Thursday, April 24, 2008

Top Chef 4: Let's Get Improvisational on Their Asses

by Erin and Xani

In last night's Top Chef episode, FINALLY we were entertained with a truly interesting and creative challenge for the remaining 10 chefs. Whew! I was starting to think that the producers thought we were idiots, entertained solely by catfighting between contestants and the occasional bubble bath scene! Well, okay, maybe we do find that entertaining. BUT, as for the BCD girls and I'm sure many others, we mostly watch the show for the FOOD and to see the chefs be creative, and this week's episode did exactly that - hooray!

The theme of this week's challenges was "improv." For their Quickfire Challenge, the chefs were first introduced to guest judge Johnny Iuzzini, one of America's best pastry chefs and winner of the 2006 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year, and if I may say so, quite a looker. Ahem. Anyway, the Quickfire Challenge required the chefs to prepare a dessert in 30 minutes. Padma suggested that if the chefs didn't know a recipe off the top of their heads, they should improvise. Tricksy, she is.

The prize for the winning dessert is that the recipe would appear in the new Top Chef Cookbook (which has since come out since the taping). It was a shameless plug but as we know by now, that's how Top Chef rolls.

Anyway, Johnny's bottom three were Mark (who did a pavlova tasting), Antonia (lemon curd brulee), and Spike (who made a pineapple coconut souffle). At the top were Dale (who made some icy coconut thing), Lisa (who made something with berries and fried wonton wrappers), and Richard (who made banana "scallops" with guacamole and chocolate ice cream). Richard was chosen as the winner of the Quickfire and was granted immunity. His recipe is the only recipe from a season 4 contestant in the Top Chef Cookbook.

After the Quickfire, the contestants were told they were going to see the improv show at Second City! The chefs got all dolled up and headed out (naively thinking they were in for a night of fun and relaxation? Yeah right!). While sitting in the audience, the actors were asking the audience for colors, emotions, and ingredients. This immediately tipped (some of) the chefs off that their Elimination Challenge was being created right then by the audience! The Second City folks put together 5 different combinations of one color, one emotion, and one ingredient, which the chefs had to integrate into a dish. The chefs paired up on their own (no knife pull this time) and got to work.

Mark and Nikki paired up and had "purple, depressed, bacon"; Richard and Dale paired up and had "green, perplexed, tofu"; Jen and Stephanie paired up and had "orange, turned-on, asparagus"; Spike and Andrew paired up and had "yellow, love, vanilla"; and finally Antonia and Lisa paired up and had "magenta, drunk, polish sausage". During the challenge, a slight twist-- no electric equipment was available! This seemed to only really affect Spike and Andrew, who were making a soup. Jen and Stephanie had a bit of a laugh at their expense, but oh, how the table were about to turn....

After the meal (which looked like a really fun time), the judges made their decisions about their most and least favorite dishes. At the top of the judge's list were Dale and Richard, who made a green curry and then marinated the tofu in beef fat to make it taste like steak (it was "perplexed"), and Andrew and Spike, who made a butternut squash soup with vanilla creme fraiche. The winners were Dale and Richard! They each won $2,500 worth of Calphalon cookware as their prize.

First on the bottom were Stephanie and Jen, who made a dish with goat cheese, orange sauce, and asparagus, and while they were very funny in their presentation to the judges, the dish was criticized for being a mess and not highlighting the asparagus enough. Also on the bottom were Lisa and Antonia, who refused to use polish sausage in their dish (even though it was part of the challenge!) and instead used chorizo and tequila (and awkwardly did not offer shots to anyone else...) and a bit of sea bass on top.

In the end, Jen was asked to pack her knives and go. Everyone was pretty shocked and upset, saying she is such a great chef and shouldn't have gone home so soon.

Next week: CHILDREN are in the kitchen! Oh boy...

Erin's Take:

This week was a good week for me - I picked Richard, Antonia, and Stephanie for my fantasy team, which resulted in 12 points for both of Richard's wins and some cursing along the way. I'm now in second place in our BCD Group! I don't ever think I'll catch up to Kit though...

