Archive for May, 2008

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‘Top Chef’ Episode 12: High steaks

May 29, 2008

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This is it! This episode will determine who the final four will be! This is the big showdown! This is where it all happens! This is — yawn — so boring…

Perhaps it’s the lack of drunken head shaving (nice tip, Ilan), or the fact that all the contestants are real-live chefs and not the pathological attention seekers/nudists usually seen on reality TV. Whatever the reason, this episode was, well, just kind of ho-hum television.

This despite the fact that the show started off with all the contenders wielding large knives and donning protection from flying meat particles. Yes, the two-part Quick Fire began with the final five (shout-out to fellow Battlestar Gallactica geeks!) in a butchering contest to create “Tomahawk Steaks.” Spike, practically hatless throughout the episode, channeled his forebears (who were of course butchers) and carved him some meat. And then he cooked it real good — winning the Quick Fire.

His prize? He got first crack at the pantry/walk-in when the chefs took over the restaurant Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood — a noted Chicago eatery — for dinner service. The fearsome fivesome had to prepare an appetizer and entree from whatever was in the restaurant’s apparently well-stocked stores. Indeed, only Spike seemed to get himself in trouble, choosing frozen (gasp! shock! horror!) scallops from the refrigerator’s plentiful wares.

But, since these are actual chefs, not the learning-challenged nose-pickers on “Hell’s Kitchen,” all five managed to cope with the challenge with few hiccups. In fact, Tom Colicchio decided to bask in their reflected glory, serving as the expediter during service — and not once launching into a Gordon Ramsey-like rant. (Which would have been hilarious. Hello, producers? Didn’t think to throw a monkey wrench in there somewhere? Hmmm??)

Perhaps the episode’s only twist was the fact that it took three men to replace Ted Allen. (Snicker.) Yes, it was the conquering heroes who returned to serve as judges: Harold from season one, Ilan from season two, and Hung from season three. All bellied up to get their critique on… but, either because they are very empathetic or because the food was very good, they were fairly mild in their criticism.

To make a long story short (too late), all the food was good but — predictably — Stephanie, Antonia and Richard floated to the top. Stephanie was declared the winner for all around good offerings, Richard’s playful appetizer was deemed tops, and Antonia’s steak was praised highest. That left Lisa (with her puzzling and nauseating sounding peanut-butter mashed potatoes) and Spike (with his frozen scallops) on the bottom. Producers, here’s a twist for you. Eliminate both of them.

But, alas, only one would go home tonight.

And it was Spike. Frozen scallops were too much of an offense (plus, he threw down on the Tramanto for having them in the freezer. Not a good move.).

So, what will happen in Puerto Rico? More good cooking and collegial back-patting? Or will those chefs sharpen their knives for combat? We’re eager to find out!

And now questions and answers… with Husband and Wife!

If you were Rich Tramonto, would you turn your restaurant over to these people?

Husband: Hmm, I’ve got to balance marketing and costumer safety. So I guess I’m going to let them have it, but only on Sunday or Monday night. This way I can get the free air time that will ensure that my business grows like, say Glad, but then I’ve got a minimal likelihood of losing the same restaurant because someone eats a bizarre peanut butter potato, sort of like drinking a poisoned bottle of Evian.

Wife: Sure. I think these crazy Top Chef kids have got a future in this business.

Since odd mashed potatoes are the story of the night, what would you do with them?

H: The first thing that popped into mind was the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when Richard Dreyfuss begins to sculpt a mountain from mashed potatoes. Tableside potato sculpting would be fascinating, or perhaps the next step in avant-garde cuisine v. molecular gastronomy. Mashed potatoes made not of potatoes, but two chemicals that give you a potato-like gel. This gel would taste like potatoes, but simultaneously have no resemblance to them at all. Then we would mold them to look like the head of Che Guevara and complete a statement begging the people to decide whether we are hip or simply culinary fascists pretending to be of the people. It would be true post-modern cuisine that would put Lisa’s peanut butter mashers to shame.

