Weeknight Cooking: The Standby List

Cooking good food nightly can be an overwhelming task, especially for cooks just starting out. But where to start? After a long day it’s important to get food on the table, but there are a hundred chores that need to be done before you can even sit down. With little time to stop and figure out what you’re in the mood to eat, most people will fall back on buying food, or heating up frozen or boxed meals. In many cases, this is either expensive or less healthy than being able to cook from scratch.

For this reason, I have a short list of “standby” meals that I fall back on when I need to cook on the weeknight. These meals are generally healthier fare, quick to prepare and easy to clean up. A standby list is a must have for anyone who cooks regularly, or anyone who endeavors to. Maintaining a regular list will help you keep a certain ingredients on hand, so if you need to whip something up on the fly with no time to run to the store, something can always be put together with what you already have in your pantry.

My list evolves as my household’s tastes evolve. This doesn’t happen often; it’s a gradual process. Periodically recipes will get put into the back of my card file and replaced with newer ones. If you’re someone who is endeavoring to cook home more or change eating habits for a healthier fare, I would highly recommend creating a standby list of weeknight meals.

Here’s a peek at a few things currently on my standby list; everything I make regularly is on the site.

MM's Weeknight Cooking Montage

Peanut Chicken with Jasmine Rice
My spouse loves anything with peanut sauce. When we eat out at a Thai restaurant, he orders something with peanut sauce plus extra sauce on the side. Then he pours the sauce on something bizarre and asks me if I want a bite. (In case you’re wondering, the answer is no.) This lovely little weeknight meal has become a staple that I serve about once a week.

Indian Chicken Curry with Golden Raisins
A fast and healthy one-dish meal. Adding golden raisins and plain, nonfat yogurt help balance out the spice.

Sweet & Sour Tangerine Chicken Stir Fry
Another healthy one-dish meal. (Are you starting to see the pattern yet?) Vegetables and chicken with a tangy tangerine sauce… Love it.

Angel Hair Pasta with Peas, Prosciutto and Lemon
By far, the fastest meal in my repertoire. Peas and prosciutto mingling together in a cream and white wine sauce. There’s never a complaint in my house when I put this on the table.


Arroz con Pollo

Sometimes I just want something really packed with flavor that sticks to my ribs. This gets cooked up in a single pan, then simmers until the rice is done. Spice is determined by how much red pepper flakes you add, if any. My threshold for spice isn’t that high, so I add very little. Served with warm flour tortillas, cheese and a little sour cream, it’s a great weeknight meal. It’s also great heated up in the microwave as leftovers.

Pork Tenderloin Medallions with Cherry Sauce
Sometimes I want something other than chicken. Cherries and balsamic vinegar with tender pork medallions… meow.

Wolfgang Puck’s Chicken Bolognese with Penne
It’s got a zippy sauce, meat and vegetables. Recently I recommended this to my mom for a potluck, and she had a lot of raves about it.

Updated Chicken Chow Mein
This is one of the newest additions to my list. If you recall, this came from our January 2009 Magazine of the Month, Food & Wine. I switched it up a little bit to accommodate my own tastes. Rather than using rounded breakfast sausages, I upped the overall flavor and texture ante by using sweet Italian sausage patties. Tearing them into small, bite-sized pieces eliminates the mess of cutting them up, and I toss them right into the skillet to cook. The snow peas are cut into thirds, and I still use regular egg noodles. The hoisin and orange juice are fantastic together as a sauce. This dish is fast and delicious. Highly recommend.

Chicken Breasts with Potatoes and Mashed Peas
Another Magazine of the Month find. Despite the debacle I had by trying to use drumsticks, I recreated this using boneless, skinless chicken breasts which are cooked in the frying pan for a few minutes, then transferred to the oven with chicken broth to bake. Right before everything is done and ready to come out of the oven, I finish the pan gravy, substituting the chicken fat with a bit of cornstarch for thickening and low-sodium chicken broth. I’m still working on the final formula and once I get it down, I’ll bring this back as a redux!

The trick is, once you find something you like, hang on to it and keep ingredients on hand so you can refer to it often. Other things that help are finding other recipes that utilize the same ingredients. For example, the Creamy Penne I reviewed the other day uses a little bit of prosciutto and tomato paste. Instead of letting the rest of those ingredients spoil, it’s important to find other things that will use the rest of the ingredients — for the tomato paste, I can use it to make Chicken Curry with Golden Raisins and for the rest of the prosciutto I can make Angel Hair Pasta with Peas, Prosciutto and Lemon. If you have any suggestions for weeknight meals, let us know — if you haven’t noticed, they’re pretty much my staple!

