Friday, June 05, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode Twelve

I'm not sure what I'm going to do when Top Chef is done and I'll have to remember what week it is on my own. Six weeks ago I made steak for dinner in hopeful celebration of the mid-point of quarantine. (Yes, I know we're not technically in quarantine. It's just easier to say/type than "stay-at-home.") Six weeks later, we're still in the thick of it, despite states (including my own--Maryland) lifting restrictions on dining out and getting haircuts and tattoos. The first wave isn't over, people. We don't need to start a second one so soon. Hey, but there are 6000 open ICU beds in the state, so go on and have fun! You deserve it!

This week on Top Chef--a much happier and less-contentious place than the world in which we currently live--the Final Five go abroad to do more cooking. They pack their bags, say "arrivederci" to the Top Chef Mansion, and head to the airport. We see them checking in and dining in the first class lounge, which seems extravagant. So much so that Kevin wonders if Padma and Tom are supposed to be there but got stuck flying "Jet Malarkey." While lounging in their first class seats-that-become-beds, the chefs are served what appears to be real food, judging by the steak on Kevin's plate. They probably drink a whole lot, too.

We don't get to see our weary cheftestants going through customs in Rome. (I presume that one of the pre-show requirements is to have valid passports, likely snatched up by the producers on the first day of filming.) but we do see them traveling the 3+ hours to their home-away-from-home in Tuscany, the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa in Castelvecchio Pascoli. Sign me up for that spa, baby! After spending nearly three months using my dining room table as a desk, my back and shoulders are killing me. The scenery on the way there is so beautiful. Who wants to run away to Tuscany with me? Bryan?

Before the cheftestants head to beddy-bye, they find a note from Padma reminding them that it's not all fun and games. The next day they'll be expected to meet her in Lucca, an ancient city in the northwest of Tuscany. 

True to her word, Padma has materialized in Lucca with Filippo Saporito of Michelin-starred La Leggenda dei Frati. (I can skip this place when we go to Tuscany; I'm not wealthy enough to enjoy a menu of chicken liver terrine, beef tartare, maccheroni, lamb, and zuccotto for €115.) Champagne Padma announces that she's ready for Happy Hour and the cheftestants are all for it. Prosecco Padma goes on to say that in Italy, there's a tradition called "aperitivo." Saporito offers that aperitivo snacks should be small and eaten with one hand, so the other hand can hold onto a beer. Only he said it with a heavy Italian accent. Fortunately for the cheftestants, Prosecco Padma speaks fluent Italian. Fortunately for us, there were subtitles.

The Quickfire Challenge is to make aperitivo schnacks using Peroni beer for 30 locals plus Pads and Fil in 45 minutes. Oh, and they have to use workstations that contain only foods particular to one of five regions of Italy. Believe it or not, folks, there's more to Italian food than lasagne, pizza, and sketti and meatballs (which aren't even eaten together there)! It looks cold in Lucca, as it's probably mid-to-late October at this point, but the chefs are still going to cook outdoors. They are possibly jet-lagged, but Asti Spumante Padma demands to be fed so they must comply. Plus, there's a 10K prize on the line for the winner.

Bryan needs to win a Quickfire, but right off the bat things go wrong. He decides that his original idea of lamb chops with gremolata is a bore, but then he can't find breadcrumbs for scalloppine, either. With time running out, he opts for tartare, which isn't a familiar dish for his region.

I'm not sure how he incorporated enough beer into the dish, but considering he hasn't paid attention to the QF directions all season, he wasn't about to start now. Annnnndddd....of course he ends up on the bottom. He's used far too much raw garlic, which Fil says is not good for talking with friends. Stephanie's odd venison and gorgonzola en carozza (essentially Italian grilled cheese) is tough, putting her on the bottom as well. But Fil and Pads like Melissa's mussels, Gregory's cuttlefish, and Kevin's polenta with prosciutto and radicchio agrodolce. Kevin is declared the ultimate winner and in about a year will receive a check for 10K from Peroni. 

Tom and his hat then saunter into camera range. Together, he and Franchiacorta Padma announce the Elimination Challenge. The cheftestants will be able to cook any dishes their heart desires--for 100 guests at a Tuscan Food Festival--as long as they use white truffles. But first: they're going truffle hunting with people from Savini Truffles and two very cute doggos.

