MasterChef 4 recap: (S4E16)

(WARNING: This blog contains the crazed ravings of a MasterChef season 2 survivor who has no inside knowledge of how this season was produced.  Everything in this blog should be considered opinion and nothing else.)

Before I begin, I need to address a MasterChef issue that’s been flying around the TV gossip websites today.  These sites are alleging that Josh Marks, who was runner up on Season 3 of MasterChef, was arrested Monday near the University of Chicago under very bizarre circumstances.  I won’t repeat any of the allegations the sites are spreading, nor will I link to any of them.  But I can tell you that Josh had an incredibly difficult time dealing with his experience on MasterChef, as many contestants from former seasons have.  (Some top 100 contestants from this season are still wrestling with suicidal urges.)  Josh’s social media is getting blitzed today…mostly with well-wishes, thank goodness, but some folks have decided to taunt him and make fun of him.  So I ask all of you to focus good thoughts, well wishes, and prayers in his direction.  The allegations include assault on a police officer, which could result in many years in prison, and that’s a very dark possibility, indeed.  I hope MasterChef and Ramsay are reaching out to him to offer support and help, rather than their typical response, which is to remain aloof and deny, deny, deny.

So the group challenge this episode has made me more jealous than ANYTHING I’ve ever seen on MasterChef.  While Krissi doesn’t walk or hike for fun…she considers it torture…I am an outdoorsman in the extreme.  Cave exploring is my hobby.  The idea of strapping a 40 pound pack to my back for a 50 mile trip gets me all worked up.  I recently had to hang my canoe up under my garage because my life has become so busy I’m not using it nearly as often as I used to.  So the idea of a MasterChef campout where I get to cook an epic meal in the wilderness is just…well…it’s not fair that we didn’t do that on my season!

Backpacking into the South Fork of the Hoh River valley for an epic outdoor feast on my 30th birthday

I love cooking in the wilderness.  For my 30th birthday, I went to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state with a bunch of friends.  We strapped HEAVY packs to our backs and hiked up the south fork of the glacier-fed Hoh River about 6 miles.  But instead of our packs being filled with climbing gear, they were filled with bottles of wine, cast iron skillets, fine aged cheeses, and prime steaks.

As we neared the spot where we planned to camp…a gravel bar in the middle of the icy river…we spotted a meadow bursting with fresh berries: blueberries, blackberries, and yellow raspberries.  We dropped our packs and foraged for about an hour, picking enough to make a truly epic wild berry cobbler in the big cast iron skillet I had in my pack.  It was a fitting way to celebrate my 30th.

Picking wild golden raspberries in the temperate rainforest valley of the South Fork of the Hoh River in Olympic National Park

The contestants will have to camp overnight, conceptualize their menu, and have an extremely limited amount of equipment to work with: a camping knife, a flint for starting a fire, a cast iron skillet, and a wooden spoon.  One team will get 3 rabbits to work with as their protein, and the other will have 6 pigeons.

Bri and Natasha are the team captains this go-around. Bri’s first pick is James, because she thinks he’s comfortable in the wilderness.  (As all good Texas boys should be!)  She completes her team with Eddie and Luca.

Natasha’s first pick is Jordan, followed by Jessie and Krissi.  Then the judges pull a surprise on the contestants by switching the teams, possibly spurred on by the fact that Krissi announced flatly that she hates Bri and doesn’t want her team captained by a vegetarian.  (If you follow either of the two of them on Facebook, you know that they’re dear friends and consider each other like sisters…this is just more manufactured drama being spurred on by the producers.)

We also find out that Natasha grew up in South Africa on lots of land.  HELLO?!?!  Why haven’t we heard more stories about that, producers?  That’s fascinating!  (Natasha occasionally drops by my blog, I’d LOVE for you to share some stories from your childhood, Natasha!)

