Saturday, January 31, 2009

Orange Chocolate Muffins

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day...yes, I feel that these orange chocolate muffins are worthy of bursting into show tunes! Not that I'm particularly big on show tunes. I honestly don't know very many outside of The Sound of Music, and that really doesn't belong in the musical category anyway, it's just too good.

After sleeping in on this leisurely sunny Saturday, I meandered into the kitchen, all ready to prepare orange chocolate muffins. I've made them once before, but after having them today, I don't know why that is. They're good enough to whip up every weekend! Granted, that wouldn't be so great for the waistline, even with the addition of bran flakes and the not-too-high sugar content. I should note that my appreciation for the combination of orange and chocolate came later in life, and it still probably wouldn't be my favorite fruit-chocolate combination. In the case of these muffins, however, it's absolutely wonderful.

After I took my husband a muffin, I informed him that the heavenly, light orange flavor was courtesy of our very own oranges from the backyard. Yes, I marched right outside, plucked two promising-looking oranges from the tree, and zested and juiced them for the muffins. I think it must be just the right time to pick the oranges, because a month or so ago, they were rather dry. Not today! Today, I sliced into the oranges to reveal a beautiful, juicy center, as you can see.

Once the muffins were finished, I sat down and enjoyed one (or two, perhaps three) whilst reading for class (Lancelot and Guinevere-it's time for courtly love!). All in all, a perfect Saturday morning.

Orange Chocolate Muffins
from Fresh Every Day, by Sara Foster

1/2 cup bran flakes or All Bran cereal
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup sour cream
Grated zest of 2 oranges and 1/2 cup of their juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 375. Line 12 large muffin cups with liners and spray the top of the pan with vegetable oil spray or grease lightly.
2. Stir the bran flakes, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon together in a large bowl.
3. In a separate large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer on high speed until fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Add the egg and mix to combine. Add the sour cream, orange zest and juice, and vanilla and mix until incorporated.
4. Add the bran-flour mixture to the butter-sugar mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment of an electric mixture until the dry ingredients are just moistened. Stir in the chocolate chips to combine. Do not mix any more than necessary.
5. Use a 1/3-cup measure or ice cream scoop to scoop the batter into the prepared muffin cups, filling them to just below the rim of the cup. Bake the muffins for 20 to 25 minutes, until a wooden skewer comes out clean when inserted in the center of a muffin and the muffins spring back when touched. Let the muffins rest about 5 minutes before turning them out. Serve immediately or cool on a wire rack.

Well, Brad is Academy-Award worthy...

Last weekend I continued my quest to see at least three of the films nominated for Academy Awards, and thus spent my Sunday evening watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It has certainly garnered a considerable amount of critical praise, and secured 13 Oscar nominations!

I can certainly understand the buzz-the film is unique and lovely, beautifully shot with amazing special effects. All of the principal actors do a marvelous job, though that shouldn't be surprising. Cate Blanchett could put forth a stunning performing if she had a paper bag over her head and was only in a movie for five minutes. What I thought was best, however, and most deserving of accolades, was Brad Pitt's performance. He has far too often been ignored, and this may be his finest contribution to the film industry yet.

So, for the second go round of Oscar movie-watching, I would have to give my highest praise to Slumdog Millionaire. In my opinion, it's the better movie. I still advise you to see Benjamin Button, and in the theater at that. I would love to read the short story and see how it compares to the screenplay. This week, I'm hoping to catch The Reader. I'll let you know how that turns out! It's usually a depressing bunch of movies-this is why I liked Slumdog so much! :)

"He can't quiet the creative monkeys."

I’m quite sure the producers (or at least the one madly in love with Jeff) are drowning their sorrows this very minute, knowing there will no longer be an opportunity to ogle Dr. Chase’s bare, Miami-sculpted chest in the morning. Perhaps they’ll have to ask Fabio or Stefan to remove their shirts now?

Hosea and Leah are still reeling a bit from the repercussions of their not-so-innocent hookup. I give Hosea a lot of credit-he seems to be making every effort to bring the relationship back to its innocent friendly start. Perhaps it’s easier for him to ignore the awkwardness because he’s becoming terribly distracted by his supposed rivalry with Stefan.

The seven remaining chefs marched into the Top Chef kitchen for the quickfire, greeted by Padma and Scott Conant, the chef/owner of Scarpetta Restaurant in NYC. As usual, everyone knows him. In case you had not figured it out, Scarpetta is an Italian restaurant. I know this because of my many readings of Patricia Cornwell novels in my early teen years. I distinctly recall the protagonist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a troubled forensic pathologist, often drowning her sorrows in bowlfuls of pasta and full bottles of wine. But I digress. Stefan is sure of Fabio’s success, because Scott Conant is Italian. Obviously.

For the second time, the chefs are forced to cook for and about a holiday event/ celebration that has not yet occurred, because we know by now that the show was filmed in the summer. This time, instead of Christmas, it’s the Superbowl! Padma reminds the chefs that it’s coming right up (yes it is Padma, in SIX MONTHS!), and that they’ll be playing a game of “football squares” as their quickfire challenge, unveiling a chalkboard filled with organized blank squares. I wasn’t aware of this game myself, and the game board looked to me like an office pool. I stand corrected, however. It is indeed a football game.

Needless to see, all of this hullabaloo was merely yet another device for product placement-after each chef randomly selected a food group, which was an interesting concept, we discovered that all of them would be working with oats, because it’s the Quaker Oats challenge. Not so interesting. None of the chefs seem worried about their food group, with the exception of Fabio. He doesn’t see any reason to eat vegetables at all-“There is no reason to eat vegetable when there is meat and fish around.”

Carla, the oats girl, is so excited. It’s probably because Quaker Oats has given her a lifetime supply of oatmeal for her proclamation of love for the bowls of oats she devours 4 times a week. Jamie, who is completely and utterly back in my good graces now, decides to go against the grain (Ha!) and make a savory fruits n’ oats dish. Before I even heard what she was planning to make, I was giving her a mental high five. It would have been a piece of cake to figure out a fruit and oats combination, even for the most inexperienced home cook. Jamie is challenging herself! Her coconut- and oat-crusted shrimp with nectarine salsa and avocado crème fraiche sounded and looked amazing. I would so eat at her restaurant. Hosea’s issues with Leah may very well have caused him to turn a corner-he’s totally upbeat and confident about his wienershnitzel. Dr. Chase, as usual, is making far too many dishes. Fabio fried eggplant in a breading of thick oats-it looks a bit much, even for someone like me who loves battered, fried, and crusted things.

Scott Conant did not enjoy this eggplant roll, Dr. Chase’s three course, very brown, fried meal, or Leah’s uninteresting branzino. Apparently, oat flour is the only thing that doesn’t go well with bacon. Make a mental note! Stefan’s strangely and sparsely accessorized banana dessert, Carla’s asian tofu, and Jamie’s shrimp were the best dishes, and Stefan came out on top. Of course, this causes any errant thoughts Hosea might have been having about Leah to disappear instantly, because he’s now concerned about Stefan’s increasingly inflating ego.

Padma sends the chefs to the stew room to pick up a “present” while she prepares the Top Chef kitchen for the elimination challenge. They scream with joy upon seeing a second white Top Chef chef’s jacket emblazoned with their names on the back and the number 5. For season 5, as Leah had to be reminded. I’m not sure why they were so excited. Little gifts on this competition are never a good sign! We learn that Dr. Chase used to play football, until his size became an issue. It’s not uncommon for him to claim knowledge of a sport, because he obviously knows everything. Leah starts spouting off about Tom Brady-badly done, Leah, badly done! Your boyfriend is REALLY not going to forgive you if you keep up this behavior!

