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MasterChef 4 recap: Glee and Meringue (S4E10)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not affiliated with Fox or MasterChef.  Contained below are the maniacal ravings of a season 2 survivor who has no inside knowledge of how this season was produced.  Well…not much, anyway.)

When I posted my blog about the first of this week’s episodes (which happened to be a bit depressing and hopeless), my fans all said, “Oh, then you don’t wanna know what happens in the next episode.”  I had already watched it folks…I generally watch MasterChef the night it airs, not taking notes or pausing, but just watching it the way you do.  The next day I watch each episode more carefully, taking notes and stopping to type out quotes.  Then I watch it again as I write the blog.  (It takes about 4-5 hours total to “produce” one blog entry.)  So perhaps some of the drama from the episode I’m covering now bled into my disgust and rage yesterday over the show’s complete lack of integrity and its decision to throw away its core theme, rather than making the show about C-O-O-K-I-N-G.

But we’re brought back to a place of supreme happiness in the beginning of this episode, as the contestants find themselves strolling through a Hollywood set that’s familiar to millions of us: the set of Glee.  And Bri is about to pee in her pants with excitement.  (The first thing I thought when I saw Bri on the show was, “That girl looks like she just stepped off the set of Glee!”)  I feel ya, Bri.  I’d be going nuts, too.

I watched the first couple of seasons of Glee, which is uncharacteristic of me, because I don’t watch TV.  But as a former theatre geek who can often be caught singing at the top of my lungs at any given moment of the day, I couldn’t stop myself.  I was that weird kid in high school who wasn’t a jock or a rich kid, nor was I conventionally popular.  So the show resonated with me.  Even though the script is wretched (come on, guys, a middle schooler could write better!), the themes they explore are interesting, and at times uncomfortable, and the show’s popularity is proof that people are connecting with it.

I stopped watching Glee after the first two seasons because, no matter how good the music was, I couldn’t get over the bad writing.  Too presentational.  Too awkward.  Not realistic.  And I migrated over to their feeder show, The Glee Project on Oxygen network.  It’s everything that Glee should be, because it’s real.  If you’ve never seen it, catch the next season if it gets renewed.  (It probably will, since Glee got a 2 year renewal.)  They cast aspiring actors who want to be on the show, and put them through a series of challenges to ultimately win a role on the show.  These kids aren’t acting roles…they are exploring themselves.  And they represent the full spectrum of youth.  There are gorgeous, hunky jock guys.  Pretty cheerleader girls.  Nerds.  Kids with real disabilities.  Kids struggling with their weight and their self image.  Kids struggling with their gender identity.  Gay kids.  Devoutly religious kids.  And they work with a panel of judges (as well as cast members from Glee) on a reality TV show that is a MODEL of what reality TV should be like.  The judges are nurturing and supportive.  While drama NATURALLY arises in a competition, they don’t prod it.  They reveal it, but don’t make judgements on it.  They celebrate compassion and humanity, and their goal is self awareness.  It’s just incredible stuff.  It’s TV that makes you feel proud to be human.  Can’t get enough of it.

So our group challenge today will be cooking for the cast and crew of Glee.  And the incomparable Jane Lynch stops by the choir room to assign teams.

I have to stop and talk about Jane Lynch.  Her Glee role certainly skyrocketed her to fame, but I’ve been a Lynch fan for years, ever since she joined the powerhouse team headed by Christopher Guest in 2000 that makes such brilliant films as This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman (one of my favorite films of all time), Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration…the last 3 of which have featured Lynch in fabulous roles.

She’s quite simply an INCREDIBLE actor.  While her Christopher Guest films have her playing kooky roles, her role as Coach Sylvester in Glee has allowed her true breadth as an actress to spill out on screen.  She has these rare moments on the show when the tough exterior wall comes down and we see moments of rare and raw tenderness and emotion, like when we first discovered her older sister had Down Syndrome and how it affected her relationship with the DS student who wanted to be a cheerleader.

