Archive for October, 2009

Ketchup

topchefmikeNo, I’m  not going on another rant about ketchup and hot dogs and discrimination against those who like ketchup on their hot dogs. I’m way, way behind on my Top Chef recaps, so I’m just gonna do the Cliffs notes version real quick so I stop feeling like such a slacker.

First of all. Ash, Laurine, and Mike Not the Twin have all gone home. Of all these, I think Laurine did indeed deserve to be sent packing only because she is a non-entity. She always managed to slip in just under the radar, making dishes that were barely two clicks above “meh” and mousing around with her mousy hair and mousy face, being just unmemorable in every way. She was, however,  the focus of attention during Restaurant Wars in last week’s episode, taking over the front of the house role. Little did she realize the difficulty that would lie in not only cooking a dish, but also being in charge of expediting the food and orchestrating the timing of the service, which in and of itself is almost as difficult as actually churning out food in the kitchen. Laurine failed miserably at this, neglecting to tell the chefs when to fire the dishes while somehow also leaving finished dishes sitting for far too long under the heat. The hungry judges waited about 15 minutes for their food, and you wouldn’t like Padma when she’s hungry. So, peace out Laurine. You are average.

There was one moment during the Restaurant Wars where I actually felt bad for Robin. She was charged with making the dessert for her team and at one point, Mike V. came in and started taking over her line, quite literally yanking the sauce bottle out of her hand and angrily saucing her pear tart all under the pretense of “getting the food out faster.” Robin, quite rightly, told Mike to fuck off. It was the one instance in the entire season when I actually sided with Robin.

Anyway. Surprisingly, the victor of Restaurant Wars was NOT the team with Kevin on it, but the team with Robin, the Twins, and Eli. They won in spite of their stupid fucking name, Revolt, thanks to Eli’s aggressive but thorough front of house expertise and finely tuned dishes.

Last night’s episode was really super awesome because famous actress and stoner Natalie Portman was the guest judge. She’s so stinkin cute. Anyway, the Quickfire was some throwaway bullshit about crafting a dish based on an iconic TV show. Mike I. claimed he had never seen Seinfeld, which was weird, and Kevin won. Again. The Elimination challenge started out being really exciting for the cheftestants, as they were led to believe they would be cooking in Tom Collichio’s restaurant, Craftsteak. There was much hilarious scrambling and planning and menu-preparation, everyone claiming they were gonna cook SO MUCH MEAT. Ha! Idiots.

The morning of the challenge, Tom smugly wandered into the kitchen and announced the guest judge. In walked Natalie Portman, who then promptly dashed the chefs’ hopes and dreams by informing them that she’s a vegetarian. Long story short, everyone’s dishes were essentially nothing more than side dishes, whereas KEVIN’S dish, a big steaming pile of braised mushrooms and kale, was substantial and meaty enough to win top honors. Is there anything Kevin can’t do? Seriously. He just keeps fucking WINNING and it’s AWESOME. It really doesn’t even matter that my Top Chef Fantasy team consists only of Robin and Kevin, because I have faith Kevo is gonna pull off some spectacular domination in the episodes to come. (Pretty sure Padma and Natalie sparked one up before the judge’s dinner because it was a nonstop gigglefest. Priceless. )

So yeah. Kevin wins, Mike I. goes home, so now we’re down to Kevin, Jen, Robin, Eli, and the brothers Volllltaaaaaggiooooo. I still think Robin needs to get sent home next time around, as nothing she makes ever gets praised as being anything more than just okay. She is the new Laurine.

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the hazards of insomnia

Sleep comes to easily to some people. They lay down their little heads, snuggle under their dear  blankies, and drift off. For me, the sleep process is more akin to a game of tug of war between my desire to sleep and my body’s refusal to let me do so. So, when I’m not all hopped up on Ambien (it’s a controlled substance, you know), I like to watch infomercials. So easy it is to get sucked into the vortex of before and after photos, tearful and often nearly religious testimonials, and over-complicated demonstrations that look so easy but that you never really master at home. It’s like I blink my eyes and I’ve just spent three hours watching whatserface—the Bare Escentuals chick—buff and blend and Mineral Veil her way through her allotted time on QVC.

