Tag Archives: Lidia

MasterChef 4 recap: Baby Eels and Agnolotti (S4E9)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not approved or endorsed by MasterChef or Fox, and you probably shouldn’t read it.  The opinions contained in this blog are merely the OPINIONS of a former MasterChef contestant who has no inside knowledge of how this season was produced.)

So our magical time machine transports us back from the longest-pressure-test-ever in Vegas back to the MasterChef kitchen, and apparently the contestants don’t know who was eliminated.  (You can bet they all knew the likelihood of Luca being safe, though.)  Krissi is worried that Kathy would be eliminated, and Kathy is her only friend left on the show.  (Fascinatingly enough, a fellow contestant indicates that Kathy arrived to MasterChef with a very bold diva look, with big orange hair and giant hoop earrings, and before the signature dish round, the producers made her transform into something more mousey and less Kathy.  They took her to have her hair colored, they took away her jewelry, and they made her wear baggy, drab clothes.  What a shame that she couldn’t be herself!)

When Luca walks through the door, we see genuine despondence on Krissi’s face.  Sorry, gal.

We also find out in this segment that Eddie is originally from Texas!!  So even though he now lives in Georgia, I’m gonna consider him a Texan along with James.

The mystery box today is awesome…a bounty of bizarre ethnic ingredients with no English on the labels.  And the judges aren’t going to tell the contestants what they are…they have to figure it out for themselves.  I would actually like this mystery box, even though I normally hate them.  Ethnic markets are where I do the majority of my shopping these days, and I love buying stuff with interesting packaging when I don’t have a clue what’s inside.

The box isn’t THAT bizarre, there are just a few items that are “out there.”  I immediately see rambutan, which is one of my favorite fruits!  It’s has a spiky outer shell, and a large, hard inner seed that is covered with a 1/2″ layer of fruit that has the consistency of a grape, and a beautiful, delicate, fragrant flavor.  When I’m in Hawaii, the place where I always stay has rambutan trees and I just gorge myself.

It also looks like there’s a Chinese bitter melon (it looks like a cucumber), which is the milder of the 2 species of bitter melon and is GREAT sauteed with scrambled eggs and a little soy or curry paste.  Bitter melon is used as a highly effective insulin regulator in other countries…in fact, in India, it’s practically the ONLY thing doctors prescribe to treat diabetes, and some Indian MD’s claim it can actually cure diabetes.  If you enjoy or can tolerate bitter flavors and you are diabetic, you should check it out.  Get the Chinese variety over the smaller, wartier Indian variety if you can.  The Chinese type is less bitter:

I also see some sea beans or sea asparagus.  I LOVE this stuff.  I cook with it all the time when I’m in Hawaii because it’s so cheap there.  Sea asparagus is a type of seaweed that is crunchy, juicy, succulent, and naturally salty.  It is amazing raw in salads or lightly sauteed.  Adrien Nieto and I put it into our Hawaii-Mexican fusion “guaca-poke,” which is a cross between guacamole and the Hawaiian staple poke (properly pronounced “POE-kay” though rampantly mispronounced “POE-kee” even in Hawaii).  Poke is Hawaii’s version of ceviche, raw fish (often ahi tuna) marinated with soy and sesame and tossed with onions and sea asparagus or seaweed and a variety of other veggies.  So Adrien and I make guaca-poke with raw cubed ahi, avocado, cilantro, fresh ginger, onion, garlic, sea asparagus, tomato, and lime juice.  It’s DIVINE.  If you ever see sea asparagus at your local market, you should try it.  Good stuff:

There’s also an Okinawan purple sweet potato.  I first encountered these in Hawaii, as well.  The folks I stay with have an amazing farm, and they raise them…but they raise an heirloom variety that they “illegally” snuck into Hawaii in their pocket from a farm in North Carolina that grew a particularly sweet and healthy version.  The Okinawan purple sweet potato isn’t actually a potato.  It’s a member of the morning glory family that’s native to OUR continent, but became popular in Japanese cuisine when it was introduced over there, and THEN became popular here.  They are one of the most healthy foods on the planet…absolutely packed full of antioxidants due to the anthocyanin pigments that give it color.  (The same pigment is found in beets, blueberries, chard, rhubarb, etc.)  You can find them at Asian markets, so give them a try.  They’re not nearly as sweet as yams or American sweet potatoes.  My Hawaiian friends make an amazing potato salad out of them:

There also appears to be baby bok choy or some sort of Asian cabbage.  There are some tiny green globes that might be an Asian eggplant variety.  These are the only things I identified just by looking.  Later we learn there is a can of baby eels (!?!), elk flank steak, Chinese black moss (which Krissi says must be Chinese pubic hair!), mojama which is a Spanish delicacy of salted and sun dried tuna loin, a can of cod liver (an intense umami flavor, it could be used like fish sauce or anchovy paste), and lots more than don’t get narrated for us.

