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MasterChef 4 recap: Pig’s Heads and Christine Ha (S4E11)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not approved or endorsed by MasterChef or Fox, and they would probably rather you not read it.  The info contained in this blog is OPINION ONLY from a former MasterChef contestant who has no knowledge of the production of this season.)

It was like pulling teeth to summon the courage to watch this week’s episodes.  Honestly, I’m both bored and horrified by what MasterChef has now become, and I REALLY want to stop watching it.  But I’m getting so much feedback from all of you that you’re enjoying my recaps…I’m gonna do it for at least another week.  And I’m hoping maybe the producers will grace the audience with at least some redeeming quality in these next 2 episodes to give us decent human beings SOMETHING to latch onto.

But it doesn’t bode well that the creepy narrator voice (who IS that guy?!?) saying within the first 20 seconds: “Krissi targeted Bime for elimination…and HIT her target.”  So we know that MasterChef has finally ceased, entirely, to be about cooking and has, instead, become a game of selfish strategy.  I can’t watch that stuff, so from this point on I’m going to watch MasterChef solely for what meagre amount of cooking makes it to the screen, and write about that.  That should mean shorter blogs, fewer rants about character, integrity, and human decency, and a much faster read for those of you on Reddit and the TV forums who consider me the biggest TL:DR (too long, didn’t read) blogger on the internet.  (Though it IS sad how short our reading attention span has become…thank you, Internets.)

Beneath the mystery boxes are whole hog’s heads.  Poor Bri…the sole vegetarian left in the top 13.  Luca weeps, James squeals with glee, and Krissi says: “………………….no.”

I’m a little surprised they pulled the pig’s head card.  On my season when we had the pork challenge, the “scary” cuts were left out because the producers thought the mainstream American audience wouldn’t be ready to see the head or the ears or the heart or the bung.  They tested the waters last season with a mystery box of organ meats, including testicles, and apparently the audience didn’t stop watching.  So they pulled out the heads this year.  I’m really excited, because I love cooking a pig’s head.

If you’re squeamish at the idea of unconventional meats, I urge you to take a deep breath and not pass judgement on how something is going to taste by your instinctive reaction to it.  There are muscles in the head, just like in the arm, the leg, the back, and the belly.  Muscle is meat.  And the muscles that get a lot of exercise are the MOST flavorful meats of all.  (They also happen to be the most tough, and require special cooking methods like braising or pressure cooking to make them tender.)

I think many people are uncomfortable with the head because it reminds them that what they are eating was once alive.  If that’s the case, it’s critical that you either reconcile yourself with your carnivorous habits immediately, or stop eating meat forthwith.  All meat was once alive.  (For that matter, virtually ALL we eat was once alive, including vegetables and milk and fungi and yeast.  In fact, it might be hard to think of a single thing we eat that was not once living other than salt.)  A good place for you to start in this inner struggle is with my blog posts from a year ago about the ethics of eating meat and the follow up blog, as my fan base was really electrified by this debate following a photo I posted of a rooster I was about to “harvest” for a meal at FRANK for Bastille Day.

If you eat meat, the head should be NO different from the tenderloin.  Most cultures around the world PRIZE the cuts that get wasted in America, and the newest trend in restaurants is “nose to tail” cooking…utilizing the entire animal out of respect for its sacrifice.  Many restaurant now buy the entire carcass, organs and all, and skilled, savvy chefs use every last bit of it.  And it’s high time that happened.  Organ meats, which were once either discarded or sold at embarrassingly cheap prices, are now coveted by foodies and their prices have skyrocketed accordingly.  (Though pig’s heads can still be purchased at Asian and Latin American markets for remarkably cheap, sometimes at little as $2 a head.)  Yesterday I bought a cow’s tongue on a KILLER sale for $3 a pound, when it’s normally closer to $6 or $7:

So even if your natural response to an organ meat or a bizarre cut is initially revulsion, let logic reign in those moments and realize that you’re just looking at another cut of meat that can be truly stunning in the hands of a capable chef.  But all that knowledge chefs harbor for working with these “variety meats” or offal doesn’t magically be bestowed upon them from the heavens…the body of knowledge regarding working with organ meats and unusual cuts comes to us STRAIGHT from the kitchens of farmers and “peasants” throughout history.  When Joe says, “There’s no longer home cooking here, this is professional cooking,” he’s right if he’s referring to Middle America, but dead wrong from a global perspective.  These meats are cooked and served FAR more frequently in humble home kitchens around the world than they are in restaurants.

