Tag Archives: frog legs

A FRANK Tale: Poison!

Since almost the first day FRANK opened, nearly 3 years ago, we have wanted to do a theme centered around poisonous foods.  Why?  Because SO MANY of the foods we eat are poisonous!  Either if prepared or harvested improperly, or if eaten in too great a quantity.  Some poisonous foods we appreciate SPECIFICALLY for their poisonous qualities.  (Why do you love the nasal attack of horseradish, or the intense burn of habanero peppers?  Both are poisons designed to repel predators, yet we love them because of the pain they inflict upon us.)

I am loath to give up Halloween for any reason.  It’s my favorite holiday, and I usually spend it scaring the crap out of kids in my neighorhood…a much-loved pastime.  But this year when Jennie proposed we do FRANK on Halloween and finally do that Poison menu we’ve been tossing around, I figured it was time.

We had been keeping a list of poisonous foods we’d like to incorporate on the menu for a long time, and the list was far too long to use all of them.  But we settled on the following.  All these ingredients are either poisonous themselves, or come from plants or animals that have poisonous parts:

absinthe (wormwood)
bell pepper
green potato
hot chiles
mustard greens
tomato leaf
wild mushrooms

Our friend Stephanie Casey, who has a cool blog called Real Fine Food, came to FRANK on Halloween night to photograph the meal live and blitz it to our Facebook page, so most of the images you’ll see on this page were taken by her.  We’re so busy cooking and plating and serving and educating our guests that we scarcely have time to take photos, so thanks, Stephanie, for helping out!

We welcomed our guests with a champagne cocktail…champagne, of course, containing alcohol, which everyone knows is poisonous.  However, we added a little extra something into the champagne to make it EXTRA toxic!  Elderflower liqueur.  Elderflowers come from the elderberry plant, which is a big shrubby bush famous for both its flowers and its fruit.  Every part of the elderberry plant contains toxic levels of cyanide EXCEPT for the flowers.  Once the flowers have turned into berries, the berries themselves are poisonous…however, cyanide breaks down in the presence of heat, or through the process of fermentation.  Which is why you can safely drink elderberry wine or jam.  The flowers, however, are pristine and safe and are often made into popular beverages in Europe and other parts of the world.  Incidentally, elderberry has been shown in several lab tests to be highly effective against several virulent strains of influenza!  I’m not sure if our cocktail would cure the flu, but it was ghoulishly delicious!

Champagne and Elderflower Liqueur, photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey

The chlorophyll produced when a potato is exposed to light is an indication that it has also produced toxic solanine

Next up was the welcome bite, or amuse bouche, which was a housemade green potato chip with black garlic, creme fraiche, and microbasil.  Potatoes are a member of the nightshade family, just like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, etc.  Virtually ALL nightshades are poisonous, but the edible nightshades only have poisonous leaves, stems, and roots.  They produce a toxin called solanine that is intended to keep predators from eating the growing parts of the plant, instead offering their tempting, poison-free fruit so that its seeds will be carried away to perpetuate itself.  This is why you can’t safely eat raw tomato or potato leaves…but the fruit is just fine.  Potatoes aren’t technically fruit, they’re a tuber and live below the ground with the roots.  So they are safe to eat.  However…if a potato gets unearthed and lays on top of the soil, exposed to sunlight, it begins an internal process to change itself into a full-blown potato vine.  Two things happen immediately: it begins to produce chlorophyll beneath its skin (that green substance that gives leaves their color), and it begins to produce solanine (that poison that will prevent a passing animal from eating it, so it can fulfill its job of perpetuating life).  Ever seen a green-skinned potato in the grocery store, or pulled a green chip out of a bag?  This is a poisonous potato!  Luckily, solanine breaks down in the presence of heat, just like cyanide does, so green potatoes can be made safe by cooking.  (Though the solanine, if it has built up to a high level, can result in a bitter taste, even after cooking.)  We intentionally exposed our potatoes to sunlight for a week to develop the color, then we fried them to make them safe to eat.

Yours, truly, with a handful of black garlic cloves

We topped the chips with black garlic, which is just ordinary garlic that has been fermented for a month or longer at high temperatures (above 90F), so that all the complex sugars in the garlic break down into potently flavorful compounds that also turn the garlic clove jet black.  Black garlic is like nothing you’ve EVER tasted before.  Pungent, incredibly sweet, dark, and so complex your brain will go crazy trying to decipher it.  Like garlic, it is poisonous in massive quantities, but we’ll discuss that when we get to the soup course!  These little bites were very popular, some folks came around begging for a second…or third!

