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MasterChef 4 recap: T-Bones and Live Birds (S4E19)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog contains the IPA-soaked rants of a former MasterChef survivor who has practically no inside knowledge of how this season was produced.  It’s not fit to be read by anyone.)

So we’re back up to 7 contestants, now that Bri is back.  And it’s time for a mystery box.  Krissi tells us, “I need to step up my game to a whole nother level.”  I just HAVE to pause here to correct what is probably the most rampant abuse of the English language in modern American culture.  And, yes, Krissi…I’m guilty of using it, too.  There’s no such word as “nother.”  That word doesn’t exist.  Yet, I’ve even seen “a whole nother” on a bulletin board on I-35 near downtown Dallas.  I’m not sure who the first person was who uttered “a whole nother,” but if I met him, I’d strangle him with my bare hands.  Or at least give him a tongue lashing.

The writer in me must tell you that there are 2 proper ways of saying that phrase, and they are as follows:

“A whole other level.”


“Another level.”

But “A whole nother level” isn’t English.  It’s something else.  So don’t ever say it again, please.  Just for me.  🙂

Back to MasterChef…

The T-bone steak, with the larger NY strip steak on the left side, and the smaller tenderloin steak on the right

Beneath the mystery box is one of my favorite steaks…a T-bone.  This lovely steak is actually 2 steaks in one…a New York strip and a tenderloin, separated by the T-shaped bone which is part of the lumbar vertebrae in the cow’s spinal column.  The T-bone steak and the Porterhouse steak are actually practically the same steak…but the T-bone is cut from the loin closer to the front of the cow, and the Porterhouse is cut closer to the rear.  So Porterhouse steaks contain a larger ratio of tenderloin to strip, while T-bones contain a smaller tenderloin.  The unfortunate consequence of this is that the tenderloin part of the T-bone tends to overcook, because it’s a smaller muscle.  Porterhouses tend to have a better balance between the meat on both sides, so they’re easier to cook.

Since we can already predict this episode is gonna be more about drama than cooking, let’s pause for a sec and discuss beef.  There are 2 kinds of beef cuts…tender cuts and tough cuts.  The tender cuts are equivalent to the white meat on a chicken: muscles that rarely get used, so they tend to be tender.  On a cow, these are the muscles along the spine (or loin) that flank each side of the spinal column and never actually do much work.  These cuts are renowned for tenderness…but not really much flavor.  So the flavor comes from how you cook it.

The tough cuts on a cow, however, are the muscles that get the actual work…the front and back legs and the abdomen.  Equivalent to the dark meat on a chicken, these cuts are the ones that actually TASTE good…but because the muscles get a lot of exercise, they tend to be tougher.  This is why a perfect burger will taste better than any prime tenderloin ever can…because it tastes like BEEF.  Tenderloin tastes like whatever you season it with, and melts in your mouth like the butter you slather on top of it because it has very little flavor of its own.  So in the quest for the perfect steak, if your primary concern is tenderness, then the T-bone is a fabulous choice…but if your primary concern is good, beefy flavor, you need to look to the tough cuts like skirt steak, flank steak, brisket, chuck roast, and round roast.  These cuts need to be either barely cooked and sliced across the grain to keep them tender, or they need to be braised or smoked low and slow for an eternity to break down all the collagen and connective tissues, so they melt in your mouth.

Walmart is back in the house, and you can tell how excited Joe is to be the first to talk about it.  I’ve ranted enough about the Walmart-MasterChef relationship in previous blogs, so I’ll spare you.  (Just be it known that I DO shop at Walmart…at least twice month.  I don’t ever buy beef there.  Actually, I very rarely buy beef.  What I buy at Walmart are their organic products like milk and eggs…well, before I had chickens in my backyard.)  I absolutely LOVE how “enthusiastic” Joe is as he reads off the cue card “Walmart sells the highest quality choice beef which is inspected by the USDA for quality.”  Poor Joe, I know exactly how pissed off he was to have to say that.  And, for the record, EVERY piece of beef you buy in the grocery store in this country is inspected by the USDA for quality.  Again, Gordon is remarkably silent when it comes to discussing Walmart.  He never says it once.