The judges are soft on the contestants because they have already broken down the pig’s head into the ears, tongue, cheek, and snout…so the contestants don’t have to do any butchering.  (Though some, including Eddie, are brave enough to tackle the whole head anyway!)  All 4 of these cuts are prized in famous food cultures around the world, particularly in Italy and France.

Gordon says he’d blanch the tongue, then braise it and serve it with cream and mashed potato and horseradish.  (YUM!)  I wish we’d have gotten more education from the judges at this point, because it would be VERY valuable for the audience to hear what Graham and Gordon would do with EACH of the 4 cuts.

I’d have a hard time with this challenge simply because, while the 90 minute time limit is a bit longer than usual, these cuts really come into their own through TIME.  The jowls can be wet-cured over a period of several hours in a potent salt and brown sugar brine, then smoked to become jowl bacon, which can then be turned into something miraculous.  (Jowl bacon is like regular bacon, but much heartier with more lean than even center-cut bacon.  Michael Chen is sitting next to me as I write, and waxes eloquently about how the “lean” in bacon is entirely separate from the fat, but the muscle fibers in jowl are marbled throughout with bits of fat, making the “lean” in jowl much more succulent than in bacon.)  The tongue can be brined for a week, turning it into pastrami, and then cooked en sous vide (vacuum sealed and slowly cooked at low temperature in a water bath) for 2 days until it’s meltingly tender…and the sandwich you can make with that will change your life.  Or it can be made into tacos de lengua…my very, very favorite type of taco.  Or it can be halfway frozen, sliced thinly, marinated in ginger and soy and garlic, and seared briefly…the way the Koreans enjoy it.  The ears can be pickled over a week, then braised and then crispy fried and turned into a brunch sandwich suitable for the gods.  The snout is the most complex of the cuts…filled with both fat (flavor and richness), connective tissue (which melts into a stock with incredible body and mouth feel), and muscles that get almost constant use, so they are exploding with meaty flavor and texture.  The cut is so complex that you can simply add it to water with some seasoning, and a root vegetable like parsnip or rutabaga, and some legumes (beans or lentils) and an exquisite soup will result…especially in the pressure cooker.

Beth is headed down the Southern route with cornbread, black eyed peas, collard greens, pork jowl and crispy pig’s ears.  Southern cuisine has the same reverence for pig meat as the Italians…it’s almost sacred.

Poor Bri…she’s had to cover the pig’s head with a towel while she cooks because she can’t look at it.  I would imagine Bri is a vegetarian because she chooses not to take the life of an animal to sustain herself, so this challenge must be really difficult for her.  We rarely see a vegetarian go so far in the competition on MasterChef, and Bri is one of my favorites…I wish they’d show more of her because she seems to me to be a peacemaker and to be really funny, and we need more of both.  Despite her aversion to eating meat, the dish she’s preparing sounds divine…crispy pig’s ear with poached egg and heirloom tomato salad, and she’s going to be doing something with the cheeks, as well, but they edit that out.

Lynn is braising his pork cheeks and then deep frying them…a technique that works very well with facial meats because of the fat content and the connective tissues, which will fry up VERY crisp even after braising.  And he also mentions using the tongue, but his plans for that get edited out.  (Gotta save more time for backstabbing, ya know.)

Jonny has braised the tongue and cheeks in pork stock, red wine, and mirepoix (pronounced “meer-PWAH”…a classic French foundation for sauces and braises: a simple combination of onion, celery, and carrot).  I see him warming tortillas, so he’s making tacos!

Jessie is cooking with the cheeks and she’s making a black bean, jalapeno, and roasted corn salsa…and doing a fusion of Mexican and Southern cuisine.

This is a mystery box where I think the audience deserves to see EVERY dish tasted, because we’re being introduced to ingredients that make many of us uncomfortable.  So drooling over some incredible dishes is one of the best ways to get us over that discomfort.  But, like always, only 3 will be tasted.

Lynn is chosen first.  He’s got red wine braised pork cheeks that were subsequently fried to a crisp, served on top of pork tongue braised with Asian spices, with parsnip puree and ginger scallion oil, and fried tomatoes.  Lynn’s plates always look stunning.  The judges are supremely impressed.

Next is Jessie, who has ears and cheeks braised in chicken stock with a mix of black eyes peas and roasted corn and jalapenos.  (In Southern cooking, this mix is called “chow chow” and it was introduced to the South by the French-descended Acadians when they migrated from northeastern Canada to the Louisiana swamps…where their techniques mixed with the flavors of Africa and became Cajun and Creole cuisine.)

