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A FRANK Tale: NYE 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours, Truly, with an ancient tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“mahs – car- PONE – eh”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limoncello Basil Sorbetto

Forming Uova da Raviolo

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

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

Alvin and Jennie carefully blanching raviolos for service

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

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

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

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

Chef Jennie making risotto rosso

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

The unearthly, sensual texture of the 63.5 degree egg

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

Rich, housemade ricotta for making Pastiera Napoletana

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

Pastiera Napoletana, a ricotta cheesecake with candied wheat berries

Adrien bruleeing a layer of sugar on top of candied figs

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

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

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

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

MasterChef recap: Michelin Stars and Walmart Steaks

(Please note that my blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef or Walmart, and that they would probably both prefer you not read it.  The information below consists solely of uneducated opinions and assumptions and should not be considered factual.  I have no inside information on how MasterChef is judged or produced.)

Please also note that, since we’re down to 6 contestants, each one of them has their own website (except for Josh).  So instead of linking to social media pages, when you see a clickable name, it’s going to their individual websites, which are incredible places for photos, recipes, personal information, etc.  So VISIT THEM!

After a long hiatus due to the Olympics, MasterChef is finally back for one episode per week (Tuesdays) until a MasterChef is crowned.  (Er…trophied.)  And in today’s challenge we’re seeing exactly replicas of challenges from season 2.  The group challenge is 3 against 3 in a Michelin-starred restaurant: Hatfield’s.

Before I recap what happens in this season, I have to mention that in my season when we did our group challenge at the Michelin-starred Patina, it was one of the biggest epiphanies of my life.  I realized that being a restaurant chef is actually my deepest, darkest, most terrifying nightmare, and that if I was ever so unfortunate as to be employed as a restaurant chef, I don’t know how long I’d last before ending it all on the point of a very dull knife.

There are 2 broad types of people who love to cook: those who thrill to the challenge of multiple orders coming together at the same instant and whizzing out the door and that’s the end of it/next order please, and those whose fascination actually begins when the food hits the table and what happens to the people when they get it.  And it was never clear to me in my mind that I don’t love cooking because I love to cook…I love cooking because of what food means to people, and how it brings them together.  I’d rather be a highway construction worker in the middle of a Texas summer than be a restaurant chef.  Because you never get to connect with the people you’re feeding.  It’s only about the mathematical and artistic channels that result in a perfectly-presented plate of food at exactly the right time, and to me, that holds absolutely NO interest whatsoever.

This is why FRANK is such a wonderful outlet for me.  I get to cook alongside someone I really care about, Jennie Kelley.  And then we put those plates of food down in front of the people who have come to dine with us, and we get to talk to them about it.  And we get to see the magical way that food transforms perfect strangers into new best friends.  This is another beef I have with restaurants.  The vast majority use party seating…you arrive at the restaurant with your party, and your party sits at a table, insulated from everyone else dining.  Ever craned your neck toward the next table to see what they were eating?  Ever wanted to ASK them how it was, but felt it was a breach of tact?  I hate that.  I want to sit next to everyone at the restaurant, talk about the food, and talk about life.  Make new friends.  So the conventional restaurant world is most certainly NOT for me.

Nor is Hatfield’s, the restaurant where this group challenge will take place.  Hatfield’s is the kind of restaurant that will allow you to bring your own wine if you wish (as EVERY restaurant should), but will charge you $30 for the 30 second task of opening the bottle for you.  (That’s just highway robbery, folks.)  I realize that restaurants have an overhead, and that the 300% markup on wine is one of the ways they pay their bills…but a $30 corkage fee?  Come on.

So our team leaders are Becky and Frank…who, quite honestly, I feel are the 2 best cooks left in the game.  (But as we all know, reality TV competitions are NOT merit-based competitions…the most appropriate winner wins, not the most skilled.)

Becky surprises the judges by choosing Christine first.  Bastianich definitely has reservations about the pick, and says he would have put Christine working the coat closet.  While that’s harsh, he is a restaurateur and he has a point.  The kitchen line is a place that has to work with perfect efficiency, and Christine’s lack of sight is definitely going to hinder the productivity of her team.  And she knows it.  However, we also know that Christine has the best palate in the group, and can help ensure that everything tastes flawless before it goes out.  (Still, the majority of food prep is already handled in the afternoon by the prep cooks…the sauces are made, the vegetables sliced and diced…everything is already prepped for the final cook and plating.  So there’s not a HUGE amount of flavor tweaking that can be done.)

