Saturday, June 14, 2008

Top Chef 4: FINALE!!

by Xani and Erin

Well folks, its all over, and a new champion has been crowned. All hail (spoiler alert)... Stephanie!

OK, so maybe it wasn't so much of a surprise. BCD and many of our loyal readers have been saying Stephanie was the best chef all along, right?!? But, as Bravo always does, they edited the show so that there was no way of knowing who would come out on top until the very last minute!

Unlike other season finales in the past, this year all three chefs went head-to-head on a traditional four course dinner. The twist was that each chef would be paired with a hugely successful sous-chef (Eric Ripert, Dan Barber, and April Bloomfield (chef at the Spotted Pig - remember when EP went there?)). Each sous-chef comes complete with a variety of luxurious proteins. Padma mentions that they planned to have the chef with the most wins pick their sous-chef/proteins first, but since Richard and Stehpanie are tied (cut to shot of Lisa looking cranky), they pull knives to see who picks first. Advantage Stephanie-- and she picks Chef Ripert. Richard chooses Dan Barber and so Lisa and April Bloomfield are paired together. Into the kitchen to begin prep work. It's interesting to see the Top Chefs work with the bigwigs, especially when Stephanie nitpicks Ripert's fileting technique! Richard has brought liquid nitrogen as his "special ingredient" and gives an impromptu cooking demo which draws the attention of chefs Ripert and Bloomfield but of course Lisa thinks its all gimmick and not "simple" like food should be. We trust Chef Ripert more than Lisa though, right?!

The next day, the chefs are informed by Chef Tom that they will have NO help from their sous-chefs today. RUH ROH! Personally this would be my downfall-- I plan a menu knowing exactly who is doing what task, and when. To suddenly have twice as many tasks for one person would be a huge setback. It's a testament to their skills that Stephanie, Richard, and yes, even Lisa managed to overcome this hurdle. Although Richard seems extremely flustered when Tom asks about his menu ("it's abstract...") and Stephanie is freaking out about her dessert, they seem more composed when its time to serve dinner. Lisa, by the way, is strangely calm throughout. The 9 dinner guests include the judges' panel, the sous-chefs from day one, plus Puerto Rican chef Alfredo Ayala and Tim Zagat (I was glad when Padma introduced him, so now we all know how to pronounce his name!).

For the chefs' four course menu, they had to do the traditional progression of fish, poultry, red meat, and dessert. Chef Tom was sure to remind everyone that they really did have to make a dessert; no beef shortribs for dessert a la the "movie inspiration" challenge. For their menus, Richard's theme is "abstract" and none of the course names are helpful to the reader (e.g., "Be the bacon" and "Which came first?"). Stephanie's theme is just good clean flavors. Lisa is of course going Asian mafia on everyone.

While they were eating the meal, it was interesting that Padma and Gail and the others would ask the sous-chef about the dish and whether they had assisted in the dish and/or whether they knew the chef was going in that particular direction. In most cases, the sous-chefs were kept in the dark. Eric Ripert was a great cheerleader for Stephanie for most of the meal, except when it came to her dessert.

After all was said and done, it appeared that Stephanie and Lisa were the ones in the final running, with Richard sadly lagging behind. Clear winners were Lisa in the second course for her Tom Kha Gai soup with dumpling, and Stef in the third course for her very interesting lamb dish with maitake mushrooms, braised pistachios, and blackberry and olive tapenade. Richard's dishes were okay but the girls seemed to outshine him. (For a good recap on each of the dishes and what the judges had to say about each during the meal and at judges' table, check out this Serious Eats post.) This reminds me of when Casey choked during the Season 3 finale and was not even considered for the title in that awkward live show where they named the winner. Remember that?

After the meal and the deliberations at Judges' Table, let the dramatic editing begin! My guess is that there wasn't much actual drama going on, and Stephanie was a pretty clear winner, but you know how Bravo likes to get us all riled up! What's the fun in watching a show that doesn't make you curse when they throw in a commercial (or five) at crucial moments?

