the same people sitting at the same table. Or will it? Perhaps, being that the diners are Olympic athletes, the chefs will be chasing them up and down the aisles while doing backflips? While that might be fun, it would smack too much of that terrible season filmed in Texas, specifically the episode in which the chefs were made to source ingredients while riding a bike around the Alamo in 110 degree heat. Ugh. Coincidentally, the finale that year was made to recreate the 2010 Winter Olympics, replete with events such as the biathlon (with guns!), cooking in a moving ski gondola, and the newest and perhaps most dangerous event, hacking ingredients frozen into a block of ice with an icepick. God, I hated that season.

And I digress yet again.

After the chefs ooh and aah over the delicate meal, Melissa gets to use her advantage. She chooses which course she wants before assigning the rest. But she's nice. Rather than stick her competitors with something they might not want, she attempts to match them to their strengths. Better to win (or lose) against strong competition. The bonus for this week's winner is a trip to the 2020 Olympics! Or wait...2021. (2022?) Much better than Gregory's prize of several weeks ago--a trip to his living room to watch the new Trolls movie while on a Zoom meeting with Nini, his date for the event.

The courses shake out like this:

1st course Sakizuke (app) - Bryan
2nd course Owan (soup) - Malarkey
3rd course Yakimono (grilled) - Karen
4th course Mushimono (steamed) - Melissa
5th course Shokuji (rice) - Gregory
6th course Mizumono (dessert) - Stephanie

This kind of thing seems particularly up Bryan's alley. His restaurant, Volt, in Frederick, Maryland, used to serve a 21-course meal called Table 21, a bargain at $120 per person. (Currently Chef's Counter is 15 courses for $150.) It's been 10 years since I ate Bryan's Voltaggio-style kaiseki, and if we ever get out of this pandemic (and if Volt is able to reopen), I think it's high time to experience it again. Mostly to see Bryan frown at me repeatedly while threatening me with tweezers. (Let me have my fantasy, ok?)

The cheftestants then hit up Whole Foods for a late night shopping trip (it's dark outside).

It's so dark that Malarkey calls Bryan by his brother's name. Though they have the same coloring, I don't think the two resemble each other all that much.

The next day, the chefs head to the iconic LA Coliseum. IIRC, the word "iconic" was bandied about a lot this week. It may even been used correctly. As they cook, the judges (including Nilou Motamed in place of lookalike Gail Simmons and both Nakayamas) arrive with athletes like gymnast Nastia Liukin and beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings. Bryan serves his scallop crudo dish first to many compliments. Malarkey, Karen, Melissa, and Gregory have all done something displeasing, be it a lack of acid or seasoning or an errant bit of crab shell. Stephanie is then roundly praised for her panna cotta served in a lemon.

Back in the kitchen, Padma announces that the unanimous winner of the challenge is Stephanie. Surprise! After Bryan looks sad, they tell him that they also loved his dish, which seems to mollify the loss. The two of of them are told to stand to the side as the remaining four chefs are scolded for their mistakes. Malarkey's celery root overwhelmed his dish. Karen's duck was unevenly cut and the skin should have been crisp. Melissa's chawanmushi was delicious but there were bits of shell. And Gregory's dish was a festival of bland.

You can probably tell that I ran out of steam while writing about the Quickfire. I think that happens every week. Please let me know if you want me to cut the narrative there and add more to the Elimination section of the recap. I might not do it, but at least I know.

Karen is out. Time to face Kevin (and apparently everyone else left) in Last Chance Kitchen.

Next week: something something almost over something.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Monday, May 18, 2020

Pandemic Eats, Week 1-8, Home Edition

While we ate a lot of carry out and delivery food during the first 8 weeks of #stayhome, we also cooked regularly, too. Some of the food was completely from scratch, while other dishes repurposed restaurant leftovers. (I hate food waste, and you should, too.)

On the Tuesday of what would become Week One, I had tickets to The Band's Visit at the Hippodrome, and I had planned to take my friend Jeremy. The show was postponed pretty early on, so he and I made alternate plans. Those alternate plans were also changed by coronavirus. Plan C involved J coming over to make us Chinese dumplings, from scratch--wrappers and all. I was sous chef, and I am responsible for the horrible pleating on the dumplings. (I think we added too much water to the dough.) Still, they were delicious, particularly the fried ones.

I made gluten free apple pie for dessert, which we consumed with an Irish coffee on the side. Pierish coffee, as J calls it. It's not a thing, yet, but it should be.

My friend Laurie, @Baltimorehomecook on Instagram, started a project of making pasta and delivering it to folks. I can't turn down her homemade cavatelli, which I served with chopped up Italian cold cuts, spinach, parm, and fresh chives.

I was still attempting to continue Whole30 at this point, so these pancakes are made with Bob's Red Mill gluten free one-to-one flour.

Then I decided, since I wasn't losing anything, that I'd allow some gluten back into my life. Like the crust on this ham and brie quiche.

And the pumpernickel bread used for this toasted cheese sandwich served with a quick soup of canned tomatoes, cannellini, and stock, with fresh swiss chard.

Black bean soup with pickled watermelon radish yielded enough to stash a quart in the freeze for future eating.

Leftover pork tenderloin became an element on this salad, a riff on the classic nicoise, with a mustardy vinaigrette and potatoes. Cheese and nuts just because.

I found that beets make great lunch salads. I tried red, chioggia (candy stripe), and gold beets, and determined that the earthy flavor of red goes best with cheese (feta or bleu) and nuts (walnuts or anything else).

Turkey meatballs with creamy pesto were good for a couple of meals.

Ditto this pot roast, which we ate at least 4x.

I like changing up my daily lunch, so when I don't have leftovers to eat, I make something like this beet hummus.

I opened up a jar of Desert Pepper Salsa Rio and knew we wouldn't be able to eat the whole thing before it got funky, so I repurposed it as a soup with cannellini beans, leftover pork, and pickled onions. Cheese quesadilla on the side.

We've been eating a lot of potatoes, mostly baked. One time I got fancy and made Smitten Kitchen's cacio e pepe potatoes Anna. Pretty good, but next time I'll use butter instead of olive oil, for more flavor.

We've had Chinese carry out a few times, from Red Pepper Sichuan in Towson and Asian Kebab and Hot Pot in Lutherville. (They are owned by the folks who operated the late, lamented, Hunan Taste in Catonsville.) A ton of rice meant fried rice one night. I also repurposed some crazy spicy pig ears into this dish, and the avocado mellowed that heat out nicely.

I broke out my recipe for sriracha bouillabaisse one evening to use up a pack of frozen TJ's mahi mahi. With some rouille-coated toasts, it made a fine light supper on two evenings.

What have you been cooking at home?

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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