W: How can I possibly top that answer? Truth is: I’m a mashed potato purist. The only acceptable ingredients are potatoes, cream, butter, salt and pepper. Peanut butter mashed potatoes sound like crazy on a plate. (Though not nearly as crazy as what my husband proposes above.)

Were you kind of bored?
H: Given that I had time to decide whether or not to shape Che’s head from pseudo-mashed potatoes, I answer with a resounding, “Yes.” I mean, the best line of the night went to Ilan who told people not to shave their heads. He’s not even a contestant! There was about as much drama as watching a middle school production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The end was shocking, too. One of the two worst contestants, who have been nearly kicked off a total of a dozen times between them, are on the block… shocking! The only thing I was sort of surprised about is the lack of a porkpie hat on Spike. Did his lack of hat make him visible to the judges? Or perhaps when Dale was kicked of last week, he absconded with them.

W: Yes, it was not an exciting episode. But despite all my snarky comments, I actually enjoy the fact that reality-show drama is largely missing from this reality TV show. Contestants with integrity? Merit based competition? This is highly innovative stuff to be seen on a network like Bravo. So I say, “Bravo, Bravo.” Get it? (It’s late.)

Next off? Favorite to win?
H: Lisa is out of here. I’m feeling the Stephanie vibe right now. Though Richard might bring his bag of tricks to Puerto Rico.

W: Lisa, obviously. You can just tell she’s waiting for the hammer to fall at judge’s table. She doesn’t even look as pissed about it as she usually does. And Richard’s armor definitely seems to have some chinks in it… where is his self confidence? I like Antonia as a dark horse… but now I think that Stephanie’s the one to beat.

Who’s your favorite to win? Next off? And does anyone else think that someone lost a limb by the way they were teasing next week’s episode? (Part of us is hoping for the excitement to spice it up imagine: “Look, Mom, I won Top Chef, but I’ve got nothing below my left wrist!)

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‘Top Chef’ Epsiode 11: Restaurant wars

May 22, 2008

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By popular demand (um, at least one of you asked… and, frankly, that’s enough for us!), we’ve decided to resurrect our Top Chef commentary. Of course, we’ve been watching all along — but only our TiVo knows just how insightful our remarks have been. Until now.

To recap: The quickfire found the contestants awoken by Tom Colicchio’s bald head (GOOD MORNING!) at the apparently ungodly hour of 5:45 a.m. (Not so ungodly for those of us with infants — nor, I would think for breakfast short order cooks. More on that, er… now.) The six remaining contenders were asked to stand at the “egg station” — also apparently the sausage, steak and bacon station — of a storied Chicago breakfast eatery. There they had to contend with waitresses barking orders, cloudy poaching liquid, melting styrofoam containers, and, perhaps worst of all, a stern Chicago matron staring at them while they worked. In the end, that matron declared that Antonia had the most potential as a short order cook in her restaurant.

Antonia’s prize? She got to pick her teammates for Restaurant Wars. Yes, that’s right: Restaurant Wars. Hooray! Indeed, we fans of Top Chef had worried that the show had made a serious error in turning “restaurant wars” into (incredibly lame) “wedding wars.” In fact, the usually sadistic Top Chef producers seemed to have taken pity on the contestants and not required them to actually attract paying customers to their tear-down restaurants — and hey, they gave them five whole hours to pull the entire thing off. Top Chef producers, have you gone soft?

In fact, the teams were the same as for “wedding wars”: Antonia, Richard and Stephanie (read: non-dysfunctional team) vs. Dale, Spike and Lisa (read: ill-tempered and ill-fated team). Who could possibly come out on top? The drama! The tension! The foregone conclusion!

Yes, the non-dysfunctional team triumphed (again), leading to finger pointing and backstabbing from the misfits (again).

Indeed, you have to hand it to the crew at Warehouse Kitchen (the winning team’s gastropub concept): They were actually praised by the judges on virtually every dish — perhaps a first in the brutal restaurant wars episode. More true to form was the Mai Buddha team, which received scathing remarks for several dishes and faint or no praise on the rest. (Think: “Texture reminiscent of wood chips…”, “Looks like a melted candy bar…”, “It was like sticking your head into a campfire…”, etc.)

