Sara starts this episode of Top Chef complaining about how she thinks she’s become the gooch of the season. Urban Dictionary informs me that this word apparently actually means something far too crass for print (even internet print!) but Sara uses it in this context as a summation of her growing sense of unease in the competition, namely her fear that she’s bringing bad luck to all of the team challenges. As she has in weeks prior, Sara laments her fading success in the contest thus far, noting her singular early brush with the top and reminding us just how much she hates landing firmly in the middle of the pack.
So where does Sara wind up at the end of this week’s elimination challenge? Well, the middle, but let’s not lose the forest through the trees here. Yes, Sara is once again absent from the better half of the judge’s table, but it also occurs in a week that Tom Colicchio calls one of the best in 11 seasons of the show and one where even all three of the dishes in the bottom have elements to them that are universally praised. There’s not a lot of attention placed on Sara or her dish this week, but we can safely presume from the blanketing praise that her dumplings were more than impressive. That’s not a bad place to be in at this stage, at least not when the crucial component of confidence comes into play. Sara still can’t trump the Ninas of this season, but knowing that she’s still capable of scoring a hit is hopefully all it takes to push her into overdrive.
My criteria for weighing the success of this season has been how much the individual challenge components speak to New Orleans culture, and this week delivers a one-two punch. First up is a supremely entertaining (and refreshingly simple) Quickfire that has jazz legend Dr. John asking the cheftestants to make him a hot sauce. Actually, he asks for a hot sauce with a “hip tang” to it and continues to use words and phrases like “flavorocity” and “Trinidadily too hot,” much to the contestant’s chagrin and my sheer and utter amusement. It does not get more N’awlins than Dr. John.
There’s a lot of flavors in the air here including pineapples from Shirley, apricots and coffee from Nicholas, and anchovies from Justin, but ultimately it’s Brian who wins for his green jalapeno and serrano hot sauce with lime and yuzu juices. I’ve criticized Brian before for being too eager to skate by on complacency, but two weeks of immunity in a row have made him into a bit of a dark horse, even on a topsy-turvey challenge that saw Nina land in the bottom for seemingly no concrete reason other than the seemingly random whims of Dr. John. At one point he uses “clipped my wings” as a method of praise, which practically throws all my bad middle school poetry asunder. We don’t get to see Sara’s (or Travis’) hot sauce on TV, likely because those precious seconds were needed to lovingly linger on shots of Dunkin Donuts coffee and Keurig machines. Sigh.
The main challenge starts immediately when a 300-pound dead pig is wheeled into the kitchen. It’s a pretty grotesque image that feels strangely fitting of NBC’s Hannibal, but the contestants are downright giddy to start hacking up the ill-fated oinker as part of the New Orleans tradition of boucherie, in which members of a community come together to butcher a pig and utilize every single one of its parts. There’s a bit of drama involving Sara when Louis accuses her in a talking head segment of being bossy without contributing to the butchering, but it also appears that Sara didn’t pass Justin’s “raise your hand if you’ve butchered over 10 pigs like I have” test to actually get her hands on a knife like she clearly wanted to. Justin is increasingly grouchy and later almost burns the entire set to cinder.
Each chef is responsible for a different part of the hog and will have to prepare an individual dish for 250 outdoor diners. As already mentioned, Sara’s har gow (a type of Chinese dumpling served in dim sum) with pork, shrimp and crab barely gets any screen time, but it looks delicious and Tom calls it “really good.” As tasty as it is, Shirley also makes dumplings out of freaking pig kidney and upstages Sara. Shirley ends up in the top 3, a place I always want to see her. Nina’s also up there with her roasted pig’s head ragu, which Tom says should be the national dish of “Ninastan.” Carlos ultimately gets his second win for his pozole verde with fried chorizo tacos. Tom wants the recipe. If Sara doesn’t make it to the end, the combination of Shirley, Carlos and Nina is probably the ideal top three scenario.
Stephanie, Justin and Louis are the night’s worst three dishes (although Travis justly gets called out for not making his own ramen noodles), despite the judges finding something to like in each of them. Justin is absolutely incredulous that his pork breast is called dry (worth noting that Padma seemed much more mad about this than anyone else) and releases a string of expletives about it in the Stew Room. The judges love the flavor of Stephanie’s brodo (broth) but felt her pork belly was overworked and that the dish was missing a few ingredients. And while Tom says that a good dish is going home no matter the outcome, he didn’t seem to like any component of Louis’ pork leg except for the pork, critiquing both the texture of the melted corn and questioning the addition of popcorn to the dish. Louis goes home feeling he didn’t get to leave a mark of his own on the competition, which is probably what happens when you make people cook with cream cheese for entire challenges. If you’re following Last Chance Kitchen, Louis is the first person to beat Janine, so there’s a chance we could be seeing him again. I keep forgetting he has a Michelin star.