Green potato chip, black garlic, creme fraiche, microbasil. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

Wild mustard, growing a few blocks from my house in the Dallas suburbs

For our salad course, we started with a base of baby and wild greens.  The baby greens were grown by our friend Tom Spicer of Spiceman’s FM 1410, who purveys incredible greens, herbs, and wild ingredients like foraged mushrooms.  He sells to the public, and if you’ve never been by his place near Lower Greenville, you’ve missed out on a Dallas institution.  The wild greens we foraged near my house in Lewisville…I stumbled across a prolific patch of wild mustard growing in an empty lot next to a subdivision, and I foraged the leaves and flowers.  Mustard contains a compound called erucic acid, which is the irritant that makes the back of your nose burn when you eat mustard greens or prepared mustard.  (Same compound in horseradish and wasabi.)  This acid is also used to make chemical-grade weapons and mustard gas!  So it’s definitely poisonous.  However, like many toxic foods, we enjoy them specifically for their poisonous qualities.  Mustard is one of the most common weeds around North America…it grows wild everywhere, it’s delicious, and it’s incredibly good for you.  In moderation, of course!  Most people cook mustard greens, but I also love them raw, and they really jazz up a salad.

Rhubarb and its toxic leaves

The dressing for the salad was a rhubarb and tangerine vinaigrette.  Most folks know that rhubarb is poisonous.  The plant contains a toxin called oxalic acid, that has a very tart flavor (like all acids!) and can be deadly in enough quantity.  Oxalic acid is concentrated in the leaves of the rhubarb plant, which means the stem is safe to eat either raw or cooked, but you must always trim away and discard the leaves.  (You’d have to eat 20-30 pounds of leaves in a sitting to kill yourself, which isn’t likely.)  Rhubarb stems are still high in other acids, which explains why they are so tart, and they make a fabulous dressing.

The greens were topped with a crumble of cassava, which is a root that is commonly eaten all around the world.  It goes by many names, some of which you’ll be familiar with: manioc, yuca, tapioca, casabe…  And it’s deadly poisonous.  At least before being treated to remove the lethal levels of cyanide that exist in the root.  Many cattle are killed each year by eating unearthed cassava roots.  But, as we’ve mentioned, cyanide breaks down when you heat it or ferment it, or even dehydrate it.  So cassava root can be made safely edible by a number of means, and it is an incredibly important source of nutrients for many people in the developing world.  As a side note, in the US it’s very common to eat at Latin or Central American restaurants and see “Yucca” on the menu.  This is a misspelling that has led many Americans to think that the spiny desert plant that is very common as an ornamental in this country, called Yucca, to be the source of the delicious, fluffy root that makes such incredible  fries.  Not so!  The root of the yucca plant is too fibrous to eat.  Those menus are misspelled, you’re actually eating Yuca, or Cassava, which you can see in this photo looks nothing like spiny yucca plants!

Eggplants come in so many amazing varieties!

Beneath the salad was a bed of pickled eggplant.  Eggplants are in the nightshade family but the fruit is safe to eat.  In the old days, though, eggplant was very bitter and had to be salted to extract the liquids from its spongy fruit, which contained solanine.  Modern eggplants have been selectively bred to reduce the amount of solanine in the fruit, so we can safely eat eggplant raw…though I’m not sure why you’d want to!  Pickled eggplant is very popular in Italy, but is almost unheard of here.  Chef Adrien decided to prepare it this way to surprise our guests, and even those who typically hate eggplant devoured it pickled!  While most grocery stores carry only one, maybe two, types of eggplant, there are many dozens of varieties, some of which are red, white, even striped and speckled.

The star of the plate, though…was a frog leg.  Frogs and toads are poisonous creatures.  Ever seen your dog try to eat a toad, and then spit it back out and stick his tongue in the air repeatedly?  Virtually all frogs and toads have glands in their skin that produce toxic alkaloids to protect themselves from predators.  Some species are deadly to humans even in very small amounts.  The golden dart frog of Colombia is one of the most deadly creatures on the planet!  Luckily, the poison remains entirely in the skin, and the meat beneath is delectable.  Lots of our diners had never eaten frog and were very nervous about it, but I encouraged everyone to taste just a bite.  And not a single frog leg came back uneaten out of 7 dinners!  Frog is DELICIOUS, especially the way Chef Adrien prepared it…brined in a heavily spiced buttermilk for 4 hours, then pan seared to crisp, perched on a puree of red bell pepper (also a nightshade) and blanched garlic.  It won quite a few votes as favorite course, especially from people who had never eaten frog before.

Wild salad, pickled eggplant, frog leg. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey

During prep at FRANK we play a game called “Either/Or.”  Bob Dylan or Neil Young?  Beer or Wine?  Seattle or Portland?  Potato and Leek or Potato and Chive?  That last one got us all arguing about whether the flavors of leek or chive are a better match for potato.  So when conceiving our soup, there was considerable consternation about whether it should be potato leek, or potato chive.  Eventually we all compromised and did both!  All members of the allium family (garlic, onions, leeks, etc.) contain a compound called allicin, which in moderate doses is incredibly good for us.  It lowers our blood pressure and cholesterol.  It has anti-cancer properties.  But in extremely high doses, allicin can actually cause genetic mutation, which is of concern for cancer and reproduction.  This discovery was made in 2003 and published by the National Institute of Health.  So the moral of the story is…eat lots of garlic, but don’t eat pounds of it raw every day!