Gordon says, “T-bone steak, a chef’s dream.  But tonight, we wanna see this T-bone steak elevated, we do not wanna see just meat and potatoes.”  When he asks Graham what he would make, Graham replies, “A simple rub, not too spicy…grill it, and with it: a potato salad.”  I chuckled at that one.  Exactly what Gordon said not to make.  Though, honestly…if you mess with a steak too much, you detract from its beauty.  Simplicity and perfection is key to presenting a great steak.

Time is up, and it’s time to taste the 3 best dishes.  Jordan is first, and he’s never won a mystery box challenge.  Jordan has decided to separate the NY Strip and the tenderloin from the bone.  (Luca also did this, but he served both steaks, Jordan only serves the Strip.)  This is a puzzling choice.  It certainly gives the chef better control over each piece of meat…meaning you can cook each one to perfection, which is something you CANNOT do when it’s on the bone.  However, when you separate those two cuts of meat, they simply become two separate steaks.  And that bone is the key to incredible flavor and juiciness.  I almost never buy a roast or steak that is boneless.  Wanna impress the MasterChef judges?  Separate those steaks and cook each one perfectly.  Wanna BLOW AWAY the MasterChef judges?  Present them with a bone-in T-bone steak cooked beautifully.  Because THAT is hard to do.  Jordan’s steak is served with a celery root puree.  If you’ve never tasted celery root…also called celeriac…you need to.  It’s pretty miraculous.  Like a cross between a rutabaga or turnip and celery.  Bold, earthy, nutty flavor…it’s downright divine.  Jordan has also made a compound butter with which to top his steak, consisting of parsley, bleu cheese, and lemon zest.  (yum)  He’s also got caramelized onions and fried squash breaded in parmesan cheese.

(Quick pause here.  “Parmesan” is the English word for a cheese produced in the same style as the cheeses produced in the Parma and Reggio Emilia regions of Italy.  The cheese made there from raw cow’s milk is called “Parmigiano Reggiano.”  All other cheeses made around the world in that same style are called “Parmesan.”)

The judges are very impressed with Jordan’s plate.

Luca is next, and like Jordan, he has removed the bone from his steaks.  But he is serving both of them.  He grilled the filet and served it with haricot verts (French green beans), and roasted potatoes with Parmesan cream sauce.  The NY Strip he pan seared and served with caramelized onions and a pan sauce.  The judges are very impressed.

The final dish comes as a surprise to some of the contestants…it’s Krissi.  And boy, did she take her cooking to a whole nother level!  Krissi had the balls to leave the T-bone whole.  (Good girl!)  She cooked it on cast iron, which she said is the way her grandfather used to cook steak.  And I can’t agree with them more.  There is NO better cooking method for steak than a cast iron skillet.  Certainly not a grill pan, which many contestants used.  (That only gives you sear on the lines where the grill pan meets the steak.  That may look pretty, but you’ve only got a tenth of the flavorful crust you’d get if the whole surface of the steak was in contact with the iron.)  Sometimes I’ll go for a steak grilled on charcoal, because you get some smoke in the flavor, but typically I save that for BBQ.  And don’t ever EVER cook a steak on a propane grill.  In fact, throw away your propane grill…it has no purpose.  If you’re going to grill, you’d better do it over charcoal.  Grilling on the stove is downright silly.  Grilling over a propane fire is the same this as broiling, it’s just upside down.  I laugh until I’m hyperventilating when I see how proud some guys are of their propane grilling skills. The propane grill is the biggest culinary scam ever inflicted upon mankind.  Sell it on Craigslist.  Spend 1/8 what you paid for it on a charcoal grill with cast iron grates.  Your taste buds will thank you.

On top of Krissi’s steak she’s got a compound butter, and she’s serving it with a crispy potato galette that she’s calling “pommes de Krissi.”  I love that.  A “galette” is a French style, crusty, round cake that can be either savory or sweet.  “Pomme” is the French word for potato, and Krissi’s potato cake is really stunning.  While the potato may be the humblest of all ingredients, cooking masterfully with it takes knowledge and incredible skill.  Because starches are far more finicky than proteins.  They turn to sugar at certain temperatures, and then they quickly burn.  Alongside her “pommes de Krissi” she’s got a caramelized onion and Brussels sprout salad.  What a dish!  I would eat the heck out of that.  The judges can’t praise her enough.

