Friday, April 4, 2008

Top Chef 4: Movie Snacks

by Erin and Xani

Another episode under the belt and another chef is out the door. This week's episode had guest judge Daniel Boulud, who has guest judged in previous seasons. In the Quickfire challenge, the chefs are tasked with making a vegetable plate that will "impress Daniel" using at least three different classic culinary techniques. A good thing to test for Top Chefs, but didn't they do the same challenge in the first season??

Daniel's favorites were Richard (of course, Richard worked in one of Boulud's restaurants!), Dale, and Zoi. Dale won the quickfire with his vegan sashimi plate, which Padma and Daniel actually paused to admire its beauty before eating...wow.

For their Elimination Challenge, the chefs picked knives and were split up into 6 pairs, which was each assigned a course for a dinner party. Dale got to hop into his choice of pair, and he chose Richard and Andrew's first course team, forming quite a powerhouse! Andrew's commentary on this: "The weak pick the strong" - dramatic!

For their challenge, they had to cater a dinner party thrown by film critic Richard Roper, with special guest Aisha Tyler. Each pair had to base their dish on their favorite movie, but that whole "favorite" part seemed to be pushed aside and the pairs instead looked for movies that were either appropriate for what they wanted to cook or had scenes with food in them.

Richard, Andrew, and Dale chose to do a dish inspired by "Willy Wonka," and made a smoked salmon with a wasabi-white chocolate sauce, and soy tapioca pearls. Also entertaining were Ryan and Mark, since Ryan has only seen three movies in the past year and Mark is rattling off all the Kiwi blockbusters that no one (in America) has ever heard of. They ended up basing their dish on a scene from "A Christmas Story" that included quail and a delicious-looking egg roll. Miguel and Spike chose to do Vietnamese summer rolls, conveniently being inspired by "Good Morning, Vietnam!". Stephanie and Lisa chose "Top Secret" to inspire their beef dish with shortrib potstickers and savory caramel.

In the end, the "Willy Wonka" team and the "Top Secret" team were at the top, and Richard came out the winner - big shocker there! In the bottom were Antonia and Zoi for their not-colorful-enough Spanish dish inspired by "Talk to Her," and Spike and Miguel's Vietnamese summer roll. In the end, Miguel got the boot for blindly following Spike on the path to summer rolls.

Erin's Take:

This week, yet again, I failed to earn barely any points! I chose Dale, Andrew, and Mark, and I won three points with Dale's quickfire win, and two points from some cursing from good ol' Andrew.

I know, I know - I should have stuck with Richard! I am getting to know the chefs better and I was glad that they had a chance to do a dinner and not a catering event. I thought the film inspiration challenge was a good idea in theory but the chefs sort of cut corners and picked movies based on food and not the other way around.

Dish I wished I were eating: Stephanie's dish with the beef and those shortrib potstickers, reduction of braising liquid and savory caramel - yum! The potstickers reminded me of when we had potstickers when we went to 2941 for my birthday.

Favorite chef at the moment: I still like Mark, so cute with that accent. Richard is definitely a force to be reckoned with, as is cute little Stephanie.

Movie I would have chosen: The first movie that came to mind was Tampopo, the famous "Japanese noodle western". Or maybe Napoleon Dynamite and then I would have made something with tots?? Or The Godfather, where I'd make something with a whole fish, reminiscent of the scene where Luca sleeps with the fishes.

Xani's Take:

Awww yeah! This week I finally stepped up and earned some points! My team:

I was also watching with my good friend Jason, and we decided to make a little side wager-- whoever scored the most points on the episode had to take the other to dinner; if Jason lost, he had to take me for french food (and he apparently "hates" french food), and if I lost I had to take him for Italian food. Well, guess who's going to be enjoying some french food pretty soon (with a side of victory)?! I ended up with 10 points (Richard won the elimination challenge and got bleeped twice, and Andrew got bleeped twice as well), compared to Jason's paltry four!