Our soup was a major hit…a base stock made from smoked pork hocks, with golden potatoes, tons of caramelized leeks, chives, a liberal dose of white pepper, and enriched with housemade buttermilk.  We finished it with dry-cured country ham, crispy fried leeks, and a poisonous puree of tomato leaves!  Remember that tomatoes are a nightshade so the green parts of the plant contain the toxin solanine.  However, as we know, solanine breaks down when cooked, so if you blanch tomato leaves, you make them safe to eat!  It’s sad to me that more chefs don’t cook with tomato leaves, they have SUCH a pungent, bright, astringent flavor that’s totally tomato in one moment, and totally something else in the next.  If you grow tomatoes at home, try picking a handful of leaves and adding them to your tomato sauce as it simmers.  (It will BLOW your mind!)

Potato, leek, chive soup with country ham, crispy leeks, and tomato leaf gastrique. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

Wormwood, or artemisia absinthum, which gives absinthe both its name and hallucinogenic compound

For the sorbet course, we all knew immediately what we’d have to do.  Absinthe!  For those who aren’t familiar with absinthe, it’s a very old type of liqueur that, in its traditional form, contains an extraction of the plant wormwood, or artemesia absinthum…from which the liquor takes its name.  Wormwood was used for millenia by primitive cultures to cleanse their bodies of parasites, because the plant contains a toxin called thujone.  Overdosing on thujone causes potent hallucinations, so the plant was deliberately used as a drug starting in ancient Greece, and became very popular in France and Switzerland in the 1800s.  Much loved by creative folks, absinthe was known as “the poet’s third eye” and was celebrated by such artistic powerhouses as Rimbaud, Degas, Hemingway, Wilde, and Van Gogh.  The tricky part about drinking an alcohol that contains an additional poison, though, is in controlling the dosage…and excessive alcohol consumption can remove that internal self-protection instinct we have, so absinthe (and thus thujone) overdoses were very common.  In higher doses, thujone causes temporary insanity.  Van Gogh cut off his own ear during an absinthe-induced fit of madness.  And in high enough doses, thujone causes death.  This is why absinthe was banned by virtually every developed nation in the world in the early 1900s, and remains banned, in its traditional form, even today.  Yes, I know you can go to the liquor store and buy a bottle of something labeled “absinthe.”  But it’s not real.  By law, absinthe in the US cannot contain any traceable amount of thujone…meaning it cannot be made with wormwood, or artemisia absinthum, which is the very plant that gives the liquor its name.  So buy and drink all the absinthe you want…you’ll never see the mythical green fairy, or feel the need to cut off your ear.  Luckily, someone in the FRANK team has been making real absinthe at home for a decade, so our diners were actually able to taste true, authentic absinthe, for what may be the only time in their lives!  Not enough to cause fits of madness, of course.  Real absinthe is actually VERY hard to drink.  Thujone is intensely bitter…and that adjective was the most common way our diners described the taste.  “INTENSE!”  Those who have palates that are very sensitive to bitterness typically only ate a bite or two.  But the majority devoured every last bit of the sorbet, relishing the assault on their palates.

REAL absinthe sorbet, with pear nectar and microbasil. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

Yours, truly, foraging for aspen boletes in Colorado

When most people think of toxic foods, they immediately think of wild mushrooms.  Growing up, your mom always screamed at you when you bent down to look at a toadstool.  Americans are the most fungaphobic culture on the planet.  We are absolutely TERRIFIED of any mushroom that’s not in the grocery store.  Which is both good and bad.  Truthfully, there are only a small handful of wild mushrooms that are lethal.  But eat the wrong one, and unless you get a liver transplant within 6 hours, no medicine in the world can keep you alive.  So wild mushrooms should always be treated with respect.  But if you accurately identify an edible wild mushroom, there’s ZERO danger in eating it.  I’ve been rabidly foraging and devouring wild mushrooms for many years, and have never been made sick, because I will NOT eat a mushroom that I can’t absolutely, positively identify.  If there’s any question at all, it goes in the trash.  Identification comes through education, and I had a fan on my Facebook page chastise me this weekend for posting photos of myself foraging wild mushrooms, saying her friend’s daughter died of wild mushroom poisoning and I shouldn’t be promoting it.  I couldn’t disagree more…education is what will PREVENT mushroom poisonings.  When we stay in the dark about it, we don’t have the knowledge to know what is safe and what isn’t.  So if you’re interested in wild mushrooms, join a local mycology club, or get yourself a box full of mushroom field guides, and get out there after it rains.  You’ll be amazed at what you find!