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“Will Work for Food” Should Work on Editing

Though he was not selected as Food TV’s “Next Food Network Star,” class clown and food dork Adam Gertler managed to win his way into the hearts of, well, anyone who happened to catch the very last episode of the Next Food Network Star, because he basically redeemed himself for every stupid thing he had ever done on the show prior to that. By the end of the season, I was a fan.

Adam Gertler Will Work for Food
Photo and logo courtesy of the Food Network

He didn’t win his own cooking show, but the Food Network must have seen star quality or kowtowed to the bombardment of viewer comments saying they couldn’t understand the final verdict that voted Adam Gertler out, because he’s back. His show, Will Work for Food, runs Monday nights on the Food Network and features Gertler acting, for the most part, like a dork, as he shows viewers all of the different, crazy, cool, and downright bizarre jobs that have to do with food. Each show features two different “jobs” and Gertler will suit up to partake in both — for better or for worse.

For the most part, Gertler is likable and easy to watch. The majority of jobs they find for him to do are actually interesting, and a lot of action shots fill out the show as we watch the host hamming it up for the camera while trying to execute the tasks.

But Gertler isn’t all nerdery and jokes. A sincere version of him arises during some of the voiceovers while he explains (a little too briefly) of how the jobs work. The serious version of Gertler is actually disarming and compelling and almost makes the show reminiscent of “Unwrapped” with Marc Summers… that is, until the serious explanations are cut short and the show reverts back to clips of Gertler acting like a dork again.

(Note to Food Network Execs: We don’t want another Guy Fieri. Actually, we don’t want Guy Fieri in the first place, so I don’t know what makes you guys think we want a second one. Marc Summers, on the other hand, we like. Give us more of that.)

Anyway, the show relies on Gertler doing ridiculous things, repeatedly. It’s borderline unfortunate. Many of the jobs are quite interesting and could use more explanation than we’re given.

Recent shows feature Gertler visiting an abalone farm, and he takes us through little clips of what it’s like to work on the farm. Not enough questions were answered. I really would have liked to have heard more nuts and bolts about how the farm actually worked — instead, we just got little glimpses of this vast farm behind him. I appreciate the shots of Gertler doing and saying stupid things, but the producers of the show rely more on his doing dumb things than on his ability to connect to the audience on a more serious note, which he is clearly capable of doing if given the chance.

The other half of the show was watching Gertler learning to be a Benihana chef, flipping food and utensils around a hot grill. I liked the humor in that, but it was just too much. Slow motion replays of Gertler almost hitting a customer with a piece of flying food was not necessary. It’s funny the first time, not the second and third.

To give both segments of the show equal time, there was a lot of repetition on the Benihana chef (we heard them say it takes six months to train to be a Benihana chef — which we only needed to hear the first time, not three) and not enough information given on the abalone farm. I would almost like to see it formatted a little more like Unwrapped, where we get three or four different jobs per show all relating to a main theme, and with a larger variety of jobs featured, everything just keeps moving right along nicely, without getting stagnant. With only featuring two different jobs, things get stretched out way too long. Seriously. Long segments of Adam Gertler acting as a “wine angel” brings a whole new meaning to the word “forever”: He’s a dork and he’s a wine angel. We get it.

I’ll continue to watch this show periodically because it’s interesting, but I’ll have my remote in hand to fast-forward through the slow, repetitive bits.

Top Chef Season 5, Final Episode Part 1: The Final Four Become the Final Three, but not Before Becoming the Final Five

Excuse me everyone, I need to speak to Fabio alone please.  Thank you.

fabio

If food be the music of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1-3.  More or less

 

 

Spoiler alert there, sorry.

OK, so Jamie, Jeff and Leah had a chance to get back in the competition.  I admit I was rooting for Jamie, as she had been strong throughout the show, although putting Leah back in the competition would have been fun just to see Hosea squirm some more.  But Jeff won and got to be in the Final Five, but had to win to continue, which I thought was a fair handicap for having been voted out.  And Emeril was there, but I guess you can’t go to New Orleans without him showing up so that’s ok.  I wish they had tied in Jeff’s second chance with the rebirth of New Orleans a little more, as it was it just looked like another reality show twist, when it could have been something a little more meaningful.

