(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef or Fox and they would probably rather you not read it. Contained below are the opinions and maniacal ravings of an MC2 survivor and should not be treated as fact or as inside information.)
After a blessed 2 week break spanning the 4th of July, MasterChef is back. I have sliced down the time I can spend on MasterChef recaps, so I’m blogging while I watch the episodes for the first time, so they may read a bit differently, especially since I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of this episode as I type these words.
We’re down to 11 contestants, and it’s time for a Mystery Box. A huge one. We know that Eva Longoria is inside from the previews and commercials, but if I was competing, I’d be hoping it was a full cow carcass, ready to be broken down. And I’d want the short ribs!
Lots of folks must be wondering…Eva Longoria? She’s an actress, what does she have to do with food? I thought the same thing until I saw her on a talk show last year promoting her new cookbook. Apparently she’s been in the restaurant business since 2008, when she opened Beso (Spanish for “kiss”) in Hollywood with noteworthy chef Todd English. (They have 3 stars out of 5 on Yelp.) Most of Todd’s restaurants are in the northeast, but he and Eva have partnered up for Beso in Hollywood, along with an additional Beso location in Vegas, which recently filed for bankruptcy and closed. It was replaced early this year by Eva’s new restaurant, SHe, in partnership with Landry’s, a mega-chain restaurant conglomerate which owns Rainforest Cafe, Morton’s Steakhouse, Saltgrass Steakhouse, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., among many others. SHe is a steakhouse that is female-friendly, and is done up in true Vegas excess. Fashion shows commence nightly for the enjoyment of the diners. The back of the menus have mirrors on them so women can easily put on lipstick without having to dip into their purse. The steaks can be ordered in different sizes more appropriate for a “female appetite,” so you can order HE-cuts, SHE-cuts, and WE-cuts for sharing. SHe has 3 and a half stars on Yelp, and the concept is interesting, but Vegas is a very fickle market. A restaurant has to be over-the-top to survive. (Just for reference, Gordon’s BurGR has 4 stars, his Steak has 4 stars, and his Pub and Grill has 3.)
Regardless…Eva knows a few things about food. And her celebrated family history of home-cooked Mexican cuisine means her “hand picked” mystery box is likely to include ingredients that are common south of the border. I’m jealous. We really only had 1 mystery box with ingredients that could easily be transformed into Mexican cuisine, which is one of my favorites in all the world. In fact, if I had to name my single favorite cuisine, I would HAVE to say Mexican. I mean, I was conceived and born in San Antonio…I had Mexican food in the womb almost daily. And while the robust and complex flavors of Thai are a very, very close second…I gotta give it up to Mexican as my favorite.
Inside the box is pork tenderloin, tiger prawns, avocado, mango, corn, Mexican chocolate (an ingredient I love…it’s a low-grade chocolate mixed with coarse sugar, milk powder, and cinnamon typically dissolved in hot water or milk to make hot chocolate, but I cook with it all the time, too), dried padilla chiles, and dried chiles de arboles, fresh jalapeno and Fresno chiles, hot sauce, tomatillos, cotija cheese (pronounced “coe-TEE-hah,” a dry, salty cheese with a flavor somewhat similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano…we’ve used it at FRANK in a Mexican-style polenta), crema de Mexicana (Mexican sour cream), onion, garlic, lime, and the most exciting ingredient of all…huitlacoche.
Pronounced “wheat-la-COACH-eh,” this ingredient is a fungus that infects corn while it’s growing and turns some corn kernels into distended, dark, globular masses called “corn smut.” In the US, when a corn field gets infected by corn smut, the farmer panics and burns everything down, and gets on his knees to pray that it doesn’t happen again next season. In Mexico, when a farmer notices corn smut, he gets on his knees and thanks the good Lord for his fortune, because he can sell this infected corn for 100 times the price. Huitlacoche is delectable and rare. The new culinary movement is to call it “Mexican corn truffles” to make it easier on the American tongue and more attractive than “corn smut.” I first tasted huitlacoche at a restaurant in rural Utah, of all places, Tarahumara. Click that link to read about my experience at that extraordinary restaurant and others in one of my favorite parts of my favorite state. Huitlacoche embodies all the flavor of corn, but with a mellow earthiness, vaguely reminiscent of truffles. (Note that the can of huitlacoche on the show is spelled “cuitlacoche” which is an acceptable alternate spelling, just like “chile padilla” has a more popular alternate spelling: “chile pasilla.” True pasilla chiles, dried chilaca peppers, are nearly impossible to find in the US, and virtually all chiles sold here labeled “pasilla” are actually dried poblano peppers, which should appropriately be called “chile ancho.” Nomenclature for Mexican chiles is a bewildering field which varies dramatically from region to region.)
