(PLEASE NOTE: This blog contains the drunken ravings of a MasterChef season 2 survivor. It should be considered solely opinion, and nothing more.)
We’re down to 9 contestants, and Luca rubs a bit of sand in the face of Giuseppe Morisco from Season 2 by stating that he is the only Italian to have ever gotten this far in MasterChef USA! (Giuseppe will be featured in an upcoming “Where Are They Now” post, because he has opened restaurants all around the world since MasterChef!) But he’s technically correct, and he’s so adorable, I forgive him for it.
The mystery box challenge today includes another box at the judge’s platform that is about 20 feet long. Under the contestants’ boxes is a meat grinder, and under the long box is a veritable “crap load” of meat. Poor Bri, the vegetarian….OH WAIT! The judges have graciously give her tofu, tempeh (fermented soy bean, but drier and more flavorful than tofu) , and seitan (cooked wheat gluten)…vegetarian ingredients that can be used to make sausage. So this has just become a VERY interesting challenge. I, for one, am not too keen on trying a vegetarian sausage, as much as I’m in love with the pig. But it will be fascinating to see what Bri can turn out in the 60 minutes allotted to make a perfect cased sausage, and then turn it into an entree.
Let’s chat about sausage. It’s one of the major food groups, you know. Sausage is divine. It’s a way to turn an otherwise tough, boring cut of meat into something truly extraordinary and enlightened. Give me a deer leg and I’ll thank you, not because I can turn it into something that approaches the elegance and perfection of leg of lamb…but because I’m gonna cut it up, grind it with pork fat, add my secret spices and veggies, and turn it into the yummiest sausage you’ve ever tasted.
To make true sausage at home you need a meat grinder. ANY meat can be turned into sausage, but in order for it to be an effective sausage, it needs to hover around the ratio of 80% lean meat to 20% fat. Some people take this to 75% lean, 25% fat for extra indulgent sausage. But if you get much leaner than 80/20, you stop making sausage and you start making pate or ground meat. The fat is all-important. You can buy pork back fat at most butchers and ethnic markets, and even if you’re making a chicken or fish sausage, pork fat is still the fat that chefs choose for making sausage. (Though on the Truffle Challenge in Season 2, I made duck sausage using duck fat, and it was pretty damn good if I do say so, myself!)
When shopping for sausage, don’t be fooled into thinking that something like chicken or turkey sausage may be “better for you” than traditional pork sausage. While chatting with one of my local butchers last week, he told me that the ratio of pork fat they have to add to chicken sausage to make it palatable is much higher than the ratio in their pork sausage…so there’s MORE saturated fat in many chicken sausages than there is in good old fashioned pig sausage. You’ll have to carefully analyze the nutritional information to determine its fat content.
Bethy’s sausage is sounding really good…wild boar and bacon, something she’d serve at the bed and breakfast she wants to open some day! Something tells me Bethy has been talking about this dream in her interviews for weeks, and this is the first time they edited it in. I’d come to your B&B Bethy! Especially if you’ve got wild boar sausage on the menu. Wild boar is VERY gamey. Far gamier than venison. So balancing it out with bacon and lots of pork fat and bold flavors can result in a truly sublime sausage. I LOVE using full-flavored, gamey meats in sausage. Chicken just won’t cut it for me.
We’re seeing a lot of folks “poaching” their sausages before cooking them. We were taught to do this at MasterChef during my season, too. I HATE this technique. What a great way to lose all that wonderful flavor you’ve cased inside that sausage than to put it in a big pot of hot water to dilute everything. Here’s how you properly cook a sausage:
Get the heaviest cast iron skillet or griddle you have. Place it over medium heat for about 10 minutes to get it good and evenly heated. Then place your sausages into the pan and don’t touch them for 5 minutes. Then flip them every 5 minutes for about 20-30 minutes. Low and slow. That’s how to cook sausages. Eventually you’re going to get a delicious crust built up all over it, and it’s going to be tender, juicy, and evenly cooked on the inside. If you add the sausages to a screaming hot pan, or a hot grill, the casing is going to burn instantly, open up, and all your sausage on the inside will burst out of it. (Which is what has just happened to Luca. I know how you feel, Luca, on our cased sausage sandwich challenge for the bikers on my season, our sausages were exploding all over the place because our coals were too hot…we had to just do sausage patties on the flat top.) Sausages really come into their own in a cast iron skillet. I think it’s the single best way to cook a sausage.