Hosea had done his homework on Creole cooking,  a rare smart strategic move in a competition where the chefs seemed reluctant to pick up those kind of clues.  So how much are we buying Stefan’s arrogance?  I have had many conversations with Squidlegs on this subject and I still can’t really tell.  It is obvious that Bravo is trying to make him into this season’s villain, and I love rooting against euro-trash as much as the next guy.  But every once in a while he sneaks in a chuckle as if to say it’s all in good fun, just busting balls with fellow chefs. 

So Carla made an amazing-looking oyster stew, Hosea’s gumbo kicked Stefan’s gumbo’s ass, Stefan took some smoke breaks, Jeff did good food but not good enough, Fabio made bread but didn’t really know what Creole was, Carla’s drink was better without booze than anyone else’s with booze (how did that happen?), oh and lest I forget, Padma wore a collar.  Full stop. 

top-chef-season-5-513-episode_01

No.  Words.

 

I was really hoping Stefan would go instead of Fabio, but he didn’t.  So now down to the Final Three, is my prediction going to change?  No.  I’m still going with Carla.  Hosea could surprise us I guess, but I think he has skills, whereas Stefan has skillz, and the z makes all the difference.  But Carla is peaking in the playoffs, and if it comes down to great food with soul, I think she’s got it made.

 

~Citizen Chef

MoM Feb. ‘09 – Best of America’s Test Kitchen: The Spaghetti Sauces

As with all magazines and cookbooks, no matter how great they usually tend to be, there’s always a bomb. I’m not going to lie — I had a couple of those in our latest Magazine of the Month, Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2008.

So today we’re going to take a look at both of the spaghetti sauces provided in the mag — one was fantastic while the other, as noble as it attempted to be, pretty much bombed in my house.

Let’s start with the bad news.

Simple Italian Style Meat Sauce (aka Bolognese)

I was pretty excited about this one because a few months ago I was actually having a craving for bolognese. The American and Italian versions differ greatly, and the one I liked definitely smacked of the American version – bulky, blunt vegetables and chunks of meat. Since I’m American, I quite liked it.

ATK came up with their shortcut Italian version, where the meat, vegetables and tomatoes were all blended together smoothly. Everything happened in the food processor then was cooked up in a pan.

Instead of taking you through step by step, I put together a little photo montage of the process.

atk-simple-italian-style-meat-sauce-process

So you can probably get a good idea of what this is going to be like, texturally. The only vegetables inserted were mushrooms, the sauce was slick rather than chunky, which was nice, but I really didn’t care for the flavor. Overall, it just lacked punch. It was a nice simple sauce.

Simple Italian-Style Meat Sauce

Granted, most Italian food is very simple like what this sauce turned out to be, but this just wasn’t my favorite. When I order pizza, I love ordering a ton of stuff. I like cheese, all kinds of meat, tons of crunchy vegetables – the works. That may be why I didn’t go for this sauce all that well, because it was very smooth, and there wasn’t a lot happening. It said “simple” in the title, and that’s what it was. So, for what it meant to deliver, it definitely did that, but I’m going to stick with Wolfgang Puck’s Chicken Bolognese.

Weeknight Cooking Dish: B
Overall Dinner Dish: D

Now, as Padma says, for the good news.

Pasta with Creamy Tomato Sauce

I made this last night, and holy s**t, was this good.

ATK - Pasta with Creamy Tomato Sauce
Photo courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen

In all fairness, I expected this to be horrible. Like the test cook who worked up this recipe, my experiences with creamy tomato sauces were always a huge disappointment. In fact, the only reason I even cooked this was so I could review it. I expected it to tank. I was wrong.

Onion, Prosciutto, Bay Leaf

Prosciutto, onion and a bay leaf are sauteed together in a pan with red pepper flakes.

That’s right. I said prosciutto.

AwK Boxer Shorts Advisory!

Oh yeah.

Tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes are added, cooking for a couple of minutes until the mixture darkens.

Sun Dried Tomatoes & Tomato Paste

Garlic is added and allowed to cook for 30 seconds, then the rest goes in to simmer: white wine, crushed tomatoes, and other delicious things.

In the end, a little more white wine and crushed tomatoes are added, along with the pasta, a bit of the salted pasta water, cream and fresh basil.

Pasta with Creamy Tomato Sauce

This pasta was amazing. Packed with flavor and easy to make, I am a fan of this dish. I would give it high marks, except the cream isn’t the healthiest. That’s the only thing I can think of that really brings the rating down. Everything else knocked my socks off.