Next week – Restaurant Wars! Sara is front of the house, a position that should send a shiver down the spines of any veteran Top Chef viewers.
Winners in 13 categories were announced Sunday afternoon at the third-annual Charlie Awards. The awards, which celebrate the Twin Cities food and drink community (and are named for the late, great Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale, pictured above), were held at the Pantages Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.
Lucia Watson (pictured, above), the force behind 28-year-old Lucia's Restaurant and the adjacent Lucia's Wine Bar and Lucia's To Go, was handed the Lifetime Achievement award.
Butcher & the Boar (pictured above, with chef/co-owner Jack Riebel, left) was named Outstanding Restaurant.
The Emerging Food Professional award went to Tyler Shipton, co/chef-co/owner of Borough.
Diane Yang of La Belle Vie was named Outstanding Pastry Chef. La Belle Vie also won top honors in the Outstanding Restaurant Service category.
St. Paul's sole Charlie went to the Strip Club, with Dan Oskey winning the Outstanding Bartender honor.
Birchwood Cafe owner Tracy Singleton (pictured, above, with daughter Lily Singleton-Hill) walked away with two honors: the Community Hero and Outstanding Neighbor awards.
Three food and drink items were placed in the klieg lights: Newcomer Hot Indian Foods won the year's Outstanding Food Truck Item with its Indi Frites. Lift Bridge Brewing Co.'s Hop Dish IPA won the Outstanding Local Craft Brew award and Corner Table won Outstanding Menu Item with chef Thomas Boemer's version of crispy pork belly.
Awards for individuals and businesses are determined by a vote of all participating Charlie Awards restaurants. Food and beverage awards are determined by an online public vote and a panel of experts.
After last week’s embarrassment of a cream cheese challenge (I actually skipped over the bagels on my grocery list in protest), this week’s Top Chef rebounds nicely (mostly) from that ill-conceived advertorial to deliver a pair of challenges that actually had something to do with this year’s host city. A jazz-themed challenge was an inevitability for this New Orleans season, but it’s certainly not unwelcome, especially when you throw jazz great Kermit Ruffins into the mix.
This week’s Quickfire Challenge was so fun to watch unfold that I barely noticed how utterly flawed it was in concept until the winner was announced. Basically the challenge is musical chairs with chef stations instead of chairs and knives and loose electrical wires instead of sanity and sound decision-making. The concept is that - like jazz musicians - chefs should be able to improvise on the spot, which is why each chef ends up changing food stations four times, searching for dish continuity along the way. It’s fun watching chefs wander around to the sound of trumpet music (Sara did a jaunty dance!), most likely while pondering why so many jazz musicians are named Kermit, but ultimately this challenge just isn’t fair. Justin (who’s slowly turning into this season’s resident grouch) starts out nicely at the quail and flounder station but later gets stuck at the finishing point with tofu, a microwave and Patty’s lame attempt at couscous. There’s really no justice here.
Sara gets royally screwed here as Brian ends up winning the challenge and immunity for the Asian-inspired duck and mussels dish that Sara worked on for half of the four rotations. Brian is rightfully excited, but also a little embarrassed, as his self-admitted contribution to the dish was mainly centered on the plating. Earlier, Brian avoided making a big move by sautéing vegetables instead of dealing with frog legs, a dish Louis unfortunately got saddled with. Sara’s good-natured about not scoring a win on what’s essentially her dish, but I’m less even-tempered as I think Sara’s confidence really needs a boost at this stage. She serves a trout dish that was initially Carrie’s. It goes over well. Luckily, Sara is never at risk of needing immunity in this week’s big challenge, but Brian's win still stings.
Speaking of, the Elimination Challenge this week is also jazz-themed as the chefs are asked to work in groups (under the thin veil of jazz quartets or something) to make food for Kermit’s potluck. Puerto Rican chef Patty has never heard of potlucks before, but Midwestern girls Sara and Carrie (an Iowan native, if you need a refresher) have a much better grip on the concept, but still don’t exactly want to put their best ambrosia salad or tater tot hot dish recipes forward.