All this led to much recriminations and of course, finger pointing, by the Mai Buddha team. This is where the real drama begins — and Top Chef knows it, having dispensed with the winners in about one minute of television, thus saving the 15 remaining minutes for meltdowns and tears. Ah, reality TV.

Would Dale the executive chef be eliminated for his sour mood, poor leadership of a disgruntled Lisa in the kitchen, and his revolting butterscotch scallops? Or would Lisa go for her unappetizing smokey laksa (whatever that is), or her inedible mango sticky rice? Or would Spike go for… hey, wait a minute! Spike has cleverly (or something) maneuvered himself off the chopping block. Yes, incognito in a suit and sans pork pie hat, Spike has dodged the bullet by staying out front and styling the restaurant “like the backseat of Prince’s car.” Well played, Spike, well played.

Anyway, it all came down to Lisa vs. Dale. And both looked really pissed about it. As usual.

And, in the end, Dale was told to pack his knives and go. Cut to insincere man hugs and back slapping, followed by an understandably weeping Dale fastening his knife case.

Mmmmm. Some tasty, tasty drama. It’s good to be back! Read the rest of this entry ?

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Eat ’em up: Pickled grapes

May 21, 2008

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I think pickling may be the next big thing.

Yes, you heard it here first. Granted, I have never accurately called a trend. Molecular gastronomy still sounds to me like an uncomfortable side effect of eating too many beans. I like farmer’s markets because they’re outside, not because I know the ingredients are locally sourced. And I’m pretty much still scratching my head about who this Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana person is…

And yet, I think I my husband may be onto something with his newfound craze for pickling. After all, pickling is an important part of some other food cultures (think: Korea). Why not ours? Maybe pickling is ripe for the same kind of fanfare BBQ receives in this country. You know: People traveling around in Airstream trailers with their secret pickling recipes, folks lining up at tents in the summertime tasting pickle after pickle, huge trophies lining the mantle of a man with a handlebar mustache and large gut.

No?

Well, like I said, I don’t actually have an eye for trends. But I do have a mouth for tasting… and my husband’s pickled grapes are going down the hatch. They’re sweet and aromatic — just open the jar and the divine aroma of cinnamon and clove wafts up to seduce you. But they’re also sour and complex — your mouth can’t help but pucker a touch at the healthy dose of vinegar all good pickles require. And then, finally, they’re grapes. Sweet, firm, purple gems of fruit that maintain that great texture amid all the whiz-bang of the pickling juices.

Yup, pickles are the next big thing. Well, in my mouth, at least.
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And now, the husband’s take…

So, yes, pickled grapes. It’s not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when discussing pickling. Other things that might come first? Well, pickled pickles (duh), pickled watermelon rind, pickled ginger, pickled zucchini, pickled onions… even the truly brave act of fermenting cabbage like the Koreans, Germans, Austrians, and Alsatians do to make kimchi and sauerkraut.

I think, then, that the pickled grape may be a hard sell. Yet, I will encourage, cajole, and perhaps even threaten.

I first came across pickled grapes at Farrah Olivia, a restaurant in Alexandria, VA. They were served as a garnish. The idea was pretty incredible: They were a combination of sweet and sour that caught you off guard. At the restaurant, the grapes were served as a small bunch still attached to the stems, and you had little idea of the intense flavor you were about to receive. Being inspired, I decided to work on my own recipe featuring a bit more spice and tang by altering a recipe I’ve used to pickle beets — yes, I admit to a growing obsession with pickling.

The result is a pickled grape with a sneaky spike of clove, cinnamon and allspice, along with the familiar and delicious sour and sweet of a traditional pickle. The grapes also happen to be the perfect pair for beer and cheese. Served along with semi-hard cheeses with plenty of salt and with a good beer, they work as an excellent palette cleanser. Three tasty treats together on one plate? Happiness for me!