Weeknight Cooking Dish: A-
Overall Dinner Dish: A-

Best of America's Test Kitchen

MoM Feb. ‘09 – Best of America’s Test Kitchen: General Tso’s Chicken

We’re still plowing through our February Magazine of the Month, America’s Test Kitchen – Best Recipes and Reviews 2008. If you haven’t had a chance to run out and pick up this magazine, it’s available on the stands until the end of April 2009. ATK does not publish their recipes on the website unless you are a paid subscriber and a lot of what’s included in the publication is a must have, so I would strongly suggest you pick this up.

Before choosing the February MoM, Citizen Chef suggested two magazines, both of them America’s Test Kitchen publications. I looked at the first one. It looked great. Then I opened up the Best Of. The first thing I saw was the General Tso’s Chicken, and the MoM was instantly decided. When I have a weak moment and I am not in the mood to cook, I always request Chinese take out, specifically, General Tso’s Chicken.

ATK General Tso's Chicken
Photo courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen

Against my better judgment, I’m actually going to share this recipe with everyone. This is one of the better recipes in the magazine, and the reason I’m sharing it is because I don’t make it to spec.

General Tso's - Ginger, Garlic & Pepper Flakes

The most daunting aspect of making my own breaded and fried chicken is the whole deep frying process: The breading never comes out right. Taste and texture are soggy, gummy messes of breading and oil.

The test kitchen had this problem, too, and went to work fixing it. And boy, did they ever.

Frying Breaded Chicken 2

I could have eaten the chicken alone with just a little rice, that’s how good it was. I’ve never made a breaded and fried chicken with such a fantastic texture before, and that’s really what wowed me. The secret to their breading is a cornstarch-flour mixture, with a few teaspoons of the uncooked sauce mixed in for added flavor.

As you can see, I didn’t deep fry mine. I did put a few tablespoons of oil into a frying pan, but tried to cut down on the amount of oil it called for.

What ended up being a little too strong was the sauce. The General Tso’s Chicken I enjoy has a bit of sweetness to it, and the test kitchen went into great detail about how the sauce is usually made, and how their taste testers eventually determined the formula.

Tomato Paste is usually the key ingredient for the dish and provides the sweetness that I prefer. Instead, the recipe substitutes the paste and uses hoisin instead. Thanks to the discourse that accompanies the recipe, I was able to figure out the combination of ingredients that worked best for me. I halved the hoisin and added the paste back in for a dish that was both savory and sweet and disappeared from the table within minutes.

General Tso’s Chicken
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen
Serves 4

Marinade and Sauce
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup white vinegar
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 cups water
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Coating and Frying
3 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups cornstarch
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 cups vegetable oil

For marinade and sauce:
Whisk hoisin, tomato paste, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, and water in a bowl. Combine 6 tablespoons of the hoisin/tomato paste mixture and the chicken in a zipper-lock bag; refrigerate 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Cook the garlic, ginger and pepper flakes until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add 2 cups of the hoisin mixture and simmer, whisking constantly, until dark brown and thickened, about 2 minutes. Cover and keep warm.

For coating and frying:
Whisk the egg whites in a shallow dish until foamy. Combine the cornstarch, flour, baking soda, and remaining hoisin/tomato paste mixture in a second shallow dish until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Toss half of the chicken with the egg whites until well coated, then dredge the chicken in the cornstarch mixture, pressing to adhere. Transfer the coated chicken to a plate and repeat with the remaining chicken.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium high heat. Fry half of the chicken until golden brown, about 3 minutes, turning each piece halfway through cooking. Transfer the chicken to a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat with the remaining chicken.

To serve:
Warm the sauce over medium-low heat until shimmering, about 1 minute. Add the crisp chicken and toss to coat. Serve.

General Tso's Chicken

Overall, the dish is delicious and the texture of the breading is dynamite, but making it is a little cumbersome and takes a lot of ingredients to make. When I’m finished, I’ve made quite a mess and the cooking time is so short that I don’t get a chance to clean it up until after dinner is over. I will make this again because it’s so great, but it’s one of those where I need to be prepared to have a small mess on my hands when I’m done. Even though I really enjoy this and will be making it again, I have to knock it down a few pegs because of the messy factor and because it’s not the healthiest thing to eat. I will eat this periodically, but there are other, more nutritious things to put on the table. Then again, who gives a crap about that? I don’t order General Tso’s to be healthy. I order it because it’s delicious.

Weeknight Cooking Grade: B
Overall Meal Grade: B+

Best of America's Test Kitchen

Top Chef Season 5, Penultimate Episode: Down to the Fab 4.