Time is called, and the 3 top dishes tasted are:
Natasha – She has a chicken sausage that contains bacon, apple, and mozzarella with red chili flakes, oregano, rosemary, and sriracha (a Thai condiment that is becoming VERY popular in the US right now…fermented red pepper and garlic sauce. ALWAYS on my table at breakfast.) Sounds delicious, though it sounds in as if she didn’t add any pork fat, but she cooked it very slowly and carefully to keep it from drying out, and there is milk fat in there in the form of mozarella. (Maybe Natasha will chime in and tell us how she made the sausage, because it looks DELICIOUS.) She presents it with a fried egg and potato hash. Breakfast has always been my favorite meal to cook and eat, and Natasha’s plate has made me RAVENOUS just now. The judges love it.
Eddie – He’s got a sausage made with pork shoulder, bacon, brown sugar, smoked paprika, onion powder, and Worcestershire sauce (pronounced ONLY: “WOO-stir-shir” with the “woo” sounding like “wood.”) He presents it with braised cabbage (a classic sausage pairing) and apple chutney (apples are another classic sausage pairing). The judges love it, too, and Gordon says it’s delicious enough to be served in his gastropub.
The final sausage belongs to Krissi, who has made salsiccia e peperoni, the classic Italian dish of sausage and peppers, served with polenta. I would dive in for a swim, it looks so good. Joe likes Krissi. I can tell. Her food probably reminds him of his grandmother’s, and he admires her brazen independence and fighting spirit. (I know many of you don’t care for either of them…this is just my observation. I don’t think Joe “likes” many contestants on the show, and admires even fewer.) The judges love her dish, and it’s branded her best performance thus far.
I am sad that they didn’t critique Bri’s vegetarian sausage. Understandably, NO vegetarian sausage will be able to compare to a well-made meat sausage, but I think it would have been very fascinating for the audience to hear what the judges thought of Bri’s sausage. (Though the rumor mill has it that Joe despises vegetarians and even shoved raw bacon into a vegetarian contestant’s mouth during the signature dish series this year. Funny they didn’t air THAT! I would imagine it resulted in a lawsuit and was buried.)
The winner is Eddie! (Though I wanted to eat Natasha’s plate the most.) Eddie is emerging as the meat master on this season. He heads back to the pantry to learn his advantage, which is that he won’t have to cook, and he gets to choose from one of 3 ingredients to be the feature of the elimination challenge: ham, wild mushrooms, or shrimp.
We all know you’re not reading my blog for drama, so let’s have a little education, shall we?
Ham! Which Joe presents. Without a doubt, the noble pig is the greatest of all meat animals on the planet. But it’s value only flourishes when its meat is met with salt. Salt and pork combine to make the finest and most delicious cured meats on the planet. And some hams are among the most expensive foods available anywhere…though they come from the humble, mud-wallowing pig. Ham is the pig’s rear thigh muscles, cured with salt. There are two ways to cure hams, either by dry-packing the thighs in salt to dehydrate and season them, and then hanging them in a temperature and humidity controlled space (typically underground) until they are just right; or by wet-curing them in a salty brine. Dry-cured hams are shelf stable and can remain hanging in your closet or garage for years. Wet-cured hams need to be refrigerated and consumed quickly. The vast majority of ham consumed in the US is the cheaper wet-cured kind. Dry-cured hams, as I mentioned, are among the priciest and most sought-after ingredients on the globe. Iberico ham hails from Spain and Portugal, and some artisan varieties command over $200 a pound. Check out this particular ham, from Cinco Jotas or 5J, which comes from acorn-fed, heritage-breed pigs and is hung for 2 years after curing, and costs a meager $1,290 per 6 pound ham. Serrano ham is a cheaper type of dry-cured ham from Spain, where the pigs are raised on feed, rather than wild acorns, and can come from any of several breeds of hog. Serrano ham will run you $15-$40 per pound. Joe also presents a “spiral of cut ham,” which is an American-style wet cured ham. Wet cured hams are the kind you eat a big slab of at a breakfast diner, or at Christmas dinner. You could never do that with a dry-cured ham. It would be too brittle and too salty, and far too intensely flavored to eat a half pound of in one sitting. Dry-cured hams are sliced very thin and used sparingly because of their robust flavoring. Prosciutto is another very popular type of dry-cured ham, which hails from Italy…where charcuterie (curing meat, primarily pork) was developed to its highest art form, but strangely enough, there’s no prosciutto on Joe’s table.