The dogs are relentless hunters of the fragrant tuber, which unlike black truffles, are much better when eaten raw. After observing the dogs unearth thousands of euros worth of fungus, the chefs are sent to Il Alimento Totale to do their shopping. Shopping in Italy is apparently difficult if Lambrusco Padma is not around to translate. Which she isn't. She's probably sippin' the bub somewhere.

The next day, the chefs head into the kitchen at L'Imbuto for three hours of food prep. Stephanie, who originally planned to make egg drop soup, has switched to pasta. She makes a radicchio sauce to go with and finds that it just tastes gross. 

Rather than toss it, she puts in a ton of butter and hopes for the best. Kevin finds that he's picked up wild boar in addition to pork and veal for his meatballs. Curse those poor foreign language skills! (The only foreign language skills I have involve food terms. Cinghiale is the Italian word for boar. Doesn't everyone know that?) Gregory is struggling with back pain and has had a couple of shots (lemoncello? sambuca?) to help deal with it. They will all Make It Work. (Wait - that's Project Runway....) Melissa cleverly combines Asian and Italian elements in a congee dish, and Bryan is doing veal with potatoes. 

After prep, they pack up their foodstuffs and head to the festival site. As they're finishing the cooking, Brachetto d'Acqui Padma, Gail, Tom, Chef Cristiano Tomei of L'Imbuto, and truffle dude Cristiano Savini arrive to taste. They feel that the spicing of Kevin's meatballs competes too much with the truffles. Though Stephanie used tiny dollops of her bitter radicchio glop, it was still too much. But they do like her pasta. Gregory's wild boar stew is great, but despite lashings of truffle shavings, their delicate flavor disappears. Melissa's congee with fried garlic and salami pleased the judges, though they'd dump the cold cuts. Bryan's truffled potatoes--dispensed from a whipped cream canister--offer the purest truffle flavor of all.

It looks like Bryan might get a win, but no, they give it to Melissa.

As for the bottom three, the judges have a hard time deciding who should go home. All three dishes were good, but all had issues. Stephanie's pasta is good enough to keep her safe, but Kevin's and Gregory's dishes didn't allow the truffle to sing. 

Gregory goes home. He says that he gave 110% to the competition. Perhaps he should have kept it at 100%.

Next week, which is the penultimate episode and not the final: Bryan wrestles with a giant wheel of Parmesan cheese--and wins! Wins the battle with the cheese....

* 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 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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Friday, May 15, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode Nine

Happy Friday, readers! How are you all doing? It's sunny and warm in Baltimore today, quite the change from the overnight lows in the 30s earlier in the week. I've been eating too many carbs recently and feel like a dead cow floating down the Ganges. I'm trying to break a diet plateau, and I hope my month of near-excess does the trick. I'm sure you will see me complain here if it doesn't. (Hopefully that will not put you off coming back to read future recaps!)

This week's episode of Top Chef has a wee bit of Girl Power in it. No, none of the Spice Girls make appearances. No celebrities at all, actually. Instead, we get season 16 winner Kelsey Barnard Clark playing the role of Quickfire guest judge. TBH, Kelsey was the chef I least wanted to win last season. Hunky Eric was my first choice, then Sara. I only watched the finale, but that was enough to make me root for the other cheftestants. No explanations. I'm just putting it out there because this is my blog and I can. Another Top Chef winner, Brooke Williamson, is the guest judge for the Elimination Challenge. Are they hinting at a female winner this season? (Melissa, methinks.) Not-So-Fun Fact: there have only been five female Top Chefs out of 16 seasons of the regular show, 2 of Just Desserts, 1 of Duels, and 5 of Masters.

The clock at the Top Chef Mansion shows that it's 5am and the cameras are already being intrusive. We see Gregory wiping sleep out of his eyes while he's still in bed, and Bryan disembarking from his top bunk, sadly fully clothed. The chefs sit down to breakfast and there are complaints about the coffee. Bryan apologizes, as it's his fault. He's apparently still mopey about his friend Kevin's departure after Restaurant Wars. Bryan suddenly gets up and walks toward the other side of the room and pretends to discover an envelope on a side table.

