(Please Note: This blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef. The opinions reflected herein are solely that: opinions. I have no inside knowledge of how MasterChef is produced or judged and my opinions should not be treated as fact.)
Josh, Becky, and Christine are the top 3. And beneath the mystery box today is yet another non-edible item: a blank cookbook. This is apparently to motivate the remaining 3 to give their all in the last stretch before the finals. Gordon asks each contestant who they’d dedicate their cookbook to. Christine says her mother, a talented cook who died when Christine was 14 without leaving her any recipes. Becky would dedicate hers to her parents who have always encouraged her to follow her dreams. Josh would dedicate his to his mom, an “amazingly strong woman” who is his biggest fan.
I can’t give any different answer, myself. My mother taught me how to cook when I was too young to have any business anywhere near the kitchen. My earliest memories in life are of mom in the kitchen, where she spent the majority of her day from sunrise to sunset, cooking and singing at the top of her lungs. The kitchen was always a place of joy in our house. And my passion for cooking, above all else, comes from my mother.
Who would YOU dedicate your cookbook to? Please comment at the bottom of this post…I wanna know.
This mystery box challenge isn’t going to be a mystery. The contestants get 5 minutes in the pantry to select anything they want, and then have an hour to make a stunning entree worthy of their very own cookbook. And that’s a dream come true…I wish I’d been able to do that a time or two on MasterChef. No ingredient restrictions…no themes…just do what you do best.
Our commercial break today is peddling the new MasterChef Ultimate Cookbook. I had a bit of involvement with the creation of this book, though I’m not sure how many of my recipes will be included in it. In theory, it’s an assemblage of recipes from all 3 seasons, “new” recipes that contestants have developed since being on the show, and recipes from the judges, as well. Of course, that was the plan for it 6 months ago…no telling what it will end up being. It’ll be released on September 18, but you can preorder it on Amazon at a killer price: $17.81 (compared to the list price of $26.99, which is what it will cost at Barnes and Noble in 2 days when it’s released). Check it out! I’m kind of excited about it.
All 3 dishes get tasted, because there are only 3 contestants left. Josh is first, with his curried Cornish Game Hen with basmati rice. We haven’t seen anything Indian from Josh recently, but back in the food truck challenge, Joe told us that Josh knew Indian food better than any of the other contestants. (A bit of an affront to Tanya, who has Indian roots and has lived there.) It sounds delicious, but the plate is a bit sparse, with only protein and rice…no veggies at all. It’s hard to go wrong when you put Indian spices on dark meat poultry. The judges love the flavor, but I’m surprised they didn’t mention anything about the complete lack of veg on the plate.
Christine is next, with her Vietnamese stir fried noodles with seared sea scallops. Her scallops are mouth-wateringly perfect on the sear, and the bowl looks really yummy. The judges praise it. But again…very little vegetable on the plate.
Becky is last, with a dish she completely reworked at the end. She took a whole loup-de-mer, which is French for “wolf of the sea,” but is more widely known as Branzino or European Sea Bass, and filleted it. But the filleting didn’t work out well, so she only got 2 small pieces that were attractive enough to be plated, so she used the rest of the fillet in her stock. When Ramsay pointed out that her two small pieces weren’t enough for an entree, she changed directions at the last minute and assembled it as a soup, with a creamy fish broth, roasted fennel in a charred jalapeno and scallion vinaigrette, and sunchoke puree. Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, are actually the root of a sunflower and have nothing in common with artichokes. They look a bit like ginger root, and are crisp and delicious…somewhat like a water chestnut. You either eat them raw, roasted, or steamed. If you boil them, they get nasty. I prefer them raw, because I think most of the flavor goes away when you cook them. (They make most people really gassy, though…go easy on them if you try them!) Joe claims the fish is overcooked, and Graham says it’s yummy but not well conceived.
Becky has a little meltdown that I completely understand. She grew up eating humble food (like most of us). Now she’s a food photographer and exists in a world of fancy cuisine, and she’s on MasterChef cooking for 3 famous food powerhouses. So instead of following her own instincts and being true to herself and her roots, she’s reaching out to try to conceptualize things that she thinks will impress the judges and appear sophisticated, rather than making something that she’s really truly passionate about and that truly represents her. Becky…I struggled with the same thing in the first half of the show. It wasn’t until I was able to make my rustic pumpkin carrot cake, a cake that I invented and make all the time, that I realized I had to stop trying to impress the judges, and just cook the kinds of things that I love to cook at home for friends and family. Things that resonate with me. That’s not always possible when you get something like a mystery box, or have to cook a genre of cuisine you’re not comfortable with. But in a challenge like this…where you have free reign of the pantry and no binding theme…this is the time to make one of your specialties. Something that’s your trademark. Something that really speaks to you. And Becky realizes that she wasn’t cooking from the heart on this challenge. My heart is breaking for her…a mistake like this, so late in the game, could spell disaster. And since I’ve been thinking for the past 2 episodes that Christine and Josh will be the final 2, I’m thinking we’re beginning to see the end of Becky.
