MasterChef 4 recap: Surfers and Chicken Breasts (S4E14)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by Fox or MasterChef, and you probably shouldn’t read it.  The information in this blog is limited to opinion, only, from a former MasterChef survivor.)

10 contestants left, and the judges are arriving at the beach on jetskis…well, Graham swims up in a skin-colored wetsuit, complete with abs.  A hundred and one surfers charge onto the beach to shred some, and the judges are giving the contestants an hour to make enough fish tacos to feed them all.  They have to choose just one fish: ahi tuna, cod, catfish, or mahi mahi.  (That’s a no brainer…AHI!!!!!)

Jessie was the only contestant selected to be a team captain, so she gets to pick 4 contestants in a row, leaving 5 remaining as a team, and Jessie will get to select their team captain for them.  A very interesting move.

Jessie selects James first, then Eddie, Bethy, and Natasha.  Leaving Krissi, Savannah, Luca, Bri, and Jordan as the other team, and she selects Savannah to head the team.

Savannah selects the cod and decides to first experiment on both battered and fried cod, and blackened cod.  Krissi takes ownership of the battering and frying, and Jordan takes seasoning duties for the blackened fish, and Luca is assigned to fish prep.  With only 5 team members, I’d be hesitant to go both ways and lose time deciding on which route to take.  The 2-taco serving must consist of identical tacos, so they can’t serve one of each.

Jessie wants to use mahi mahi for her tacos.  James is assigned to the sauce: a roasted pineapple and habanero sauce.  (DAMN that sounds good.)

Fish tacos is a dish near and dear to my heart.  I got my apron on Season 2 with fish tacos.  (Mine were a crispy panko-crusted tilapia, marinated in homebrewed pumpkin IPA and lime juice, with a purple cabbage and jicama slaw dressed in a pumpkin IPA vinaigrette, chipotle crema de Mexicana, and crispy fried pumpkin strings on homemade tortillas.)  But given those fish selections, I’d have jumped all over that ahi tuna.  No offense to cod (boring), mahi mahi (delicious, but is best cooked all the way through), or catfish (no way would I use catfish in fish tacos if we’re on the ocean).  But ahi is the king of all fish and offers several distinct advantages serving 202 tacos in an hour, not the least of which is that it should be served COMPLETELY raw, or barely seared.  You could go the Hawaiian route by making a quick poke (pronounced “poe-KAY”)…cube up the ahi and marinate it in soy, lime, and sesame oil, with chopped onion, jalapeno, garlic, some seaweed or sea asparagus, and avocado…then you can concentrate on an explosive sauce by reducing soy and molasses, garlic and ginger, and lime.  That in a tortilla is perfection…simple, raw, healthy, bursting with flavor, and laughably easy to turn out.  AND has its roots in Hawaii…the global mecca for all surfers the world over.  The more Asian route would be to crust it in sesame seeds and sear it off very quickly in sesame oil, so that’s it’s stone cold raw throughout 80% of it, with a delicious crust around the outside.  Slice it and heap it up with quick-pickled cabbage and radish and carrot, with a sauce of ginger, garlic, rice vinegar, chili flake, and maybe some red curry paste.  That would take a bit longer due to the partial cooking, but it’s still fast.  No way would I touch the other fish for this challenge.

On Savannah’s team, as she preps the cabbage slaw for the tacos, she seasons it only with lemon juice, and Jordan and Luca are nervous about that.  On Jessie’s team, James’s pineapple habanero sauce is supposed to be a “5 out of 10” on the heat scale, but Graham and Joe have their palates blown out by the heat, so he’s having to fix it.  (Habaneros are incredibly hot, yet have the most delicious flavor of all the chiles, and they can be VERY tricky to work with.)

On Savannah’s side, Jordan’s cilantro lime sauce is coming along nicely.  The team doesn’t like the flavoring of Krissi’s fried cod, so they decide to do it grilled and Krissi is assigned to charring the tortillas.  (A waste of your talents, Krissi, but it’s a critical task and somebody’s gotta do it.)  Tortillas GOTTA get charred for fish tacos!

