Top Chef, S14E07.

Just when you thought Top Chef Some-Stars couldn’t go any farther off the rails, we get this week’s episode, which ranged from the ridiculous to the inane. But it was the top trending topic on Twitter when I went to bed last night, so there’s that!

* The stew room scene from after last week’s elimination shows Katsuji being uncharacteristically gracious, saying of Amanda, “I don’t think she realized how good she was.” Whether he’s always been like this and we’re seeing more of it, or he’s just mellowing out, I don’t know, but we’ll see it again later this episode.

* Quickfire: The guest judge is Michael Cimarusti, chef/owner of Providence restaurant in LA, who is actually hiding a whole family of squirrels in his beard. This is a horoscope challengem and a few chefs admit to reading their horoscopes. They’re morons. Astrology is absolute bullshit. Throw it in the same dumpster as homeopathy, vaccine denial, and creationism. It’s just utter fucking nonsense. Why the fuck is anyone on this show talking about astrology like it’s real? What’s next, a phrenology challenge? The chefs can only use water they find with divining rods?

* The chefs are asked to take “inspiration” from their zodiac signs and use ingredients and tools grouped beneath that element (earth, fire, water, air) on the table. This idea of working to your personality’s strengths and weaknesses is fine, but the date of your birth has nothing to do with that. Oh, and it’s a sudden-death quickfire, based on complete twaddle.

* Whatever Emily’s element is, her section has a pressure cooker and an iSi canister, and she says she doesn’t know how to use them. How do you get to this point without knowing how to use either? An iSi canister isn’t even complicated, and it’s the fastest way to whip cream or create certain foams. And we’ve already been over the pressure cooker thing. This isn’t like asking someone to use an immersion circulator for the first time.

* Ugh. Let’s just get to the food: Neck-Tat made a lamb chop with fire roasted pepper salad and lemon yogurt … Sylva made fire-roasted poblano couscous, lamb, cherry smoke, and sage butter … Tesar made a snapper and branzino tartare with coconut milk and chili; it looks delicious but the only thing more cliched on Top Chef than raw fish is truffles … Brooke made an oyster with cucumber pepper broth, roasted poblanos, and ancho chili salsa … Emily made a pan-roasted chicken with spaetzle and herb salad … Katsuji made a charred onion with cauliflower puree plus roasted habanero and shishito peppers … Shirley made a crispy fried cauliflower with brown butter and soy … Sheldon made a kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) with shrimp, coconut milk, orange and lime juice, and radish … Jim made a charred bison with watermelon dashi and charred chiles … Casey made a deboned chicken wing stuffed with ‘nduja sausage (a spicy cured sausage from Calabri) and “pickled egg cream” sauce with the flavors of a deviled egg.

* The most original dish was Katsuji’s. Sheldon’s was “very thoughtful,” and keeping the coconut on ice made the seafood taste so much fresher. Neck-Tat’s had a good balance of heat from the spice and cool from the yogurt. The winner is Neck-Tat again, his second straight Quickfire win and second elimination challenge with immunity.

* Bottom three: Jim’s dish didn’t represent his element, fire. Sylva’s was underseasoned and the chiles didn’t come through. Emily’s risk in making spaetzle worked out, but the wing’s skin was neither crispy nor well-seasoned.

* Sudden-death QF: They’re making a dish based on the “earth” ingredients (which none of them had) and they all have to agree on the same dish to make. Sylva and Emily insist on a steak tartare over Jim’s suggestion of steak and potatoes. Jim says he’s incredibly familiar with the dish but rarely serves it at the Governor’s Mansion.

* Emily using is the mandolin with no glove or guard. Having sent myself to urgent care once by doing the same … you know, investing in some $10 cut-resistant gloves is a great idea.

* Sylva is making beet juice to brighten the color in the beef. He’s cooking it “tataki-style,” so the exterior is seared for ten seconds, but the interior should still be raw.

* Jim paired his tartare with arugula with egg yolk purees, EVOO, lemon, and chive, thickening the egg yolks with agar agar … Sylva’s tataki had beet juice, raw mushrooms, and brussels sprouts, and didn’t look like any kind of beef dish … Emily’s had fish sauce, egg yolk, rice wine vinegar, radish and beet salad, and potato and beet chips; Padma thinks the chips are seasoned “forcefully.”

* Jim is eliminated, with the judges saying it was too “simplistic” and perhaps not inventive enough. That’s brutal; he’d outperformed Emily by leaps and bounds so far during the season, and I thought he (like Silvia) had a real shot to get to the final group.

* So there’s some blah blah Blackbeard story going on, around the elimination challenge, but Casey then retells it in a much more interesting way in the confessional. If nothing else she’s a pretty entertaining personality.

* They’re split into three teams of three. One is Tesar, Emily, and Neck-Tat who has immunity, so you can probably guess right now they’ll be the team on the bottom.

* Neck Tat is a recovering heroin addict. This might have been an interesting little side story, but instead we need to watch the chefs run around downtown Charleston in a tropical storm. (Really? They couldn’t have postponed the challenge by a day?)

* They’re getting directions from some doofus in a bad pirate costume. Brooke says, “I feel like I’m at my eight-year-old’s birthday party.” OK, now imagine being in an audience watching someone else’s eight-year-old’s birthday party. Also, Brooke feels as I do about raisins (they’re just dead grapes, so throw them in the trash).

* Katsuji may complain a bit, but when he says the place is “heuricane (sic) infested” I’m with him 100%. I would want no part of running around a deserted town in those conditions.

* How about Tesar throwing Philip from last season under the bus – out of nowhere – for “just making stuff up” while he was on the show? I was no Philip fan, in any way, but that was totally out of left field.

* Sylva is prepping his eggs sous vide, at 145 F. I need to try this; Serious Eats has a guide to sous-vide egg cookery.

* I’m skipping the boring part, where the chefs were on a scavenger hunt for ingredients, because I kind of tuned out until they were back in the kitchen. Or, to be more accurate, I completely tuned out and made myself some popcorn.

* Neck-Tat is grilling chicken satay and says “someone turned the grill off” … how does this happen? Are people just running around turning appliances off at random? Now he’s cooking it in a toaster oven, which will go horribly.

* If this is a pirate-themed party, someone should have worn a puffy shirt.