Off stage, Lynch is a staunch supporter of gay and lesbian rights.  As an out gay woman, she joins the ranks of Ellen and Rosie in her sweeping influence and her position as a role model for young gay women.

If you can’t tell…I have trouble offering up ANYTHING but sweeping praise for this woman.  She is a gem.

In her own special way, Lynch separates the contestants into 2 teams: Beauties and Beasts.

Jessie heads up the Red “Beauty” team: Bri, Savannah, Eddie, Luca, Beth, and Lynn.

Krissi heads up the Blue “Beast” team: BimeJordan, Natasha, James, Bethy, and Jonny.

Something interesting happens, because after she first arbitrarily assigns teams based on whether she thinks someone is a beauty or a beast, she goes back and makes some changes.  My guess is that the producers wanted a bit of shuffling on the teams, so they stopped filming and consulted with her on the switch.  (Of course, I could be totally wrong, maybe it was truly arbitrary, but with both Jordan and Lynn originally on the Krissi’s team, that places the balance of what we currently perceive as “strong male talent” on one team.)

The teams have 90 minutes to prep 3 different meals for 127 members of the cast and crew of Glee.  Their designated menus are: fried chicken with fries and slaw, grilled salmon with asparagus and scalloped potatoes, and vegan lasagne with salad.  After the 90 minutes of prep time is up, they’ll have an hour for service.

The first challenge is that you don’t want to waste time and ingredients by over-prepping food (100 servings of each meal), but you also can’t forecast which dish will be the most popular and have the most demand.  Personally, I’d assume the salmon and vegan lasagne would be the most popular because Californians in general and actors in particular tend to eat lighter and healthier, because they all have to be camera- and beach-worthy all year long.  (But I’d have been wrong, because we later discover the the fried chicken is the most in demand.)

Luckily, salmon only takes a few minutes to grill, the lasagne can be quickly prepped far ahead of time and held in the oven, and chicken can be fried ahead of time and held fairly well in the oven.

From the start, Krissi’s team is sailing smoothly.  They are working together and are ahead of schedule.  However, when I see the segments of Krissi’s interview, which is usually recorded the day AFTER the challenge is filmed, there’s something wrong in her voice, so I immediately know they are going to lose the challenge.

Over on Jessie’s team, it’s total chaos.  In a moment of distraction, Jessie stops using the slicing guard with her mandoline while she’s slicing potatoes, and she shaves off the tip of her finger, including part of the nail.

Mandolines are one of the most dangerous tools in the kitchen.  Instead of a knife, where you control the blade as you push it through the food…with a mandoline you are pushing the food down onto the knife to cut it.  It’s highly effective for making perfectly thin, uniform slices, and I can’t live without my mandoline.  But if you choose to use it without the slicing guard, you are taking a MASSIVE risk of a very bad cut.  (Many contestants on my season cut themselves on the mandoline.)

Jessie doesn’t do well with blood, and as the medic is trying to patch her up, she nearly faints.  And with the volume of blood pumping out of that massive cut, you can imagine she was down for a bit until the wound stopped bleeding.  (The narration indicates she cut herself 15 minutes in, and returned with 20 minutes left, which means she was out for almost a full hour.)  During her absence, her team is falling apart around her.  (Which, of course, means they’re going to win, somehow.)  The sugary marinade on their salmon is causing the skin to stick to the grill.  (Though I would imagine the average California diner won’t want the skin on, anyway.)  It’s VERY tricky to keep salmon from sticking on the grill, unless your grill is incredibly well seasoned and you oil the skin thoroughly.  When I grill salmon, I serve it without skin, because the grill removes the skin for you.  I grill the bare side first to get great char marks, then I flip it over onto the skin side.  Then I spatula the fillet right off the skin, which sticks to the grill.

Prep time expires, and the teams present their flavors:

Jessie’s chicken is a traditional Southern buttermilk fried chicken, while Krissi has a spicy “Latin” fried chicken with jalapeno ranch sauce.  (I’m trying to figure out what “Latin” fried chicken is…)

Jessie’s salmon has a soy ginger glaze on it, while Krissi has marinated hers in balsamic vinegar.