This is definitely the coolest and most interesting Mystery Box in MasterChef history, I LOVE this challenge.  And while many contestants play it VERY safe and stick to the elk and potatoes, I applaud all those who went way outside their comfort zone and used the weird stuff.

After looking at that box, knowing me, I would probably do a weird Asian-influenced breakfast.  Purple sweet potato home fries with baby eggplant. Eggs scrambled with bitter melon and salt cured tuna (which is like gravlax or smoked salmon) with a bit of the cod liver, with lightly sauteed sea asparagus and crunchy fried baby eels on top.  There’s just no reason to play it safe, even though that’s exactly what Graham said HE would do!

Jordon immediately starts tasting EVERYTHING to figure out what it is, which is the mark of a great chef.

FINALLY we see some actual footage of Lynn!  He speaks with confidence and expertise.  I want to see more.  His plate of elk tartare is really stunningly plated, but the judges don’t put him in the top 3 because they say his dish is underseasoned.  (That’s really the only attack they can give when a plate looks beautiful.  Because we, the audience, can’t taste it, they can technically say whatever they want about it, which is how the show can create drama.  Only Lynn knows whether his dish was underseasoned or not.  My guess is that it was seasoned perfectly, and they’re deliberately keeping Lynn down to frustrate him and get some emotion out of his otherwise confident, stoic persona.)

The first selection for the top 3 is Eddie, who “played it safe” by searing the elk flank, making a sweet potato puree, and sauteing the greens with olive oil and lemon zest.  The judges say it is simple but perfectly executed.

Next is Jordan, who really stepped outside his comfort zone and utilized all of the weird stuff.  He has a “salad” of black moss and sea asparagus, salt cured tuna, sauteed greens, crispy baby eels, with purple sweet potato chips.  I love it that, as he’s narrating his dish, he really doesn’t know WHAT it is.  He just knows it tastes good.  Very impressive, Jordan.

Finally, Bime comes forward with a lovely plated dish that is similar to Eddie’s but a little more dangerous.  He has a sweet potato mash topped with baby eels and perfectly cooked elk flank.

The winner is, surprisingly, the guy who played it the safest…Eddie.  (Great way to teach the contestants to step outside their comfort zone, producers!  Ha ha ha…)

Eddie heads back to the pantry to discover the theme of the next challenge, which is: filled pasta.  Definitely one of the more challenging things for a chef to produce.  The judges present him with 3 types of filled pasta to choose from:

Agnolotti – (pronounced “an-yo-LO-tee”) These little pillows of stuffed pasta hail from the mountainous region of Piedmont in northwestern Italy.  A really stunning place.  The traditional filling is some type of meat and/or veggies (typically leftovers), and they are sauced with a lightly reduced beef stock, or a sage brown butter sauce.


Mezzaluna – (pronounced “met-zah-LOO-nah”)  Translated as “half moon,” this pasta is obviously named for its shape.  It can be stuffed with anything, but most often a cheese like ricotta and/or herbs.  They are among the easiest of the filled pastas to make, you just cut circles of dough, spoon in a little filling, moisten the edges, fold the circle in half, and seal with a fork.


Caramelle – (pronounced “kah-dah-MELL-eh”)  This one is kinda obvious in its naming origin, too.  The shape of the pasta mimics a wrapped caramel candy.  (Gordon says they call it the “bonbon pasta” in Italy…I’ve never heard of that.)  It is typically stuffed with cheese, Gordon’s version is stuffed with mozzarella and sauced with a spicy tomato sauce (pomodoro or, if it’s really spicy, arrabbiata).  It is the most “informal” and rustic of the 3 filled pastas…something you can make quickly at home…and would probably be the very simplest choice.

Eddie is safe from cooking, and he wants to choose the most challenging type of pasta for his competitors, so he picks the agnolotti.  It is the most challenging to shape, and since it traditionally has a meat filling, it’s more complex than a cheese filling.

Last season Joe gave us a demonstration of how to shape tortellini, except that the camera never showed the final product once he had shaped it.  (Contestants say he did it multiple times just to get a shot of him doing it correctly, but that the final result wasn’t pretty enough to show.)  This season the producers aren’t making him do that again.  Thank God.  He has invited someone else to do the demonstration, and that someone is the queen of Italian American cooking…Joe’s Mom.  The legendary Lidia Bastianich.  She’s like the Julia Child of Italian food…she brought Italian home cooking to the American table via her appearances with Julia Child in the early 90s, to her 5 PBS shows in the late 90s.  She also appeared as a judge on the FIRST MasterChef USA in 2000, which was on PBS at that time, did NOT have Gordon Ramsay, and was probably the kind of show that I WISH MasterChef was.  Read about it on Wikipedia.  In addition, Lidia is a highly successful restaurateur, with restaurants primarily in NYC but also in Kansas City and Pittsburgh, and she was one of the people who helped put celebrity chef Mario Batali on the map.