In the approximately two minutes that it take the chefs to run to the stew room, find their new coats, and run back, Padma has miraculously transformed the counters in the Top Chef kitchen. There are seven football helmets, each belonging to a professional team, sitting neatly atop a spread of regional ingredients. So far, I’m liking this challenge. I’m all about regional ingredients. Padma calls it the “Top Chef Bowl” and brings out the competition-seven chefs from previous seasons. I would hesitate in calling them “All-Stars.” A handy reference list, should you not be obsessed with this show and watched every previous season at least twice, as I have:

• Andrew, Season 4: Best known for saying quirky, strange things, Andrew was lucky to last as long as he did. He was eliminated largely because he didn’t follow the rules of a challenge, using ingredients that were not allowed.
• Spike, Season 4: Spike is a popular former Top Chef, despite being brash and arrogant. He made a few gems throughout his season, but most of his dishes were fairly lackluster. His butchering skills were excellent, but he was eliminated because of a poor decision-do not use frozen scallops! Also, he likes hats.
• Nikki, Season 4: A prime example of a chef that somehow managed to escape the judge’s table without being eliminated episode after episode, despite not truly performing on par with the other chefs. Oddly enough, she owns a successful restaurant in Soho. I’m not really sure how that works, unless the menu never changes and she has simply cooked the same thing so much that it’s great. Who knows?
• Camille, Season 3: I have practically nothing to say about Camille, because her time on the show was little more than an episode. I seem to recall some experience with pastry, that still brought her down in the end?
• Josie, Season 2: Another bold contestant, Josie was well-liked on her season, though she didn’t go particularly far. A trio of bad salads was her final demise.
• Andrea, Season 1: Oh, Andrea. So sweet, so ill-prepared for this show. She managed to come back for an episode or two after one of the contestants had to leave unexpectedly, but it was no surprise that she didn’t make much of the second chance. She’s not really the Top Chef type, more of a basic home cook. She also talked quite a bit about bodily functions and the importance of roughage in your diet.
• Miguel, Season 1: Of all the chefs selected for this “All-Stars” Top Chef Bowl, Miguel is most deserving of the description “all-star.” He went quite far on his season. He’s remembered for being funny and for making the best dish for the weird fetish party challenge. Everyone liked him. Except for maybe Tiffani, but that’s not saying much.

Padma explains that the chefs will be each be competing in a head-to-head cookoff against a former contestant. They will have 20 minutes to prepare a dish honoring the regional cuisine of one of the following NFL football teams: Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, NY Giants, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49’ers, and Seattle Seahawks. I would have been ALL OVER the Cowboys, of course ☺

As the winner of the quickfire, Stefan gets to select his NFL team AND opponent. In what was surely a demeaning moment for the chef herself not to mention awkward for all the chefs, Stefan (wisely) selected Andrea. This was not a bad decision on his part-based on what we have seen, Andrea was certainly the weakest chef. It’s not a popularity contest! It’s TOP CHEF! It remains to be seen whether or not his selection of the Dallas Cowboys was wise.

Predictably, Dr. Chase selects the Miami Dolphins, Jamie chooses the 49’ers, and Leah takes the Giants. Carla ends up with the Saints, Hosea picks the Seahawks, and Fabio is forced to take the Green Bay Packers. Bless his heart. At least he knows cheese! He is Italian, after all!

The chefs fluttered about the kitchen for a few minutes, studying their ingredients and attempting to come up with a great dish. Jamie feels bereft of inspiration and virtually ignores her competition. Dr. Chase makes small talk with Josie, who tries to ignore him. Stefan attempts to seduce Andrea, though a plastic cup of Budweiser is a pathetic attempt at romance. Hosea criticizes Miguel as he valiantly attempts to debone a ruby red fillet of salmon. Spike is completely cool and collected, while Fabio is seriously doubting himself. They try to lighten things up by tackling each other while wearing their team chef coats and football helmets.

The next day, the chefs head to the for the competition, which is taking place at the Institute of Culinary Education. A raucous crowd of culinary students and formerly eliminated chefs awaits them. Padma strides out to the test kitchen in a ref’s uniform, which I am quite certain was NOT authentic and was probably purchased in one of the many “adult” shops around the corner of 6th Avenue and West 4th Street. Oh Padma, the levels to which you’ll stoop! She explains the complicated scoring system, and then the Top Chef Bowl begins.

I’m alarmed immediately when I hear about Nikki’s chicken livers. Blech. Even if I didn’t already know about her weak background, I would have predicted an easy victory for Leah. Hosea makes an AMAZING looking salmon roll with a ginger-blackberry sauce. It not only honored the region, what with the fruit and fresh berries, but it was unique. I wish I could go to there, and have his salmon roll right NOW. Despite a panicky start, Carla manages to triumph over Andrew with her gumbo n’ grits. Andrew should probably have spent less time trying to wow the crowd with his pathetic Southern accent.

Stefan somehow got distracted by Andrea’s loveliness while cooking-I can’t come up with any other explanation for his defeat. Perhaps he had too many components on his dish? How else does Tex-Mex chili beat out roasted pork and NY strip steak? For the record, this was a ploy on the producers' part! There is absolutely no way that Andrea’s dish was better. Stefan could beat her on his worst day, recovering from the flu, with his hands tied behind his back. And I don’t even particularly like him.

Jamie was victorious over Camille, who made a strange mixture of mushrooms, miso, crabmeat, and sweet potatoes. Jamie’s cioppino and sourdough toasts looked delicious and fresh. I appreciated Scott Conant’s comments about Jamie’s cooking ethic, and I really hope that she does make it to the finale. She’s a great chef.

The final two showdowns proved to fill the remaining two spots at judge’s table. The good doctor’s ceviche with sangria had "too much going on", and Fabio's venison was terribly overcooked. I sat in nervous apprehension while the judges deliberated, because I felt that I simply could not bear if Fabio was sent home, and though I hated to admit it, he probably deserved it. Overcooking a protein is a far greater culinary sin than having a dish with too many components. I suppose the argument could be made that Fabio had less desirable regional ingredients, while Dr. Chase should have been able to easily devise a great dish with the Miami ingredients.

While I liked the general concept behind the challenge, the judging process seemed completely arbitrary and ridiculous. For receiving the vote of the majority of the judges, a chef obtained 7 points for their team. If the testers in the audience liked their dish best, they got 3 points. Any chef who did not come out on top against the “all-stars” would be subject to elimination. Not only did that take away the authenticity of the challenge-what would the judges have done if the Season 5 chefs won each time?-but it took away the truly competitive element of the show. The chefs should be competing against each other, after all, not former contestants. I can imagine a challenge where the chefs had to PARTNER with them. I do not enjoy the feeling that I (and the contestants) have been used and manipulated for the purpose of better television.

Thus, my final thoughts on the episode are that it was a poorly developed challenge that certainly did not give the chefs even chances of winning. I’m fairly certain, also, that Fabio’s personality had a lot more to do with his remaining on the show rather than his cooking. No matter how disappointed I would have been, I know that Jeff deserved to stay. Oh well, at least he has Cameron waiting for him back at Princeton-Plainsboro.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chicken Parmigiana

Thursday, January 29, 2009
I know, I know. I should be reviewing last night's Top Chef episode instead of preparing to write about the amazingly delicious Chicken Parmigiana I made two nights ago. I should be mulling over which of Fabio's charming complaints and/or mantras should be my post title instead of finding myself more and more drawn into the twisty dealings of Patty Hewes and Co. on Damages, which is conveniently playing while I prepare to share my recipe. However, I have to wait for inspiration for my Top Chef recap, and that usually only comes with my second or third viewing, particularly with a subpar episode, which last night's certainly was.

I know the recipe I am about to share is not especially unique. Most chicken parm recipes follow a similar formula. I'm really only doing it for your (my loyal band of 3-4 readers) convenience-it's a fabulous, comforting, easy weeknight dish, and now you can just print out this entry and have it on hand. I could not have been more happy, (neither could my husband, for that matter) than I was on Tuesday evening, diving into a crunchy, yet moist, parmigiano-crusted chicken breast, doused in fire-roasted tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. My mouth is watering as I write, regretting the fact that we're having shrimp and pasta tonight instead.

This isn't Rachael Ray's first version of the recipe, but it's the only one I've tried, from her Big Orange Book.