Service begins and Jessie’s team isn’t keeping up with the demand as well as Savannah’s is, primarily because their fish isn’t getting cooked through quickly enough.  (Not a problem with ahi!)  “So much for the team of all-stars,” says Gordon, which means they’re probably going to win, magically, somehow.

As always, the roles reverse, and suddenly Savannah’s team is out of fish, and Jessie’s is doing fine.

Voting begins via the silly voting device of surfers leaping into colored surfboards, and the first 22 votes are ALL for Savannah’s team…not a single vote for Jessie’s.  Which means, of course, there’s been some very heavy manipulation by the producers…as is made very obvious when suddenly Jessie’s team catches up from 0 votes to 22 without a single vote in the opposite direction.  At a tie of 22 to 22, Jessie’s team surges ahead to 51 votes, with Savannah’s team only getting an additional 3.  Now what are the odds of that happening naturally?  And it’s plain from the look on Krissi’s face that she’s fed up with all the engineering.

Back in the MasterChef kitchen, Jessie’s team learns that they have an additional surprise for winning.  As they don baseball jerseys from their home city’s teams, Graham announces that their team will get to watch the big MLB All Stars game with him “next Tuesday” in New York.  Of course, this episode was filmed back in March and a lot can happen between now and then.  I’ll be curious to see if they all show up next Tuesday.

Savannah is now at the gallows, with Gordon pressing her to call out the weakest member of her team.  I recall Esther Kang being placed in the same position on Season 2, and as an attorney, Esther knows how to work around a question.  They grilled her and grilled her, insisting on an answer, and when it became apparent that she wasn’t going to give them one, they start asking questions like, “Who was in charge of grilling the sausage?”  “Ben and Adrien,” she’d reply.  “Who was in charge of casing the sausage?”  “Max and Christine,” she’d reply.  And then they suddenly had their magic sound byte…so in the final edit, Gordon asked Esther, “Who were the weakest links on your team?” and Esther immediately replies without hesitation, “Max and Christine.”  And the country immediately hates her for throwing her team members under the bus, which never actually happened.

Who knows what REALLY transpired on Savannah’s team, but her team members are ganging up Krissi, pointing her out for being the weak link because all she did was “warm tortillas.”  (Which is all she was asked to do.)  The team is sent back to the wine cellar to hash out who will be saved from the elimination challenge, and I’m surprised when they actually edit in Savannah calling out her team members for giving into the engineered drama.

“In the moment, we all agreed on everything.  But the minute we get in front of [the judges], everybody’s tune changes.”  Then Bri and Krissy have an all-out brawl, and the team decides unanimously that Jordan will be saved.  Leaving Bri, Krissi, Savannah, and Luca to battle it out on Challenge Chicken Breast.

I have to stop here for a second and ask all of you to promise me that you’ll NEVER buy chicken breast again.  It’s absolutely the most ridiculous of all meats.  Tasteless, tough, and dry with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  And if you had half a clue about what has been done to those poor chickens to get their breasts to that gargantuan size in 2-4 months…trait selection favoring large breasts to the point that meat birds can’t even stand up because their breasts are so large…antibiotic loading which causes unnatural fast growth…you wouldn’t want to eat it anyway.  My chickens are 5 months old and they weigh half what a 2 month old commercial meat chicken weighs.

If you want lean meat, eat pork.  (Yes…most modern pork cuts have LESS saturated fat than chicken, which is a travesty of epic proportions, but that’s what the American public wanted from pork, so that’s the way it’s raised now.)  I haven’t bought chicken breast in probably 5 years, unless it was attached to a whole chicken.  I can’t think of a more boring protein.  I’d rather eat tofu.

At least the judges have left the contestants the skin…the only edible portion of a chicken breast.  And they have to prepare it 3 ways: sauteed, Southern fried, and stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto.  And they have only 40 minutes to do all 3 preparations.  That’s not easy.  At all.