So Lidia waltzes in through the door and Krissi pees in her pants.  (I peed in my pants, too, Krissi, when we had to cook for Lidia in a group challenge on my season.)  She’s definitely a legend, and Krissi quips, “If Jesus came down and stood next to Lidia, I’d be like ‘What’s up, dude?  LIDIA, HOW ARE YOU?!?

Lidia didn’t grow up cooking.  In fact, she wasn’t even the chef of her first restaurant…she learned to cook from the chef there after she gave birth to Joe’s sister.  But extensive travel and study in Italy and Croatia, which is where the Bastianich family is from and where their vineyards are, turned her into an expert.  In case you didn’t know, Joe was never pressured into joining the family restaurant business.  He went to college, became a bond trader on Wall Street, but loved the food world so much that he walked away from that high-paying career and convinced his mom to help him start his first restaurant, Becco.  So in a way, Joe is like many of the MasterChef contestants.  He left the path his life was on to follow his dream.  And while a lot of the MasterChef fans don’t care for Joe at all, there’s no doubt that he’s in the food business because he loves food.  Sure, he had an easier ticket because of his mother’s success.  But it’s no secret that Joe would be MORE wealthy than he currently is had he stayed on Wall Street.  Instead, he followed his dream, and he has been very successful at it.  He may not be a chef.  But he’s a smart guy.  He’s savvy.  He’s shrewd.  And his restaurants are incredible.

Back to Lidia…she’s going to give a demonstration on how to make agnolotti, but the twist is that Eddie gets to send 2 people out of the room, so that they don’t get to see the demo.  Krissi shouts up at him, “I’ll kill you where you stand, Eddie.”  Not because she needs to see the demo.  Krissi is an accomplished Italian cook.  But Lidia is her idol, and she wants to watch her cook.

Eddie is strategic about his decision.  He wants to pick strong competitors who may not be experienced with pasta, to put them at the most disadvantage.  He sends out Lynn, who has always wanted to learn agnolotti, and James, who says, “I’m not mad at him.  He’s playing the game smart.”

And here we have encapsulated what I abhor about what MasterChef has become.  It has become a game; a game where strategy is more important than cooking.  And that may be the way the restaurant industry is.  But people aren’t going to come to your restaurant if you’ve got great strategy on the plate.  They come for the food, and if it’s good, they come back.  This is not The Apprentice: Restaurateuring.  This show is not about being a savvy, shrewd strategist.  This is supposed to be a show about which home cooks have the potential to become a great chef.  And while these “games” make the show interesting from a sociological standpoint, I hate them, and I’m about to stop watching.

Why does this have to be the evolution of EVERY reality TV show?  Why did Survivor have to go from people actually surviving in the wilderness to alliances and strategies, scheming against every one of your fellow competitors, even your “friends,” to come out on top?  This brings back up the comparison to Capitalism I made in an earlier MasterChef blog.  This is the most disgusting, vile thing about America and Capitalism…it teaches us an “every man for himself” mindset.  It encourages us to succeed AT ALL COSTS, even at the expense of those around us.  It teaches us that the best decision is always one that’s in self-interest, even if it’s damaging to others.

This is why I have decided I will NOT join MasterChef for a reunion or “all stars” show, if I’m invited to participate.  I know that will make my fans upset.  But just imagine that MasterChef season: since all the prior contestants already know how engineered the show is, that reunion show will be even more of a Hunger Games.  It would come to the point where the producers would have ME singled out in front of the judges.  And after all this criticizing and preaching I’ve been doing for the past 2 seasons, you can be certain that they’re thirsty for blood.  They’ll put me in a position where I’m FORCED to do something cruel or mean to a contestant, like take away their mixer, prevent them from viewing a demonstration, or, in all likelihood…something worse.  And I won’t do it.  And there will be a big, nasty, awkward production halt.  And I’ll leave the set and hitchhike home.  And they’ll try to sue me for all the vast millions of dollars I have hidden under my mattress.  And they’ll have to re-shoot the whole season without me, or stage some dramatic stunt to explain why I left.  And it will be a stupendous mess.

(Or maybe they’re smarter than that and they know that the audience wouldn’t stand for them manipulating someone like me or Christine or Monti or Whitney, and instead they’ll put us in positions where we can help other contestants at our own expense, and the audience weeps and feels great, and we get to be the redemption scapegoat for the manipulations they’ve been spinning thus far.)