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (You can use regular grated Parmesan, I'm sure, but I always purchase a wedge of this cheese. It is just infinitely better than the green can!)
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (I didn't have this on hand, so I skipped it)
5 tablespoons EVOO, plus more as needed
4 chicken breast halves, 1 1/2 to 2 pounds
Salt and pepper
3-4 garlic gloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 (28-ounce) can diced or crushed fire-roasted tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil (I am VERY lucky to be able to buy basil in a large container at Trader Joe's, because usually I'd skip this step. I have a hard time justifying purchasing a tiny amount of leaves for a HUGE price. I have to say, though, it makes a tremendous difference having the fresh, heavenly scent of basil leaves in the dish.)
1 cup shredded smoked fresh mozzarella (I simply used a bag of lowfat shredded mozzarella from the dairy case)

1. Preheat the broiler.
2. Set up three dishes on your countertop: one with the flour, one with the eggs, and a third with the bread crumbs, half the grated Parm, and the parsley combined.
3. Heat 3 tablespoons of the EVOO in a large skillet over medium-high heat. While the pan is heating up, season the chicken cutlets with salt and pepper, and coat each one in the flour, then in the egg, and lastly in the cheesy bread crumbs.
4. Once the oil is hot, cook 2 of the chicken cutlets until they are golden brown and cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes per side depending on how thick they are. Transfer the cooked cutlets to a paper-towel lined plate and repeat with the remaining 2 cutlets, adding more oil to the pan if needed.
5. While the chicken is cooking, place a medium pot on the stove over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of EVOO. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, chopped onion, oregano, salt, and pepper. Cook for 7 to 8 minutes, stirring often, until the veggies have softened. Add the tomatoes and heat them through, about 2 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the basil, then season the sauce with salt and pepper.
6. Spread a layer of the sauce in a casserole dish. Layer the chicken on top and cover with the remaining sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining grated Parmigiano and the mozzarella. Brown the casserole under the broiler until the cheese has melted and is light golden brown, about 3 minutes. Garnish with additional basil and serve.

All I have to show for this dish is this humble photo, taken after my husband and I had devoured the majority of the food. What can I say? We couldn't resist!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Top 5 Tuesday

Tuesday, January 27, 2009
In honor of the upcoming super special, super-sized post Superbowl episode of The Office, I decided that this week’s Top 5 would be a detailed list of my favorite episodes. Now, my romantic leanings will be quite obvious as you peruse this list, because while no other show can have me in stitches or brimming with hearty belly laughs like this one, my favorite aspect has always been the burgeoning, tender, slow burn relationship between Jim and Pam. Jim’s running practical jokes on Dwight are a close second. You’ll notice that my list is primarily comprised of episodes from Season 3, but the entire series is absolutely wonderful.

5. Women’s Appreciation. This episode is a wonderful example of what makes The Office great. Equal parts hilarious and touching, I could watch it over and over. From the opening scenes with Phyllis’s unfortunate flashing to the girls’ shopping trip, it’s just gold. Gold, people! I’m not sure which was best: Michael’s hilariously brazen indifference to Phyllis’s embarrassment and ensuing uncomfortable jokes or his awkward admission that he doesn’t want to be with Jan. Was I attached to this episode because of the men’s discovery of the glory of the women’s bathroom? Or because the cracks that were revealed to be the beginning of the disintegration of the relationship between Jim and Karen? Perhaps the real reason why I loved it so much came in the final moments, when Michael wished that Kelly could have a brain, that Angela could have a heart, and that Pam could have courage, perfectly filmed as a voiceover as we watch Pam board the elevator with Jim and Karen.

4. The Injury. If you were to Google “top Office episodes”, this one would undoubtedly come up, on probably every list you find. It’s an Office classic. So named because of Michael’s disastrous attempt at preparing his morning bacon in his George Foreman grill and the resulting burned foot, it is actually Dwight who incurs the more serious injury, when he crashes his car in his reckless efforts to help Michael. Witnessing Dwight in a more “normal” frame of mind, where he helps Pam download songs from a Russian website and playfully smacks Angela’s behind was funny, but Jim’s drive to the hospital (in Meredith’s crusty van, no less), spraying cleaner from a bottle into both Michael and Dwight’s faces, is even better. “No. A real disability, not a woman’s trouble.”

3. Money. One of a series of hour-long episodes, Money gave us loyal viewers treat after treat. Not only did we discover that Dwight’s beet farm moonlights as a bed and breakfast, we were able to witness Dwight in the role of said B and B owner, because Jim and Pam, predictably, couldn’t resist making a reservation. After an evening of table-making demonstrations, crushing beets into beet wine, and bedtime stories (Harry Potter), we learn that Dwight doesn’t have indoor plumbing and he isn’t at all over Angela. While Michael deals with money problems back at the office (he doesn’t know what a CD is and his erratic spending -he felt the need to buy not one, but two magic kits-has plunged him into serious credit card debt), Dwight struggles with his broken heart. In one of my favorite Office scenes ever, after comforting a sobbing Dwight, Jim rushes back to the office, overwhelmed by his gratitude for his relationship with Pam, and gives her a perfectly sweet kiss. It’s the first real kiss the viewers got to see, and it doesn’t disappoint!

2. Beach Games. In the penultimate episode of the third season, we finally get to see “Don’t call me Pammie” Fancy New Beesly break out of her shell. After being largely ignored during Michael’s ridiculous Survivor challenges, dreamed up as a way to help him “choose his replacement”, Pam gets the nerve up to confess her feelings to Jim, in front of the office crowd. Her speech isn’t particularly graceful or eloquent, but it was a big, brave step. I was completely swept up in the episode, and when I looked back on it, I realized it could have sufficed as a season finale. It was that good.

1. The Job. The final episode of the third season could have been the advent of much change around the office. Jim, Michael, and Karen were all vying for Jan’s old job at corporate, Pam no longer had to live in regret that she had sheltered her feelings for Jim too long, and Dwight was preparing to paint his new (Michael’s old) office black, ready for his reign of terror. However, all was as it should be by the episode’s conclusion. Ryan, the most heartless and thus most deserving, left Scranton for Jan’s job, Michael sacrifices his chance for the job as soon as he realizes that it was Jan’s position, Dwight accepts his old position as assistant (to the) regional manager, and Jim finally comes back. (Yes, that was a cryptic last line, but if you see the episode, you’ll know what I mean.) I watched the episode with my best friend in Austin, and we held hands, laughed, AND cried at the conclusion.

Don’t forget to tune in this Sunday after the Superbowl!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

more pearls of wisdom from Pally Thompson

Sunday, January 25, 2009
Way back when, I wrote a post inspired by Bobby Rex's Greatest Hit. I didn't include all the best bits, but as of late, I've felt that I can't NOT have my favorite passages in my blog. I loved the whole experience of reading Bobby Rex's Greatest Hit, but these words struck me at the core with their raw veracity.

"That's now," I say. "I'm talking about then. They had a car with the roof blowtorched off that they called the Sardine. It was a heap, and the one time I rode in it, I thought I was going to die."

"Why do you still like them?" he asked.

"It's easy to like people you don't really know anymore. You can even forgive them." Then I look at him meaningfully. "It's the people you know who are always the hardest to love. You expect so much from the people that you love that you are bound to be disappointed."
I feel that these words have a painful, truthful poignancy. Isn't it true that we expect the most from the people we love? We hold those individuals up to almost impossible standards, so we shouldn't be surprised when they're the ones that eventually let us down. I don't mean to sound resentful, or negative-I happen to think those words are a beautiful illustration of what makes us all human.

This is why I loved Bobby Rex.

"I think you're made of very, very good stuff."

I heart Bones.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"In love and in war, you are allowed to do everything."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Restaurant Wars has an ominous beginning, as we’re set up for the demise of the lovebirds (Hosea and Leah) almost immediately. Besides the obvious signs-while relaxing on the balcony, no doubt without the protection of SPF 30, Stefan asked Hosea what the first thing he wanted to do was when he got home, and his reply was “See my girlfriend”-it’s also important to note that both of the cheatin’ chefs were also facing the consequences of their ill-treatment of Ariane in the previous challenge. It’s obvious that the chefs are feeling more and more anxious as the competition continues-Carla says that being in the final 8 is akin to psychological warfare.