Frank’s first pick is David Martinez, which is also a surprise for most of us.  However, if you’ve read my previous blogs, you know that David is actually a BRILLIANT cook, and that’s clear to anyone who spends 10 minutes talking food with him…he’s just been struggling under the competitive format of the show.  Frank knows exactly how knowledgeable and skills David is, and it’s proof to the audience that the David you’ve seen thus far in MasterChef is NOT the real David that his fellow competitors know.

Becky’s final choice is Monti, which means Josh goes to Frank, leading to girls-against-boys in the kitchen!  FASCINATING!  I was a bit surprised that Becky picked Monti, since she has been somewhat disparaging about Monti’s skills throughout the competition.  But it’s a fabulous team.  If I were picking teams, I’d have put Monti, David, and Christine on a team, because I think they all have a very tight dynamic that complements each other, and Frank, Becky, and Josh on a team.  You’ve probably got a bit more skill and refinement in the Frank/Becky/Josh team, but you’ve also got some leadership issues since everyone will be eager to lead.  I think that would be an intriguing challenge to watch.

I’ve remarked a few times about how massively tall Josh is, but when we get the lineup of all 6 contestants, it’s truly ASTOUNDING how tall Josh is.  His Facebook profile says he’s 7 feet tall!  I mean, look at this:

So it’s boys-against-girls, and the contestants head back into the kitchen where the chef-owners (the Hatfields) are going to demonstrate how to make 2 appetizers and 2 entrees.  Season 3 got off easy…in season 2 we had to do all that, and in addition we had to conceptualize and prepare from scratch a dessert, as well, all in the same prep time!

The courses are much more interesting this season.  (I didn’t care for the electric green risotto, the weird scallops, etc. from last season.)  This season the appetizers are a croque madam with butter-fried bread, hamachi (the Japanese word for yellowtail) and thick-cut prosciutto, topped with a quail egg; and a handmade agnolotti (a stuffed pasta like ravioli) stuffed with ricotta and peas, sauteed in butter.  The entrees are baked branzino (European sea bass) topped with fried capers and parsley, dried apricots, and roasted almonds, on a bed of green beans with celery root puree.  (If you’ve never had celery root, or celeriac, you gotta try it, it’s incredible!)  And a double venison chop which they don’t describe, but which appears to sit atop Brussels sprouts, turnip puree, and perhaps a beet puree, finished with red wine sauce and radish sprouts.

The teams have 2 hours to prep, and we’re immediately led to believe that Monti has lost her hearing because she has to ask Becky to speak louder.  Keep in mind that you are hearing the direct feed recorded from the contestant’s microphones…a commercial kitchen is DEAFENINGLY loud, with industrial vents roaring like jet engines, convection ovens that sound like vacuum cleaners, dishes clanking, line cooks hollering to coordinate.  The sound team for the show has to work very hard to be able to isolate just the voices of the contestants.  So it’s not weird for Monti to have trouble hearing.  Christine’s hearing is probably a bit more acute than yours and mine, anyway.

While Frank’s team seems to be leading in terms of prep, as the dinner guests start to arrive, things break down and a plastic oil bottle melts onto the flat top, and the beurre blanc (white wine butter sauce) is boiling, unattended.  The narrator is careful to tell us right after this that the judges will make the final decision about which team wins based on who has the most impressive performance.  And while they will take feedback from the diners and chef/owners into account, ultimately they will have the final say.  To me, this immediately indicates that the girls are going to win, but that things will take another turn or two before that happens.  I certainly expect the girls to win, because I don’t think the show is ready to dump any of the 3 girls, whereas they’ve been prepping both Josh and David to leave for the last few episodes.