Other than its deliciousness and its sublime pairing with beer and cheese, there is another argument in the pickled grape’s favor: simplicity. If you are not a person experienced with pickling, this is a good starter recipe. It’s quick, needs no knife, and requires only a little bit of patience and space in the refrigerator. In the end, this is a lot of benefit for little work. I use the free time it allows me to indulge my other obsessions… or threaten others to try the grapes.

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Braised pork shoulder… It’s magically delicious!

May 12, 2008

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Ah, the pig.

That regal creature that Homer Simpson once referred to as a “wonderful, magical animal.” Indeed, I believe the pig may be magical: After all, a little bit of pig seems to make everything a lot more delicious. (And, never having had unicorn, I can only assume the pig is far tastier.)

My husband has long been under the spell of the swine, and has lately become a little more obsessed. Take, for example, the menu he prepared last week when we had family in town:

Monday: Braised pork belly. Tuesday: Braised pork shoulder. Wednesday: Barbecued pork ribs. If he had prepared pig trotters on Thursday, I was going to start ransacking the house looking for the pig carcass he was obviously hiding.

Not that I’m complaining. Doctors may not agree, but I believe a steady diet of pig leads to healthy — or at least, happy — living. And that is why we’re sharing with you Tuesday’s masterpiece: Braised pork shoulder.

Yes, the husband has not only blessedly turned his attention to that wonderful, magical animal… he has also dedicated himself to studying perhaps the most delicious art of food preparation: braising. Braising, that most perfect of techniques for concocting tender, delectable, melt-in-your-mouth meat. And pig, that meat most amenable to the BBQ chef’s mantra of “low and slow.”

The result of combining these two divine things? Heavenly, tender, succulent pork shoulder and a lovingly reduced sauce that will transport your taste buds to nirvana. I’m not exaggerating. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.

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And now, the husband speaks…

I do love some pig. I’ve made more than a few pork dishes in the past week, but how’s that my fault? I mean, I didn’t make the pig that delicious.

But while this dish does demonstrate the magic of pig, it also is an example of the greatest technique I learned in culinary school — sauce making. There is perhaps nothing more French than the act of making sauce, and you have to give those cheese-eaters credit: Uninteresting morsels of food can be turned into something really special with the right sauce. In this dish, the sauce is made by reducing the cooking liquid to a near-glaze until it it is rich, delicious, and enhances the flavor of the meat.

What’s more, this dish also works with a newer obsession of mine: beer. I have to admit, I spend an inordinate amount of time at Rick’s Wine and Gourmet here in Alexandria, Va. I’ve even become friends with my local beermonger and fellow blogger, Nick. The store and Nick have been my cheerful suppliers as I continue to plow along. But this post is about demonstrating the glorious potential of beer, not about the high likelihood of seeing me in my little beer shop around the corner.

Here the beer is part of the braising liquid. The pork shoulder is browned and then slowly cooked in combination with Belgian strong ale and chicken stock. Along with their higher alcohol content, Belgian strong ales are known for their intense flavors that I feel pair naturally with pork. Here, I used a dark or golden variety of this style that exhibits fruit, citrus rind and spice; it reminds me of the classic pairings of pork with apples and cinnamon. The sauce that is rendered from the cooking liquid has a sweetness and a nice acidity — and I’m fairly confident would make my fingers delicious enough to eat.

Finally, this recipe is an homage to Daniel Boulud. While we were living NYC, my wife and I went to his flagship restaurant, Daniel, in midtown. For both my wife and I that experience was incredibly memorable not only for the amazing meal, but for the hospitality heaped upon us by the staff. After finding out I was a culinary student, the chef did those little extras that made us feel lavished upon. Beyond a clear demonstration of what it means to receive multiple Michelin stars and four stars from The New York Times, it showed us a sense of generosity that we’ll try to show to others.

This recipe was inspired by his recent book Braise. He has a recipe for pork shoulder with hazel nuts and Jerusalem artichokes (AKA sunchokes). While I liked the original version, I changed it to include more American flavors such as bourbon and pecans, gave up white wine for my heartier ale and swapped the very earthy Jerusalem artichokes with the milder new potatoes. The recipes do vary in grades from there, but I’d like to think this version is… I won’t say better, just more pleasing to a pair of people.