WHAT a mystery box! I’d have loved to get this one. And I’d be making huitlacoche tamales, for sure…mash up the huitlacoche into a paste resembling masa, which is what tamales are traditionally made of, seasoned with some of the ground chile. I’d braise that pork tenderloin with the chiles, garlic, onion, and lime in the pressure cooker and use that for the tamal filling, wrap up the tamales in the fresh corn husks and steam them up, served with a salsa verde made from roasted tomatillos. If I had time, I might even do a sweet corn and huitlacoche tamal for dessert, drizzled with Mexican chocolate and topped with sweetened cinnamon crema de Mexicana. Oh MAN I’m drooling right now.
Eddie is doing a chile-rubbed pork tenderloin over creamed corn with cilantro verde sauce. Savannah, who grew up close to the border in San Diego and is very comfortable with the cuisine (which automatically makes me scared for her), is doing a crusted pork tenderloin which a chile sauce, along with elotes. If you’ve never had Mexican elotes, you haven’t lived. It’s becoming a much more popular street food around the country, so next time you see a cart with “elotes” on the side, stop by and just ask for everything. You can just say “todo, gracias.” It’s a corn on the cob with the kernels shaved off and mixed with crema de Mexicana and mayo, chili powder, lime juice, cotija cheese, and butter. It is DIVINE.
Fellow Texan James is doing roasted corn and shrimp ceviche with mango gastrique. (A gastrique, pronounced “gas-STREEK,” is a sauce made with caramelized sugar syrup and vinegar.) Bri is also doing elotes but with grilled corn, with cilantro butter poached shrimp with a last minute sear on the grill.
None of the dishes highlighted use huitlacoche and I’m REALLY upset about that. I’m not sure if no one used it, or if they simply didn’t feature the contestants that did.
The 3 dishes that get tasted are:
Bri! Her butter poached and grilled shrimp sit on top of an elote-inspired corn salad, topped with pico de gallo and a cream sauce. Gordon loves it and says it’s the best dish she’s put up in the competition. Eva loves her balance of flavor. The judges seem really shocked that a vegetarian would know how to cook shrimp, which is weird. But maybe not THAT weird, because most people don’t know how to cook shrimp. Shrimp should be BARELY cooked. Still a bit translucent in the center when you cut into them. Brining them for 15-30 minutes before cooking helps prevent overcooking, as does allowing them to come to room temperature before cooking, so they cook more evenly. Cooking them in the shell gives them more flavor and more protection from overcooking. Shrimp should always be delicate and tender when you bite into them. If they are chew or rubbery, they are overcooked. When working with pre-cooked shrimp, NEVER add them until the very end of cooking, and always off-heat. Let the residual heat of the dish warm the pre-cooked shrimp to serving temperature, as additional cooking will turn them to rubber. (Precooked shrimp are already overcooked, so you’ll always be serving an inferior product if you use them in any application.)
Eddie is next, with his chile-rubbed pork loin on roasted cream of corn with mango relish and a green sauce drizzled around the edge of the dish. (Not quite sure I like that sauce presentation for some reason, but I’m the last person to criticize anyone about presentation!) The judges are impressed, particularly Eva, who says his pork was cooked better than anyone else’s. (The judges browse the kitchen while the contestants are cooking, tasting as things are coming together. And when time is called, the contestants actually vacate the set for an hour while their dishes are filmed and photographed, and during that time, the judges sample just about everything on the contestants’ stations, so they already know what it tastes like before they taste it on camera…at which time it is hours old, cold, coagulated, and narsty!)
Savannah is the third choice, and her spice-crusted pork tenderloin perches on a bed of elotes, with a tomatillo avocado salsa. Her pork is quite pink in the middle, and on previous seasons, this would have gotten a contestant screamed at and possibly eliminated. (Though this is a perfectly acceptable way to cook pork in real life.) Eva is intrigued by her use of tomatillo in her guacamole, which I’ve never had before, but they pair well together, so why not? Eva also hesitates a little when she talks about how spicy the dish is…but, it’s good? Give me as much spice as you can cram into a Mexican dish, if my mouth ain’t burnin’ it ain’t Mexican food.
