Thursday, February 28, 2013

Top Chef Seattle Finale Part 2 Recap

So this should be interesting. In my haste to get out of the house this morning, I misplaced the notes I took last night. That's right, we're essentially flying this thing without a pilot!

Good thing nothing really happened.

Oh, I know - it was the finale, and like some bad 70s sitcom, it was filmed before a live audience. But nothing happened, apart from a couple of montages and a whole lot of cooking.

When we join the show, finalists Kristen and Brooke have already been cooking for a while. Padma takes us aside to give us the scoop. The cheftestants need to cook five courses for 160 people including the judges and the nine previous Top Chef winners. They'll go head-to-head with each course, and the first chef to win three rounds is Top Chef. Course two must include scallops, and course four must include snapper. Both chefs have chosen to make a dessert for course five, should it get that far.

We then flashback to three hours prior, when Brooke and Kristen enter Kitchen Stadium. They're a bit flabbergasted to see an audience, so they obviously were not warned in advance. Each of the finalists has three hand-picked sous chefs waiting for them. Brooke has chosen Team California--CJ, Stefan, Kuniko--for whatever reason. Maybe to save Bravo airfare? Kristen, on the other hand, has chosen the sharpest knives in the box, namely the last three contestants to be eliminated from the competition--Mustache, Sheldon, and Lizzie. They have quick little meetings to explain their dishes to their sous and immediately start cooking.

We head back to the present and see that time is just about up for the first course. CJ is finishing up burning most of Brooke's crispy pig ear, and everyone is frantically plating. Time. is. up! and the judges get to eat.

The judges are Hugh, Emeril, Gail, Tom, and Padma. Despite being in Los Angeles, Wolfgang Puck's home base, he was not invited to the party. He was probably busy planning Oscar party food anyway.

Padma says something about cooking for 300 people. Earlier she told us 160. Clearly there aren't 300 plates on the tables, so she's either hitting the sauce pretty hard already, or has taken something that gives her double vision. Or maybe the producers told her to heighten the tension and this was the best she could come up with.*

Err....what happens next? Ah...tasting. The judges taste Kristen's chicken liver mousse with frisée and hazelnuts and Brooke's pig ear and chicory salad with 6-minute egg. (Thanks to the lovely Hugh Acheson for providing descriptions of all of the show's dishes, especially since Bravo's internmonkeys had not put up any photos by 9am.) The ears are burnt on several dishes, but Padma's are perfectly cooked. The judges hem and haw and three of them choose Kristen's dish as their fave. Round One to Kristen.

Insert montage of Brooke's "journey" to the finale.

Back to the kitchen to cook scallops. Kristen is making a crudo of her gorgeous in-shell specimens, telling Sheldon to whip up a salt cure with lavender and citrus. Brooke gives hers a hard sear and serves it with 101 accompaniments including juniper, salt cod purée, romanesco, speck, black currant, and mustard seed vinaigrette. The judges taste and give the round to Brooke.

Kristen gets a "memories" montage, too.

Round three is a pot luck round, and Kristen whips up a bit of crispy bone marrow with celery root puree, mushrooms, and bitter greens. Drool. Brooke is still bitter over her fuck-up with fried chicken six months ago and decides to redeem herself with chicken wings coated in vadouvan (an India-by-way-of-France curry-ish spice blend) served with "Sumac Yogurt-Tahini & Pickled Kohlrabi Fattoush." The judges get why she's made the wings, but not really, and Tom's not feeling the side dishes. Kristen wins the round, despite Padma's bitching that her dish was cold.

Round four must include snapper. Brooke has had lots of good luck with her oddball surf-and-turf creations, like the lamb-stuffed squid and frog leg and mussels combo from early episodes, so she throws another one out there - pork cheek and snapper with collard greens slaw and sorrel purée. Kristen goes much simpler with her dish, serving her fish with a portion of uni, little gem lettuce, and a shellfish nage. High-end chefs tend to be a sucker for sea urchin, so this was a good decision on her part.

Then we get a barrage of commercials. Kristen leads the battle two challenges to one. If she wins this round, she is Top Chef. It's 10:56 pm when we get back to the program and it's not a supersized episode. Hmm....

Cheesy game show-style drama lights come on in the studio as Padma quizzes the judges about their favorite dish. I find myself thinking, "final answer?" after each of them pretends to hem and haw over their decision before picking Kristen.

Kristen is Top Chef!

I would have really enjoyed seeing the battle come down to the dessert course. Imagine that - a dessert being the difference between winning $125,000 and not winning $125,000. Of course, that's par for the course on Top Chef: Just Desserts, but on Top Chef: Savory, desserts tend to be the kiss of death. Tom clarifies on his blog that the chefs were simply required to make five dishes. None of them had to be a dessert.

So another season of Top Chef is over, thank sweet baby Jesus. I hope the three of you have enjoyed my recaps. :)

*Gail Simmons says that there were 300 guests present, but only 160 of them were served food. Seems a bit unfair, no?

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Choice Bites 2.27.2013

According to a Food Network press release, the most recent winner of Food Network Star, Justin Warner, is slated to debut his show on 3/30. "Food Network Star season eight winner Justin Warner hits the road in search of unique culinary rule-breakers in the one-hour special Rebel Eats, airing Saturday, March 30th at 10pm ET/PT on Food Network. Armed with $300 in his pocket, a beat up car and a passion for unconventional food and eccentric people, Justin travels the back roads of the South to try everything from moonshine and bacon beer to BBQ in a jar and jelly fish pasta. Along the way, Justin meets the cooks and proprietors who, like him, march to their own beat through the world of food."