Service begins and we get a glimpse into the bizarre world of the restaurant kitchen.  The “expediter” (in this case, Gordon), receives orders typed into the computer by the waiters, and he calls out the orders to each team.  The team is supposed to respond by repeating the order to him to ensure that it’s correct, and then repeating the entire evening’s orders to each other so they’re all on the same page.  I would never, ever be able to do this, I’m far too scatterbrained.  In the Patina challenge last season, I basically stood there with my mouth open, staring around like an idiot, for the majority of the challenge, because none of it made any sense to me.  It certainly wasn’t cooking that was going on…it was some bizarre ritual from another universe.

The girls are leading the service with prompt appetizers, while the boys are struggling with the butter-fried bread portion of the croque madame.  It’s really tough to deep-fry bread in butter perfectly…if the butter isn’t hot enough, the bread just gets soggy and butter-drenched.  But butter burns and becomes bitter and acrid very quickly over high heat.  So there’s a perfect balance that must be struck, and Josh is having trouble striking it.

(By the way, I recognized someone in the dining room, commenting on the food.  You know who you are if you’re reading this!)

30 minutes into service, the boys still don’t have any appetizers on the table, so Frank takes over the bread station.  Then, to complicate matters, the VIP table where the chef/owners are sitting has requested both appetizers from both teams to be delivered at the same time, which means Frank and Becky have to coordinate their cooking.  The girls are up to speed, but the boys need extra time, which means the girls’ appetizers will have to sit around getting cold (or over-cooked) while they wait for the boys.  Then the boys’ appetizers are fresh and hot, while the girls’ have been sitting around for 15 minutes, when the dishes are delivered to the table…a stupendously unfair situation.  The girls have a better agnolotti, while the boys have a better croque madame.  When the main courses are tasted by the chef/owners, the boys win on both accounts…the girls didn’t have enough sauce on their Branzino, and their venison was overcooked.

Finally, dinner service ends, and I know exactly how relieved the contestants are.  Last season, I felt like I had given birth.  Every cell in my body ached.  I was drenched in sweat from the sweltering, humid kitchen.  Burnt on both arms from the blasting heat of the flat top.  Frazzled by how many dishes I had mindlessly and frantically churned out.  Luckily, the judges poured us a bottle of Moet, which helped soothe us a bit.

Back in the MasterChef kitchen, the judges make the announcement that, despite the fact that the boys’ dishes were better received by the chef/owners, the girls are actually the winners because their teamwork was smoother and more prompt.  Joe apologizes to Christine for underestimating her.  The girls head upstairs, while we wait for whatever twist the judges are going to throw at the boys.

They ask Frank a theoretical question: who would he save if he was given the chance, including himself?  Theorizing, Frank says he would save Josh, because he did an “excellent job.”  We, of course, were really only shown Josh continually unable to nail the bread frying until Frank had to take over for him, so Josh must have pulled through later in the service and it wasn’t shown to us.  (Either that, or he feels confident he can beat David in a pressure test and doesn’t wanna go up against Josh.)  Ramsay asks him why he wouldn’t choose to save himself, and he replies, “I felt like I was playing catchup the whole, I really don’t deserve to be up on that balcony.”

Now they tell him that Frank DOES, in fact, have the ability to save an individual, including himself.  After an excruciating pause, he says, “I know I said I’d send Josh up there, but I gotta go upstairs, guys.”

This IS a competition, folks.  While I’d have never saved myself in a million years (mostly out of cowardice, not nobility), Frank is a brilliant, shrewd competitor and he made the smart decision to save himself.  I know some people are gonna hate him for that, but Frank is so darn likeable, and I understand his decision…although I could never have made it myself.

The judges reveal the Pressure Test ingredient, and it’s deja vu yet again.  3 filet mignon steaks.  JUST like the pressure test last season between Max and Christine.  Only this time, instead of having to nail, rare, medium, and well done, they will have to nail rare, medium rare, and well done.  (I guess the challenge designers ran out of ideas?!?)