The winner is Bri! I’m super stoked for her. Bri is one of my favorites, not necessarily because they’re showing very much of her (they aren’t), but because I’m sort of intuiting that she and I are very similar based on our backgrounds in theatre. The producers aren’t editing in many moments that truly reveal character this season, so it has been VERY hard to truly connect with ANY of the contestants on screen. And I’m having to resort to fantasy to sort of create what I think each cook is like in real life…so my own personal version of Bri is a truly delightful person, thank you very much, and I’m very happy that she won this challenge.
The next challenge brings back Walmart’s bizarre sponsorship. I’ve talked enough about it, so I’ll just point out that Ramsay never actually says “Walmart” and leaves that to Graham and Joe. There are 2 baskets. One basket will get assigned to 1 contestant. And the remaining basket will go to all the others. Bri will not have to cook.
One basket contains strawberries, a banana, 3 eggs, whole milk, baking powder, butter, sugar, strawberry gelatin, and a lemon, which, theoretically, costs under $5 at Walmart. (Though that must be prorated, because a bag of flour at Walmart is $2, a bag of sugar is $2.50, a package of butter is $2.50, a quart of fresh strawberries is rarely less than $2…and we’re not through the box yet.) That basket comes with a time limit of 1 hour.
The other basket contains sweet potato, cauliflower, tomato, tri-colored mini bell peppers, collard greens, pistachios, cilantro, limes, and other ingredients that don’t get announced…along with one of Walmart’s legendary “choice premium” ribeye steaks. Remember…only 1 in 5 steaks is good enough to be called a Walmart steak! Graham reminds us that Walmart is certified by the USDA for quality. (Along with EVERY establishment in the entire country that processed or sells beef.) Ha ha ha… This basket supposedly costs $25 at Walmart…quite a pricey course for a single person cooking at home for themselves, since there’s only 1 steak there. And the time limit for that basket is 30 minutes.
Bri, who is now automatically in the top 10, assigns the 1 hour baking basket to the entire group, with the exception of Natasha, who is an accomplished baker, and who gets the 30 minute steak basket. Natasha also has the advantage of getting to wait 30 minutes to start cooking, so she can use that time to conceptualize what she wants to make and plan out each and every step. Joe says she’s not even thinking about her ingredients and is spending all her time glaring up at Bri, which is ludicrous. I guarantee you she’s brainstorming like crazy.
If you have this episode on your DVR, fast forward to the spot where Krissi is worried about her muffins not rising (to which she has added strawberry gelatin). You hear Bri saying, “Krissi is not my target, but if she goes home, that’s cool.” This is a PERFECT example of how a contestant’s words can get twisted into something they never actually said. Listen to the audio carefully. It is composed of 4 totally separate sound bytes stitched together. Bri says, “Krissi is not my target, but…” then they patch to a live interview segment where she says, “…if Krissi…” and then a VERY big change in the pitch of her voice when they edit in “…goes home…” and then another pitch change for “…that’s cool.” These four sound bytes could have been pulled from interviews ANYWHERE in the season and stitched together to make Bri sound catty at this particular moment. This happens ALL the time on reality TV, especially on MasterChef. (In your contract, you specifically permit them to twist your words this way, even if it causes public hatred of you.) There’s also another dubious sound byte when Gordon is hollering at Bri to call out the name of the person who isn’t going to make the top 10, and we get a shot of her in the balcony saying, “Ummmm…” and then the camera cuts away before the sound byte “…Krissi?” is edited in along with a shot of Krissi glancing up at the balcony. Could have come from anywhere.
Regarding Krissi’s use of strawberry gelatin to her cupcake batter… Food scientist Harold McGee would be able to tell us exactly what’s going on inside her cupcakes as they bake, and unfortunately, I don’t have a fraction of the knowledge he does. Gelatin is an animal byproduct…a heat conversion of collagen, which is the connective tissue that holds together muscles, connects them to bones, and holds bones together. Gelatin is used to set liquids and prevent ice creams and sorbets and mixed drinks from freezing solid. (I use gelatin more often in cocktails than any other application.) In a batter, I would imagine that gelatin would perform a similar function to gluten, the substance in flour that links together after flour is hydrated and holds in the gas released from the baking powder, causing the muffin to rise. In gluten-free baking recipes, substances like xanthan gum are used to replace gluten, and I did see some recipes on the internet that relied on gelatin as a substitute for xanthan gum. However, in the presence of gluten-rich flour, I’m not sure what the gelatin would do to the final product. Some home cooks online seem to think that it makes the batter “springier” and less likely to crack on top as the cake bakes. This would be an interesting thing to experiment with. Krissi has used it simply to add strawberry flavor and color to the cupcakes.