Disappointingly, it sounds like a variation on $40 a Day/Diners, Drive-ins and Dives/Appetite for Adventure/Taste in Translation/any of the now legion Food Network and Cooking Channel shows where the host is just that - a host. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like cooking shows. This is why PBS rules.
Has anyone been watching The Taste, that crap cooking competition show on ABC? We watched the first episode OnDemand about a week or so after it initially aired and were sorry we wasted our time. Ordinarily, Ludo, Bourdain, Nigella, and Malarkey can be entertaining, but when combined in a format that's like The Voice meets Iron Chef, they are annoying.

Bourdain has officially become a sorry old fart, in it for the money.
Not surprisingly, the latest spokesman for Heart Attack Grill has died. Of a heart attack. Nobody can say truth in advertising doesn't exist anymore.

BBQ Pulled Pork Cinnamon Rolls. 'nuff said.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Saag Paneer

Noodling around on the Internet, I found a recipe for paneer, a fresh Indian-style cheese. It seemed too easy not to try, so I did. Now what to make with a block of fresh Indian cheese? Why, saag paneer, of course!

Restaurant saag paneer is sometimes too thick and gloppy, so I made mine a bit lighter and fresher by not pureeing the spinach too smoothly, and cooking the dish for a relatively short amount of time. If you like restaurant-style saag, then you might want to puree the spinach into a paste, cook it for a longer period, and add more ghee (clarified butter).

I liked mine just fine, and leftovers made for tasty work lunches.


2 quarts whole milk
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Pour the milk in a large nonstick pot or dutch oven and slowly bring it to a gentle boil over medium heat. Stir occasionally. When the milk starts bubbling, add the lemon juice and turn the heat down to medium-low. The mixture should instantly curdle, with large white curds forming in a greenish liquid (the whey). Stir gently for a few moments. If the whey appears more white-ish than greenish, add a bit more lemon juice. Remove from heat.

Gently pour the mixture into a cheesecloth-lined colander.

Rinse in cool water to remove the lemon flavor, then gather the curds into a ball with the cheesecloth and wring gently to remove excess whey. 

Then tie the bundle to the faucet of your sink and allow to hang for about five minutes. Take the bundle off the handle and form the cheese into a brick. Place on a plate, top with another plate, then weight down with a can of soup. Refrigerate at least 20 minutes before using.

Saag Paneer

1 lb frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
ghee (clarified butter) or oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
pinch cayenne
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup milk
12 oz of paneer (see recipe abovee), cubed
salt to taste
jalapeno hot sauce
pistachios or cashews

Place the spinach into a clean tea towel and wring out some of the excess moisture, but not so much that it's completely dry. Put the spinach and cilantro in a food processor and whiz into a coarse puree, adding a few spoonfuls of milk, if necessary, to aid the process. Set aside.

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat and add a tablespoon or so of ghee or oil. Add the onion and cook until wilted. Stir in the turmeric, garlic, chopped ginger, garam masala, cumin, coriander, and cayenne. Cook until garlic is fragrant - but don't let it burn. Stir in reserved spinach puree, yogurt, and milk. Simmer for about 10 minutes, then add the paneer. Cook for a few minutes, then add salt to taste.

Serve with rice and/or naan bread, a few shakes of hot sauce, and a garnish of nuts, if desired.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Top Chef Seattle Finale Part 1 Recap

After this week, there's only one more new episode of Top Chef Seattle. Can I get an "amen" up in here?! It's not that I haven't enjoyed this season (I haven't), it's just that it seems like it's gone on for.  so.  l o n g. That said, this season hasn't seemed as unbearably long as last season because we haven't had any of the same uncomfortable bitchery. This year's group--the Josie-haters notwithstanding--seemed to actually like each other. Still - no reason for seventeen weeks of this stuff. Especially when the final episodes need to be padded to fit an hour.

This week's padding has Sheldon and Brooke going home to their respective, ah, homes. It's six months since Seattle and Sheldon is a minor superstar back in Hawai'i. He's posing for photos and kissing babies and all of that nonsense. He's also completed a stage at a fancy restaurant, because he knows Brooke hangs with fancy chefs and she's his chief competition.

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, Brooke is back in her restaurants, dealing with paperwork and hanging with Roy Choi (whom we already know) and Sang Yoon of Father's Office. (A restaurant, not an actual office. They have a cute Web site, btw).

Eventually, Sheldon joins Brooke in LA and they travel together by Toyota Sponsormobile to the local outpost of Tom Colicchio's Craft, where the competition began for several of the cheftestants (and ended just as abruptly for others). Tom is there, along with Padma, Hugh, and Emeril, and they give the cheftestants the bad news: there's one other contestant, someone who happened to beat the pants off the rest of the competition in Last Chance Kitchen...

...cue montage...

Kuniko. Carla. CJ - times six. Kristen beats CJ. Kristen beats everyone else, including Lizzie, who was the winner of the "Save a Chef" contest. Kristen steps out from behind a curtain and Brooke and Sheldon groan. Kristen's gonna be tough to beat.

Then Tom delivers even worse news. Dinner service at Craft starts in three hours and the three of them will be providing the grub. Each cheftestant is responsible for one app, one entrée, and one dessert. And they're off to the walk-ins, choosing proteins and quickly planning their dishes.

Sheldon goes for spot prawns and quail, the latter of which Brooke thinks is very unlike Sheldon. She's not really sure what she wants to do. Maybe short ribs. Sweetbreads for the app. Both rather difficult to do perfectly in three hours because sweetbreads usually require several steps (soaking, cleaning, parboiling, pressing, frying) and short ribs need a slow braise. Kristen wants to start with a chestnut soup, followed by tuna. They're all saving worrying about dessert for later.

