Archive for December, 2006

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Top Chef Week Eight: Bailey’s with bites, swanky small food and Mia breaks down and goes home.

December 14, 2006

topchef_desktop_thumb1.jpgSynopsis:
What makes Top Chef producers salivate? No, it’s not the tempting dishes that the intrepid contestants create. (And it’s only partially Padma’s, ahem, choice attire.) In fact, what makes producers salivate is the frayed nerves that six weeks of grumpy chefs living together in tight quarters can produce. It’s Marcel’s bed head and scores of irritated eye rolls. It’s Mia’s complete and tearful breakdown. Slurp. (That’s the producers drinking up some tasty drama. Ahhhh.)

Yes, folks, it was an action-packed episode, complete with tears and enough swear words to keep the censors on their buzzers. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, there was the QuickFire. And the secret ingredient was… booze! Yes, it was a regular commercial for Bailey’s of all varieties (and silly us, we thought there was only one Baileys). There was a bit of cognitive dissonance as the scantily clad host and guest judge repeatedly referenced the “winter holiday” season while wearing clothing fit for a Mediterranean cruise. But the contestants seemed unfazed and set to work creating one cocktail using the mass quantities of Baileys (and other sponsored products) and one tapas to go with it.

In the end, the usual suspects bubbled to the top: Cliff and Sam made great dishes… and surprise(!) Michael, with his vast knowledge of all things alcoholic also made a great cocktail and tasty ice cream sandwich. (Not shocking. He knows booze, and he knows ice cream.) But Cliff took the prize and immunity.

It wasn’t until the teams divided into two for the Elimination Challenge that the drama really got rolling. Team Black (Sam, Ilan, Betty and Marcel) and Team Orange (Cliff, Elia, Michael and Mia) were charged with feeding 200 hungry revelers using $1,500 each at some swanky LA magazine party. The criteria for judging: taste, originality, leadership and wow factor. Team Black, led by Sam, quickly put together a menu of more than a dozen high-fallutin’ hors d’oerves – and, in a heart warming moment, Betty and Marcel seemed to bury the hatchet (or at least throw some dirt over it) and get along quite well. Impressive.

Team Orange was another story. Cue the dramatic music. Elia and Cliff seemed to have a meeting of the minds and came up with only a handful of dishes (Two? Three? Four?) that they would attempt, though Elia was elected team leader. Mia – who in ham-handed foreshadowing was featured throughout the show – attempted without success to suggest more and less-seafood heavy dishes. Evidently she was ignored, and vigorous complaining and dissecting of decision-making ensued.

The handwriting may have been on the wall when Cliff and Mia argued over cellphone walkie talkie in the grocery store about a menu change, and when the Orange team’s cart contained about 1/3 the food of the Black team’s. Or maybe it was when the Black team’s table looked fantastic… and the Orange team’s looked completely devoid of food. In any case, the judges had to kill some time pretending to decide that the Black team had won. Sam took home the win despite Marcel’s best efforts to suddenly diminish his leadership. The rest of the team confirmed Marcel is a bonehead, and Sam walked away with a crateful of knives and probably some desire to show Marcel how sharp they are.

As for the Orange team? Well we’ll save some of the drama for our Q&A. Suffice it to say that Elia was the team leader and in danger. Cliff was harboring a grudge against whiny Mia but had immunity. Mia was ready with an axe to grind and healthy lungs. And Michael just kept his hands in his pockets and his mouth shut. Smart cookie – clearly we don’t give him enough credit. In the end, with Elia’s head on the chopping block, Mia’s breakdown hit its apex. In a move that looked like “to hell with this show,” she sacrificed herself and agreed to go in (presumably) Elia’s place. And the producers lick their lips. Delicious drama.