Director: "Ok, Bryan, go over to the little table by the fireplace and pick up the note."
Bryan: "What's my motivation? Why would I suddenly walk across the room?"
Director: "Um, maybe you need more coffee?"
Bryan: "But the coffee pot is in the other room. I should know--I made coffee this morning, and everyone hated it." [bursts into tears]

Maybe it didn't go down like that. Or maybe it did.

Right, the note. It was from me. "Meet me downstairs in 15. Bring your speedo. Don't tell the other chefs. xo"  I lie. It was actually from Padma, announcing that the cheftestants would be attending "summer camp." Why did I put "summer camp" in quotes? If you remember Malarkey's ranked list of chefs from Episode 5, you might recall that it was dated "9 24 19." Considering that each episode takes roughly two days, and hoping that the producers give the chefs a day off now and again, today's episode was filmed in the first days of October. Regardless (or irregardless, if you're not particularly bright), the general response to the thought of going to camp with Padma was, "um, no thanks." Malarkey prefers to cook indoors, in the city. Lee Anne is suffering from PTSD from her brief appearance on Top Chef Colorado (season 15) in which she had to hike in the snow and suffer altitude sickness. Despite not really wanting to go, the chefs have no choice. They pack warm clothes, load into two of their sponsorship mobiles, and hit the road.

According to Google Maps, their destination is about 90 miles east of Los Angeles, or three days of driving in LA traffic + an hour once they leave the city. Once they arrive, they realize that something is very wrong. It's no ordinary "summer camp!" It's a special Vacation Bible Camp! But before the cheftestants get to have some good clean fun, they have to pass the Quickfire Challenge. Each chef needs to create a grilled dish with show sponsor Bush's canned beans. To make the challenge even more fragrant, the winner will receive $10K and a lifetime supply of Beano. I don't know about you, but I find grilling beans to be exceptionally difficult. They keep falling through the grates....

The chefs use all the varieties of Bush's beans, from seasoned baked to plain varieties. Most choose to do things that are bean-forward, but not our Bryan. He is his own worst enemy this season. Rather than cook a meal that fits the challenge, he tends to cook something that fits with his particular fiddly, tweezer-needing, style of cuisine. His dishes are always amazing, because he is an amazing chef. Also cute. But his good looks aren't enough to make the judges forget that he has never quite seemed to fulfill the challenge. At least not the Quickfire. So it goes this time, as Bryan's bean-juice-marinated meat is on the bottom with Stephanie's weird veggie burger and Melissa's under-filled fried pies. The top toques are Karen, Gregory, and Lee Anne, who laments that she has never won a Quickfire. Until now, that is, with her bean empanada. She plans put the 10K prize toward her wedding expenses, mostly catering.

Padma then tells the cheftestants that they are not the only guests at the camp! There is also a gang of  mommies from all over the country there to drink copious amounts of wine and bitch about their husbands. GIRL POWER! And also Jesus. And because these wenches need sustenance to go with their booze and bitterness, they will be provided brunch. And Bibles. The lucky cheftestants will be providing said brunch; each of them will be responsible for 2 items, each feeding 200 mouths.

But first, the chefs get to play. I mean, prepare their souls for everlasting life and denounce the evils of the world.

After changing into camp-branded apparel, the cheftestants are first made to sit through a lecture on the sinfulness of tattoos, homosexuality, eating shellfish, and worst of all, wearing garments made from a cotton/poly blend. Like chef's coats. They are then made to zipline over a local wildfire to show them just how hot Hell can be.

Afterward, they grill Field Roast plant-based sausages for supper--because pork is evil--and go to bed, boys in one cabin, girls in another. Meanwhile, the mommies are singing Christian karaoke downstairs until 3am.

Just a couple hours later, the chefs pull out their earplugs and prepare for a morning of scrounging ingredients and cooking for the 200+ hungry mouths that at exactly 9am will descend on them like a plague of locusts. There is no Whole Foods near Camp Killmenow, so the cheftestants must use whatever ingredients happen to be in the larder. I imagined SPAM, Twinkies, Wonder Bread, Dinty Moore beef stew, pasteurized process cheese food slices wrapped in clingfilm, more canned beans, and myriad other things that the average camper eats in this great land of ours, and was pleasantly surprised to see that there were also fresh ingredients like spinach and eggs, too.

There's only 4 hours for the chefs to plan dishes, choose ingredients, and cook. Melissa says it's like "straight-up Hunger Games." Malarkey decides he's going to make "sharkshuky," though there's neither fish nor the letter R in that dish. A lack of tomato products makes him change course for something with shrimp, proving that the temptation of Evil is hard to resist.

