Tag Archives: prawns

A FRANK Tale: NYE 2013

Many of my readers have said they love my FRANK blogs more than any other, so I’ll try to blog about every FRANK dinner so you can all get a hint of what the experience was like for our diners.  Please note that there are only a few photos of plated dishes on this blog…Jennie, who is a food stylist, normally photographs the final plating on the final night, but her phone decided it didn’t want to live any more last week, so we lost all those photos.  *sigh*

We try to do FRANK on most major holidays that people celebrate by dining out, and that definitely includes New Years.  Since our menu on NYE 2012 was Italian, we figured we’d keep that tradition around, since both Jennie and I love Italy and the cuisine there.  This was our menu from 2012:

We wanted to draw inspiration from our previous menu, but also introduce some new elements and additional courses, including some of our now-signature housemade cheeses.  We were just coming off the tails of our 3-seating epic Bread-themed menu from Dec 13-15 and had less that 2 weeks to dream up the menu and cook for 4 holiday seatings Dec 27-29 and Dec 31.  We had never done 4 back-to-back FRANKs before, but that extra prep day on Dec 30 would definitely help, and our Dec 31 menu would be expanded from the menus on the previous weekend because we were asking for a higher donation for that seating due to the holiday.  That didn’t leave us much time to conceptualize before we’d have to start sourcing and preparing, so as soon as we finished wrapping up FRANK business on that Monday, we headed out to The Truckyard, a funky outdoor dining spot new on the Dallas scene, where food trucks cycle through what is basically a playground for adults, with a massive treehouse (complete with bar), and people bring their dogs and get food from the trucks and drinks from the bars and have an amazing picnic.  The weather was impossibly gorgeous for mid-December, and Jennie and I brought about 50 pounds of classic Italian cookbooks to begin dreaming.  We knew we wanted the theme to be The North and The South…an exploration of how vastly different the cuisines of Italy are between these two regions.

As a very special treat, we flew in our buddy Adrien Nieto, who you’ll recognize as the 2nd place winner from our season of MasterChef.  Our normal sous chef, Natalie, was out of town for the holidays, and we needed someone brilliant and skilled.  Then, to our surprise, the incomparable Alvin Schultz notified us that he would be in Dallas for NYE, so we pre-empted him to help with that night.  It turned into a spontaneous MasterChef reunion.

We didn’t finalize the menu until after we had begun cooking for this one, but it came together so beautifully.  (This is the expanded menu for the special NYE seating, the 3 dinners the previous weekend didn’t include some of these components and courses.)

We knew we’d have to do oysters again for the amuse-bouche.  It’s so traditional for NYE, and our oyster purveyor always has such an amazing selection.  And Italians love oysters, especially in the South.  But instead of the typical French mignonette (a tangy sauce for oysters with shallots, Champagne and vinegar), Jennie decided to Italianize it by adding some minced basil and using Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) instead.  And while it’s customary to serve oysters with Champagne, we decided to offer a special cocktail this year…a play on the classic “French 75” which is gin, Champagne, lemon, simple syrup, and bitters, but we turned it into an “Italia 75” by using vodka, Prosecco, lemon, simple syrup, and a very, very special housemade bitters we’ve been working on.

Yours, Truly, with an ancient tree

Some of you have seen my videos visiting the oldest trees in the world, the Bristlecone Pines.  These trees live on high desert mountaintops in the American Southwest in California, Nevada, and Utah.  Because they live in a hostile environment, high above the tree line where other trees stop growing, in blasting winds and with as little as 3 inches of rain a year, these trees grow very, very slowly for incredibly long periods of time.  The oldest Bristlecones have been alive for over 5,000 years, meaning they were already 500 years old when the great pyramids of Egypt were built!  They have witnessed virtually the entire march of human civilization.  (I have to place a disclaimer here, because someone is going to claim there are much older trees alive in both the US and Scandinavia, but these are clonal trees, meaning their root systems may be 10,000 to up to 1m years old, but the actual trees you see above the ground live no more than 500-600 years.)  So when you approach a Bristlecone Pine, you’re looking at a tree that has been alive for many thousands of years.  If you haven’t watched my videos on them, you can watch this short one, and there’s another one here.

So what does this have to do with our FRANK menu?  On a recent trip to Burning Man this summer, my buddy Ross and I stopped to visit the oldest grove of Bristlecone Pines, high atop the White Mountains in the Inyo National Forest in remote eastern California near the Nevada border.  And as you saw in the video, the trees were producing cones that were overflowing with sticky, pungent sap.  I gathered a few downed cones and did a double extraction on them with grain alcohol…first, an 8-hour extraction to remove that rich sap, resulting in a golden, piney tincture…and then a 3-week extraction to remove woody, bitter compounds from the cone wood itself.  I combined these two tinctures carefully with 2 other tinctures I made from Texas juniper berries (from the trees in the park behind my house) and from Cascade hops I grew in my garden.  And thus was born what may well be the most epic bitters ever made…Bristlecone bitters, the essence of the oldest trees in the world.  (With NO harm done to the actual trees, I must emphasize!!!)  So this very special cocktail accompanied our oyster to complete a Southern Italian course for the amuse-bouche.

For the next course, we wanted to do a salumi plate.  “Salumi” is the Italian word for cured meats.  (You may be more familiar with the French word “charcuterie” which means the same thing.)  One of our mentors at FRANK is the legendary French chef André Bedouret, famous in this part of the country for his classes on meat curing.  Chef André was present at the very first FRANK almost 2 years ago, and we can always rely on him to give us his very French (ie…VERY honest) opinion about things!  He always challenges us to move to new levels of competence and vision.  We were incredibly fortunate to acquire some of his spectacular cured meats to serve for this course.  The first was lonzino, which is the cured loin muscle of the pig.  This lean, tender cut cures out to an incredibly silken texture, and Chef André used some warm spices like nutmeg in the salt rub.  The second was coppa, which is more commonly called cappicola here in the US.  This muscle comes from the neck of the pig, and has big regions of pure white intramuscular fat which balance the texture of the neck muscles which are frequently exercised (and can therefore be tough, but incredibly flavorful…and when sliced thinly, renders one of the most extraordinary types of salumi).  And the last was a spicy cured sausage, the most challenging of all meats to cure properly, somewhat similar to salame, where our English word “salami” comes from.  Each one of these meats was truly incredible, and when we called for a vote each night on which was the crowd favorite, a solid winner never emerged…they were THAT good.