Jessie’s vegan lasagne has a pesto sauce, while Krissi’s has a spicy tomato sauce.

Both teams run out of fried chicken, which is definitely the most time consuming of the 3 entrees.  This results in some chicken going out raw from Bime on Krissi’s team.  And everyone freaks out, including Krissi who says that raw chicken is “deadly.”  Gordon is the only one who utters the dreaded S word: “s-a-l-m-o-n-e-l-l-a.”

Let’s chat a bit about salmonella, shall we?  Because I feel like this maligned bacteria has a far worse reputation than it deserves.  Chances are good that YOU have had salmonella.  Multiple times.  We’ve pretty much all had it.  It’s a very, very common bacteria.  Some humans carry it in their digestive tract permanently.  When you get infected with salmonella from food, the symptoms are almost always mild…gastric upset for a few days, nothing more.  Some “severe” infections will include fever and vomiting.  Ever had a “stomach bug?”  It was probably salmonella.  Most people recover without the need for medicine.  And salmonella isn’t lethal…however, extreme dehydration can be deadly, which is why the most important treatment for salmonella is hydration.

Of course, you don’t want to infect an entire cast with salmonella, because it will halt the show’s production.  But I do get a little puzzled when people whisper “salmonella” as if it was comparable to ebola.  It ain’t gonna kill ya if you get it.  “So you lose a few pounds, big deal!” to quote a line from one of Christopher Guest’s films.  Stay hydrated and rest, and see a doctor if the infected person is very young, very old, or has a compromised immune system.  (Among those groups, salmonella infection CAN be deadly, with around 400 deaths a year due to complications from salmonella infection.  400 may sound like a lot, but compared to the number of deaths versus the number of infections…the CDC estimates over 1.2 million cases a year…it’s not even remotely on the radar of serious deadly diseases.)

Virtually all infections from salmonella in the US are actually from fruits and vegetables, or from live animals like hedgehogs and baby ducks, not from chicken meat.  Click here to see a list of salmonella outbreaks in the US, on which you’ll find a grand total of 1 outbreak from chicken meat since 2006, out of a total of 50.  You’re far more likely to get salmonella from cantaloupe or peanut butter than you are from chicken.  And many cultures eat chicken rare or even raw.

But still…on MasterChef you need to serve fully cooked chicken to your diners.  Service is finally complete, the the Glee cast and crew place their votes in a box.  A parade arrives to deliver the results, and Jane Lynch grabs the megaphone from Gordon and says, “This is my set.  Not yours.  I’m in charge.”  And the results are shocking…(which shouldn’t be shocking, because they always are)…out of a total of 127 votes, the team snagging a whopping 90 of those votes is Jessie’s team.  With only 37 votes, Krissi is furious over the loss and attributes it to Bime’s Latin chicken.

Back in the MasterChef kitchen, the judges reveal some interesting statistics.  There were 56 servings of chicken, and 30 votes went to Bime’s “Latin” chicken.  Their team only got 37 votes total, which means that Bime’s chicken was, in fact, the hero of the team.  And it turns out that Jordan’s salmon only garnered 2 out of the 54 servings that went out.  (A little math reveals, then, that only 17 servings of vegan lasagne went out, and 5 voted for the losing team’s.)  However, I am always highly suspect of the legitimacy of scores on group challenges.  I am quite certain they are very specifically manipulated.

Now it’s pressure test time, and as usual, the producers are turning MasterChef into The Hunger Games…making it about strategy rather than cooking.  Krissi can save whoever she wants, as long as she saves at least 1 person, and at least 2 people compete.  (What ever happened to this being a cooking show?  How does winning MasterChef because you were able to strategically handicap and sabotage your fellow competitors mean that you actually won anything at all?)

Krissi saves Jonny and Natasha.

Krissi keeps Bethy on the floor because she considers her a threat.  She keeps James on the floor because she expects him to do very well, knocking out someone in the pressure test.  In a surprising move, she keeps Bime on the floor, even though his component was the star of the team.  And she keeps Jordan on the floor as well.