* The food: Sylva made an asparagus soup with a 63 C degree egg and a tarragon and macadamia nut pesto .. Sheldon made a filet mignon with a charred pinapple nuoc cham and candied macadamias … Shirley made mussels with roasted red peppers, farro, and bacon. Tom likes Sylva’s but seems lukewarm on it. Padma likes Sheldon’s dish, while Tom says it was a little too sweet. Shirley’s they love.

* Casey made a salt-brined scallop with preserved lemon puree, toasted Brazil nuts, and radishes … Brooke serves fried cauliflower with lemon aioli and a mustard seed/raisin/Brazil nut relish … Katsuji made a very thick caluflower soup with spicy sausage and some other stuff. Katsuji’s dish is too thick to be called soup, but the judges all agree it’s delicious. Brooke’s is way too acidic. Casey’s scallop had a weird texture; Tom says they clearly weren’t fresh and she should have cooked them.

* Emily made a lobster and fennel chowder with crisp chicken skin, makrut lime leaves, and orange zest. (She uses the common name for the fruit, kaffir lime, but kaffir is a racial slur and I really wish Top Chef would just stop using it, even if it means asking chefs to restate something.) … Tesar made lobster with truffle butter and gnocchi made from canned peas … Neck-Tat made chicken satay with pickled fennel and orange salad. Emily’s flavors were so muddy and the dish so rich and heavy that Padma calls it “mud chowder.” Tesar’s is fine. Neck-Tat’s satay is terrible; I think Tom called it “new-age cafeteria” food. Graham says it’s the combination of predictable and bad that really sinks it – but Neck-Tat had immunity.

* Judges’ table: Yellow team on top. Shirley’s didn’t look like much, but it overdelivered. Sheldon’s was boosted by the charred pineapple introducing a smoky element. Sylva’s soup may have been a little too hearty? Shirley wins.

* They bring the other two teams up to air them out, although the team with Emily, Tesar, and Neck-Tat is actually the losing team. Brooke concedes she overdid the acidity because she wanted to mute the raisins. Casey’s dish looked better than it tasted and the judges all agree the scallops were fishy. Casey insists they were fine to cook – I assume it’s rather insulting to be accused of serving fish that wasn’t fresh. Michael says scallops aren’t considered fresh “unless you can still see them moving.” That’s a little more freshness than I can stand.

* As the judges tear up the red team’s dishes, Emily ambushes Tesar, saying Tesar wanted to throw crappy ingredients at Neck-Tat because of the latter’s immunity, and then blaming Tesar for having her waste so much time breaking down lobster. Although I have no particular love for Tesar or how he treats people, this is a bit much – Emily’s dish was bad and she can’t just blame the team for that.

* Jamie – I’ll call him that, since things are getting serious now – offers up his immunity to be judged with his team. I don’t think that’s ever happened before, and I think Tom was taken aback by it. It’s a boss move and Katsuji offers his respect.

* Tom and Michael think Jamie’s satay was the worst dish; Padma and Graham think Emily’s chowder was. If the immunity stands, Emily’s clearly going home, and who could argue given her season to date?

* Padma asks Jamie once again if he’s willing to cede his immunity, and he is, so he’s eliminated. He lost because he showed some integrity, saying, “Gotta live with yourself at the end of the day.” Emily’s in tears, and makes a halfhearted statement about not wanting him to be eliminated, but that’s how it ends.

* Two more rookies were eliminated this week, so only two remain, Sylva and Emily, and she should have been gone weeks ago. With Restaurant Wars next week, she could easily sneak through again if someone goes home for being team lead or front of house.

* Rankings: Brooke, Sheldon, Sylva, Shirley, Katsuji, Tesar, Casey, Emily. There’s a lot of mediocrity in four through seven – not that they’re bad chefs, but none of those four is doing anything so exciting that I feel strongly about wanting them to get to the finals or semis. The first three have at least shown flashes of upside.

Top Chef, S14E06.

Welcome back to this season of Top Chef Some-Stars! Let’s see if any of the rookies can survive another challenge.

* Quickfire: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is there, talking about getting people to eat more healthful foods. The challenge is to make a more healthful version of fatty, carb-heavy comfort foods – chicken pot pie, meatloaf, beef stroganoff, and more. All dishes must be made vegetarian, which is good, and chefs can only grab tools and ingredients one at a time, which is stupid, and yet another way the show consistently discriminates against chefs who are older or heavier or just less athletic.

* Sheldon has no clue what tuna casserole is, which is to his credit, I think. (I’ve never eaten it, and couldn’t tell you how to make it.) Also, he’s coming off an injury in the previous episode, so running back and forth seems like a great idea!

* Neck-Tat is making his dish “almost vegan,” with crumbled tofu as the protein. He says his son has been vegetarian since age 3, but I’d love to know why – did his son ask where meat comes from and then ask to stop eating it?

* Jim is using eggplant for its meatiness in his vegetarian version of chicken-fried steak, and that’s why I don’t love eggplant – it does have a meaty texture, but not the good kind. Unless it’s really handled well, like salting it ahead of time to draw out moisture, eggplant slices develop a texture like wet meat.

* Tesar says he’s never seen seitan before. Is that possible? He’s correct that vegetarian protein substitutes often aren’t very flavorful; you have to infuse them with flavor through marinades, seasoning, cooking methods, and so on. He calls them all “tofu derivatives,” but seitan is actually wheat gluten.

* The food: Amanda made a vegetable stroganoff with charred eggplant, tomato, and yogurt … Katsuji made spaghetti (zucchini noodles) and zucchini meatballs, cut with a melon baller, so he really made a big plate of zucchini … Brooke made vegetarian lasagna with grilled zucchini, bechamel, and tomato sauce, using tofu in the base to add creaminess … Tesar made a veggie burger with mushrooms, curry powder, and cranberries … Sylva made seitan and masa dumplings (a riff on chicken and dumplings) … Casey made a vegetable pot pie with silken tofu and crumbled farro crust … Neck-Tat made a crumbled tofu sloppy joe with bell peppers, onion, and tomato paste, along with a side salad … Jim made his baked eggplant steak with a pistachio, mint, lemon zest, and parsley topping plus a mushroom gravy … Emily made a vegetarian “meatloaf” with almonds and charred tomato.