We served the salumi with a housemade cheese we’d been curing for several months, in the style of an Italian ricotta salata, or “salted ricotta.”  This is NOTHING like the ricotta you’re familiar with…this is an aged, firm cheese that begins its life as fresh ricotta, and is then salted and pressed, and carefully aged.  In fact, because this cheese starts out as a fresh cheese that anyone can make at home, this is an excellent starter cheese if you want to learn to make aged cheeses.  You can read my blog post here on how to make it.  Traditional ricotta salata is not flavored with anything other than salt, but we added a liberal amount of cracked black pepper to the cheese before pressing it, and then we cured it on the outside with a bleu cheese mold to transform the flavor and texture.  We called the resulting cheese “black and bleu ricotta salata” and our diners loved it.  And, as with so many ingredients at FRANK, the only place in the world you can taste it is…at FRANK.  This course was typical of southern Italy.  While salumi is made all across the country, pigs tend to be raised more often in the warm south, where cattle are rare, and salumi tends to be more boldly spiced.

As you may have read, our soups at FRANK tend to garner the most votes as people’s favorite course, so Jennie and I have become obsessed with making sure each soup surpasses the last.  Our soup at Bread Frank was the runaway favorite: a silky-smooth garlic soup thickened with sourdough bread toasted in garlic oil, so we had big shoes to fill for this FRANK.  After reading countless traditional Italian soup recipes, we still didn’t feel we had found the right one, so we invented a new soup based on several traditional Italian soups: porcini, chestnut, and parsnip soup.  Each of these 3 ingredients is revered in Italy, and are seasonally appropriate this time of year in the US.  Porcini mushrooms look like this:

They grow exclusively in the wild and no one has figured out how to cultivate them, so every porcini mushroom eaten anywhere in the world was found in the wild by a mushroom hunter.  In the US, porcini are called by a portion of their scientific name, boletus edulis, or more commonly, boletes.  They are found most commonly on the west coast, and this is the prime season for California boletes.  However, because of the awful, unprecedented drought happening there, not many boletes are being found this year, so we used dried boletes.  (Many species of wild mushroom lend themselves very well to drying, boletes and morels among them.  And this is the only way they can be used outside their normal growing season.)  Boletes can also be found wild all across the US, including Eastern and South Texas, primarily in the spring.  Many, many people believe that boletes or porcinis are the most delicious of all wild mushrooms species, with their earthy, spicy flavors.

Chestnuts are a fixture in the holiday season here in the US.  They pop up in the song lyrics we hear all season: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” and “We’ll be singing the songs we love to sing without a single stop, at the fireplace while we watch the chestnuts pop!”  In northern cities, people look forward to sidewalk chestnut vendors during the winter who serve these creamy, rich nuts freshly roasted.  In Texas, however, chestnuts aren’t nearly as prevalent, so my very first taste of chestnuts was in New York in my mid 20s.  All it took was one taste to fall in love with these extraordinary nuts, which are typically imported from either Italy or Korea.  Chestnut trees used to be widespread in the US, but in the early 1900s, a disease called chestnut blight wiped out nearly all of the 4 billion trees across the country.  Today, it’s incredibly rare to run across a mature chestnut tree, though genetic scientists are engineering a blight-resistant tree with genes from Asian chestnut trees, and new domestic chestnut orchards are being planted.  (Unfortunately, this means that if you find US-grown chestnuts in your market, they are genetically modified.)  If you’ve never tasted a chestnut, you don’t know what you’re missing.  They must be roasted or boiled before eating, and I actually prefer cooking them the way my partner’s mother taught me: in my pressure cooker, and the extra moisture that method contributes to the nut fixes my only criticism of dry-roasted chestnuts…I find the nut meat a bit too dry with that preparation.  Chestnuts are highly perishable, unlike other nuts, and are ONLY available fresh during the late fall and winter months.  But chestnut flour (roasted, dried, and ground chestnuts) is available year round.  Chestnuts are very sweet, with a creamy texture and unusually robust thickening power…a perfect base for a thick, luxurious soup.

To bring together these two unique ingredients, we felt like the perfect bridge would be the parsnip, as it is both sweet and creamy, and earthy and spicy.  So with our sacred trio, we pushed forward with this creative soup, finishing it with olive oil, celery leaves, fried leeks, and a dollop of luscious housemade mascarpone cheese.  And although it had some competition on the first 3 nights, on our New Year’s Eve seating, the majority of our diners said it was their favorite course and they had never tasted anything like it.  The ingredients in this soup are all typical of northern Italy’s mountainous, cool climates, where porcini grow in abundance, chestnut orchards are common, and parsnips mature slowly in the long, cool autumn months.

Chestnut, Porcini, and Parsnip Soup with fried leeks and housemade mascarpone

Now let’s stop for a moment to talk about mascarpone, because most Americans are in dire need of a pronunciation lesson.  There is one, and ONLY ONE, proper pronunciation for this Italian cream cheese:

“mahs – car- PONE – eh”

The rampant mispronunciation “mar-sca-pone” came from I-don’t-know-where.  The “r” comes AFTER the “sca,” not before.  But Americans seem to love randomly moving letters inside words, much the same way they move the “l” in chipotle, thus rampantly mispronouncing it “chi-POL-tay.”  (The only correct pronunciation of chipotle is “chee-POTE-lay.”)  So make me a solemn promise that you will only correctly pronounce mascarpone from now on, okay?  Thanks!  I love you.