Brooke seems scattered; she's burning batch after batch of pistachios. Sheldon tells us he wants to show us the "new" Sheldon; now that he has some fancypants restaurant training under his belt, he wants to make something that's new to him. That doesn't bode well. Kristen realizes she's prone to over-thinking her food and wants to keep it simple this time.

Soon enough time is up and Tom is in the kitchen to expedite. And he's a real cranky bossypants in that position. He makes the chefs as nervous as if this were the first time they had ever worked the line, and both Sheldon and Kristen DO work the line at their current jobs. In between fits of crank, Tom tastes all of the dishes.

Meanwhile out at the judges' table (not to be confused with Judges' Table), Hugh, Emeril, and Padma are joined by John Besh and Martin Yan. The first courses come out. They all seem to enjoy Sheldon's spot prawns in broth. Kristen's chestnut velouté is nice, but the duck rillettes are rich and the whole thing might need some acid. Brooke's sweetbreads are nicely crispy, but Hugh thinks they could be "cleaner" and sliced more thickly. Hugh actually has a lot of complaints about just about everything.

Brooke's shortribs are successful. Kristen's tuna is nicely cooked but the lemon curd on the plate is too bitter for Padma's delicate sensibilities. And Sheldon's quail with pine nut sauce leaves the judges with a WTF look on their faces. Where were Sheldon's usual Filipino flavorings?

Finally, while Brooke's brown butter cake was tasty and moist, the other cheftestant's chocolate concoctions were both misses, particularly Sheldon's raw fennel with white chocolate. It could have been a good idea - Tom seemed to think so initially - but the execution was flawed.

While Brooke worried that she would be out this week, it was clear that all three of her dishes were good enough to get her a pass to the final finale. So it was down to Kristen and Sheldon, both of whom played it pretty safe, according to Hugh.

Yan and Besh are dismissed and the others adjourn to Judges' Table.

They don't like the "new" Sheldon, which was pretty apparent during the meal. So they send him back home to Hawai'i. This leaves Brooke and Kristen to battle it out in some hot girl-on-girl chef action, guaranteeing that Top Chef will FINALLY have another female winner, the first since Stephanie Izard in season 4.

Next week: the chefs battle in front of a live audience. I'm providing the laugh track.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dish Mob at Jimmy's

Have you heard of a "dish mob?" It's based on "cash mobs," a movement to get people into spending their money at small businesses rather than big box stores. So the dish mob tries to do the same thing for local, independently-owned restaurants. In that vein, is hosting a Dish Mobs Event at Jimmy’s Famous Seafood in Baltimore on Tuesday, February 26. is offering a $25 gift card to anyone that comes and dines as part of the event to show the company's commitment to supporting locally-owned restaurants. Sounds good to us!

When: February 26, 2013
11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Where: Jimmy’s Famous Seafood
6526 Holabird Avenue
Baltimore, MD

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Basta Pasta

Remember the Steak & Ale on Timonium Road? If you walk into Basta Pasta, which now occupies that same building, you'll have flashbacks to the late 60s and early 70s, when stained glass was considered a classy addition to any restaurant. Apart from a few cosmetic changes like paint, and the addition of some landscape paintings (presumably of Italy), the place looks much the same - stained glass and all. Rather than red meat and, er, ale, the new tenant's menu now offers a panoply of familiar Italian-style dishes like fettuccine Alfredo and Eggplant Parmigiana, plus some Maryland-style seafood and lots of fried appetizers.

We chose Basta Pasta as our second Baltimore County Restaurant Week visit because the special menu's offerings seemed somewhat inventive for a neighborhood joint. And four courses for $30. In addition to the usual app/entree/dessert, there was a salad course. A seemingly bottomless bowl of pre-dressed but untossed salad festooned with boxed croutons and an unremarkable dressing arrived immediately after we placed our order, followed some minutes thereafter by a basket of plain warm breadsticks. Very Olive Garden, and a touch that some people probably appreciate. (The elderly four-top next to ours requested that two bowls of salad and two baskets of breadsticks be brought to the table post-haste.) But I'm getting ahead of myself here. I want to mention the service.

Our waiter was clearly trying to do what he was trained to do. For instance, he was probably told to point out the Restaurant Week menu on the back of the regular menu, but he had to pull the menu out of my hand to do so. And I was already on that page. He also took the time to mention his name the first three times he visited our table although we clearly were not the most elderly people in the joint. And every time I thanked him for something, he said, "no problem." I hate that. Of course it's not a problem, it's your job.

Anyhoo...on to the food. I thought the dish described as "rosemary skewered scallops grilled and finished with a blood orange butter sauce and caper berries" sounded like it could be tasty. The scallops were nicely cooked, but none of the flavors went together. The rosemary overwhelmed the scallops, the butter sauce tasted simply of butter, and the caperberries (the fruit of the caper plant; regular capers are flower buds) were merely pickled, salty things that happened to be on the same plate. The bits of blood orange didn't have much flavor at all.

Mr Minx's prosciutto-wrapped asparagus served over fresh mozzarella, topped with roasted red peppers, and finished with a balsamic reduction was much more successful. The asparagus was cooked perfectly, the prosciutto was a bit crisp, and while the balsamic syrup seemed overly-sweet on its own, when eaten with the salty prosciutto, the flavors balanced nicely.

There were several entrées available, and after hemming and hawing a bit, I took the risk of ordering Chicken Chesapeake. I'm usually afraid of chicken breasts in a restaurant because they're often dry and overcooked, but the cutlet in this dish was tender and moist. It was topped with what was called a "colossal lump crab cake," and judging by the lumps of breading here and there, it was definitely a crab cake. And a pretty decent one at that. The creamy "Chesapeake" sauce was a thin bearnaise, lightly flavored with tarragon and much improved with an extra pinch of salt.