I have to say I stumbled across quite a gem a few nights ago, as I was deep in the trenches of yet another sleepless night. Did you guys know that Cindy Crawford has her own skincare line? Oh, I know. I was surprised too because celebrities are so modest. I was about to flick the channel in disgust until they flashed side-by-side pictures of Cindy Crawford, one taken at age 28 and one taken at….whatever age she is now…like 190 or something. But they looked EXACTLY THE SAME. I was astounded! I think I literally yelled “no frickin way!” out loud as I sat on my bed.

Meaningful Beauty (yes that is the name of the skincare line. Why? I don’t know, but it seriously sucks), consists of various creams and brighteners and moisturizers and pore minimizers and ohmygodkillmenow. There is so much SHIT involved in this skincare line it’s almost comical.

Anyway, I’m sitting there and I’m watching BIG STAR Jenny Craig dieter Valerie Bertinelli and some other broad with a British accent go on and on about the transformative powers of these products and I begin to notice my skepticism eroding, ever so slightly. I even had my phone in hand. Wow, her skin really does look smoother and younger after just two weeks of using the Masque Facial Masque (actual name) and the Glowing Serum. Huh, I guess I would like to slather on some botanical blend that hydrates and revitalizes the skin. God, everyone looks so amazing after using these products! Cindy Crawford is so convincing!

After all these testimonials, they went into the backstory of the birth of the range, which apparently began in France with some “famous” French dermatologist who discovered the “secret” to beautiful skin. And what is the magic bullet ingredient in these products? What smoothes wrinkles, evens skin tone, and masks discoloration?  Well, I’m glad you asked.

Observe:

raremelon

The answer, of course, is melons. NOT JUST ANY REGULAR MELONS. These are rare melons. See? They even have a side by side comparison of the two types of melon. The one on the right being an ordinary melon, whereas that one on the left, surrounded by sparkles, is the “rare” melon, the provider of the “rare” melon extract used in all the products in the range. If I had a dollar for every time someone on that infomercial said “rare melon”, I’d probably have about 25 bucks. Maybe more.

So, this of course struck me as absolutely hilarious, for several reasons. One being that these melons look like someone scooped them straight out of the 50% off bargain bin at Joann Fabrics and then used them to complete a fall-themed tablescape. They look fake as hell. Also, because  I am not seven  years old, I’m no longer fooled by the computer-generated sparkles they added to differentiate between the melons. Come on guys, would it have really killed you to throw some money into higher-quality special effects? A little research on my part yielded the evidence that there are in fact people who were duped by this oh-so-convincing melon theory; they are the women who bought the entire range, not realizing they would subsequently be charged over 100 bucks every month for a new supply. They are the women who broke out in SEVERE RASHES and suffered CHEMICAL BURNS and IRREVERSIBLE ACNE after using these products. Careful, readers. What you don’t know about rare melons can leave you horribly disfigured for life.

I guess the lesson here is: stick to oridinary melons?

THIS.

ketchup

As a born-and-bred Chicagoan, I cannot even tell you the amount of crap I get for admitting that I enjoy ketchup on my hot dogs. I’ve heard everything from “Oh, you must not be a REAL Chicagoan,” to “Ewwww, ketchup? Are you from Palatine?”  To these detractors I say: shut the fuck up. Since when does being from Chicago automatically equal a disdain for ketchup? I’m an equal-opportunity condiment eater. I don’t hate, I don’t discriminate. I load my dogs up with the requisite sport peppers, onions, pickles, relish, celery salt, tomatoes, and mustard. I just also happen to like ketchup too, okay? Get off my back.

Best. FDL. Ever.

You know how there are those times in life when the stars are perfectly aligned, presenting you with a situation that just could not be more awesome? No? Then you clearly were not at dinner with the FDL Tuesday night. But I’ll get to that later.

