Top Chef Episode 4: Convenience

This week's Top Chef was about convenience foods. As much as I'd like to make food from scratch using the freshest of fresh ingredients all the time, the reality is that during the week at least I just whip up stuff that I can make quickly. I'm sure this is the case for a lot of people, especially if you work full time and/or have kids. And sometimes, we don't even have the time to go shopping, and have to fall back on whatever we have stashed in the pantry or freezer.

In the Quickfire Challenge the contestants had to make a meal using products bought at a gas station, within 30 minutes (finally a reasonably short time!) This meant no fresh produce. They could use dried herbs and spices from the studio kitchen pantry. (Stephen tried to ignore this restriction and used a fresh basil leaf but he fell flat on his face anyway.) I loved this challenge because let's face it, sometimes we do have to cook up a meal or snack using these kinds of things. Overall I think the contestants did pretty well given the circumstances, but Lee Anne's simple cheese and ham fried sandwich (never mind whatever fancy name she put on it (spiedini), it was still a cheese and ham fried sandwich...if she had been Stephen she'd have called it a Croque Monsieur I guess) won the day. I actually liked the sound of Andrea's noodles with peanut butter, but she just put too much peanut butter (cut out from Reese's Peanut Butter Cups!) in the noodles.

To me, the Krispy Creme bread puddings made by both Tiffani and Miguel sounded disgusting. At the risk of alienating many readers...I hate Krispy Creme and find their donuts way, way, way too sweet. I even prefer Dunkin Donuts to those over-sugared horrors. But I digress. In any case, I was never a sweet pastry breakfast type.

Another item used by a couple of the contestants was Spam. Spam is very popular in certain regions, most notably South Korea and Hawaii. And of course there is the Cult of Spam. I am mystified as to why. Spam is tremendously fatty and gelationous in an odd way, and worst of all it's really salty. In terms of salty reconstituted pink-pork-meat products I think most wiener/frankfurter type sausages work better. On the other hand I love canned corned beef, so go figure. (My favorite way to eat corned beef is as a sandwich: chill the can for several hours so the fatty parts get nice and hard, then slice it thinly and place between two squishy soft white bread slices with a lettuce leaf, thinly sliced onion and mayo. Mmm.)

Moving on to the main challenge, which was about making a dish that could be reheated successfully in the microwave. A lot of professional chefs turn up their noses at microwaves, and I think in the U.S. and Europe the microwave is mostly used just for defrosting and heating up pre-made dinners and such. In Japan, microwave cooking is very popular and there are hundreds of cookbooks devoted to the subject, even ones about baking in the microwave. More households have microwaves than ovens.

I can't say that I cook that much with a microwave, but I do freeze a lot of things for later reheating. I guess the key to understanding how to utilize the good old nuker is to know that it basically steam-cooks food, so you have to stay away from anything that has to have some kind of crispiness to it unless you use one of those special sheets or papers. (Hot Pockets for instance, one of my favorite frozen-food snacks, come in those special crisper paper pockets.) The contestants that made food that were not crispy did the best. Harold's soup for instance was a great choice - you can always reheat soup or stew successfully in the microwave, and most soups and stews do taste better the next day. Tiffani's fish is the kind of thing that those microwave cookbooks in Japan come up with. Andrea's mashed sweet potatoes and quinoa pilaf with turkey sausage, and Lee Anne's steamed Jasmine rice with chicken and vegetable stir-fry, sort of reminded me of airplane dinners that might be tasty. Dave's lasagna and vegetable dish is like your typical frozen dinner combo (albeit with fancy colored broccoli). Miguel's meatloaf was a good idea, though he didn't heat it long enough. I always make extra meat loaf, then cut it into slices and freeze them, wrapped individually. They make great sandwiches or hot meals for lunch. (It was great to see Andrea have a success, though I am doubtful she can continue it. The quinoa pilaf looked delicous though.)

Candice on the other hand made quiche, which needed to have a crispy crust, and therefore they failed. I once tried to freeze some leftover cheesecake with a cookie type crust. It was so awful when it was defrosted that I had to throw out the whole batch - the crust was totally soaked through and inedible. I have a feeling Candice's quiche crust was like that too. So she not surprisingly got eliminated. Lisa also ended up in the bottom three due to a general mess up - too much herbs was mentioned.

Last and least, there was Stephen. It sort of makes me shudder to see how trendy Japanese ingredients and cooking methods seem to be now, because anything trendy is bound to become passé when food-fashionistas tire of them. When people like Stephen mix yuzu and shiso and whatever just because they are trendy, it's just scary. He also added lemongrass and squash blossoms (!!) to it. Shiso is a herb that does not take at all well to long cooking for one thing, and Japanese-Mexican fusion does not sound like a marriage made in heaven. (I bet that Stephen had in mind the fact that Nobu Matsuhisa achieved his culinaric fame by doing a Japanese-Peruvian fusion thing. Stephen is no Nobu.) It was hilarious to see the good ladies of the Junior League roll their eyes when he was going through his snobby spiel. "Are you familiar with plantain?"

I think that Tiffani won this challenge not just because her fish was tasty, but because she was able to charm the JL ladies with her presentation. There was no trace of the snobby Tiffani from last week, which is all good. And who hasn't taken pre-prepared bought food and arranged it on a plate and pretended it was homecooked?

The preview of next week's episode looked like a lot of fun. It seems that they have to do some blind tasting, and one ingredient looks like natto! Did natto make Miguel throw up? I can't wait to see. If you've never tried it, you should play along by trying natto for yourselves. :D

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I like your blog.

Re: the convenience food challenge...this is what happened when we tried this at home:

I'll let it speak for itself, but it is definitely not an easy thing to do!!

I guess I'm still holding a grudge against Tiffani because I wasn't able to warm up to her so-called charm. I really wanted Harold to win, and I thought soup was a great choice.

I hope to see Stephen being eliminated in the next round.

He's a complete snob and has no appreciation of people at all. A good chef that does not make, much less a top chef!