Thursday, August 27, 2009

Top Chef Season 6 Sin City: The One About Sibling Rivalry

Episode 2 came and went yesterday and the producers thought it might be fun to put an emphasis on one of the contestants' rant on the inequality found in the institution of marriage pertaining to the gay community. All this because the contestants were asked to--horrors!--cater food for a poolside bachelor and bachelorette party. Come on! Gay contestants on Top Chef are certainly not a new phenomenon but Ashley's passionate but slightly overplayed rant grated on my nerves a little. All I was interested in was to see what kinds of unique dishes the chefs on the show came up with and not listen to some holier-than-thou socio-political statement from someone who already knew a wedding challenge was in the cards coming into the show. I believe in equality and all that but this is a show about chefs and cooking. Let's try to keep politics to a minimum, shall we, Mr. Producer?

OK, that's the end of my own rant! And I do apologize. Let's just move on to what I love about the show--the preparation of food and the interesting personalities.

It might still be early but this episode unfortunately shone the spotlight on how weak the female contestants are compared to their male counterparts. I came to this conclusion not because the guys won the elimination challenge but the overall ideas, creativity and execution of most of the guys' dishes were much superior. The women stuck to tiresome tried and true appetizer ideas while the guys managed to push the envelope just a little further. About the only woman with any sort of talent is Jennifer.

But I digress. Let me backpedal a little and talk about the Quickfire Challenge. Each contestant was asked to roll two dice at a craps table and the total sum of both dice would represent the number of ingredients that each of them would have to use for their dishes. In this case, it would be better to roll a smaller number due to the complexity of marrying the flavors of too many ingredients. And to jack up the stakes even further, the winner walks away with $15K. This being Sin City, I'm sure we'll be seeing more and more gambling props used in future challenges.

The Quickfire was won by Mike V., one half of the Voltaggio brothers, essentially one-upping his older and more successful brother, Bryan. However, the tables were turned later on when Bryan notched up a win of his own in the Elimination challenge. Hector, sans a deep-fried steak, redeemed himself with a unique take on tofu, although his tofu ceviche dish didn't really made any sense to me. Kevin made another good impression but not enough to land him in the top 4. Ashley created a nice watermelon appetizer that the judges liked but made the mistake of adding an extra, unneeded panna cotta dessert that fell flat, dropping her into the bottom 4. And for the second week in a row, both Jesse and Eve went up for elimination again. Jesse escaped elimination last week because she knew what she did wrong with her chicken and admitted it. This time, she also knew that she made a mistake but can admitting her faults save her yet again? Well, just by the skin of her heavily tattooed arm, Jesse gets to stay for another week and Eve and her knives were sent packing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Top Chef Season 6 Las Vegas: Let the Games Begin!

Welcome to Sin City and the new Top Chef kitchen is already heating up fast! Season 6 of the popular Bravo TV series, "Top Chef" is finally here and the first episode premiered last night. This season promises to be very interesting as the collection of chef contestants include James Beard Award nominees like Michael Voltaggio (Best New Restaurant, also winner of a Michelin Star), Kevin "I turned down a scholarship from MIT" Gillespie (Rising Star Chef of the Year semi-finalist), Hector Santiago (Best Chef, Southeast nominee) and plenty of restaurant executive chefs.

Of course, the title Executive Chef is pretty subjective when it comes to experience and knowledge. Take for instance, Preeti Mistry, an executive chef working at Google's HQ in San Francisco. At the first Quickfire Challenge, the always exciting mise en place relay race, Ms. Mistry chose to open 15 clams when she didn't even know the difference between an oyster and a clam! Can you believe that? She even tried to open the clams like it was an oyster! Hello! You work in San Francisco where there is seafood aplenty! Why don't you know this?

Then there is Jesse Sandlin, a self-proclaimed, self-taught (read: not a culinary school student) executive chef of Abacrombie Fine Foods in Baltimore, MD, who in the challenge to win $10K, proudly declared that she hasn't cooked shrimp in decades! What the??!! So, what DOES Ms. Executive Chef cook then? And what's up with judge Colicchio choosing Eric Ripert's protégé Jennifer Carroll's extremely simple dish of clam ceviche to win $10K in that same challenge? She didn't even have to turn on the stove for that! Were her other 3 competitors (including Ms. Sandlin) that bad?

This season, there appears to be several changes to the challenges including the just-revealed prize money for particular challenges. Usually, you try to win challenges to get an edge over your opponents but there is an extra incentive this season. After winning the mise en place challenge, the 4-person Blue team got to compete among themselves to come up with a winning dish using the ingredient that they just mise en placed for $10K.