 Table 52, the brainchild of Oprah’s personal chef Art Smith, is housed in a tiny, two-story coachhouse on the corner of Elm and Dearborn. Walking in, we were met with a warmly lit and extremely intimate dining room, backed by an open-walled bar. We followed the hostess up the narrow, winding staircase onto the second floor dining room, taking in the rustic farm tools and antique mirrors that adorned the walls. The upstairs dining room only features about seven tables, so needless to say, the space is small. Cozy, and filled with the kind of light everyone looks good in.

The very nice maitre d’ pulled out and pushed in our chairs as we sat, and laid our napkins across our laps, a move that always makes me feel a little awkward and childish. Of all the things I’m capable of doing, unfolding my napkin and putting it on my lap is right up there with blinking and breathing, but whatever, I get that it’s part of the whole vibe of the place.

We settled in and began to discuss our cocktail options, after dismissing the idea of a bottle of wine for the table. I was feeling a little Don Draper-y, so I ordered an Old Fashioned. The drink itself is beautiful to look at and fragrant, but I believe I discovered the reason this cocktail is no longer en vogue: it is not very good. An Old Fashioned consists of dissolving a sugar cube with water at the bottom of a tumbler, adding in a dash of bitters, a lemon or orange peel, and whiskey, though mine was made with simple syrup and Kentucky bourbon. Sounds amazing, right? I know. It’s strong and sweet, and it gave me a nice case of the Warm n’ Fuzzies so I can’t really complain. A. and M. chose the Cherry Blossom cocktails, a sweet mixture of St. Germain liqueur, cherry reduction, bitters, and rose (that’s rose-AY. Pronounced the fancy way.) J. ordered a margarita, which seemed slightly dissonant with the heavily Southern-influenced menu, but a marg is a marg.

Table 52 is known for their goat cheese biscuits as well as their complimentary deviled eggs and as we anxiously awaited the arrival of both, J. leaned in and whispered conspiratorily, “I have great news, guys. See that table behind us? Don’t all look at once!!” she admonished as we all whipped around and craned our necks to see who she was talking about. “Well, that redheaded guy? That’s Brian Campbell, the star defensive player for the Blackhawks. He’s sitting at that table with a bunch of Harpo executives.”

We contained our squeals of excitement and sneaked occasional glances at the table, speculating on what sort of business was going on between this hockey player and a bunch of Oprah’s minions. Our deviled eggs had come and gone and still no sign of the goat cheese biscuits. Upon inquiring on their status, our server raised an eyebrow and cocked his head skeptically. “Are you sure you didn’t get them?” he questioned. “Uh, yeah,” was the table’s reply. For some reason, these biscuits were extraordinarily difficult for us to obtain, and we felt like assholes when a busser showed up at our table with two measly biscuits on a plate, when the tables around us were getting baskets, wheelbarrows, vats full of these things. We felt guilty despite having done nothing wrong, hung our heads, and ate the damn biscuits. They were heavenly. Imagine the softest, fluffiest biscuit you’ve ever had, but infused with the earthy, creamy flavor of goat chese.

528

This here is the Low Country Shrimp & Grits appetizer. Perfectly proportioned to split between four people, the dish combines wild Gulf shrimp and white corn grits, resulting in an multi-textured, salty-creamy-crunchy dish that was gone within mere seconds of being dropped at our table.

 J. and I both requested the jambalaya for our main course; a generous and healthy portion of bay scallops, crawfish, Amish chicken, and chorizo served with al dente wild rice in a spicy, light broth. This dish could have fed all four of us, most likely with leftovers, but I was practically licking the bowl by the end of the meal.

A.’s pistachio crusted chicken breast was phenomenal, and veered into Asian territory, served with lo mein noodles, sauteed vegetables and a coconut chili ginger sauce. M. went with the seared diver sea scallops, four medium-rare, melt-in-your mouth scallops alongside sweet corn, bell peppers, and sweet potatoes. Pecan pie with a shortbread crust, caramel sauce, and whipped cream finished us off, and we shoved back our chairs and unbuckled our belts, polished off our cocktails and died sweet little deaths.