We decided to feature wild mushrooms in a risotto…a classic pairing.  Our risotto stock was made from dried porcini mushrooms.  No one has figured out how to cultivate porcinis, which are known as King Boletes here in the US, so every porcini eaten on the planet was found in the wild by a mushroom hunter.  I think that’s magical.  Porcinis are dark and intense mushrooms, especially when they are dried, and our mushroom stock tasted richer and more dense than any meat stock ever could.  Then we folded in 2 varieties of wild mushroom: hen of the woods and beech.  Hen of the woods, known as maitake in Japan, grow all over the US in the fall at the base of oak trees after the first cool rains.  They can grow to massive size, as you can see by the grin of this lucky forager who found 2 giant hens:

Many devotees of this mushroom believe it is the most delicious of all the wild mushrooms, and I have a hard time disagreeing.  On top of our risotto we plated a gravy made from the reduced braising liquid from our beef, thickened with pureed mushroom stems.  Insanely beefy, intensely mushroomy…  I’d like an IV of it, please!  And atop the gravy was a chunk of short rib…one of our favorite proteins at FRANK…from the Beeman Family Ranch here in Texas.  The Beeman family have several ranches around the state and are the only American cattle ranchers that are certified by the government of Japan to raise pure-bred Akaushi beef.  “Akaushi” is one of 4 breeds of cattle that can be called “Wagyu” which is a term you often see at nice restaurants.  “Akaushi” just means “red cow” in Japanese, and most US ranchers have cross bred the Akaushi with our more popular cattle, like Angus, to produce what’s known as “American Wagyu.”  But not the Beeman family…they have kept tight genetic restraints on their herds to ensure they are purebred Akaushi, and this beef is just extraordinary:

Akaushi Beef from Beeman Family Ranch

This is USDA Prime beef.  Lots of folks don’t understand the USDA rating, but it’s all about fat.  Intramuscular fat, and how evenly and liberally it’s distributed within the meat.  The more fat and the more evenly distributed it is, the higher the grade.  So why do we want MORE fat in our beef?  It’s all about texture and flavor.  Lean beef is tougher, dryer, and tastes more gamey than fatty beef, and therefore less desirable if you’re seeking out beef as a premium product.  (Of course, there are MANY reasons to seek out lean, grass-fed beef…but it’s an entirely different thing, more suitable for everyday eating.)  Beef like this cooks up fork tender, melts in your mouth, and is breathtakingly, offensively expensive.  But totally worth it.  Appropriate for a splurge.  We had multiple diners say it was the best beef they had ever tasted.  Two well-dined guests on separate nights compared it to Morimoto’s A-5 Wagyu beef, which, at $200 for a 4 ounce steak, means FRANK is a steal!  *giggle*

We rubbed the beef with the two most popular toxic ingredients in America: chocolate and coffee.  And yes…they are both poisonous.  Chocolate contains a toxic alkaloid called theobromine, which is poisonous to humans in large quantities, just as it’s poisonous to dogs and cats.  You’d have to eat about 80 pounds of dark chocolate to ingest enough theobromine to actually kill yourself (if you weigh around 180 pounds), but theobromine poisoning is a very real concern, particularly for the elderly.  Death by Chocolate is a real thing!  Coffee contains another toxic alkaloid that many of us are actually addicted to…called caffeine.  In small doses, doctors tell us that caffeine is good for us, stimulating our metabolism, keeping us active, and improving our cardiovascular system.  But in higher doses, it will kill you dead.  Swallow a bottle of caffeine pills and if you don’t get your stomach pumped, you’ll be spending the night in the morgue.  Of course, you’d have to drink 80-100 shots of espresso over a few hours to kill yourself with coffee, and I’m not sure ANYONE can handle that much!  But coffee and chocolate go absolutely swimmingly with beef, and after searing our short rib to a dark crust, we braised it in red wine with coffee, cocoa, and veggies for 4 hours at low temp until it was fork tender, but still cohesive enough to not fall apart when taking it out of the pot.  Then we crisped it under the broiler with more of our coffee/cocoa rub before serving it.  Perched atop the beef were tiny, delicate enoki mushrooms and wild mustard flowers, and around the plate were pungent garlic blossoms…one of my favorite wild ingredients.

Wild mushroom risotto with Beeman Ranch Akaushi short rib, wild mustard flowers and wild garlic buds. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

The almond fruit (a relative of peaches and apricots), dried and peeled back to reveal the pit, inside of which is the poisonous almond kernel...the part we eat.

