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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.