Time is called and it’s time for tasting.
Luca is first, and he’s worried that his cake is undercooked, but it turns out it’s cooked banana that looks like raw batter. His banana cake with strawberry glaze is “not bad for $5” according to Graham. The other judges give him a bit more praise.
Lynn comes down next, having just been dubbed “King of Plating” and “Mr. Finesse” by Gordon, and Lynn cringes because he’s not happy with his plating. He’s made pavlova (an Australian/New Zealand classic of baked meringue) topped with strawberries, a dark grey banana puree (maybe he didn’t get enough acid in there and it went dark as it sat for an hour or two before being tasted, which is technically not supposed to count against him) and crisp banana chips. Lynn is not happy and offers no excuse for the failure of the dish…a tribute to his integrity. Gordon dubs it the worst dish in 4 years of MasterChef. Not sure if that’s true, but he says it anyway. Joe scrapes the dish into the trash and hands the empty plate back to Lynn, saying it can be a memento of his MasterChef journey.
Savannah is next, with a banana cream pie and meringue on top. It looks pretty nice, but Graham says her pastry cream is undercooked (ie, floury), and her meringue is weeping. (Savannah immediately confessed to her meringue having “broken” when she set down the pie.)
Up next is Jessie, with a shortbread tart, caramelized banana, meringue, and caramel glass. It’s pretty impressive, and the only fault I can see is that the meringue was beaten a little bit beyond stiff peaks, so it didn’t go on smoothly and is more “chunky” in appearance (which means a slightly coarse texture.) Gordon is impressed, but does not discuss the meringue’s texture (or at least it doesn’t get edited in).
James is next, and he has crispy deep-fried banana, strawberry puree, macerated strawberries, and a thin custard. “Macerated” means something that is marinated in its own juices, so get your head out of the gutter! The custard is a little dark, it probably has banana in it, and not enough acid to keep the banana from oxidizing and turning brown. Joe says, “Calling that a custard would be a very, very generous description for what it is,” and isn’t impressed…though I will say that, except for the dark custard, the dessert looks pretty darn good.
Krissi‘s strawberry gelatin cupcakes are next, and she fesses up immediately about the unorthodox addition and says they’re “disgusting.” Joe says, “Of all the people, you’d have nailed a $5 bake sale,” and Gordon says they all expected her to be on top in this challenge. We get a clip of Natasha grinning from ear to ear after hearing this, but this is another one of those edits where she was actually laughing at a joke the judges made earlier, and it gets edited into this position to make her look mean.
Natasha brings her main course up to the judges. She has a pretty stunning sear on the ribeye, and sweet potato fries, which Gordon says is “difficult to nail.” He’s right. The high sugar content in sweet potatoes makes them darken considerably when frying, to the point where they can be downright ugly by the time they are cooked through. (The solution is to pre-cook them, either in boiling water, by steaming, in the microwave, or sous vide, then do a quick flash fry at a lower temp than regular potatoes, to crisp up the outside without causing too much caramelization.) She also has roasted cauliflower and 3 different dipping sauces. Her steak has a perfect rare cook on it, good girl! The judges are impressed.
Jessie is the winner, making this her 3rd bout as team leader, up against…no one, apparently, because there’s only going to be 1 team captain in the next group challenge. Weird.
The bottom 3 are James, Lynne, and Krissi…3 of the strongest competitors in the competition so far. Very strange. The axe falls to Lynn…a big shocker. Always first to be picked for team challenges. Plates that look like they came from a Michelin-starred kitchen. You can tell the judges are upset about this elimination, and his fellow competitors are stunned.
Lynn has been busy since MasterChef wrapped. He has dishes on the menu at Urban Solace, one of my favorite restaurants in San Diego. (The dishes are being featured at least through the 14th, so head over there quick!) Better yet, all the proceeds from the sale of his menu items go to Mama’s Kitchen, a food related charity that feeds those battling AIDS and cancer. (I LOVE seeing MasterChef contestants giving back!!!) He also helps produce The Sam Livecast, an online show with the famous Sam the Cooking Guy, and they just produced their 300th episode! Lynn has some VERY serious talent, and I fully expect to see a prominent and successful career in food for his future. Follow Lynn Chyi on Facebook and Twitter and be sure to send him a message of support! Also, check out his impressive website, and if you’re looking for an expert photographer or web designer, he may be your guy.
Please share your thoughts on this episode below!