(Please note that the following blog entry reflects my own opinions and is NOT endorsed or approved by MasterChef. I have no inside knowledge of how eliminations are made or how food is judged, either for my season or the current one. My opinions should not be treated as fact.)
So we’re down to 11, and for today’s mystery box challenge, there’s a twist. Graham is going to cook alongside the contestants! A fascinating move by the producers…I love it. Graham claims that he doesn’t know what’s under the box. (I have serious doubts about that, but what’s definitely certain is that he hasn’t been able to do any prep work.) This is going to be interesting!
The box comes up, and it’s a rabbit! One of my FAVORITE meats to cook with. (Tali’s not too sure about it; he says: “I couldn’t believe my eyes, I see what looks like a road kill.”) Also in the box are purple Brussels sprouts (never seen those before), gooseberries, some interesting-looking mushrooms, ramps (which are a foraged ingredient…wild leeks, the mildest of the wild onions, and REALLY delicious), something called “Forbidden rice” (which is apparently just a fancy term for black rice, which is actually a grass seed, not true rice), Spanish chorizo (a hard cured sausage, nothing like the fresh soft Mexican chorizo we’re more familiar with here in the southwest), ginger, fennel, purple carrots, and a box of baking ingredients like heavy cream, eggs, flour, etc.
Most mystery boxes give me a rash, but not this one. Rabbit is one of my favorite meats, and they’ve got fennel in the box, which is my favorite thing to pair with rabbit. I have an extremely potent and fond memory of a trip to Brittany in western France several years back with my partner and our friend Chris. We rented a house in a tiny medieval village called La Feuillee. The village is impossibly quaint and totally off the tourist track. There’s not even a hotel in the hamlet.
The house was a renovated barn dating from the 1700s, and stood right across the street from a crumbling church. Each evening, the owners of the farm would bring the sheep into the paddock that also served as the back yard for the house. There was only one small boulangerie (bakery) in the village, and they also had a box with some veggies, still crusted with dirt from the owner’s garden, and some poop-smeared eggs from his hens. EXACTLY the kind of place I like to shop! Each morning at 6am, the meat man would arrive in the town square with his cart. He would blow his whistle, and the villagers would assemble to see what he had for sale. Yes…this trip was in 2009, not 1809…but the villagers still live this way. It was amazing.
One morning the meat man had some rabbits, and there was wild fennel growing in the back yard (apparently sheep don’t like to eat fennel), and I fired up the cast-iron wood burning stove and made some rabbit and fennel stew. We ate it with fresh baguettes from the boulangerie and some amazing local pear cider. It was a meal I’ll never forget.
So I’d definitely pay homage to that memory and do a rabbit and fennel pot pie. I’d stew the rabbit in wine (if there was any, I can’t tell), and if not that, the chicken stock and heavy cream. I’d reduce the sauce until it was thick and rich, cooking the mushrooms and ramps in it. Then debone that moist braised rabbit meat and nestle it all inside a flaky, rich crust. Oh, MAN, I’m hungry now.
The judges check in with Graham and he almost slices off his finger while he’s talking to them. OH, snap…it’s a joke! But it worked on me, I jumped. Graham gives us a bit of advice: he constantly cleans his station as he cooks so that he’s more efficient. And he’s right. Looking back on my MasterChef experience, the challenges where I was most successful were challenges where I ended up with an immaculate station. (A notable exception to this rule, though, was the finale challenge, where Adrien cooked with a perfectly organized and continually-clean station, and lost to Jennifer, who’s station looked like a hurricane hit it! Ha ha ha…) And at home for dinner parties, I’ve discovered that if I’m continually cleaning while I’m cooking, everything just happens more smoothly.
A common theme among the contestants for this challenge is confusion over how to properly butcher the rabbit, and many of them are working with rabbit for the first time, so they’re trying multiple applications and will select their favorite at the end.