I’m going to brush over most of this episode to get to handicapping the finale, except for a few things.  Yes, I got wood when Fabio said he was going to cut his thumb off and sear it on the grill to finish the competition.  And I thought the Last Meal challenge was a great one, and more over one where innovation was not at a premium.  The horror of impending death really brings out the need for comfort for some reason, and comfort dishes are about bold warm flavors with a minimum of gastriques.  It’s about what your mom made for you.  And beyond that, it is alot less about what mom made, but that mom was the one making it. 

So Leah left, which was the right choice I feel.  And now Hosea has “one more person to win for”.  Well now you have one less person to win for, because if your girlfriend back home stuck with you through the kissing and the cuddling, she sure as hell just left you for that comment. 

 

and now, the belabored Beatles comparison of the final four!!!!

 

Fabio = John

fabio

Fabio is as cool as John Lennon, before he met Yoko and went crazy.  A welcoming, inviting, ego-less cool that brooks no detractors.  His soul is pure, his intentions noble.  He loses his way sometimes, when his imagination strays too far from center.  But at his best, he is the best in us and the best of us.  I really hope he wins.

 

Stefan = Paul

stefan

Undeniably talented, but in a calculated, measured, meticulous fashion.  Stefan, like Paul, is the one you don’t want to like, even though you begrudgingly do.  He has gotten this far in the competition by not making mistakes.  Obviously the odds-on favorite, and if he did win no one would be surprised.  But no one would be too happy about it either. 

 

Hosea = Ringo

untitled

Hosea is the guy who shows great promise but just never quite gets the job done.  Sure they let him sing on a few songs, but they are always the dumb ones that sound like nursery rhymes.  I like Hosea, and not just because he dislikes Stefan, all though that is a point in his favor for sure.  He just never seems to bring it when it needs to be brung.  I hope he proves me wrong.

 

Carla = George

untitled1

Mystical, mercurial, maybe just batsh*t crazy.  You never know what you are going to get with Carla.  It could be something as great as “If I Needed Someone”, or as not so much as “Octopus’s Garden”.  She is peaking at the right time though, and if she stays on course she might just win this thing.  But how long can she keep a straight trajectory before something goes in to retrograde and throws her off??

 

So who is going to win?  I really hope Fabio does, but Stefan probably will.  But it wouldn’t be any fun if I didn’t pick an underdog, so the official Citizen Chef prediction for the winner of Top Chef Season 5 is……

 

untitled1

Never bet against batsh*t crazy.

 

~Citizen Chef

Food Network’s “Chopped” is Half Baked

A similar pattern has evolved with first season Food Network programs; their initial ideas start out as mimicry of another successful program, but generic enough that the continuing seasons are much more developed than the previous. It’s as if the Food Network either didn’t have the creative chops to come up with their take on a great program or they are too scared to dump money into something that has the potential to tank, so they serve up a program that’s only a half-concocted idea at best. After the show airs, they get a better idea of how to make the show more receptive to the public and the later seasons reflect it.

Chopped Logo

The latest brainchild, “Chopped” is a great example of this kind of development. When the show first aired, reviews came flooding in that this was a complete rip off of Bravo’s darling “Top Chef.” For this reason alone, I wasn’t so thrilled to sit down and start watching. I didn’t even read other reviews about the show. I was already watching “Top Chef,” so why would I bother watching its clone?

This weekend, I finally did, and walked away with some mixed feelings. To summarize, the hour long program selects four professional chefs to compete in three challenges: An appetizer, main course, and dessert. Each dish is dictated by a preselected combination of ingredients that are revealed right before the challenge begins. All ingredients in the basket must be incorporated into the dish. At the end of each challenge, the chef with the most unsuccessful dish gets “chopped”, that is, they are eliminated from the show. The panel of judges, all experienced chefs and restaurateurs who get to watch what’s happening in the kitchen (a la Iron Chef America), taste the dishes and determine, not the winner, but the loser. The winner is the person who makes it through all challenges without getting chopped, and wins $10,000.

If it sounds a bit like a Top Chef Elimination Challenge, I suppose it is. To me, it’s a hybrid of many cooking shows, but it feels a lot more to me like the fledgling stages of a stripped-down Iron Chef America. Reviews comparing it to Top Chef may be a little off, because it isn’t quite that. What makes Chopped better than Top Chef is, rather than providing gimmicks, themes, and expensive product placement, Chopped selects what might seem to be a random smattering of ingredients and demands the chefs to use them all in a dish together. The viewer gets a look at the ingredients and thinks, along with the contestants, “How in the hell am I going to do this?” The viewer is then brought into the process of clever food problem solving. After all, they are the Food Channel and their viewers want it to be all about the food, not about the gimmicks and product placement. We get enough of that from the channel as it is. (No, I do not want a Rachel Ray “Yum-O” knife, a Mario Batali lunch tote, or a vat of butter sucked out of Paula Deen’s arteries. Thanks anyway.)