Dish I wished I were eating: The quail and eggroll from A Christmas Story. How can I resist a miniature bird and a miniature spring roll??

Favorite chef at the moment: Gotta stick with Richard for now. He seems to have the skills and vision to make it far in this competition. His hair is still extremely distracting, but I think it says a lot that his dish won even though his gimmicky "molecular gastronomy" element (the smoke that was supposed to billow out from beneath the plastic-wrapped plates) was derailed by technical difficulties.

Movie I would have chosen: No way I can beat EPs idea for the whole fish a la The Godfather! Genius! I was also thinking Tampopo (the egg yolk scene!? Has anyone reading this even seen that movie, other than BCD Dad??) or maybe Sweeney Todd (meat pies--but I think that movie was released after the episode was filmed!).

Alright folks, bring on the comments!

X & EP

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Charitable Basketcases: The Recap

by Erin and Xani

As you may recall from our friendly reminder last week, this past weekend we participated in the annual Maryland Public Interest Law Project (MPILP) Goods and Services Auction, a fundraiser whose proceeds go to grants given to law students who want to work in public interest law during the summer.

We decided to donate a basket full of gourmet goodies, and we had such a blast preparing it (despite Xani's sleep deprivation due to a red-eye flight the previous night)! We decided to include some homemade goodies, and some store-bought goodies. Here were the contents of the basket:

  • Chocolate Truffles
  • Raspberry Jam Thumbprint Cookies
  • Bacon, Gruyere, and Scallion Mini-Buscuits
  • Cafe Latte and Cappuccino-flavored Jelly Beans
  • Jamaican Whole-Bean Coffee
  • Sparkling Wine

The weekend before the auction, we went shopping for the coffee, the basket, and fun crafty stuff like ribbons and tissue paper. The jelly beans (Jelly Bellys, of course!) were an impulse buy. We have a tendency of buying jelly beans when out shopping together, particularly for non-food items (e.g., we always pick some up in the check out line at Staples - normal?).

The night before the auction, while Xani was flying back to Baltimore, EP went grocery shopping (see the ingredient spreadsheet here) and later made the chocolate truffles while taking a study break. We used the Ina Garten recipe (of course), which was quite easy, even in EP's completely ill-equipped kitchen. Simply chop up good bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolates and pour hot heavy cream over them (let the cream come to a boil and then take it off the heat for about 20 seconds). Gently whisk to combine and then add some fresh-brewed coffee and some vanilla extract. (We wanted to add some coffee-flavored liquor but we didn't have it on hand, so we nixed it.)

The recipe said to let the chocolate mixture stand for an hour at room temperature before rolling it into balls, but it did not set up in that amount of time, and it was getting into the wee hours of the morning, so EP put it into the fridge for about 20 minutes and it came together well. Then she rolled the chocolate into cherry-sized balls and rolled them in cocoa powder, and whadya know? They look like real truffles!!

The next day, after Xani had gotten some rest, we gathered at TinyHouse and got started on the mini-biscuits and the jam thumbprint cookies. The mini-biscuits, according to the recipe, are technically full-sized muffins, but we wanted to make them in our mini-muffin tins because (all together now) tiny = cute! We also found that they turned out more like biscuits than muffins, so we re-categorized them.

The biscuit recipe was also quite simple. Cook up and crumble some bacon, finely chop scallions, grate a bunch of gruyere, and add those to some flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda. Meanwhile, take some milk, an egg, and the reserved bacon fat (!!), mix together, and then add to the dry ingredients. We then scooped the batter into buttered mini-muffin tins and baked for about 11 minutes. We wish we had used more liquid because they were a bit on the dry side (which made them more like biscuits and less like muffins). Still, a delicious little savory treat that we'd probably make again, with a few adjustments.

(Sorry, no pics of the final product - we were rushing!)