* Dr. Murthy is kind of a big nerd, right? That’s not an insult, not when I say it at least. He didn’t like Sylva’s (hard to chew), Casey’s (topping was grainy), or Katsuji (noodles were soggy and oversauced – look at the doctor dropping some cooking knowledge). Favorites: Emily’s was tasty and looked right; Neck-Tat’s; and Brooke’s lasagna, which looked great and had a creamy texture. Winner is … Neck-Tat. Thought Brooke should have had this one, based on comments and Dr. Murthy’s emphasis on visual appeal.

* Elimination challenge: Honoring southern chef Edna Lewis, the first African-American celebrity chef and a pioneer in spreading the gospel of southern cooking as a cuisine. Toni Tipton Martin and Alexander Smalls are there, with Smalls, a restaurateur and a Grammy and Tony-Award winning opera singer, serving as guest judge. Padma compares Lewis’ influence to Julia Child’s influence on French cooking in the US. The challenge is to create a dish that pays homage to her legacy, and the chefs will be cooking at the same restaurant kitchen Lewis used to cook in. Her cookbooks made her a celebrity, especially The Taste of Country Cooking, first published in 1976 (when Lewis was 60 years old) and still in print.

* This is the kind of challenge I would love if this entire season hadn’t been only southern cuisine challenges. Now it’s just more of the same kind of food.

* Katsuji is doing fried chicken and watermelon. Sylva implies that’ll be an insult to the table of southern chefs. Lewis’ frying medium for her fried chicken was oil flavored with bacon or ham and then butter. I get that that sounds awful, but it probably made for very crispy skin, and I assume some of this was the old ethic of saving and reusing everything you could. If you cook and eat bacon, save that fat. It’s good for a lot of things, including greasing the pancake griddle and making flour tortillas.

* Sylva’s father blocked him from going to the Culinary Institute of America because he said “no son of mine is going to be a domestic.” Oof. Also now I have that awful Genesis song in my head.

* Jim is making a dish with a consomme and discusses the need to thoroughly clarify it. Michael Ruhlman wrote in The Making of a Chef about how at the CIA the instructor wanted to be able to see the lettering on a dime sitting at the bottom of the pot. That’s a fantastic read, by the way, even if you don’t cook.

* The food: Jim made seared shrimp with a smoked turkey wing and smoked pork consomme, plus spring peas and squash; Hugh (Hugh!) says it was very clean & seasonal, says it’s really working, but Tom says the peas were undercooked … Katsuji made fried chicken with pickled rind watermelon salad, and it turns out everyone likes the use of the watermelon, especially that he pickled the rind to pair with the fried chicken; he seems to have been aware of the stereotype and wanted to make it “go away” … Brooke made a warm salad with braised chicken and bread crumbs, grilled Swiss chard, sunchokes, blackberry vinaigrette, and lemon curd; Hugh says it’s either a dessert that wants to be savory or savory course that wants to be sweet. I’ll say this is a big pet peeve of mine at fine restaurants – I don’t like much if any sugar in savory courses. It’s such an overpowering flavor that it can ruin the complexity and texture of a lot of dishes. And there is a special level of hell for people who put sugar in their tomato sauce.

* OK, back to the food … Emily made deep-fried semolina-crusted chicken livers (she wanted to pan-fry but ran out of time) with corn puree, dandelion green salad, blackberry sauce; Gail says the livers were totally underseasoned and no one seems to approve of the deep-frying … Shirley made chicken and rice, confit chicken wings with collard greens and rice, and a watercress salad; Smalls loves the collard greens and rice, but come on, watercress salad is so 1996 … Tesar made “pan-broiled” chicken thigh (which is what Lewis called frying it in butter until the skin crisped) with roasted sunchokes and watercress; Art Smith says he “channeled” Lewis in that dish … Sylva made a flour- and cornmeal-crusted skillet-fried snapper that looked absolutely gorgeous with garden vegetables and vegetable broth; clearly hit the mark, Art loves how crispy the fish is, so does Biggie Smalls, and did I mention it looked amazing? … Sheldon made pork belly and cabbage with cabbage jus and potato; Tom loves the idea, but I’m not sure he liked the dish … Amanda did a roast duck breast with sweet potatoes, spiced pecans, balsamic onions, dandelion greens; Padma dislikes the chunky nature of the dish, Hugh says duck is chewy, and the dish isn’t southern enough … Casey made chicken and dumplings stuffed with chicken, and ham (maybe tasso?) … Neck-Tat fails to plate one of his dishes, which of course goes to Padma; he made roasted strip steak with sunchokes, spring onions, corn soubise; the meat is a little rare – I saw one of the steaks moo and head for a Chik-Fil-A billboard – while the corn soubise is the best part for Tom.

* Brooke’s dish was “a mess,” per Hugh. Emily’s chicken livers lacked complexity and were overwhelmed by the sweetness. Hugh says Amanda’s “pulled at no heartstrings.” And the components weren’t done so well either. Really, I was happy to get Hugh’s opinions on everything since he wasn’t at Judges’ Table.

* Favorites: Jim, Sylva, and Sheldon. Gail loved Jim’s flavors and the simplicity of the dish. Biggie Smalls praises Sylva’s, says “it’s an Edna Lewis piece,” that Sylva handled the fish brilliantly and paid respect to the vegetables; Gail can’t get over how the breading was thick and still crunchy. Biggie says Sheldon “brought the ancestors with you today.” Smalls is like Morgan Freeman here with that heavy, slow delivery; I would pay to hear him narrate an audiobook. The winner is Sylva. That fish looked stunning – I love fried fish, but it’s so often disappointing, and his looked as good as any fried fish I’ve ever eaten myself. He says afterwards it’s his favorite dish that he’s ever cooked. I can see why.

* Least favorites: Amanda, Emily, and Brooke. Amanda’s dish had no “soul,” the duck was dry and a little boring. Emily’s bad mix of sweet and savory didn’t work; she’s teary in front of the judges, but she’s had a bad run on the show and there’s no sign of progress here. Smalls says to Brooke that with her clash of tastes, he “didn’t get the blackberry, didn’t get the lemon;” Tom thinks she tried to get too modern. Brooke says she got inspired by too many things in the book, and regrets introducing the sauce to the dish. Without that, she’s probably not on the bottom, since no one is questioning her execution of any element.
* Amanda is eliminated, and she knew it as soon as Tom said “we didn’t get that feeling” from the losing dish. That leaves us with six veterans, four rookies. Did Emily survive so we didn’t end up at seven to three?