In fact, Krissi wins the whole challenge, and while there were probably some VERY stellar dishes we never even got to see, I’d have to agree with the judges on this one, at least with reference to the other 2 plates.  Krissi’s plate showed some really sophisticated technique.  And while the term “sophisticated technique” tends to give me a rash, and I’m not often DYING to taste something prepared with sophisticated technique, I’d have scarfed down every morsel on that plate because it was still familiar and authentic…two adjectives sorely missing from a lot of “sophisticated” food.

Back in the pantry, there are 6 massive burlap-covered boxes filled with “fresh food,” according to Joe.  One by one, the burlap is lifted, revealing a variety of live birds that we use for food.  The first is a quail…near and dear to the heart of every real Texan.  Our very favorite game bird.

Next is a pigeon, which we’ve already seen this season.  Called “squab” in fancy restaurants, pigeons are basically the same thing as doves, which are also much beloved by game hunters.

Graham next reveals a pheasant, which is the ultimate prize for many game bird hunters.  I’ve had the pleasure of cooking wild pheasant several times…the meat is dark purple, lean, and incredibly delicious.  Graham says, “If you don’t know what you’re doing with this bird, it’s impossible to nail it.”  The trick to pheasant…and ALL game birds, really, is brining.  They have so little fat that you need to get all the moisture you can into the meat before you cook it, to prevent it from drying out.

Next is, of course, a chicken.  That’s a Buff Orphington, by the way.  I have one in my backyard.  They are among the largest breeds of chicken, and just about the friendliest.  They love to be held and petted, they’ll respond to their name, and they make a far better pet than a cat, in my most-humble opinion.

Gordon pulls up his burlap to reveal a duck.  A White Pekin, to be precise.  This breed of duck is native to China, and for almost a century, virtually every domesticated duck eaten in the US was a direct descendent of the 9 Pekin ducks brought to New York from China in the 1800s.

Ducks are one of my favorite animals…I can’t help but laugh when I see them.  I had pet ducks when I was a kid, and I’ve rescued and raised MANY orphaned ducklings over the years.  One year, I rescued an entire nest of ducklings whose mother had been killed by a dog.  The sweltering summer heat continued to incubate the eggs and they began to hatch, but without the moisture from mama duck’s feathers, the inner membrane of the eggs had become too tough for the babies to peck through.  After it became apparent that the babies would die in their shells, I reluctantly helped them hatch.  We saved 4 out of the 7 quackers, and I raised them until they were fully feathered.  A few trips to a local park to teach them to swim were fascinating…the ducks thought they were people and followed me around the park, terrified of the other ducks.  Eventually I returned them to the pond where their mother had lived, and it was heart-wrenching to see how scared they were of the other ducks.  But I had to leave them to figure it out on their own.  A week later I came back to check on them, and all 4 recognized me and jumped out of the water and rushed up to me, quacking like crazy, jumping up and wanting to be held.  You should have seen the look on the other ducks’ faces when those 4 were jumping up and down, wanting me to pick them up.

I continued to visit them each week until the entire flock flew south for the winter.  When they returned the next spring, they had their adult feathers, and I couldn’t recognize which ones were “mine.”  And they didn’t recognize me, either.  So my job was done, after shedding a few bittersweet tears.

The last box contains, of course…a turkey.  I wish we cooked whole turkey more often in this country, because it’s absolutely delicious…when prepared properly.  (And you can rest assured that most turkey is NOT prepared properly.  For a good primer, start here and here.)

Krissi’s job is to assign one bird to each contestant.  They head back to the kitchen for their surprise, and each bird is wearing a medallion with an image of the contestant that will have to cook it.  Luca is adorably skittish of the birds, and tries to tempt his turkey with a big piece of lettuce.

When Natasha picks up her pheasant, you can see a fishing line attached to it’s leg…I suppose to keep it from flying up and roosting in the ceiling of the warehouse where MasterChef is filmed.