For the record, I HATE this concept of saving people from a pressure test…the entire team should compete.  But I would have made this decision the way I was going to make it when MY team lost the pressure test.  Pressure tests are typically baking-intensive.  If I was forced to save someone, I’d save the teammates that were least comfortable baking…REGARDLESS of their performance in the challenge…to give them the maximum chance of staying in the competition.

Now Krissi has to decide whether to save herself.  Formerly, she attacked Jordan when he saved himself as the team captain, saying, “That’s a bitch move.  Where I’m from, that’ll get your -ss kicked.”  But it’s easy to say that when you’re not the one faced with the decision to save yourself or compete.

She says, “What comes to mind is my kid.  And what my kid would say is ‘You had a chance to save yourself, for us, and you didn’t take it?  And you went home on that?’  I’m not gonna disappoint my kid.”

In the world where I grew up, kids didn’t teach the parents about integrity.  When your kid suggests you basically cheat in order to survive, that’s when MY parents would have sat me down and gave me a stern lesson.  In fact, I specifically remember my father choosing to go to prison, when he could have “gotten off,” even though it left his family without a breadwinner, to teach us a lesson about integrity.  Yes…that’s a big story.  It’s also sorta private.  But my father has, time and again, demonstrated to me that sometimes you have to make difficult decisions in order to retain your integrity as a human…as a parent.  Because when you sell off your integrity, there’s not much left.

So let’s theorize a bit…say Krissi chose to stay and compete.  She immediately wins the respect of the entire audience, rather than the audience going nutso on her and heaping hate all over her social media.  Let’s say that she performed poorly in the pressure test and got eliminated.  (The producers LOVE to eliminate a team leader following a pressure test, it’s VERY common in previous seasons.)  She goes home to her kid, who says, “You had a chance to save yourself, for us, and you didn’t take it?”  That’s when you sit your kid down and say, “It’s time for a chat.  I stayed because I’m a fighter.  Because I have principles.  I wasn’t gonna let the whole country think of your mother as scumbag who took the hall pass.  You come from a family of fighters, and when it’s time to show your stuff, you compete at the top of your game rather than slinking off to hide on the sidelines.  And even if you fail, you know you did your best and you behaved with dignity and respect, so that’s all anyone can give back to you.”

Still, you have to respect Krissi for making the decision for her kid’s sake.  Her whole purpose of being on the show is to try to make a better life for her kid.  She’s a single mom.  She sleeps on the couch in her 1-bedroom apartment, so her kid can have a room.  I don’t know what that’s like…but it must be incredibly hard.

So I’m not gonna criticize or attack Krissi for this decision.  (I don’t think ANYONE can do the same unless they’ve been in her shoes, and faced the same decision.)  But I DO think that the more powerful lesson for her kid would have been for her to stay and compete.  Bowing out teaches the kid to cheat the system to get ahead, rather than working.  (At this point I should make it clear that I am NOT a parent.  And I have no business doling out parenting advice.  That’s just an opinion based on the lessons my parents taught me when I was a kid.)

James delivers a genius barb of sarcasm: ” ‘I’m doing this for my son.’  Oh, right, right!  You’re the only person who has someone at home that they love that they’re doing this for.  Got it!”  For the record, James, is doing this for his fiancee and they’re gonna be married soon.  (I’m pretty sure.)  All the best to them!

This season’s pressure tests have been primarily about desserts, and this one is no different.  Lemon meringue pie.  (But without lemons, for some reason…they’re being offered every other type of citrus known to man.)  This is yet another repeat challenge from my season, where lemon meringue pie was used to take the top 4 down to 3…ironically Suzy Singh, who specializes in baking, was eliminated after presenting a weepy meringue.

Let’s chat about meringue, because working with egg white foams is probably the single most important skill for a baker to master.  There are 3 types of meringue, French/classic, Swiss, and Italian.  Classic or French meringue is made by beating sugar and cream of tartar into egg whites.  This is a raw meringue that can be baked into a pie topping, but it’s used far more often to bake cakes and souffles (in which case it is baked) and make mousses (in which case, it is served raw).  Yes…raw meringue is perfectly acceptable to serve in many culinary applications, but if I remember correctly, Mike Kim was eliminated from season 1 of MasterChef for serving a raw meringue on top of fruit.  If eating raw egg freaks you out, use pasteurized eggs.