I thought it was a really good challenge this week. So interesting and fun to watch, and good opportunity for the chefs to be creative. I was annoyed by Lisa and Antonia, who should have just sucked it up and used polish sausage! Also, why has nobody hit Nikki in the face yet? She is so annoying sometimes. I was really sorry to see Jen go - I really liked her and I do think she is pretty talented. Why couldn't whiny Lisa go home??

Dish I wished I were eating: I would have liked to try the winning curry tofu dish - I love curry and I bet Dale makes a mean one. I am also pretty curious to see what Richard's banana "scallops" and guacamole tasted like. But, I suppose I could make it myself if I buy the TC book, right?

Favorite chef at the moment: Dale, Stephanie and Richard are my favorites right now. Although Richard's attitude is a bit ridiculous sometimes ("I'm very tongue-in-cheek and I'm very witty"...oy), I still think he has a unique voice and it's so fun to watch him because you really don't know what's going to happen when he starts cooking.

What I would have done instead: I was thinking about what I would have made had I gotten one of these combinations of ingredient, emotion, and color. One thing I thought of was that if I had had "orange, turned-on, asparagus," I maybe would have made an asparagus and orange ravioli (or other filled pasta) and then painted some beet juice or something on the pasta (or put beet juice in the pasta itself) to make it look like it was blushing! What would you guys have done??

Xani's Take:

Well, all I can say is I did better than last week!

I earned 12 points from Richard's wins and Andrew's potty mouth, but Antonia did nothing for me and therefore she is getting booted off my team! I also enjoyed this episode, lots of yummy dishes to drool over. I'm really picky about desserts (no flan, bread pudding, panna cotta, rice pudding, tiramisu, etc for me, thanks!) but I do like pavlova-- I was sad Mark's dish was in the bottom. During the elimination challenge, I really wished I was there tasting all the food, which is really the first time I have felt like that all season. This may have been due, in part, to the fact that my dinner consisted of three (ok, four) Natty Boh beers and some leftover potato and asparagus salad. Oops.

Dish I wished I were eating (the most): So torn between the winning two dishes! In the end I have to say the soup. I looooove butternut squash soup and the way the judges were raving over this one... it sounded amazing. I want the recipe!

Favorite chef at the Moment: I'm jumping back on the Dale train. He's back on my team and back in my heart. Um, wait, what??

What I would have done instead: If I were on the yellow/love/vanilla team I would have also used butternut squash but would have made a butternut vanilla risotto similar to this. Yummy...

Happy improvising,

E & X

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Eat THAT, Pharoah!

by Erin and Xani

This past weekend, the BCD family traveled to sunny Detroit, MI for our annual Passover celebration with our family. Celebrating in Detroit at the home of cousins Karen and Don and their two adorable girls is a relatively new tradition for our family, but it's SO fun and I'm sure we'll be coming back for years to come. Recently our tradition has been that both BCD girls go up to Detroit a day before the BCD parents get there to help Karen with the cooking and to spend some QT together. Then the rest of the family shows up on Friday night or Saturday morning (this year family members came from Las Vegas, Chicago, and Baltimore), and we all spend the weekend together.

But, enough blathering on about tradition ("TRADITIOOOON, TRADITION!"), let's get to the food! Karen, EP, and Xani had been planning the menu via email for months, and we decided to go with some old favorites but also try some new recipes. The final menu was:

  • Chopped Liver
  • Seder Snacks (haroset, parsley dipped in salt water...mmmm)
  • Gefilte Fish
  • Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls
  • Prime Rib with Horseradish Sauce
  • Braised Endive
  • Potato-Parsnip Kugel
  • Dessert (including Matzo Candy, Macaroons, Brownies, Almond Jamprint Cookies, and Fruit Plate)

To keep things clear, let's discuss in terms of order of courses, shall we? Good - I'm so glad we're on the same page.