Finally, Jonny brings his tacos up for judging.  They are filled with braised pork tongue and cheek, sweet and spicy tomato jam, toasted cashew guacamole, and roasted corn and red pepper relish.  That’s no street taco!  Joe is at a loss for words…he says, “This dish is just…really…good.”

Of the 3, the one I want to eat most is Jonny’s tacos, but I would imagine Lynn would take the win because of the sophistication and presentation of his dish.  The judges agree, so Lynn heads back to the pantry to discover his advantage.  And the theme is revealed by none other than legendary Christine Ha, last season’s winner.  She’s back to meet the contestants and promote her cookbook, Recipes From My Home Kitchen.  It’s actually a fabulous cookbook, especially if you love Asian food but aren’t very comfortable cooking with it.  The book is half Asian-influenced masterpieces, and the other half…well, basically everything from pulled pork BBQ to dirty rice to chicken pot pie.  A cookbook as varied as the woman herself.  (Who, I’m excited to report, is coming to my house for dinner tomorrow.  The calf tongue is in the immersion circulator as we speak!)

There are 3 ingredients to choose from, all of which are featured in Christine’s cookbook: whole chicken, whole catfish, whole Dungeness crab.  Lynn doesn’t have to cook, and he gets to select one “target” who will work with one protein, while everyone else will work with another.  He targets Krissi and gives her the catfish, while everyone else gets to cook with Dungeness crab.  (Poor Bri!)

The next twist is that the contestants have to cook blindfolded.  I don’t expect this to last more than about 60 seconds, otherwise everything’s gonna be broken and people are gonna lose limbs and eyes.  (Let’s not forget that Christine had an assistant during her challenges to help her locate ingredients and stay on track.)  And, of course, the blindfolds come off almost immediately.

Bri is making a light crab salad with mashed peas, corn puree, and champagne vinaigrette.  And let’s not forget that she has to kill the crab…her first time having to do this on the show.

Luca is making a crab risotto, and he adds some fish sauce to the risotto stock “to make Christine happy.”  Having not yet seen the results, I’m puzzled about a comment Luca made on his Facebook asking people not to comment on his fish sauce risotto and just leave him with his grief.  There’s NOTHING wrong with a drizzle of fish sauce in almost ANY dish.  The Italians used fish sauce before it was ever introduced to the west from Asian cuisine.  I use fish sauce in almost EVERY Italian dish I make.

James is doing a Creole dish and finds it’s weird that Krissi is pairing her catfish with mashed potatoes.  “We don’t do that where I’m from,” he says.  James?!?  You live in Texas.  Fried catfish is ALWAYS served with mashed potatoes and gravy here.  That’s totally normal.  But Joe decides to be incredibly angry with her for making a traditional Southern catfish dinner…he wants something more sophisticated and doesn’t even want to taste it.  (Might I remind him that on my season, Whitney Miller…the winner of season 1…returned to present a challenge where we cooked catfish, fries, and coleslaw, and he didn’t complain then.)  This whole thing is ridiculous…nothing more than the producers trying to spin us back on Krissi from the last episode where she “targeted and eliminated Bime”…it’s not real.  Don’t believe it.

Beth is doing crab cakes with peach salsa.  Natasha is also doing crab cakes with Asian flavors.  Gordon asks her if she’s using the dark meat as well as the white meat…some species of crab have varying grades of meat within them.  The muscles that drive the crab’s swimming legs are larger, pale and more delicate in flavor, than the pink meat from the claws, or the darker meat found inside the body, which are stronger in flavor.

Time is called and judging begins.  Krissi is first with her bacon cheddar mashed potatoes, asparagus, and cornmeal crusted fried catfish.  She left the skin on, which Gordon chastises her for.  This is a ridiculous criticism.  Catfish skin is often left on when frying the fillets.  It’s the “peasant” way of cooking, which, were we talking Italian food, would be praised by Joe.  But Gordon says Krissi is cooking for the JUDGES and to set aside her own preferences.  (They told me something similar on my season when I didn’t peel the asparagus I served.  My reply to the judges, which did NOT get edited into the show, was that most of the flavor, texture, and nutrients in asparagus are located in the skin, and that if the skin of the asparagus is too tough to eat, I just won’t cook with asparagus.  Peeling asparagus is ridiculous.  Either you eat asparagus whole, or you don’t eat it.)  I was told, “You’re not cooking for yourself, Ben Starr, you’re cooking for Master Chefs.”  That was drama.  Just like this is.  (It should be noted that in Christine’s catfish stew recipe in her book, she says that she prefers to have the skin off because she finds it a bit oily.  I typically only see the skin left on when catfish is fried…exactly how Krissi prepared it.)  I love how Krissi realizes that all this is false drama, and she sort of smiles at it all.  “Because I had to fight with Joe, they’re going to bash me no matter what,” she says.  Joe acts like a third-grader and continues to call her out even after she’s back at her station.  What a waste of air time when there are delicious dishes we could be shown.

