MasterChef 3: Offal and Crab

Before I get into last night’s episode, there were a few noteworthy things I wanted to chat about from the Marines and Pie episode.  I didn’t take notes on that episode because I was watching at Christine’s house, along side Michael, who got eliminated at the end of that show.

I’ve noticed a lot of harassment on Ryan’s Facebook and Twitter…people telling him what a waste of human life he is, and comments along those lines.  Most of them started when, during the Marine challenge, he murmured to his teammate Monti “Since we don’t have any food ready for these guys, now might be the time for you to flash them a nip.”  People are screaming “sexual harassment” at him, and I myself lost at least one follower who proclaimed, “Since you seem to think sexual harassment is funny, Ben, I unfollowed you.”

Folks…you mustn’t forget that you’re watching television.  It’s not real.  I can tell you first-hand that after weeks of tense challenges, the entire cast is tossing around innuendo and snide comments right and left at each other, mostly for fun…to decompress.  I know for a fact that Ryan gets teased by the female members of the cast for his “bromance” with Tali.  Just because one clip of a silly joke gets aired doesn’t mean you should get your panties in a wad.  I guarantee you that Ryan gets as much hell behind the scenes as anyone else…probably more, in fact.  But more on Ryan later…

The thing that really strikes me in that episode was in the pressure test challenge, when Frank is informed that, if he wants to, he can go up to the balcony and not cook during the challenge.  He basically tells the judges to shove it, that he will stand with his team in the pressure test.  That’s the mark of a GREAT leader, I was SO proud of him.  Then the judges say that he can keep ONE of his team members safe, and again Frank proves his amazing integrity by saying that Felix should be saved, because she is the one who said the Italian pasta salad wouldn’t be appropriate for Marines and that they should make macaroni and cheese and BBQ chicken instead.  Holding up a team member for criticizing the leader takes guts.  So the judges offer Felix the chance to play it safe and avoid the challenge.  She then tells the judges exactly where they can shove it, and that she’s cooking with her team, too.

So the tears start welling up, and MasterChef is redeeming itself as a show.  Well, I should rephrase that.  The CONTESTANTS are redeeming my previously harsh and negative thoughts about the show.

Frank is forced to choose again, and he picks Scott, who doesn’t even blink before he tells the judges he’s staying and cooking.

Ramsay seems perplexed by this.  WHY?!?  Has all the backstabbing and selfishness of Hell’s Kitchen caused him to lose all faith in humanity?  Yes, these people are in a competition to win, but they are HUMAN.  And living through their experience as a team has bonded them.  They have a little thing called “integrity” and Ramsay shouldn’t be annoyed by it.  He should praise the contestants for their gumption and stubborn integrity.  (Secretly, I think he admires it.)

Frank is forced to choose yet again, and he calls out Stacey.  And one of the most raw moments I’ve ever seen on television unfolds.  She immediately bursts into tears and says with anger, “I’m gonna feel like such an a–hole if I go up there.”  I’m dead certain there was more time involved while she struggled with her decision, but we don’t get to see it.  Finally she apologizes to her teammates and says she’s going to take the pass and go upstairs.  And you can see the agony written all over her face as she climbs the stairs to safety.

There’s no actor in the world that can replicate what we saw on Stacey’s face.  I do NOT envy her that decision.  Ultimately I have to respect her for it.  She’s a fighter and is desperately trying to change her life after her battle with alcoholism.  It’s actually a much easier decision to stay and cook, especially after 3 of your teammates have set that precedent.  I’ll bet she didn’t sleep a wink that night, kicking herself over and over for making that decision, but realizing that it may have saved her in the long run.  That’s real, gritty stuff, folks.  Brilliant episode, and I was incredibly moved by it.  Not to mention when my buddy Michael Chen was eliminated, which caused me to scream long and loud at the TV.