Regardless, I am completely, utterly disgusted by what this show has become.  And the American audience is LOVING it.  (Check the ratings.)  It breaks my heart that this is the kind of television we have an appetite for.  This is why I don’t watch TV.  And NEITHER SHOULD YOU.  Or at least watch GOOD TV, which is increasingly rare these days.  TV that celebrates humanity, compassion, generosity, integrity, and empathy.  TV that puts people in a position to be HUMAN, rather than selfishly, sadistically animalistic.  Last season, even though the show had its nasty moments, we had this over-arching thread of good that Christine Ha and Monti Carlo brought to it.  We hoped and we cried and we felt good things in our hearts for them.  They were fighters and they were struggling.  But they were never forced into a position where they had to hurt another contestant in order to gain benefit for themselves.  This year, it’s all about the contestants sh-tting all over each other, scheming, scamming, to try to win by sabotaging their fellow competitors, rather than winning because they’re the best cook…where’s the goodness, Adeline and Robin and Elisabeth?  I hope to God it’s coming.  I’m not gonna make it much longer.  I have far better things to do with my time…things that make more lives better than just my own.

*steps off the soapbox*

Lidia demonstrates agnolotti.  The contestants make agnolotti.  Krissi and Jessie are the best.

There are 4 on the bottom:

Jonny, for making butternut squash agnolotti with a maple cream sauce.  (If you haven’t noticed, Italians are prone to resist modifications to their classic dishes.  The Spanish and Dutch are completely the opposite.  Personally, I’d be very interested to taste Jonny’s dish.)

Lynn, who didn’t get to see the demo and processed his filling too smooth in the food processor (rather than using the meat grinder for a more coarse texture).  His delicious-sounding ricotta and short rib agnolotti with charred leek brown butter sauce is also proclaimed by the judges as underseasoned.  (Again, that’s an easy faked criticism since WE can’t taste it.  After being criticized in the mystery box for underseasoning, I GUARANTEE you Lynn didn’t also underseason this dish.)

Beth, for undercooking her agnolotti, which is stuffed with herbs, ricotta, watercress, and goat cheese.  (DANG that sounds good.)

And Howard, for daring to be creative with the concept of agnolotti and seasoning his veggie, jalapeno and chicken filling with cumin.  Lidia says, “Classics work and are appreciated time after time, otherwise they wouldn’t be called classics.”  She is correct.  But if no one ever innovated, cuisine would become stale.  Innovation has led to dramatic improvements in cooking, like the sous vide technique, which yields near-miraculous results for cooking meat and fish.  Joe, in traditional Italian fashion, doesn’t like the way Howard is talking to his mother, so he lights into him.  Howard defends himself with the VERY acceptable question, “So you want 15 of the same dish up here every time?”  But no human is allowed to question Joe Bastianich.  He hisses: “The only thing worse than a cook who can’t boil is a narcissist in denial.  Thank you for nothing.”  Food in garbage.  Howard goes home.

Please comment below, but I have to take a break from this nonsense because my blood pressure is through the roof.  I’m going to go pet my chickens, (who just started laying this week!), pull weeds in my garden, pick blueberries and take them to my neighbors, and try to do SOMETHING good for the world to offset this temple of self-interest that MasterChef season 4 has become.

MasterChef 3: Food Trucks and Tortellini

All throughout my season, we kept waiting for the food truck challenge.  Food trucks were all the rage throughout the country last year, and we just KNEW we’d have a food truck challenge.  But they saved it for this season.

A few short years ago, most American’s wouldn’t be caught dead eating at a food truck.  (Unless, perhaps, you lived in Manhattan, where sidewalk food carts provide lunch to probably half of New Yorkers.)  Then, a “gourmet” food truck scene started to emerge in cities like Austin, Portland, Seattle, and Chicago.

Now, food trucks have become super trendy, alongside the meteoric rise of the “street taco,” which has become so ubiquitous that even fast food restaurant chains and luxe Mexican restaurants have “street tacos” on their menu.  There are food truck roundups in every major city in the country.  There are TV shows about racing food trucks.  Food trucks line up outside museums and parks for special events.  Some take credit cards, sell their own branded merchandise, and at some, you might find yourself spending $15-$20 for dinner, just like in a sit down restaurant with full service.

Fresh off her dessert challenge triumph, Stacey is the only specified team leader for the challenge, and she gets to hand-pick her team, as well as the 2  teams she’ll be competing against.  (Another interesting twist for this season.)  For her dream team, she picks Tali first, which surprises the judges, and probably  most of us.  However, I have this sneaking suspicion that Tali is being spun as an underdog in the beginning, and he’ll “catch his stride” later and go perhaps all the way to the final 4.  The fact that Stacey chooses him first means she knows he can cook.  (That, and she says that if they lose and go to the pressure test, she knows she can beat him.  Crafty!)  She rounds out her team with Frank and Becky, who seem to be top-dogs in the contest now.

Stacey picks team 2, which consists of Monti, who Stacey believes is her strongest competitor, and pairs her with David, because she knows they don’t get along and will be at odds.  Again…clever.  To these polar opposites she adds Anna and Tonya.  This team nominates Anna to be the team leader, and Anna is chomping at the bit for her moment to shine.

This leaves Christine, Felix, Josh, and Cowboy Mike as the remaining team (and a strong one, at that!), and Josh takes his second position as team leader for the season.