The editing of this whole sequence is so ridiculous, I’m embarrassed for the show.  They’re trying to butcher Krissi for the way they edited her on the last show, in some sort of gladiator fashion, as if the audience is thirsty for her blood.  But she didn’t ACTUALLY produce a bad dish in this challenge, which is clear from looking at it.  So all this criticism and drama is completely fabricated, and it shows.  Disgusting.

Natasha’s Asian-influenced crab cakes with beets, pickled radish, and champagne vinaigrette look nice, and the judges and Christine enjoy it.

Bri brings up her summer crab stack with pea and avocado mash.  Graham is impressed with her classic combinations (peas and crab, shellfish and corn).

James brings up his spicy crab creole with rice and seafood broth.  Christine loves the levels of flavor and the heat.

Beth has Dungeness crab and “marscapown” crab cakes.  (We’ve already addressed this, but there is ONLY one correct pronunciation of the Italian soft cheese called mascarpone, and it is this: “mas-car-POWN-eh.”  There is only one “r” and it does NOT come before the “s.”)  She has Meyer lemon and herb creme fraiche and grilled peach and avocado salsa.  Sounds delicious, despite the mispronunciation, Beth!  Joe spits it out and says it tastes like raw, mealy flour.

Luca presents a bowl of soup, and the judges are puzzled when he tells them it’s actually a risotto with crab, asparagus, and lemon.  Christine says that initially it’s too salty.  Joe makes him bring up the bottle of fish sauce and says that “to put fish sauce in a risotto, all of Italy will weep.”  Again…complete lies.  Fish sauce is as integral in Italian classic cooking as red wine.  In Italy it’s called “colatura” and here’s a link to a variety of different types you can purchase on Amazon.  And here’s a link to a Google search for “colatura risotto” that will lead you to a lot of pages in Italian with risotto recipes that utilize fish sauce.  It irks me to NO END when any of the judges make these sweeping statements about food being governed by black-and-white cardinal rules…ESPECIALLY when their statement is completely and utterly false.  It is PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE to put fish sauce in risotto, Joe, and if you don’t know that, you might need to go back to Italy for another summer of food education.

The top 2 are Natasha and James, who was declared the best.   The 3 worst are Krissi, Luca, and Beth.  And the axe falls to Beth.

I loved Beth from the first moment I saw her.  She has such a kind face and a tender heart.  If the producers would have featured more of her, the show would have been easier to watch, because she’s GOOD PEOPLE.  Read her bio on her amazing website, Local Milk, and you’ll find out that she studied philosophy and creative writing at Loyola and spent many summers in the Netherlands, before gravitating toward both the camera and the spatula.  Beth is the kind of person I want to meet and cook with.  I hope, someday, that will happen.  Follow Beth on Facebook and Twitter, and please leave your comments below!

MasterChef 3: Offal and Crab

Before I get into last night’s episode, there were a few noteworthy things I wanted to chat about from the Marines and Pie episode.  I didn’t take notes on that episode because I was watching at Christine’s house, along side Michael, who got eliminated at the end of that show.

I’ve noticed a lot of harassment on Ryan’s Facebook and Twitter…people telling him what a waste of human life he is, and comments along those lines.  Most of them started when, during the Marine challenge, he murmured to his teammate Monti “Since we don’t have any food ready for these guys, now might be the time for you to flash them a nip.”  People are screaming “sexual harassment” at him, and I myself lost at least one follower who proclaimed, “Since you seem to think sexual harassment is funny, Ben, I unfollowed you.”

