MasterChef 4 recap: Family Food and Sushi (S4E17)

(PLEASE NOTE: The content that follows is entirely from the depraved mind of a MasterChef season 2 survivor.  It should be treated, not as fact, but as opinion, only…and probably not a very sound opinion, at that!)

We’re down to 7 for MasterChef season 4.  At this point in my season, Christine Corley and Derrick Prince had just been eliminated on the grilled cheese and tomato soup challenge, dropping the number from 8 to 6 in one fell swoop.

Another giant mystery box is sitting up behind the judges, but before it’s raised, Gordon announces that the winner will be publishing their own cookbook.  This hadn’t yet been mentioned as a prize thus far in the season…only the cash prize and the “coveted” MasterChef trophy.  To me, this indicates that the producers have now decided who is going to win the show.  Because they’re not going to publish a cookbook with a winner who they don’t believe can sell a bunch of cookbooks.  I remember chatting with the producers after my season aired (in which there was NO cookbook deal for the winner) and they told me what a nightmare it had been to publish the season 1 winner’s cookbook…Whitney Miller’s Modern Hospitality: Simple Recipes with Southern Charm, and that they had no plans of publishing another cookbook unless the winner was incredibly marketable.  We all know that Christine Ha, the winner of Season 3, would publish an incredibly marketable cookbook, so the cookbook returned for her season after skipping my season.  (And it’s a good cookbook, I love it.  Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food.)  Yet there was no announcement of a cookbook in the beginning of this season (at least not that my IPA-soaked brain remembers), so I believe at this point they’ve come to a decision on the probable winner and they believe that person will be able to sell a cookbook.  It will be interesting to watch the editing at this point forward.

The box is slowly lifted, and we first see lots and lots of feet.  And the box is filled with family members.  And the tears are flowing.  (All over my keyboard, in fact.)  Husbands, wives, children, and parents flock to the contestants’ stations and I can’t tell you what a joy it is to get this gift.  After merely 1 week of being without my loved ones during the signature dish challenge, I bawled my eyes out when my partner, my neighbor Sharon, and my old college roomie and partner in crime Monty showed up to cheer me on.  The subsequent 7 weeks without any loved ones around was complete and utter hell.

Yet Krissi is in the very back, having witnessed loved ones rushing to the sides of her fellow competitors…but the box is empty and there’s no one for her.  Some folks watching the show were probably thinking cruel thoughts at that moment.  But Ramsay carries an iPad back to her station where her son has recorded a special message for her.  (He couldn’t make the trip out due to standardized testing, and thank GOD the studio didn’t press him to skip that test.  Though I have NO love for standardized testing!)  Remember, Krissi’s son idolizes Gordon Ramsay and wants to be a chef when he grows up.  He sits on the couch with a MASSIVE dog on his lap and assures his mom that the house is still intact, nothing caught fire, and nobody died…he misses her food and he says he’ll see her in the finale.  And Krissi is bawling and laughing with that bittersweet mix of emotion that we experience so rarely in adult life.  Even Joe is tearing up.  I feel like he really admires Krissi and identifies with her…he probably sees something of himself in her son, and something of his mother in Krissi.

The theme of the mystery box is amazing…cook a dish inspired by your loved ones…inspired by home.  They can bring up to 15 items back from the MasterChef kitchen and have 1 hour to cook a dish that reminds them of home.

What I would cook depends entirely on who was under that box for me.  If it was my partner, there’s no question what it would be.  Christian’s Big Chocolate-O.  Chocolate ladyfingers, toasted hazelnuts coated in doce de leite (cream caramel…a treat from his childhood in Brazil), espresso chocolate mousse, and shaved dark chocolate.  Chocolate is the way to his heart, and I invented this dessert for him on his birthday many years ago.  (We celebrate 11 years a week from today.)

My family at my house for Thanksgiving, me on the ground with the nieces and nephews, like always

If my parents were under that box, I’d make beans and cornbread…the staple that my parents raised me on.  We were poor, there’s no two ways about it.  And beans and cornbread is about the cheapest wholesome meal you can serve your family.  We had it several times a week.  But to this day, it’s a meal that feeds my soul when I make it, because it reminds me of my childhood and how hard my parents worked to provide their 4 kids with everything they needed to become good humans.  Simple, to be sure.  Would the judges despise something so simple?  Probably.  But it would be made with more love in my heart than probably anything else I’ve ever made, and I wouldn’t dare make anything else to pay tribute to the best parents anyone could ever possibly have.

But what if it was my best buds?  J-P and Jacques….brothers who I’ve known since I was a kid?  Who’ve traveled the world and the oceans with me.  (J-P and I once visited all 7 continents together in the span of less than a year.)  That’s a no-brainer, too.  Benny Breakfast.  I’m not sure why they love it so much.  It’s simple.  But it’s what they ask for on every hangout, regardless of what time it is.  Buttermilk pancakes.  Eggs scrambled with veggies from the garden.  Crispy home fries.  And little espresso macchiatos dusted with cinnamon, or “mini Bennies” as they call them.  Again…very simple.  But it’s the food that connects us as dear friends.

Which of us presents sophisticated restaurant cuisine to our loved ones each night?  Food with soul and heart comes from the family dinner table and the humble kitchen, not the bustling, frantic room in the back of a restaurant.  Family meals come from recipes handed down through the generations, or recipes conceived yourself based on a loved one’s favorite ingredients.  I have NEVER been a fan of “sophisticated” cuisine, because it is soulless.  I’m in love with the food served at family tables and from street carts and small family cafes around the world, because this is the food that we identify ourselves and our cultures by.  It is the food we prepare and eat to celebrate life with the people we love.  A fine dining restaurant can put a flawless plate of  food in front of you that looks too pretty to eat, and is perfectly seasoned and expertly prepared…but is it the meal you’ll remember on your death bed?  Never.  Because food prepared by a chef is, at most, an art form.  And you can admire it, and discuss it, and it can blow your mind.  But it will never feed your soul.  Food prepared with love for someone whom the cook truly cares for transcends mere sustenance or art.  It is an act of love, as powerful as sacrifice, as powerful as empathy, even as powerful as the act that creates life itself.  That’s why no plate prepared by Thomas Keller or Gordon Ramsay or Grant Achatz or Jose Andres will EVER mean more to you than something your mother or grandmother or spouse or child will cook for you.  If we saw more of this on MasterChef, it would truly be a show worth watching.