This time, the judges give us a specific ranking for the mystery box, and the winner is Christine, followed by Josh, and then Becky. Then all 3 head back into the pantry to discover their various advantages and disadvantages. The theme for the challenge is “legs” and there are 3 ingredients on the table: leg of lamb, chicken legs, and frog legs. Christine gets to pick first, then Josh, and Becky gets whatever is leftover.
Christine goes with the chicken legs…the most versatile, the cheapest, and also the most pedestrian. An interesting choice. It definitely leaves her wide open to a lot of possibilities. But up against a premium ingredient like leg of lamb, and a wildcard ingredient like frog, she COULD be exposing herself to a potential loss.
Josh now has an interesting conundrum. Given his southern roots, I’d imagine he would LOVE to cook with the frogs legs. But that leaves the true premium ingredient, the leg of lamb, for Becky, who is accustomed to working with high-end ingredients, and it would be a huge boon to her. So he gives the frog’s legs to Becky, and keeps the leg of lamb for himself.
Becky admits that she’s never eaten or cooked frog legs. What a shame! Frog is DELICIOUS. When I was a kid, we had a huge cattle pond half a mile behind our house, with giant green bullfrogs living in it. My little brother and I would sneak up over the dam with our pellet guns and peck off a dozen fat bullfrogs every month or so, and bring them back home to clean and cook.
On my last trip to Hawaii with Adrien and Christian, to cook for the homeless kids in Honolulu, we stayed in a condo on a golf course that was being flooded with unseasonably prolific rains. All the giant cane toads (a harmful invasive species in Hawaii) had come up out of the golf course ponds and were sitting on the grass, and late one night when we were hungry, we went frogging. After a quick, humane dispatch, we skinned the legs and salted them. As soon as the salt hit the muscle tissue, the legs started twitching! It freaked Adrien out, and Christian thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen. There was more twitching when the legs hit the pan. And a few minutes later, the boys ate frog for the first time:
For those of you who are totally grossed out right now…don’t be! Frog legs are incredibly delicious. The taste is very similar to old-fashioned chicken (they have almost no fat, and lots of flavor because the muscles get worked a lot), with a texture halfway between chicken and firm whitefish. Both boys loved them, and they were prepared very simply, with just salt and pepper and olive oil.
Needless to say, the frog legs would definitely have been my pick. I’d have done 3 different preparations: Cajun-style blacked frog legs (my favorite way to eat them), Southern-style chicken fried frog legs (to represent my heritage), and Thai-frog legs with red curry sauce (to represent my favorite cuisine). But poor Becky, I think she’s shaking in her boots right now, especially considering what just happened in the mystery box.
After shopping, the contestants return to the kitchen to find the 15 eliminated contestants waiting for them. I remember last season being hurried into the kitchen while Jennifer, Christian, and Adrien were shopping, and how happy I was to see them come out that door. You can’t imagine the joy we all experienced, being back together with everyone. Some of them had been back home in the “real world” for weeks, and were having the usual difficulty re-incorporating themselves into a group of people they couldn’t give any details to because of the confidentiality agreement. So, for them, to come back and be able to decompress with the rest of us who completely understood the whole situation…it was extraordinary. Others, like me, hadn’t even left the show…I was simply eliminated and shuffled to a different hotel to await the finale. So I was still isolated from friends and family, and as the number of contestants dwindled and things got weirder and more competitive, it was such a huge relief to see Alvin and Jennie and Tracy and Esther (Peanut)…even Max brought a giant smile to my face. Those few glorious days were a time to celebrate with our new family without the stress of competition or threat of elimination. It was divine.
The hour is up, and Christine is first with her chicken legs. She’s done a traditional buttermilk-battered Southern fried chicken with creamed kale. I’m gonna be honest…my grandmother could fry chicken in a cast iron skillet to perfection, and I just can’t do it. My chicken always ends up raw in the middle, or overcooked on the breading. I can deep fry chicken with no problem, but the shallow fry method in cast iron still evades me. I should practice it more, but since I have a deep fryer and I can trust my results in it, I haven’t bothered. Still, the traditional Southern shallow fry is one of the most challenging skills a home cook can master. Christine’s chicken is perfect, and Gordon loves the seasoning, which combined paprika, cayenne, thyme, sage, and blood orange…a VERY unusual combination, but Gordon says it’s absolutely perfect. Joe and Graham both forego the knife and fork Ramsay used to eat the chicken, and just pick it up and dig in. They love the chicken, but the universal criticism is that her creamed kale has too much cream in it.
