I think, by now, we’ve established the fact that I hate mystery boxes. So you can imagine that I’m less than thrilled that it’s time for another one.
We lift our boxes and I see 3 massive, gorgeous scallops, still in their shells. “Diver’s scallops,” announces Gordon. That means these scallops are each foraged, by hand, by scuba divers. And with normal scallops averaging $23 a pound, I don’t even wanna know how much these babies cost!
I love scallops. Like…a lot. They are probably my favorite seafood. So succulent and tender and sweet. I’ve cooked scallops dozens of times, though they’re so expensive that I reserve them for special occasions only.
These scallops are tricky, though. They’re still in their shells, which means they’re alive, and I have to dispatch them and get them out of their shells without destroying the delicate meat that makes them famous.
I slip the blade of a knife between the shell halves and the scallop instantly seizes up and closes his shell. I realize a scallop has no brain or central nervous system, but I still realize I’m taking a life, so I proceed with care so as not to ruin the integrity of the meat and have to discard it…the ultimate insult for a life taken.
I detach the scallop from one shell and open it up. The scallop is wrapped in a gelatinous “skirt” that makes it look like a little pile of poop. I scrape it from the opposite shell, gingerly remove the skirt and a small, tough muscle that wraps around it, and there is the most tender, plump, marshmallow-looking scallop I’ve ever seen staring back at me. Now…two more scallops to go.
That done, I look at the rest of the mystery box and try to figure out what the heck I’m gonna do. I need to stand out today, because I’ve been on a good streak and I don’t wanna lose it. But I need to stand out for the RIGHT reasons. And my eyes keep going over to the bananas. Call me crazy, but I have this image in my head of little fried banana rounds, looking just like scallops, scattered about a plate with real scallops. And I can’t get this vision out of my head.
Luckily, the bananas are a little green, which means they’ll have a starchy texture. Terrible for eating raw or baking. But PERFECT for frying. I fry off some little “banana scallops” and taste them. They’re good, but they don’t look right. So I try smashing them first and frying them, which is something I do with plantains…the banana’s larger, starchier cousin. That turns out to be the key…then the scallops can sit atop the smashed fried banana rounds.
Unfortunately, I only have 3 scallops, and I want to serve one to each judge, so I don’t have one to “waste” by tasting it in combination with the banana, to make sure the flavors “work.” So I briefly sear the tough little scallop muscle that I had removed earlier, to get an idea for the flavor.
BINGO! It’s brilliant. Delicate, sweet scallop…caramelized banana seasoned with both sweet spices (cinnamon) and savory (salt and cayenne pepper), both with a crunchy sear on both sides. It worked!
I toss together a quick salsa of roasted corn, papaya, avocado, red onion, and cilantro, dressed with lime juice, and the dish is finished. Unbelievably simple. But then, if you try to complicate scallops, you’re doing them a disservice.
Time is called, and now I just have to wait and hope that I get called up for the top 3 tasting. The judges only taste 3 dishes on a mystery box, and I’ve never been in the top 3 for this particular challenge. And, looking around, there are a lot of beautiful scallop dishes to choose from.
They call Christian…of course. The seafood king. He’s presented ONE scallop only, in the form of a succotash, with lime honey vinaigrette and crispy pancetta (which is the Italian equivalent of bacon.)
They call Adrien…and they love his scallop trio: a scallop ceviche (meaning the scallop is served raw, but marinated in lime juice so it is cooked with acid), a scallop wrapped in pancetta with an over-easy egg on top, and finally, a seared scallop over cauliflower puree with blanched green peas.
There’s only one name left to call, and there are still some astoundingly beautiful dishes left. “The third and final dish that we are dying to taste,” says Gordon, “…is so out there. It’s so bizarre, we just can’t resist it.”
And I know it’s me. YES! I did it! TOP 3 on a mystery box, baby! You can’t imagine how good this feels.
Gordon loves it. Graham compliments the sear on my scallop, calling it “Amazing cookery.” (Thank you, cast iron skillet! I love cast iron…I cook almost exclusively with it.) Joe isn’t so sure about the whole banana/scallop pairing, but he says I took a calculated risk that could have either been enormously stupid, or a stroke of brilliance…and he’s inclined to lean toward the latter.
