Today’s blog is brought to you by WalMart, which can figure out how to sell a dozen organic eggs for $3, but not how to make a commercial with decent actors.
(That’s a joke, my blog is not endorsed by Walmart, though the link above will lead you to a fascinating article that talks about Walmart’s recent decision to carry a higher grade of beef, and what that did to the US beef economy. Also, my blog is not endorsed by MasterChef and they would prefer that you not read my blog altogether. All information below is opinion and nothing more.)
I’m fresh off an incredible birthday/Bastille Day weekend, when we had our most successful FRANK yet. If you haven’t been in the loop about the amazing conversation about industrial meat that’s been going on here on my blog and on my Facebook page, check it out.
MasterChef’s group challenge tonight made me a little sad about Cowboy Mike going home last week. The contestants are on a ranch, about to cook 101 steaks for a bunch of “cowboys and cowgirls” (ie wealthy Southern Californians who ride horses for a hobby, and most certainly are not authentic cowboys, which are a vanishing species and, these days, consist mostly of migrant workers from Latin America).
Monti and Frank are team captains this week, and have VERY different strategies for picking their teams. Frank wants to select the strongest cooks left in the competition, so he goes for Becky, Josh, and Felix. Monti wants a team of underdogs so she picks Stacey, David, and Christine. (Had I been a team captain, I’d have picked Monti, Felix, and Christine, or Stacey, Felix, and Christine, depending on their off-camera chemistry…just FYI.) Christine is the last to be picked, and she is good-hearted about it, however Gordon knocks down both team captains by telling them that Christine would have been his very FIRST pick.
But there’s a twist…of course. Gordon tells the team captains to SWITCH teams. So now Frank’s “Dream Team” belongs to Monti, and Monti’s “Underdog Team” belongs to Frank. A crafty and interesting twist. Poor Monti says, “I think my new team probably just hates the fact that they got stuck with me as team captain.”
It’s time to select menus, and Monti takes a totalitarian approach by designating ribeyes (definitely my choice) with sides of mashed sweet potatoes (???) and green beans (???). She ignores Becky’s well-founded anxiety about whether or not the menu is appropriate for cowboys. (Of course they’re not feeding REAL cowboys, but in theory, the upper middle class of SoCal will at least want to EAT cowboy food after their morning trail ride.) As much as I adore Monti, I’d have been a stickler about that menu. I understand well that these are people who would probably spring for mashed sweet potatoes and green beans in their normal life, but here on the ranch, you’d better feed them potato salad and beans with their steak. And that’s exactly what I’d do…spicy rubbed ribeyes, BBQ sauce, potato salad (skin on, for faster prep and a more down-on-the-farm taste), and beans. (Their pantry consists of cans of already-cooked beans, which means all they have to do is be seasoned…most easily with the BBQ sauce I’d be making anyway.) I am REALLY worried about Monti’s menu selection.
Frank’s team chooses New York strip for their steak…again, a steak that most of these “cowboys” would probably pick over a ribeye back at home in Orange County. But they’re on the ranch today, and ribeye is definitely the better choice. Frank asks for input on side dishes, and his team suggests garlic mashed potatoes (which David takes ownership of), corn on the cob (which Christine takes), and BBQ sauce (GOOD CALL, Stacey!) And we are most definitely reminded that Walmart provided all the groceries for today’s challenge.
Gordon gives a gem of a line: “You give a cowboy a rare, almost raw steak, they’re gonna kick up a stink.” Growing up on a west Texas farm, I’d probably venture a guess that I know 100 times as many REAL cowboys as Gordon, and I can tell you that there’s generally one line cowboys use to order their steak: “I want it still mooing.” Generally, cowboys think that heat and steak are to meet only sparingly. I’d be prepping my steaks 1/3 rare, 1/3 medium rare, and 1/3 medium. The way the teams are cooking, they’re pre-searing all the steaks and will warm them up on the grill just before serving. It’s pretty easy to take a medium steak to medium well if someone really wants one. And you’re gonna have a few that overcook in a hot spot on the grill, so you’ll definitely have a few reserved well-dones if anyone wants them ruined.
The problems begin when Christine is grilling corn and the husks catch on fire. Gordon treats it as the end of the world. (I generally INTENTIONALLY catch my husks on fire to add some great smoky sear to the corn inside.) The way to avoid this is to soak the in-husk ears in water for an hour, then cook on a low fire to roast the corn. However, I’m just not a fan of that plan. I love to get those babies smoking and get some flavor into them, and they cook faster that way, too.
Over on Monti’s team, Becky has overcooked the first round of steaks, so Monti puts Josh on the grill instead. Frank has been stacking his pre-cooked steaks in hotel pans, which is a terrible idea. The weight and heat of the steaks at the top of the pile overcooks the steaks below and squeezes out their juices. So we’ve got critical meat errors on both teams.