Wild mushrooms, which Graham presents. One of my favorite of all ingredients. If you follow me on Facebook, you see me out foraging for mushrooms all the time. In fact, we had so much rain in Dallas last week that I went out foraging in midsummer (a rarity for fungus in north Texas) and found 2 pounds of cloud ear mushrooms! Graham’s box contains black trumpets, which are a type of chanterelle. Black trumpets are harvested exclusively from the wild, though some types of chanterelle can be cultivated. We served black trumpets at the epic FRANK foraged dinner last spring. Ours had been foraged in Oregon. (The Pacific Northwest is the primary source for all wild mushrooms eaten in this country, due to abundant rainfall.) But black trumpets are more common on the east coast, growing beneath hardwoods like oak, and they primarily fruit in summer and fall, though they pop out at lower elevations during spring melt in the western Cascade mountains. Also in the box are maitake mushrooms, pronounced “mah-ee-TAH-kay.” In the US they are more popularly known as “hen of the woods” mushrooms, and they grow wild at the base of oak trees in all but the most arid parts of the US during the summer and fall. They can develop in huge clusters in excess of 2 feet wide and can weigh in at 50 pounds or more. Maitakes are among the yummiest of the mushrooms, and they can be cultivated, so look for them at your local Asian market. The final mushroom in Graham’s box is the hedgehog mushroom, or “sweet tooth.” It gets this name from the unusual “teeth” that hang down beneath the mushroom’s cap, where we are accustomed to seeing gills. This delicious mushroom grows all over the US in many types of forest during the summer and fall (earlier in the PacNW.) Unlike bolder-flavored black trumpets and maitakes, hedgehogs have a very mild flavor but a superb texture, and should be prepare carefully so as not to overpower the delicacy.
Mushrooms are fruit…did you know that? They are the fruiting body of a fungus that lives below the ground. MOST of the fungus is actually located below the ground, though some individual mushroom fruits can get up to a pound in size or larger. The thread-like filaments that live below the ground are called mycelium (pronounced “my-SEE-lee-uhm”) and a single teaspoon of soil can contain up to 40 miles of mycelium threads!!!
Gordon presents the final ingredient: shrimp. Perhaps the most commonly eaten shellfish, most folks in the US just think of shrimp as one specific thing, with the only difference between them being their size. But just as there are an infinite variety of types of mushroom, shrimp are the same, with well over 15,000 unique species. They range in size from microscopic ocean shrimp, to freshwater monsters a foot long and weighing over 2 pounds! Gordon presents 3 types: spot prawns, tiger prawns, and rock shrimp. Spot prawns are fished from the wild in the north Pacific from around Tijuana north to Alaska. Large specimens can get up to 10″ in length! Their meat is sweet and firm. Next is the tiger prawn, one of my personal favorites. These salt-water crustaceans are the most popular shrimp to be farm-raised around the world, and they, too, can become monsters a foot long and half a pound. Due to some shrimp escaping from farms, the tiger prawn has become an invasive species in the Gulf of Mexico, so catch and eat all you want, fellow Texans! Tiger prawns are savory and meaty, and many people prefer their taste to lobster in blind taste tests. And finally, rock shrimp, which are harvested exclusively from the wild and live at VERY deep depths in the ocean. Their shell is incredibly hard, like a lobster, and their meat has a sweet taste very much like west coast spiny lobster, too. They are small shrimp, typically about 2″ long.
For the record, there is no difference between the word “shrimp” and “prawn.” Prawn is the word for shrimp in much of the English speaking world outside the US. Here in the US, it tends to be attached to larger-sized shrimp, but it does NOT specifically mean “big shrimp.” The words are completely interchangeable.