Imported Italian mascarpone is ruinously expensive, but you can make it very easily at home by bringing a quart of heavy cream to 190F  in a heavy pot, stirring constantly with a spatula to scrape the bottom of the pot and prevent scorching.  Once the cream reaches 190F, add 2/3 cup of fresh lemon juice and stir constantly for 10 minutes.  Then remove from the heat and let the mixture sit for 30 minutes.  Pour it into a cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl to collect the whey, and refrigerate for 24 hours.  This will yield slightly over a pound of mascarpone, so you can halve the recipe if you want less.  If you’re someone who’s mad for mascarpone, I’ve just saved you A LOT of money!  You’re welcome.  *grin*

Next up was a polenta course.  Jennie and I both love polenta so much, we just have to serve it any time we have an Italian menu.  Polenta is similar to our Southern grits…coarsely ground corn cooked slowly into a hearty porridge, then traditionally finished with a cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Polenta is typical of the south of Italy, where corn is grown in the long, hot summers, and we decided we wanted to serve it with giant prawns, a common food in the Mediterranean regions.  We were lucky to be able to source truly massive ones, nearly 1/4 pound EACH!  But cooking a shrimp that big is challenging, because by the time the meat in the center of the shrimp is done, the outside is overcooked and incredibly rubbery.  Really the only way to perfectly cook a shrimp this size is sous vide, or cooking it inside a vacuum sealed bag in a temperature-controlled water bath.  But before this, we gave them a 30 minute brine to get the meat seasoned perfectly and incorporate a bit more water into the meat to ensure even cooking.  Then they were vacuum sealed with olive oil, tons of garlic, and spicy red pepper flakes, and immersed in a 132F water bath for 45 minutes.  This cooked them through perfectly.  Then we chilled them overnight before peeling and de-veining, and finished them in a pan briefly with some olive oil, garlic, and black pepper to get a nice sear on the outside just before serving.  That’s a LOT of work, but with prawns this big and beautiful, it’s really the only way to do it!  Very few of our diners had ever seen shrimp this big before, and they loved digging into a lobster-sized shrimp on top of ultra-creamy polenta filled with black winter truffle (a classic Italian ingredient) and Parmigiano-Reggiano, with some arugula folded in at the last minute.  It was truly divine…one of my favorite courses we’ve served at any FRANK so far!

Many Italians will tell you that the secret to perfect polenta is to stir, stir, stir constantly while it is cooking.  But I learned from a Sicilian grandmother famous for her polenta that the real secret is the EXACT OPPOSITE.  Don’t stir it.  At all.  Put it in the oven on low temperature, and let it bake…low and slow…for hours…and don’t you dare touch it!  Not only does this result in a polenta with a far better texture than a stirred polenta, it’s way easier, as well!  So all our FRANK polenta is now served this way, thanks to her!

While we’re on the subject of prawns vs. shrimp…there is officially NO distinction between the two in terms of vocabulary.  The words can be used interchangeably to describe any size or species of shrimp.  Colloquially, the term “prawn” tends to be more popular in Australia and the UK, and “shrimp” is more popular in the US.  Here we tend to refer to really big shrimp as “prawns” even though that’s an erroneous association on our part.  Some people call fresh-water shrimp species “prawns” and those that live in salt-water “shrimp,” though the official name for what we served is “tiger prawn” and they are raised in salt-water or brackish water and can’t survive in fresh water for very long.  Female tiger prawns can grow up to 3/4 of a pound and more than a foot long!  Now that’s a real monster!

Now it was time for a palate cleanser, because we’ve passed a LOT of intense food to our diners in those first four courses.  We love limoncello sorbetto and served it at last NYE FRANK, but this year we took it a bit farther by pureeing some fresh basil into the sorbetto and then serving it with a fresh baby basil sprig on top.  Limoncello hails from Sicily in the south, the “football” island at the tip of Italy’s boot, where the world’s best lemons are grown.  It is a pungent, strong, very sweet liqueur that many Sicilians make at home.  It made our sorbetto bright, lemony, and unmistakably Italian with that basil flavor coming through.  Basil is part of the mint family and, while most people think of it as a savory herb, it is equally at home in desserts.  (I make a basil ice cream that is to die for!)

Limoncello Basil Sorbetto

Forming Uova da Raviolo

After that lovely break, it was time for a course we’ve always wanted to serve at FRANK, but were a bit scared to.  But with Adrien and Alvin for reinforcements, we decided now was the time.  Uova da raviolo, a giant ravioli with a barely-cooked egg yolk inside, and when you cut into it, the yolk runs out and mingles with the sauce…about as decadent as any pasta gets.  This pasta is not easy to make.  To be truly sophisticated, the dough must be rolled paper-thin, which makes it challenging to work with, especially when made with semolina flour…the traditional flour for flat pasta sheets in Italy.  Semolina is a lovely golden color, and is ground more coarsely than the “00” flour used to make other fresh pastas.  After rolling, the pasta sheets have to be kept in a humid environment to prevent them from drying out while you cut and fill the ravioli.

The filling we made from a variety of wild mushrooms, sauteed in butter with shallots, and then we folded in Taleggio, a pungent, soft cheese from the Lombardy region of Northern Italy.  (Complementing the also-northern wild mushrooms and shallots.)  Taleggio is incredibly stinky when you smell it, but when you put it in your mouth, the scent disappears and it becomes creamy, mild, and fruity.  It’s absolutely gorgeous with mushrooms, and this creamy nest of earthy goodness became the throne for an egg yolk from my backyard chicken flock.  The edges of the pasta are then moistened, and a disc of pasta slightly larger than the bottom disc is placed on top, the air is carefully pressed out, and the raviolo is sealed around the edges.  Then the raviolo is blanched in olive oil and water just below the simmer for exactly 2 minutes, resulting in a yolk that is just barely cooked and will run when sliced.  Due to the risk of the raviolos breaking apart or sticking together in the water, you have to cook them only 2 or 3 at a time in a huge pot.  This is no easy process, especially when you’re feeding a crowd of 18!  If you’d like to try your hand at the queen of all pastas, my recipe can be found here, though our filling and sauce was different at FRANK.

Alvin and Jennie carefully blanching raviolos for service

We served the raviolo with an anchovy shallot sauce, pungent and salty, but when the egg yolk met it…absolutely breathtaking.  Definitely the most complex dish we’ve ever served at FRANK, both in terms of preparation and flavor.  It’s so amazing you tend to want more than just one, but it’s so rich and explosive in flavor, one is all you can really handle!