So, to begin, while we were catching up and enjoying some delicious champagne before we sat down for seder, we enjoyed some homemade chopped liver courtesy of BCD Mom, who made it at home in Columbia and brought it with her to Detroit. (We're sort of surprised it got through security. Doesn't TSA consider chopped liver to be a hazardous material?!). She bought kosher livers from a kosher grocery store up in Pikesville, MD called Seven Mile Market, which is a really cool place in general if you're into that sort of thing. She bought THREE POUNDS of livers and reports that it is the most chopped liver she's ever made! As usual, it was GREAT! We're told that BCD Dad was the tester to make sure all the ingredients (most important: chicken fat) were in their correct proportion, so thanks go to him as well.

After cocktails and chopped liver, we sat down to begin the seder. The seder (which means "order" in Hebrew) is a traditional ceremony where we listen to the story of how the Jews were slaves in Egypt and how Moses helped them escape from the evil Pharaoh. (Remember the "10 Commandments" with the late Charleton Heston? That's the story we're talking about.) Throughout the seder there are many symbols, such as when we eat bitter herbs (usually parsley) dipped in salt water, which represents the bitterness of slavery and the tears of the Hebrew slaves. We also eat haroset, a mixture of apples, honey, wine, nuts, and cinnamon, which represents the mortar used when the slaves had to lay brick for Pharoah. A main theme running throughout the seder is that we should be thankful for the freedom we have today to do as we please and we should remember those who are still not free. To learn more about seders, go here.

Seder plate (notice our "shank bone" - we didn't have one so we had Zoe draw one!)

Ingredients for haroset

The family (minus a few in the kitchen)! Going clockwise, that's BCD Dad in the back, then Xani, John, Yelena, Zoe, Stephanie, Great Uncle Sheldon, and BCD Mom

Anyway, after the seder was over, it was time to eat! The first course we had was gefilte fish. Gefilte fish are made from ground fish (usually carp or pike) that is mixed with eggs, onions, and matzo meal and poached in a fish stock. The BCD parents contemplated making their own gefilte fish but they nixed the idea because they didn't want to make guinea pigs out of the family. So, we had store-bought GF, per our tradition. (Note: Xani's very favorite Passover e-card of the season references gefilte fish. See it here).

Next, we had homemade chicken soup with matzo balls. Karen made the soup in advance, and we all made the matzo balls together. As some of you may know, there is a raging debate in the Jewish community that often rears its head around this time of the year: "sinkers" versus "floaters". Some like fluffy, cloud-like matzo balls, while others prefer matzo balls that require a (sharp) knife and fork. Our family is in the latter camp, and we pulled out all the stops to make sure the matzo balls were true "sinkers." To make them, we followed BCD Mom's advice: we used the recipe on the matzo meal cannister, but made a few changes, including adding about twice as much matzo meal as the recipe called for, using soup instead of water, using chicken fat instead of oil, and keeping the batter in the fridge for only 10 minutes or so, not the recommended 15 minutes. Upon cooking, they barely expanded and were quite firm and DELICIOUS in the yummy homemade soup.

Quick note about the chicken fat: When we started to gather the ingredients for the matzo balls, Karen pulled out the chicken fat she bought at the store, but it was unrendered, a state which we were not expecting. But have no fear! The BCD girls know how to render chicken fat, of course! Just cut up the fat into cubes, put in a little water, and when it begins to melt down, throw in some chopped onion. Cook together until the onion starts to turn golden brown and voila! Now you have rendered chicken fat. PLUS, you also have gribenes! This is the best food ever. Period.

Ta da! Gribenes! Sometimes known as "chicken bacon"

After the fish and the soup, it was time for the main course! For this course, we served prime rib, braised endive, and potato-parsnip kugel. We used our traditional prime rib recipe, adapted from James Beard, where you slather the meat in butter (hey, we never said the meal was totally kosher!), salt, and pepper, then place it in a 500 degree oven for 5 minutes per pound, then turn the oven off and do not open the door for two hours or until the meat reaches 123 degrees (for rare-medium rare) on an instant-read thermometer. Karen bought a 14.5 lb roast (oy!) but the method described above only works for roasts greater than 5 lbs and less than 10 lbs, so we had master butcher Xani cut the meat in half (we then named the roasts Thing One and Thing Two). Then we cooked each roast separately and served it at room temperature. Xani had the honor of carving the meat, with BCD Dad giving guidance. This method is amazing - it works every time!! The meat turned out great - so flavorful and perfectly cooked.