While the chefs are cooking, Tom comes in for his Sniff N Sneer with Brooke Williamson. She's had some sort of work done. Her hair is definitely highlighted, but maybe also face and/or lip fillers? I can't understand why attractive people do that to themselves. Before long, they slide down that slippery slope into Real Housewives territory. It's probably not a coincidence that both shows are on Bravo.

Someone should revamp Leviticus to mention Polymethyl methacrylate and silicone.

Shortly, the Karens mommies flood into the dining hall and start fighting over bottles of champagne. They all need a little hair of the dog to help combat the wine they drank while caterwauling to Amy Grant and MercyMe. (Don't judge. Jesus drank wine.) The chefs are waiting for them, set up like lunch ladies beyond the buffet, ready to serve and explain their dishes. The judges get in line with the rest of the crowd. There is some squealing when the mommies get to meet Lee Anne, and even more squealing when they spot Bryan there, too. Hands off, ladies! He's mine.

The highlights of the meal were Bryan's carrot salad and Karen's corn cake. Gregory had originally intended to put eggs in his dish of mushrooms and tomatoes, but realized that eggs for 200 would be impossible to pull off. The judges loved his swap of spinach. They also like Stephanie's "breakfast salad" and her biscuits. Everything else was crap. Well, not crap. Malarkey's steak was pretty ok, but his shrimp and chorizo soup was bland and the overcooked shrimp were sure to invoke the wrath of God Almighty. Melissa's romaine and grapefruit salad landed her on the bottom along with Malarkey, and neither of Lee Anne's dishes--an accidentally steamed berry clafoutis and dense donuts--were going to get her into Heaven.

I was feeling the girl power of this episode (also Jesus) until Bryan was declared the winner. I mean, yeah, he finally won a challenge this season, but it also threw the theme I was planning to use in my recap under the bus. Also, he has tattoos! To make matters worse, Lee Anne was the eliminated chef. Clearly her dishes weren't half as sinful as Malarkey's shrimp!

Next week: the remaining 6 cheftestants must create a 6 course progressive Kaiseki meal for Olympic athletes. Which would be great, if any of them knew anything about Japanese food....

* 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 11, 2020

Pandemic Eats - Week 1-8, Take-Out Edition

It's hard to believe that we haven't been able to dine in a restaurant for 8 weeks already. And things were looking up this year! Last year it appeared that we were overlooked for most media feedings, at least in local restaurants. (Chains like Fogo de Chao still liked us though.) This year seemed like it was going to be so much better. In March alone, I was to judge two food events and we had at least 5 invitations to media dinners. Then we were asked to stay home in order to flatten the curve, which doesn't really seem to be happening. While states are starting to re-open businesses, I'm betting that situation is going to revert pretty quickly once infections start increasing again.

In the meantime, we're trying to keep local businesses afloat by getting carry-out or delivery at least once a week. Here are some of the things we've enjoyed over the last 8 weeks.

We had to be in Dundalk in Week 1, and any trip to that part of town deserves a pizza from Squires. We also got crab soup. At this point, we already realized that it might be smart to order enough food to last for more than one meal. At least a dinner and a couple of lunches.

The following weekend, we visited our friends at Cajun Kate's in Wilmington. We brought home 8 quarts of various gumbos and some red beans, and enjoyed this catfish turnover with maque choux and deep fried mac and cheese in the car while we were there.

Red Pepper Sichuan in Towson got the call the following week. This was at least 3 meals.

After that was pizza, wings, and a Lorenzo salad from Earth, Wood, & Fire. Two dinners and a lunch.

Koco's pub came next, for crab cakes that we supplemented with homemade celeri remoulade. Just because. We also got crab soup for a later lunch.

One of our quarts of Cajun Kate's pork gumbo was called into service later that week. Thankfully we were able to get in and out of Delaware before Maryland put the kibosh on out-of-state trips.

We were contacted by Ledo Pizza and asked to promote their $5 calzones on Instagram. They threw in one of their famous square pizzas too. Neither of us had tried Ledo in the past, and we thought their unusual flaky crust was quite good. Two dinners and a lunch.