Padma appears to grow more and more cheerful with each quickfire. Perhaps her beaming face and overwhelming joy in this episode was due to the fact that finally we have reached the point where the winner of the quickfire no longer receives immunity? She stands in one her less fashionable getups next to the guest judge, Stephen Starr, acclaimed restauranteur. I like the idea of having a restauranteur as the guest judge for the Restaurant Wars episode-it gives a sense of authenticity to the challenge.

For the quickfire, the chefs must come up with a unique dish that would showcase a concept for a prospective restaurant. I, for one, would be terrified. Especially with a 30 minute limit. Fabio has difficulty opening the refrigerator. Hosea peels potatoes like nobody’s business. Dr. Chase, of course, has opened restaurants before and can “sell anybody anything.” Leah’s red snapper is skanky and she has to choose another protein. Jamie and her seasonable, local, sustainable ingredients are a veritable beacon of calm and light in the midst of panic and fear.

None of the chefs really seemed to have the “concept” idea straight in their head, although Leah’s tempura poussin was by far the most unique. I did not understand Stefan’s Eur-American, and neither did Stephen Starr. Dr. Chase’s salmon was painfully overcooked-I was embarrassed for him. I was proud of Radhika for sticking with her original interest, the “global small plates” concept. I thought Jamie’s dish looked delicious-I would go to her future restaurant. For sure.

In the end, Stephen Starr declared he would not be inclined to invest in the future business ventures of either Dr. Chase or Fabio. Fabio, I should mention, was completely offended by the comparison of his filet mignon sandwich to a cheesesteak. Leah and Radhika were announced the winners, so they would be selecting the chefs for their rival restaurants. Winning the quickfire in the Restaurant Wars episode is a double-edged sword-you usually get a great bonus, like choosing the chefs you want to work with, but as head chef, you’re always most at risk if something goes wrong.

Radhika selects Jamie, Carla, and Dr. Chase. Obviously, Leah’s first pick was Hosea. No big surprise there. Fabio and Stefan made up the rest of her team, Stefan being the last chef left in the schoolyard pick. This will prove to be an ironic twist, as you’ll see at the end of the episode.

Team Radhika seems to immediately benefit from Jamie’s calm exterior and experience. She quietly attempts to coax delegating decisions out of Radhika, while Dr. Chase asserts himself , stating that he wants to cook, not be at the front of the house, and Carla makes sure her team knows that she has the least restaurant experience. By the way, I called that one in the very first episode. As a caterer, Carla can really only get so far in the competition. It’s amazing that she has managed to stick around as long as she has. This challenge is a perfect example of the tremendous pressure of working in a restaurant. Catering is so different, a much more isolated event, rather than 24/7 craziness. I’m impressed with all of them, EXCEPT Radhika. Instead of acknowledging her teammates’ admission of strengths and weaknesses and dealing with them appropriately, she flounders and makes several poor decisions, most notably deciding that she would take the front of the house.

After both teams spend $5000 on restaurant décor at Pier 1, Team Leah sits around the table in the loft, eating Whole Foods brand barbecue potato chips, and discusses their Asian restaurant concept. As usual, Stefan is steam rolling over the team, insisting that the servings should be “pretty, tight, small and sexy.” He also refuses to tell the team about his desserts. So not a team player.

Team Radhika’s deliberating continues at the loft as well. Jamie appears to be an excellent leader. She encourages Carla to share what she feels confident in making, saying that the team will help her to spice it up, so that it will fit with their “old spice trade flavors” theme. Radhika appears mute and virtually useless.

Cue the rise of the moon, glowing red street lights, and cheesy music. The viewers are now treated, through a tiny crack of a window in the loft, to a view of Leah and Hosea snuggling on the couch, much closer than any faithful girlfriend with a boyfriend or boyfriend with a girlfriend should be. There was also kissing. And sighing. And matching white t-shirts and jeans.

Leah and Hosea both woke the next morning feeling ashamed and full of regret about their nocturnal canoodling. Not only do they feel guilty about their respective significant others, Leah to the point of tears, but the awkwardness between them seems sure to affect the challenge. It’s worth noting that Fabio and Leah go to Whole Food together, leaving Hosea and Stefan to go to the Restaurant Depot. Both teams have names now, by the way. Team Radhika is Team Sahana, which is Sanskrit for strong, or something like that. Stefan came up with Sunset Lounge for Leah’s team, perhaps inspired by the events of the previous evening.

The chefs arrive at their restaurant spaces and begin the extremely stressful process of prep and decorating. Leah and Hosea are distracted and tense. He’s literally sweating bullets, and she looks to be on the verge of tears, particularly when she mangles her cod while attempting to de-bone it. Stefan, on the other hand, is extremely collected. When his panna cotta doesn’t set properly in the freezer, he improvises with a huge bowl of ice.

Carla is having major problems with that freezer-it’s essentially useless, but for the most part, Team Sahana is completely productive and relaxed. Until the servers arrive, that is. At that point, Radhika’s lack of confidence is alarming. She doesn’t give Carla any advice about the dessert, and instead of training the servers, she walks around them in circles and looks frightened. She doesn’t appear to have spent much time in the kitchen during the prep, while Fabio, the rival front of the house, literally changed into his white suit moments before the restaurants opened.

I should mention that I have abdicated Team Hosea. I am now Team Fabio.

The judges head to Sahana first. While Radhika shyly greets them and the other guests, those waiting at Sunset Lounge are dazzled by Fabio and his charming accent. Jamie is single-handedly running Sahana, being such a perfectionist that she won’t send out a plate with a mussed garnish. As the judges admire the chickpea cake with a grilled scallop and the curried carrot soup, I immediately think that Jamie is at it again! More scallops! The chefs like the first course, as well as the second, which consisted of red snapper and braised lamb shank. Then came dessert, a disaster on a plate. Well two plates, actually. The frozen yogurts were more like creamy soups. Toby Young compared the meal to the career of Elvis Presley, “started out great, but died on the toilet.” Ouch!

The Sunset Lounge is a much cheerier place, due to the presence of Fabio as a host. He briefly breaks away from his personal visits to each table to graciously greet the judges. Unfortunately, the food doesn’t really match up to the ambiance. Amuse bouche, appetizer, and main course are all disappointing. In fact, after the judges receive undercooked cod, they don’t even ask for new plates. Leah is despondent and apathetic in the kitchen, even stalking away from Hosea’s attempt at a comforting hug. If judgment had occurred at this point, Sahana would must certainly have secured a victory. All of this changes, however, when dessert arrives. The judges absolutely loved Stefan’s desserts-Tom even admitted that they were the best dishes of the night.

Thus, it all came down to desserts and service. Stefan’s delicious desserts and Fabio’s personality gave Sunset Lounge a victory. In any other challenge, service would not have been much of a relevant factor. For Restaurant Wars, however, it’s very important. The fact is, if you eat at a restaurant with wonderful food but terrible service, there’s a solid chance that you won’t return. If Radhika had been a halfway decent host, Leah would have been packing her bags, even with Carla’s bad desserts.

I did not take issue with the judges’ decision to send Radhika home. She made little to no contribution to the food, proved to be a poor head chef, and clearly could not play the role of a host. Her explanations have continued to be weak and smacking of an avoidance of responsibility. It’s important to remember that this competition is specifically geared towards restaurant chefs and owners-there’s a skill set which any chef/owner needs to have, and Radhika doesn’t seem to have these skills.

I should mention that my respect for Jamie surged back this week-not only because she proved to be an able leader, but because she didn’t make those scallops! She made the lamb and soup! Final three, at the very least. I’m saying it again now.

Hopefully next week’s All Star edition will be more exciting. I usually love the Restaurant Wars episode, but I think this edition was disappointing.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Did you think I'd forgotten?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Here's a lovely new movie still. Just in case you were wondering, the saga has not yet released its hold on me!