* Quick rankings: Brooke, Jim, Sylva, Sheldon, Shirley, Tesar, Casey, Katsuji, Neck-Tat, Emily. I truly can’t see any of the last four winning, and even Tesar seems to lack the kind of ingenuity that usually wins (but not last season). This is still Brooke’s to lose, even with the slight stumble this week.

Top Chef, S14E05.

Welp. This season had two chefs I was truly interested in watching, and one went home tonight, in what is rapidly turning into a bad season of Top Chef: All Stars, where every challenge involves cooking something “southern.” If I wasn’t doing these recaps, I’d bail on this season and just come back if Brooke makes the finale (which I can only assume she will).

* Silvia is shown talking to her mother on her birthday, and apparently there’s a “birthday curse” on Top Chef, with at least three chefs going home on their birthdays in prior seasons. Since curses aren’t real, this is just bad TV nonsense.

* Sheldon says he herniated his disc ten years ago while carrying a pan of noodles, leading to surgery, painkillers, and an eventual return to the kitchen – but his back is bothering him again. He never mentions what he took, and the way he’s dancing around it, I wonder if the painkillers became a problem; it’s hard not to think of that after Prince died from painkiller use just a few months ago.

* Quickfire: The chefs walk in to a dark kitchen with no one there, 40 minutes on the clock, and no ingredients or instructions. (I’m not sure if they see the cameras but don’t realize they’re on, or if they can’t see the cameras at all.) The garage door opens to show the ingredients, and the clock starts, but they still have no instructions. Sylva guesses it’s a biscuit challenge. Brooke is the one loud dissenter, saying, “we can’t just decide our own challenge.” Well, it turns out that you can.

* At least three of the twelve chefs have never made biscuits before, which I find a little surprising for two of them. Neck-Tat has a restaurant in Charleston; how do you cook in the American south and not know how to make a biscuit, at least by ratio? Sheldon and Silvia at least come from entirely different cooking cultures, although I think Hawai’i is Americanized enough that biscuits would be familiar to him. For Silvia, though, biscuits are probably pretty foreign, pun slightly intended; the word “biscuit” and its equivalents in Europe refer to cookies, often those cooked twice (biscotti), but never to the sort of rolled, shaped quickbread we call a biscuit. The closest Italian quickbread I could think of was brazadela, a sweet quick bread of the Emilia-Romagna region, but that’s not a biscuit. An American, Southern biscuit is usually just a vehicle for dairy, both what’s baked into it and what’s slathered on or poured over it once made. Biscuits here are closer in concept to pie crusts, with some boost from a chemical leavener and milk or buttermilk instead of water.

* I’m not sure if Shirley has never made them, or is just saying she doesn’t make them now, as she does say she tries to avoid baking whenever possible.

* The ovens are at 450 degrees. I’ve never cooked biscuits – which Silvia calls “bis-queets” – at a temp that high. I think they’d burn before they cooked through.

* Katsuji rambles on about corn and biscuits, and then it’s like a switch flipped, and he turns into Katsuji Nye the Kitchen Science Guy, explaining why the butter in your biscuits (or pie dough, for that matter) needs to be cold.

* Sheldon’s didn’t rise – he was just copying Brooke, so if he didn’t see her add baking powder/soda or didn’t add enough, that would explain flat biscuits – so he cuts them in half, puts something on the bottoms, and then forgets to put the tops on.

* The guest judge is John Currence, chef-owner of Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, Missisippi, and now Birmingham; he has a new book out, called Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day, which includes his acclaimed biscuit recipe on page 183.

* The dishes: Sylva made a grated corn biscuit with pan seared scallops, served vol-au-vent style, which Tesar slagged in the confessional but Currence loved … John made a drop biscuit with cheddar and jalapeño with country gravy … Katsuji made biscuits with sweet corn relish and jalapeño honey butter … Silvia made a strange, savory salmon biscuit with avocado and crème fraiche, but Currence likes it, and says “I hope you do everything this well on your first try” … Neck-Tat made a traditional breakfast biscuit with truffle honey and a sunny egg … Shirley made a biscuit with black pepper mascarpone and blackberry compote … Jim did a cream cheese lard and biscuit with a creamed corn sauce and a seared scallop that he cooked on both sides … Brooke made black pepper and poppy seed biscuits with smoked salmon salad … Sheldon did biscuit bottoms with ham, soft-boiled egg, and parsley.

* Worst dishes: Shirley’s biscuits were dense and her mascarpone extremely salty. Sheldon’s were undercooked, and he only served half. Jim’s were overworked and dense, and Padma said his scallop was “hammered,” one would hope on some good rum.

* Best: Brooke’s was “immaculate” and showed off her technical precision. Katsuji’s was fantastic, Currence liked the dish, and said the biscuit couldn’t have been better. Neck-Tat seems to have also executed well on the classic presentation. But Brooke wins, again, and gets immunity. She’s the 2016 Cubs right now.

* Elimination challenge: Rodney Scott of Scott’s whole pit BBQ – not the same as Rodney “Cool Breeze” Scott, though. The twelve chefs split up into three teams and each must cook a whole hog plus three sides for 150 guests, including Darius Rucker.

* Sheldon’s going for an MRI, which may or may not be TV drama going on. I think based on the previews that this may be an issue in the next episode, but not this one.

* The chefs go to two Q joints first, before cooking. First is Sweatman’s BBQ northwest of Charleston, a place that’s only open Friday and Saturday, as many good Q places are. (When they’re out of meat, you’re out of luck.) Sweatman’s sauces its hog just once, and they try to finish the hog between 175 and 200 – although I may have misheard that, because at 175 the shoulder is not going to be done. Their mustard sauce uses yellow rather than brown mustard and contains a lot of sugar.

* Scott’s sauce starts with a vinegar-pepper base, both cayenne and black peppers, and “maybe” has some sugar. Sure thing, Rodney.

* Here’s what gets a little underplayed here, other than Jim pointing out that grilling is not BBQ. Real Q takes time, and it is not something you’d expect any experienced chef to have done. This is truly low and slow cooking, eight to twelve to sixteen hours depending on what cut of which animal, from pork shoulder to beef brisket to any ribs to this kind of whole hog cooking. You are working with real wood and real fire, so you’re in maintenance mode the whole time, keeping the temperature relatively constant, ensuring the food is cooking via indirect heat and is absorbing flavor from the smoke, but not getting so hot that it’ll cook too fast and fail to have any connective tissue break down. I’ve never smoked anything bigger than a pork shoulder, and while I love doing it, it ain’t easy and I wouldn’t tell you I’m good at it.