Stacey has to choose one of the 3 colored trucks for her team, not knowing which cuisine is attached to which color.  She picks Red, which means her team will be cooking Mexican food.  (My favorite, and DEFINITELY the one I’d want to be on!  However, California’s idea of Mexican food is a far cry from our Texas interpretations.  Don’t get me wrong, I do love seafood tacos, but TexMex will knock CalMex outta the water any day of the week!)  To Anna’s team she assigns Yellow, which ends up being American cuisine.  This leaves Blue to Josh’s team, which is Indian food.  Apparently this is one of Josh’s strengths.  (The judges go so far as to say that no one on the show knows Indian food the way Josh does, flagrantly ignoring the fact that Tanya is the curry queen and has Indian roots.)

The teams have 90 minutes to prep and cook, and 90 minutes to serve their food, and this challenge is about volume.  Their plates are set at $7 each, and whichever teams ends up with the most money wins.  (Delightfully, all the proceeds are being donated to Save the Children, and Boys and Girls Clubs of America.  Bravo, producers!  Let’s see more of this in future seasons.  In fact, I don’t see any reason why EVERY MasterChef challenge shouldn’t benefit a charity!)

Already, 2 of the teams have an advantage.  The average Californian on the beach in Venice is probably accustomed to getting American food (burgers, hot  dogs, etc) and Mexican food (tacos) from food trucks.  But not necessarily Indian.  So the Indian team has their work cut out for them.

Stacey suggests the Mexican menu should be a choice of a grilled veggie quesadilla, and carne asada tacos.  Personally, I think that’s a REALLY solid choice.  This is California, and if there’s one thing I learned while cooking there on MasterChef, it’s that PLENTY of people will spring for a light, vegetarian option.  Becky and Tali usurp the quesadilla and suggest 2 tacos with a scoop of guacamole, but Stacey still insists (wisely) on the vegetarian option.  This starts a huge argument about complexity vs flexibility and customer appeal…a battle all 3 teams will have to confront.  Ramsay criticizes her for giving her team twice as much work with the vegetarian taco.  I’d have TOTALLY IGNORED him.  A vegetarian taco doesn’t take that much time to prep, and I think it’s CRITICAL to have a vegetarian choice on the beach in California.  To stir up dissent on the team, Rasmay calls on Becky for her opinion, and Becky says she’d only do the carne asada taco if it was her team.  Frank also sides with Becky, and Stacey gives in.  Maybe their team was running out of time.  But I think it was a mistake.

Anna suggest a slider trio with fries on the side for the American team.  I confess, I don’t get sliders.  If I’m in the mood for a burger, I want a burger.  Not a miniature copy of a burger.  And certainly not 3 miniature copies.  That’s too much bun and not enough meat.  GIVE ME A BURGER.  Apologies to all of you who love sliders.  (When I landed on the MasterChef set last year, I had never even heard of sliders.)  Her teammates argue her down to 2 sliders in favor of simplicity and efficiency, and then David and Monti begin fighting over whether the side should be French fries or potato chips.  I’d have sided with Monti on that one…you prep the fries by frying them at 325FF until they’re limp and cooked through, and then those fries can sit around all day until a quick 2 minute fry at 375F just before serving.  I know from first-hand experience that making potato chips in bulk, while they don’t take long to fry, can be a nightmare and end up chewy and limp and greasy and disgusting…and really need to be double fried anyway, just like French fries, for optimum crispness.  I would NOT attempt to churn out buckets of homemade potato chips for a crowd.  But Anna chooses David’s chips.  Gordon bounces over to stir up trouble, and chastises the team for offering 2 different types of sliders and says they should go for one.  (Again, how hard is it to prep 2 different sets of toppings to give your customers something unique and diverse?)  But he successfully convinces them to dumb down their menu, as well, to 2 Texas-style sliders, both exactly the same.  (Hey, I have a great idea…how about serving a BURGER instead?!?)

Josh’s Indian team decides to go with Christine’s recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala, which is roasted or sauteed chicken in a rich, spicy tomato sauce. Cowboy Mike laments, “I don’t really know what we’re cooking, some kind of chicken tiki taki or taki maki, or something.”  But we all know how brilliant Christine is with flavors, so even though I project that Indian food will be a harder sell for them than burgers or tacos, they’ve got a chance to present some explosive flavor that could easily overshadow the competition.

The hungry crowds begin to gather, and the American team doesn’t have ANY burger patties on the grill yet.  Luckily, tiny slider patties cook more quickly than a single burger patty.  However, they end up taking up MORE space on the grill than a burger patty.  So each serving requires more real estate.  Not a good situation when you’re moments from serving and nothing’s on the grill yet.  I’d have gotten patties on the grill during the very first 5 minutes of prep time, cooked up ALL the patties, and then had them ready for a final high-temp sear for a few seconds just before serving.  Gordon thinks it’s a great idea to sit there at the truck window and yell at them…because that’s OBVIOUSLY going to help matters.  (Like they don’t know they need to get their burgers on the grill, like, an hour ago!)