Something else that I like a lot is that the show selects actual professional chefs, regardless of how charismatic they may appear on television. Chopped can sacrifice that element because this is definitely a cooking show, one that we don’t have to live with the contestants from week to week. I’m excited to finally see people who we know can cook, because they are professional, executive chefs, and in the end, only the food matters. If they have a television personality of a potato I can forgive that, because if their food is magnificent it doesn’t matter.

Where the show gets clumsy is at its attempts to connect the audience with the food. Through the television, the viewer can only enjoy the show with two senses: Hearing and Sight. The usual taste, smell and touch that comes with eating is unavailable, so the viewer is largely reliable on the show to provide the rest of that information. To do so, through the challenges the contestants are interviewed and provide their thought processes as to how they are going to solve the challenges. This is handy and necessary, but there are far too many of them, and they are way too long. Someone needs to get into the editing booth and do a little extra cutting. After the first challenge, it was apparent to me that the only reason we were seeing clips of the same chef over and over is because that chef was Red Shirt: He’s the extra crewman who gets out of the ship on a strange planet and instantly dies so Kirk, Spock, and McCoy can go on to beat monsters and score the green chick at the end. It becomes a little predictable and anti-climatic.

To make it conflicting and surprising for the viewers, we get the judging period where the dishes are served up and the discussion begins. This is especially where the show could use some work. The judges table is, by far, the most important part of the show. Not only does it provide the controversy and climax of the drama, it fills in all of the little details that the viewer can’t be a part of – not only because of the sensory issue, but because our panel of judges are experts that we trust and derive most of the excitement from watching their arguments about each dish.

Unless the judging portion is incredibly short and somewhat contradictory.

Chopped takes too little time with the judging portion, which is unfortunate because that provides the additional senses that connects the viewer with the audience as well as provide the whole plot of the challenge: Does the dish taste good? Could it have been better? Is it horrible? (Often times, we hope it is because it’s good drama.) Do other dishes surpass it?

The judging portion was way too short, and what comments made it through to the show makes the verdict confusing. Dishes that received only negative comments won the challenge, while a dish with mostly positive comments was chopped. The show’s inability to connect the audience with what’s happening in the room is a big downfall. By the time the verdict is reached, I didn’t even care who was chopped and who got to go on.

This needs to improve. The judging portion of the show is the guilty pleasure for the viewer because, not only do we want to see people soar, we want to see people crash and burn. We need the conflict for a good drama (even a food television show needs one), and Chopped isn’t yet providing it.

A big criticism I heard about the show was the host, Ted Allen. The reason I haven’t mentioned Ted’s hosting in this review is because the Food Network has pretty much relegated him to the role of the tacky, plastic parsley on the side of a diner dish. Now, I like Ted, but I dislike what the Food Network is trying to do to him. Attempts are made to connect him with the show, but he’s sort of the off-to-the-side host who doesn’t even get to sit at the table with the big kids. What they should do is try to make him more involved, rather than an outside viewer. In fact, when he addresses the camera and viewing audience, it makes the separation between the show and the viewer more pronounced. He’s trying to act as liaison between the two, and it isn’t yet meshing. Someone’s got to find a better place for him and, as someone who knows a lot about the food, he should be a lot more involved. Right now, he’s the inedible and offensive garnish that gets thrown under the table and is forgotten.

Get to know your nearest Scot(ch)!

Author’s note: This was originally written months ago. I have decided that the time is right to post this before MM sneaks in and fills the front page with more recipes (who ever heard of recipes on a cooking blog?!?)

1001946

While on a flight to California for the ultimate in geeky conferences (Blizzcon), I decided to try to explain a fascination that I have had for years. While I have been geographically close, I have never been to Scotland, nor do I have (as far as I know) any Scottish blood flowing through my veins. But since I have been a teenager, I have had a fascination with Scotch Whiskey.

That is not to suggest that I started drinking Scotch as a teenager, because I didn’t. Heck, I didn’t hardly drink anything (Dad, I hope you are reading this, and believe me). As a teenager, I actually had a part in a play which mentions “Chivas Regal” as a sign of “making it” in life, as in “sitting back and sipping Chivas”. I always had this picture in my head of a dignified gentleman, sitting in a high backed leather chair with a small string quartet playing Mozart in the background as the man sipped a small glass of Scotch, smirking, very pleased with himself, all the while.