The other 2 types of meringues are cooked meringues.  They are “done” even in liquid form, and if Gordon says “raw” he just means they weren’t baked until dry.  Which you don’t do with a meringue pie.  The meringue should be more like whipped cream.  There are 2 types of cooked meringues, Swiss and Italian.  With the Swiss method, you beat the whites, sugar, and cream of tartar over a simmering water bath until they reach 170F.  Then you beat them in your mixer.  This results in a chewy meringue, perfect for cookies and decorations and macaroons.  The Italian method involves making a hot sugar syrup and once it reaches 240F-250F, you pour the hot syrup in a thin stream into the egg whites as they beat, and this results in a light and fluffy meringue that is the best choice for meringue pies.  The meringue is fully cooked and only needs to be baked until the outside browns a bit for flavor and texture.

“Pastry Chef Ramsay” delivers the secret to the perfect lemon meringue pie: “It’s in the base.  That nice, firm salt crust pastry.”  I have never in my life heard of any pastry referred to as “salt crust.”  Now, you can bake meat in a crust of salt held together with egg whites, and that’s a fabulous technique that I love using.  But you don’t eat the salt crust.  It’s pure salt.  I spent about 5 minutes Googling and looking through my culinary school textbooks, and couldn’t find a thing on it.  So that’s just a Ramsay flub.  We gotta cut the guy a little slack.  He’s a culinary chef, not a pastry chef, and he’s got HOURS of screen time to fill.

He also says that the secret to the meringue “is to make sure it doesn’t weep.”  That’s not the secret, Gordon, that’s the problem.  The secret would be HOW TO PREVENT it from weeping.  “Get it wrong by 1 gram of sugar, and it can go absolutely pear shaped.”  Not quite sure what that last bit means.  But he is slightly right.  Sugar is what stabilizes the egg white foam and gives it structure.  Not enough sugar and the meringue can sag.  But the sugar content isn’t what prevents the meringue from weeping.  Beating the whites to the proper texture…just barely before stiff peaks are reached…is what prevents it from weeping.  Underbeaten meringues haven’t had enough protein structure developed, so the scaffolding web of protein can’t hold in all the moisture.  Overbeaten meringues have over-worked the protein web and crammed too much air into the structure, so the structure begins breaking down and leaking moisture.  The addition of cream of tartar acidifies the whites, so they can hold a firmer structure, and it should always be used sparingly.  Too much cream of tartar and the meringue will be so acidic that it won’t easily brown in the oven.  (Alkaline ingredients brown much more readily.)  As a side note, cream of tartar is a byproduct of the wine making process.  When the pH, or acidity, of the grapes is adjusted downward, to make the juice less acidic, what precipitates out of the wine is potassium bitartrate…or cream of tartar.  This VERY handy ingredient can also be used to prevent sugar syrups from crystallizing (handy for caramel sauces and glazes), and you can add a pinch of it to boiling water to prevent blanched or boiled vegetables from becoming drab as their sugars reach the caramelization point.  (Conversely, you can add baking soda to the boil water to encourage browning, because it makes the water more alkaline.  I do this with my potatoes when I pre-cook them before turning them into french fries, home fries, etc.)

Swiss and Italian meringues are far more resistant to weeping than the classic French meringue.  You can provide extra insurance against weeping by using powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar, because the corn starch in the sugar helps absorb excess moisture from the whites.  The addition of a bit of tapioca starch also makes a dramatic difference, and it also helps the meringue stick properly to the filling, so that it doesn’t slide off.  (You should also put the meringue onto room temperature filling, not hot or cold.)  Bake the meringue slowly with lower oven temp than most recipes call for, to prevent rapidly stiffening egg white proteins from squeezing out beads of moisture while they bake.  350F for 10-15 minutes will give a better result than the traditional 400F for 5-8 minutes.