In the end, it's our girl STEPHANIE who takes the cake! Hooray! She is the first female Top Chef (or as Bravo is calling her, "The First Lady of Top Chef"), and she totally earned the title. We can't wait to see what she does next! As for Richard, it's sad that he didn't win, since he worked so hard and is truly a unique chef. But, I think the chances of him doing extremely well in the rest of his culinary career are high, so I'm not too worried. As for Lisa....well, she'll be interesting at the reunion show next week ;)

Final Take: We are both thrilled that Stephanie won and have had so much fun having Top Chef be a part of our blog! The Fafarazzi game was a lot of fun - thanks to those who played along!

And now for some favorites:

Xani's favorite episode: Wedding Wars

Erin's favorite episode: High Steaks (butchering and then steak restaurant challenge)

Best Andrew quote: "I have a culinary boner right now"

Most awkward moment: Either when Blais said he wanted to go home and make babies, or when Lisa made the really bad joke about being Jewish while butchering a pig

Favorite guest chef: Tony Bourdain, of course! Other favorites included Ming Tsai and Eric Ripert

Thanks to all our readers for watching along with us and commenting (sometimes heatedly!) with your reactions to the show. And thanks for your patience with us to get these posts up! It's been pretty crazy lately for us, so thanks for bearing with us. Stay tuned for more BCD posts soon!

Congrats to Top Chef Stephanie!

X & E

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Proselytizing Banana Bread

by Erin

This past weekend was my best friend Rachel’s 26th birthday, which we celebrated in style in downtown DC. As some of you may know, I take birthdays (my own especially, but others’ too!) very seriously, and Rachel’s was certainly no exception. She had asked for a cookbook, so I got her Martha Stewart’s relatively new cookbook, Great Food Fast. It has beautiful pictures and the recipes are based around seasonal ingredients, which I love because it subtly encourages supporting local farmers.

I also got Rachel the book I’m currently reading and LOVING, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. It’s a wonderful (and hilarious) tale of one man’s journey hiking the Appalachian Trail that I recommend for anyone who loves a great, witty story and learning about kooky but true facts about our country. Also it’s great for that person in your life who loves hiking (I’m looking at you, Uncle Michael).

But, this blog is about cooking, and that brings me to my third and final gift for the lovely Rachel: Banana Chocolate Chip Mini-Muffins! The story behind the recipe (originally for Banana Chocolate Chip Bread) is a great one. When Rachel went off to college, her mother, Barbara (check out her amazing website here), made her a cookbook with all of her most favorite recipes (and some new ones, I think) for her to recreate while she was away at school so she could have a taste of home whenever she wanted. This is an idea I have loved from the second I saw that book. Each recipe begins with a brief comment from Barbara about when Rachel first had the dish, or where Barbara got the recipe, or other tips and recommendations Barbara had learned throughout her years of making each recipe. (I’d also like to note that when Rachel went off to college, Barbara wrote down the kinds of cheese she liked and didn’t like and put them on a laminated card for her to put in her wallet and take with her always. Adorable!)

One of the recipes in the book was the Banana Chocolate Chip Bread, originally from the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. In the note at the top, Barbara wrote: “Serves 16 (supposedly. In your case, serves 1).” I had the bread the first time when Barbara sent Rachel a care package. As roommate of the care-package-receiver, I was granted a taste of the awesome banana bread and I fell in love! This brings me to the title of the post: I was a banana bread hater before I had this bread, but it converted me! It also converted BCD Mom. In other words, if you make it, they will come.

Ahem, anyway...I wanted to make this special bread for Rachel for her birthday, but I thought it’d be easier to snack on if it were in mini-muffin form. So, I gave it a shot (carefully not mentioning this portion of the gift to Rachel prior to the birthday party in case it was a complete disaster). But, they turned out great!

The recipe begins with dry ingredients sifted together: flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Then add a cup of toasted, finely chopped walnuts. The wet ingredients consist of a cup of mashed bananas (about two medium bananas), vegetable oil, two eggs, some buttermilk, and some vanilla. Then the wet and dry ingredients are added together until just combined, and a half cup of chocolate chips is folded in. If you are making the bread in a loaf pan, it takes about an hour and 15-20 minutes. The mini-muffins, however, only took about 20 minutes total!