* Silvia wants to make a non-traditional potato salad, without mayo, and I can’t decide if this is a good idea or a terrible one. Was the mandate to make traditional southern Q sides, or just to make sides that would go well with smoked pork? Should her teammates have pushed her on this? Hold that thought.

* Sheldon returns, says he has a herniated disc but got “a shot in his spine” and apparently is feeling little or no pain.

* The chefs are up all night, although Brooke seems more annoyed that Tesar won’t shut up (editing?) than about getting no sleep. Silvia also gets to eat her first s’more, which … eh, they’re overrated. Melting cheap marshmallows and milk chocolate together doesn’t make them any less cheap-tasting. She’s only been in US for four years, now co-owns two places and has now opened a third since the show ended. We’re also seeing a lot of Silvia this episode, in case you missed that foreshadowing.

* Did they ever say what kind of wood they used? I didn’t catch it. I always use hickory if I can, because I like that very pronounced flavor.

* This might be the best cooking tip of the season: Tesar wants to make a roux for mac & cheese, but somehow they didn’t get AP flour, or lost it along the way. No one else bought it, but Katsuji offers to swap him some xanthan gum for Tesar’s peeled garlic – mostly because Katsuji was being kind, I think, not really because he needed it. Xanthan gum is big for gluten-free baking, because it can provide the structure that would otherwise come from gluten. Tesar says it’s emulsifying his sauce, but that’s not right – xanthan gum, which is produced by a bacterium that ferments certain simple sugars, is a thickener and a stabilizer, but not an emulsifier. It is a powerful thickener, however; a little goes a very long way, and it’s resilient at a wide range of temperatures, unlike corn starch.

* Shirley cooks baby piglet at her restaurant. Yeah, I know that’s traditional, and there’s nothing inherently worse about eating piglet (“suckling pig” is the preferred euphemism) than pig, but … ugh.

* The green team (Katsuji, Amanda, Silvia, Sylva) is cooking its pig at 350. No way you BBQ at that temp. That’s roasting, and it’s going to end up toughening the exterior if not blowing the whole animal out.

* Sylva adds hoisin and ketchup to make his BBQ sauce; Amanda says it’s delicious, just not a SC sauce, neither mustard nor vinegar-based.

* Silvia says in Italy, potato salad uses a salsa verde, which is like an Italian chimichurri with parsley, garlic, vinegar and lemon. Tom seems OK with this in concept.

* Something’s off with Katsuji’s beans, with a sour, funky smell Tom and Rodney dislike. This is revealed later, but Tom thinks Katsuji took a gland from the pig head when going for the jowl meat, perhaps a scent gland, which would wreck the dish’s aroma and flavor. (Jowl meat itself is fine – if you’ve ever had “head cheese,” you’ve had it.)

* Emily’s beans aren’t quite cooked. She claims that adding salt and vinegar makes them “seize up” and take longer to cook. This is bullshit. Salt your cooking water and the beans should cook a little faster if anything, because (see that link) the sodium in the salt will replace calcium and magnesium in the beans’ skins and allow greater penetration of the hot water into the beans.

* Let’s go already. The yellow team made smoked mac & Cheese (John), braised pinto beans with pork (Emily), sauerkraut-style pineapple slaw (Brooke), and whole hog topped with chile citrus vinegar sauce (Sheldon). The beans aren’t as done as they should be. The pork is delicious and seems to hit all the marks for temperature, texture, and spice. The judges also seem to like the mac & cheese. Tom wipes out his plate.

* Red team: Head and trotter hash, braised cabbage and apples, fresh pickle, and whole hog with pepper citrus vinegar based sauce. Rucker loves the hash, which seemed to be Jim’s main dish; this team also had Neck-Tat, Shirley, and Casey. Their sauce seems less “interesting.” The cabbage and the hash were Rodney’s favorites. Tom seems satisfied with the pork, however, and we all know this is Tom’s show.

* Green team: Whole hog with a hoisin-vinegar sauce and apricot glaze; kale and pickled apricot slaw; potato salad with salsa verde and red onion agrodolce; and Katsuji’s beans. There’s something off in Katsuji’s beans; Gail notices it too. Tom mutters that Silvia’s potato salad is “terrible.” Padma says don’t call it potato salad, since that means people will expect mayo, but if it was delicious they wouldn’t care what she called it. Amanda’s slaw has no flavor. The pork is mushy. Rodney says potato salad in the south has to have mayo; Gail says it was slimy. It really sounds like this team went 0-for-4 while the other two teams combined went 7-for-8 on their dishes, with Emily’s beans the lone exception.

* Yellow team wins, so Brooke comes out on top again, although she doesn’t get the individual win, which goes to Tesar for the xanthan gum mac & cheese. It’s his first elimination solo win ever on the show; he does say to the judges it was a team effort when thanking them, but I think it’s completely fair for him to take credit for this one (except maybe for thanking Katsuji for the assist), since he had to make up a new recipe on the fly.

* Green team is on bottom, of course. Rodney thinks the jowls hurt Katsuji’s beans, although I assume he means the glands; the beans’ sauce was “murky” and had – wait for it – too many ingredients. Everyone went for “sweet acidity.” Tom says the hoisin didn’t work at all, making the sauce as thick as something from a bottle at the supermarket. Silvia deviated from the tradition, but again, it seems like a failure of execution more than concept, as Gail said the texture of sauce between the potatoes and vegetables was off, the vegetables were undercooked, and the dish didn’t look appetizing (it had a greyish cast on TV). Amanda somehow escapes special criticism here despite making a slaw that the judges agreed had no taste.

* Silvia is eliminated. This is hugely disappointing given some of what she did earlier, even in the quickfire here, and we lose yet another rookie from the show. What’s particularly disappointing about this season even beyond the rookie/veteran format is that the challenges so far have almost all involved regional cooking from just one region, and you can be a great chef without being versed in the cuisine of the American South. The new chefs are all at a disadvantage, while Shirley and Sheldon at the least appear to be at a disadvantage because they learned cooking traditions outside of the continental U.S. – and Sylva seems to have done the same, with a Haitian background and culinary training in Paris. Are we looking for the best chef, or the best Southern chef?