Of course, the contestants aren’t going to have that luxury, because they have only 90 minutes to bake the pie.  So the pastry cream is going into a hot crust, the meringue is going onto hot pastry cream, and there’s really no chance at all that any contestant will produce a PROPER citrus meringue pie in that amount of time.  (90 minutes isn’t even enough time to produce a proper butter pastry crust on its own, as it needs to chill before rolling out, and again after rolling out, to be the proper texture and minimize shrinkage when it bakes.)

For the record, I H-A-T-E meringue pies.  I find the texture disgusting.  Let’s have whipped cream on top, shall we?!?

There are some disasters.  Bime makes his pastry cream with cream of tartar rather than cornstarch.  (Which would result in an inedibly tart, acidic paste that won’t set up because there’s no starch to hold the filling together.)  When tasting, Gordon literally pours the liquid filling into 2 martini glasses for them to sample.  Virtually all the contestants have under-baked crusts.

We get shots of Krissi up in the balcony “laughing at the contestants’ misfortune.”  I never trust these, not once.  In my season, PLENTY of reactions were pulled out of their original scenarios and edited into a different place, to make it look like someone was laughing to be mean.  Sometimes comments and footage are pulled from completely different challenge days and edited in at different times to increase drama.  Last season, when the audience got up in arms after seeing Ryan Umane, the “flavor elevator,” laughing and rubbing his hands maniacally when Christina Ha injured herself trying to deal with the live crab he had assigned her to cook.  In fact, that clip was completely unrelated to the crab incident and was pulled from a totally different scenario, just to make him look evil.  Don’t trust everything you see.

Yes, she does say, “This is working out exactly as I had planned.  Bye, Bime.”  You can bet that phrase was encouraged, if not flat out given to her to say, by the producers.  Yeah, Krissi is polarizing, and she’s not afraid to insult or criticize her fellow competitors.  (Most folks from the northeast are like that, it’s part of their culture.)  I’m not trying to say she’s an angel.  But I AM saying there’s no need to think she’s wicked and evil to the core, and seek her out on Facebook or Twitter to spew hate at her.  It’s not hard to find pictures of her hanging out, hugging on her fellow contestants both during filming and now.  They clearly don’t hate each other as much they show makes it appear.

James’ meringue is overbeaten…you can see it “chunking up” as he spreads it on top of his filling.  (Properly whipped meringue will be smooth and malleable, just like a thick liquid or pudding.  If it gets ragged, splits easily, or separates into chunks when you’re working with it, it’s overbeaten.)  He ends up having to torch it to brown the top, leaving the meringue beneath “raw.”  He doesn’t have enough filling, either, but what is there tastes good.  But his crust is underdone.

Bethy’s pie looks beautiful, but the curd isn’t set and the crust is underdone.

Jordan has a stunningly-presented pie, but his crust is too thin and is still raw.  The curd is set properly and tastes good.  In fact, Joe says, “It’s definitely the best cake I’ve tasted so far.”  Originally I figured they must have patched that comment in from another challenge, but you can see the fork full of pie in the shot, so I guess this is just another flub and the editing room let it through.

Bime’s pie is the biggest disaster, with the runny filling that includes 10 Tablespoons of cream of tartar.  Gordon says, “What are you trying to do, kill us?”  While there are no documented cases of poisoning by cream of tartar, it can, in large doses, affect the rhythm of the heart, as well as cause diarrhea and vomiting.

Ultimately, Jordon is the only one who executed a nearly-acceptable pie.  But again…not even a professional pastry chef will try to execute a meringue pie in 90 minutes from start to finish.

Bime is eliminated.  And Gordon says, “You shouldn’t be leaving the MasterChef kitchen tonight.  You know that.”  I think the judges expected him to go much farther.  He certainly produced some stunning dishes.

Follow Bime on Facebook and Twitter, and I wish him and his daughters all the best!

Feel free to comment below…I’m sure you all have LOTS of thoughts about this episode!