Shameless plug...

You may think, upon hearing that the premise of this beloved show is centered around Texas high school football, that it's not for you, and that it could only appeal to a limited audience. I must insist that you give Friday Night Lights a chance! I'm not alone-critics at Entertainment Weekly, People magazine, and many other respected entertainment publications wholeheartedly and virtually unanimously praise the show for its powerful acting and heart-wrenching story lines. I wanted to mention it, not only because I'm such a fan, but because its future success depends on garnering more viewers. You can check out the first and second seasons on Hulu.

Vote for Smitten Kitchen!

If you haven't already clicked on smitten kitchen over on my blog roll, you should check it out immediately! If you enjoy food, that is... I love Deb's blog-absolutely stunning pictures, scrumptious recipes, and funny, witty writing.

Once you go and see all the fuss, consider voting for Deb over at the Well Fed Network-she's nominated for best food blog. I was tempted to vote twice, but that just wouldn't be right :)

UPDATE: Not only was Deb nominated at the Well Fed Network, she has been nominated for THREE bloggies! After you secretly laugh to yourself for how funny that word sounds, even if you're a seasoned blogger, you should vote!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Top 5 Tuesday (yes, it's late!)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009
You will have to pretend that this last entry mysteriously appeared this morning, instead of yesterday, TUESDAY, morning. It is, after all a Top 5 Tuesday entry. Not Top 5 Wednesday. Of course I wouldn’t have been too busy yesterday pretending to work on my reading for school and not reading this lovely tale to finish this easiest of all Top 5 entries. Not me!

What was difficult about this week’s Top 5, my most-used cookbooks, is that I would have to acknowledge that Rachael Ray would most certainly easily fill all five slots. I thought it might be a good idea, however, to include a few selections that I do love, but just don’t tend to rely on quite as much as Rachael. Since it is my blog, and I can write about whatever I choose, you can expect a future Top 5 list for Rachael Ray cookbooks only and another Top 5 devoted to the remainder of my gigantic cookbook collection. I’m obviously kind of an expert on cookbook authors, so it’s only fair that I share my knowledge with the world!

Also, this is going to be a rather long post. I’ve decided to include a recipe from each of the cookbooks. It seemed fitting.

Here we go!

5. Barefoot Contessa at Home, Ina Garten. Now, I actually don’t turn to this cookbook all that often. Ina Garten tends to craft recipes that have a fat and calorie content a bit too high for my taste. There is something very comforting, however, in her general approach to cooking. The atmosphere and general ambiance is just as important to Ina as the food. She’s always tooling around her garden and finding lovely, seasonally-appropriate flowers to decorate her tables with, and she works on making dishes that she can prepare in advance, so as to be able to spend all her time visiting with her guests. I also must confess an addiction to her voice-it’s SO soothing! Turn on the Food Network and see for yourself! And then go make this delicious Lemon Yogurt Cake. Ina thinks it’s better for you because it contains yogurt, but don’t be fooled!

Lemon Yogurt Cake, from Barefoot Contessa at Home

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
3 extra-large eggs
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

for the glaze:
1 cup confectioner's sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8 1/2 x 4 1/4 x 2 1/2 inch loaf pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper. Grease and flour the pan.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into one bowl. In another bowl, whisk together the yogurt, 1 cup sugar, the eggs, lemon zest, and vanilla. Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. With a rubber spatula, fold the vegetable oil into the batter, making sure it's all incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a cake tester placed in the center of the loaf comes out clean.
3. Meanwhile, cook the 1/3 cup lemon juice and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a small pan until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Set aside.
4. When the cake is done, allow it to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Carefully place on a baking rake over a sheet pan. While the cake is still warm, pour the lemon-sugar mixture over the cake and allow it to soak in. Cool.
5. For the glaze, combine the confectioner's sugar and lemon juice and pour over cake.

4. Fresh Every Day, Sara Foster. This cookbook is one of my absolute favorites. It actually kills me to think that after spending four years at Duke, I visited Foster’s Market, the inspiration for the cookbook, only once. There are many recipes to enjoy, but the one that have made 100’s of times and LOVED each time is the Fresh Mozzarella Salad with Avocado, Roasted Corn, and Grape Tomatoes. I could eat it by the bucketful.

Fresh Mozzarella Salad with Avocado, Roasted Corn, and Grape Tomatoes, from Fresh Every Day

4 ears sweet corn, in the husk (I have used frozen corn in the winter months)
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4 inch cubes, or bocconcini
2 ripe avocados, halved, peeled, and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1/2 pint grape or other small tomato varieties, havled
8-10 fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup Summer Herb Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
several handfuls of young arugula or baby greens

Summer Herb Vinaigrette
1/3 cup red wine vinaigrette
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 or 3 fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Combine the vinegar, mustard, lemon zest and juice, basil, oregano, and parsely in a small bowl and stir to mix. Whisk in the olive oil in a slow, steady, stream until all of the oil is incorporated. Season with salt and pepper. Use immediately or store refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
1. Preheat the oven to 400.
2. Soak the corn in the sink or a bowl filled with cold water for 10 to 15 minutes. Place on a baking sheet with sides and roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until the kernels are tender. Cool to room temperature, then pull off and discard the husks and silks. Cut the kernels off the cob into a large bowl.
3. Add the mozzarella, avocados, tomatoes, basil, salt, and pepper to the bowl with the corn. Drizzle 1/2 cup of the vinaigrette over the salad and toss gently. Be careful not to over-mix or mash the avocado. Season with more salt, pepper, or vinaigrette to taste. Serve on a bed or arugula or baby greens.

*I have made this dish several times using a basic lime juice and olive oil dressing instead of the vinaigrette, and I've also livened it up by adding a can of beans.

3. Jamie’s Dinners, Jamie Oliver. Jamie Oliver holds the (of course) much coveted title of second best, for me. I love perusing his cookbooks, which are inevitably full of fresh, fairly straightforward recipes. That he’s a funny, charming chef, too certainly doesn’t hurt! I recently discovered Jamie’s Ministry of Food video podcasts, and I could watch them over and over. Go check them out! Free on ITunes! Anyway, I have used Jamie’s Dinners more than any of his other cookbooks, though I do have most of them. It contains my go-to recipe for Chicken Tikka, an excellent recipe for Fish Pie, and lots of great pasta recipes. I’m going to have to share Rigatoni with Sweet Tomatoes, Eggplant, and Mozzarella, though. The husband and I have the recipe memorized-definitely one of our favorite dishes.

Rigatoni with Sweet Tomatoes, Eggplant, and Mozzarella, from Jamie's Dinners

1 firm ripe pink, black, or white eggplant
extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 14 oz cans of good-quality plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
optional: 1-2 fresh or dried chiles, chopped or crumbled
a bunch of fresh basil, leaves ripped and stalks sliced
4 tablespoons heavy cream
1 lb rigatoni or penne
7 oz fresh mozzarella
1 piece of Parmesan cheese, for grating

1. Remove both ends of the eggplant and slice it into 1/2 inch thick slices, then slice these across and finely dice into 1/2 inch cubes. Some people prefer to season their eggplant with salt and let it sit for a while in a colander to draw out the bitterness, but I don't really do this unless I'm dealing with a seedy, bitter eggplant. This dish is really best made using a firm silky one.
2. Now put a large saucepan on the heat and drizzle in 4 to 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. When it's hot, add the cubes of eggplant, and as soon as they hit the pan stir them around with a spoon so they are delicately coated with the oil and not soaked on one side only. Cook for about 7 to 8 minutes on a medium heat. Then add the garlic and onion. When they have a little color, add the canned tomatoes and the balsamic vinegar. Stir around and season carefully with salt and pepper. At this point, if you wanted to give the dish a little heat you could add some chopped fresh or crumbled dried chile, but that's up to you. Add the basil stalks, and simmer the sauce nice and gently for around 15 minutes, then add the cream.
3. While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add the pasta. Cook according to the package directions until it is soft but still holding its shape, then drain it, saving a little of the cooking water. I like to put the pasta back into the pot it was cooked in with a tiny bit of the cooking water and drizzle of olive oil and move it around so it becomes almost dressed with the water and oil.
4. At this point add the lovely tomato sauce to the pasta. By now the eggplant will have cooked into a creamy tomatoey pulp, which is just yum yum yum! Season carefully to taste with salt and pepper. When all of my guests are sitting round the table, I take the pan to the table, tear up the mozzarella and the fresh basil, and fold these in nicely for 30 seconds. Then very quickly serve into bowls. By the time your guests start to eat, the mozzarella will have started to melt and will be stringy and gorgeous and really milky-tasting. Just lovely with the tomatoes and eggplant. Serve at the table with a block of Parmesan cheese and a grater so that everyone can help themselves.