The menu suggested that I could have a side of steamed broccoli or linguine marinara, but when I asked our waiter, he said the dish came with the linguine but he'd make sure I got the broccoli. Um, thanks. That broccoli was bright green and retained a bit of crispness - yay - but it tasted like it was coated with movie theater popcorn "butter" - boo.

Mr Minx went for the seafood fra diavlo (sic), slightly overcooked pasta in a spicy tomato sauce with an impressive pile of nicely-cooked seafood including a lobster tail, 2 jumbo shrimp, scallops, and crabmeat. It was very peppery and quite good - the best dish of the evening, hands down.

Dessert was a bit more uneven. While my creme brulée was very homey and eggy, Mr Minx's apple crumble cheesecake had a commercial quality to it and was very sweet.

So. The food at Basta Pasta was a bit all over the place. The boxed croutons and margarine had no place on an Italian table, but the "fra diavlo" was commendable. Apparently they must be doing something right, as there were several more diners, including young families, by the time we left. Must be the salad and breadsticks.

Basta Pasta
60 W Timonium Rd
Timonium, MD 21093
(410) 308-0838

Basta Pasta on Urbanspoon

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Top Chef Seattle Episode 15 Recap

This week, the three remaining cheftestants rise and shine to find a message from Padma, urging them to dress warmly and to meet her somewhere near the top of a mountain. They get into a Toyota Sponsormobile and drive for a piece, then get into a helicopter. Brooke freaks out and doesn't want to go. She not only hates boats, but she also hates helicopters. Eventually, after some tears and a couple of Xanax, she hops aboard and puts a death grip on the boys' arms as they fly over some gorgeous Alaska scenery. They urge her to unclench her eyes and look around, and, after peeing herself a little, she gradually enjoys the rest of the trip.

Once on the ground, they find dog sleds waiting to take them to yet another snowy destination. Thankfully, Brooke doesn't seem to have an irrational fear of dogs or dog sleds. Sheldon remarks that he wishes he had some really good reefer. If I were him, I'd ask Padma. Finally, they reach Padma and Tom on Norris Glacier. They are at an Iditarod-training camp, and there are dozens of dogs, each tied to his or her own mini-igloo. The cheftestants' final Quickfire Challenge of the competition is to kill and cook a dog and make a coat from its pelt create a dish using whatever happens to be in the camp's mess tents.

Though it would seem that a mess tent in Alaska would be full of cans of Dinty Moore and MRE-type rations, there's a surprising assortment of fresh fruit, like watermelon. After grabbing their ingredients, the three convene in the kitchen, which Mustache calls "super tiny." Well, it's about twice as large as my home kitchen, so I don't know about that.

Brooke and Sheldon both cook halibut, and Mustache makes...wait for it...breakfast. Brooke jokingly says it's all he knows how to make, and she's not really wrong. Padma and Tom taste the dishes with the aid of some sunburned dog sled racers who are probably only in their early 20s now but after a few more months of sun-on-snow glare will look twice their age. They decide that the cheftestants can cook for them any time, but like Brooke's halibut with panzanella salad the best.

They get back on the helicopter, this time with Padma. Then the four of them and their cameraman squeeze into the Toyota Sponsormobile, with Padma at the wheel. She drives them back to their house, where Emeril and LA chef Roy Choi have taken over the kitchen. Roy, a Food & Wine best new chef, rose to fame with his fleet of Kogi Korean BBQ Food trucks. He tells the chefs that before he got into cooking full time, he was a real "scumbag." But one day, while being a scumbag, doing scumbag things like hanging out on the couch, watching Emeril Live! he happened to catch an episode in which Emeril cooks short ribs. It was a lightbulb moment, and right after that, Choi looked into culinary schools.

Emeril's got to feel a bit powerful this season. First Micah likens him to Moses, and now Roy Choi reveals he's an apostle.

Over a lunch of braised short ribs with Korean flavors, plus rice AND cornbread, Padma announces that the Elimination Challenge involves each of the three cheftestants' own "a-ha! moments." They will have to create a dish that represents the moment they decided to become a chef, and they'll be serving their meals to a panel of judges including the current governor of Alaska and his first lady (plus Emeril, Roy, Gail, and Wolfie).

But first - mild drama. Mustache's wife is going into labor. She calls him every few hours to make him feel guilty for not being around for the birth of their first child. He's verklempt, but he also wants to win.

The next day, the three do some prep work for their dishes. Brooke says she's known she's wanted to be a chef since she was four, so she's having trouble conceptualizing a dish around the diet of a typical four-year-old - chicken fingers and ketchup sandwiches. Sheldon was inspired by tubby Hawaiian chef, Sam Choy, who happens to be a friend of Emeril. And Mustache was inspired by his first taste of foie gras. He tells Tom that he had been a wrestler, always concerned about his weight, and once found himself reading a copy of Food & Wine while riding an exercise bike in a sauna. Guess he couldn't have been reading Gourmet or Bon Appetit or Sauveur, since Food & Wine is one of Top Chef's sponsors....

While all this is happening, Mustache's wife gives birth. She Skypes him later from the hospital, to further rub in the guilt of not being there when his kid is born. She insists it wasn't so bad and that she might want to do it again later. Maybe when Mustache is competing on the next season of Top Chef All-Stars, or filming a reality special on the art of mustache waxing, along with current Project Runway designer Daniel Esquivel.