MasterChef recap: Three’s Company

(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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A Post-Masterchef Perspective

I have just spent the past 5 hours reading a fraction of the 949 tweets, 549 emails, and 1752 Facebook messages that have been posted in the 300 minutes since MasterChef finished airing on the East Coast.  (Update, as of 11pm August 10, about 24 hours after the show has ended, my email inbox has over 7000 emails in it.)

Before tonight, I believe I have successfully responded to everyone who has reached out to me on the internet.  That’s important to me.  If someone has taken the time to email me, it’s my obligation to respond personally.

Bear with me.  7000 messages may take me a few days!

But there are some things I feel the need to share with everyone.  The fact that I’ve received 7000 messages in the 24 hours since I was eliminated on MasterChef is important.

Let me start by saying that I ABHOR reality television.  It’s stupendously ironic that I decided to be on it.  (My friends will never forgive me!)  But I truly believe that Reality TV brings out the worst in good people.  I can, without hesitation, say that I’d move next door to Christian Collins and be quite happy to grow old as his best friend.  Christian is a GOOD man.  But millions of people hate him now, which is unwarranted and  unjust.

I went on Reality TV to prove that a contestant can have dignity, generosity, integrity, and a love for his fellow contestants, and STILL be interesting to watch.  And the fact that I’ve had such an overwhelming response from the MasterChef audience proves exactly that.

In the past two months, I have recieved emails from homeless people, from teenage girls suffering from eating disorders, from parents who lost children in the terrorist attacks in Norway, from rape victims who hadn’t told another living soul about their attack, from people with terminal cancer who have preciously numbered days.  And in the past two months I have received emails from teenagers who, in a suicidal moment, found inspiration from a moment on MasterChef, and from 11 year olds practicing molecular gastronomy for their science projects, and from children who want grow up to elevate dignity in developing countries by elevating the level of food that is provided by humanitarian efforts, and from retired octogenarians who had never learned to cook but were inspired by the show to start learning after 80 years, and from single moms who had been feeding their kids fast food every night of the week who have been inspired by MasterChef to get in the kitchen, instead, and make them something with her own two hands.  And this doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Cooking may be a chore for some people.  It may be a rare escape for others.  It may be a salary for some.  It may terrify others.  But cooking is the most powerful ritual we share, as humans.  This has been made evident to me by the fact that I can be presented with a box of ingredients, and a camera records me cooking it, and then hundreds of people pour out their soul to me in emails after watching it.

I learned many things on MasterChef.  First and foremost, I gained the friendship of dozens of incredibly talented people.  As an adult, the “lifelong friendship” phenomenon grows increasingly scarce.  It’s hard to make new friends who love and understand you the way your family does, and the way your friends who’ve known you since you were a kid do.  I suddenly found myself in a room with 100 nervous contestants, listing to lectures about how we were the finest home cooks in the country…and some of those 100 I grew very, very close to.  Renee, Donna, Risa, Seby, Pauline, Shawn, Christine Wendell, Kayla and Kala, Michelle.  These are names you don’t know, which is sad, because they each had a unique culinary brilliance, and in the two weeks we were all together filming the first “signature dish” portion of MasterChef, we became so close.

Then there were 18.  And the pressure quadrupled.  And we all became that much closer.  You each saw carefully crafted characters, selectively drawn from the hours and hours of footage from people like Max and Christian and Esther and Suzy…who attracted so much criticism, but who are each delightful, adorable people.  (And I’m not just saying that to be nice.)  Never forget that when you watch TV, you are watching caricatures.  Do you REALLY think Joe Bastianich would have a loving wife and kids who adore him, if all he was was someone who attacked and complained about everything?  People are never one-dimensional.  Don’t think you can sum up a person based on how they are edited on a TV show.

The relationships I have developed with my fellow 18 finalists have changed the spectrum of my life.  In the short months since the filming of MasterChef wrapped, I’ve been to NY and LA to visit friends from the show, and I’ve entertained no less than 6 in my own home.