Eddie chooses mushrooms as the featured ingredient, because he feels like it will be the most challenging for everyone. (I’d have picked mushrooms because I love them, and I’d have asked if I could stay and cook, too. I LOVE mushrooms!!!) The next twist comes when Gordon announces that half of the constants will have to cook with CANNED mushrooms, rather than the fresh mushrooms. Many, many varieties of mushrooms are available canned if you visit an Asian market, but in most grocery stores, the only canned mushrooms available are the common “button mushroom” or Agaricus Bisporus. This species is also the most commonly available fresh mushroom, which can be marketed as “white mushrooms” when their color is white, “cremini mushrooms” when their color is brown, and “portobello mushrooms” when they grow to full size. They are all 3 the exact same species of mushroom, with white being an accidental pigment-less “albino” found on a farm in Pennsylvania in 1926 and perpetuated because people loved white food back then. When canned, they are downright foul. Woe to you, Eddie, if you had assigned me canned mushrooms when the contestant next to me gets fresh, wild maitakes!!!
Eddie has targeted the 3 J’s: Jessie, Jordan, and James, but they don’t all get the cans. James, Jordan, Bethy, and Bri are the lucky ones who get the fresh wild mushrooms, while Jessie, Natasha, Krissi, and Luca get the cans. I love how Krissi just cackles when she gets the canned mushrooms. (THANK YOU, producers, for showing us a glimpse of her personality other than highlighting the divisive aspects.)
I honestly have NO CLUE what I’d do with the canned mushrooms. I’d rinse them well to get off as much of the canned taste as possible, them layer them between paper towels to soak out more of the canned juice. Then cook them in butter, spread out far apart in the pan to let all the water cook out, and get them nice and caramelized. But after that…I’d be stumped. These guys have no flavor at all. They taste like cardboard. Jessie does something particularly brilliant…she’s cooking the canned mushrooms with bacon. Yes, bacon makes everything taste better, but bacon and mushrooms actually share MANY of the same flavor compounds. In fact, vegetarian bacon bits and bacon flavorings actually use MUSHROOMS as one of the primary flavoring ingredients. Very, very impressive, Jessie.
Bethy is the first in trouble. She’s doing a Szechuan-style stir fry, but has forgotten sugar from the pantry, so she’s begging her fellow contestants for some. (Note that Krissi DOES say she’d share if she had any!) Jordan appears to be the only contestant with sugar, and he loans her some. And I love his quote, “I want you to be at your game. If I wanna beat you, I wanna beat you with all your stuff.” I can’t count the number of times I said this on my season, and it’s one of the things that bugs me about the direction the show is heading. Yeah, giving contestants the chance to make something remarkable from a can of mushrooms is interesting…but it’s not a fair competition. Competition is ONLY fair when everyone is playing at the top of their game. If you win because someone screwed up, or was denied the same ingredients you were…you didn’t win anything. You simply lucked out.
Bethy is first up for judging, with her Szechuan-style mushrooms with homemade noodles, ginger, garlic, and toasted Szechuan peppercorns (which are not true peppercorns but are a type of citrus, very aromatic, one of the foundational spices in Chinese “5-spice” powder.) Bethy is the only contestant who went with Asian flavorings, which was smart, because the Asians revere the mushroom more than any other culture on the planet. Graham is worried because the predominant flavors are sesame and ginger, rather than mushroom…but that’s exactly what you’d taste eating a mushroom dish like this on the streets of Chengdu in Sichuan province. Mushrooms are revered more for their texture and healthful properties rather than for their flavor in Chinese cuisine. Bethy hasn’t done anything wrong, the judges are evaluating her from a Western perspective on mushrooms…Joe, in fact, gives her a smack on the hand for cooking Asian rather than something Italian or French, which is “much more refined” than Asian cuisine, at least according to him. (Better not head to China any time soon, Joe!) However, their primary complaint is the overpowering presence of sesame oil. And sesame oil is VERY flavor-forward and should always be used sparingly…NEVER as a cooking agent, always as a flavoring agent. (Still, it’s one of my favorite flavors!)