Folks…you mustn’t forget that you’re watching television.  It’s not real.  I can tell you first-hand that after weeks of tense challenges, the entire cast is tossing around innuendo and snide comments right and left at each other, mostly for fun…to decompress.  I know for a fact that Ryan gets teased by the female members of the cast for his “bromance” with Tali.  Just because one clip of a silly joke gets aired doesn’t mean you should get your panties in a wad.  I guarantee you that Ryan gets as much hell behind the scenes as anyone else…probably more, in fact.  But more on Ryan later…

The thing that really strikes me in that episode was in the pressure test challenge, when Frank is informed that, if he wants to, he can go up to the balcony and not cook during the challenge.  He basically tells the judges to shove it, that he will stand with his team in the pressure test.  That’s the mark of a GREAT leader, I was SO proud of him.  Then the judges say that he can keep ONE of his team members safe, and again Frank proves his amazing integrity by saying that Felix should be saved, because she is the one who said the Italian pasta salad wouldn’t be appropriate for Marines and that they should make macaroni and cheese and BBQ chicken instead.  Holding up a team member for criticizing the leader takes guts.  So the judges offer Felix the chance to play it safe and avoid the challenge.  She then tells the judges exactly where they can shove it, and that she’s cooking with her team, too.

So the tears start welling up, and MasterChef is redeeming itself as a show.  Well, I should rephrase that.  The CONTESTANTS are redeeming my previously harsh and negative thoughts about the show.

Frank is forced to choose again, and he picks Scott, who doesn’t even blink before he tells the judges he’s staying and cooking.

Ramsay seems perplexed by this.  WHY?!?  Has all the backstabbing and selfishness of Hell’s Kitchen caused him to lose all faith in humanity?  Yes, these people are in a competition to win, but they are HUMAN.  And living through their experience as a team has bonded them.  They have a little thing called “integrity” and Ramsay shouldn’t be annoyed by it.  He should praise the contestants for their gumption and stubborn integrity.  (Secretly, I think he admires it.)

Frank is forced to choose yet again, and he calls out Stacey.  And one of the most raw moments I’ve ever seen on television unfolds.  She immediately bursts into tears and says with anger, “I’m gonna feel like such an a–hole if I go up there.”  I’m dead certain there was more time involved while she struggled with her decision, but we don’t get to see it.  Finally she apologizes to her teammates and says she’s going to take the pass and go upstairs.  And you can see the agony written all over her face as she climbs the stairs to safety.

There’s no actor in the world that can replicate what we saw on Stacey’s face.  I do NOT envy her that decision.  Ultimately I have to respect her for it.  She’s a fighter and is desperately trying to change her life after her battle with alcoholism.  It’s actually a much easier decision to stay and cook, especially after 3 of your teammates have set that precedent.  I’ll bet she didn’t sleep a wink that night, kicking herself over and over for making that decision, but realizing that it may have saved her in the long run.  That’s real, gritty stuff, folks.  Brilliant episode, and I was incredibly moved by it.  Not to mention when my buddy Michael Chen was eliminated, which caused me to scream long and loud at the TV.

But it’s a new day, and a new episode.  And we’re starting with that AWFUL mystery box, which you know I hate.  And when the contestants lift that box, I’m actually jealous for the first time in the history of MasterChef mystery boxes.  It’s full of offal.  Organ meats.  Veal brains, lamb hearts, bull testicles, pig kidneys, chicken livers, cow tongue, veal sweetbreads (thymus gland), tripe (stomach lining), even a whole sheep’s head.  The audience cringes, and some of the contestants do, too!

Says Tanya with disgust, “There’s BALLS, a brain, a massive tongue…”

Not everyone is horrified though!  Felix gives us a gem: “The only thing that Chinese people don’t eat that has legs is CHAIRS!”  (She is, of course, Chinese.)
Becky‘s right there with her, and she beams “It’s going to be offally good!”

(The contestants this year are infinitely funnier than we were last year.)

Organ meats do tend to strike fear in the hearts of the average American.  These are the organs that normally get thrown away, or sold for pennies to various ethnic communities which revere them as delicacies.  Which is why I’m so puzzled (yet somewhat delighted) by the new offal movement in fine dining restaurants around the country, where these extremely inexpensive “waste” cuts are dressed up and put on a menu at $32.  Seriously…look up some menus at San Francisco, Chicago, and NYC’s finest restaurants and I guarantee you you’ll find sweetbreads and tripe and heart and tongue and bone marrow.  So in a few years, that trendiness will trickle down to the rest of American tables, and heart and brain and kidney will cost $14 a pound instead of $2.