Silk Road Bistro's Uzbek cuisine, including chicken tabaka, kebabs, and a couple of salads, served us well for two dinners and three lunches.

My brother tipped me off to a place called Asian Kebab and Hot Pot in Lutherville. The place is owned by the former owners of one of our fave Chinese restaurants, Hunan Taste, that closed in 2018. The menu is different, featuring hot pot and kebabs rather than Hunan food, but still quite good. We'll put this place into our permanent rotation, hoping that they stay afloat.

We ordered a dozen bagels and some veggie cream cheese from Bottom's Up Bagels and were pleased to finally find a place that made a proper chewy bagel. We put most of them in the freezer to enjoy later (and we're down to our last 3 already!)

Mr Minx was craving burgers, so we grabbed a couple and some poutine from Clark Burger. I think these burgers taste better at home than perched on an uncomfortable stool in their tiny joint on York Road. While this was only one dinner's worth of food, sometimes ya gotta make sacrifices.

Gypsy's Truckstaurant supplied us with wings, a lamb gyro, and crab cake tacos. for a dinner and a lunch.

We even scored half dozen free donuts from Donut Alliance. The bananas foster one in my hand was my fave, though I also really enjoyed the birthday cake one. The icings have real flavor, unlike those at some other places that will remain nameless. And yes, we ate all 6 on the same day. Donuts get stale, you know.

What have you been eating these last 8 weeks?

* 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 08, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode Eight's the week we've all been waiting for!

Week Eight!

Wait, I mean...Restaurant Wars!

But let's start with Week Eight. How has that been for all of you? Have you retained your sanity? Are you working or not? How much eating and drinking are you doing during our enforced staycation? I'm spending a lot of money on takeout and delivery and booze, but I'm also cooking. Not a lot. I can't work a grueling tough boring 8 hours and then be expected to put a hot and delicious meal on the table. And it has to be delicious. I have never been and never will be a person who relies on a lot of convenience foods (not counting canned goods like beans, tomatoes, clams, tuna). Things you won't find in my pantry: instant ramen; mac and cheese in a box; Ragu; hamburger "helper." Hey, if you can't or won't cook, I guess you eat that stuff. But I can't deal with the salt content. Also, I have pretty mad cooking skillz and prefer to do things from scratch. The coming weekend's meals will include Mr Minx's amazing meatloaf which I plan to supplement with a side of caramelized cabbage, and homemade 4-cheese mac and cheese (we have so much cheese!) though I haven't decided if it will be the stovetop type or the baked kind (leaning toward the latter). What you will find in my pantry: 6 kinds of fancy French mustard; various gluten-free baking products (thanks to a partnership with Bob's Red Mill); nuts and seeds; tons of chocolate and booze. Reading that sentence over again I realize those ingredients would make one hell of a Chopped basket. "Your basket contains tarragon dijon, gluten free brownie mix, chia seeds, and Lyon Rock N Rum!"

Now on to the tasks at hand: using more colons and semi-colons; writing about Restaurant Wars!

Normally, the team leaders and restaurant concepts are decided in a Quickfire; this season that work was completed in a prior episode. Last week we saw that Kevin and Gregory won with their concepts. This week they put them in action. But first: choosing teams.

Stephanie Izard is still hanging around. She's so tiny, she barely comes up to Padma's shoulder. She claims she has to see how this thing ends.

Kevin and Gregory draw knives to see who gets first choice of their hopefully champion dodge ball team. It's Kevin, who smartly chooses Bryan (he'd be my first pick, too). He tells us that they were in season 6 together and promised to support each other into the finale this season. Gregory looks over the remaining chefs and chooses....Malarkey. Padma is surprised.

I think everyone at home did, too. Melissa was the clear choice here, and Kevin snatches her in the next round. Gregory then takes Lee Anne, Kevin picks Karen, and Gregory is left with Stephanie.

Padma then asks which contestants had been on Restaurant Wars-winning teams in the past; I was surprised to see Stephanie raise her hand. I had thought that her only time on Top Chef was during the ridiculous two-week time-wasting "qualifying" round before Top Chef Season 10 Seattle started in earnest. However, she had also appeared in Season 11, coming in 7th place. Mea culpa. We stopped watching after Season 10.