* So this elimination leaves us with seven veterans against four rookies, two of whom haven’t shown any reason why we would want to see more of them. Silvia may very well have had the worst dish – I wasn’t there, so I can’t really argue this – but I’d rather see more of her than more of Katsuji, whose beans were apparently borderline inedible, or Emily, who’s been repeatedly on the bottom and was saved this week by her teammates’ food.

* I think Brooke is the overwhelming favorite at this point: She executes, she’s imaginative, and her only dud of the season so far came in a team challenge with one of the worst contestants as her partner. After her, I’d go Jim, Sheldon (if healthy, as if he’s another pitching prospect), Shirley, Sylva, Casey, Tesar, Katsuji, Amanda, Neck-Tat, Emily.

* LCK: I skipped the last two episodes of LCK for the same basic apathy I’m feeling about the main show. But Tom is far more entertaining here than on the main show – he seems to have far more fun on LCK. It turns out Sam won the last two challenges here, so it’s him versus Silvia. The two chefs must cook with seven of the available “lucky” ingredients. Silvia ends up winning with a branzino dish against Sam’s chicken-fried pork chops; I thought the pork looked overdone, given the color and Tom appearing to have some trouble cutting it, but he only dinged Sam for the bitterness of the browned kale, while his only criticism of Silvia’s was that her onions weren’t cooked enough.

* One unrelated LCK observation: Silvia tried to make an aioli in her Vitamix, but said it wasn’t working. Does anyone on this show test the equipment? Or if something malfunctions, do they not just have a spare machine or alternative (like a stick blender) lying around? Sometimes I wonder if these mishaps are deliberate attempts to make the chefs think on their feet, but if that’s the case, I’m not sure I understand the point of the show any more.

Top Chef, S14E04.

I did not recap episode 3, since I didn’t even watch it until five days after it aired. I’m just jumping ahead to episode 4 and should be on schedule with every episode at least until spring travel begins.

So we start with some comments from Tesar on how Katsuji “gets a hall pass for being an asshole.” And that’s why 1) he’s back on the show and 2) I’m not happy to see him on the show. What Katsuji seems to think of as gamesmanship is borderline harassment. It’s not good TV and it has nothing to do with food.

* Quickfire: The new EIC of Food & Wine, Nilou Motamed, is here as the guest judge. Each chef has a box in front of him/her, and must use everything in the box – the gag is that it’s “not quite everything you wanted for Christmas.” The boxes contain cooking tools as well as ingredients: pressure cooker, tequila, pomegranate, wasabi, melon baller, chocolate pretzels, squab, and so on. We’re ripping off Chopped here, right?

* Jim says melon ballers are “from a pantry in the 1950s” but I use mine constantly to take out the seeds of apples. Cut the apple (or pear) in half, then use the baller to carve out the half-sphere with the seeds and tougher flesh from each half of the fruit. I don’t use them for melons, though.

* Shirley’s using white chocolate in place of butter. I’m not sure how that’ll work – white chocolate is fat plus a lot of sugar, while butter is fat, milk solids, and water.

* Emily has never used a pressure cooker, which I find hard to fathom. Tesar points out that they use them on this show all the time, so basically don’t come on this show without learning. Also, how do you not own a pressure cooker when you’re a chef? You don’t cook at home, ever? This isn’t some sort of novelty device. I just used mine two nights ago. They’re fantastic.

* Jim’s stand mixer bowl is smoking … it would have been nice to know why. I’m just sayin’.

* Shirley burns her squab in a tequila fire – although that can’t be what actually happened. Tequila is usually 80 proof, and that’ll burn if vaporized (like, say, heating it in a hot pan), and of course if it’s bringing any sort of lipids with it those will burn too. But 80-proof tequila shouldn’t just burn on its own, and even if it did the fire would be cool enough to slip your hand through it (not that I recommend doing so). I once created about a three-foot high flame by adding rum to a pan that was much hotter than I realized, and it didn’t ignite anything else – not even the wood cabinets the flame touched – or leave any scorch marks anywhere. So I guess I’m really wondering what was in that fire to char the exterior of the bird.

* We only see a few of the dishes here, I guess for time’s sake, not that we’d want to see more food on a show about food. Katsuji made braised squab in tequila and soy with pretzels, pomegranate, and wasabi in his salsa … Tesar made a pan-seared squab with mole and an avocado and pomegranate salad; he calls avocado “light and refreshing” which it’s not, with about 75% of the caloric content of an avocado coming from fat … Brooke made a pan-roasted squab with a clove, tequila, and pomegranate stock, and some melon-balled squash … Emily made a pan-roasted squab with a soubise, and Padma delivers the deadly compliment, “well, the squab is cooked nicely” … BJ made a pretzel-encrusted squab with wasabi cauliflower puree, tequila, and pomegranate; Nilou asks if that was the texture he wanted from the deep-fried squab, so we know what that means .. Jim made a roasted squab with beets, fennel broth, and a smoked pretzel and tequila whipped cream (that’s what was in the stand mixer, I suppose) … Casey made a smoked chili, tequila, and squab soup, then compressed pineapple with several of the other ingredients from the box … Shirley made a roasted squab with wasabi rapini and flambe tequila. She didn’t use the melon baller because she didn’t have hers – Sheldon appears to have taken it at some point. Then Padma makes a bizarre comment about hoping it’s not a sudden death quickfire. If Sheldon took her melon baller, shouldn’t he be eliminated (hypothetically) rather than Shirley? And the fuck is Padma talking about here anyway?

* Bottom three: Shirley, really because she charred her squab “to within an inch of its life” … Emily’s soubise was gummy, and now they’re saying she was not “kind to that protein” … BJ’s squab was very tough. Top three: Brooke, Casey, and Tesar. The winner is Casey, again, so she gets immunity.

* Anyone else see a little bit of Kristen Bell in Casey?

* The guest judge this week is Mike Lata of Fig, a very highly-rated restaurant in Charleston that made Eater’s list of the 38 most essential restaurants in the country for 2016. Also, he used to be Emily’s bossn and fired her once.

* The elimination challenge is based on the Italian feast of the seven fishes. I never had this growing up, even though I’m ¾ Italian, and I’ve never had it as an adult because my wife is allergic to shellfish. The twist on this episode is that the chefs are going to use “trash fish,” incidental catches that are often discarded because “consumers aren’t familiar with them,” which makes them good for chefs interested in sustainability. Jim seems comfortable with the concept, though, having won the Great Ameircan Seafood Cookoff in 2011.