Time is called and judging begins.  This is really a challenge where EVERY dish should be tasted, and the story behind it told, and I’m upset with the producers for not making that logical exception.

Natasha is the first of the 3 selected for tasting.  She has prepared a dish heavily influenced by southeast Asian cuisine…a vegetarian dish of coconut rice, roasted corn with shrimp paste, garlic and ginger, and green curry sauce.  Joe is impressed with the flavor, and the other judges love it.

Jessie is next, with a gorgeous plate of seared duck breast with blackberry red wine sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta, and pecans.  The judges are very impressed.

Luca’s is the final dish to be judged, and he has prepared pan-seared halibut wrapped in caul fat, with white asparagus risotto.  Caul fat is a thin layer of fatty membrane that encases the internal organs of animals.  (Most of the caul fat used in kitchens is from pigs.)  It is used to wrap otherwise lean means to keep them moist and flavorful while cooking, and Luca’s use of it with fish is pretty darn brilliant, as it will hold the halibut fillet together and keep it plump and firm.  White asparagus is just normal asparagus that is grow in the absence of light, so that its natural pigments don’t develop.  In that absence of light, though, the skin on the spears tends to grow very thick and woody, so unlike green asparagus (which should NOT be peeled, despite what the MasterChef judges may tell you), white asparagus should have the woody part of the lower spear peeled, or just use the tops in your dish, and save the bottoms for veggie stock or soup.  The judges are very impressed.

The winner is Luca, and his beautiful wife couldn’t look any prouder.  Luca heads back to the pantry and discovers that, in the next challenge, everyone will be cooking Japanese food: shrimp and vegetable tempura, a California sushi roll with Alaskan king crab, a variety of sashimi including shrimp, uni (sea urchin roe), ahi, salmon roe, and mackerel.

Sushi is something I haven’t fully explored, simply because living in Dallas, the price I have to pay for sushi-grade fish is prohibitive.  I typically only indulge in sushi when I’m in a seaside town, it’s very rare that I eat it in Dallas.  This does not mean I don’t like it…it’s easily one of my favorite foods.  But while the idea of going out for “cheap tacos” makes my stomach growl, the concept of “cheap sushi” makes me a little green.  Sushi is something you spend money on.  And it’s REALLY easy to spend a bundle on it.  For the record, the best sushi I’ve had was NOT in Japan, but in Seattle…at Nijo.  Though if you’d like a kick in the pants and you have Netflix streaming, check out the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about an ancient sushi master in Japan whose sons are struggling to follow in their father’s foosteps.

Luca’s advantage is that he gets to split the 6 other contestants into teams of 2 who will work together to replicate the sushi plates in tag-team fashion, with one contestant working at a time.  (They did this EXACT same challenge in season 3, didn’t they?)  Luca pairs up James and Jordan, Natasha and Krissi, and Eddie and Jessie.

Christian Collins climbs down into a blowhole in Hawaii to fetch me a sea urchin

Sushi is primarily about knife skills, as the way you cut the fish will determine its flavor and, more importantly, texture and mouth feel.  Though with other sushi items that aren’t filleted, like roe (fish eggs), other things must be taken into account.  Uni, or sea urchin roe, comes in dainty orange strips called “corals.”  They are incredibly delicate, and Ramsay chastises Jordan for pulling them out of the urchin’s shell with his fingers, rather than the handle of a spoon, and then he sticks them under running water, effectively rinsing away the flavor.  Uni is an acquired taste…it’s very astringent and a bit reminiscent of lysol…but in a good sorta way?  It’s very hard to describe.  I have many fond memories of eating it fresh in Hawaii, caught by the sea-loving Christian Collins who braved blow holes and sharp spines to give me my first taste of just-caught uni.

Another trick for sushi is the preparation of the rice…a short grain rice that must be sticky enough to hold together, but seasoned perfectly with salt and sweetened rice vinegar.

It’s hard to watch this challenge because it’s so chaotic, with so much screaming, so who knows what really happened, but the results are that Natasha and Krissi put up a great plate at the very last minute; James and Jordan are missing components, have under-seasoned tempura, have a beautiful California roll but which is also underseasoned, and haven’t nailed the ebi (shrimp) sushi; and Eddie and Jessie’s uni is not properly cleaned, the fish isn’t cut properly, and the rice has too much vinegar.

Natasha and Krissi are the obvious winners, and will be team captains next week.  James and Jordan squeak by on the merits of their fish butchery, leaving Jessie and Jordan on the chopping block.  And the judges decide that the weakest link on the team was Eddie, so he gets the axe.

Eddie…the meat man…former NFL player turned accomplished chef.  Originally from Texas, so even though he no longer lives here, I still claim him for the Lone Star State.  Look at his Wikipedia page to see his impressive list of athletic achievements, which aren’t just limited to football.  (He still holds the national college freshman record for track and field high hurdles.)  Eddie’s food dream is to open a gastropub, and I can’t wait to eat there.  Follow Eddie on Facebook and Twitter, and wish him well in his food future!

Feel free to comment below, especially if you have a particularly precious food memory with loves ones.  What would YOU have cooked for the mystery box?

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