Before serving time, we get another lovely reminder that Walmart is the official grocer for MasterChef, and another poorly-made commercial about a crowd thinking they’re being served ultra-premium steaks, only to discover that they are, in fact, Walmart steaks.  In tiny letters below a man flashing “2 thumbs up” we see, “Real customers are chosen and compensated for their time and participation,” meaning these are already people who shop at Walmart and they got paid to say what they said.  (However, as I’ve said before, I DO shop at Walmart and they DO, in fact, have the best beef of any grocery store in my immediate area.  I’m just not sure that Walmart projects the kind of elite image that MasterChef is trying to brand for itself.)

The crowds are let loose on the trucks, and everyone who goes to the American truck for sliders is told they’ll have to wait.  (I’m certain many of them bailed for tacos or tikka masala.)  David, as the grill master, is responsible for getting patties out as quickly as possible, and Gordon quickly discovers that he’s churning them out TOO fast.  At least one is raw.  (But where one is raw…and I mean ice cold raw in the middle…there are probably others.)  David deflects responsibility and says that the real problem is that the girls can’t assemble burgers as fast as he can cook them.  (Which doesn’t make that much sense to me.)  Still, I know that pressure…being so far behind, he’s eager to get those babies off the grill as soon as possible so they can serve their customers.

The line for tacos dwindles, probably because Stacey’s team is serving so efficiently that the line gets processed quickly.  They’re so on top of things that Stacey has time to go out and recruit people from the nearby skate park and direct them to their line-less taco truck.

Time is called, and the tills are tallied.  And the winner is…(commercial break).

The winner, having sold $798 worth of food, or 114 meals, is, unsurprisingly…Stacey’s taco team.  It’s really, really hard to beat the reputation and demand for street tacos.  In second place, with 108 meals served, is Josh’s tikka masala team.  Anna’s slider team only served  86 meals.  That could have been because they got off to a late start and because the patties weren’t coming off the grill fast enough.  Or it could have been because people didn’t wanna eat 2 miniature burgers and chips, when on either side of them they had tacos and spicy Indian food to choose from.  While they start fighting over who’s fault it is, Anna proves herself a leader by stating, “It was my responsibility, as the leader, to get you [probably David] going sooner.  Bottom line, I’m responsible. I’m the team captain.”

Ultimately, though $2156 gets donated to charity.  Which is WAY more important than anything else.  And if MasterChef could generate that kind of money with each group challenge, they could be donating well over $20k each year.  TAKE NOTE, Fox and producers!  That’s a big chance to give back.

Joe reveals that the next pressure test is about tortellini.  And for the first time in MasterChef, Joe cooks.  Sort of.  He shows us how to assemble the perfect tortellini.  (Though I’m dead certain everything was prepped for him by someone else.)  And we don’t actually see his final ravioli after he forms it.  Interesting.

It should be noted here that NO ONE…and I mean NO ONE…makes their tortellini by hand.  Each tortellini is a single bite of food.  To prep enough tortellini by hand for an entire restaurant’s nightly service would take weeks.  All tortellini is machine-formed these days.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good exercise to learn to make it by hand!

This challenge also brings back fond memories of Christmas dinners with my partner Christian and his Brasilian/Italian family.  Their family tradition derives from a common northern Italian Christmas tradition…which is to eat cappelletti in a light chicken broth.  Cappelletti is the same thing as tortellini, for all intents and purposes, but the filling is generally chicken with cheese, whereas tortellini is usually either beef or pork and cheese, or sometimes just cheese.  Christian’s mom and grandma would make a light but explosively flavored broth with chicken and nutmeg, they would gently simmer the cappelletti in the broth for a minute or two, and then we’d eat it with GOBS of parmigiano cheese on top.

The first step is, of course, to make the pasta dough.  The judges attack David Martinez for having “fat fingers” and kneading his pasta directly on the stainless steel surface.  Joe says David knows nothing about pasta because “Pasta needs to be in a warm and gentle environment.”  Traditionally, pasta IS made on a wooden board.  (Because there were no stainless steel boards until the last half of the 20th century.)  But what Joe is neglecting to tell you is that psta dough MUST rest in a cool (NOT warm) place to allow the gluten to relax, or the dough will tear while rolling.    There is nothing wrong with kneading pasta on a stainless steel surface and it may, in fact, lower your relaxation time, thus allowing you to roll it out more quickly.

The judges, particularly Joe, attack Anna for making her pasta dough in the food processor.  I wonder what Joe would say to his mother, Lidia Bastianich, one of the most famous Italian celebrity chefs in the country, born and raised in Italy, who taught American-born Joe everything he knows about Italian food, and WHO TAUGHT THE COUNTRY THAT THE BEST WAY TO MAKE PASTA IS IN THE FOOD PROCESSOR.  It’s on her website.  In her cookbooks.  More sensationalist gossip from the judges with NO foundation in truth!  It’s perfectly acceptable to make pasta dough in the food processor.  YES, the vigorous mixing tightens the gluten.  But it lets you get your dough finished and relaxing in the fridge quickly while you worry about your filling.  It was actually a smart move for Anna to do that.