*The conversational notes in the recipe are all Jamie, not me!

2. 30 Minute Meals 2, Rachael Ray. This cookbook was to be the first of many Rachael Ray purchases. I’ve read it so many times that I could practically recite all the recipes by heart. Not all of her cookbooks are organized by menu, which is one thing that makes this one particularly appealing. It’s so nice to not have to think up a side dish! One of the best recipes, which not only tastes great but has the potential for a lovely presentation, is John’s Fish: Tilapia with Tomatillo Sauce, accompanied by Avocados with Creamy Maque Choux.

John's Fish: Tilapia with Tomatillo Sauce + Avocados with Creamy Maque Choux, from 30 Minute Meals 2

4 fillets tilapia (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds)
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 tablespoons EVOO
the juice of 1 lime
1/2 medium red onion, chopped
1 jalepeno or serrano pepper, seeded, and finely chopped
2 or 3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
8-10 tomatillos, peeled and diced with juice
coarse salt, to taste
1/2 bottle pale beer
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, plus a few sprigs for garnish

(for avocados)
1 tablespoon EVOO
1/2 red onion, chopped
1 jalepeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
4 ears fresh corn on the cob, husked
a sprinkle of sugar
dash cayenne pepper
dash salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 ripe avocados
the juice of 1 lime
coarse salt

1. Season tilapia on both sides with salt, pepper, cumin, and paprika. Preheat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the hot skillet and saute tilapia 3 minutes on each side, turning carefully with a thin spatula. Squeeze the juice of 1/2 lime over the fish, and transfer fillets to a warm serving platter.
2. Return skillet to the stove over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, red onion, jalepeno, and garlic and saute, 1 minute or 2, then add tomatillos. Season with salt and pepper, and saute another 1 or 2 minutes. Add beer and the juice of 1/2 a lime, and bring sauce to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, 45 minutes.
3. While sauce is simmering, get a second skillet hot over moderate heat. Add olive oil, onion, jalepeno, bell pepper, and saute, 2 or 3 minutes. Working on a plate to catch the milky juices, scrape corn off the cob. Break up kernels and pour into the skillet. Combine with peppers and onions. Season with sugar, cayenne, and salt. When mixture bubbles, reduce heat to a simmer. Cut butter into pieces, stir into corn mixture, and simmer until creamy, 5 to 7 minutes.
4. Cut avocados in half lengthwise and remove pits. Squeeze lime juice over the avocados to keep them from browning and season with a little coarse salt.
5. Back to the sauce for the fish: add cilantro and adjust salt and pepper, to taste. Spoon hot tomatillo sauce over the fish and garnish with sprigs of cilantro.
6. To serve, set 1/2 an avocado per person alongside a service of fish, topped with tomatillo sauce. Fill the avocado with maque choux, allowing the corn to spill down and over the sides. The ripe avocado is spooned away from its skin with bites of creamy, warm corn and peppers.

1. 365: No Repeats, a Year of Deliciously Different Dinners, Rachael Ray. If you were able to observe my cookbook shelves more closely, it would be immediately obvious which of my cookbooks has sustained the most use. My worn, much-abused copy of 365: No Repeats is wrinkled from water damage, slightly unglued from the binding, and has many a dog-eared page. Obviously a testament to how great it is! Agh! Just as I was writing and thumbing through the book to figure out which recipe, among many great ones, to share, a large portion of the book slipped from the binding! You can see why it’s number one! While I attempt to put it back together, I suggest you run to the grocery store and immediately purchase all the needed ingredients for Wild Cream of Mushroom Egg Noodle Bake, Hold the Canned Soup (Rachael is big on cute-sy titles). HMMMMMMM!

Wild Cream of Mushroom Egg Noodle Bag, Hold the Canned Soup, from 365: No Repeats

Cream of Mushroom Sauce:
1 tablespoon EVOO
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 button mushrooms, brushed off with a damp towel and chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken stock or broth
1 cup whole milk or cream
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons EVOO
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 portobello mushroom caps, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 pound fresh mixed wild mushrooms, such as shiitakes, oysters and wood-ears, stems trimmed and caps thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped (from 4 sprigs)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup dry white wine, or more stock
1 pound extra-wide egg noodles
1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter, salted
3/4 pound Gruyere or Emmentaler cheese, shredded
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives (12-15 chives)

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the egg noodles.
2. To make the mushroom sauce, heat a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Add the EVOO and the butter. When the butter melts, add the chopped button mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes, until just tender. Sprinkle in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in the chicken stock and bring to a bubble, then stir in the whole milk. Reduce the heat to low and gently simmer. Season the sauce with nutmeg, salt and pepper.
3. To make the casserole, heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the two tablespoons of EVOO, then the shallots and the mushrooms. Cook the mushrooms for 8 minutes, or until tender. Season with the thyme, salt, and pepper, and deglaze the pan with the wine or a little stock. Reduce the heat to medium low and let the liquid cook off.
4. Preheat the broiler to high.
5. While the mushrooms cook, drop the egg noodles into the boiling water, salt the water, and cook the noodles until al dente, with a bite to them. Drain the noodles and return to the hot pot. Add the creamy sauce to the pot and toss the noodles to coat in the sauce.
6. Lightly coat a casserole dish with the softened butter, then transfer the cream of mushroom noodles to the dish and top with the mushroom ragout and the shredded cheese. Place the casserole under the broiler and melt and bubble the cheese until brown at the edges. Garnish with chives and serve.

I'm sorry this post is SOOOO long, but these recipes are just so good!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Inside-Out Turkey Bacon Cheeseburgers with Oven O-Rings

Friday, January 16, 2009

I was quite the thrifty housewife over the past two weeks-I made a detailed grocery list, paper-clipped all my receipts to the list so that I could track my expenses, and cut out coupons from our weekly Safeway newspaper inserts. I feel that it's always better to make as few trips as possible, especially when trying to save money. While I'm on the subject, here's another good piece of grocery shopping advice: don't go when hungry! I can't tell you how many times I've ended up with a cart full of various dark chocolate treats, different kinds of string cheese or a combination of Golden Grahams and Lucky Charms.

Alright, I shall cease my ruminations about grocery shopping and get to my topic at hand: the delicious dinner that I made this evening. I should mention that the reason why I started on that note was that I found an amazing deal on ground turkey in my coupon search-$2.50 for a 20 ounce package! I came to an appreciation for ground turkey only recently, mostly because I'm a beef girl all the way-I grew up on a ranch, after all! However, ground turkey is slightly less fatty (than ground sirloin, anyway), so I can make burgers and such more often if I throw it in the mix every once in a while.

Our dinner was great, and except for the dredging of the onion rings, was quick and easy to prepare. I'll be making those again, by the way! Spicy, crispy, and not terribly unhealthy! By the way, I used regular bacon instead of turkey bacon. I already had bacon on hand, so I saved a bit more money, which likely made my dinner even more flavorful.