Thing One and Thing Two



Dad helps Xani and Zoe looks on

Perfectly cooked!

Along with the meat, we served a horseradish sauce (aka "horsey sauce"), which EP quickly whipped up by mixing together sour cream, a bit of mayonnaise, a lot of horseradish, and salt and pepper. Yum!

For the braised endive, we referred to a recipe from Orangette, a beautiful and well-written food blog (one much more popular than our dog-and-pony show), for Braised Endive with Proscuitto. We omitted the proscuitto because even we thought that was going a little far for a traditional Jewish meal. This was a brand new recipe and we were eager to see how it would turn out, especially because most of us had never had cooked endive before. The recipe was relatively simple: trim and clean the endive, then slice in half lengthwise, brown in butter and oil for a few minutes, then place on a sheet pan and add chicken stock (we used the soup!). Then cover the pan and let the endive braise in the stock for 35 minutes or until tender, then uncover and cook some more, then add a bit of heavy cream and cook for a few minutes more until browned. The verdict? The endive had great flavor and a nice richness to them, though they were still quite bitter. All that cooking just didn't get the bitterness out. Maybe we should have cooked them longer? Or is this bitterness in until the bitter end? Har har.

Last we had the potato-parsnip kugel, a dish we made for the first time last year and it was so good we had it again this year. This recipe was also pretty simple, but it had a lot of steps so it took some time. First, you boil together peeled and cubed potatoes and parsnips. Then, you saute chopped onions in chicken fat (though we used butter because we forgot), and then mash the potatoes, parsnips, and onions together. Then add eggs, salt, pepper, matzo meal, and a bit of nutmeg to the mixture. The recipe says to then put the potato mixtured into a greased and matzo-mealed pan and bake. But, we used a little trick from BCD Mom where you put extra matzo meal on the top and dot it with chicken fat, which results in a nice crust on the top of the kugel. The kugel turned out great - there was great flavor from the potatoes and the sweetness from the parsnips and onions was a nice added bonus. And in the end, who doesn't love mashed potatoes?? No friend of mine!

After all the dishes were cleared from the big meal, it was time to start thinking of dessert. As some of you loyal readers may recall from last week, EP was having a bit of a dilemma about what to make. Thanks to your votes, she chose to make macaroons using Ina Garten's recipe (of course). They were so simple to make, even in EP's ill-equipped kitchen. Simply take sweetened shredded coconut, sweetened condensed milk, and some vanilla, and mix together in a large bowl. Meanwhile, whip egg whites with some salt until they make medium-firm peaks, then fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture. Then drop spoonfuls onto parchment-lined baking sheets and bake until golden. EP made the cookies smaller than the recipe called for since they are so sweet, and they were such a hit! There is really no need to buy macaroons at the store - this recipe was so delicious and SO easy.

Check out those medium-firm peaks!

In addition to the macaroons, our cousin Stephanie (aka Motherocker) made several desserts, including matzo candy, brownies, and almond jamprint cookies. All of them were delicious (a feat for Passover desserts, which usually taste like cardboard!), especially the matzo candy - that stuff is like crack! In addition to all the bad-for-you sweets, we also had a fruit plate with some delicious strawberries, watermelon, canteloupe, honeydew, and blueberries.

It was such a fun evening with three generations present. We are so thankful to be able to get together with our family, even if it's only once or twice per year. It's an added bonus that we are all lovers of food and wine and we are perfectly content to talk about food all night if we want. ;) I guess it's genetic...

Happy Passover to those who are celebrating! Yay freedom!! And stay tuned: posts about the OTHER meals we had in Detroit coming soon!

Team Passover 2008

Happy noshing,

EP & X


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