Bri had the best mushroom dish, so she gets to pick the protein, and she chooses the rabbit.  I’d have chosen that, too.  While pigeon (which tends to be called “squab” in fine restaurants because of the negative image that Americans have of pigeons) is actually a DELICIOUS bird…a direct relative of the dove, which is highly prized by game hunters…rabbit meat is near and dear to my heart.  I’ve cooked it many dozens of times, even at FRANK, but my favorite memory of a rabbit meal was cooking a rabbit and fennel stew over a wood-fired stove in a 300 year old stone cottage in La Feuillee, a tiny village in the Brittany region of western France.  La Feuillee, which translates into “the green tree canopy” is one of those picture perfect medieval villages, so far off the tourist track that there’s not even a hotel there, and so small there’s not even a grocery store…just a small boulangerie selling baguettes, some eggs with poop and feathers still caked onto them, some carrots and turnips with mud clumped at their tips, and glass jars of milk with the cream floating on top.  (France still somehow manages to maintain a localized agricultural system…the majority of food sold in grocery stores there, however large, is from a farm nearby.  It’s incredible.)  Each morning around 9am, a man would arrive in a small truck and blow a whistle.  Everyone in the village would come out to see what kind of meat he had available that day.  And one morning, he had the loveliest rabbits.  That night we dined on a slow-simmered stew of rabbit and fennel, with crusty baguettes from the boulangerie, stinky aged cheese, and the local pear cider for which Brittany is famous.  A simple, humble meal with few ingredients, but one I will never forget.

In addition to the proteins, the teams also have potatoes, quail eggs, wild mushrooms, carrots, some spices, and some oil.  But, as you may have gathered from the paragraph above, a lot of ingredients aren’t needed to produce a perfect meal.  Though the judges and contestants are really tossing around the word “Michelin” so there is apparently a push for sophisticated presentation…completely unnecessary in the wild.  Both the rabbit and the pigeon would be most delicious stewed very slowly over coals, but a stew isn’t an elegant thing to present.

Bri has a stroke of genius when she says they could make fresh pasta with the flour and quail eggs in their box.  Krissi, the master pasta maker, is gung ho about making pasta out in the wild.

Natasha’s team somehow comes up with a spit roaster and is testing out one of their pigeons on it.  The spit roaster was not narrated as part of the “barest of equipment” so I’m curious as to what other exciting and helpful things the producers have given them, but not told us about.  For the record, it’s totally easy to build your own spit roaster out of sticks.  We also don’t see the contestants starting their fires with the “flint” Gordon talked about, but I see a fuel container in the background of one shot…so don’t for an instant think that this is ACTUALLY a roughing-it challenge.  The fires were probably started and maintained by the production staff.  (Though I *CAN* start a fire with a flint or a piece of string…everyone should be able to do that.)  I just hope that they were provided with EXTRA bottles of wine for themselves for the night, because a Dixie cup of old-vine Zinfandel around a crackling fire beneath the stars is, by far, the finest way to enjoy wine.

(However, in an interview with Monti Carlo after her elimination, Bri reveals that the contestants were not fed any dinner or breakfast during the camping challenge, and they had to make do with ingredients they weren’t cooking with.  Bri apparently made something like an oatmeal for herself, and when Gordon came over to check on them, he tasted the oatmeal and loved it so much that he ate half of it, leaving her hungry!)

After a night spent in tents, the contestants are pulling their dishes together.  They’re being very resourceful…rolling out pasta with wine bottles and boiling pasta in tin coffee cans.  But at the very last minute, Bri drops one of their plates.  So they have to scramble to re-plate, pulling some portions from their other 2 plates.  And the food is presented to the judges sitting at a white tablecloth beneath ancient oaks.  A lovely setting for a wild meal.

Bri presents her Blue Team’s dish…rabbit braised in white wine with carrots and wild mushrooms on quail egg pasta, topped with wild mustard flowers.  Joe is pretty impressed with the pasta.  The only critique is from Gordon, who says the pasta needs a bit more seasoning.

Natasha presents her Red Team’s dish…roasted pigeon, farro (wheat berries) with wild mushrooms and a quail egg yolk on top, and honey glazed carrots.  Their dish certainly takes the lead in terms of presentation.  It’s downright stunning.  Eddie’s cook on the pigeon is impressive…he cooked it on the spit high above the fire first to get it medium-rare, then finished it in the hot cast iron skillet so the skin was browned and crisp.  It’s pretty genius.  The only thing I’d have done differently would have been to brine the pigeon for an hour first, provided there was water and salt.  Both pigeon AND rabbit benefit greatly from brining due to their low fat content.

In a unique move, the judges then give the team’s dishes to the opposite team to taste.  On my season, we were STRICTLY forbidden from tasting each others’ dishes, presumably because they didn’t want us to know who was actually making great food.  (This might lead to us questioning eliminations.  If we had tasted a dish, but then the judges declared it “too salty” or “overcooked,” we’d know the critique was a lie.)