Personally, I make my pasta dough in my Kitchenaid stand mixer.  If I’m rolling it, I finish the kneading by hand for a few minutes (as you also do after making it in the food processor).  If I’m extruding it, I never knead the stuff by hand at all.

Now the contestants are forming their tortellini and we get a shot of David’s pasta sheet being rolled out and it’s absolutely GORGEOUS.  (Kudos, David.)  And since his self proclaimed “sausage fingers” aren’t dainty enough to handle the forming delicately, he’s using the plastic thermometer cover to ensure that the filling is wrapped neatly by the pasta and that all the air is pressed out.  VERY clever and resourceful, David.

Graham asks Tanya a barrage of questions and she starts to lose it.  She proclaims that she’s ready to give up, but Graham comforts her in a way that neither of the other judges can and gets her to believe in herself.  He says that Tanya has more heart than ANY of the contestants, and that cooking with love is SO much more important than cooking with skill.  I couldn’t agree more, Graham.  That’s probably the ONLY reason I did as well as I did last season.

At Anna’s station, there’s crisis.  She has pricked through the pasta layer to press out all the air from her filling, which basically creates a hole for the water to flood and dilute the filling.  Then the burner under her broth isn’t lit, and with only moments to go, she realizes that her tortellini aren’t cooking.

Tasting begins, and Bastianich follows tradition by removing tortellini from the broth, dumping it out onto the table and cutting it in half first to look at the filling.  …  (That was a joke, people.)  Not surprisingly, Anna’s pasta isn’t cooked all the way through because her burner wasn’t on.  Tanya’s tortellini aren’t formed beautifully enough.  Monti’s aren’t pretty, either, but they apparently taste good.  David’s are gorgeous, and taste just as good.

So Monti and David are safe, and Tanya and Anna are on the chopping block.  And my heart’s thumping 800 miles an hour, because Tanya is a good friend of mine, and my other friend on the show, Michael Chen, was eliminated a couple of weeks ago, and I’m scared I’m going to lose Tanya now.  But Anna is so sweet, I don’t want to lose her, either.

And after the commercial break, where we catch of glimpse of my darling Tracy from last season, the decision is…Anna.  In a rich MasterChef tradition, the team leader gets the boot during the ensuing pressure test.  One of these days I’m going to calculate how often this happens…or maybe Wikipedia has already done it for me.  But they LOVE to eliminate fallen team leaders, and contestants who’ve just won challenges.

Anna is a peach.  Her blog is The Brave Apron and she want to start a catering company with her husband, AJ, who she competed against for an apron back during the auditions.  Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, because she’s got big things coming!

MasterChef: Mothers and Benedicts

So they drive us to Pasadena and drop us off at this MASSIVE swanky hotel, and I’m immediately afraid.  If I have to cook cuisine that matches the sophistication of this place, I’m screwed.

It’s a team challenge with Tracy and Giuseppe as team leads.  I couldn’t be more conflicted about whose team I want to be on.  I adore Tracy, and Giuseppe and I have had this playful competitiveness going on about who cooks better Italian so we have a great rapport.  Giuseppe takes me second, and assembles a great team which includes Alejandra, Derrick, and Suzy.  Definitely people I can work with.

Then we find out that we’re cooking for the judges’ mothers.  Wow…  Among the three is Lidia Bastianich, a legendary celebrity chef.  She’s like the Julia Child of Italian food.  She’s been teaching America to cook authentic Italian food on TV for decades.  Then we’ve got the mothers of Graham Elliot and Gordon Ramsay, two of the world’s greatest chefs, who are undoubtedly accustomed to fabulous cuisine, and have the “balls” to blatantly critique their sons when they fail.  So what are they going to say to us?!?

Giuseppe has a quick conference with the moms to find out what they like and don’t like, then he announces a very Italian menu for the first two courses, and apple pie for dessert.  I can bake a mean apple pie, but I’m not sure it goes with an Italian meal.  The first course will be a crispy polenta cake with a dressed salad on top, and that makes me nervous, too.  You can’t make crispy polenta in one hour.  It just can’t happen.  The second course will be spaghetti carbonara, and if anyone can make some homemade pasta, it’s Giuseppe.

Everything comes together perfectly…except the crispy polenta.  It wasn’t crispy.  So we covered it up with a yummy salad and sent it out to the moms, and they loved it…even more than the other team’s carrot ginger soup.  Which is saying something, because apparently I announced to the world that “If there’s one thing I know, it’s that old ladies like to eat soup.”  I don’t think I’ll ever be forgiven for that comment.  (Funny thing, I don’t even remember saying that!)