Graham announces that each contestant has GENEROUSLY been provided 3 “stunning, USDA Choice filet steaks” provided by Walmart “which sells the highest quality Choice steak.”  They go on to say that only 1 in 6 steaks is good enough to be a Walmart steak.  This weekend, Alvin Schultz and I headed over to Walmart to check out this supposedly-stunning steak:

Lots of my fans commented on this photo and said that Walmart has the worst beef they’ve found in any grocery store.  To be fair, Walmart has only recently chosen to start selling USDA Choice steaks, rather than USDA Select (the lowest quality you can normally find in the grocery store).  So if you are one of those people, you probably haven’t yet experienced the new, higher-quality steaks, and Walmart has specifically chosen MasterChef as their venue to make this annoucement.  So…there are now BETTER steaks at Walmart.  However, they also still carry their lower-grade Select quality, as well.  And they are really hyping this idea that “Now Walmart sells the best beef in America” when you can get USDA Choice steaks at any grocery store in the country.

I also have to admit, the steak they showed on MasterChef didn’t look like a normal tenderloin to me.  Here it is, next to a NORMAL-looking tenderloin:

Beef quality is graded by the USDA based upon the amount of intramuscular fat found distributed throughout the meat fibers, called “marbling.”  The more fat, the more tender, juicy, and delicious the steak will be, and thus, the higher grade and the most expensive.  In the photo above, you can see liberal veins of fat running through the steak on the right…this is excellent marbling.  The steak on the left doesn’t look very appealing to me, I would not buy it.

(Side note: the vast majority of beef sold in the US comes from cattle that are raised in the pasture on grass, and then sent to a “finishing lot” where they are fed only corn, which their digestive systems are not designed to process, but which causes massive, rapid fat gain.  The side effects of this unnatural diet to the cow are not pleasant…they become incredible gassy because their digestive systems can’t handle the concentrated sugars from the corn [which dumps ridiculous amounts of methane into the atmosphere] and instead of pooping their normal, solid, somewhat wholesome earthy-smelling cow patties, they instead only have diarrhea.  And if you’ve ever driven past a finishing lot, you know exactly how it smells.  This runoff is downright toxic and feed lots have difficulty containing it.  But this is how “premium” beef is produced.  If you have access to grass-fed, pastured beef, and can afford it, spring for it.  It tastes totally different.  The fat is yellow, rather than abnormally white.  The taste is rich, hearty, and meaty.  We are one of the only countries that produce cattle via this concentrated industrial feedlot system.  The best beef in the world is produced in South America and Japan, where the cattle are pastured and grass fed their whole lives.  America has VAST pastureland and certainly has the ability to produce healthy, happy, grass-fed cattle.  But we converted to the industrial system during the great World Wars because our brightest and best were sent to the front lines, leaving fewer hands to work the cattle…so gathering them together in one place meant more cattle could be raised with fewer people.  Now we have an employment crisis in this country, too many people don’t have work.  Anyone wanna become a cowboy and tend to some free-range cattle in a grassy meadow in Montana somewhere?!?)

Seriously, you probably have more choices than you realize when it comes to beef.  Check out your farmer’s markets, and get on Craigslist.  You and your neighbors might be able to go in on half of a local, grass-fed cow, have it processed and delivered right to your door, for LESS than the price of buying the same thing at Walmart’s already-low prices.  Your money stays in the community, you get a vastly superior product for less out-of-pocket expense, and the animal you are eating led a much better life.  You just might need to get a cheap chest freezer for your garage, because you’re getting 100 pounds of beef delivered!

The pressure is on, and I get super excited when I see each contestant has 3 cast iron skillets on the stove in front of them!  Cast iron is the ONLY WAY TO COOK STEAK.  Indoors, at least.  Charcoal grilling is lovely outside when weather permits.  Please don’t ever, ever cook a steak on a propane grill, there’s no point.  It’s comparatively uneven heat with no flavor benefit.  Cook it inside on cast iron where the entire surface of the meat gets in contact with the searing hot cooking surface, or put a cast iron griddle on your propane grill outside.