Alas, we come to dessert, and we decided to revisit the chocolate/coffee pairing by making pots-de-creme, French for “cream pot.”  Sort of an intermediate step between pudding and custard, these rich little suckers were made with two types of dark chocolate, Valrhona from France, and El Rey from Venezuela.  As an added punch, we incorporated another toxic ingredient…spicy chiles!  I love spicy chocolate, it’s such a perfect pairing… you get dark, rich, sweet, and bitter at the outset, and it finishes with a slight heat in the back of your throat.  We topped the cream pots with some coarse sea salt to help contrast the sweetness of the dish.  And sticking out of the top of the pot was a tuile (ie, crisp cookie) of almond and nutmeg…both very poisonous ingredients.  Almonds supply the majority of the world with pharmaceutical grade cyanide.  Part of the stone-fruit family like peaches and apricots, the almond kernel is lethally toxic in cyanide when raw, so even when you buy “raw” almonds in the grocery store, they have first been thoroughly steamed to break down all that cyanide!  (If you crack open a peach or apricot pit, you’ll find an almond-like seed inside, which is poisonous.  But simmer it in white wine for half an hour and it will infuse an almond-like flavor into the wine, as well as make it safe to eat.  I did this on MasterChef, and Ramsay was a bit dubious!)

The nutmeg fruit, with the red, lacy mace visible surrounding the nutmeg seed.

Nutmeg is the seed of an evergreen fruit tree from the tropics.  Upon maturity, the fruit splits open, revealing the nutmeg seed wrapped in a lacy red membrane which is ground the make the spice mace.  (NOT related to mace spray.)  Nutmeg contains a toxin called myristicin that, in fairly small doses, causes hallucination.  It is still a traditional and popular cultural hallucinogen in Indonesia and India, and for awhile in the 70s, it was explored by the counter culture crowd here in the US.  (It’s side effects are nausea, headaches and body pain, though, so it’s not a “fun” drug.)  In slightly higher doses, it can cause miscarriage, so use nutmeg sparingly if you are pregnant.  In high enough doses, it can kill.  Luckily, nutmeg is VERY pungent, and a little goes a very long way!

And we wanted to finish the dessert with something a little daring, as well as poisonous, so we made some chocolate covered harvester ants to garnish the plate!  Ants are a major source of protein in much of the developing world.  They are delicious and nutritious, as well as plentiful.  In America we don’t really have a culture of eating bugs, but many other cultures certainly do…even our neighbors in Mexico have an affinity for grasshoppers!  I’ve eaten many insects…here I am crunching termites in Belize:

(For the record, termites are indistinguishable from carrots…they taste exactly alike.)

I’ve eaten all sorts of insects in my travels, and ants are among the most accessible.  They are crunchy, earthy/woody, and a little bit spicy.  There’s no weird texture to get around…they’re just delicious if you can get past the mental block.  Ants contain formic acid, the poison that burns when an ant stings you.  In the mouth, though, that just translates to a bit of a peppery flavor.  We ordered our ants from Life Studies Farm in Utah, who normally sell them to supply children’s ant farms, or for people who keep lizards as pets and need to feed them.  They were a bit puzzled when I asked for a thousand ants to use at my restaurant, but they sent them anyway!  They arrived through the mail a day later, bustling and angry!

Live harvester ants, before the chocolate coating

To humanely dispatch the ants, they went into the freezer for an hour, then into the microwave for a minute.  (One of the only things we use the microwave for at FRANK, other than warming plates.)  After this, they were ready to be coated in dark chocolate!

Chocolate Covered Ants, photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey

The only legitimate recipes you’ll find on the internet for chocolate covered ants are for chocolate candies with ants on the inside, sort of like nuts.  This is because it’s exhausting to make individual chocolate covered ants!  But we love our diners at FRANK, so we did it for them!

The dessert was a huge hit…some of our regulars said it was the yummiest dessert they’ve had at FRANK.  Some were leery of eating the ants.  Some asked for extra ants.  One regular said he’d eat them by the handful if they were commercially produced!

Chocolate Chile Pot-de-Creme with Almond Nutmeg Tuile and Chocolate Covered Ants, photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey

Overall, this was probably the most fun menu we’ve put out in the 2 and a half year history of FRANK.  Our diners got a real kick out of eating all the poisonous foods, learning that some of their favorite foods were poisonous, and daring each other to eat frogs and ants.  Many of our regulars said that, poison and bugs aside, it was the most delicious and cohesive menu they’ve had at FRANK before, which was a true honor to hear.  I spent more time at the table, discussing and educating, than I’ve EVER spent at a FRANK before.  It was great fun, thanks to all our brave diners!

Chefs Jennie Kelley, Adrien Nieto, and Ben Starr, plating at FRANK

Follow Stephanie Casey with Real Fine Food on Instagram and Facebook!  And thanks, Stephanie, for helping our fans experience the dinner in real time on our social media!

MasterChef recap: Three’s Company

(Please Note: This blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef.  The opinions reflected herein are solely that: opinions.  I have no inside knowledge of how MasterChef is produced or judged and my opinions should not be treated as fact.)