The carbonara goes out with boxed, store-bought pasta, which leaves everyone on our team flabbergasted, except for Giuseppe.  (We thought he was going to hand-make the pasta, but he tells us that carbonara is ALWAYS made with dried pasta because it needs to be very al dente, or firm, to be authentic.)  It gets high marks from Lidia Bastianich, which is rare praise, indeed, for Giuseppe.  Still, the other two moms go for the other team’s fish dish.

Naturally it comes down to the dessert.  Suzy and I made the dessert…I did the filling (and peeling and slicing all those apples was a horrific throw-back to the apple challenge) and Suzy did the pastry.  The moms loved both desserts, but apparently our crust was a little too thick for their taste, so they go with the other team.  Which means we’re headed to a pressure test.

No one LIKES going into a pressure test, but the last pressure test garnered me the highest praise thus far in the competition, so maybe I can repeat the performance if I get a really good challenge.

And today we’re cooking….Eggs Benedict.

I literally jump out of my skin, screaming with joy.  This is one of my signatures.  For Sunday brunch at LEAST once a month I make eggs benedict for a small crowd, and everything is from scratch…I even make the English muffins.  I’m back in my element.

The first trick is perfectly poaching an egg…something many cooks find intimidating.  You always see all sorts of crazy techniques, from swirling the water in the pot to using the microwave.  I learned how to poach an egg flawlessly every time from the great Julia Child.  You poke a tiny hole in the big end of the egg and lower it into simmering water for 10 seconds and then remove it.  The water invades the inside of the shell and firms up the egg inside, so when you crack it into the water, it forms a perfect shape just like an egg.  No need to swirl or anything!  Just make sure you have about 1/3 cup of white vinegar per gallon of water, keep the water below a simmer…just a few tiny bubbles rising to the top.  Crack the egg directly over the surface of the water so it gently slips in.  Then leave it for exactly 4 minutes.  Quickly remove the egg and dunk it into ice water to stop the cooking.  Then gently reheat it for a few seconds in hot water before serving.

The second trick is hollandaise, one of the classic “mother sauces” of French cuisine.  Hollandaise strikes fear into the heart of almost EVERY chef.  It’s notoriously tricky to make.  One wrong step and it curdles, overcooks, separates, or weeps.  Hollandaise is NOT good for you.  It’s basically a ton of egg yolks and butter whipped together constantly over gentle heat until it thickens and gets fluffy, and then it’s flavored with salt, lemon juice, and a dash of cayenne pepper.  I learned to make perfect hollandaise from Alton Brown, who uses whole butter cut into small cubes, which allows it to emulsify slowly into the egg yolks.  Classic hollandaise is made by first melting and clarifying butter, which removes the milk solids and results in a more refined sauce, but it takes time and there is more risk of error.  Most chefs can’t tell the difference between a whole-butter hollandaise and a clarified-butter hollandaise unless they’re told which method was used.  Unfortunately, the judges visit my station multiple times and see how I’m making it.  And they make their disgust for my shortcut clearly known.  They get even more furious with me when they see other contestants making whole-butter hollandaise.  (Just a few nights before we were all talking about hollandaise and I showed them the method I use…and it’s so easy and foolproof, many of them chose to make that version for the pressure test, much to the chagrin of the judges.)

With seconds to go, I griddle the muffin and ham in butter so both are nice and crispy and brown, slip my perfect poached eggs on top, and then gently drape the sauce over everything.  It’s the most beautiful benedict I’ve ever made, I’m SO proud.  And if the judges hate me for using whole butter…go ahead and hate me.  My sauce looks and tastes great.  If that method is good enough for most restaurants and for celebrity chefs on TV, it’s good enough for me!

Though they’re clearly upset with me for “shortcutting” the hollandaise, they send me upstairs, safe.  Suzy follows me, followed by a tearful Alejandra.  Derrick and Giuseppe are under scrutiny.  One of the yolks has escaped from Giuseppe’s egg and made a mad dash for freedom, and there it sits over to the side of his plate.  Derrick ran out of time and didn’t get his hollandaise on top of his benedict.  Two big, scary mistakes.

The judges decide Giuseppe’s mistake is the greater of two evils, and they send him home, but with fond words.  Giuseppe kept us all in stitches…he’s probably the funniest person I’ve ever met.  And man can he cook.  I will really miss him.

Ben Starr and Giuseppe Morisco from MasterChef season 2

Choking the Turkey (No turkeys were harmed)

Now we’re down to 9, and I’m still in the game.  It feels surreal.  So many brilliant, talented people have gone home.  I’ve been really fortunate that the pressure tests have just happened to fall in my category of strengths.  But I’d rather not be dealing with them at all…  Maybe I’ll survive long enough to reach another team challenge, and maybe, with a bit of luck, I’ll get to watch the next pressure test from the balcony…