Serving time begins and we suddenly find out that Becky has made a whiskey butter sauce for her team’s steak, which sounds DELICIOUS! (Definitely a way to help offset the lack of BBQ sauce and appropriate side dishes for Monti’s team.) But after serving for only 5 minutes and 25 cowboys, they run out of their mashed sweet potatoes…a colossal error, either in plating/portioning, or prep. (We never really find out which it was.) There is apparently some portioning or prepping errors on Frank’s team, too, as we catch glimpses of both full corn cobs, and tiny slices of cob, on plates. But that’s never addressed in the final edit…I wonder if the judges brought it up.
The cowboys rave at how surprising it is to find such tender steaks at Walmart. In previous blogs, I’ve said about all there is to say about this year’s product placement and Walmart sponsorship. (I have complex feelings about Walmart, but what is puzzling to me is how the network is trying to pass off two seemingly opposing concepts: the cheapness and pedestrianism of Walmart, and the finesse and sophistication of a master chef, as compatible in some inconceivable way. The product placement is glaring and awkward, and the Walmart commercials between each segment are STUPENDOUSLY poorly-made. They look like my YouTube videos. Poorly acted, poorly scripted, fake, and cheap.) Well, I guess I had a little more to say. Ha ha ha…
Frank’s team wins by a landslide, and I have to say…it makes perfect sense. When feeding people on an actual ranch who are pretending to be cowboys, why on earth would you not make BBQ sauce and serve BBQ-style side dishes? Ultimately, I really believe this was a menu error. And fascinating that the underdog team, which Monti originally selected, won the challenge after all.
Back in the studio, Monti, Becky, Felix, and Josh face the pressure test. However, there’s going to be another sociology experiment today. The judges send them into the wine cellar to decide which one of them deserves to be safe from the pressure test. And they are most certainly NOT in agreement. Monti immediately nominates Felix because she thought Felix performed the best on the team. But Josh believes HE was the best and thinks Felix did very little to help the team. Becky nominates herself, but Monti reminds her that she overcooked the first batch of steaks. There is no consensus, but since it’s two votes for Felix, one for Josh and one for Becky, Felix is safe.
It was interesting to watch this argument. How would YOU have responded? Of course your answer might vary depending on how you thought you actually performed. For me, at least, I’d never have the guts to nominate myself for immunity, regardless of how well I performed. And I applaud Monti for taking the ultimate blame for the loss and NOT nominating herself. Ultimately, it’s a competition, and they have definitely cast competitive individuals this year. But isn’t it also interesting that the two most popular contestants are Christine and Monti, who are the least “selfish” in their style of competition? I really think if the producers would encourage more team spirit and less every-man-for-himself, the show would be MORE enjoyable to watch. There’s always going to be suspense regarding eliminations, team selection, and challenges. We don’t need to hear people bragging about themselves and talking trash about each other. I truly believe the majority of the population is uncomfortable with that, and would connect more strongly with the show if there was more rapport among the contestants. What do YOU THINK? (Comments below, please.)
After the pressure test, once Monti realizes she’s not going to be eliminated, she breaks down. And I know EXACTLY why, because I experienced it, too. As a team leader, when you don’t lead your team to a win, you feel a big responsibility for whoever gets eliminated in that pressure test. And when you perform well, you feel extra-guilty. When my team lost the Hollywood Cocktail Party challenge, I felt incredibly guilty. Then, when they announced it was a cake challenge and I was provided with exactly the ingredients to make my legendary pumpkin carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and candied hazelnuts, I proceeded to bake a cake I could bake with my eyes closed, while my teammates were scrambling to bake cakes they were unfamiliar with. Incredibly unfair. And, ultimately, my fault. My tears that day were half exhilaration and excitement for finally being able to offer the judges a true BEN STARR dish for the first time since my signature dish, and regret and guilt for leading my team to a failure and then performing at the top of my game, unfairly, in the subsequent pressure test. Sort of like I ditched them to take glory in myself. I felt like dirt that night.
This is a HARD pressure test. 4 perfect egg dishes in only 20 minutes: a soft boiled egg, a poached egg, a sunny-side up egg, and an omelet. I don’t know who designs the pressure tests for MasterChef, but on all 3 seasons, they were almost tailor-made for me. Eggs are my passion. I cook breakfast every day of the week. (Albeit around noon every day!) But to do all this in 20 minutes…that’s a tall order, as you’ve got to manage multiple methods at once.