With 60 seconds to go, Graham hasn’t begun plating yet, and Gordon tells him that if he doesn’t finish, he’ll be leaving the MasterChef kitchen. *giggle* Graham dashes off to the refrigerators in the equipment pantry, leaving us all very puzzled. But somehow, in less than 60 seconds, he plates his dish AND retrieves his dessert(!!!) from the fridge. And when we see his dish, we all realize the difference between a true master chef and the rest of us. Graham has prepared rabbit FIVE ways (the loin, the rack, the kidney, the belly flap, and the liver) and has plated it in a very sophisticated way with carrot puree and pickled veggies. (For the record, I am allergic to sophisticated plating and don’t like it one little bit…I also can’t DO it, my plating on MasterChef was terrible!) Not only has he accomplished all this in 60 minutes, he’s also made a dessert of fennel panna cotta (an Italian cream gelatin dessert) with candied fennel and gooseberry. That is truly astounding and most definitely shows that, no matter how impressed you may be with the home cooks on MasterChef…they’re no Graham Elliot. And Graham is no average chef…he’s the youngest American chef to receive a Michelin star and has been nominated 3 times for a James Beard award (which is basically the Oscars for chefs). Graham is 7 months and 10 days older than me. (I’d better get on the ball!!!)
It’s a mystery box and they’re only gonna taste 3, and the 3 we see are:
Frank, with rabbit two ways: pan roasted tenderloin crusted in caraway seed, and rabbit leg stuffed with ramps and chorizo
Cowboy Mike, with his first mystery box recognition this season, with a beautifully seared rabbit leg, and black rice cooked with rabbit stock, ramps, and chorizo. He’s also got some sautéed Brussels sprouts on the plate.
And Becky (who is proving herself to be last season’s Jennifer, Queen of the Mystery Boxes), who has a seared rabbit leg on ramp greens with roasted carrots, on a reduced glaze of rabbit stock and chorizo.
(For the record, I’m not entirely certain about this pairing of rabbit and chorizo. Rabbit goes beautifully with bacon, but chorizo is spicy and has chili in it…that can be a tricky flavor for rabbit, considering the rest of the ingredients. But the judges seem to appreciate it.)
The winner today is Becky! And even though she’s been in the top 3 for mystery boxes twice before, this is her first win. (It doesn’t seem to please the rest of the contestants…Tali is particularly bummed, and his dish is, in fact, beautifully plated and incredibly complex. I haven’t been able to find a description of it, though.) Back in the pantry, Becky is presented with 3 pieces of kitchen equipment: a pizza stone, a wok, and a deep fryer (which, according to Ramsay, is an “incredible fryer.” I think Ramsay is the only person on earth more prone to hyperbole than me!) Becky chooses the deep fryer for herself to use, and assigns the pizza stone to her competitors.
60 minutes isn’t nearly enough time to make a pizza, but that’s what I’d make. I’d immediately get yeast into some warm sugary buttermilk to get it started, 5 minutes. Then flour and salt to make a fairly soft, wet dough in the stand mixer, another 5 minutes. (Soft doughs rise more quickly, this is a play on the sponge method for yeast dough.) I’d put it in a bowl over a simmering water bath to let it rise for 15 minutes, while I work on sauce and toppings. Then it would go back into the stand mixer with more flour for a 5 minute knead to get that gluten really developed, followed by another 15 minute rise. Then it gets stretched as thinly as possible right on the peel before getting its toppings (5 minutes), then into the oven which would have been preheating at maximum temp with the pizza stone on the lowest rack the entire time. It gets 5 minutes on the pizza stone, and we’re at 55 minutes. Then a quick move up to the very top rack to caramelize the cheese and toppings, before a last-minute tug from the oven. Toppings? Depends on what I’d find in the pantry. I’m in love with white pizzas at the moment, maybe white pizza with crab and gorgonzola and roasted red peppers. Mmmmm…
But as you can see, it’s next-to-impossible to get a pizza churned out in an hour from scratch, and the crust will most certainly be inferior. But it’s DEFINITELY the choice I’d make. Luckily, pizza is one of my specialties so I THINK I’d have the timing down. But it would be TIGHT.
Gordon says that he’d make a pizza, too, and would ROLL the crust as thin as possible by putting it through the machine “almost like a pasta, so it literally crisps and bubbles,” but we don’t get to see Joe’s reaction to this cardinal offense to pizza dough. Pizza dough should NEVER EVER be rolled. This crushes the gluten strands, rather than stretching them, and results in a tough, dense crust (the consistency of pasta!) No self respecting pizzaolo would EVER roll out his pizza, and most certainly not with a pasta roller.