The next day, they head to the Governor's mansion to finish cooking. Mustache keeps asking Brooke what she's cooking, and she keeps answering, "I don't know yet." And she's only partly lying. Eventually she decided on making braised chicken, inspired by her mama, but also grilled quail and an assortment of other accompaniments. Sheldon is keeping it Asian and makes a Chinese-style pan-roasted rockfish with spot prawns. Mustache makes foie gras three ways - a torchon, a mousse piped into a profiterole, and seared.

Brooke serves first, and except for an overcooked quail breast, her dish is layered with delicious flavors. Mustache has problems with his torchon because one can't be made successfully in a couple of hours; it needs time to poach and cool properly. Gail makes faces at her portion of the crumbly, undercooked liver. However, all three components of his dish are delicious, particularly the apricot with the seared foie. Finally, Sheldon's seafood is perfectly cooked, but his broth has reduced too much and is salty as hell.

Bet you never knew hell was salty.

Only two chefs are moving to the finale in Los Angeles, and it's pretty clear that despite some tough quail, Brooke is one of them. But is oversalted broth or overambitious and undercooked foie a more egregious error?

Mustache tells us that he wants to win and anything less is failure. Needless to say, he's a failure, because he doesn't move on. But there's always Last Chance Kitchen!

Next week - the winner of Last Chance Kitchen joins Brooke and Sheldon in the finale. I'll save you watching LCK - Lizzie, who won Save a Chef over CJ, battles Mustache and Kristen. Mustache is eliminated, and the winner is...

...I don't know. They're saving it for next week. Bastards.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Tangerine Beef

I wanted to whip up a little something festive and lucky to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Snake, but I didn't want to go to a whole lot of effort. Yes, I'm lazy, but also tired from planning and dealing with book signings and all that good stuff. Traditionally, Chinese New Year festivities involve labor-intensive dumplings or spring rolls, which symbolize luck and prosperity. That seemed like too much work for me, plus spring rolls need to be deep fried, and I have a long-standing fear of frying.

Then I found a recipe for tangerine beef that sounded entirely do-able, especially since we had everything on hand except the beef and the tangerine. Tangerines are considered a lucky fruit, as the word for tangerine sounds similar to the word for luck. Oranges, too, have a place at New Years feasts because "orange" and "gold" sound alike as well. And as luck would have it (heh) I stumbled upon this recipe for Tangerine Beef in a book already on my bookshelf, Feeding the Dragon, written by brother and sister team Nate and Mary Kate Tate.

The recipe calls for flank steak, which was hella expensive at the local Safeway, so we substituted a piece of London broil, instead. The dish was very different from what we normally think of as "orange beef," which usually has crisp meat and a sugar-laden sauce. Instead, the beef in this dish is tender, the sauce not sweet at all, and with the combination of chili bean sauce, dried chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns, full of ma-la, or the spicy and numbing sensation popular in Sichuan food.

Tangerine Beef (adapted from Feeding the Dragon)

1 tangerine

1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 lb London broil, sliced thinly against the grain into 2" long strips

1 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon chili bean sauce
1 teaspoon sugar

To Cook:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
small handful dried Sichuan chiles
3 scallions, chopped, white and green parts separated

Peel the tangerine, taking care to leave the peel in large pieces. Using a spoon, scrape out as much of the pith as possible (this is easier to do if the peel is in large pieces). Boil the peel for six minutes to remove bitterness, then slice into slivers. Set aside. Eat the tangerine innards.

In a large bowl, dissolve the cornstarch with the soy sauce and rice wine. Stir in the ginger and add the beef strips. Toss well, cover the bowl, and set aside to marinate for at least 20 minutes.

Stir together the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a wok or large saute pan over high heat. Add the beef and stir fry for about 1 minute, until browned but still a bit pink. Remove beef and any liquid from the wok and set aside.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil and when it's hot, add the Sichuan peppercorns, chiles, the reserved tangerine peel, and the white parts of the scallions. Stir fry for about 45 seconds, then add the sauce. Toss in the beef and the green parts of the scallions and stir until the onions start to wilt and all is covered with sauce.

Serve hot with plenty of steamed rice to ease the heat.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Chinese Marbled Tea Eggs

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Happy Chinese New Year! 2013 is the year of the Snake, which just so happens to be my zodiac sign. Apparently we snakes are intelligent, graceful, analytical, and enjoy quiet. Sounds like me to a T! Regular readers will know that I also enjoy Chinese food and have in the past indulged in yummy New Year feasts at my favorite Chinese restaurant, Grace Garden.

This year, we stayed home, but I put together a couple of dishes that are traditionally served for the New Year. The first of them is marbled tea eggs. They symbolize gold nuggets, aka wealth, which is always a good thing to hope for in the coming year.

Chinese marbled tea eggs are really easy to make and very tasty. Just par-boil some eggs, crack the shells, and soak them in a flavorful liquid that includes black tea, soy sauce, and star anise. We ate them in a rather non-traditional way - for breakfast, with hot buttered toast. But you can eat them as a snack any time of the day.

Chinese Marbled Tea Eggs (adapted from Steamy Kitchen)

6 large eggs
3/4 cup soy sauce
2 whole star anise
2 tea bags (plain Lipton-style black tea)
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
2 strips dried orange peel (optional)

Place the eggs in a medium saucepan and fill with water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then immediately lower the heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the eggs from the water and place in a bowl of ice water to cool down.

Add the soy, star anise, tea bags, cinnamon stick, sugar, peppercorns, and orange peel to the hot water still in the sauce pan.

Remove the eggs from the ice bath and, one at a time, crack the shells all over with the back of a teaspoon to produce a spider-web effect. Don't break off chunks of shell!