But it’s a new day, and a new episode.  And we’re starting with that AWFUL mystery box, which you know I hate.  And when the contestants lift that box, I’m actually jealous for the first time in the history of MasterChef mystery boxes.  It’s full of offal.  Organ meats.  Veal brains, lamb hearts, bull testicles, pig kidneys, chicken livers, cow tongue, veal sweetbreads (thymus gland), tripe (stomach lining), even a whole sheep’s head.  The audience cringes, and some of the contestants do, too!

Says Tanya with disgust, “There’s BALLS, a brain, a massive tongue…”

Not everyone is horrified though!  Felix gives us a gem: “The only thing that Chinese people don’t eat that has legs is CHAIRS!”  (She is, of course, Chinese.)
Becky‘s right there with her, and she beams “It’s going to be offally good!”

(The contestants this year are infinitely funnier than we were last year.)

Organ meats do tend to strike fear in the hearts of the average American.  These are the organs that normally get thrown away, or sold for pennies to various ethnic communities which revere them as delicacies.  Which is why I’m so puzzled (yet somewhat delighted) by the new offal movement in fine dining restaurants around the country, where these extremely inexpensive “waste” cuts are dressed up and put on a menu at $32.  Seriously…look up some menus at San Francisco, Chicago, and NYC’s finest restaurants and I guarantee you you’ll find sweetbreads and tripe and heart and tongue and bone marrow.  So in a few years, that trendiness will trickle down to the rest of American tables, and heart and brain and kidney will cost $14 a pound instead of $2.

It has long been known that organ meats are healthier for us than muscle meats.  They contain more vitamins and trace minerals, as well as have much more pungent flavors than regular meat.  Like most kids, I grew up HATING liver and kidney and gizzards, and would have been HORRIFIED if my mother had ever cooked brains or tongue or a whole head.  But after traveling the world for a decade, where offal is MORE prevalent than muscle meat, I developed a fondness, even a craving for it.  And especially since it causes such a response of disgust in most people, I LOVE cooking it and forcing people to take just one taste…and then they discover how delicious it really is.  (Some of you may recall the pig’s head that I smoked a month ago…SO many people on my Facebook were just horrified and disgusted when I cooked and ate it…some were even offended that I’d cook and eat the head.  What are we supposed to do with it?  Throw it away?  That’s disrespectful to the animal that gave its life for us to eat it!)  So I welcome this new trend called “nose-to-tail” eating, and more and more restaurants are buying whole animal carcasses and doing their own butchering, so that nothing is wasted.

I’d have been THRILLED to get this mystery box.  Lots of you were asking what I’d cook, and I’d definitely head in the direction of tapas…multiple small bites, which is sort of what Becky ended up doing.

I don’t know what all was in the limited pantry provided so I can’t give you an exact menu, but I’d sear off a sweetbread in butter…those things are meltingly tender provided you don’t overcook them.  I’d do a chicken liver sauteed in garlic and shallot (one of my favorite things on earth!).  I’d deep fry strips of cow testicle in a cornbread batter.  Here in Texas we call those “mountain oysters” and they’re DIVINE!  Monti decides to do the same thing and as she’s slicing into the truly GIANT testis, Graham and Joe walk by and ask her about it, and she says, “While I’m cutting this testicle, all I can think of is my ex-husband. Does that make me sound so Bobbit?”  And the look on Joe’s face is priceless as the color drains away and he imagines the slicing…  I’d stick the tongue in the freezer until the last minute, then shave off thin slices and sear them a few seconds on each side on cast iron…HEAVENLY if you’ve never tried it.  And probably present a little bite of scrambled egg and scrambled brain.  Appropriate sauces when needed, but the organ meats have SUCH flavor and texture on their own, they don’t really need sides or sauces.  A variety of offal bites…that’s definitely what I’d do.  TOO MUCH good stuff under that box to only pick one.

As it’s a mystery box, the judges only select 3 dishes to taste, and their selections are:

Becky, for her trio of chicken liver pate on toast, grilled sweetbreads with balsamic and shiitake mushroom, and fried sweetbreads.  Ryan, for his sweetbreads cooked in bacon fat with shallot curry oil.  And Christine, for her deep fried panko crusted sweetbreads with bok choy and a dipping sauce.  (Can you tell that sweetbreads are trendy right now?)