Mmm batter...

Designer cupcake liners! I'm so fancy

The muffins came out great - moist, chewy, slight banana taste and a hint of chocolate in each bite. I was so excited to give the muffins to Rachel, and she seemed very happy to get them! We each had one immediately after she opened her presents. Then she called her mom :)

That night, we went to dinner with friends and then met up with more friends at a bar nearby. By some miracle, it worked out that my friend Bryce, an Australian I had met while studying abroad, who is currently traveling throughout the States, was coming to DC that night! He and his travel buddy Paul met us out and we had a glorious reunion!! It’s been almost 5 years exactly since I’ve seen him and it was so wonderful to see him and reminisce about old times. It was definitely a fantastic treat to add to an already wonderful evening!

Me and the birthday girl!

Me and Craig and Mark

Me and Bryce!

Happy Birthday Rachel, and safe travels to Bryce and Paul (who are headed to New Orleans next - I of course told them about Café du Monde and the muffaletta at the Central Grocery Co.)! And thanks to Barbara for being a great cook, a wonderful mom to Rachel, and a wonderful pseudo-mom to me!

Happy muffin making,


Sunday, June 8, 2008

Switchin' Kitchens

by Xani

So, as many of you already know, this week I am moving to a new house. I've mentioned the impending move once or twice on the blog, and if you know me in person, you've suffered months of my constant whining and bitching about house-hunting, financing, negotiating, packing, etc, etc, etc. (Sorry! It's almost over, I promise. I love you and I OWE YOU!)

I'm currently writing this post surrounded by half-packed boxes in tinyhouse, which my friend and I lovingly named my current house when I moved in just about two years ago. Two years might not seem like such a long time, but it didn't take me long to get attached to tinyhouse. It's the first place I've ever lived that was all mine-- no parents, no roommates. At first I wasn't sure I would like living alone, but I quickly realized I LOVE it. My own space, my own stuff, my own home. I guess that's what I'm getting at here: tinyhouse is my home, and leaving it is bittersweet.

EP cooking in tinykitchen

Me in my kitchen, Halloween 2006

This is a food blog, so let's bring it back to the food, or more exactly, the kitchen. One of the things that was most exciting about moving into my own place was the complete and total control over the kitchen. I was so stoked to finally have everything in its correct place, keep a stocked pantry without worrying about weird looks from roommates ("why do you have so many cans of anchovies??"), and break out my good knives and other kitchen equipment. Prior to living in tinyhouse, I kept my good pots, pans, and especially knives, tucked safely away in storage. Roommates, even close friends who I trust with my life, could not be trusted to properly care for my kitchen stuff. Especially the knives; BCD Dad taught EP and I from a very young age about proper care of cutlery. NEVER leave a dirty knife laying on the counter or, god forbid, in the sink. Knives should be rinsed, wiped dry and returned to the knife block (never a drawer) immediately after use. Sharpen regularly. And so on. So tinyhouse finally gave me the opportunity to have my kitchen, my way.

Not that tinyhouse kitchen hasn't provided its own set of challenges. Tinyhouse=tinykitchen. This was the kitchen where I learned to survive without a dishwasher! Or a garbage disposal. It has very limited counter and cabinet space, and no pantry (I realize this is what most city-dwellers deal with, but remember the only other kitchen I had ever really cooked in was BCD Headquarters, so it was quite an adjustment). But even with these limitations, I quickly settled in and over the past couple years, I've managed to cook up some pretty decent grub. And I've hand-washed a LOT of dishes. And drank a lot of beers with friends on the sunny patio. I'll miss living here, and cooking here. And this is true even though the new house (nickname pending) is really an AWESOME place, with a great kitchen (gas range! concrete countertops! A DISHWASHER!!).

New Kitchen!

Is that a dishwasher I see??

I'm sure in no time I'll be making great food and great memories at my new place. There's definitely a delicious house-warming party in the near future. And at this point, the tinyhouse kitchen is pretty much closed. I've been eating leftover Ledo's pizza over the sink all week. So, I'm ready to move on. But there will always be a special place in my heart for tinyhouse and the time I spent here. A toast to tinyhouse!


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