Uova da Raviolo with Taleggio, wild mushrooms, and anchovy shallot sauce

USDA Choice vs. USDA Prime ... The only difference? Prime = More Fat

Next up was the “main course,” as if anyone needed more food than what came before!  But when it’s this amazing, you find a way to make room.  Braised USDA Prime beef short ribs from Vintage Farms, the farm owned by the family of our friend Clark at Arrowhead Specialty Meats, who often supplies us with incredible meats for FRANK.  (He does sell to the general public, though you’ll have to buy a whole brisket, pork shoulder, tenderloin, etc. and you won’t be able to buy just 1 or 2 steaks.)  This meat was truly the best beef Jennie and I have ever worked with. The USDA grades beef exclusively by the amount and quality of intramuscular fat distributed throughout the muscle tissue.  The higher the grade, the more fat content, and the better distributed it is throughout the muscle fibers.  (This is called marbling.)  And while many people equate fattiness with something bad, virtually EVERYONE would choose a Prime steak over a Choice steak, because it’s BETTER.  So let’s dispense with the fear of the word “fatty” when it comes to meat.  If you choose to eat beef, you’re choosing to eat something that’s high in saturated fat, so let’s realize that we’re indulging and not be negative about it!  These were the fattiest short ribs I’ve ever seen, and while we rendered and skimmed off most of the fat from the ribs (I’m going to make candles with it!), the braised rib meat was so succulent it basically dissolved on the tongue.  We braised the ribs at 200F for 8 hours with onions, garlic, carrots, parsnips and turnips, for a wonderful wintery taste.  Then, after defatting it, we reduced the braising liquid to concentrate the flavors.  We picked over the meat, removing the bones and reserving them for stock, and setting aside the gelatin-rich connective tissues that would ordinarily be a little chewy.  These we pureed in the Vitamix with the reduced braising liquid to make a gravy thickened, not with starch, but with gelatin from the animal itself.  It was just downright sinful, silken and impossibly rich.

Chef Jennie making risotto rosso

The braised short rib sat on a bed of risotto rosso, a Northern Italian specialty.  Rice is grown in the north, so risottos are common there.  (Cows are also raised in the mountains of the north, but are rare in the hot south, so this was decidedly a Northern Italian dish.)  Risotto recipes commonly call for white wine, but a risotto rosso uses red wine, tinting the dish a lovely dark pink or light purple.  To deepen the color and flavor, we reduced a couple of bottles of red wine (a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo) down to the 2 cups of red wine normally called for in the recipe, and then folded in a truly ridiculous amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano at the end, resulting in a stunning red risotto to match the short ribs in flavor and richness.

The unearthly, sensual texture of the 63.5 degree egg

As if that wasn’t enough, we topped the dish with a 63.5 degree egg.  If you read my last blog, you learned about this extraordinary preparation for eggs.  Proteins in the egg begin to coagulate (ie “cook”) at 63C or about 145F.  But we typically cook eggs at FAR higher temperatures, closer to the boiling point at 220F, or even higher if we fry or scramble them in a pan.  This means we’ve been overcooking eggs for all these centuries.  New technologies in the kitchen like the Immersion Circulator allow us to poach eggs inside their shells at a very precise, appropriate temperature far lower than we have done historically, meaning we can cook an egg properly for the very first time in history.  When you cook an egg at just above its coagulation temperature for an hour, it becomes this delicate, uniform, custardy texture all the way from the white through to the yolk.  It’s sinful, and our guests are responding to it as if they’ve just learned that there really IS a Santa Claus.  Putting this indulgent egg on top of everything already going on in this course…there’s just so much about this dish that’s so, so wrong yet fundamentally, universally, hedonistically right…I’m honestly not sure we’ll be able to surpass it with other FRANK main courses.  It wasn’t incredibly complex…just traditional and simple, but with the finest of ingredients.  A truly magical plate.

Rich, housemade ricotta for making Pastiera Napoletana

And finally…dessert.  While Italy is known for a wide variety of desserts, none of them really rise to the level of indulgence and sweetness as American desserts.  And FRANK tends to be known for some fairly indulgent desserts.  But we wanted to stay traditional and feature something that very few Americans would be familiar with, so we chose pastiera, a unique cheesecake from Naples in the south of Italy.  Pastiera is a lightly sweet ricotta cheesecake with wheat berries baked into the cake.  It is typically only served at Easter in Italy, but in MY Italian-Brazilian family, they serve it during the holidays.  We used spelt instead of true wheat…spelt is a very ancient relative of wheat indigenous to Central Europe, and hasn’t been heavily genetically modified, like most of our American-grown wheats.  We first soaked the spelt overnight, then cooked it in the pressure cooker until it was soft.  Then we simmered it very slowly for a few hours in cream and sugar, and the berries swelled and grew sweet and rich.  We folded this into a housemade ricotta with plenty of eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest, and baked it in a very nontraditional chocolate crust.  Why chocolate?  Well, we just didn’t have the heart to present a NYE dessert without ANY chocolate on the plate!

Pastiera Napoletana, a ricotta cheesecake with candied wheat berries

Adrien bruleeing a layer of sugar on top of candied figs

We topped the pastiera with a decadent salted caramel sauce, and served it with candied, bruleed figs and fresh grapes doused in a very special cold-pressed olive oil from a friend’s family orchard in Sicily.  It wasn’t so rich you felt terribly guilty after eating it, but many of our diners said it was their favorite course and just couldn’t get over the unique texture of the ricotta cheesecake with the candied wheat berries inside.

Our NYE guests were also given a special parting gift…Sourdough Chocolate Panettone.  Panettone (PAN-uh-TONE-eh) is a traditional holiday sweet bread from the Milan region.  It is baked in a round mold, so it looks more like a giant muffin than a loaf of bread.  Historically, it has been made with sourdough starter, but commercial versions are not.  Well, ours certainly was!  While traditional panettone contains dried fruit, the most popular panettones these days are filled with chocolate, so we folded dark chocolate into the dough from Valrhona, a French chocolate manufacturer that produces what is widely recognized as the best chocolate in the world.

Ultimately it was our most ambitious menu yet, 8 full courses including the amuse, plus a parting gift, and our thoroughly-stuffed diners toasted the New Year with us with a beautiful prosecco that won Jennie and I over after tasting dozens.  Exhausted, we collapsed for a few hours before spending the day wrapping up so that Adrien and Jennie and I could get on the road for the west coast the next day…but that, as they say, is a different story!

Please feel free to comment below, and if you’re interested in dining at FRANK, please visit our website!  To read more about FRANK, click here for a list of blog posts about our more interesting menus!

Masterchef 4 Recap: WP-24 and Calamari (S4E20)

Hello, Starr-struck citizens of the internet! Since Ben Starr is partaking in his annual pilgrimage to Burning Man, I am doing a temporary takeover of his blog in order to write the MasterChef recaps that so many of you are so fond of.