MasterChef not only changed us by bringing important, dear, new friends into our lives.  It changed our lives.  Many of the top 100 have left their former careers to pursue their own individual culinary passions.  I plan to highlight some of these new ventures in my blog in the coming weeks.

MasterChef has been a potent inspiration for not only the 100 semi finalists, but for the audience as well.  I’ve received emails from literally hundreds of people who have set foot in the kitchen for the very first time, inspired by the show.

I don’t know where my MasterChef experience will ultimately lead me.  I hope I can spend a few years working in television, but only in a capacity that helps people and builds them up.  You can help me do this by staying in touch.  Email me.  Tell me what you’re up to.  Visit my site and read my blog to see what I’ve been up to.  Tell your friends about me.  If you have a brilliant TV show idea, email it to me.  The more a network discovers that we have formed a community, the more interest they will have in representing us.

I do hope, one day, to achieve my dream of opening a sustainable guest farm, cafe, and microbrewery in Hawaii.  Then I can welcome guests from all over the world who want to share in the joys of food, family, and the earth.  You can read more about it by clicking MY DREAM at the top of your screen.

But for now, it’s my hope that I can share with you a few quick things that I feel everyone on the planet should understand:

*Our planet is beautiful.  Get OUTSIDE and see it.  Sleep in a hammock.  Watch the sunset.  See the Grand Canyon.  (Or better yet, Grand Gulch.)  Take a farm road rather than a freeway.  Go off the beaten path.

*Our planet is fragile.  Recycle.  Compost.  These things don’t require much more effort than tossing something in the trash.  But if we will ALL do it, we’ll make a huge difference.

*Know where your meat comes from.  A life is taken each time you sit down to eat meat.  Respect that.  Understand the conditions that many industrially-raised meat animals endure.  Every living creature on earth deserves a life of dignity.  And while I’m no vegetarian, I believe that a meat animal can live a happy, fulfilled life, before it fulfills its purpose on the food chain.  Knowing where your meat comes from will make you choose better sources of meat.  Not only does it taste better, it lived better.

*Know where your fruits and veggies come from.  That lettuce you’re eating may have been driven 1500 miles from an industrial farm to land on your dinner plate, when a family farmer 50 miles away is struggling to sell his lettuce.  Ask your grocer to label his produce with its origin.  Tell him you want to see more local crops in the store.  The market gets what the market asks for.  And if the market demands local, it will get local.  This will rebuild our local economies, which are the backbone of America.

*Know WHEN your fruits and veggies come from.  Ever eat a peach in January?  Not only was it expensive, it had no taste.  Because it was picked green in another hemisphere and put on a boat to a port, and trucked hundreds of miles to land in your grocery store.  Eat seasonally.  Look FORWARD to the local peach harvest in July, when peaches are cheapest because they traveled the shortest distance to get from the tree to your mouth.  Then look forward to it for another 11 months until it comes again.

*Support local restaurants, especially ones that support local farms.  Get out of the chains, and get into the family-run places.  The food is fresher.  It has more soul.  And the money stays in your community.

*Investigate local co-ops that buy from local farms.  These are also called CSA’s, or Community Supported Agriculture.  This is a way to get local, organic produce for CHEAPER than what it costs in the grocery store, while supporting local family-run organic farms.  (It’s often cheaper even than buying non-organic produce from the grocery store.)  Check http://www.localharvest.org/csa/ to get started.

*And finally…  Cook.  Restaurants are great.  Without them, chefs wouldn’t have jobs!  But there is no meal better than the one you cook yourself for people you love.  Even if you set the kitchen on fire (which I’ve done), or end up with a blackened, burnt mess (which I’ve done), the laughter and joy you and your family and friends will share is worth more than a meal at the finest restaurant in the world.  (Which, coincidentally, closed last week.  Sorry, folks!)

Thank you for sharing this MasterChef journey with me.  It was only the first step of something far more important to come.  Stick with me!  I’ll try to make sure you never regret it!

As for tonight…I am BURIED in love, from every angle.  This is an incredible thing to feel.  Everyone in the world should feel this loved at least once.  It is a life-changing experience.