Josh, Becky, and Christine are the top 3.  And beneath the mystery box today is yet another non-edible item: a blank cookbook.  This is apparently to motivate the remaining 3 to give their all in the last stretch before the finals.  Gordon asks each contestant who they’d dedicate their cookbook to.  Christine says her mother, a talented cook who died when Christine was 14 without leaving her any recipes.  Becky would dedicate hers to her parents who have always encouraged her to follow her dreams.  Josh would dedicate his to his mom, an “amazingly strong woman” who is his biggest fan.

I can’t give any different answer, myself.  My mother taught me how to cook when I was too young to have any business anywhere near the kitchen.  My earliest memories in life are of mom in the kitchen, where she spent the majority of her day from sunrise to sunset, cooking and singing at the top of her lungs.  The kitchen was always a place of joy in our house.  And my passion for cooking, above all else, comes from my mother.

Who would YOU dedicate your cookbook to?  Please comment at the bottom of this post…I wanna know.

This mystery box challenge isn’t going to be a mystery.  The contestants get 5 minutes in the pantry to select anything they want, and then have an hour to make a stunning entree worthy of their very own cookbook.  And that’s a dream come true…I wish I’d been able to do that a time or two on MasterChef.  No ingredient restrictions…no themes…just do what you do best.

Our commercial break today is peddling the new MasterChef Ultimate Cookbook.  I had a bit of involvement with the creation of this book, though I’m not sure how many of my recipes will be included in it.  In theory, it’s an assemblage of recipes from all 3 seasons, “new” recipes that contestants have developed since being on the show, and recipes from the judges, as well.  Of course, that was the plan for it 6 months ago…no telling what it will end up being.  It’ll be released on September 18, but you can preorder it on Amazon at a killer price: $17.81 (compared to the list price of $26.99, which is what it will cost at Barnes and Noble in 2 days when it’s released).  Check it out!  I’m kind of excited about it.

All 3 dishes get tasted, because there are only 3 contestants left.  Josh is first, with his curried Cornish Game Hen with basmati rice.  We haven’t seen anything Indian from Josh recently, but back in the food truck challenge, Joe told us that Josh knew Indian food better than any of the other contestants.  (A bit of an affront to Tanya, who has Indian roots and has lived there.)  It sounds delicious, but the plate is a bit sparse, with only protein and rice…no veggies at all.  It’s hard to go wrong when you put Indian spices on dark meat poultry.  The judges love the flavor, but I’m surprised they didn’t mention anything about the complete lack of veg on the plate.

Christine is next, with her Vietnamese stir fried noodles with seared sea scallops.  Her scallops are mouth-wateringly perfect on the sear, and the bowl looks really yummy.  The judges praise it.  But again…very little vegetable on the plate.

Becky is last, with a dish she completely reworked at the end.  She took a whole loup-de-mer, which is French for “wolf of the sea,” but is more widely known as Branzino or European Sea Bass, and filleted it.  But the filleting didn’t work out well, so she only got 2 small pieces that were attractive enough to be plated, so she used the rest of the fillet in her stock.  When Ramsay pointed out that her two small pieces weren’t enough for an entree, she changed directions at the last minute and assembled it as a soup, with a creamy fish broth, roasted fennel in a charred jalapeno and scallion vinaigrette, and sunchoke puree.  Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, are actually the root of a sunflower and have nothing in common with artichokes.    They look a bit like ginger root, and are crisp and delicious…somewhat like a water chestnut.  You either eat them raw, roasted, or steamed.  If you boil them, they get nasty.  I prefer them raw, because I think most of the flavor goes away when you cook them.  (They make most people really gassy, though…go easy on them if you try them!)  Joe claims the fish is overcooked, and Graham says it’s yummy but not well conceived.

Becky has a little meltdown that I completely understand.  She grew up eating humble food (like most of us).  Now she’s a food photographer and exists in a world of fancy cuisine, and she’s on MasterChef cooking for 3 famous food powerhouses.  So instead of following her own instincts and being true to herself and her roots, she’s reaching out to try to conceptualize things that she thinks will impress the judges and appear sophisticated, rather than making something that she’s really truly passionate about and that truly represents her.  Becky…I struggled with the same thing in the first half of the show.  It wasn’t until I was able to make my rustic pumpkin carrot cake, a cake that I invented and make all the time, that I realized I had to stop trying to impress the judges, and just cook the kinds of things that I love to cook at home for friends and family.  Things that resonate with me.  That’s not always possible when you get something like a mystery box, or have to cook a genre of cuisine you’re not comfortable with.  But in a challenge like this…where you have free reign of the pantry and no binding theme…this is the time to make one of your specialties.  Something that’s your trademark.  Something that really speaks to you.  And Becky realizes that she wasn’t cooking from the heart on this challenge.  My heart is breaking for her…a mistake like this, so late in the game, could spell disaster.  And since I’ve been thinking for the past 2 episodes that Christine and Josh will be the final 2, I’m thinking we’re beginning to see the end of Becky.