Both dishes are excellent, and the judges seem divided over the results, with Gordon leaning toward the Blue’s rabbit, and Joe leaning toward the Red’s pigeon, but they will announce the results by colored smoke signal.  (really?)  And the color of the smoke that fills the air is…Red.  Personally, I think the Blue team showed a bit more range of technique, but there’s no denying that the Red team’s plate looked like a restaurant dish after being cooked and plated in the wilderness, which is an impressive feat.

Blue Team is headed to the pressure test, and it will be Jessie’s very first of the season.  (Lucky girl!)  The winning Red Team gets to decide which member of the Blue Team to save from elimination, and they seem divide over whether to save Krissi or Bri, but they all agree that Jordan and Jessie must stay and compete because they are the strongest and pose the greatest threat.

They choose Krissi to stay.  Leaving Bri, Jordan, and Jessie to battle it out over chocolate eclairs.

The single question I get more often than any other in relation to MasterChef is, “How does everyone seem to know how to cook whatever the judges throw at them, especially without a recipe?”  Well, without revealing ALL the show’s secrets, I might refer you to any other MasterChef series from another country.  If you watch one of those seasons, you’ll see the contestants being taught “master classes” and learning the skills they will later put to use in challenges.  The producers of those series know that the audience wants this knowledge, too, so the classes are part of the actual episodes.  MasterChef USA has the same overall format as the other series, but the producers here think that you would rather be amazed at seeing someone who has never before made an eclair produce a serviceable eclair…than be educated by viewing portions of the class on choux paste and pastry cream that the contestants attended to learn how to make the components that can be assembled into an eclair.  Those who regularly watch MasterChef from other countries are NEVER surprised to see a contestant on MasterChef USA claim, “I’ve never made meringue pie before” and then suddenly turn out a perfect meringue pie…because they KNOW that the MasterChef process involves an incredible amount of education…almost a mini culinary school boot camp.

So!  Eclairs.  Eclairs are a French pastry made from choux paste.  (That’s pronounced “shoo.”)  It’s a cooked egg dough that puffs dramatically in the oven, leaving a hollow center, and it’s used to make profiteroles (cream puffs) and eclairs, as well as Spanish and Mexican churros, and the luscious savory cheese puffs called gougeres.  Choux paste can be challenging to make unless you use a recipe that lists ingredients by weight, rather than by volume, because the exact ratio of egg to flour is critical to achieve the proper puff.  I like to use Alton Brown’s recipe on the rare occasion that I make choux paste.

Eclairs consist of choux paste piped into a long ribbon, then baked until it puffs and hollows out in the center.  Then pastry cream is piped into the center…pastry cream being sugar, egg yolks, and milk, usually scented with vanilla, and thickened with cornstarch or flour.  (ie…vanilla pudding)  Then they are glazed on top with chocolate.

The contestants will have 1 hour to make 6 perfect eclairs.  A tall order.  But everyone finishes.  Bri is judged first, and her eclairs are a little flat.  (They needed to stay longer in the oven to fully cook.)  They are also not filled all the way to the end.  They aren’t consistent sizes, either.

Jordan is next, and his eclairs are a little soft, but are filled consistently.  Graham feels the whole eclair is too sweet, and Gordon agrees.

Jessie is judged last.  Her pastry is cooked through, but not filled all the way through, and her chocolate glaze isn’t sweetened.

We’re confident that Jordan is safe, so it comes down to Bri and Jessie.  Gordon pulls another one of his favorite word tricks, and we think Jessie is getting the axe, but instead it falls to Bri.  It’s obvious from how Gordon and Graham speak of Bri that they really like her.  And I do, too.  Bri has been one of my favorites from the beginning.  She’s a fellow theatre nerd.  Since the show, Bri has been working as a pastry chef in Los Angeles, but reports that she has been offered two VERY incredible job opportunities in New York, one at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and one at one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants.  (Thomas Keller is one of the most famous and influential chefs in the world.)  This is MASSIVE news, and clearly indicates the level of skill Bri has.  I don’t believe ANY contestant from any previous MasterChef season has been offered jobs of this caliber so quickly after the show.  So I doubt Bri will be heading back into the world of theatre any time soon!

Follow this charming lass on Facebook and Twitter and be sure to wish her good luck as she heads to New York to join the big-time chef world!  I do hope I get a chance to cook with you in the future, sweetheart!  You are more than adorable.

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