For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Michael Chen, and I was part of the top 18 during Season 3 of MasterChef. Please follow me on my Facebook, Twitter, as well as my website at www.mc3michael.com! Let’s get the usual legal disclaimer out of the way: (PLEASE NOTE: This blog contains the crazed rants of a former MasterChef survivor who has practically no inside knowledge of how this season was produced.  It’s not fit to be read by anyone.)

Once again, we are back at 6 contestants (I almost clicked on the wrong episode on Hulu when I tried to watch it!). This time, it’s another team challenge, one that is notorious for driving contestants up the wall. I foresee a lot of Gordon Ramsay screaming at the contestants to get a grip, which as Ben has mentioned in previous blogs, is the WORST way that you can get a kitchen back on track. From my experience working and staging in many excellent, busy restaurants, the best kitchens run off of quiet, efficient communication. Any amount of screaming just frazzles everybody and causes chaos, rather than accomplishing its purpose of getting a station back on track.

So we get to the intro, and see a shot of poor Krissi on the verge of hyperventilating and throwing up at the thought of being up on top of a skyscraper. The judges arrive on a helicopter (WTF is with helicopters and reality TV? Such an overused gimmick), and inform the contestants that today is they are going to take over WD-40 WP24 (seriously though, did anybody elase instinctively think about the magical lubricant/solvent?). While not personally familiar with the restaurant, Wolfgang Puck is one of the most well known chefs in the country, so it will be a challenge for the contestants to produce food that is worthy of his enormous reputation.

It cracks me up to hear Bri talk about Krissi, knowing the kind of sisterly love-hate relationship they have in real life.

This challenge is right up my alley. I’m very familiar with traditional Chinese food, and the techniques used to prepare the dishes. how many Western cuisines intentionally “cook” eggs into a sauce to form little egg drop ribbons? Just the sight of that brings back many food memories from growing up.

Shumai are a variant of Chinese dumplings. They have an exposed top, and are always steamed. The skin more closely resembles a thin, delicate wonton skin than a sturdy, slightly chewy dumpling skin. The shumai looks like the most difficult dish to execute, because the contestants have to make the sauce (which can be delicate with the starch slurry and the egg), prep and wrap the shumai into the proper shape (which required finger dexterity), and keep track of the orders in the steamer, making sure each shumai stays in for precisely 7 minutes (overcooking will lead to a mushy wrapper, undercooking will lead to Ramsay’s favorite word: RAAAAAAAWWWWWRR).

To continue reading my recap, please head over to MY blog at www.mc3michael.com!

Feel free to discuss and let me know what you think, either on my blog or right here down below, as I have access to Ben’s site and can participate in discussions in either medium. Let me know how I did, and how my writing compares to Ben’s! :).


MasterChef recap: Prawns and Sweet Corn

Please note that my blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef and they would prefer you didn’t read it.  This blog contains opinion only.  I have no inside information about the judging process, only assumptions and uneducated guesses…

Thanks to the very bizarre (and potently unfair) get-your-apron-back challenge, Josh is back, so we’ve got 7 in the running again.  It’s time for a mystery box challenge, and today’s ingredient is spot prawns…giant shrimp.  The contestants are getting lots of breaks for mystery boxes this year: access to both a staples box and often a limited pantry in addition to what’s under the box.  I wish I’d had that advantage last season!

Some of the contestants are having trouble “dispatching” the squirmy shrimp.  Monti says, “What I hate the most in a kitchen is anything that is living and can look at me and plead for its life with big brown eyes.”  And while she’s trying to fetch them from the aquarium, Gordon gets several baths from all the splashing.  It’s really funny, but I can tell she’s upset.  (After meeting her this weekend, I found out that she was vegan for many years, so the idea of having to actually kill the animal herself is really upsetting to her.)  When you hear her screaming, “I’m so sorry dude,” she’s not apologizing to Gordon for getting him wet…she’s apologizing to the prawns.  She’s got this amazing moment where she’s literally in the middle of hysterical freakout, and suddenly she looks up at Gordon and says totally deadpan: “I’m making risotto, it’s gonna be awesome.”  Biggest laugh I’ve had this season.

Shrimp is one of the most abused ingredients in the kitchen.  I can count on probably 1 hand the number of times I eaten properly-cooked shrimp at a restaurant.  Shrimp need very minimal cooking, ESPECIALLY if they are this fresh (ie LIVE).  Cooking a shrimp for more than a minute or two turns it tough and rubbery.  Shrimp should always be cooked at a minimum, either a light sauté and then remove it from the pan while cooking the rest of the dish…or add it to the dish at the end of the cooking time and let the residual heat from the sauce cook the shrimp.  You should never let the shrimp boil for more than 5 minutes, under ANY circumstances, or they will be overcooked.  (I actually never boil shrimp at all.  2 or 3 minutes in a hot sauce will cook them perfectly.)

To impart a stronger shrimp flavor to your dish, the secret is to use the shells and heads/legs (if you have them) to incorporate the flavor.  Heat oil or butter in a pan, add the shells and pieces, and cook them until they are fragrant.  This is important because most of the flavor compounds in the shells are more easily extracted and trapped in oil.  If you try to just add the shells directly to a boiling liquid, the flavor compounds will dissipate into the air during the boil because they are volatile.  You need to trap them by dissolving them in a fat, so that the flavor will hang around in your liquid.  Shrimp stock doesn’t need to be boiled for more than an hour to extract maximum flavor…so it’s not like a beef stock which needs hours and hours to extract flavor.  However, the contestants only have 45 minutes for this challenge, so I was expecting to see some pressure cookers out to speed up the stock-making.

It’s tough for me to say what I’d have done, because I don’t know what was in the limited pantry.  I’d probably go Thai and make a fragrant stock with the heads and shells and legs in the pressure cooker, puree and strain it, then reduce that stock until it was syrupy with explosive flavor.  Then bring everything together into a curry with coconut milk, lime juice, red pepper, chili paste or hot chilies, thinly sliced ginger, garlic, and onion…adding the raw prawn tails with some fresh basil and cilantro right at the very end so that they remain succulent and tender.  I’d toss some cashews on top if they had them in the pantry.  (I LOVE cashews and shrimp together.)

If there was a lack of Thai ingredients in the pantry, I’d do a crispy paella…that Spanish masterpiece that celebrates shellfish, saffron, and rice, with a layer of nice crispy-crunchy rice at the bottom where it contacts the pan.  I can’t get enough of that stuff.