Inside-Out Turkey Bacon Cheeseburgers with Oven O-Rings
from Yum-O, the Family Cookbook, by Rachael Ray

6 slices turkey bacon, chopped (I used regular bacon)
1 tablespoon EVOO
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon smoked chipotle powder or 2 teaspoons chili powder (I used the chipotle, and it gave them a great spicy kick!)
all-purpose flour, for dredging, about 1 cup
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
2 pounds ground turkey breast
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup spicy brown mustard (I only used about a tablespoon)
3/4 cup shredded or crumbled sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 head of redleaf or other lettuce, chopped (I used spinach)
1 beefsteak tomato, sliced
4 kosher dill pickles, chopped (I wasn't too concerned with the condiments, so I just used what I had on hand, which was one tiny tomato and a bag of spinach)

1. Preheat the oven to 425.
2. Arrange the bacon in a large nonstick skillet and heat over medium heat. Slowly crisp up the bacon, cooking for 3-4 minutes on each side. Remove the bacon from the skillet and, when cool, chop. Add the EVOO to the remaining drippings and set aside.
4. While the bacon is crisping, combine the cornmeal and chipotle powder in a shallow bowl. Set up two more shallow bowls, filling one with the flour and the other with the buttermilk. Dip the onion rings in the buttermilk, then dredge the rings in the flour, tossing them lightly in your hands to remove the excess. Dip them once again in the buttermilk, and finally coat them fully with the cornmeal mixture. Place the dredged rings on a cookie sheet and bake until crispy, 15 to 18 minutes.
5. While the onion rings are baking, place the ground turkey in a large mixing bowl, season with salt and pepper, and mix in the mustard. Divide the meat into 4 equal portions. Shape each portion into a burger, making a well in the center. Fill the well of each with one quarter of the crisp bacon pieces and 2 tablespoons of the cheese. Carefully form the burger around the cheese and bacon filling, making sure the filling is completely covered. Return the skillet you cooked the bacon in to medium-high heat. Add the burger patties to the hot skillet and cook for 2 minutes on each side, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the burgers for 5-6 minutes longer, turning occasionally. Do not press down on the burgers as they cook.
6. Serve each burger on a bed of lettuce topped with sliced tomato, chopped pickles, and a few oven o-rings (My husband prefers a bun to a bed of lettuce, so I happily obliged him).

"Where were you with the rolling and the tying?"

Oh no! Leah has fallen from the pedestal of my esteem! How did this happen? I have forgotten how quickly things can change. For the worse! Now, I’m not going to say that I was totally shocked by the judge’s decision, because in a way, it was a long time coming. However, the eliminated chef might not have truly deserved this particular exit. Alright, I will end with my cryptic early recap ramblings and get back to the beginning of the episode.

The producer in lust with Dr. Chase must have decided it had been too long since the viewers were able to gape at his chest-we got a quick peek as he dressed before the quickfire. There is some animosity brewing between Hosea and Stefan. Hosea, wearing a most darling and original “I love Padma” shirt, has inspired me to join Radhika as the second member of the “I Hate Stefan” club. Stefan is just supremely arrogant, and the few wins he’s garnered recently have just inflated his ego to an unbearable point.

Padma waits in the Top Chef kitchen in front of a large object draped with a white "Top Chef" cloth, with Hung, who until the arrival of Stefan, held the title of Top Villain. Now, there have been many chefs that aspired to the title of Top Villain, most notably Marcel of Season 2. Hung, however, was more of an ice-cold, not beyond sabotaging the other chefs kind of villain. Much worse. He’s also remembered fondly for his crazy speed-he can break down a whole chicken faster than I can measure out a cup of chicken stock. It’s almost scary. Fabio knows that Hung is especially great with fish, and is quite sure that under the “blanket” behind them is a whole aquarium. Cue the sweeping, ominous music…the “blanket” covers the contents of the Top Chef pantry. As in canned goods. The chefs have to create “the most delicious dish you can from the cupboard and pantry staples” in fifteen minutes! Holy cow!

It’s like a running of the bulls to the canned goods. Fabio and Hosea fight over a can of artichokes, Dr. Chase is getting terribly beat up (perhaps his iron physique is a bit misleading?) and there is just general bedlam. Of course, pure and perfect Jamie has NEVER worked with canned goods before, because she cooks everything fresh from the farm in San Francisco. I’m more than irritated with her by now, in fact, I’m barely able to respect her cooking. It’s insulting to the many working people in this country who don’t have those resources before them every evening. I’ll say this once, and I don’t feel that I’ll regret it: Jamie has got it coming! Stefan starts to saw a can of some unidentified gross product open-what happened to the lid, I wonder? I loathe him even more when he pushes Hosea into loaning him a piece of Spam.

Leah, Jamie, and Radhika landed on the bottom. Leah’s fried waffles were unimpressive, Radhika’s dish was essentially pureed beans with some toast, and Jamie’s dish showed little effort at all. He nailed her on that one, by the way, telling her that it looked like she just dumped the contents of the cans onto a piece of bread. Ha!

To be honest, the majority of the dishes looked absolutely terrible. While I love the episodes that present the chefs with huge challenges like this (remember the gas station shopping in Season 2?), I do NOT usually crave the ensuing dishes. I almost gagged as I looked at Ariane’s turkey spam slice, sitting in a grayish pile of gravy on a piece of toasted white bread. It looked worse than anything I've ever seen in a cafeteria.

Stefan, Hosea, and Dr. Chase proved triumphant. Hung loved Hosea’s split pea soup with pork rinds and spam, Dr. Chase’s fried conch and pina colada, and Stefan’s strange sandwich and soup. Unfortunately, Hosea’s generosity hurt him in the end, because Stefan won immunity. I wish that the good doctor could have won-obviously, I can’t know what the dish tasted like, but it looked great. Perfect presentation, in my humble opinion.

After several individual challenges, we were due for a team challenge. Padma brought out the knife block, and the chefs began to draw, selecting lamb, pig, or chicken. The chefs would be responsible for creating a seasonal meal based around their main protein. They will be cooking for a group of 16 people, and dessert should be on the menu! Problems arise almost immediately, specifically on the lamb and chicken teams. The lamb team consisted of Ariane, Hosea, and Leah. Ariane is instantly apprehensive, because she fears that the close relationship between Hosea and Leah will eclipse her contribution to the team, or at the very least, make it difficult. The chicken team, Jamie, Stefan, and Carla, is having problems mainly due to Stefan’s personality. He’s demanding and bossy, but strangely attached to Jamie, despite her dismissive behavior. Carla is stressing out because she “can’t create in that energy.” All she does during the strategizing is nod her head and look contemplative.

Despite my bad Jamie vibes, I could NOT believe Stefan’s poor behavior. Jamie was absolutely right-he had immunity, and should have allowed the girls carte blanche with the menu and planning. That’s commonly expected behavior of a chef with immunity on team challenges-at the very least, he should have collaborated with them, not attempted to take total control of the menu. I felt like I could actually feel the waves of anger and frustration THROUGH the television! Not to mention, Stefan continues to harass Hosea. I won’t stand for that!

Little did the chefs know, their Toyota Sequoias would not be taking them to Whole Foods Market. Instead, they headed right out of the city. When Fabio sees “bushes and trees “ he figures out that something is up. The chefs pull up to a beautiful, lush green farm, which Jamie, the one who knows everything, immediately identifies as Stone Barns. Stone Barns is a nonprofit farm and education center, which also includes Blue Hill restaurant, where Dan Barber is the head chef. The chefs learn that they’ll be “shopping” at the farm. I personally love the idea, though I had a flicker of concern that the chefs would be involved in slaughtering their proteins. Thankfully, the chefs just get the opportunity to meet the animals and then peruse the fields for fresh produce. Most of them are pretty excited about that.

Ariane is obviously a city mouse-she can’t even emulate the baa-ing of a lamb properly. Fabio waxes philosophically about respecting the animals we eat, and tramps around in the mud with the pigs. A chicken has an innate sense of Jamie’s unlikeable-ness, and starts attacking her. Dr. Chase gathers a bushel of green tomatoes for a fried-green tomato salad. He knows about those because he’s from the south. Yet another area of expertise to check off on his resume.