The judges pick Ryan.  Of course, I didn’t taste any of the dishes, but I’d have picked Becky’s, simply because she mastered 3 totally different preparations, and the other two mastered one.  But I think it was time to pick Ryan, because he’s about to prove to us that he is this year’s pseudo villain…at least the FIRST villain.  Inevitably a different one arises later, the formula is almost always the same.  (Remember Max from last season, replaced by Christian when Max left?)  So Max was a SMART choice by the judges in terms of the show’s plot.

Ryan discovers that the theme for the challenge is “Fresh versus Convenience” and he’s given a choice between 3 ingredients which can be VERY expensive fresh, but reasonably cheap canned:  tuna (a single bluefin tuna fish sold at the Tokyo Tsukiji fish market this January for $736,000…yet we all know how cheap a can of tuna is), ham (Spanish dry-cured Iberico hams can go for $96 a pound, which approaches $3000 for a single ham…yet potted ham is only cents for a can), and crab (the judges touted that one of the giant Dungeness crabs like they had on offer can retail for $60 each…but a can of crab meat, while probably the most expensive of the canned meats, is only a few dollars).  Not only is he excused from the challenge, Ryan gets to pick which protein the contestants will use…he chooses crab…, and he gets to specify WHICH 7 contestants will use live crab, and which 7 will use canned.

He immediately begins to strategize, making his decisions with the intent to destroy ALL his fellow competitors with the exception of his so-called “partner in crime” Tali.  He gives live crab to the people he thinks will not be able to deal with it, including Christine (who he believes can’t see well enough to effectively crack open the crab and take out the meat), Tanya, Scott, David, Mike, and Helene.  (Of course he thinks highly of Tali and knows that giving him a live crab is an advantage that will allow Tali to win the challenge.)  He gives canned crab to those he feels are his real competitors who might excel with fresh crab, including Monti, Becky, Stacey, Felix, Frank, Joshua, and Anna.

More one-liner gems arise as the contestants discover their fate and must shop for ingredients.  Monti mumbles “I hope Ryan gets crabs!” and then “What kinda guy gives live crab to a blind chick?”  Meanwhile, Christine is told by her assistant that the live crab is scuttling around in her shopping cart, and Christine whispers, “Can I just beat it with my cane?”

Back at their stations, dishes begin to emerge that make me REALLY REALLY hungry.  Crab is one of my favorite meats.  I like it WAY better than lobster.

Ultimately, the 2 best dishes are awarded to Josh, with his Thai-style crab trio (using canned crab!!) and Christine‘s fresh crab ceviche.  We get our first good glimpse of Joshua’s skill and personality as he tells Christine how sexy her ceviche is, and I giggled.  He’s a funny guy, let’s see more of him.  And our pseudo-villain grimaces from the balcony…his plot to foil Christine by making her cook and shell a live crab backfired.
I have to mention here that, if I had been judging and the dishes tasted as good as they looked, I’d have actually given the win to Monti, who made a VERY inventive Scotch egg.  Normally a Scotch egg is a soft-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, rolled in breadcrumbs, and deep fried.  It’s the ULTIMATE bar food, and it can be incredibly hard to pull off because peeling a soft-boiled egg is really tricky, and the egg has to be undercooked enough that deep frying it doesn’t totally solidify the yolk.  Monti gets all wickedly creative and basically makes a crab sausage, instead of pork, and her egg looks DIVINE!  The judges agree, they just didn’t give her the win.  I probably would have.  That was easily the most creative dish of the day.  Kudos, Monti, I can’t WAIT to cook with you!!!

When Christine is before the judges, we get another amazing moment that pulls us away from the sensationalism of the show, as Christine reveals that she doesn’t know what the judges actually look like, and she’s been trying to get her fellow contestants to describe them.  Graham makes a crack, “Okay, well I’m tall and thin, and Joe is short and fat.”  But again I am struck…of course it might be an advantage to NOT be privy to Bastianich’s stares of icy cold death, but so much of my experience as a contestant on the show was seeing the judge’s facial expressions as they tasted my food, as they critiqued me.  I’m SUCH a visual person.  I can’t imagine what Christine’s show experience must be like.