Natasha is next, and she used canned mushrooms to make mushroom ravioli with crispy pancetta and mushroom cream puree sauce. Her raviolis are stuffed with mushroom, tarragon, and aged gruyere. (Yes, there’s a BIG difference between a young gruyere and an aged gruyere! In fact, I made gruyere yesterday and I’m hoping I can leave my hands off it for a couple of years, because gruyere becomes truly magical after that long. The vast majority of gruyere sold in the US is aged for 2 months, and is a mild-tasting slicing cheese. Aged gruyere becomes crumbly and sharp after about a year of aging.) You just never want to present an Italian dish to Joe Bastianich if you can help it…Alvin Schultz and I made a pact the first week of MasterChef season 2 that we were gonna try to get all the way through our season without cooking ANY Italian if we could, specifically because Joe is more “friendly” when critiquing food styles outside his own cuisine. Which is a shame, because Italian is really one of my specialties. But Natasha has really impressed him with her canned mushrooms, and Joe thinks the use of tarragon (which tastes a little like licorice) was a brilliant foil to the canned flavor.
James is next, and he has presented a wild mushroom chowder. He slow cooked his mushrooms in butter. Butter is DEFINITELY the best cooking fat for mushrooms, but I tend to prefer cooking them a little faster so that they get nicely browned. The proteins in mushrooms will brown up just like meat at the proper temp, and that’s when mushroom flavor really starts to shine. His chowder also has creme fraiche for richness (cream is a perfect compliment for mushrooms) and fresh arugula, and those flavors all sound amazing. But Graham says it’s too heavy and rich, but seasoned well. Joe says that all he tastes is salt, which is the easiest way for the judges and producers to slam a dish whether it’s good or not, since we can’t “see” how salty it really is. Any time I hear on MasterChef that a dish is under-seasoned or over-seasoned…I take it with a “grain of salt” because that critique was used on my season as an easy way to give someone a bad day when they produced a dish that otherwise LOOKED good, and probably tasted that way, too. (Hey, we all know James is a genius, but they’ve got to make him have a bad day every now and then or we get bored, right?)
Jessie’s up next, and she’s got pancetta and canned mushroom risotto with julienned leeks and an arugula flavored oil. Risotto is definitely something you NEVER want to serve to Joe, and we don’t get to hear his critique, unfortunately…but Gordon is impressed. I really like Jessie. I think she’s incredibly talented, and she gives the genuine appearance of being humble and personable (two characteristics you don’t typically associate with someone of exceptional attractiveness who comes from a very wealthy background). Had the last 3 seasons of MasterChef NOT been won by attractive young women, I think she’d be a dead ringer for the win this season. It wouldn’t surprise me one little bit if Jessie is a regular Food Network personality in a few years, especially considering the vacancy in the all-important Southern food scene now that Paula Deen has been ousted. Food Network hasn’t yet found another iconic figure for Southern food, which is the favored food of the network’s majority audience.
Next is Luca, who presents a cream of canned mushroom soup with a GOREGEOUS plate of tri-color roasted cauliflower, croutons, carrot and parsnip. He pours the soup over the veggie plate, but the soup is incredibly thick. (It probably wasn’t this thick when he finished cooking it. His plate has been sitting for an hour at the VERY least before it landed in front of the judges. Any mushroom soup is going to thicken and congeal after sitting for that long. Technically, the judges aren’t supposed to critique you for what happens to your dish in the delay between cooking and tasting…but it most certainly DOES happen.) Graham loves the soup’s flavor, but is upset with Luca for using truffle oil to finish his croutons. We also get a shot of Joe wincing and Gordon covering his face when Luca “confesses” to using truffle oil.
Okay, pause…I’ve HAD IT with this condemnation of truffle oil on MasterChef. Graham’s kitchens ALL use truffle oil…in fact, they use the same brand of truffle oil that Graham has criticized MasterChef contestants for using! (Though the tweets from the intern at his restaurant who discovered this were immediately deleted from Twitter. Interesting!) I guarantee you that you’ll find truffle oil in the pantries in ALL of Joe’s kitchens, and probably in Gordon’s as well. YES…some cheaper brands of truffle oil “emulate” truffle flavor with other compounds. (Probably NOT the brand stocked in the MasterChef kitchen.) Folks…it’s OKAY to use truffle oil. Especially when real truffles aren’t available. Just don’t overdo it.
Krissi brings forward her mushroom cassoulet. Pronounced “cass-oo-LAY,” this French peasant classic is a slow-roasted casserole of white beans cooked with meat, typically duck confit and pork sausage. Cassoulet is one of my favorite dishes. Krissi has made her cassoulet with canned mushrooms, eggplant, and pancetta, and Joe is impressed.