Who came off worse at the judge’s table, Mia or Cliff?
Husband: I think Mia. The producers were setting her up from the start. I called it when we were just starting to watch the Elimination Challenge. Yet her explosion at Cliff struck me as over the line; Mia has thrown “under the bus” at least three others – but when the tables were turned, she couldn’t handle it. I don’t think she was absolutely wrong in her feelings, but the sob stories killed me. Though kudos to her for letting Elia off the hook.

Wife
: Neither came off smelling like roses. Cliff dropped several notches in my book, and I admit that I was sympathetic to Mia. Through fiendish editing, all of her points about being ignored and slighted resonated with me – though who knows whether the team would have worked better under her ideas, or whether it really all went down that way. In any case, Cliff came across as a bit of jerk… and considering the fact that the main problem was the team’s lack of food, he and Elia – who were in the kitchen and the team’s brain trust – struck me as to blame. But maybe that’s just what those wily producers want me to think. I didn’t think she was such a hero for sparing Elia, though. She looked like she just wanted to get the heck out of there at the end. Massive breakdown.

Winners and next off?
H
: I like Cliff now. I think it’s from growing up watching sports; you have to have a little bit of nasty to win. I think Cliff has got it. Next off? I’m thinking Betty. She’s been in the bottom group a good deal and I think she benefited from being on a good team. I only hope the producers are OK with making the show more testosterone-ridden.

W
: Sam is the man. Now he has the knives – and the knowledge. Ha! I also like Ilan… and he’s so tan! Clearly the “holiday” weather agrees with him. Next off? Marcel maybe. The animosity toward him is growing… and he has yet to become loveable like our old pal Michael.

Your winner? Your next off? Your thoughts on Mia’s meltdown and departure? And your favorite hors d’oerve for parties this time of year?

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You’re French aren’t you?: BLT’s Popovers.

December 13, 2006

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Even the name “popover” sounds like an invitation to eat. And who could refuse, really?

These roly poly, inflated and chewy bread rolls were the conversation starter at a meal my husband and I ate at a swanky French bistro-cum-steakhouse in DC called BLT Steak (for Bistro Laurent Tourondel…. Steak). Comically large and mishapen, with balloon-like tops crusted with baked on cheese, they also came with a meaty salt shaker and — we were told — special European butter that is 98% butter fat. Yes, please!

I liked them well enough in the heady atmosphere of a swanky steakhouse, but would the novel recipe conjure similar culinary magic in our humble abode? Answer: Yes, and then some.

Following Tourondel’s gratis instructions, my husband concocted these beauties in our very own oven. And maybe it’s just my bias talking (he is my husband, after all) but I think they were even more delightful than the restaurant’s. (Sacre bleu!) The popovers weren’t quite as dark brown and crusty, which to my mind is a good thing, and I could eat them with something besides steak. (Because I don’t think popover when I think steak.) Instead, they were properly golden brown and delicious, chewy on the inside and with a more cheesy and less eggy bread interior.

Am I saying that my husband made better popovers than Laurent Tourondel — using the chef’s own recipe? Well, if a wife can’t say it, then who will?

Click here to download the recipe for BLT Popovers.

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Well Fed’s Food Blog Awards 2006!!!

December 12, 2006

It’s awards season and I didn’t even break out my tuxedo! Oh wait, no, it’s not that kind of awards season. For these, my wife can stay in her pajamas and I can still be in my work-out clothes cooking — oh, why is there never one night out! What sort of great awards don’t require red carpets, couture and jewels so big that they come with big burly security guards?

Well Fed Network is doing their annual Food Blog Awards! You should head over there and nominate your favorites. I know the folks over at Well Fed are working their backsides off to really do something neat. So nominate your favorites early and often!

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Save the silverware and eat roast beef and carmelized onion panini!

December 11, 2006

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Dispense with the fork and the knife. Away with that white dinner napkin.

Sometimes you just want food you can pick up with your hands and gnaw on. Among these foods, hot pressed sandwiches (and french fries) must be royalty.