Here are the best ways to cook all 4 types of eggs:
1. Soft Boiled. The trick here is to STEAM the eggs rather than boil them, which is a much gentler and more even heat. Bring an inch and a half of water to a rolling boil and place a steamer basket or strainer in the pot. Place the eggs carefully into the basket, cover, and steam for 5 minutes (for room temp eggs) or 6 minutes (for refrigerator-cold eggs). Immediately plunge into a cold saltwater bath (NOT ice water) to stop the cooking and add a bit of seasoning through the shell and inner membrane. You can later warm them up in hot salted tap water, but on MasterChef, serving temp is rarely an issue, so I wouldn’t have bothered.
2. Poached Eggs. You can watch my YouTube video on how to make a perfectly poached egg every single time. It involves a 10 second pre-poach in the shell (after pricking a hole in the large end of the egg) and then a 4 minute cook in BARELY simmering water/vinegar in a ration of 2 quarts of water to 1/3 cup of white vinegar. As always, the freshest eggs hold up best for poaching, while older eggs tend to have more “flyaway” in the poaching liquid.
3. Sunny Side Up. This is a tricky one, and it involves very low heat. The contestants mostly cooked their eggs in a ring mold, which makes them lovely, but isn’t necessary. Preheat your pan over medium low heat, add some butter, and gently crack the eggs into a bowl first, to make sure you don’t break the yolk. Slip them gently into the pan to keep that yolk intact. Then ignore it for at least 5 minutes. Let it cook incredibly slowly. Excess heat can brown the bottom of the white and make it tough before the top of the white gets cooked. It can also force air bubbles into the yolk. After the white is fully set all the way to the top, gently slip the egg out of the pan and onto the plate. Sprinkle salt around the white but NOT on the yolk…the salt penetrates into the yolk and denatures the proteins, and it becomes gross and saggy. As with poached eggs, a fresh egg will have a tall, proud yolk, while an older egg with have a saggy, sloppy yolk.
4. Omelet. This one can be tricky, but since the other 4 preparations are time-and-forget, this is where you spend your time for “WOW” factor. I would separate the 3 eggs and put the whites into the mixer with a pinch of salt and bring them to stiff peaks. The yolks get a Tablespoon of water added to them (which actually makes them whip better) and get whipped in a bowl by hand until they start to thicken and pale. Then you fold the yolks gently into the whites and pour them into a preheated buttered pan over medium heat. When the bottom is just set, slip the skillet into the oven at 375F for 4-5 minutes until it’s just barely set. The omelet will continue to cook when you remove it from the oven, but it will be light and airy. The French developed this technique centuries ago, which is what later became the souffle, and it results in an omelet of incomparable quality.
Luckily, you don’t have to worry too much about serving temperature. The judges rarely taste the food as soon as it’s done, and even if they do, unless you’re the first to be tasted, your eggs will be cold by the time the judges have finished the first critique. So the challenge here is really keeping up with your timing…5 minutes for the soft-boiled, 4 minutes for the poached, the sunny side up goes low and slow until ready, and prep time plus 5 minutes for the omelet. Definitely incredibly tight.
Judging begins. Monti’s fried egg has slightly underdone whites, her omelet is too flat and dense, but her soft boiled and poached are perfect. Becky’s fried egg is overdone (I saw her spooning butter onto the top of it while cooking…that will destroy a sunny side up egg), her omelet and poached egg are perfect, but her soft boiled egg is underdone. Josh’s fried egg is perfect, but his omelet is too dense and flat, his poached egg was 30 seconds overcooked, and his soft boiled egg is downright raw.
So it is no surprise, then with only 1 perfect egg, that Josh is sent home. I have really enjoyed watching Josh this season. I think that, technically, he is one of the best cooks in the competition. He continually surprised me with the sophistication of his dishes, and his mature instincts. Josh is the kind of person who I expect to actually become a chef, unlike most of the popular contestants on all 3 seasons. Whitney Miller and Jennifer Behm certainly aren’t becoming chefs. They may write cookbooks or sell pots and pans, but neither of them are interested in working the line and enduring the chaos and heat of the restaurant kitchen. They might, one day, start a restaurant and conceptualize the menu…but they won’t be in the back cooking.
Josh is the kinda guy who will do both. And this is evidenced by the fact that Gordon offers him a job. (I’m absolutely certain Joe will do the same.) Ultimately, MasterChef is NOT a cooking competition. The cook with the best overall skills does not win. Were that the case, we’d stop watching because it would be insufferably boring. MasterChef is a TV show with dramatic turns and twists, and we end up rooting for characters who may not necessarily have the most talent or skill, but who have integrity and character, with whom we connect and identify. We want THOSE people to win, even if other contestants are more talented. So there is a lot more that must be taken into consideration in the judging process.
That said, I think Josh might have taken it all, were MasterChef an entirely merit-based contest. He is most definitely a force to be reckoned with. And I can’t wait to see what’s next for him!