Last we made an old standby of ours: Ina Garten's jam thumbprint cookies. These are so delicious, and we always get compliments on them. The recipe calls for butter (3 sticks, natch), sugar, vanilla extract, flour, and salt. Then the dough is rolled into 1 1/4 inch balls, then rolled in egg wash and then sweetened shredded coconut. Then an indentation is made and raspberry jam put in the little hole (we used a makeshift piping bag made from a zippy bag to pipe in the jam). They are baked until the coconut becomes golden. We are drooling as we type this - OMG these are so rich and intense and AWESOME!

While everything was baking and cooling, we began assembling the basket, which was so fun! (Special thanks to BCD Mom for scoping out the basket selection at a nearby Marshall's - she's got a good eye!) We bought cellophane baggies and pretty ribbon for the goodies, and a HUGE cellophane bag to put the entire completed basket in. We also printed off a "menu" that listed the items in the basket and included our logo.

Here's a few shots of the almost-finished and completely finished product:

You can see the jam thumbprints, the truffles, the mini-buscuits, and the champagne

Ready for the party!

We brought the basket to the auction (which the BCD parents also attended, being alumni and all) and there was a lot of hype about the basket! Unfortunately, there were lots of other great items at the auction, including other baskets, so ours did not stick out as much as we wanted. In the end, it was auctioned off (in the silent auction) for $90! And guess who the lucky winners were?? THE BCD PARENTS! They bid when we weren't looking! So sweet of them...

It was a great time and a lovely event, and MPILP raised over $35,000 to support law students working in public interest this summer. We were so happy to participate and do a little mitzvot. Looking forward to next year!

Happy eating,

E & X

Monday, March 31, 2008

Burger Blowout!

by Xani

If I blogged about everything I ever ate, all I would ever do is eat and blog. OK, that actually doesn't sound so bad. But in real life I have other demands on my time: work, travel, house-hunting (eek!) and sometimes I even try to have a social life! So oftentimes I will take pictures and fully intend to blog about a meal, but never actually get around to doing it. And that was exactly the case this weekend, as I was sifting through old pictures and realized that I had been to four different burger places and not blogged about any of them. And so here we are, the perfect storm of lots of mouth-watering burger pictures and a few precious minutes of free time... let's have a burger blowout!

Burger #1: Fatburger, Los Angeles, CA

I ate this burger over a month ago! On my way from San Pedro to Santa Monica, co-worker AJ and I stopped off at Fatburger, a California institution that I'd been hoping to try on one of my trips out there. Fatburger's whole deal seems to be that everything is made to order, and that you can customize your burger by adding bacon, cheese, chili or even a fried egg! They also have two types of fries (skinny and fat), shakes, and a jukebox that was playing WAY TOO LOUD when we were there (or I'm getting old).

Fatburger with Cheese

This burger was tasty, juicy and messy! I appreciated that it was made to order (although we were sitting for quite a while, listening to too-loud music, while they cooked it-- not exactly "fast" food) and it tasted fresh. The fries were decent; I preferred the skinny over the fat fries. The chocolate shake I got was also really yummy, but sadly they didn't have malts, which I prefer.

Skinny vs. Fat fry comparison shot

Malt-free shake

Overall I give Fatburger a 6.5 on a 10 burger scale. Most disturbing (other than the music) was the price. I think my Fatburger meal was almost $12! Seems a little steep for something I could probably get for half that price at In-N-Out (Mmm.... In-N-Out)!

Burger #2: Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Baltimore, MD

This rapidly expanding chain has recently opened numerous locations in Baltimore and the surrounding areas. Five Guys Burgers and Fries has a simple philosophy: to sell the best quality burgers possible. In my opinion, they come damn close to that goal. On a recent sunny day, EP, co-worker Mike and I took advantage of the nice weather to walk to the Inner Harbor location. I ordered the little cheeseburger (little in name only-- the regular burger is a double!) with lettuce, tomato, grilled onion, and pickle (you can also get jalapeno, relish, green peppers, and a variety of other toppings, all at no charge) and some of their famous fries. As anyone who has been to Five Guys will tell you, the fries ROCK. They are boardwalk-style, and no matter what size you order, when you open your grease-stained paper bag, you see this:

Fries! As far as the eye can see!