And this time, instead of 3 worst-dishes, the judges announce there will be 4!  Frank is pulled to the front because they think that he has limited range and is always falling back on his Italian roots…his crab pasta had TOO much crab in it, apparently.  (Is there such a thing as TOO MUCH CRAB?!?)  Helene is brought down for her Maryland-style fresh crab soup, which ended up so thick it was more like a jambalaya, and the judges said she had managed to make fresh crab taste like canned.  Cowboy Mike is down front for his crab bisque, also from fresh crab, and the criticism was that he destroyed the integrity of the meat by pureeing it…rendering it the same as canned.  And Tali, Ryan’s partner in crime, lands down front for his paprika crab legs, which the judges have to peel and eat themselves.  And since they don’t have crab picking utensils, they don’t even get to taste it.  Joe asks him where the backfin meat is, which is the most delicate of all crab morsels, located inside the main shell.  Tali says it was processed into the sauce at the bottom of the bowl.  Tali, you struck me with your comment about how you feel like you’re speaking a different language than the judges, and that they don’t “get” you.  It’s so crazy…I said literally the EXACT same thing, word for word, dozens of times in my interviews early on in my season.  I hope you hit your stride and that the judges start understanding your culinary expression…and that you start getting the chance to really shine and express yourself in a way you’re proud of.  I know EXACTLY how that feels…

The judges ultimately decide to send Helene home.  (I can’t make a call on which dish seems the worst or best out of the 4.  None of them actually look bad to me.)  I’m sad to see Helene go.  I had just begun to discover what a unique person she is.  She has a Masters degree in Nutrition and is a health coach.  As a child, she was so obese she had to get around in a wheelchair.  (Now, as you saw, she’s a stunning, slender, gorgeous woman who also models for a living.)  You can find out more about Helene on her superb website, http://www.heleneskitchen.com.

As she is awaiting her fate, Helene makes a striking comment.  “I’m not trusting my heart.  I’m doing what I think THEY want, and it’s not okay.”  I had that same epiphany halfway through my season.  You may remember, I was always landing at the bottom of challenges in the beginning of MasterChef.  And it’s because everyone around me was producing this sophisticated, well-conceptualized restaurant cuisine.  And I’m a HOME COOK.  I cook family style farmhouse and comfort foods from all over the world.  Not anything that could ever be considered “sophisticated.”  But I figured I had to compete at THEIR game, since this is, after all, MasterChef.  I didn’t heed the example of Whitney Miller from season one, who won the competition with her simple, honest, Southern food.  Ultimately the judges and producers WANT YOU TO BE YOURSELF.  They want the food on your plate to be a true representation of who YOU are.  And when I finally got that catfish…and then got to bake my pumpkin carrot cake…I realized that I had to keep being my own weird self in the kitchen if I was going to do well.  And I was able to do that all the way up until the venison replication challenge, when I had to stop using the techniques that *I* would use on venison (which I’ve cooked a hundred times), and use a “sophisticated, well-conceptualized” Ramsay-technique of a gentle butter poach for venison (I’ve never poached red meat in butter before)…and that was my ticket home.  When I had to stop being myself in the kitchen.  So I feel you, Helene.  I think it’s sad that you didn’t get a second chance to truly show us YOUR style of cooking on the show.  But I know you will make waves and will touch many people on your journey.  I wish you all the best!