Since our former panini press met an unfortunate end (involving a three foot drop and untimely meeting with the kitchen floor), we’ve been deprived of hot pressed sandwiches. I blame faulty construction of obviously flimsy sandwich presses that can’t stand one small toss off a kitchen counter. My husband prefers to blame me for creating circumstances where said press could topple off said counter. You say banana, I say tomato.

Anyway, we now have in our possession a far superior (and sturdier) panini press that can conquer the great heights of my husband’s roast beef-havarti-carmelized onion-spicy mustard-Italian bread-style sandwich. Even the name is a mouthful. The sandwich may sound simple, but it is oh-so-satisfying. The trick is to combine quality ingredients — a mound of lovingly carmelized onions, freshly roasted sliced beef, a big thick crusty loaf of bread, and superior brown mustard with those little mustard seeds strewn throughout. Pile those ingredients high and fire up your panini press. You won’t be sorry — and, bonus, you can use your bare mits to heave that sandwich right up to your maw. Enjoy!

Click here to download the recipe for this panini.

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Top Chef Week Seven: The raw, the open pit, and Frank washes out.

December 7, 2006

topchef_desktop_thumb1.jpgSynopsis:
Behold, the power of estrogen. Yes, women flexed their substantial cooking biceps on tonight’s Top Chef – and the man who uses the most hair product didn’t do too shabby, either.

The show began, as usual, with the QuickFire challenge, where we were quickly made to remember that this show was taped long ago on the West Coast. Our intrepid contestants had to concoct a meal using only ingredients bought for $20 from the well-stocked Redondo Beach Farmers’ Market. The twist? They weren’t allowed to cook said ingredients. Yawn.

The contestants rose to the occasion and arranged their fresh ingredients (and not a small amount of seafood) admirably. And in a trend that continued during the episode, the top three weren’t the usual suspects: Elia (concise and simple tuna), Frank (excellent presentation) and Marcel (cool concept, dude). Marcel won for really using his ring mold – I mean, brain – in creating a “watermelon steak” and some other very nicely plated veggie/fruit stuff. In victory, he uttered a word we’d never heard before, not dissimilar to a pig call. (Swaniet? Help us. Does anyone speak Marcel?)

The Elimination challenge tasked the contestants with coming up with a delicious breakfast item to feed unnamed athletes at an unnamed location using unnamed cooking implements. Head scratching among the chefs ensued. Trolling the aisles of Wild Oats (thank you, obvious product placement), they gambled on whether there’d actually be a place to cook all those eggs they bought. They drove up on the beach in Malibu in their shiny Toyotas (another winning placement as it emerged from behind the rocks with Elia waving out of the sunroof) to face cooking over fire pits and serving hordes of surfers.

Some had chosen dishes that could be adapted to this sandy medium… some had not. To make a long story short (too late), the people who did not were surprising: Cliff and Sam struggled, and the three cooking beauties Elia, Betty and Mia turned out the top dishes. Surfers loved Mia’s crab cakes Benedict, the judges dug Betty’s eggs in a ham roll, and everyone enjoyed Elia’s savory-sweet waffle/egg creation. There was even a heart warming moment were everybody gave Michael some eggs – except Frank, who was very disturbingly gleeful at Michael’s distress. (Even we thought it was mean, and we pick on Michael all the time.) Elia rode the wave – to use the show’s forced surfing metaphors – and Cliff, Sam and Frank wiped out. Guess who got booted? Not hard, right? Goodbye, Frank. It’s been real.

Did Michael just become more loveable?

Husband: Yes, Betty Crocker and Charles Manson’s boy had my favorite line of the night. As Frank was “vigorously” grating some sort of vegetable, Michael’s watermelon napoleon kept toppling over – leading him to observe in frustration that Frank was “humping some gorilla on the prep table.”
Wife
: Chef Boyardee has become more loveable (although where was my favorite chef’s hat tonight?). When he was rooting around his cooler looking for eggs that he had, no doubt, left on the counter at the dorm, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the big lug. And clearly, other people felt the same way… Yes, he’s grown on me.