* Casey gets first pick of the fish and chooses amberjack, which I’ve never thought of as a trash fish; if you’ve had the kind of sushi or sashimi called “kampachi” or “kanpachi,” you’ve had amberjack. The remaining chefs are combined randonly into teams of two. Tesar gets Katsuji, the only person Katsuji didn’t want to work with, although later they’re bickering like buddies in the confessional. Shirley’s paired with Sheldon, but they’re getting along fine in Whole Foods. BJ’s paired with Silvia, Silva with Neck-Tat, and Jim with Amanda.

* The other fish available are tunny, blackbelly rosefish, gray tilefish, triggerfish (which Lata was the first chef in Charleston to serve), mullet, and barrelfish.

* Tesar wants to use canned tomatoes; Katsuji wants to use fresh heirloom tomatoes. Each is acting like the other is insane. But doesn’t this depends on the time of year? If tomatoes are in season, you’ll never beat fresh. If they’re not, then they’re not going to have much taste, if any.

* Shirley wants to use mullet shank, the tail end of the fish, which has fewer bones (?).

* Emily is deferring to Brooke on everything, so Brooke ends up the de facto head chef on their team with Emily playing the role of a line cook. That could go either way – Brooke’s probably the best competitor on the show this year, one of the best they’ve ever had, and Emily appears increasingly to be a train wreck as a contestant.

* Silvia is making pane carasau, a traditional yeast-raised flatbread, similar to pane guttiau (which you might have seen at Trader Joes). Both are Sardinian, with the former using yeast and the latter not. To Americans, they’re more like crackers – I’d compare pane guttiau to what matzoh would be like if you made it with something like puff pastry dough, so it shatters rather than breaks.

* Tesar and Katsuji are now each making a sauce with the tomatoes, and then each ends up plating some of the dishes with his own sauce. This should have been a disaster.

* Sheldon & Shirley made a Sichuan peppercorn (a Chinese spice that isn’t a true pepper) braised mullet with tofu, celery, and buttered radish. Tom seems to have gotten a small bone, but says he loves the dish, especially the use of the Sichuan pepper. Blais likes the combination of tofu and fish together because their textures are similar. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had mullet, although it seems like the most familiar name among the trash fish after amberjack (I’d never heard of triggerfish or barrelfish before this show).

* Hugh is back! Judges’ table is always better with his dark Canadian humour.

* Silva and Neck-tat had Tunny. I’ve heard the term before, because it can refer to a couple of fish, but I’m assuming this one is little tunny, a fish in the tuna tribe (Thunnini) but in a separate genus from the fish we eat as tuna. That Wikipedia article mentions anecdotal reports of ciguatera poisoning from eating tunny, so I’ll pass on this one, thanks.

* Lata says he’d go calabrian with tunny, making a spicy preparation because the fish itself has such a pronounced fish flavor. The team made a ras el hanout-dusted tunny, seared so it’s nearly raw in the center, with melted leeks, parsnip puree, wild mushroom ragout, and xo jus. Graham Elliott says is “looks like a $30 tuna steak dish.” Hugh deadpans that “we were all guessing that you’d fail miserably.” One thing no judge mentioned was the taste of the center of the fish. If tunny is oily and has a strong fish flavor, and the chefs didn’t address that throughout the fish, what happened when the judges got to the middle of those “steaks?”

* Brooke and Emily made roasted blackbelly rosefish with fiddleheads, marble potatoes, leeks, corn, coconut, and tamarind sauce. Lata says it’s a tough fish to work with and needed more than just the sear? All the judges seem to agree that the dish was totally confused, with a bunch of different ideas all on one plate. Brooke won’t throw Emily under the bus, however, even though Emily contributed nothing to the concept of the plate. Tom says “leek sauce all day, all this other stuff get rid of it,” which I suppose would be great if this were a leek challenge.

* BJ and Silvia made a barrel fish brodo with leeks, kale, cauliflower, and pane carasau. They poached fish, but as it dried outside of the poaching liquid, it seized up and became tough; Tom suggests they could have flaed it back into the broth, although if the broth was still hot enough to be safe, wouldn’t it have continued to cook? The broth was apparently excellent, but there wasn’t enough of it, and Silvia’s pane carasau is probably the most-praised aspect of the dish.

* Tesar and Katsuji made trigger fish with chili sauce, fennel puree, bottarga, and breadcrumbs. Tom says the sauce is terrific and the fish was cooked beautifully. Hugh says they bridged a monumental gap to put aside their egos, which also says to me that it’s no accident that these two chefs were asked to return this season.

* Jim and Amanda made a gray tilefish with tomato and fennel broth, and some apparently very undercooked beans. Tom asks, “Who cooked the beans?” and Amanda responds, “I did. Why?” She looks like she just ran a marathon.

* Casey’s amberjack dish is a catastrophe, but we never really saw anything about why? She barely cooked it at all, and her rice porridge is gummy and tasteless. So what was she doing during her allotted time in the kitchen? She thinks she’d be sent home if she didn’t have immunity, so what the hell happened?

* Tom: “There’s a reason why these fish don’t usually end up on a table – they’re very difficult to work with.” For some of these fish, that’s almost certainly true – tunny being oily and fishy is going to be a deterrent no matter what chefs or fishermen do, but gray tilefish is supposed to be lean and mild-tasting, and amberjack is lean and firm like mahi-mahi or swordfish. Some of the problem is just education: consumers only look for a few common types of fish, like salmon, because they’re familiar with those and know how to prepare them.

* The top three are Sheldon and Shirley, Jamie (Neck-Tat) and Silva, and John and Katsuji. Katsuji’s sauce was amazing. S&S’s dish ate like something they’d cooked before. The mullet had a lot of bones, but they made the best of it. Every component of Jamie and Silva’s dish was done very well and it showcased the fish. John and Katsuji win, and Katsuji wins the individual honor for the sauce. He even tears up, I don’t think he expected that. I’m sure he’ll handle the victory in a quiet, professional manner.