It has long been known that organ meats are healthier for us than muscle meats.  They contain more vitamins and trace minerals, as well as have much more pungent flavors than regular meat.  Like most kids, I grew up HATING liver and kidney and gizzards, and would have been HORRIFIED if my mother had ever cooked brains or tongue or a whole head.  But after traveling the world for a decade, where offal is MORE prevalent than muscle meat, I developed a fondness, even a craving for it.  And especially since it causes such a response of disgust in most people, I LOVE cooking it and forcing people to take just one taste…and then they discover how delicious it really is.  (Some of you may recall the pig’s head that I smoked a month ago…SO many people on my Facebook were just horrified and disgusted when I cooked and ate it…some were even offended that I’d cook and eat the head.  What are we supposed to do with it?  Throw it away?  That’s disrespectful to the animal that gave its life for us to eat it!)  So I welcome this new trend called “nose-to-tail” eating, and more and more restaurants are buying whole animal carcasses and doing their own butchering, so that nothing is wasted.

I’d have been THRILLED to get this mystery box.  Lots of you were asking what I’d cook, and I’d definitely head in the direction of tapas…multiple small bites, which is sort of what Becky ended up doing.

I don’t know what all was in the limited pantry provided so I can’t give you an exact menu, but I’d sear off a sweetbread in butter…those things are meltingly tender provided you don’t overcook them.  I’d do a chicken liver sauteed in garlic and shallot (one of my favorite things on earth!).  I’d deep fry strips of cow testicle in a cornbread batter.  Here in Texas we call those “mountain oysters” and they’re DIVINE!  Monti decides to do the same thing and as she’s slicing into the truly GIANT testis, Graham and Joe walk by and ask her about it, and she says, “While I’m cutting this testicle, all I can think of is my ex-husband. Does that make me sound so Bobbit?”  And the look on Joe’s face is priceless as the color drains away and he imagines the slicing…  I’d stick the tongue in the freezer until the last minute, then shave off thin slices and sear them a few seconds on each side on cast iron…HEAVENLY if you’ve never tried it.  And probably present a little bite of scrambled egg and scrambled brain.  Appropriate sauces when needed, but the organ meats have SUCH flavor and texture on their own, they don’t really need sides or sauces.  A variety of offal bites…that’s definitely what I’d do.  TOO MUCH good stuff under that box to only pick one.

As it’s a mystery box, the judges only select 3 dishes to taste, and their selections are:

Becky, for her trio of chicken liver pate on toast, grilled sweetbreads with balsamic and shiitake mushroom, and fried sweetbreads.  Ryan, for his sweetbreads cooked in bacon fat with shallot curry oil.  And Christine, for her deep fried panko crusted sweetbreads with bok choy and a dipping sauce.  (Can you tell that sweetbreads are trendy right now?)

The judges pick Ryan.  Of course, I didn’t taste any of the dishes, but I’d have picked Becky’s, simply because she mastered 3 totally different preparations, and the other two mastered one.  But I think it was time to pick Ryan, because he’s about to prove to us that he is this year’s pseudo villain…at least the FIRST villain.  Inevitably a different one arises later, the formula is almost always the same.  (Remember Max from last season, replaced by Christian when Max left?)  So Max was a SMART choice by the judges in terms of the show’s plot.

Ryan discovers that the theme for the challenge is “Fresh versus Convenience” and he’s given a choice between 3 ingredients which can be VERY expensive fresh, but reasonably cheap canned:  tuna (a single bluefin tuna fish sold at the Tokyo Tsukiji fish market this January for $736,000…yet we all know how cheap a can of tuna is), ham (Spanish dry-cured Iberico hams can go for $96 a pound, which approaches $3000 for a single ham…yet potted ham is only cents for a can), and crab (the judges touted that one of the giant Dungeness crabs like they had on offer can retail for $60 each…but a can of crab meat, while probably the most expensive of the canned meats, is only a few dollars).  Not only is he excused from the challenge, Ryan gets to pick which protein the contestants will use…he chooses crab…, and he gets to specify WHICH 7 contestants will use live crab, and which 7 will use canned.

He immediately begins to strategize, making his decisions with the intent to destroy ALL his fellow competitors with the exception of his so-called “partner in crime” Tali.  He gives live crab to the people he thinks will not be able to deal with it, including Christine (who he believes can’t see well enough to effectively crack open the crab and take out the meat), Tanya, Scott, David, Mike, and Helene.  (Of course he thinks highly of Tali and knows that giving him a live crab is an advantage that will allow Tali to win the challenge.)  He gives canned crab to those he feels are his real competitors who might excel with fresh crab, including Monti, Becky, Stacey, Felix, Frank, Joshua, and Anna.

More one-liner gems arise as the contestants discover their fate and must shop for ingredients.  Monti mumbles “I hope Ryan gets crabs!” and then “What kinda guy gives live crab to a blind chick?”  Meanwhile, Christine is told by her assistant that the live crab is scuttling around in her shopping cart, and Christine whispers, “Can I just beat it with my cane?”