The groups get to pick their teams (or “bands,” as Tom Colicchio was forced by producers to say) and Sara picks a pretty solid one in Shirley, Justin and the momentum-gaining Louis on Team Blue. Less together are Team Gray, who are not only saddled with the immune Brian and iffy Patty and Travis, but also Nicholas, who had to sit out the Quickfire due to a possible case of strep throat. He’s back before he’s forced out of the competition, but not before doing his entire ingredient shopping via Travis and a cell phone.
Despite the paradoxical nature of the challenge (is a catered potluck really a potluck?), there’s a lot of fun to be had in watching jazz musicians (A Marsalis! A Neville! That guy Steve Zahn essentially plays on Treme!) shoot the breeze and eat the most uniformly good food the show’s had in weeks.
Sara’s team plays it smart by aiming at the local crowd with food that’s both comforting and indulgent, including grits, okra and beef. The teams ends up in the middle, with most of the praise falling on Louis’ grilled and pickled vegetables with sunflower seeds and mustard vinaigrette. Justin scores some love for his super-buttery grits, but also gets nailed for not having enough as much seasoning as the locals are used to. Sara splits her work with her BFF Shirley on a glazed beef with charred onions, melon pickles and a pickled ginger vinaigrette. At judge’s table, it’s called a bit dry, but all the scenes of the diners eating it appear to be positive. All in all, not a bad week for Sara, especially since I’ve rewritten that Quickfire in my head to be in her favor. Her makeup process continues to stun me.
The Green Team wins with their Italian-style dishes. Nina gets kudos for her gnocchi despite making gnocchi three times already, which is frankly kind of irritating. Carrie went weird with a nectarine, pistachio and goat cheese tiramisu that involved microwaved sponge cakes in a way that I still don’t understand. It’s beautiful, but not a resounding success. Instead, the winner is Stephanie, who surprised the judges with a nice fried artichoke dish with preserved lemons and anchovy aioli. Stephanie says she hasn’t won anything since “Most Improved” in high school basketball and I continue to love everything about her.
The losers are the gray team, who underwhelm despite Brian’s stellar fried chicken. Nicholas (who did most of the prep work, drawing a good-natured accusation of performance enhancing drug use from Stephanie) fizzles with a bland and unevenly prepared barramundi fricassee, while Travis gets knocked a few rungs down the ladder for putting too much rub on otherwise well-prepared caramel-glazed BBQ ribs. That means Patty finally goes home for another indifferently prepared dish. Her tomato watermelon salad (so much watermelon this season! Can this be the end, please?) is called bland by the judges, who also note that it really needed a savory element added somewhere along the way of its uninspired genesis. Patty was canon fodder since week one, but her hair was always very lovely.
Next week Sara appears to draw the ire of Louis during a horrific-looking pig butchery challenge. I’m concerned.
Minnesota did not send the largest number of competitors to the 46th Pillsbury Bake-Off, held earlier this week in Las Vegas. That distinction is held by two states -- Texas and Pennsylvania, with 10 cooks each.
Among the Bake-Off's 100 finalists were four Minnesotans (the million-dollar winner was Glori Spriggs of Henderson, Nev., for her Loaded Potato Pinwheels). Here are their recipes:
ON THE GO BREAKFAST COOKIES
Makes about 2 dozen cookies.
Note: From Beverly Batty of Forest Lake.
1 package Pillsbury Big Deluxe refrigerated oatmeal raisin cookies
1/2 c. Pillsbury Creamy Supreme Coconut Pecan Frosting
1/2 c. quick-cooking or old-fashioned oats
1/4 c. flaxseed
1 c. walnuts, coarsely chopped '
2 tbsp. sweetened dried cranberries
1/2 c. unsweetened shredded coconut
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Let cookie dough stand at room temperature for 10 minutes. In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, combine cookie dough, frosting, oats, flaxseed, walnuts, cranberries and coconut and mix until thoroughly combined.Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls 2 inches apart on prepared cookie sheets. Bake until edges are light golden brown, about 12 to 16 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 2 minutes before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
MINI ITALIAN SHEPHERD'S PIES
Makes 36 appetizers.
Note: From Sonya Goergen of Moorhead.