Add the cracked eggs to the soy mixture in the pot and turn the heat on. Cover pot, bring to a boil, then turn heat to low and simmer eggs for about half an hour. Turn off heat and allow eggs to steep in the liquid. After the pot has cooled down, refrigerate the eggs in the liquid to allow more flavor and color to seep into the eggs.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Rachael vs. Guy Celebrity Cook-off Season 2 Finale

Sorry I never got around to recapping episode 5 of this season of Rachael vs. Guy, but the Super Bowl took priority, as did the launch party for our new book, Food Lovers' Guide to Baltimore. Plus nobody reads these recaps, right? Which is why I'm going to be (relatively) brief here.

Last week, Rachael's team of three battled Guy's team of one in a food truck challenge. Despite missing about a third of his customers because he was working alone, Dean was moved on to the finale. With three members left in the other team, and only one finale spot open, Rachael and Guy did a non-blind taste test. The ended up rewarding the other finale spot to Carnie because they knew neither Kathy's hummus nor Hiney's mad skillz with hamburgers and hot dogs could win the competition.

For this final challenge, Carnie and Dean head to a mansion in Beverly Hills where they will be messing up a perfectly lovely kitchen cooking a three course meal for eleven people. They'll be using what Guy calls a "mystery kitchen," meaning they won't know what foods will be stocked, so they have to be able to plan on their feet. They'll have 30 minutes to make an appetizer, 40 minutes for an entree, and 20 for a dessert.

Now this is where the Food Network could have made things interesting. They could have stocked the fridge with calves' liver, tongue, and herring, and the pantry with nothing but lentils and canned pizza sauce. But nooo...there's a nice assortment of popular proteins and everything else needed to make a tasty meal or two.

And they're off! Carnie immediate decides she wants to make a tuna dip, which sounds like the grossest thing in the world. I mean, that's what our cat's breath usually smells like. Carnie's in full panic mode (when is she not?) and can't find the canned tuna in the pantry. Meanwhile, Dean is Mr Ambitious. He wants to make seared scallops, but in their pre-meal powwow, Guy put lobster in his head. When he finds both in the fridge, he uses both, along with about twenty-three other components. Apparently he thinks he's on the Next Iron Chef.

Rachael and Guy come in for a visit and take pity on the two celebs by giving them sous chefs to work with in the form of old friends. Suddenly, with her friend's help, Carnie calms down enough to locate the tuna and can now make her slop dish. Dean uses his friend to make some of the 1,000 different elements of his overly-complicated plate.

Outside, the guests are assembling and find their seats at a table arranged under an arbor that is covered with what appears to be wisteria. But it can't possibly be real wisteria because there would also be thousands of bees swarming the area. I type this as someone who once lived with a wisteria-covered, bee-infested arbor. Anyhoo, apart from Rachael and Guy, these guests are bigwigs in the food industry and include Suzanne Goin and her husband David Lentz, Nancy Silverton, Jet Tila, Michael Cimarusti, and Brad Miller. I'm sure you're able to look these guys up, right? Also dining with them are the directors of Carnie's and Dean's charities, and comedian Kathy Griffin who looks like she gave up eating but claims to actually like food.

Predictably, Dean's dish has too many elements like mango gastrique and butter-poached lobster. Most of the chefs try to be nice about it, but David Lentz and Brad Miller both decide to piss in Dean's cornflakes. Former Top Chef Masters competitor Michael Cimarusti, however, is a nice guy and says that the way Dean scored his scallops before searing them was new to him and a great idea. Liar.

Surprisingly, the chefs seem to enjoy Carnie's cat food surprise tuna dip, but do complain that the texture is a bit runny and there's entirely too much of it on the plate. I think a tablespoon would have been too much.

For the second course, Dean is overdoing it yet again by wrapping petit filets with flank steak and serving it with smashed red potatoes and a thousand other fiddly components. Carnie at first wants to make a simple chicken piccata, but switches gears and produces something slightly more complex: an herb pesto-coated pasta with tequila lime shrimp.

The guests admire Dean's creativity and think he clearly spends a lot of time reading cookbooks. Burn! His flavors are great but the dish as a whole is disjointed. David Lentz and Brad Miller say something unkind. Most of them (apart from Lentz and Miller) then say nice things about Carnie's dish - the pasta is well cooked, the pesto is tasty, etc. It's hard to tell who's winning here.

Finally, the celebs come out with their desserts. Carnie has made apple fritters and served them with ice cream and whipped cream. They are delicious, perfect, and simple. Dean has made grilled pound cake with macerated berries, caramel sauce, and syllabub and you know that he thinks he's going to win because he knows what "macerated" and "syllabub" mean. His dish again has too much going on, and most of the guests agree that the syllabub has too much alcohol in it, but his effort is impressive.

After dinner, the guests fill out comment cards with questions about most and least favorite dishes and who they think should win the challenge. Later, Rachael and Guy read the results to the celebs, who have been reunited with members of their family and friends. Except for Dean's wife, Tori Spelling, who is presumably too good to show up for something on the Food Network. Her proxy, a woman holding what looks to be Dean's youngest child, is much better-looking.

So who wins? don't really care, do you? It's Dean, who we've known all along to be the winner, since he's the only celeb with actual cooking aspirations. He gets $50,000 for his charity. Carnie is a winner too, since the Food Network generously awards $10,000 to her charity as well.

Do you think there will be a third season? Stay tuned. Or not.

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

Top Chef Seattle Episode 14 Recap

We're getting down to the wire here on Top Chef Seattle - only about eight six four episodes to go. God, really? Do we have to sit through another four episodes? Let's do the math:

This episode, 14: final four - 1 eliminee = final three
Episode 15: final three - 1 eliminee = final two + Last Chance Kitchen winner = final three
Episode 16: final three - 1 eliminee = final two + Save a Chef winner = final three
Episode 17: final three - 1 eliminee = final two
Episode 18: finale

I could be wrong, but I'm probably not. Last year we had 18 episodes and were forced to watch Beverly and the other cheftestants compete in Olympic-like events, for the sheer ridiculousness of it. What nonsense will we be subjected to this time? Stay tuned. Or not. If you're smart, you'll give up now.