For the elimination challenge, and in keeping with the Sin City theme, the contestants were asked to create a dish based on their own personal vices. As usual, some were more successful than others. This first challenge was won by the Amish-looking Kevin with his arctic char dish, which I thought was not that impressive to begin with. Colicchio did mention that arctic char was his favorite fish so that might have tipped the scale (no pun intended) for Kevin. The loser and unfortunately the title of the being the first person eliminated from the show was hot tamale Jennifer Zavala, who tried to stand out from the rest by using--horrors!--seitan, the wheat gluten meat alternative to stuff her chilies rellenos. Yuck! Jennifer wanted the dish to represent her hot temper but unfortunately the seitan put a hose to that idea.

Note to self: Don't break out the seitan in the opening challenge of Top Chef!

Although the seitan rellenos was nasty, my pick for elimination was Eve with her badly cooked scallops and her unfocused interpretation of the personal vice theme. And what's with Puerto Rican Hector's interpretation of a smoked steak that he deep-fried....for Wolfgang Puck of all people! This coming from a James Beard nominee? Every season has a villain and this year's is Mike Isabella who is so obnoxious and cocky, he'll probably stay for the duration of the show so that the producers can create some drama (remember Stefan?). Another interesting side story to watch out for is the ultra-competitive intensity of the Voltaggio brothers, Mike and Bryan. Another one that might be interesting to watch is French poodle Mattin Noblia, who seems so out of place with his red scarf/neckerchief. I bet Mike makes him cry in an upcoming episode! As for frontrunners, it has to be Jennifer (Ripert's chef) and Kevin and I hope a Carla-like (season 5) underdog emerges from one of these other chefs.

There are some hits and misses so far this season but it is still early and let's hope that there is no repeat of a Hosea-like winner this year. Talk about a letdown.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Garlic Chives in a Stir-Fry

A stir-fry is an essential Chinese dish and the use of garlic chives in the dish only helps to strengthen that notion. Known in my native tongue as ku chai, garlic chives are used in a Malaysian fried flat noodle dish called char koay teow. Essentially, the green stem, albeit much thicker than regular chives, gives it the chive appearance but the addition of a flowering bud at the top tells you that this is a different species. As the name suggests, garlic chives exudes a more garlicky flavor than regular chives, which taste more like a less intense onion.

Here, I am pairing the garlic chives with cauliflower, shiitake mushroom, shallots, shrimp and grape tomatoes. Be sure to blanch the cauliflower first before stir frying because it takes a much longer time to cook than the rest of the vegetables.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Vietnamese Spring/Summer Roll

Here is a refreshing idea for a quick appetizer. Known as gỏi cuốn in Vietnamese, this vegetarian version of a spring roll (or summer roll depending on the time of the year that it is served and its ingredients) takes very little time to prepare and best of all, you can add most anything you want to it. In short, you can come up with your very own version of a spring roll and wow your friends.

Generally, a Vietnamese spring roll contains cooked shrimp (or pork), rice vermicelli, lettuce, Thai basil and cilantro all wrapped up in an almost-transparent rice paper and served cold with a Hoisin-based dipping sauce. As you know, one is not limited to those ingredients alone. The rice paper wrapper is quite unique. In its initial condition, it looks like a round plastic disc and almost translucent. Quickly dip it in water (2 seconds will do) on both sides and you'll see the hard plastic-like disc transform in front of your eyes into an almost transparent, pliable wrapper.

Now, to construct the roll, lay the now soft wrapper onto a plate or another flat surface. Scoop all your ingredients (vegetables, shrimp, Thai basil, cilantro) onto the lower third of the wrapper. Be careful not to overload the wrapper. Experiment until you get the right amount to put on. I usually go vegetables on the bottom, followed by the shrimp and topped with Thai basil, cilantro and crushed roasted peanuts. From the bottom, roll the lower edge over the ingredients and then fold the two sides over and continue rolling until you get to the other end. Make sure you keep the roll tight around the ingredients.

As for the dipping sauce, I use Hoisin (a Chinese dipping sauce) as the base and thin it out slightly with some rice wine vinegar and to add a little heat, I also add a touch of chili and garlic (or sambal) sauce. Note that Hoisin is pretty salty all by itself and you don't really need that much of it to start. To remedy the saltiness, add some sugar. And there you have it, a Vietnamese Spring (or Summer) Roll with dipping sauce.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Breakfast Fruit Parfait

Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day but a typical continental breakfast made up of eggs, ham, sausage, bacon and toast might not be the ideal meal for someone looking to get healthier or lose weight. A good alternative is a breakfast of fresh fruits. However, the meal doesn't have to be a monotonous motion of just picking through a bowl of boring old fruits. You can jazz up your fruit-based breakfast with some ingredients that will add welcome sweetness and creaminess that mesh very well with the tartness of citrusy fruits.