For a brief moment, the contestants believe they’ll have to slaughter the birds themselves, but that’s far too gruesome for the American audience.  Which, to me, is sad.  I don’t believe that ANYONE should eat meat if they’re not willing to dispatch the animal themselves.  Because we keep the slaughter of animals hidden away in mysterious buildings, and we only see it when it becomes hermetically sealed packages of pink meat in the grocery store, we’re more comfortable about the fact that we eat meat.  As a result, we’re likely to make horrible, irresponsible decisions when buying our meat.  Like buying $1.99 chicken breast from a chicken that lived its whole live in a tiny cage fighting with 3 other chickens, pumped full of antibiotics so that it grows at 3 times its natural rate, eating poop from the chickens in the 10 cages stacked above it.  When you actually kill the animal that you’re going to eat…you realize how important your choice to be an omnivore is.  You develop a respect for the animal that died to sustain you.  And you cultivate a desire to make sure that EVERY animal that unwillingly gives its life for your dinner plate lives a life according to its nature.  A chicken should wander around all day, scratching for seeds and chasing grasshoppers.  A cow should graze in green pastures and nap beneath a tree in the heat of the day.  A pig should wallow in cool mud and root in the dirt for acorns.  And very few of those things happen on massive, industrialized farms.  Which is why it’s one of the greatest acts you can do as a human to seek out a local farmer and buy from him.  Because you can meet his animals and see how they are treated.  And you sustain his family and your local community when you buy from him.  Yes, it’s less convenient than going to the corner grocery store.  Yes, it may cost a bit more than your $1.99 sale-priced industrial chicken.  (Though it will certainly cost less than buying “artisan” meat at Whole Foods or some other gourmet supermarket.)

But think about it…you make tough choices in your life right now based on things you believe are right, and they make your life harder.  Right?  Some of you go to church on Sunday.  That’s not easy.  But you believe it’s right.  Some of you are extremely involved with your children’s education…you personally know their teachers, you get involved with PTA.  That’s not easy.  Nor is it free.  But you do it, because you believe it’s important.  Say photography is a serious hobby of yours.  Are you gonna buy the cheapest point-and-shoot that Konica makes?  Of course not.

So why would you always stoop to the cheapest food you can find to sustain your very life, and the lives of the people who are most important to you?  Don’t you wanna know where that sh-t comes from?!?  In our country we’ve been spoiled and placated into a place of blissful ignorance about how our food ends up on our table.  And that’s not only gravely dangerous…it’s criminally neglectful when it comes to your kids and the people who trust you to care for them.  Start thinking about where your food comes from.  It is literally the MOST important decision you make on a daily basis.  Yet so many of us make it so flippantly.

*steps off soapbox*

The contestants are given 60 minutes to prepare the perfect dish, with their poultry as the hero.  And while that MIGHT be theoretically feasible for the lucky bastards with the quail (Jordan), pigeon (Bri), duck (James), and chicken (Jessie)…it’s impossible for the pheasant (Natasha) and the turkey (Luca).  Both those birds have dense, lean flesh that needs several hours of brining before you can even think about cooking them.  Granted, the quail and pigeon need to be brined, too, but they’re so small they’ll brine in 30 minutes, leaving plenty of time for cooking.  (For the record…apparently NO contestant brined their bird.  Which is really surprising.)

Time is called, and Gordon asks who thinks they have the best dish.  No one raises their hand.  On my season, Gordon asked this after every single challenge.  (He probably did on EVERY season, it just rarely makes it to the final edit, because on most challenges, EVERYONE raises their hand, and that gets boring.)

Jessie is up first for tasting.  She presents pan seared chicken breast with roasted garlic sauce, mashed potatoes, and summer veggie succotash.  Joe chastises her for being too “homey” and not gourmet enough…but with all the components on her plate, it’s as sophisticated as anything anyone has cooked on this episode.  He’s just sticking up his nose at Southern cuisine for being too primitive.  Her chicken breast, however, is too dry.  (Fancy that…a dry chicken breast!  If you’re a regular reader, you know what I have to say about chicken breast.  The ONLY time to eat chicken breast is when you roast a whole chicken.  If you’re buying parts and you buy boneless skinless breast, I don’t know who you are.  You are dead to me.  At the very least, buy bone-in, skin-on breast.  It’s cheaper, too.)  Graham messes with her mashed potatoes, which have gone gluey.  (To be fair to Jessie, they’ve probably been sitting on the plate for a couple of hours before she finally gets judged.)  However, she did make mashed potatoes from red-skin potatoes, which are “waxy” potatoes and DO NOT lend themselves to a good texture when mashed.  You want starchy potatoes for that, like russets, if you want them to be fluffy.  The judges are not kind.  And Jessie earns some Brownie points in my book for fessing up, rather than making excuses.  “There’s only 6 of us cooking and you can’t get away with simple.  I have no excuse.”  I’ve said it before…I think we’ll be seeing Jessie on Food Network soon.  She is supremely likeable.