In the final moments, we have an electrical explosion at Monti’s station. It never gets explained, but what probably happened was a cord for an appliance was sitting over a live flame. It distracts her long enough for her soda bread to burn, and with seconds to go, she’s scraping off the burnt part.
Tasting time arrives, and we’ve got:
Mike with his lobster roasted on the pizza stone, alongside vegetables and rice, and roasted baby bok choy. The judges think his lobster is overcooked, and he wishes he had remembered his ratio for pizza dough. (For the record, while having ratios memorized can improve your baking, pizza crust can be made by adding some yeast to flour, a bit of salt, and enough water to make a dough. No ratios are needed.)
Becky is next with her deep fried tempura battered shrimp in a Thai red curry sauce with yucca chips. It looks as delicious as it sounds. Of course, she had the upper hand by having the deep fryer.
Christine serves an Indian-style flatbread topped with curried chicken, herbs, and a fried egg. When I was in Houston visiting Christine, she took me to one of her favorite spots in downtown, an Indian pizzeria, where they serve flatbread with a variety of Indian toppings. I can tell where her inspiration for this challenge came from! That pizza looked amazing.
Monti serves a soda bread (meaning baking soda, or quick bread, not bread made from soda pop) that she baked on the stone, alongside a carrot soup with carrots that were roasted on the stone. Her soup looks rich and delicious, and she was able to salvage the burnt soda bread to the point that Gordon and Joe go absolutely nuts for it! I’m not a huge fan of soda bread, but it’s the ONLY bread you could throw together in an hour, and Monti pulled it off.
David Martinez is next (and if Gordon pronounces his last name “mah-tu-NEZ” one more time, I’m gonna scream) and the judges immediately tell him that his smoked lobster soup looks terrible. I completely and utterly disagree. With that big slab of crispy bacon sitting in the middle of the bowl, and those stewed veggies beneath it, I wanted to literally JUMP into the bowl. However, they’ve already tasted his broth, which he made with an overabundance of juniper berries. (Gordon spit out a mouthful at his station.) Juniper berries are INCREDIBLY bitter and strong. Only 1 or 2 berries, crushed, can infuse an entire pot of broth. So they may just be transferring their awareness of the broth error onto the appearance of the bowl. It LOOKS delicious to me. He also used his pizza stone creatively by turning it into a smoker. (Not sure what kind of wood he was able to smoke with, unless he used juniper berries for smoke, but he’s following a MasterChef tradition started last year by Suzy, who attempted to smoke salmon with wet cinnamon raisin bread!) I’m honestly shocked that Graham would say “This looks BAD, it looks like soup but then you’ve got this big old long piece of bacon that looks like it just fell in it…” Come on, Graham, you know darn well that ANYTHING is better when a big old long piece of bacon falls in it! BUT…those juniper berries definitely had the potential to render the broth inedible. I’m just surprised they’re attacking the LOOKS of a soup that, quite frankly, looks incredibly delicious. But it apparently tasted bad enough for Joe to throw another tantrum and toss the bowl in the trash.
Next, it’s Tali’s turn to be raked across the coals. They attack him for the mess on his station. (What we’re not told is that Tali somehow stabbed himself and had to get stitches in the middle of the challenge…and I’d imagine that would put a damper on his ability to cook cleanly and efficiently after losing all that time and being in pain.) Tali, your station looked EXACTLY like mine did on most of my challenges last year. There’s simply not enough space on a MasterChef station to cook a complex dish. And to make matters worse, contestants have to share a sink. “But wait!” you say, “Graham cooked a very complex dish very cleanly in the preceding Mystery Box challenge, didn’t he?” Well…Graham had an entire row (2 stations) and a sink that he didn’t have to share with anyone. After attacking him, he presents his white pizza with duck breast and 3 cheeses. It looks fantastic. Gordon lifts up the pizza and discovers a lot of flour left on the bottom of the crust, and he can’t even eat it. (There’s almost always residual flour on the bottom of a pizza crust after stretching it. Granted, there was quite a bit more than necessary on Tali’s, maybe he used the flour to transfer the pizza to the stone, rather than the traditional cornmeal or semolina.)