It’s a mystery box, so only 3 of the 7 will be tasted.  The first person is Becky, and this is her 5th time in the top 3 for a mystery box.  A record in the history of MasterChef USA!  Becky prepared her prawns the way you’d grill a lobster…she took the whole head-on prawn, cut it in half, slapped it on the grill for a few seconds, and served it on top of a saffron rice with salsa verde (which is a Spanish sauce commonly served with seafood, made from green peppers, parsley, garlic and onion pureed together).  A very Spanish dish, on the whole, much like paella.  And it looks VERY sophisticated.

Next is Christine, who was certainly at a disadvantage wrestling those feisty prawns into her pot.  Christine’s dish is so simple and elegant…prawn tails in a pineapple broth with cilantro.  It sounds very southeast Asian.  And it sounds AMAZING.  Definitely the first one I’d have wanted to taste.

The final dish belongs to David.  And, in terms of yumminess, it’s right up next to Christine’s for me.  He has made ceviche (a Mexican preparation where raw fish and shellfish is marinated in citrus acid), but to show some sophistication, he took the heads and made a cooked sauce with them for the foundation of the ceviche.  To be honest, prawns that big and fresh really should be eaten raw, but the conundrum is how you ALSO show off some actual cooking skill when you’re just serving raw shellfish.  And David has done just that with his very complex and delicious shrimp-flavored sauce that underlies his ceviche.  This is a big hit for David, who has appeared to have been struggling lately.  (However, his dish on the Paula Deen challenge with the roasted red pepper grits looked amazing.)

The judges give the win to David!  His first mystery box win.

Let me take a moment to talk about David, since I just spent the weekend with him.  Now that Ryan is gone from the show, I get more negative feedback from fans about David than about any other contestant.  I was really rooting for David in the beginning, after his incredibly passionate speech during his signature dish audition.  But many of his dishes after that were criticized by the judges, and he isn’t afraid to stick up for himself or speak his mind, and the resulting edit of his character led many of us to wonder why he was still in the competition.  The truth is, David is pretty darn brilliant.  He has VAST food knowledge.  Way more than I do.  He is particularly knowledgeable about classic French method, contemporary American, Modernist cuisine (ie Molecular Gastronomy), and, of course, traditional Mexican…the cuisine of his culture.  I was literally blown away within the first few hours of talking to David.  And I didn’t even have to ask him, “Then why was there so much criticism of your dishes from the judges?”  He answered it for me.  “You know how every artist goes through a block?  Like writer’s block?  Where the creativity and skill are inside you, but it’s just not coming out?  It’s a crying shame that my block just happened to set in during MasterChef and is playing out on national TV.  I know I made some bad dishes.  But that’s not me.  That’s not who I am.”

And I COMPLETELY understand.  While it’s easy for viewers to say, “Oh, I’d just make this or that for the challenge, it would be easy!”…the circumstances on set are very different.  The pressure is extreme.  WAY more than in a restaurant.  You’ve got cameras on all sides…a producer in front of you asking you to narrate your dish while you’re cooking, which is incredibly distracting…and then the judges make regular rounds to shout at you and make you question your choices and your skill.  That environment wasn’t conducive to David’s creativity.  So, after MasterChef ended, he plunged into the commercial kitchen head-on.  I think only David and Michael Chen did that this season.  Immediately David started staging (the culinary word for “interning”) at Chicago’s finest restaurants.  And while industry professionals rarely watch MasterChef and had no idea of David’s reputation, the few that DID know about his performance on the show were dumbfounded when he waltzed in and started performing miracles in their kitchens.  In a few short months, David has worked under most of Chicago’s top chefs, has done some highly successful restaurant takeovers, and he absolutely LOVES cooking on the line.  (Which is, frankly, my worst nightmare.)  Listening to him talk about the challenge of pulling together perfect dishes, dish after dish, for 6 hours straight, I see that gleam in his eye and that twinge of excitement…almost arousal…in his voice…that’s a clear indication to me that David is destined for success in the restaurant world.  And I think one of the reasons the producers have kept him around is that they could tell he was VERY serious about becoming a chef, and just from talking to him, you understand the kind of knowledge he’s got in that big brain of his.  (David has a Master’s degree in Education and next month begins his PhD.)  You’ll be able to read more about my weekend with David and Monti in my upcoming blog, but let’s just get one thing straight: David Martinez is SUPER cool, SUPER talented, hysterically funny, incredibly friendly, and not at all like what he appears on the show.

David heads back into the pantry to discover his advantage in the elimination challenge, which is themed “Desserts.”  The trick is that David has to choose 1 of 3 nontraditional dessert ingredients: beets, corn, or bacon.  One of the biggest trends in the restaurant world right now is quirky dessert ingredients.  Bacon desserts have become so wildly popular now that even fast food restaurants are serving them.  (Burger King announced their Bacon Sundae just last month.)

You can see how smart David is by how he rationalizes his choice.  NO to beets, because he’s not that familiar with them.  NO to bacon, because it’s such a trendy dessert ingredient that his competitors would all be on a fairly level, strong playing field.  So he selects corn.

To further his advantage, the judges show him 3 examples of corn-based desserts:  corn panna cotta (an Italian dessert of sweet cream set with gelatin), strawberry shortcake using sweet cornbread in place of shortcake (actually a VERY delicious idea, I’m gonna try it), and finally a corn rice pudding.  To be honest, the only one of those 3 desserts that looks remotely appetizing to me is the corn shortcake.

No pics of me eating sweet corn ice cream in Belize, so here's a pic of me eating termites in Belize. (They taste EXACTLY like woody carrots.)

Corn is a fabulous ingredient for dessert, and I knew within seconds what I’d have made: sweet corn ice cream with corn fritters and caramel sauce.  I first encountered sweet corn ice cream on a trip to Belize, where it is practically the national dessert.  It sounded slightly strange to me before I tasted it…but corn is sweet, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t make a delicious ice cream.  And it DOES!  I ate my own weight in sweet corn ice cream while I was there.  And you all know from my season of MasterChef that I can make some mean corn fritters…I made them for hundreds of kids at the Block Party challenge.  I think that’s a perfect dessert combo: a hot, crispy corn doughnut (though Becky has apparently rarely seen corn donuts), cold, rich, sweet corn ice cream, and a thick, delicious cream caramel to drizzle on top of everything.