Favorite consequence of having surfers as judge?

H: Obviously, it was the “surfer lingo” rodeo between Marcel and Michael. Both seemed to fairly fluent in stoner, so I doubt surfer was too hard for them to pick up. Also, the beach setting set the scene for Tom Colicchio appearing to flirt with surfer girls in bikinis.
W: In addition to the totally bodacious vocabulary we picked up, I enjoyed the opportunity of seeing Marcel’s lower-back tattoo (that was a tattoo, wasn’t it?), and his strange attempt to “toss” Elia into the water – which looked more like misdemeanor assault.

What’s with the girl power?
H: I guess I’m a cynic or a misogynist. They seemed to go on about Ilan’s food and not even mention Mia’s, yet there was no Ilan in the end. Part of me thinks it’s a ploy.
W: Clearly my husband is a she-hater. (I kid.) It was refreshing to see the women in the winner’s circle, even if one of them may have taken Ilan’s spot. It was also nice to see Sam and Cliff humbled a bit, if only for this week, since they had been cruising for most of the show. Will it last? Have I sold Elia short in the past? Who knows…

Winners and losers?

H: I’m finally going with the glasses (Ilan). I said during the QuickFire that there is something about him that just seems to nail it every time. I’m edging toward the wife’s favorite now. The next off? Michael. I know I said I wouldn’t pick him again to avoid the split in the space-time continuum, but I’m running out of folks to kick off and the judges may not want to kick any of the ladies off if they can avoid it. I’m risking a black hole and saying Michael.
W: How about Sam? Sure, he stumbled this week, but maybe it will motivate him to tighten that samurai bun and sharpen his sword. I think Mia may be next off. Despite the fact that her food looks like something I’d eat, her presentations never seem artsy enough for the judges.

Winners? Next off? Would you eat scallop carpaccio? What would you have cooked for a fire-pit breakfast on the beach? And how about Padma’s outfits?

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Breaking News: Wife claims fennel and sausage pasta as meal of champions, Husband abuses metaphor.

December 6, 2006

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Pasta. It’s the food of champions, isn’t it? Or is that Wheaties?

Well, then, besides chemically enhanced breakfast cereals that come in orange boxes, pasta may be one of the few fast foods that is actually good for you. (Atkins dieters please ignore this statement and resume your regular avoidance of bread and bread-like products. These are not the carbohydrates you seek.) And when my husband gets out his pasta press and opens the fridge, pasta is not only fast and delicious, it’s also fresh and healthy.

I’ve noted a few favorites of mine in his pasta repertoire (artichoke and tomato, special sauce, stuffed ravioli), but I have no objections to his adding more. Hence, I can recommend his fennel and sweet sausage pasta. This offering makes the list because it includes the necessary healthy bit (the fennel) and adds that extra tasty bit, too (the sweet Italian sausage).

Tossed with fresh fettuccini, this concoction makes a fresh, healthy and fast dinner that was ready when I walked through the door. And that, friends, is one of the main criteria for food that I can wholeheartedly endorse. “Good food now” is my motto, you may recall. And in the spirit of Queen’s stadium anthem (and Wheaties), pasta is the champion.

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It’s fennel slaw-tastic…

December 5, 2006

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Even the fiercest of us carnivores have to get our roughage in. And while I’m not a huge salad fan, I can be persuaded to chow down on some tossed veg, if the right ingredients are in the offing.

Enter the husband’s fennel slaw salad.

Pecans, carrots and fennel. An unexpected salad trinity perhaps, but quite tasty indeed. The fennel provides a delicious, crunchy bite, the carrots lend their sweetness, and the pecans add their nutty richness. Bathed in a dressing that contains the perfect mix of spicy, salty and sweet, it’s a refreshing entry point into any meal.

So, fellow meat-eaters, pick up your fork and get your veg on.

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