They not only fill up your little fry cup, they mound additional fries into the bag. I know people say less is more (who are these people?? I am now thinking of Tim Gunn telling the cooks at Five Guys to look at the fries with "an editorial eye") but with these fries, more is definitely more-- more delicious-ness!

Onto the burger: definitely high-quality, made to order (quickly) and very tasty. Five Guys also provides free shell-on peanuts to nibble on during your short wait.

No shakes are available (BOO!) but free refills on sodas makes Five Guys a very tasty and affordable lunch (I'm sure my total was under $9). I give them 8.5 out of 10 burgers!

Burger #3 Keller's Drive-in, Dallas, TX

I first read about Keller's (no website, but there's a link to the Chowhounders raving about it) on this list, which I've been slowly but surely making my way through. When work brought me to Dallas a couple weeks ago, I knew I had to hit the drive-in! And first things first, as they serve beer there, I got a cold one:

Apparently in TX, this is normal.

A friendly waitress came to our car (we were the only car in a sea of pick-up trucks and SUVs, and a crappy rental car at that!) and took our orders. Co-worker Mike and I each got a Keller burger (the waitress explained it as "like a Big Mac," with special sauce, etc), Mike got fries and I ordered tots. A brief wait, and out she came with the food.

Keller burger wrapped in grease-soaked paper

Hot, crispy tots

Keller Burger unwrapped

This burger was definitely decent, but honestly I'm not one for gloppy Russian-dressing-esque sauces drowning my burger. And while I was initially impressed with their unusual choice of a poppy-seed bun, I was soon digging poppy seeds out of each and every tooth! Also, I'm not sure I loved the experience of eating and drinking in the car. It was sortof cramped and messy (not that it mattered that much, in a rental). I think I prefer a table. Overall I give Keller's 7 burgers out of 10. I love that they serve beer and tots, and the novelty of a drive-in is compelling, but the gloppy burger lost them points. If I ever go back (could happen) I would get a regular burger, no sauce. Also, I hear that this place is a real scene on the weekends, especially for car and motorcycle enthusiasts. Wear your cowboy boots and show your ink!

Burger #4: The Apple Pan, West Lost Angeles, CA

I hit up The Apple Pan just last week when I found myself in SoCal yet again. A West LA landmark, The Apple Pan has been open since 1947 and is full old old-timey goodness. Diners sit at a large, U-shaped bar and often tolerate long waits for the privilege to be served by notoriously grumpy waiters. Luckily, I rolled in with cousins Ann and Steven at 3pm on a Thursday, and we found seats right away. Then, a very pleasant, if quiet, waiter took our orders: three steak-burgers with cheese, a couple orders of fries, a couple root beers and a Coke for me. Apple Pan has interesting serving methods... first came the drinks in these unusual receptacles:

Next came the fries. This fries before burger process reminded me of my journey to the Shady Glen Dairy Store (even the little plate they arrived on was the same!), which some of my loyal readers might remember is also super old-timey. These Apple Pan fries were hot and crispy, and really hit the spot before the main event.

Then out came the burgers! They were not served on plates, but instead wrapped, like tiny presents, in white paper. Each one was smothered in Tillamook cheddar cheese, and bolstered by a thick layer of crunchy iceberg lettuce. The buns were toasted and soft.

I love presents!

tx>

High lettuce to burger ratio

These burgers were great! Absolutely flavorful and juicy. The lettuce added lots of crunch but not that much flavor, the cheese was melt-y and gooey, and the paper wrapper helped hold it all together. A great burger with a cute story behind it. The Apple Pan has been owned and operated by the same family for over 50 years. And the apple pie is based on an old family recipe, so OF COURSE we had to try it!

Not exactly a milkshake, but at least there was ice cream involved!

Overall I give The Apple Pan 8 burgers out of 10! Very high quality burgers and fries, old-timey cuteness and PIE!

So there's the burger run-down for now... more coming soon!

X

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