I wouldn’t be much of a “critic” if I didn’t notice at least one thing to take fault in: not only did our server sneeze directly into his hands before he served us our drinks (jesuschristisoundlikemymother), but he basically disappeared for the second half of our night, and we very nearly had to go hunt him down in order to request our dessert.

The entire meal was an example of how to take what is technically “low country” Southern cooking and turn it into a refined and almost clarified version of itself, while losing none of the essence of what makes it soul food to begin with. HOWEVER. The disparity between the mission statement of the restaurant and the Asian influences (the servers were dressed in Asian-style uniforms…) present on the menu is never explained, and left me a bit confused. I realize Art Smith has traveled far and wide as Oprah’s personal chef, but nowhere in his literature does he specifically single out Asian cuisine as a source of inspiration for his cooking. It’s just somewhat…random.

Oh, speaking of Art Smith. As we were digging into our entrees, we noticed that a jolly, goateed, silver-haired man had approached Brian Campbell’s table, schmoozing and laughing. Then it hit me. Holy shit. That’s ART SMITH. Oprah’s main man, the head honcho, the big cheese. We watched as he made his way over to our table, and everything I had wanted to say just flew directly out of my head as I stared up at him, my fork frozen over my plate. “How is everything, ladies? Are we enjoying our meal?” he asked us. “This is so good. Everything is really really good. Thank you so much. This is so good.” THIS WAS MY RESPONSE. Goddamn idiot.

He smiled and thanked us and proceeded to move about the room, visiting each table and even clearing an empty table of its dirty dishes. What a guy. Our goal for the night was to get photographic evidence of our run-ins with these two MAJOR CELEBRITIES, so I present you with these:

ArtSmith

 

BrianCampbell

I had to get all creepy and The Ring-like with our faces, but there you have it, folks. J. made sure to time our departure perfectly with Brian Campbell’s, and approached him as he was getting up from his table. Two of the Harpo execs egged him on when we asked if he would be in a picture with us, insisting he get in between the four of us for the picture as J. eagerly answered his questions about her seats and what she thought of the new bars on the 300 level of the United Center.

Art Smith was just as obliging when we asked the same of him, and seemed happy that we were so thoroughly enjoying ourselves, albeit a bit confused that we actually recognized him.

We giggled like little schoolgirls the rest of the night. GO HAWKS!!

A typical conversation

Me: Are you wearing rainboots under your pants?

K: Yeah, but doesn’t it look like I’m wearing lesbian shoes?

Me: Kinda. I’m going to take a picture.

K: Wait! Let me get in a lesbian pose.

lezshoesjpg

wtf, Google?

 

So, I get this text from my friend L. last night, telling me to Google “why are these strawberries…” and see what comes up. Poor grammar aside, you get the idea.

wtfgoogle

Are you goddamn kidding me with this?

AshleyTopChefSo, Robin’s still alive and kickin. STILL. This woman is so inept, so glaringly annoying that even a bout with cancer can’t win her any sympathy from her fellow competitors, and is basically nothing more than the kid picked last for dodgeball. As you all probably are aware, Ashley was given the boot on last Wednesday’s Top Chef. (I know, I’m a little late. So sue me.)

Let’s dive right in. I know I was bitching earlier about how I’ve yet to see any talent out of these chefs, so let me just amend that statement by saying that as the show progresses, I am beginning to appreciate the skills these chefs possess, and I realize that as the wheat gets separated from the chaff, it becomes more and more apparent who the frontrunners are. Robin, for example, is full-on chaff. Ashley, who was forced to pack her sad little lesbian knives, was actually possessing of some remarkable kitchen competence. This weeks’ episode consisted of some extremely weird Quickfire involving a slot machine that provided each chef with three words, which is what their dish was to be based around. I know, right? Like what is that all about. Anyway, the chefs were randomly assigned such word combinations as “romantic, tart, Latin American” and other such nonsense. Kevin won the first challenge (YES!) and was given the chance to either take $15k or be awarded immunity and, because he rocks so hard and is so talented, Kevin did the smart thing and took the money. He knows his dishes are amazing.