Tanya is last, and her roasted lamb lollipops (not really candy, just a term for scraping the meat off the top part of the ribs so that there’s a round medallion of meat at the end of a long white “handle”), roasted veggies, roasted garlic yogurt, and flat bread looks AMAZING. Unfortunately, Gordon tells us that her flatbread is raw and the lamb is dry, and Joe finds a raw garlic clove in her yogurt. Last season, Joe and Gordon went on a rant about finding raw garlic in one of Alejandra’s dishes and pronounced it a cardinal sin of the kitchen. They’re dead wrong. Aioli, a rampantly popular French/Italian condiment, is ALWAYS prepared with raw garlic added to a mayonnaise-like base. Both Alejandra and Tanya were condemned for serving something very similar…a creamy condiment flavored with raw garlic. There is NOTHING STRANGE ABOUT THIS, it is perfectly acceptable. More drama mining. At least attack her for something that was legitimately wrong with her dish. But Joe decides to take personal offense at the raw garlic (I wonder how he deals with aioli?!?) and tells her to have a little more respect for him and the other judges.
Before revealing the bottom 3, the judges announce that the runaway winner of the challenge belongs to Monti. Which is awesome, because she needs that win to boost her confidence. Some of her fellow contestants have remarked to me that Monti always seems to project a sense of panic and self doubt in each challenge, then turns out something so brilliant that it leaves them all wondering if her self-doubt is something of an act to fool everyone into thinking that she’s less formidable than she really is. The truth is that this girl can REALLY cook. And no one’s entirely sure if she knows that…or not.
Ultimately it was a bad day in the MasterChef kitchen, and I know how upset most of the contestants are with their performances. We had days like that in Season 2. But at the bottom of the barrel on this challenge are Tanya (with perfectly acceptable raw garlic, but unacceptable raw bread, eggplant, and dry lamb), David (with his overly-junipered soup that Bastianich threw in the garbage), and Cowboy Mike (for his dried-out lobster and lack of impactful use of the pizza stone).
And the guillotine falls on Cowboy Mike’s neck. (Which I find a bit strange from a culinary perspective. The judges seemed far more disgusted by David’s dish. But David has the potential to be a villain, and Cowboy Mike is kind and gentle and isn’t stirring up any drama, so from a production perspective, it makes sense.) Graham is kind enough to remind us that Cowboy Mike was dedicating his performance to his sister, who passed away within the year. Mike, you did everyone proud. I’d sit down at your table for a steak any day of the week!
As he leaves, Mike predicts Christine as the winner and says that she cooks better with no sight than the rest of the bunch does with it. Christine hasn’t been featured as much in the last few episodes, but that doesn’t mean she’s lost her momentum. I’m definitely calling top 4 for her.
So we’ve got our top 10! And just as Tanya and David are breathing huge sighs of relief, Gordon says there’s ANOTHER elimination to be announced. If you asked me, at this moment, who I think is about to be eliminated, I couldn’t tell you. Based on all 3 judges’ reactions to Tanya’s and David’s dishes, I’d tell you that David is going home. But I think you can tell that there’s more to MasterChef than the cooking. Tanya’s got a great personality, she’s bubbly, funny, and talented. But she doesn’t poke the hornet’s nest like David does. And with no real villain-in-the-making other than David Martinez, my heart sinks, thinking that Tanya is about to be eliminated because of the story, rather than her food.
And my fears were well founded. Tanya is eliminated. But I can tell by the look in Gordon’s eye that he was fond of Tanya. As the youngest left in the competition (Michael Chen was the youngest until he got eliminated) she really did impress the judges. I honestly believed that Tanya would last longer on MasterChef. I remember meeting her in the line at MasterChef auditions in Austin. By the time she finished introducing herself to me, I KNEW she was gonna make the top 18. I have incredible memories of a feast she prepared for me and my friends the night before she left to be on MasterChef. And as I type this blog entry, Tanya is embracing the true gypsy spirit she proclaims as her own, as she leaves her life as a college student and drives to Los Angeles to intern in restaurants and pursue her dreams in the culinary world.
A couple of challenges ago, Graham mentioned that Tanya had more heart and passion than any of her fellow contestants, and I believe it. She’s one of the most amazing young people I’ve ever met. You’d be crazy not to subscribe to her blog, Culturally Confused Cuisine, and to follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
I am proud to call Tanya my friend, and I can’t wait to see what mark she leaves on the culinary world!