The chefs enter the kitchen at Blue Hill to find tons of fresh produce and carefully laid out pork, lamb, and chicken. It was really a lovely spread-like a perfectly organized stall at a farmer’s market. I start to feel apprehensive about Team Lamb-they haven’t divided up their tasks equally, which is always a problem. In team challenges, it’s important that every chef is responsible for at least one dish. Not every dish, and not just dessert. One strong contribution is essential. Team Pig works hard on ravioli, pork loin, grilled corn, and crème brulee. Crème brulee is like the kiss of death on this show-I’m not sure why Dr. Chase selected it as the dessert. Ariane is actually not a professional butcher, and she struggles to tie her roast lamb. It looked a terrible mess, and horror of horrors, I had a sneaking suspicion that Leah deliberately didn’t do much to help improve it. Team Chicken is surprisingly productive-for all his many faults, Stefan at least seems to be manageable when he is cooking.

Padma and the host of judges dove into the chefs’ dishes under a sweltering New York summer sun. Team Chicken was hugely successful, even though they made an ill-advised soup. I think that Stefan’s palate is likely very trustworthy-how else can you get away with soup at that time of year? Team Lamb failed miserably, largely due to the way the lamb was butchered. Fabio’s pesto overwhelmed the ravioli from Team Pig, and Dr. Chase’s idea of removing the fat from the pork loin was simply terrible.

Team Lamb and Pig both presented poor desserts. I told you it was a bad idea to make crème brulee! Dan Barber compared Team Lamb’s trifle to cafeteria food. Team Chicken’s tart had a delicious crust and great flavors.

Thus, it was no surprise to see Team Chicken called to the judge’s table first. Jamie’s chicken cutlet and Carla’s pastry were standouts, so Dan Barber declared the whole team winners. Jamie was probably inwardly fuming at this decision. The judges had little or no comments to make, which makes me think the food wasn’t absolutely outstanding, just well-suited for the challenge.

Team Lamb and Team Pig, on the other hand, were skewered by the judges. With Team Pig, the main problems were the extremely amateurish mistake of removing fat, which we all know is EXACTLY what gives pork its flavor, and a “heavy-handed” pesto. Team Lamb did not honor their protein. Ariane did her best to take responsibility for the dish, and when Hosea and Leah failed to back her up, she stood up for herself and confessed that she had requested help on multiple occasions during prepping. Leah barely admitted contributing to tying the roast, and Hosea could really only take credit for his roast potatoes. It was truly shameful. Tom and the judges eventually determined to send Ariane home, because technically, there is no excuse for not knowing how to properly butcher a lamb, but you can tell they didn’t feel great about the decision. Heck, I felt bad about it! I almost think that if Leah and Hosea hadn’t had such equally poor showings, it would have been a different decision. I don’t know if there is something going on with Ariane behind the scenes, but from what we’ve seen so far, she certainly didn’t deserve that kind of treatment from her fellow contestants. After this and watching the previews for next week, when we see Hosea finally falling prey to Leah’s feminine wiles, I’m going to have to say that I’m no longer Leah’s number one fan. Just when I was beginning to really like her!

Next week is Restaurant Wars! Almost always the best episode of the year!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Academy Award-worthy

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I'm on a quest to see at least two or three of the Academy Award-contending films of the year. As is usually the case, the films with the most current notoriety have rather dark, bleak stories. While I feel quite sure that there is inherent value in some of these films, and they're probably all showcases of excellent acting, I would like to feel encouraged, and happy after at least one film's conclusion, not depressed! Well, I made an excellent choice for my first viewing. Yesterday, my mother-in-law and I went to an afternoon showing of Slumdog Millionaire, the highly praised, critically lauded film about a young Indian boy who happens to be one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It's so much more than that insignificant description, though, a truly beautiful, uplifting film. I would call it a representation of the triumph of the human spirit, against dizzying odds. Go see it-you'll be so glad you did.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Top 5 Tuesday

Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Yes, my last post provides the perfect segue into this week's Top 5 list, which I'm simply titling, "Classic Jack." I've been quite transparent about my affection for 24, which has remained consistent despite a lackluster sixth season. Of course, Jack Bauer is the absolute heart of the show, and for good reason. He has pretty much sacrificed everything he's loved and himself, essentially to save the world. I admit it, that sounds like a bad punch line.

Anyway, I would like to highlight five classic Jack scenes. We all know that he's willing to go as far as it takes to achieve his ends, and he's been shocking and crafty time and time again. I opted to stay away from a few of his darker moves-he was forced to kill, in cold blood, not one, but TWO CTU agents, Ryan Chapelle and Curtis Manning, in order to negotiate with a terrorist (Yes, I know, we do NOT negotiate with terrorists!) and to save the life of a potentially important suspect. Jack is justifiably a mental mess.

The scenes that I have chosen for my top 5 are just a few of the most memorable. You should know that there are many, many more to choose from. Jack never lets us down! Just when you think he's been beaten, he gets back up again!

5. Season 1-Jack shoots Nina Myers. Now, unbeknownst to the evil masterminds holding Kim and Teri Bauer hostage, Jack actually managed to get a bulletproof vest on Nina before taking her out to the field to shoot her. The criminals were able to watch his every move, via CTU surveillance, but they missed the sneaky exchange of vests when Jack slammed Nina into a cabinet in his office. However, even the viewers were not privy to the full details of this exchange, so it was SHOCKING to see him actually shoot Nina, his partner, close friend, former lover, and, as it turned out in the end, the CTU mole. Even if she really didn't die!

4. Season 5-Jack uses a bomb meant to kill him to escape a locked room. In yet another of the instances when Jack's former friends/partners/mentors betray him, Jack was led to a death trap by Christopher Henderson, a dirty contractor working with the corrupt President Logan. Much to Christopher's chagrin, Jack was able to find the bomb in the room, lodge it in the doorway, and shield himself from the aftermath of the explosion. He immediately hopped up and ran right out of the room. Typical Jack behavior.

3. Season 3-Jack saws off Chase's hand to save him from the virus. Now, you might think it wouldn't be a difficult task to cut someone's hand off, particularly when doing so will not only save your life, but the lives of many others. It's not simple, people! He was amputating the hand of his partner! Needless to say, Jack saved Chase and the day, of course.

2. Season 5-Jack finagles his way into President Logan's helicopter and orchestrates a dramatic confrontation. He just has such an intimidating presence, our Jack. Did I really believe earlier in the season that he would slice the treasonous Walt Cummings' eye? In the presence of the president of the United States? Absolutely I did. Thus, nothing surprised me about Jack managing to board and co-pilot the President's flight, confronting him about his corruption and involvement in the murder of David Palmer. What was a surprise, and excellent twist, was that Jack planned the entire episode for the sole purpose of planting a recording device on the president, which his wife later used to elicit a full confession.

1. Season 2-Jack shoots a witness, then decapitates him. This is truly the classic Jack scene. When given little to work with, he does what he has to do to make it work! Having just been recruited to stop a nuclear attack, Jack is told that the one lead CTU has goes back to a guy Jack used to work with. Unfortunately, CTU hasn't been able to reach him, and their only leverage is a pedophile who would be witnessing against him in an upcoming trial. Jack calls the witness in and promptly shoots him, a fatal shot. Not two minutes later, he asks for a hack saw-you might have been confused about this request, not in small part because you're reeling from the murder of the witness. Just a few scenes later, we learn the reason for the saw: Jack has taken the head, as a trophy/bargaining item, to his former criminal partner. Crazy? Most definitely. Effective? Absolutely. By the way, I'm not condoning cold-blooded murder in the name of justice, but let it be a comfort that the guy was a sleazy pedophile who, in exchange for testifying, was getting off scot-free. I used a video instead of a picture-Jack takes over at 0:25.

I recommend tuning into Season 7-it's promising. If you're not that excited about it, at least give Season 5 a shot-it's by far the best, in my opinion. I've included a little teaser video recapping it, here. Wait for Jack's suave nod, at about 3:00. And by the way, I love Aaron Pierce!