This week the cheftestants - Mustache, Sheldon, Brooke, and Lizzie - start the show off by lamenting the loss of dear, sweet, kind, thumb-like Stefan. They miss his good heart, or something like that. Surely he paid them to compliment him after he left.

The four are forced to walk the plank in Juneau, Alaska, where it is cold. They find Padma, shivering in a fuzzy vest and turtleneck, with a chef named Sean Brock, whom the network has flown nearly 4,000 miles from Charleston, SC to the southernmost part of Alaska. For what reason, we'll never know. I suppose there aren't any notable chefs in that area of the US, but certainly Canada could have lent them one from British Columbia?

In any case, the cheftestants have to make a dish using local crab at a joint called Tracy's King Crab Shack. Alaska produces 76 million pounds of crab annually, so the chefs have plenty of raw material to choose from.

After thirty minutes, Brooke presents her crab toast, Lizzie her crab frittata, Sheldon his miso soup with pine-smoked asparagus (a trick he picked up from the Noma cookbook), and Mustache his succotash with bacon. Lizzie's frittata had too many flavors other than crab, and Mustache should know not to make succotash for a low country cook who thinks his own is the best. Padma and Sean did like Brooke's toast, but they especially liked Sheldon's soup, made with crab guts. Mmm...crab guts. He gets the win and a check for $5,000.

Next, the chefs have to use still more seafood. And make bread. While salmon and sourdough seems an unlikely pairing, that's apparently what the locals eat. When they get to the charming little cottage where they will be staying during the Juneau leg of the journey, they find vats of 31-year-old sourdough starter left for them by a local baker. They immediately set to making their bread for the next day.

When they sit down to wait for their dough to rise, Brooke notices that Mustache has somehow gotten hold of a verboten cell phone. His wife is in labor and the network kindly allows him to keep tabs on the proceedings. Plus, it could make good drama for the show if the baby is born with three heads.

The next day, they have to "shop" for their fish. They suit up in hip waders and head to the dock where a fishing boat is bringing in a haul of freshly caught chum, king, sockeye, and other salmon varieties. The chefs choose their fish and gut them right then and there. Lizzie, whose father has died recently, has flashbacks to her childhood and fishing and gutting with her dad. She gets teary and tells us he would be so proud of her. And at that point we realize she must be going home this week.

Later, the final four are cooking up their dishes at a place called Gold Creek Salmon Bake, which is an outdoor venue. Guess the locals are used to the cold, but Padma is wearing a hat and mittens when she shows up. She looks uncomfortable with the fact that she can't wear anything leather or low cut in this episode.

The judges this time are Sean Brock, Hugh, Emeril, and Gail. As they take their seats, they talk about bears being in the vicinity. Tom jokes that bears are a part of his fan base. The others look blankly at him, clearly not getting the joke.

Brooke presents her dish first. She's made soup, as have two of her competition. She serves poached sockeye salmon in a seafood broth with mustard seed caviar and dill sourdough for dipping. The dish gets raves - the fish is nicely cooked, the broth is delicious, and the dill in the bread was a nice touch.

Sheldon's bread, made with green tea and chives, causes Padma to make a face. She loves tea and chives, but not together and not in bread. But his pea soup is delicious. The salmon, not so much. He's smoked it, and while parts of it are well cooked, other parts have too much char and too much bitter smoke flavor. Plus, he's used chum, which as Padma notes, is used as dog food by the locals.

Mustache has prepared a roasted garlic sourdough soup with sockeye salmon and olive croutons. Emeril loves the soup, of course, but Tom thinks it's too garlicky and overwhelms the salmon, which is perfectly cooked. They all like the idea of the olive croutons.

Finally, Lizzie presents her sourdough rolls filled with citrus-and-beet-glazed salmon. The rolls are great, perfectly crusty and wonderful. But the salmon has little or no flavor. Tom wonders why she didn't marinate it before cooking, rather than glaze it, and where is the seasoning?

The judges finish eating and canvas the other 200 diners at the Salmon Bake to find out whose dish was most popular. Later, at Judges' Table, the four cheftestants hear the verdict while rain is pouring down around them. It's certainly scenic, but I'm betting it's cold and damp and the judging probably went pretty quickly that evening.

Brooke gets the win because her dish was close to perfect. Lizzie's dish was too simple to have been so bland, and she gets sent to face Kristen in Last Chance Kitchen.

Next week: helicopters! dog sleds! lots of non-cooking stuff! The Governor of Alaska! (I'm betting Sarah Palin wishes she were still in that position, so she'd have another chance to extend her fifteen minutes by whoring herself and her family on yet another reality show.)

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Cheater's Pork Belly Buns

The January issue of Food & Wine magazine had a simple recipe for gua bao, or Taiwanese pork belly buns. Gua bao, especially those served at places like New York's Momofuku Ssam Bar and Baohaus, are a foodie delight: tender pork belly chunks served with minimal condiments on freshly steamed buns. Mmm!

Both the pork belly and the buns are time-consuming to make at home. The belly needs braising and the yeast-raised buns require rising time. I'm not patient enough to do both at the same time, so a recipe using thick cut bacon in place of the belly, and commercial refrigerated biscuits instead of steamed buns seemed like a must-try. I gotta admit it even turned me on a little.