Because the ONLY way to make chicken breast edible is to brine the crap out of it, which takes an hour at the very least, before it even sees heat.  Poor Bri has never cooked chicken before at all.  (Can you imagine?)

The frying is really the only prep method that interests me, and I make a mean fried chicken.  (Of course it’s brined OVERNIGHT in rosemary buttermilk.)  But the secret to the perfect fried chicken crust ISN’T, as Graham said, to do two layers of flour.  In fact, you season your flour (I use cayenne, thyme, rosemary, garlic powder, onion powder, and black pepper in addition to salt), then you add a pinch of baking powder, and then you sprinkle in buttermilk and mash everything together until you have a bunch of coarse, damp crumbs.  Then you remove the chicken from the buttermilk it was brined in, press it firmly into the crumbs, packing them all around, and drop it into the oil.  These thicker, denser crumbs make a hard, crunchy crust, but the baking powder reacting with the acidic buttermilk and the heat of the oil causes those crumbs to expand as they set, resulting in a mouth-watering crust that shatters in your mouth delicately as you eat it.  THAT’S the secret to perfect fried chicken.  (Sorry, Graham.  You KNOW I love you!)

Begrudgingly, I will tell you how to prepare a boneless, skinless breast in the only healthy way that makes it barely tolerable, in 20 minutes.  Move your oven rack to the top position and preheat your broiler on high.  Place the breast on a foil-lined baking sheet.  If it’s VERY plump on one side and very skinny on the other, pound it a bit to make it more even.  Then season it with kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder.  Let it sit until the broiler is screaming hot.  Then spray the top of the chicken breast lightly with olive oil.  (If you don’t have olive oil spray, brush the breast with olive oil before seasoning, but I prefer to spray just before broiling, as the oil is a barrier preventing the seasonings from journeying into the meat with the salt.)  Broil the breast for 6 minutes on the first side.  Remove, flip the breast, and broil it an additional 6 minutes on the other side.  Remove from the oven, tent loosely with foil, and let it rest 5 minutes.  Then slice it.  This preserves the moisture, requires the least amount of cooking fat, still delivers a browned, flavorful crust, and will give you a boneless, skinless breast that’s not really edible, but will do in a pinch.  (As you get to know your broiler, you may need to adjust the time per side.  Gas broilers don’t produce as much radiant heat as electric broilers, and will result in less browning.)

Savannah has chosen to go with a batter for her fried chicken, which is traditional in some parts of the world, but not in Southern frying.  And Bri is so flustered that, with time ticking down, she’s still staring at her chicken breast in the bowl of flour, and hasn’t put it in the fryer yet.  (Chicken needs to fry for awhile at lower temperature, like 300F or 325F, so that it cooks all the way through before the crust browns excessively.  It can even be cooked through at lower temp, removed, and just before serving, do a last fry at 365F for a minute or two to brown and crisp the crust.  If you rush a chicken frying, you’ll end up with raw chicken on the inside, and a dark brown crust.  I’ve done that PLENTY of times.  If you’re pushed for time, battle this by cutting the breast into tenders, or pounding or filleting it to an even, thin layer.)

Time is called and the dishes are brought down.  We get some snarky remarks from Krissi about Bri, no doubt very much prodded out by the story producers.  (They all but TELL you what they want you to say in the interviews…and sometimes they do, in fact, tell you exactly what they want you to say.  You always have the option not to say it, though.)  I know a lot of you hate Krissi right now.  That’s exactly what the producers want you to do.  That’s why they cast Krissi.  That’s why they held her hand all the way into this spot where the country is heaping hate on her social media.  They want this.  Because the more you hate Krissi, the longer you’ll tune in, waiting to be satiated when she’s finally eliminated.  Which will happen.  Because whatever villian they decide to create, they’ll never let win.  Because MasterChef is a “good” show…bizarrely enough.  While the throat-slashingest, bus-throwingest-under, ultimate supreme backstabber may win Hell’s Kitchen or Survivor, MasterChef hasn’t yet given itself over to that genre quite yet.  (Maybe next season.)  Even though all we’re being shown this year is savagery, someone we all love is going to end up winning.  Probably Jordan or Luca, since they’re not going to let a beautiful girl win for the fourth year in a row, or the audience will cry foul.  (I actually know who wins, though, so perhaps I’m leading you all astray!)  So Krissi has NO chance of winning MasterChef.  Not because she’s not the best.  But because she was cast  specifically to be the villain this season, and when she finally falls, she’ll fall so epic and so hard, and all of America will pounce on her like a pack of wolves, greedy for her blood.