This time, the judges give us a specific ranking for the mystery box, and the winner is Christine, followed by Josh, and then Becky.  Then all 3 head back into the pantry to discover their various advantages and disadvantages.  The theme for the challenge is “legs” and there are 3 ingredients on the table: leg of lamb, chicken legs, and frog legs.  Christine gets to pick first, then Josh, and Becky gets whatever is leftover.

Christine goes with the chicken legs…the most versatile, the cheapest, and also the most pedestrian.  An interesting choice.  It definitely leaves her wide open to a lot of possibilities.  But up against a premium ingredient like leg of lamb, and a wildcard ingredient like frog, she COULD be exposing herself to a potential loss.

Josh now has an interesting conundrum.  Given his southern roots, I’d imagine he would LOVE to cook with the frogs legs.  But that leaves the true premium ingredient, the leg of lamb, for Becky, who is accustomed to working with high-end ingredients, and it would be a huge boon to her.  So he gives the frog’s legs to Becky, and keeps the leg of lamb for himself.

Becky admits that she’s never eaten or cooked frog legs.  What a shame!  Frog is DELICIOUS.  When I was a kid, we had a huge cattle pond half a mile behind our house, with giant green bullfrogs living in it.  My little brother and I would sneak up over the dam with our pellet guns and peck off a dozen fat bullfrogs every month or so, and bring them back home to clean and cook.

On my last trip to Hawaii with Adrien and Christian, to cook for the homeless kids in Honolulu, we stayed in a condo on a golf course that was being flooded with unseasonably prolific rains.  All the giant cane toads (a harmful invasive species in Hawaii) had come up out of the golf course ponds and were sitting on the grass, and late one night when we were hungry, we went frogging.  After a quick, humane dispatch, we skinned the legs and salted them.  As soon as the salt hit the muscle tissue, the legs started twitching!  It freaked Adrien out, and Christian thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen.  There was more twitching when the legs hit the pan.  And a few minutes later, the boys ate frog for the first time:

For those of you who are totally grossed out right now…don’t be!  Frog legs are incredibly delicious.  The taste is very similar to old-fashioned chicken (they have almost no fat, and lots of flavor because the muscles get worked a lot), with a texture halfway between chicken and firm whitefish.  Both boys loved them, and they were prepared very simply, with just salt and pepper and olive oil.

Needless to say, the frog legs would definitely have been my pick.  I’d have done 3 different preparations: Cajun-style blacked frog legs (my favorite way to eat them), Southern-style chicken fried frog legs (to represent my heritage), and Thai-frog legs with red curry sauce (to represent my favorite cuisine).  But poor Becky, I think she’s shaking in her boots right now, especially considering what just happened in the mystery box.

After shopping, the contestants return to the kitchen to find the 15 eliminated contestants waiting for them.  I remember last season being hurried into the kitchen while Jennifer, Christian, and Adrien were shopping, and how happy I was to see them come out that door.  You can’t imagine the joy we all experienced, being back together with everyone.  Some of them had been back home in the “real world” for weeks, and were having the usual difficulty re-incorporating themselves into a group of people they couldn’t give any details to because of the confidentiality agreement.  So, for them, to come back and be able to decompress with the rest of us who completely understood the whole situation…it was extraordinary.  Others, like me, hadn’t even left the show…I was simply eliminated and shuffled to a different hotel to await the finale.  So I was still isolated from friends and family, and as the number of contestants dwindled and things got weirder and more competitive, it was such a huge relief to see Alvin and Jennie and Tracy and Esther (Peanut)…even Max brought a giant smile to my face.  Those few glorious days were a time to celebrate with our new family without the stress of competition or threat of elimination.  It was divine.

The hour is up, and Christine is first with her chicken legs.  She’s done a traditional buttermilk-battered Southern fried chicken with creamed kale.  I’m gonna be honest…my grandmother could fry chicken in a cast iron skillet to perfection, and I just can’t do it.  My chicken always ends up raw in the middle, or overcooked on the breading.  I can deep fry chicken with no problem, but the shallow fry method in cast iron still evades me.  I should practice it more, but since I have a deep fryer and I can trust my results in it, I haven’t bothered.  Still, the traditional Southern shallow fry is one of the most challenging skills a home cook can master.  Christine’s chicken is perfect, and Gordon loves the seasoning, which combined paprika, cayenne, thyme, sage, and blood orange…a VERY unusual combination, but Gordon says it’s absolutely perfect.  Joe and Graham both forego the knife and fork Ramsay used to eat the chicken, and just pick it up and dig in.  They love the chicken, but the universal criticism is that her creamed kale has too much cream in it.