If beets were the selection, my first inclination would be a red velvet cake, though that would be really hard to pull off in an hour, so I’d probably opt for some sort of pie with beets and nuts.  If it was bacon, definitely my bacon white chocolate chip cookies, probably with some maple bacon ice cream and candied bacon bits on top.

David decides to make a rice pudding, primarily because his mom used to make rice pudding and he wants to honor her.  He gets to shop the MasterChef pantry in glorious silence so he can focus.

Unfortunately, he forgets his primary ingredient…rice.  A huge mistake, but one that I made several times while shopping in the MasterChef kitchen.  Nerves get the best of you.  After all the contestants have shopped, David makes the rounds to see if anyone pulled rice and might be willing to loan him any.  It appears that the only contestant to pull rice was Becky, and to the surprise of many, Becky gives David her rice.

We haven’t seen that much sharing this season, but I know from talking to the contestants that it happened all the time.  David apparently freely shared his ingredients all season with others who needed them.  And I’m glad they showed Becky giving David her rice, because Becky’s been getting a pretty mean edit.  From her fellow competitors, even Monti (who Becky continually puts down on the show), they say that Becky is very sweet and likeable, and incredibly talented.  Competitive, yes…but if she was so competitive as to want to hijack her fellow contestants, she wouldn’t have shared with David.  But she did.  I’m not claiming that Becky is an angel.  She’s definitely said some fairly crass things about her fellow competitors.  But ultimately she’s got compassion and a soul, which is evidenced by her willingness to help David out.

They prominently feature Josh saying, “If I had any rice, I wouldn’t give it to him.”  And then Graham says that he also wouldn’t give rice to ANY fellow competitor.  Knowing Graham, I’m not entirely sure that’s true.  If it is, that lowers my opinion of him.  On my season I got absolutely fed up with the judges and producers encouraging selfish competition.  I busted my butt to make sure that our contestant family was nurturing and caring towards each other.  I imagine that was frustrating for the producers, but they basically TOLD me to do it.  I tried to leave the show early on when the contestants were fighting and being nasty to each other.  I told the producers that I could not function in that kind of environment and I wanted to go home.  The producers told me, “Then it’s up to you to change the environment.”  So Jennie Kelley and I basically sat everyone down and said, “LISTEN!  We’ve only got each other to lean on for the next 2 months.  So let’s love each other and HELP each other.  And whoever is the best cook will win.  But our lives are going to be miserable if all we do is fight and mistrust and try to sabotage each other.”  And from that point on, we were all pretty much a family.

I see a LOT more effort by the show to try to split friendships and encourage divisiveness this season.  The contestants tell me that the judges really pushed  an “each man for himself” attitude.  And that makes me sad and angry.  The show is going to be suspenseful anyway…we are always going to bite our nails during an impending elimination.  Why not fill us with a sense of warmth and hope at seeing the contestants helping each other out, rather than fill us with pessimism seeing the contestants want to win at all costs, even by sabotaging and refusing aid to their fellow contestants in need?

Josh says, “I think I’m way more competitive than most people in this contest.”  I don’t think he’s correct.  I think that just about everyone in that room is every bit as competitive as he is.  He’s equating competitiveness with selfishness.  I am one of the most competitive people I know.  I have this giant box filled with trophies and medals from my high school and college years, when people at acting and music competitions used to shudder when they heard that Ben Starr was competing against them.  I LOVE winning.  And I work my butt off to make sure I’m the best.  But that doesn’t mean I would withhold assistance from a fellow competitor in need.  EVER.  That’s not good sportsmanship.

That line “I’m not here to make friends” is thrown around so often in reality TV that it’s become trite, but I hate it each time I hear it.  If you’re not there to make friends, you’d better look at the friendships in your life back home and SERIOUSLY worry if they’re genuine.  If you’re not always constantly looking to make meaningful connections to those around you…you’re not very smart.  PARTICULARLY in a competition.  Making enemies of everyone around you does only one thing: it isolates you and leaves you to rely solely your own skill, with nothing to fall back on.  If your fellow contestants love and adore you and have your back, then you’ve also got their support when you need it.  That makes you a stronger competitor.  In EVERY situation.  Period.

Frank says, “I know this is a competition.  But there’s not enough honorable people out there.”  And he’s right.

So why the heck does reality TV always want to praise people for, and encourage them to be, dishonorable?!?

Frank continues, “If he’s gonna go down, he’s gonna go down because his dish sucks.”  EXACTLY.  In order for the competition to be fair, everyone has to be playing at the top of their game.  Otherwise, you win because someone screwed up, not because your A-game was actually better than their A-game.  If I won a competition just because someone else had a catastrophe, I wouldn’t feel as if I’d won anything at all.

What would YOU do in that situation?  Would you have given the rice to a contestant who needed it, knowing that it might give them an edge on you, rather than leave them in a sticky predicament?  Please comment below, I am fascinated to hear your answers.  And be honest with yourself.

Unfortunately, David’s corn and rice pudding with salted caramel doesn’t impress the judges.  Joe says, “It’s really, really, really unedibly disgusting.   Did you taste this?”

David says, “I did.  I enjoyed it.  It reminded me of my mom’s kitchen.”

And Joe says, “That’s a place I’m going to avoid.”

That’s a low blow which is completely uncalled for.  You don’t insult someone’s mother.  It’s the lamest insult in the book.  I distinctly recall last season when Tracy Kontos overcooked her catfish, to the point where it was burnt on the bottom.  Gordon and Graham chastised her for serving burnt catfish, but Joe said, “Every time my grandmother cooked fish, she always burnt it on the bottom.  Always.  So your burnt catfish doesn’t bother me…it actually brings back happy memories of eating at my grandmother’s house.”  I’m not sure how he can justify the insult to David’s mother having said that to Tracy last season.  Joe’s own mother may be one of the most famous Italian celebrity chefs in the country, but this season he has also blasted one of her favorite techniques: making pasta in the food processor.  So perhaps Joe just has respect for grandmothers, but not mothers.