I was thinking that F&W's Grace Parisi was a genius as I googled for an Internet copy of the recipe to share here, but then I found that the biscuit-cum-bao idea wasn't exactly hers. Apparently, a cookbook author named Andrea Nguyen shared the technique in her 2006 book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, and she had learned it from someone else. No matter. The technique is still genius-y. Another clever tip from Parisi was to use a roasting pan, ramekins, and a cookie sheet, all wrapped tightly in foil, as a steamer for the buns. Much less-involved is a bamboo steamer, which I already had on hand.

So off to the supermarket to buy some bacon and a tube of buttermilk biscuits. The recipe suggested Pillsbury Grands, but we're not a fan of the odd flavoring that all Pillsbury biscuit-type thingies tend to have, so we bought store brand (Giant) instead.

Do refrigerated biscuits make adequate steamed buns? Yes, they do. While the flavor of the biscuit wasn't exactly the same, the texture was a good approximation. As far as the bacon is concerned - it's bacon. How can it be bad? That said, there's no way the thin-ness of even thick-cut bacon can equal a slab of juicy and fatty pork belly, but with the ginger and seasonings, it tasted fine. The original recipe called for mirin in the cooking liquid and hoisin on the finished sandwich. I didn't have mirin and felt the bacon was sweet enough without the addition of hoisin. YMMV. The recipe also called for bread-and-butter pickle slices for the sandwich, but thickly-sliced, lightly salted cucumber was even better, particularly since I decided to add a pinch of extra sweetness with some crushed peanuts, the way they serve 'em at Baohaus.

Bacon Bao (adapted from Food & Wine)

1/2 lb thick cut bacon
1 finger-length knob of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into about 1/4" chunks
1 cup low sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoons soy
1 tube refrigerated buttermilk biscuits
parchment or cabbage leaves for steaming
bamboo steamer
Sliced scallions, cucumber slices, and Sriracha for serving
Baohaus-style peanut topping (recipe follows)

Put the bacon and ginger in a large saute pan and cook over medium heat until bacon is lightly browned on both sides. Pour off all the fat and add the chicken broth, vinegar, brown sugar, and soy. Cook over medium-low heat, turning bacon occasionally, until the meat is tender and the sauce is reduced to a syrupy glaze, about 10 minutes.

Fill a wok or 4-quart stock pot with about 2" of water and bring to a boil.

Cut eight 4" squares of parchment paper. If you don't have parchment, cabbage leaves will do.

Pop open the can of biscuits. Flatten each one slightly and fold in half. Put each folded biscuit on a piece of parchment or cabbage and add four to each of two steamer baskets. Place over pot or wok of boiling water and steam until buns are cooked through, between 10 - 15 minutes, depending on the size biscuits you use. (Pillsbury Grands-type biscuits come in at least 2 sizes.)

To serve, open each bun. Add a slice of bacon, top with a bit of Sriracha (if desired) and garnish with scallions, cucumbers, and peanuts. Close buns and eat right away.

Baohaus-style Peanut Topping

1/2 cup roasted unsalted peanuts
pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon or so agave syrup or honey

Pulse peanuts in a food processor until finely chopped but not so long that it becomes peanut butter. Or do as I did - put them in a plastic zip-top baggie and pound them with a meat tenderizer.

Pour the crushed peanuts into a small bowl and add the salt. Stir in the agave syrup - this is more to stick the little bits of peanuts together (so they don't all fall out of the bun) than to add sweetness.

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Rachael vs. Guy Celebrity Cook-Off 2.5 Recap

Hey - sorry for not having a Rachael vs. Guy recap up yet. We watched the Super Bowl on Sunday (of course - GO RAVENS!) and as of last evening, the episode was not available OnDemand. We have a full Tuesday night viewing schedule, so who knows if we'll get to watching and recapping episode 5 at all.

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HarBowl Feasting

Baltimore's big day has come and gone, with spectacular results.


While watching the game, Mr Minx and I dined on mini cheeseburgers topped with either havarti or horseradish cheddar, with optional garnishes that included roasted poblano peppers, sautéed mushrooms, and purple onion relish.

How'd we get the relish so purple? With the help of McCormick's* neon food coloring. A few drops of blue and a few drops of purple in the already somewhat-purplish melange of onion, brown sugar, and balsamic vinegar made for a festive condiment. Also festive was the lavender mayo, also colored with the McCormick dyes. I tried to make purple ketchup, but only succeeded in making a bluish-black mess. I took photos of a burger with purple onions and lavender mayo; trust me when I say it wasn't that pretty. But kids would have loved it.

For dessert, we had much prettier Black Velvet cupcakes topped with purple marshmallow buttercream and sprinkled with purple sanding sugar.

Black Velvet Cupcakes

1 cup AP flour
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup melted butter
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup hot water
1/2 teaspoon (or more) McCormick Black food coloring

Preheat the oven to 350F.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Stir in the butter, eggs, and vanilla and beat until smooth. Add half the water and beat for about half a minute. Repeat with the rest of the water. Stir in the food coloring, adding more if needed, until the batter is as black as you'd like.

Divide batter evenly among 12 paper-lined cupcake cups. Bake 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove cupcakes to a rack and cool completely before frosting.

Purple Frosting

1.5 sticks of room temperature butter
7 ounces marshmallow fluff
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 drops purple McCormick NEON! Food Colors and Egg Dye
6 drops blue McCormick NEON! Food Colors and Egg Dye

Combine the butter and marshmallow in a bowl, and with a hand or stand mixer, beat on medium until completely smooth. Reduce speed to low and add confectioners sugar, vanilla, salt, and food coloring. Continue to beat until smooth and fluffy. 

Frost cupcakes when completely cool.

* 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.

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