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Click here to download the recipe.

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We’re baaaack! Now, let’s eat some gnocchi!

May 2, 2008

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Yes, it’s been much longer than we promised, but I have a litany of excuses. (New York is distracting… Our baby is distracting… We are preoccupied by our jobs fighting international crime… The usual.)

But I promise that what my husband has been cooking will be worth the wait. First and foremost, he has an actual culinary degree. (Applause!) Yes, he has been trained by real, live fancy-pants chefs at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Does this really make his cooking taste better?

Actually, it kind of does.

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In fact, he is a better cook — if that’s possible. He has learned these things he calls “TEK-NEEKS” which he uses to prepare my increasingly delicious meals. And (bonus) he’s learned to cook more neatly — and to estimate dinner time more accurately. That’s right: As opposed to using every pot in the cupboard and telling me dinner would be at 7 p.m. (read: 7:45 p.m.), he actually keeps the kitchen tidy and puts dinner on the table at — dramatic pause — dinner time.

Let’s just say, my gratitude toward those Frenchies in toques is great and unwavering.

Second, the husband has become a student of spirits. Indeed, while in New York he took “classes” on wine and liquor. (I write “classes” because he came home with purported certificates of completion… but, let’s face it, his assignment was to drink wine and cocktails. Um, what kind of school was this exactly?) And since returning to the DC area, the husband has also become a devoted student of beer.

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So, why should you care about this, dear readers of My Husband Cooks? Because a beer-soaked chef is a creative (and happy) chef. And because he is about to drop some serious knowledge on you guys.

That’s right. My husband and I have decided to turn our attentions back to this beloved blog, where we’ll invite you to share in his new obsessions: Fresh, seasonal and, when possible, local (to the DC area) ingredients… simple and delicious American fare… and, finally, tasty and exciting brew possibilities.

I hope you enjoy it as much as my stomach does!

And now, the husband’s take…

In our absence, I suspect you missed my wife’s clever wit. And while this is one of her best qualities, the one I’d like to point out is her devotion to my crazy cooking obsession. I mean, when your lawyer husband says, “Let’s move to New York City so I can go to culinary school,” and you are behind it 100%… you are pretty amazing. (Oh, and by the way, you’ll also be moving into a tiny apartment, in a city with no family, and you’ll be bringing along your two-month-old son.)

So, my wife is really the hero of all this. I can’t say that enough to her.

… But enough of this sentimentality, this blog is about the food.

Alas, everything she writes above is true. Dinners come out on time. Food looks better, but is also more complicated. And it’s true, I have focused on libations of various types. Yet, in my defense, I contend that all of this “research” is about understanding the food better. It’s about the experience of eating and sharing time together.

In secret, though, I bet my wife would tell you that the biggest benefit of all of this is actually (whispering) the side dishes. My wife is one of those people who at holiday feasts is more interested in the various concoctions of vegetables and starches than the main protein. Quite frankly, she wouldn’t notice that the turkey was missing at Thanksgiving… provided there were enough side dishes.

So one of the biggest things she coos about these days is the variety of sides that I produce. Frequently, it’s the multiple vegetables of various preparations and the perfect carbohydrate-laden starch dish that first disappear from her plate. I hope this recipe for potato gnocchi elicits similar responses from your family and friends.

Now most people think of gnocchi as either fluffy or gut-bomb dense dumplings that are rolled off the back of a spoon, boiled, then covered in some sauce at an Italian eatery. Well, I’m here to suggest an alternative. This recipe is in the vein of French-style gnocchi, which are made using pate choux (the same dough used to make cream puffs) that is boiled and then sautéed.

Here, we keep the more Italian-style potato pasta, but dispense with the fork shaping. The pasta is shaped quickly with a knife, then boiled, drained and sautéed to finish. When done right, it’s impressive, delicious, light and true to the potato.

Click here for the recipe.

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