DON’T you let yourself be played like that by a team of psychologists and story producers sitting in an RV outside the MasterChef studio, grinning smugly as they pull their puppet strings, thinking they’re smarter than you and you’ll follow anywhere they lead you.

Why not, instead of deciding that Krissy is the most awful bitch on the planet, refrain from making a character judgement on her until you’ve actually met her, and walked a mile in her shoes.  Until you’ve done that, I won’t listen to a single criticism you have to say.  I lived MasterChef.  I know exactly how fake it is.  The worst villain on my season is one of my closest friends in the world, and I don’t befriend awful people.  So I will NOT have this crucifixion of Krissi, folks.  Calm the f–k down.  You’re being played.

Savannah’s sauteed chicken breast is first for tasting, and Gordon says there is raw fat visible, the skin tastes fatty (ie not properly rendered), and the bottom tastes poached (ie boiled) rather than seared and browned.  Next up is her fried chicken that was battered, and Graham finds that it’s undercooked on the inside.  He says there’s no seasoning.  Her stuffed breast is last to be tasted by Joe, and he likes the flavor and the cook, but the sauce is “goopy.”

Krissi is next.  Her sauteed chicken looks great on both sides, but is “slightly pink” on the inside.  (Also perfectly acceptable if you’ve got quality chicken.)  Her fried chicken is a little dark, but cooked through with a crunchy crust, and Graham likes it.  Her stuffed chicken doesn’t have enough stuffing, but it is cooked properly.

Luca’s sauteed breast looks dry to Gordon.  It’s seasoned well, but overcooked.  Graham likes his fried chicken crust, but the inside is slightly under.  And his stuffed breast is very undercooked and Joe won’t eat it.

Finally, Bri, the vegetarian, has her very first 3 attempts at cooking chicken evaluated by the judges.  Her pan fried chicken needed 4 more minutes of cooking.  Her fried chicken batter is good, but the chicken meat is very raw.  And her stuffed breast is cooked through, but the sauce is excessively buttery.

So the judges have given these contestants an unreasonable 45 minutes to cook a chicken breast 3 different ways, and are upset that they were served so much raw chicken.  Fancy that.

Krissi performed the best out of the 4, so she is safe.  So is Luca.  And so is Bri.

Leaving Savannah to surrender her apron.  Savannah is sweet and kind.  She’s not nearly nasty enough to command the kind of airtime this season that the other contestants are getting.  So, frankly, we don’t know much about her.  And as she smiles optimistically through her parting tears, I start Googling to find out more about her.  She’s a special ed teacher, which immediately leaves a soft spot in my heart.  My mom was a special ed teacher for many years, and I know exactly how challenging that job is, and how much of a difference she is making in kids’ lives every day.  And she’s making the most of her summer, doing cooking demonstrations and teaming up with Lynn to do charity events.  She even got to meet Sam the Cooking Guy.

Something tells me Savannah isn’t going to completely ditch the classroom for the kitchen.  Not that she doesn’t have the skills.  She’s teaching cooking classes and doing catering, and you can learn more about this on her website, especially if you live in the San Diego area.  But Savannah seems like a hero to me, and something tells me she can’t walk away, cold turkey, from the students whose lives she’s changing every day.  Mad props, Savannah.  Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and comment about this episode below!

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