Because Top Chef cannot go one episode without shamelessly plugging their tie-in sponsor of the week, the elimination challenge was all about managing an at-home dinner party to reflect the “tough economic times” and to bring awareness to the Macy’s Culinary Council. I’m too lazy to Google what exactly that’s all about but I’m sure it’s just super. The chefs are given bags by the various guest judges who are all chefs in some capacity, and instructed to create dishes with the ingredients in the bags. The catch? There’s always a catch, isn’t there? They must utilize the kitchen at the Top Chef house. Problematic for many reasons, the least of which being that there clearly is only ONE STOVE. Paired up in teams of two, the cheftestants scurry off and get down to bidness. I noticed, oddly, that there was a lot of discomfort about using Asian ingredients in the dishes, a sentiment presented first by Mike Not The Twin and echoed by several others throughout the evening. This makes not a whole lot of sense because of all the cuisines, Asian food is  fairly simple to create and infuse with flavors.

We see Mike Not the Twin getting irritated with Robin right off the bat as she babbles incoherently and burns the tuna. They wound up pulling off a successful dish, which paired seared tuna and scallops with pickled asian pears. So, Robin lives to annoy another day. Great.

Bryan and Laurine’s dish—halibut with avocado mousse and chorizo vinaigrette—was praised by the judges for its balanced flavors, and favored over Mike the Twin & Ash’s pancetta-wrapped halibut with egg yolk ravioli, which Tom panned as being mushy and overcooked.

Kevin and Jen knocked it out of the park with their barbequed kobe beef and cardamom/ginger infused broth, easily securing their team a spot in the top four alongside Laurine and Bryan.

Ashley and Eli. Oh sad, sad little team. Ashley I think really knows her stuff and is clearly passionate about creating dishes that are strong and accurately reflect her skills, which are plentiful. These two came up with a fairly simple but potentially delicious dish, involving prawns with gnocchi and kale. After worrying the whole episode about overcooking the prawns, Ashley STILL failed by undercooking them instead, and Eli oversalted the gnocchi, resulting in what Toby referred to as a “Monet” (Clueless flashback).

Jen won the whole shebang and was awarded with a $10k Macy’s gift card. Mike the Twin, reading quite high on the Cock-o-Meter, is pissy that his dish didn’t land in the top four, and Robin and Mike Not the Twin are right smack dab in the middle, much to MNTT’s chagrin. As you can probably guess, Ash, Mike,  Ashley and Eli were at the bottom. Something I’ve noticed about these team challenges is that it tends to really show contestants’ true moral fiber. There are those who are totally willing to throw their teammates under the bus if it means they get to cook another day, and then there are the Ashleys and the Ashes who recognize that they didn’t contribute as much as they could have, or didn’t speak up when they knew a dish was sub-par and probably shouldn’t be served.

Ash made some comment at judge’s table about how he took a backseat to Mike’s ideas and was essentially nothing more than a sous chef, allowing Mike to take the reins and steer the dish however he pleased. I think Ash was honestly trying to just give Mike props where props were duly deserved, but the judges pounced and explained that they viewed that as a weak characteristic. Inevitably, though, there’s always going to be a leader and a follower. It’s just statistics, people. Ashley takes responsibility for undercooking the prawns and for some reason takes the blame when the judges ask if Eli had oversalted the gnocchi. Because, you see, it was Ashley’s fault for serving the salty gnocchi, not Eli’s fault for oversalting it.

I’m irked because Robin keeps squeaking by on the talent of others and not on her own merit. It’s clear to everyone that she is sub par, meanwhile Ashley has true finesse in the kitchen.

As J. said, “Another bullshit elimination.”

Looks like next week the shit starts to hit the fan with Robin, so keep your fingers crossed.