My first experience with Chivas Regal, a blended Whiskey (not from a single malt, more later), was not the idyllic situation that I had planned. I poured a glassful (perhaps a water glass was too big) of Chivas and took a big gulp. Up until that point in my life I had tasted pretty normal liquors. Dr. McGillicuty’s, Jaegermiester, Goldschlager, Beer, Wine Coolers, etc. are pretty normal upper teens and lower 20’s fare, right? But, I can not possibly describe the burning and coughing and hacking that followed my first taste of Scotch. If any of you have thought, “I like Rum and Cokes… I should just try Rum straight up!” you may have experienced something close. The fact was, I HATED it. I thought to myself, “If this is making it, I don’t want to.” That first bottle of Chivas, minus that virginal glassful, lasted me many, many moons after I first tasted it. But so powerful is memory that I couldn’t get my original, utopian, vision of what Scotch was supposed to represent in my life out of my head.

Then I discovered the real truth. The key to unlocking the secrets of Scotch: 7-up and ice! (Or, Sprite if you prefer.) These wonderful add-ons to my Chivas tastings prevented (or allivated, a much more desired effect) the burn of the alcohol of the whiskey, while sweetening it and making it much more palatable. For those of you, like me, who feel strongly that you have become an adult (finally!), and that you should be able to enjoy sip of Whiskey (Bourbon, Irish, Scotch or Kentucky) without gasping for breath for 10 minutes afterward, try a little 7-up and a couple of ice cubes with it. Things will proceed much more smoothly.

Ok.. Here’s the basics that you need to know about Scotch Whiskeys (as a beginner myself, I would never try to advise a true connoisseur of the libation, I let a wiki do that… http://www.wikihow.com/Taste-Single-Malt-Scotch):

1) There are, to an American, two different types of Scotch Whiskey. The first, and most common, is the “blended” Scotch. Dewers and Chivas are two examples of a blended Scotch. The second type, while much more pricey and snooty, are not that different. They are called Single-malt Scotches. The difference between these two is pretty easy to distinguish. Blended whiskeys come from more than one different kind of malt and/or barrel of whiskey. Single malts are made with a single malt (usually grown nearby) and casked all at once, however there can be flavor differences even between two different casks (again, more later). The biggest thing to remember about point one is that Single-malt Scotches are usually MUCH more expensive and usually have a defining characteristic that make them specifically tasty for a certan palate. Blended Whiskeys are usually a good place for beginners, smoother and not as full of character, and then you can move into single-malts as you decide what you like and don’t.

2) There are about as many different kinds of Scotches as there are Scotsmen. Actually… There may be more Scotches (especially if you include butterscotch). Scotland itself recognizes 6 different varieties of single-malt Scotch. These are based on where, in Scotland, the Whiskey is made. Here’s a tip: If you are new to Scotches, avoid Speyside or Islay scotches, unless you have a weird craving for sucking on bandaids (I kid you not!). The reason for all of the variations? Malt, peat and mixture. When you mix different malts with different peats and waters, the outcome in favors can be varied from the aformentioned bandaids to the smoky salitness of the sea. The Scots also have this talent for taking used things, in this case, barrels, and re-suing them, and potentially making them better. What they do is take wine or sherry or even bourbon casks and fill it with the new Scotch. These all wood barrels can’t help themselves, they let out some small bits of their previous inhabitants flavor. So you get sherry oak notes in the tasting, or you will taste the chocolatey goodness of a fine Pinot in your Scotch. These casks become standards that also give you different tastes. This is the point where you have to buy many different scotches and see what you like and don’t like and start doing your research to see what else you might like. Drinking Scotch begets drinking more Scotch. Consider yourself warned!