Next up is Josh and he’s incredibly proud of his unique plate of lamb carimanolas.  I’ve had carimanolas on the street in Central America, they are deep fried yucca fritters stuffed with veggies or meat.  And they are TO DIE FOR.  Yucca is a thick root that is a staple of the diets in Latin America and Africa, and is also widely used in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.  It is prepared in variety of ways…it can be dried and ground into a powder called manioc or mandioca (which can be used to bake cakes or simply toasted in butter and bacon fat, which the Brazilians call “farofa”).  It can be processed into the substance we are all familiar with called tapioca.  The root can simply be sliced, boiled, and then deep fried to make yucca fries, which are so much tastier and have a superior texture to potato fries.  But the yucca root (also commonly called cassava) is actually quite poisonous, and it must be cooked first to break down the cyanide that can be fatal if consumed in high-enough quantities.  It’s a fascinating ingredient, and one of my personal favorites.  So Josh has made a carimanola by boiling the yucca root, mashing it, and working it into a dough with egg and a little flour.  He stuffed the carimanolas with leg of lamb…not an easy feat in an hour.  Leg of lamb is usually roasted or braised, low and slow, for hours to make it tender.  Josh resorted to the pressure cooker, which works wonders in a short amount of time.  (I adore my pressure cooker and can’t live without it.)  He is presenting the carimanolas with 3 different salsas: tomato, mango, and tomatillo.  The plate is really stunning, and if he’s pulled off his flavoring and seasoning, he probably has the best dish of the day.  Joe decides to attack him for it, taking such risks with braising the lamb in such a short time, working with a poisonous and starchy ingredient…and then he tastes it, and it “astounds” him.  The other judges agree.  Josh reveals for the first time that his father is from Panama and he spent lots of time there as a kid, which helps explain his love of Indian food.  (The Caribbean region off the coast of Panama is referred to as the West Indies and has a huge culinary influence from both India and Africa.  Panama has an incredibly diverse cuisine.)  Josh has truly produced an incredible dish in this time limit, I am supremely impressed.

Becky is last with her garlic butter frog legs, confit potatoes, mushrooms, and a salad of bitter greens.  (Confit is pronounced “con-FEE” and is a term that covers a wide variety of preparations, but generally means that a meat or vegetable has been cooked slowly in flavorful fat, and then often stored beneath an airtight layer of the fat.  Potato confit means potatoes that were fried gently in fat until rich and tender…not necessarily crisp and fluffy like a french fry.)  These are very smart flavors to combine.  Bastianich likes every component but the potatoes, which she roasted in the oven with wine after the confit, resulting in soggy potatoes.  Ramsay is proud of her for perfecting the frog legs having never cooked them before.

To me, Josh is the clear winner of this challenge, and it would probably be a toss-up between Becky and Christine…they both nailed the legs, but had problems with other components.  (However, I’m fairly convinced that Christine and Josh have been pegged as the finalists for awhile now, which probably means Becky is going home.)  Not surprisingly, the judges send Becky home.

I was in LA for 4 hours recently, but didn’t have time to meet up with Becky.  And I regret that.  From the conversations we’ve had, she sounds delightful.  Becky probably wanted to win more than anyone else, maybe even Josh.  And she’s obviously crushed by the decision.  Gordon asks her what’s next, and, dejected, she mutters something to the effect of “Hopefully I can sneak into a restaurant and they’ll let me work there for awhile.”  Gordon says, “I have some restaurants.  Would you like to work in Central Europe?  Paris?”

It’s obvious to all of us how skilled Becky is.  She won like EVERY mystery box the whole season.  That girl knows her food.  And while her character was occasionally edited to be a bit snarky and a bit know-it-all, her fellow contestants tell me that she’s very sweet and extremely likeable.  And the fact that Ramsay has just offered her a job is a testament to exactly how talented he believes she is.

Becky is a food photographer in LA, and I’m sure MasterChef helped boost her position in that highly specialized world.  Jennie Kelley, who is a food stylist, is looking to collaborate with her on several projects.  No word yet if Becky will take Gordon’s offer…that would require a LOT of soul searching.

Understandably, Becky’s personal website is stunning, with enough world-class photos of food to leave you really, really, really hungry.  You can find her on Facebook and Twitter, too.

Becky, I think ultimately you got a raw deal, sorta like David Martinez.  While I think the show’s challenges definitely allowed you to display your strengths (as evidenced by your domination of the Mystery Box), I think you were sort of doomed from the start by the way they decided to edit you.  It’s rare that the person who effortlessly criticizes others ends up winning.  (Though in the ruthless shows like Hell’s Kitchen, apparently, this DOES end up happening, and it certainly seems like MasterChef is headed in the HK direction.  So maybe you were just a few seasons too early.)  To have realized that food is your calling at such an early age, and managed to work your way into the highly specialized and competitive world of food photography is a testament to your persistence and talent.  I think we’re going to see big things from you in the future, and I, for one, wish you all the best.

Please feel free to comment below, and subscribe to my blog near the upper right corner of your screen!