Lo and behold, 3 of the 4 “worst” dishes in this episode utilized the live, fresh crab, rather than the canned!  This can be an important lesson for all of us who don’t live in a place where meats are plentiful in their fresh form.  The canned and packaged versions of meats CAN, in fact, produce a superior final product than their fresh counterparts.  By the time crab gets to Dallas, it’s not truly fresh enough to have superior texture and flavor…unless you pay a pretty penny for it at a super-luxe gourmet market where it was flown in the day it was caught.  I almost NEVER use fresh live crab when I cook in Dallas.  The canned crab is ACTUALLY BETTER.  This is because most types of fish and shellfish begin to degrade VERY rapidly once they are caught.  Some types absolutely MUST be either flash frozen, or cooked within 48 hours of being caught, or they’re just plain gross.  So don’t shy away from seafood marked “previously frozen.”  That previously-frozen scallop may actually taste WAY better when you cook it than the “fresh, never frozen” scallop next to it that costs twice as much and was caught 7 days ago.  That’s because the frozen scallop was flash-frozen on the boat within an hour of being caught.

Now, when I’m in Seattle and it’s Dungeness crab season and Pike Place Market is brimming with live, cheap crab, you can bet that I’m going for live, at that point!  But many, if not most, home-cook recipes can substitute canned crab and still be stunning.  (Just make sure you pick through the meat…even though it’s canned crab it may still have shell and cartilage bits in it.)

Before closing, I want to discuss Ryan some more.  Now that the audience has pegged him as the villain, people are heaping insults on him in the social media world.  First of all, I’m not seeing the villain thing.  Ryan is a goofball.  I honestly don’t believe a single “mean” thing he says.  I think he’s acting.  I don’t think he’s being himself.  I think Ryan is a sensitive, slightly-awkward kid who never felt like he belonged in any crowd in school, so he ended up being the class clown, because that was the way he could get affirmation and attention.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.  When he tries to be evil and conspiring, I actually laugh out loud.  And trust me, when I see a villain being evil on Reality TV, my stomach gets sick and I wanna vomit.  Ryan doesn’t elicit that response.  He just makes me laugh.  He’s a silly kid.  I like him.

Yes, he made some very bold moves, especially when assigning a live crab to a blind contestant.  However, Christine knew that all MasterChef contestants end up working with live shellfish…she was going to have to work with it at some point.  (And, as we saw, she excelled with the live crab…that ceviche was something that COULD NOT have been done with canned crab.)  And there was actually a VERY real moment when Ryan was asked to taste Christine’s ceviche, and he looked at her with soft, genuine eyes and said, “It’s really yummy, Christine, congratulations.”  And that was the most heart-felt thing we’ve seen from Ryan all season.  And I BELIEVED that.

So let’s back off Ryan a little.  (Does being mean to someone you think is mean actually solve anything?!?)  I’ve screamed until I’m deaf for the past year that you can’t ever pass judgement on someone just by watching them on a reality TV show.  Christian, last year’s super-villain, is one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve met anywhere in the world.  That’s not up for debate, it’s the truth.  So please realize before you decide to hate someone that you’re seeing a character that’s being carefully cultivated by the show so that it’s entertaining for us.  And IT IS ENTERTAINING!!!  I thoroughly enjoyed this episode.  If Ryan is the worst villain we have to deal with this year, I’ll breeze right through the season loving every minute of this class-clown’s attempt at playing the bad guy.  And the contestants will be VERY lucky if he’s the most intimidating cook they have to face.  (As much as I adore Christian, it was VERY intimidating cooking against him.)

GREAT episode, I laughed my way through, I saw great food being cooked, I didn’t feel like the judges were interfering with the contestants, as they so often do in group challenges…  For me, this was a model MasterChef episode.  GOOD JOB everyone!

3 Responses to MasterChef 3: Offal and Crab

  1. What’s up, after reading this amazing article i am too cheerful to share my experience here with
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  3. Hi Ben!

    I’ve read all of your Masterchef posts and watch your season twice (who am I kidding? Four times… Actually five) and season three about five times. I just loved you in Masterchef S02 and I still cry everytime I see the episode when you make your special Pumpkin carrot cake and the episode you leave the Masterchef kitchen. I just wanted to say that you and Adrien made the whole show! I was rooting for you (and my whole family too) and I just love your blog and your writing, it’s amazing. Take care, Ben Starr!

    // A huge fan of yours from Sweden, Tanzila Q.

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