The teams are told that the winners will get 40K, which is exciting. They first need to plan their menu and design their spaces, which is also exciting. Ingredients are to be procured at Food 4 Less and 7-11, and the decor from Target and Bob's Discount Furniture. Not so exciting. They drive to their respected spaces, matching empty concrete bunkers in DTLA, to plan. Exciting?

Malarkey and Karen volunteer to be front-of-the-house. It's a thankless job, and I don't know why anyone would volunteer to do it for Restaurant Wars. Not only are they responsible for cooking something, but they also have to coordinate the assembly of the restaurant and train the waitstaff. And they have to deal with guests, which of course is the worst thing, because people are hell.

Most of the episode is boring. There's a tiny bit of drama at Target after Malarkey picks out the same melamine plates as Kevin. Kevin gets bleeped and Malarkey apologizes but doesn't mean it.

Gregory decides against making the same oxtail dish as last week, though he keeps a whole fish on the menu. Kevin plans on country captain as his main again, but with approximately 478 side dishes, the thought of which make his crew roll their eyes. Cuz of course they'll be making them.

Both Malarkey and Karen had a real chore setting up the restaurant. We see Malarkey screwing legs onto tables, etc. It's a good thing they didn't have to shop at Ikea. Karen got a late start with setting up her place. I can't imagine why. The two dishes she was preparing for the restaurant were pretty minor.

Speaking of dishes, what did they serve?

Fried green plantains, salt cod patties, pikliz (Stephanie)
Mixed salad with habanero-lime dressing (Lee Anne)
Twice-cooked pork, stewed chicken, white rice, kidney bean sauce (Gregory)
Whole roasted red snapper (Malarkey)
Pineapple upside-down cake with rum raisin ice cream (Lee Anne)

The Country Captain
Trio of canapes: Chicken liver mousse on brioche (Melissa); Smoked trout puff with caviar and crab louie (both Bryan)
Main course of Country Captain with yellow rice (Kevin) served with  hasselback potato in raclette (Melissa); dilly beans, shrimp and grits, cucumber pickles (Bryan); Madeira glazed mushrooms, and red pepper relish (Karen)
Dessert: warm banana pudding (Kevin)

Honestly, I don't think they get enough time to get their shit together to produce a really stellar meal and design a restaurant experience on top of it. But nobody wants my opinion. After a quick 2 hours of cooking on day 2, the restaurants are open and guests flood in. There are to be 100 of them in 4 hours. Kann's first seating seems to go well, Malarkey appears to be nervous but keeps things moving. There's a bit of squabbling in the kitchen between expediter Lee Anne and the waitstaff, but eventually food does get served. The Country Captain, on the other hand looks like a total meltdown. There are just too many dishes to prepare, and except for the canapes and dessert, everything needs to go out at the same time. There's confusion as to which table already had canapes and who was next. There's a crowd forming out front for the second seating. Karen claims that the first seating just isn't leaving, but it's likely because it took so long for food to come out in the first place.

The judges eat at Kann first and leave pretty happy, despite an initial waiting period for food. There's no oxtail, but everything else is delicious. Then they go next door and notice the people milling about. Luckily, they seem to get a table right away. Maybe not luckily, they get to eat soon too. Not all of the food is delicious. The Country Captain is clearly different from the previous version, and not as good. Bryan's shrimp and grits is substantial enough to serve as a second entree rather than as an accompaniment. Karen's mushrooms suck. And Gail takes umbrage with the texture of the bananas in Kevin's dessert. The judges also notice that Kevin doesn't bother to come out to say hi, though Gregory had.

Judges Table: They waste no time in declaring Kann the winner. Not only do the cheftestants win 40K, but each of them gets a year subscription to OpenTable services for their restaurants.

The judges opine that The Country Captain served too many dishes. The mushrooms sucked. The canapes all had the same texture. Dessert seemed too dry. They want to know why Kevin shouldn't be sent home right then, and he throws himself on the sword. He takes blame for all of his restaurant's issues and Padma tells him to pack his knives.

Kevin next gets to compete against Nini in Last Chance Kitchen while hunky Eric perches on a stool and watches. He'll probably be back. Kevin that is, sadly not Eric.

Next time: dunno. The preview was confusing. Couldn't tell if it was for the next episode, or for the next several. Also, the finale will be filmed in Europe. Bryan says he already has his plane ticket. Hope he has one for me! No wait...we're still stuck at home for the foreseeable future....

* 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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