Back at their stations, dishes begin to emerge that make me REALLY REALLY hungry.  Crab is one of my favorite meats.  I like it WAY better than lobster.

Ultimately, the 2 best dishes are awarded to Josh, with his Thai-style crab trio (using canned crab!!) and Christine‘s fresh crab ceviche.  We get our first good glimpse of Joshua’s skill and personality as he tells Christine how sexy her ceviche is, and I giggled.  He’s a funny guy, let’s see more of him.  And our pseudo-villain grimaces from the balcony…his plot to foil Christine by making her cook and shell a live crab backfired.
I have to mention here that, if I had been judging and the dishes tasted as good as they looked, I’d have actually given the win to Monti, who made a VERY inventive Scotch egg.  Normally a Scotch egg is a soft-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, rolled in breadcrumbs, and deep fried.  It’s the ULTIMATE bar food, and it can be incredibly hard to pull off because peeling a soft-boiled egg is really tricky, and the egg has to be undercooked enough that deep frying it doesn’t totally solidify the yolk.  Monti gets all wickedly creative and basically makes a crab sausage, instead of pork, and her egg looks DIVINE!  The judges agree, they just didn’t give her the win.  I probably would have.  That was easily the most creative dish of the day.  Kudos, Monti, I can’t WAIT to cook with you!!!

When Christine is before the judges, we get another amazing moment that pulls us away from the sensationalism of the show, as Christine reveals that she doesn’t know what the judges actually look like, and she’s been trying to get her fellow contestants to describe them.  Graham makes a crack, “Okay, well I’m tall and thin, and Joe is short and fat.”  But again I am struck…of course it might be an advantage to NOT be privy to Bastianich’s stares of icy cold death, but so much of my experience as a contestant on the show was seeing the judge’s facial expressions as they tasted my food, as they critiqued me.  I’m SUCH a visual person.  I can’t imagine what Christine’s show experience must be like.

And this time, instead of 3 worst-dishes, the judges announce there will be 4!  Frank is pulled to the front because they think that he has limited range and is always falling back on his Italian roots…his crab pasta had TOO much crab in it, apparently.  (Is there such a thing as TOO MUCH CRAB?!?)  Helene is brought down for her Maryland-style fresh crab soup, which ended up so thick it was more like a jambalaya, and the judges said she had managed to make fresh crab taste like canned.  Cowboy Mike is down front for his crab bisque, also from fresh crab, and the criticism was that he destroyed the integrity of the meat by pureeing it…rendering it the same as canned.  And Tali, Ryan’s partner in crime, lands down front for his paprika crab legs, which the judges have to peel and eat themselves.  And since they don’t have crab picking utensils, they don’t even get to taste it.  Joe asks him where the backfin meat is, which is the most delicate of all crab morsels, located inside the main shell.  Tali says it was processed into the sauce at the bottom of the bowl.  Tali, you struck me with your comment about how you feel like you’re speaking a different language than the judges, and that they don’t “get” you.  It’s so crazy…I said literally the EXACT same thing, word for word, dozens of times in my interviews early on in my season.  I hope you hit your stride and that the judges start understanding your culinary expression…and that you start getting the chance to really shine and express yourself in a way you’re proud of.  I know EXACTLY how that feels…

The judges ultimately decide to send Helene home.  (I can’t make a call on which dish seems the worst or best out of the 4.  None of them actually look bad to me.)  I’m sad to see Helene go.  I had just begun to discover what a unique person she is.  She has a Masters degree in Nutrition and is a health coach.  As a child, she was so obese she had to get around in a wheelchair.  (Now, as you saw, she’s a stunning, slender, gorgeous woman who also models for a living.)  You can find out more about Helene on her superb website, http://www.heleneskitchen.com.

As she is awaiting her fate, Helene makes a striking comment.  “I’m not trusting my heart.  I’m doing what I think THEY want, and it’s not okay.”  I had that same epiphany halfway through my season.  You may remember, I was always landing at the bottom of challenges in the beginning of MasterChef.  And it’s because everyone around me was producing this sophisticated, well-conceptualized restaurant cuisine.  And I’m a HOME COOK.  I cook family style farmhouse and comfort foods from all over the world.  Not anything that could ever be considered “sophisticated.”  But I figured I had to compete at THEIR game, since this is, after all, MasterChef.  I didn’t heed the example of Whitney Miller from season one, who won the competition with her simple, honest, Southern food.  Ultimately the judges and producers WANT YOU TO BE YOURSELF.  They want the food on your plate to be a true representation of who YOU are.  And when I finally got that catfish…and then got to bake my pumpkin carrot cake…I realized that I had to keep being my own weird self in the kitchen if I was going to do well.  And I was able to do that all the way up until the venison replication challenge, when I had to stop using the techniques that *I* would use on venison (which I’ve cooked a hundred times), and use a “sophisticated, well-conceptualized” Ramsay-technique of a gentle butter poach for venison (I’ve never poached red meat in butter before)…and that was my ticket home.  When I had to stop being myself in the kitchen.  So I feel you, Helene.  I think it’s sad that you didn’t get a second chance to truly show us YOUR style of cooking on the show.  But I know you will make waves and will touch many people on your journey.  I wish you all the best!