Next up is Josh and he’s incredibly proud of his unique plate of lamb carimanolas. I’ve had carimanolas on the street in Central America, they are deep fried yucca fritters stuffed with veggies or meat. And they are TO DIE FOR. Yucca is a thick root that is a staple of the diets in Latin America and Africa, and is also widely used in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. It is prepared in variety of ways…it can be dried and ground into a powder called manioc or mandioca (which can be used to bake cakes or simply toasted in butter and bacon fat, which the Brazilians call “farofa”). It can be processed into the substance we are all familiar with called tapioca. The root can simply be sliced, boiled, and then deep fried to make yucca fries, which are so much tastier and have a superior texture to potato fries. But the yucca root (also commonly called cassava) is actually quite poisonous, and it must be cooked first to break down the cyanide that can be fatal if consumed in high-enough quantities. It’s a fascinating ingredient, and one of my personal favorites. So Josh has made a carimanola by boiling the yucca root, mashing it, and working it into a dough with egg and a little flour. He stuffed the carimanolas with leg of lamb…not an easy feat in an hour. Leg of lamb is usually roasted or braised, low and slow, for hours to make it tender. Josh resorted to the pressure cooker, which works wonders in a short amount of time. (I adore my pressure cooker and can’t live without it.) He is presenting the carimanolas with 3 different salsas: tomato, mango, and tomatillo. The plate is really stunning, and if he’s pulled off his flavoring and seasoning, he probably has the best dish of the day. Joe decides to attack him for it, taking such risks with braising the lamb in such a short time, working with a poisonous and starchy ingredient…and then he tastes it, and it “astounds” him. The other judges agree. Josh reveals for the first time that his father is from Panama and he spent lots of time there as a kid, which helps explain his love of Indian food. (The Caribbean region off the coast of Panama is referred to as the West Indies and has a huge culinary influence from both India and Africa. Panama has an incredibly diverse cuisine.) Josh has truly produced an incredible dish in this time limit, I am supremely impressed.
Becky is last with her garlic butter frog legs, confit potatoes, mushrooms, and a salad of bitter greens. (Confit is pronounced “con-FEE” and is a term that covers a wide variety of preparations, but generally means that a meat or vegetable has been cooked slowly in flavorful fat, and then often stored beneath an airtight layer of the fat. Potato confit means potatoes that were fried gently in fat until rich and tender…not necessarily crisp and fluffy like a french fry.) These are very smart flavors to combine. Bastianich likes every component but the potatoes, which she roasted in the oven with wine after the confit, resulting in soggy potatoes. Ramsay is proud of her for perfecting the frog legs having never cooked them before.
To me, Josh is the clear winner of this challenge, and it would probably be a toss-up between Becky and Christine…they both nailed the legs, but had problems with other components. (However, I’m fairly convinced that Christine and Josh have been pegged as the finalists for awhile now, which probably means Becky is going home.) Not surprisingly, the judges send Becky home.
I was in LA for 4 hours recently, but didn’t have time to meet up with Becky. And I regret that. From the conversations we’ve had, she sounds delightful. Becky probably wanted to win more than anyone else, maybe even Josh. And she’s obviously crushed by the decision. Gordon asks her what’s next, and, dejected, she mutters something to the effect of “Hopefully I can sneak into a restaurant and they’ll let me work there for awhile.” Gordon says, “I have some restaurants. Would you like to work in Central Europe? Paris?”
It’s obvious to all of us how skilled Becky is. She won like EVERY mystery box the whole season. That girl knows her food. And while her character was occasionally edited to be a bit snarky and a bit know-it-all, her fellow contestants tell me that she’s very sweet and extremely likeable. And the fact that Ramsay has just offered her a job is a testament to exactly how talented he believes she is.
Becky is a food photographer in LA, and I’m sure MasterChef helped boost her position in that highly specialized world. Jennie Kelley, who is a food stylist, is looking to collaborate with her on several projects. No word yet if Becky will take Gordon’s offer…that would require a LOT of soul searching.
Understandably, Becky’s personal website is stunning, with enough world-class photos of food to leave you really, really, really hungry. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter, too.
Becky, I think ultimately you got a raw deal, sorta like David Martinez. While I think the show’s challenges definitely allowed you to display your strengths (as evidenced by your domination of the Mystery Box), I think you were sort of doomed from the start by the way they decided to edit you. It’s rare that the person who effortlessly criticizes others ends up winning. (Though in the ruthless shows like Hell’s Kitchen, apparently, this DOES end up happening, and it certainly seems like MasterChef is headed in the HK direction. So maybe you were just a few seasons too early.) To have realized that food is your calling at such an early age, and managed to work your way into the highly specialized and competitive world of food photography is a testament to your persistence and talent. I think we’re going to see big things from you in the future, and I, for one, wish you all the best.
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