Bri, the vegetarian, should have the upper hand in this competition, as mushrooms are the “meat” in many vegetarian diets. Bri has given us the second “walk through the forest” dish to appear on MasterChef, the first being on season 1 when Sharone Hakman plated a venison dish that Graham said looked more like “a walk through a crime scene.” Bri has grilled her wild mushrooms with sage (a lovely pairing of flavors), beet and goat cheese salad, and a base that looks like mashed potato or grits. It sounds really divine, and the judges love it.
Jordon presents his wild mushroom ravioli with mushroom and beet cream sauce, and fried hedgehog mushrooms stuffed with goat cheese and onion. *drool* The judges criticize him, though, for “hiding” the beauty of the wild mushrooms, because nothing on the plate is recognizable as a mushroom. (Honestly, I just wanna know how it TASTES.) Joe suggests that Jordan take some pasta making lessons from Natasha, though we aren’t told why. (But congrats, Natasha! Joe doesn’t dole out compliments like that very often.) I’m HIGHLY suspicious of these critiques being legit…something tells me Jordan’s plate was fabulous, but the “too bad, you overthought this dish” is such an easy critique to throw around when the audience can’t taste something that looks truly divine. The whole basis of the Modernist movement is overthinking. Turning foie gras into cotton candy. Turning watermelon juice into caviar. And Graham is one of the top Modernist chefs in the country. My gut tells me these comments are completely unfounded. (Though I DO love to see a big fat wild mushroom there on a plate, waiting for my fork. They are SO beautiful.)
The top 2 dishes belong to Natasha, who used canned mushrooms, and the ultimate winner, Bri. (Congrats, sugar! Though I’m not sure ANYONE deserves to be congratulated when the are subsequently punished by being a team leader! HA!)
The 3 bottom dishes are Jordan, James, and Bethy. And Bethy is forced to give up her apron…which is sad because I’m sure her dish actually tasted really good. Bethy is graced with an overwhelming compliment from Joe, who says, “If I had to hire one person in this room to work in a restaraunt, it would be you.” Bethy has apparently shown to the judges that she has a very strong work ethic, and intense dedication. (Thanks for showing that to US, producers! That would have been nice to see.) The big smile on Bethy’s face as she hugs the judges goodbye is so refreshing. THAT is the spirit in which to EITHER win, or be eliminated, from ANY competition. So admirable, and in a mere 5 seconds, Bethy goes from being someone we hardly know, to being someone we adore and admire. (I wish we had been given a better look at her earlier in the season, so we’d appreciate this moment even more.) Bethy calls out Jessie as the deserving winner of the show, and as she exits the MasterChef kitchen, I shed the first tears I’ve cried this season over an elimination. Because Bethy embodies the true spirit of a human competitor, and is celebrating her experience and friendships as she leaves, rather than being angry or heartbroken. Which is the way to look at ANY experience in life, whether it’s the death of a loved one, or the birth of a new baby…the foreclosure of a house, or the announcement of a big promotion. EVERY moment in life, no matter how challenging, will bring new richness and insight, even if it lands you in a scary or trying place.
Guess what? Bethy is PROBABLY the most fascinating of all the top 18 candidates this year. She’s an avid outdoorswoman and adventurer. Here she is fighting a fire:
Here she is after killing a massive wild boar WITH A BOW AND ARROW:
Well, look here…Bethy doing roller derby:
In fact, Bethy was cast on MasterChef NOT just because she can cook…but because she’s an INTERESTING person. Too bad the producers didn’t give us even a fraction of a glimpse at how fascinating she truly is. Did you know that she’s the host of a show called Adrenaline Hunter? TWO FULL SEASONS of it have aired on Comcast SportsNet. (Bethy, if you read this, can you tell us where we can find episodes to stream? Looks AWESOME!)
So, I might humbly venture the statement that Bethy was the BenStarr of this season…though that’s an insult to Bethy because she leads a FAR more interesting life than I do!
Bethy is the kinda person you REALLY wanna follow, because her life is absolutely filled with interesting stuff. Check our her websites cookingrusticwithbethyrossos.com and bethyrossos.com for a peek into her fascinating life. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter (non MasterChef), Twitter (MasterChef), her YouTube channel, Pinterest, and Instagram.
Please comment below with your thoughts on this episode!