Natasha is next, and she has pheasant breast with risotto, purple cauliflower, and white asparagus.  The judges are very impressed.  She used sumac as a seasoning for her pheasant.  Sumac is the ground seeds of a large flowering plant family that grows all over the world.  It is very tart and fruity, and it’s a common spice in Middle Eastern cuisine.  (Native Americans steeped sumac seeds in water to make a tart beverage.  Sumac is one of the first leaves to burst into color each fall and it grows wild all over the mainland US.)

James is next, and he has duck breast rubbed with togarashi…a Japanese chili powder.  He serves it with some “quick kimchee” which probably means he simmered the cabbage briefly in vinegar, rather than allowing it to ferment in a salt water brine.  He’s also got ginger scallion rice and oyster mushrooms cooked in duck fat.  Sounds divine, and the judges agree.

Luca presents his prosciutto-wrapped turkey breast with braised Swiss chard, sweet potato puree, sauteed mushrooms, and a red wine cranberry sauce.  (For the most amazing cranberry sauce recipe, click here.  You’ll never go back to the can.)  Joe loves it.

Bri brings her pigeon up to the judges, and we get a snarky comment from Krissi: “I hope it’s raw inside, cuz I hate her.”  I feel like most folks have simmered down on the Krissi attacks recently, but maybe I’m just out of touch.  If you follow Krissi on social media, you know that she and Bri are dear friends.  This is just more producers posturing contestants against each other in their interviews, and it’s not real.  So don’t get mad.  Bri has stuffed her pigeon with green apples, beet greens, sage, thyme, and goat cheese, with arugula, mushroom and cauliflower couscous.  I would order that on ANY menu over anything else if I saw it there.  That sounds incredible.  And she pulled it off.  Gordon continues to be puzzled about how competent Bri is when she cooks meat.  (Though people are speculating that Bri isn’t actually vegetarian based on her previous social media posts about cooking and eating meat…you can read my other blog and related comments on this issue, I don’t have time to get into it now, and it honestly doesn’t matter to me.)

Jordan is next, and his pan seared quail is served stew-style with root vegetables.  His quail is almost raw, but he’s not familiar with cooking it.  The judges are very upset.  And thank you, dear Gordon Ramsay, for suggesting that he should have brined it!

The top 2 dishes of the night are Bri, who celebrates with the line “Winner, winner, pigeon dinner!”  *cackle*  Against her as the second team captain in the next challenge will be, of course, Natasha.

The bottom 2 dishes belong to Jessie and Jordan…both of whom are VERY strong competitors.  And it’s a big shocker to see Jordan get the axe.  Lots of folks assumed he’d be the winner from very early in the competition.  Graham offers him a chance to stage (“intern”) at his restaurant, and you can tell when Gordon speaks that this was a hard elimination for him.  I definitely empathize with the judges.  The final elimination decision is not theirs, and they often have to deal with an elimination they don’t feel is just.  Though Jordan’s dish probably was the weakest of the day, he’s most certainly one of the strongest cooks in the bunch.  Sorry to see you go, Jordan.  (He gives mad props to Natasha as he leaves.)

The edit brings us back to the first time we met Jordan during his signature dish round, where we learned that his mom had recently passed away and he’s giving it his all in her memory.  Jordan is, in a sense, a perfect MasterChef contestant.  He knows a lot and has incredible skill and knowledge.  He is confident…but rarely cocky.  I predict that Jordan will do exactly what he wants to do with his life: open a dive bar that has 5-star food.  Follow Jordan on Facebook and Twitter.  And comment below about what you thought of this episode, particularly if you have a fond relationship with one of the game birds that were featured!

And, lucky readers, this is the LAST MasterChef blog I will write.  (Perhaps ever?!?)  I leave Saturday for my annual pilgrimage “home” to Burning Man, and a subsequent road trip across Idaho and Wyoming and back across the Southwest.  I won’t lay eyes upon a television screen for a blessed month, and it can’t come quickly enough.  Good luck to whoever wins MasterChef (I know you who are!!!), and I’ll touch base with you all on the final results in late September, but you WILL get plenty of updates from me on Facebook, and more rarely on my blog, during my great adventure to one of the most extraordinary things that happens on planet Earth.