3) More expensive scotches do not mean better scotches. Remember that bandaid thing I mentioned above? That comment came from the fact that I bought and tried a couple of Scotches that I really thought were going to be something special because they were priced that way. Spending $75/bottle on a Scotch is a good way to drink a bottle that you think you have to like, but don’t. Then again… When I was younger and more easily impressed with my accomplishments, I passed some certification exams and obtained my MCSE from Microsoft. (This was back in the NT 4.0 days for those of you who know what that means). After getting my cert, I decided to reward myself with a bottle of 25 year-old MacCallan. At the time, that bottle cost $175. So, how good does something have to be to warrant spending $175/bottle? Well. This bottle was so TOTALLY worth it! One of the bestest (note: do not use this word at wine or Scotch tastings), smoothest, mellowest, yet with character, liquors I have ever drank. This was before the distillery was bought out by Japanese investors, which hasn’t degraded the flavor, merely changed it and the price. That bottle lasted me over a year and unfortunately, it was not shared with my friends. Mostly because my friends didn’t want to appreciate the sublte flavors and texture, or like Citizen Chef, has yet to meet a Scotch they liked. But also because I hadn’t realized the cardinal rule of all Whiskeys, which is that they are much better shared with friends. Was that bottle worth the much higher price than $40-$50/bottle of most single malts? You bet your sweet bippy it was. I still rank that beverage as one of the best that I have ever had the honor of tasting. Does that mean you have to spend $175/bottle in order to enjoy scotch. Not hardly. Find yourself a good cheap “house” brand and go for it. There is no shame in getting yourself a merry little buzz on Dewer’s at $15/bottle instead of buying the 30 year-old MacCallan or other high faulutin’ brand.

Long story short… Buy yourself a fine Scotch and enjoy. Just remember the basics. Good Scotch should be enjoyed and shared. It should not be a “Bataan death march” for your, or your friends’ mouth and throat. Add some soda if you need to. Ice also helps. A little water is often used, even by Scotsmen. But in its purest form, a good Scotch in a nice glass (you don’t have to use crystal or anything fancy, but avoid plastic or paper for this!) really does help you feel like you have “made it!”

Enjoy!

Squig Legs

AwK is on Twitter

We’re on Twitter! Apparently this is cool; all of the kids are doing it.

AwK Twitter

Not only can you get updates on the latest AwK articles, but we’re going to use it to post asides, thoughts and news articles that don’t exactly fit as entire posts on AwK. Share it with your friends and spread the word: AwK is awesome, and CC has a man crush on Fabio from Top Chef. True story. You can also add the website to your reader.

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 11: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Give Leah a fish and she’ll give up.

We’re going to dive right into the action this week because I sprained my wrist and am typing one-handed (har har).  But I can’t let this first paragraph go without some kind of tangential comment, so I’ll mention that fried avocado tacos are freakin awesome.

 

QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE:  ERIC RIPERT!!  AND ALSO FISH!!!

This was a tough one, no doubt.  And much has been made around the blogosphere of Leah’s giving up on the challenge.  I am not calling for her head on a spike like alot of people are, but only because I am not really that surprised.  She gives up, to one degree or another, quite a bit.  We saw it during restaurant wars, and her head has just never seemed that much in the game.   Even when she is on top in a challenge, she looks uninspired. 

Stefan got lucky with eel as the last challenge, I mean why not throw in some fugu for cryin’ out loud.  It was a niche kinda deal, but a niche Stefan excelled in, and he wouldn’t have gotten to the final test if he hadn’t aced the first two, more pedestrian fish.  Well as much as fish can be pedestrian without feet.

 

ELIMNATION CHALLENGE:  NO YOU ARE NOT GOING TO A NICE LUNCH YOU BUNCH OF DUMB ASSES!

Hey it’s a nice day-off lunch with Eric Ripert!  And we are having fish, just like the challenge!  Wow that’s a coincidence!  And there are 6 dishes!  And 6 chefs left!!  That is a wild and totally unrelated fact!!  Seriously?  Congratulations, you guys have become the stupid girl in the scary movie that the audience yells at.  “DON’T GO IN THAT HOUSE!!!  ASK ERIC WHAT”S IN THE REDUCTION!!!”

Now this was a serious challenge, even if you were paying attention.  Stefan really got the most out of his quickfire win advantage by picking the one dish that most Top Chef viewers could have figured out.  We probably would have broken the hollandaise, or overcooked the lobster, but still, we would have had a shot.

Jamie’s cardinal sin, and it’s too bad because I like Jamie, was not “having time” to ask Ripert about her dish in the practice session.  Again, seriously?  You have a chance to get your dish graded before the test and you don’t take it??  Hell I would have done it just to talk to him face to face again.   I mean he’s no Fabio (mi amore… be still my heart) but he’s still pretty damn cool.

So the thought experiment question for the episode, is it better to know what you did wrong and not fix it (Jamie)?  Or be clueless but not mess up as badly (Leah)?  My heart says the former, but as was so eloquently expressed last week, intentions are meaningless.  You are judged by your food and your food alone.  And I still take some comfort in that.

 

~Citizen Chef