What we have here is a yogurt-based fruit parfait. The typical parfait is often served as a dessert to cleanse one's palate after a meal. It can be made with custard, ice-cream or flavored gelatin. Increasingly, we are now seeing a healthier alternative where the parfait is served with yogurt, granola, nuts and of course, fruits. And the best thing is, it is easy to put together as long as you have all the ingredients on hand.

First, choose the fruits that you would like in your parfait. I usually go for Mandarin oranges, peaches, strawberries, cantaloupe, pineapple, honeydew melon and blackberries, a good mix of sweet and sour elements. Cut them all into small cubes. Then it is time to concoct the yogurt parfait and it's very easy. Simply mix together yogurt, mascarpone cheese, fine sugar and vanilla essence. Yes, that's it! Or to reduce it further, buy vanilla flavored yogurt and just add mascarpone cheese. Mascarpone is the main ingredient in the Italian dessert, tiramisu and is very milky and creamy. It mixes easily with the yogurt and adds a creamy finish to the parfait.

To put it all together, scoop a little of the yogurt parfait onto the bottom of a serving glass. Add the fruits, scoop more of the parfait on top of the fruits and sprinkle granola over the layers. For decoration, you can garnish with a sprig of mint.

Monday, August 3, 2009

New England Lobster Roll with Lemon & Dill Aioli

Nothing screams summer in New England like a lobster roll, a regional specialty and a big favorite among the locals and tourists alike. Not only is it delicious, it is also very easy to prepare. The main task is to cook the lobsters, the other parts are as easy as gathering the ingredients and mixing them all together.

For my version, here are the ingredients that you'll need (makes 4 rolls): 3 lobsters, 1 stalk of celery (small dice), a few sprigs of fresh dill (chopped fine), juice from 1 lemon, 4 TBP of Hellman's mayonnaise, 2 red radishes (small dice), 1 stalk of scallion (julienned), roasted garlic powder and 4 hot dog rolls. The celery and red radish proves a nice crunch while the classic combination of dill and lemon juice adds some freshness and tang to the dish. Lobsters are in season now and the prices are coming down fast. I got mine for $3.99/lb with 3 lobsters costing me less than $15. These are the soft-shell variety, not as good as the hard-shells but just as delicious. Start off by boiling the crustaceans for 10 minutes or so. Make sure that the shells have turned bright red before retrieving the lobsters from the pot. These soft-shells cook faster than the hard-shells. Shuck the lobsters and chop the meat up into bite-sized pieces.

Now, to make the aioli, just add all the ingredients I listed above and stir thoroughly. Season with a little salt and pepper. If you prefer a little heat on your lobster roll, add a pinch of cayenne pepper. You can now add the lobster meat to the aioli. Next, spread some butter onto the hot dog rolls and toast them, giving them some crunch. As for condiments, I usually add some chopped lettuce on the bottom of the roll before scooping the yummy lobster aioli mix onto the roll. Finally, garnish with scallions and voila! your very own New England lobster roll.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Filet Mignon with Tomato Puree Beurre Blanc

In this post, I would like to talk a little bit about the sauce that accompanies the filet mignon rather than the main protein itself. Briefly, the filet is prepared by grinding a good amount of fresh black pepper onto both the surfaces of the meat as well as sprinkling it with some salt. On a well-oiled hot pan, sear both sides of the meat well until they turn lightly brown (you don't want to burn the filet). Now, remove the meat and set it aside. You can fire it again in the oven when your sauce is finished.

For the tomato puree buerre blanc, which is a butter sauce, you will need 4 fresh tomatoes, a stick of butter, 1/2 cup of beef stock (or chicken stock), white wine and a of tablespoon of cream. First, cut up and then puree the tomatoes in a blender. To get a smooth and velvety texture, strain the pureed tomatoes, leaving behind the pulp and seeds. Now, using the same pan that was used to sear your filet mignon, pour away the oil, leaving behind the bits and pieces of the meat that are stuck to the pan. Turn on the heat and deglaze the pan with some white wine, scraping the bitty pieces of meat off the pan in the process. Add the strained tomato puree together with the stock. Start cooking the puree and stock mixture by first bringing it to a boil and then simmer for 30 minutes. Next, add the cream a little at a time and stir, making sure that it doesn't turn the sauce into a cream sauce. Again, let the sauce simmer for 10-15 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper. The final step is the butter. Cut the stick of butter into small chunks and add them into the sauce one at a time. Make sure that the sauce does not come to a boil as it will break the butter down into its milk solids, clarified butter and whey components. The purpose of the butter is to add depth and flavor to the sauce and also as a thickening agent. Again, taste and season the final sauce.

To put it all together, re-heat the filet mignon that was set aside earlier. The sauce can either be served over the meat or as a base on the plate.