The trickiest steak to cook for David and Josh is, obviously, the well-done steak.  Here’s how I cook a well-done steak, though I always have to cook it against my will:  liberally season the steak with lots of kosher salt, plus garlic powder and coarsely cracked black pepper, and let it sit in a bowl on the countertop for an hour.  Juices will run out into the bowl.  Keep them.  On a screaming hot cast iron skillet, give the steak a pre-sear in olive oil for 1 minute per side.  Then place the skillet into a 400F oven, tenting the steak loosely with foil to retain moisture.  Flip the steak gently every 5 minutes until it has the right feel to it.  (Take your left hand, unless you’re a leftie in which case use your right, and hold your ring fingertip to the tip of your thumb.  Feel the pad of muscle at the base of your thumb.  That is the FINAL texture for a medium well steak.  But by the time we’re finished with this steak, it will be well done.)  Remove the steak from the oven.  Rub some freshly chopped garlic and fresh thyme on both sides of the steak, and drop it into another screaming hot cast iron skillet with some olive oil and a bit of butter, along with the juices that ran out of the meat when it was resting before cooking.  Sear it for 2 minutes per side.  Then remove it to a cooling rack, place a pat of butter on top, and tent it VERY lightly with foil so that it can breathe and the crust you built doesn’t get soggy, and let it rest for 5 minutes.  Return any juices that drop out to the top of the steak.  Then serve it.  I don’t know why anyone would ever wanna eat a well-done steak, but that’s how you do it.

David makes a scary choice to cook his well-done steak entirely on the stovetop.  This can result in a very dry steak.  But knowing that there’s a good chance that the steaks will not be spot-on temperature for both contestants, the judges are careful to state that appropriate seasoning can make up for incorrect temperature.  And tasting begins.

David’s rare steak is medium rare, but has “aggressive garlic flavor” which Bastianich says might be difficult for someone to eat.  (I don’t understand anything about that statement…in fact, I don’t know what “too much garlic” even means.  I’ve never found that threshold.)  Josh’s rare steak is spot on, and he pats himself on the back for it.

David’s medium rare steak has an uneven sear and is just beyond medium temperature, but has great flavor and moisture, according to Graham.  Josh’s medium rare has a flawless sear, but is medium in temp and lacking in flavor.

Ramsay can tell from a gentle squeeze of both well-done steaks that both are undercooked.  David’s is just over medium, with a perfect sear.  Josh’s under medium, and seasoned nicely.

At this point, you’d imagine that Josh is going home.  Josh won the first steak.  David won the second.  Coming down to the well-done, David was closer to the temp than Josh, so he probably won the well-done by an inch.

But the judges and producers have the final say, and Josh is staying, and David’s heading home.  With grace, optimism, and dignity, and the same likeability that he had when we were first introduced to him months ago.  Graham offers David a job in one of his restaurants, which further attests to the fact that we only rarely glimpsed David’s skill and vision on the show, but the judges saw it through-and-through.

Ramsay asks David who is going to win MasterChef, and David gives a heartfelt and overwhelmingly genuine endorsement to Frank, who’s obviously tearing up.  (Is this the first time we’ve seen Frank cry?)  David leaves the show with eloquent words, “With great risk comes reward, and if you love something, you should fight for it tooth and nail.  Life is a journey and you can’t worry about your mistakes…  I think people will see big things of me in the future.”

David flew home from MasterChef and immediately dove into the commercial kitchen.  All that anxiety, fear, and frustration I experience in the commercial kitchen?  David CRAVES it.  In the few months since the show was filmed, he has interned (or “staged”) with many of Chicago’s top chefs…the kind of chefs that can run circles around Graham.  David has done popup restaurants that have attracted a devout following among Chicago’s foodie culture, which is among the most robust in the world.  He’s been invited to cook for the Bears and the Cubs and at international events hosted in the Windy City.

As I type, David is completing a move to Phoenix, where he will work on his PhD in Education at Arizona State.  His life’s second passion is educating underprivileged minorities, and he hopes to continue to work in both this vein, and in the kitchen, in the future.  He has grand plans for his culinary future in Phoenix, and I was fortunate to be present when several of Phoenix’s movers-and-shakers in the restaurant world welcomed him to their city with open arms.

I feel fortunate to call David Martinez my friend.  We’ve spent barely over 48 hours together, but I feel like he’s an old friend.  He and his wife B are amazing human beings, and I can’t wait to see David’s thumbprint on this country.  Not only will he create culinary magic, many young aspiring minorities who could never hope to afford a higher education will be able to because of David’s efforts.

Please follow David on Twitter, “like” him on Facebook, and visit his incredible blog, From Fire to Table.  And please comment and share below!!!