Lo and behold, 3 of the 4 “worst” dishes in this episode utilized the live, fresh crab, rather than the canned!  This can be an important lesson for all of us who don’t live in a place where meats are plentiful in their fresh form.  The canned and packaged versions of meats CAN, in fact, produce a superior final product than their fresh counterparts.  By the time crab gets to Dallas, it’s not truly fresh enough to have superior texture and flavor…unless you pay a pretty penny for it at a super-luxe gourmet market where it was flown in the day it was caught.  I almost NEVER use fresh live crab when I cook in Dallas.  The canned crab is ACTUALLY BETTER.  This is because most types of fish and shellfish begin to degrade VERY rapidly once they are caught.  Some types absolutely MUST be either flash frozen, or cooked within 48 hours of being caught, or they’re just plain gross.  So don’t shy away from seafood marked “previously frozen.”  That previously-frozen scallop may actually taste WAY better when you cook it than the “fresh, never frozen” scallop next to it that costs twice as much and was caught 7 days ago.  That’s because the frozen scallop was flash-frozen on the boat within an hour of being caught.

Now, when I’m in Seattle and it’s Dungeness crab season and Pike Place Market is brimming with live, cheap crab, you can bet that I’m going for live, at that point!  But many, if not most, home-cook recipes can substitute canned crab and still be stunning.  (Just make sure you pick through the meat…even though it’s canned crab it may still have shell and cartilage bits in it.)

Before closing, I want to discuss Ryan some more.  Now that the audience has pegged him as the villain, people are heaping insults on him in the social media world.  First of all, I’m not seeing the villain thing.  Ryan is a goofball.  I honestly don’t believe a single “mean” thing he says.  I think he’s acting.  I don’t think he’s being himself.  I think Ryan is a sensitive, slightly-awkward kid who never felt like he belonged in any crowd in school, so he ended up being the class clown, because that was the way he could get affirmation and attention.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.  When he tries to be evil and conspiring, I actually laugh out loud.  And trust me, when I see a villain being evil on Reality TV, my stomach gets sick and I wanna vomit.  Ryan doesn’t elicit that response.  He just makes me laugh.  He’s a silly kid.  I like him.

Yes, he made some very bold moves, especially when assigning a live crab to a blind contestant.  However, Christine knew that all MasterChef contestants end up working with live shellfish…she was going to have to work with it at some point.  (And, as we saw, she excelled with the live crab…that ceviche was something that COULD NOT have been done with canned crab.)  And there was actually a VERY real moment when Ryan was asked to taste Christine’s ceviche, and he looked at her with soft, genuine eyes and said, “It’s really yummy, Christine, congratulations.”  And that was the most heart-felt thing we’ve seen from Ryan all season.  And I BELIEVED that.

So let’s back off Ryan a little.  (Does being mean to someone you think is mean actually solve anything?!?)  I’ve screamed until I’m deaf for the past year that you can’t ever pass judgement on someone just by watching them on a reality TV show.  Christian, last year’s super-villain, is one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve met anywhere in the world.  That’s not up for debate, it’s the truth.  So please realize before you decide to hate someone that you’re seeing a character that’s being carefully cultivated by the show so that it’s entertaining for us.  And IT IS ENTERTAINING!!!  I thoroughly enjoyed this episode.  If Ryan is the worst villain we have to deal with this year, I’ll breeze right through the season loving every minute of this class-clown’s attempt at playing the bad guy.  And the contestants will be VERY lucky if he’s the most intimidating cook they have to face.  (As much as I adore Christian, it was VERY intimidating cooking against him.)

GREAT episode, I laughed my way through, I saw great food being cooked, I didn’t feel like the judges were interfering with the contestants, as they so often do in group challenges…  For me, this was a model MasterChef episode.  GOOD JOB everyone!