Now they have to choose the winner, who will get a huge advantage in the next challenge, in which someone will be eliminated. I really need this win…
“And the winner today is… …… ……. Ben Sta–”
And I SCREAM and jump up and down and grab Adrien, before I finally realize that Gordon is scowling at me.
“Ben Starr, when will you ever learn to wait until I’m finished speaking to react?”
I stare at him like an idiot.
“I was about to say, Ben Starr, you missed it by THIS MUCH…because your dish was almost as good as today’s winner: Adrien.”
I’ll take it. I beat Christian…barely…on seafood for the second time! In the catfish challenge, Ramsay had told me, “The cookery on the catfish is as good, if not better, than Christian’s.” That’s enough to give a guy a big head, because Christian is BRILLIANT when it comes to seafood. So even though I didn’t win, I’m soaring on adrenaline going into the next challenge.
Adrien comes out from the pantry walking a giant pig named Bob. Suddenly I’m homesick! I had pigs almost every year growing up. (Which means the freezer was always full of pork.) We weren’t a well-off family, and couldn’t afford a trailer, so when we would take pigs to the butcher, we pulled the big bench seat out of the back of our 1970 snot-green Buick, muscled the pig into the back seat, and off we went!
So it’s a pork challenge, but the trick is that Adrien has assigned each one of us a specific cut of pork. “Anything but the snout,” I’m praying. I can deal with anything else, even the ears…
My cut is pork butt, which actually comes from the shoulder of the pig. It’s infamously tough, and somewhat greasy, and the only thing a Texan does with pork butt is make chili. So chili it is! Served over a cast-iron-skillet buttermilk cornbread chock full of roasted green chilies.
No self-respecting Texan makes chili in an hour, but I’ve done it before…under duress…in a pressure cooker. So I snatch a pressure cooker from the pantry and start my meat, which I sear first, then pressure cook with a bit of beef stock, until tender. Then in goes more stock, a variety of fresh chili peppers, some ancho chili powder, some tomatoes, lots of cumin, some Guinness beer, some red wine, some bourbon…(noticing any themes here?)…and I think I’ll stop there. Because one day I’m gonna win Terlingua, the biggest chili cookoff in the world, so I can’t give out ALL my secrets! (*fingers crossed*)
Then I make a stupid mistake. I choose to put beans in my chili. Dry pinto beans.
No self-respecting Texan EVER puts beans in his chili. I know this. It’s an iron-clad rule. But we’re in California. And the judges would be SUPER impressed if I can get dried pinto beans cooked into a chili in less than an hour. I know I can do it in the pressure cooker in 30 minutes. So I make the call.
And then I do something even more stupid than adding beans.
I add apple cider vinegar.
That’s not stupid, in and of itself, because I always put a variety of vinegars in my chili. But when you add acid to the pot before the beans have cooked through, it reacts with enzymes in the bean and makes them go crispy. I know this. But because I’m not accustomed to putting beans in my chili, I don’t realize until it’s too late that I’ve made a horrible mistake.
With 5 minutes to go, I open the pressure cooker and discover that some, but not all, of the beans are crispy. Frantically, I sort through the bowl, removing as many beans as possible while the judges scowl at me. Time is called and I step back. 7 or 8 evil beans grin back at me from my finished plate. All I can do is hope that they’re not the crispy ones.
Joe is the first to taste my chili, and he’s always on the fence when it comes to me. So I confess right up front, “I screwed up! My beans are undercooked.” He takes a bite.
“The beans are delicious, actually. The whole thing is delicious. Which is impressive, because you had one of the toughest, greasiest cuts of meat, and you’ve turned it into something incredible.”
I’m a lucky man today.
Not so lucky are Suzy, whose German-inspired pork belly is so full of cloves that the judges can’t taste anything else after that. Also Jen, whose Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired pork patties with sauerkraut had precious little flavor. And Alejandra, whose pork tenderloin was raw in the middle.
Raw beef is one thing…that’s acceptable in many cuisines around the world, including our own. Raw pork is eaten in some parts of Asia, however a common parasite in commercial pork is trichinella spiralis, which causes the often-fatal disease trichinosis, so pork must be cooked to an internal temp of 145F for it to be safe. Alejandra’s is far from that. The judges don’t even eat it.
What a tragedy! Alejandra has produced some of the most inspired food in this entire competition. Her fiery Latina personality has added so much spice and flair to our group. One tiny mistake, and they devour her for it. It just goes to prove that, at this point in the contest, there is ZERO room for error.