The other judges concur, though, with Joe’s verdict.  It is one of David’s worst dishes.  But the problem is that David thinks it tastes GOOD.  And there’s another catch to reality TV.  If they want you to have a bad day, you’re gonna have a bad day no matter how good your dish is.  The audience can’t taste it.  Neither can your fellow competitors.  So, technically, the judges can say anything they want about your dish, and it would be “true,” because it can’t be contested.  I know this is true because on several occasions, the exact opposite happened to me: I served a truly BAD dish to the judges, and they raved about it.  (My signature dish didn’t turn out good AT ALL…if I were at home, I’d have thrown it away and ordered pizza.)  No one with the palate of a master chef would have praised some of the awful stuff I presented to the judges.  There were also plenty of times I thought I was presenting a delicious dish, and the judges said it was unpalatable.  Of course, I have to trust them when they’re telling me a dish of mine tastes bad, but I KNOW something’s wrong when a dish of mine tastes bad, and they tell me it tastes good.  So I know how frustrated David is at that moment.  On MasterChef, you never get a sense that the judges’ feedback is 100% honest.  There is too much at stake for it to be a legitimate, merit-based competition.  And we’ve definitely seen this season that some of the judges’ feedback is downright incorrect and just made to heighten drama.  So it’s a very confusing position to be in, not knowing if your palate is terrible because you thought your dish was good, or if they are deliberately bashing you to add to the drama of the situation, and in fact your food was delicious.

And I know how disappointed he is, too.  On the challenge where I was eliminated, I won the mystery box right before it, and then squandered my advantage by overcooking the venison.  MasterChef loves a dramatic crash after a triumph.  At this point, I’m willing to bet my house that David is gonna get eliminated.  That’s a very common formula on the show.

Becky is up next with a lovely duo of desserts: Classy Corn/Trashy Corn.  She’s got an elegant corn panna cotta alongside common caramel corn.  A smart play…and the judges love it.

Christine’s dessert is a corn and coconut pudding with what looks like figs on top, and the judges love it.

Monti had the balls to make a corn and lavender soufflé.  There’s still steam coming out of it when they taste it, which leads me to believe they tasted it just out of the oven.  This is further evidenced by the fact that the soufflé hadn’t fallen when she took it up to the judges.  Souffles can’t be “held” for any length of time, they have to go straight from the oven to the table.  So you definitely run a risk when you make a soufflé in the MasterChef kitchen.  But Monti pulled it off.

Felix also takes a major risk.  She makes profiteroles, which are little puffs of egg dough filled with cream.  Her twist is to incorporate both popcorn and cornmeal into the dough, which is something I’d never do unless I had practiced it first.  Cornmeal is very course, and unless you cook it slowly to split open the granules so the starch bursts out, it could definitely have a negative effect on the texture of the profiterole.  And the profiteroles don’t look like traditional profiteroles…Graham goes so far as to say that they look like “novelty cat poop.”  While they’re obviously not profiteroles, they DO sound interesting to me.  But the judges are not impressed.  Gordon says he had Felix in his top 3, but that this is the worst dish she’s made thus far.

Frank is up next with a corn budino.  (Budino is Italian for pudding.)  He’s got this custardy pudding on top of chocolate sauce, and topped with candied pine nuts and corn kernels.  Sounds great, and the judges say it tastes great.  I think Frank is the only one who paired chocolate with corn.

Josh is last, and he’s got a corn crème brulee topped with corn-infused caramel.  First off, I have to say that it’s NOT a crème brulee.  Crème brulee is a custard that has had sugar burnt onto a glassy surface on top of it.  Josh’s surface is soft cream caramel, not crisp burnt sugar.  However, he did appear to have torched the corn kernels sitting in the caramel.  So I guess it’s technically a bruleed-corn custard.  The problem is that his layer of caramel is muddy colored and doesn’t look very appetizing.  Joe says it’s way too sweet and tastes terrible, and Josh argues with him.  Graham says that the flavors make sense, but it looks unappetizing.

The top 2 dishes are Frank and Becky, who will lead teams in the next challenge.

Who to send home?  David, Josh, or Felix?  It’s a tough call, but I’m confident that they’re sending David home because of that classic formula.  He had the advantage, and he ended up with something the judges couldn’t eat.  That makes him EXTRA guilty, just as it made ME extra guilty when I squandered my advantage hot off a mystery box win.

But I’m dead wrong.  The decision is even more shocking.  Felix.  One of the strongest competitors in the competition.  Almost never in the bottom.  To me, Felix was the least criticized of the bottom 3 dishes.  I was certain she was safe.  But MasterChef loves a stunner.  And this was definitely stunning.  I screamed at the TV until I was hoarse.

Ultimately it makes sense, though.  The show was getting so heavy on talented, fascinating female characters.  Before they brought Josh back, it was 4 STRONG female characters, and 2 guys, only one of which was a strong character (David.)  So they brought back Josh, despite a VERY superior dish cooked by Stacey.  They always keep an even split between males and females, and it was making me downright uncomfortable in the past few episodes to see the girls overshadowing the guys.  The guys may have skill, but they’re just not as INTERESTING, character-wise, as the girls.  So to have this big group of fascinating girls, and a sprinkling of talented guys with fairly bland characters…it was just way off balance in terms of what they NORMALLY do.

So they have to get rid of one of their “big” girls, and the only one who screwed up today was Felix.  They can’t lose another guy.  So now we’re down to 6, and it’s miraculously an even split:  Christine, Monti, and Becky.  Josh, Frank, and David.

Was it the right decision?  Of course not.  Felix is brilliant TV, incredibly talented, and from the first 30 seconds seeing her in the signature dish audition, I had her pegged for final 4.  Now it’s gonna be tough to predict what will happen.  They’ve gotta have at least one polarizing figure in the final 4 (which will probably be gender split), and that’s either gonna be Becky or David.  If it’s Becky, I predict final 4 for Christine, Becky, Josh, and Frank.  If it’s David, I predict final 4 for Christine, Monti, Josh and David.  But it’s a weird season, so who knows?

Felix, I am broken-hearted.  I adore you.  I think you’re one of the most captivating personalities I’ve ever seen on TV.  I can’t wait to meet you in LA next month!  For those of you who adore Felix as much as I do, please follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and tell her how awesome she is!  This elimination was not easy for her.

Don’t forget to comment below about whether you’ve have shared the rice if you were a contestant.  And if you haven’t already, there’s a little box on the right side of your screen (it may be up near the top) where you can subscribe to my blog.  This means you’ll get an email notification each time I post.  And there are LOTS of exciting blogs coming up, including my long weekend with Monti and David in Phoenix…and blogs about the massive trip I took across the American West in June.