1 box (9 oz) Green Giant® frozen chopped spinach, divided
1 lb, extra lean (at least 90%) ground beef
1/2 c. finely chopped onion
1 c. marinara sauce
1 box Pillsbury® refrigerated pie crusts, softened as directed on box
1 package (24 oz) refrigerated mashed potatoes (about 2 1/2 c.)
2/3 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray 36 mini-muffin cups with non-stick cooking spray. In a microwave oven, cook frozen spinach to thaw, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from oven and squeeze spinach dry with paper towels. In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, brown ground beef, breaking up large pieces, until meat is no longer pink, about 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in onion and cook 3 to 4 minutes until tender. Drain pan of oil. Stir in marinara sauce and half of the spinach.
Meanwhile, unroll pie crusts. Using 2 1/4-inch round cookie cutter, cut 18 rounds from each crust, rerolling dough if necessary. Press each round in bottom and up side of muffin cups. Spoon rounded tablespoon meat mixture in each cup.
In a microwave oven, cook mashed potatoes as directed on package, about 2 to 3 minutes. In a medium bowl, mix potatoes, remaining spinach, cheese, salt and pepper until well blended. Top each cup with a rounded tablespoon of potato mixture. Bake until potatoes are golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 2 minutes. Run a knife around edge of cups to loosen pies. Serve warm.
SEEDS AND CHOCOLATE PASTRY WEDGES
Note: From Vicki Mager of Bloomington.
1 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust, at room temperature
2 1/4 tsp. sugar
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/3 c. dried currants
1/4 c. roasted unsalted sunflower nuts
1/4 c. roasted salted hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1/4 c. Jif Chocolate Flavored Hazelnut Spread
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Unroll pie crust on an ungreased baking sheet. Pinch outside edge of crust to form a 1/4-inch rim. Prick dough several times with fork. In small bowl, mix sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle evenly over crust. In medium bowl, mix currants, sunflowers nuts and pumpkin seeds. Sprinkle mixture over crust. Press mixture firmly into crust. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake for 10 minutes. Remove aluminum foil and bake until edges are light golden brown, about 3 to 6 minutes longer. Remove from oven and immediately cut into 12 wedges. Do not separate wedges. Spoon chocolate hazelnut spread into decorating bag or 1-quart resealable food storage plastic bag; seal bag. Cut off tiny corner of bag; squeeze bag to drizzle spread over seeds. Cool completely.
ORANGE CARDAMOM BLUEBERRY CROSTATA
Note: From Cathy Wiechert of Mound.
1 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust, at room temperature
1/2 c. Smucker's Orchard's Finest Pacific Grove Orange Marmalade Medley
2 tbsp. flour
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
2 c. fresh blueberries
1 egg yolk
1 to 2 tbsp. coarse white sparkling sugar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees and line a 15x-10-inch baking pan with sides with parchment paper. Unroll pie crust in prepared pan. In medium bowl, mix preserves, flour and cardamom. Carefully fold in blueberries. Spoon mixture over crust to within 2 inches of edge. Fold edge of crust over filling, pleating crust as necessary. In small bowl, beat egg yolk with two teaspoons water. Lightly brush crust edge with egg mixture; sprinkle with sugar. Bake until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbly, 17 to 23 minutes. Remove from oven and cool at least 30 minutes before serving.
The 46th Pillsbury Bake-Off takes place on Monday in Las Vegas (for the first time in the contest's 64-year history), and four Minnesotans are among the 100 finalists.
This year's Bake-Off finds competitors in three recipe divisions: Amazing Doable Dinners, Simple Sweets and Starters and Quick Rise and Shine Breakfasts.Recipes must have seven ingredients or less and require 30 minutes or less in preparation time.
There's plenty on the line: $1 million to the grand-prize winner. From there, the drop-off is steep: $10,000 for second place, along with $5,000 for third place and four $5,000 special award winners. (Doughboy image, above, courtesy of Pillsbury).
The four Minnesotans are:
Beverly Batty of Forest Lake, preparing On the Go Breakfast Cookies (which calls for Pillsbury refrigerated oatmeal raisin cookies and Pillsbury Creamy Supreme Coconut Pecan Frosting).
Vicki Mager of Bloomington, preparing Seeds and Chocolate Pastry Wedges (which features Pillsbury refrigerated pie crusts).
Do you have a favorite Bake-Off recipe? Mine is Peanut Blossom cookies, from the 1957 Bake-Off.
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