Musing on food and cooking ...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Heather Takes on Top Chef

Like most civilian foodies, I am a big fan of the cooking shows Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef. As I watch the shows, I always wander what I would make. So I decided to play along this season.

Playing along with Hell's Kitchen is a bit difficult as there really aren't individual challenges I can respond to. After all, I doubt I have a flounder anywhere in my kitchen, let alone a fresh whole flounder that needs to be skinned and de-roed. Nor do I have a hyper-masculine rugby player screaming at me military style, trying to break my spirit so he can then build it back up again with my desperate need to please the all-powerful authority figure (Gordon Ramsey, you know who you are). However, I can - to some extent - play along with Top Chef.

Now, I am a bit behind schedule, but here goes.

Each episode of Top Chef consists of two major challenges. The first is a 30 minutes or less quickfire challenge, in which the chefs must make some sort of a dish off the top of their heads using a dictated theme or specified ingredient. The second is where they cook a larger entre, also often themed. They just have longer to plan the dish.

In episode 1, they started the show by having to create an amuse bouche (or one-bite appetizer) from the remains of a buffet table. Now, I have no idea of what was on the buffet table, so I can't really play along with this one, but I would be likely to make something that was both salty and sweet at the same time, as those are two flavors that really wake my tongue up. Their second challenge involved making an exotic surf and turf. Unfortunately, the chefs were not allow to select their own surf and turf proteins, because if given free reign, I would have done a landlock surf and turf, using buffalo and freshwater fish. Instead, I decided to play with what the contestants had to pick from and selected buffalo rib eye and abalone. Now taking abalone as my starting point, as an ingredient I never ever use, I have eaten it mostly in Chinese restaurants. And my favorite take on it is steamed with a delicious sauce of Chinese rice wine, ginger, and scallions. Ginger and scallions/green onions are both key ingredients in that dish that is usally so popular and evil in Chinese establishments - Mongolian beef. I would cut the buffalo rib eye into strips, marinate it in ginger, soy, garlic and scallions, with a little ginger ale or cola thrown in. After it had gotten all yummy and full of marinade, I would throw it on a very hot wok and stir fry it so that it was caramelized on the outside and soft and rare in the inside. I would make a sauce with the marinade and then serve it over an abalone fried rice, making certain not to overcook the abalone.

Episode 2 featured a citrus quickfire challenge, which totally made sense as the show is located in Florida this year. I would have made a quick salad of exotic citrus (blood oranges, key limes, pomelos) with garlic oil-cured olives, thinly sliced red onions, and chopped cilantro. Again, a play on the salty-sweet that I like so much and a way to really highlight the interesting variety of citrus that is out there. I served a similar salad at my Sold! BBQ in Attleboro, MA a couple of years ago. It was a huge hit. The second challenge was to create a dish for an upscale BBQ. Now, one thing I notice is that vegetarians also get treated like red-headed stepchildren at BBQs, which is totally stupid as there are many wonderful veggie dishes that can be on the BBQ. And no, I don't mean just veggie kabobs. In my case, I would have made a tandori tofu - extra firm tofu sliced and then soaked in a yogurt and spice mixture. The tandori spice is bright red and when it hits the grill, the sliced tofu would get nice black grill marks, making a beautiful red and black contrast. Then, it could be sliced, to show off the creamy white inside, and then served on a vibrant green banana leaf. A beautiful dish.

The third episode featured a quickfire in which the chefs had to net their own shellfish, clean it and then prepare a shellfish dish. I probably would have kept it fairly simply, as cleaning the shellfish would have taken up a lot of time. Likely I would have made my version of a healthy Rhode island seafood chowder, which involves very crispy turkey bacon and soy creamer. The second challenge involved updating an American classic like frank n'beans, meatloaf and mashed potatoes and making it healthy and low cholesterol. Again, which dish the chef got depending on the order in which they got to pick. I have no idea what kind of dish I would have been reinventing but I think a frank n'beans dish in which the sausage was made from ground chicken and edamame beans and then served with some sort of warm multi-bean and barley salad would have been interesting. Redoing fish and chips would also have been fun, as there are many interesting things you can do in the oven. I might also have jumped at redoing the cabbage roll, as this is something I made on a regular basis. My cabbage rolls are made with a mixture of ground chicken or venison, wild rice, barley, onions and garlic. Once rolled in the cabbage lead, they are then steamed in a vinegar water bath and served with ketchup. To make it a bit nicer for the foodie crowd, I might make a nice sweet tomato salsa to go with the rolls.

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