* Padma says Casey “really needed” that immunity. The other three teams are on the bottom, by default. Jim and Amanda’s dish died for a few reasons, but Mike says in his kitchen one of his commandments is never serve undercooked beans. The inclusion of mussels also took the dish away from the star ingredient. Brooke and Emily’s dish just had way too much going on, and it obscured the fish. Silvia and BJ’s fish tasted like overcooked chicken. BJ made the broth, Silvia did the bread, but the fish was both.

* While the chefs go back to the stew room to wait, Katsuji starts going after Emily for failing to tell everyone more about Mike Lata’s preferences. What a dick move.

* Mike says the barrel fish (Silvia/BJ) was overcooked, while Tom says BJ overreduced the sauce. Brooke and Emily put too much on the plate, but it seems like the judges are giving them a pass because the two were “too nice to each other.” Jim and Amanda’s fish got lost in “all that stuff.” Tom says that could be the worst dish because of the beans, which Amanda cooked. At this point I assumed she was gone, given the emphasis on the beans, and also, how do you serve undercooked beans on Top Chef and survive?

* Yet BJ is eliminated. He could have gone home last week, or the prior week with the pork that he cooked poorly, a move that tanked his team because it took so much of the team’s budget. That’s three rookies out and one veteran who was just barely eliminated in four episodes. I thought Amanda had ‘earned’ the elimination, given what we heard from the judges, but it’s hard to weep for BJ with him on the bottom so many times already. But we’re now at seven veterans to five rookies, and two more of the rookies (Neck-Tat and Emily) seem perpetually close to elimination.

* I guess it’s time to rank ’em … Brooke is the clear #1 in this group, and of the rookies I think only Silvia has shown the potential to catch her. I’d go Brooke, Silvia, Shirley, Sheldon at the top. Bottom three: Emily, Amanda, and Neck-Tat.

* I’ll catch up on LCK later this week. In the meantime, have a safe and Merry Christmas.

Top Chef, S14E02.

Oh, we’re still at the slave place. Cool.

* The guest judge is Frank Lee, a low-country cuisine specialist and someone with absolutely no vibe of the celebrity chef, which is kind of refreshing. There’s a low country boil ready for the chefs to eat, so they spread it on a table and dump some on the ground because who the hell cares about wasting food.

* The elimination challenge: The chefs will be split into two teams, rookies versus veterans, and will each eat a family-style meal at a local chef with Charleston roots, and then prepare a dinner the next day using that meal as inspiration. Rookies versus veterans is a bad idea right off the bat – it confers way too much of an advantage on the vets, who also have one more person.

* The rookies eat at the house of Carrie Morey of Carrie’s Hot Little Biscuit, whom I found really condescending to the chefs from the get-go (to say nothing of those bizarre shoes she was wearing that seemed to make it hard for her to walk straight). The veterans eat at the house of BJ Dennis, a personal chef and caterer with Gullah heritage.

* I haven’t read it, but Morey has a cookbook out called Callie’s Biscuits and Southern Traditions that has great reviews on amazon, especially for the buttermilk biscuit recipe. Obligatory self-promotion: here’s my annual list of recommended cookbooks, from beginner level to home expert.

* Dennis serves a meal with a shrimp salad with mayo and mustard, collard greens with coconut milk and peanut butter (whoa), an eggplant stew, and a red rice gumbo that he says New Orleans people would hate “but this is OG gumbo.”

* Morey says biscuits were made with every meal, but her mother doubled the fat because when you’re going to eat a biscuit, eat a damn biscuit. The dough she’s using looks extremely wet compared to any biscuit dough I’ve ever made or seen. She serves pork chops breaded with parmesan, egg wash, and crackers, which I don’t get at all, not least because either she’s wasting some good, expensive cheese, or she’s using garbage. There’s also some sort of collards, hoppin’ john, squash casserole, a “permanent” slaw, and tomato pie, which is covered like a pot pie. She mentions a cobbler, which is kind of biscuits on hot fruit anyway, but I didn’t see what kind.

* Here’s a shocker: the rookie team is a hot mess. There’s no leader, no discussion of dishes, no coordination of shopping lists. Usually the trips to Whole Foods on this show are pretty boring, but it was cringeworthy watching the rookies get to the front of the store and realize they’d spent way more than their budget while buying far too much of some basics like eggs or butter. Have they never watched the show before?

* After the shopping trip, BJ suggests that they might “take one on the chin” for not doing it, which is great timing. They’re trying to pressure Jim, who has immunity, to do the biscuit as his dish, but he stands his ground. I wonder if they also thought the nerdy guy would be a pushover.

* Brooke is making biscuits for the veteran team, but there are no racks in the ovens in this kitchen. How is that possible? Did they remove them and hide them somewhere? She has to sit the pans on the oven bottom, and you can guess how well that’s going to work out.

* I adore Silvia’s accent, like when she says they are in “Char-less-ton.” It reminds me of my cousin in Genova telling me in 1999 while we were visiting them that the “Sant’Antonio Spurs” had won the NBA championship.

* The rookies are a disaster, as you might have expected. Annie is trying to make a tomato tart in two hours, but can’t find room to work or time to rest the dough sufficiently. BJ cooks his entire pork loin whole and it’s 30 degrees below where it needs to be, so he cuts it into chops and sears them off to finish. Neck-Tat burns some of his vegetables for the second week in a row. I know it’s the format and some artificial constraints, but boy have these two episodes made the rookies look like kitchen noobs.

* Rookie dishes: Padma notices right away that there are no biscuits. Carrie says, “I guess I didn’t inspire biscuits,” which I thought was a bit snotty, while Padma says “it is a glaring omission” from a southern dinner. Jim made grits with charred asparagus, ham hock, spring onions, and hen of the woods mushrooms … Silvia made hoppin john with farro, crispy skin, refried beans, carrot puree, but Tom said the farro was overseasoned and Chef Dennis just didn’t like the upscale version … Emily made pickled shrimp and dressed cucumbers, which the judges loved, but did she actually cook anything here? … BJ made cornmeal-crusted pork with peameal bacon and pickled peaches, but the pork is inconsistently cooked, with Gail’s portion way below rare … Annie’s tomato tart with smoked tomato vinaigrette is a disaster, as expected, with the crust basically raw … Sylva made a cornish hen with dark meat rice, adzuki beans, and a Haitian-style “permanent slaw” that’s more of a chow-chow … Jamie’s summer squash casserole with raw and roasted vegetable salad on top is also a mess, as the custard itself seems to have broken. Chef Morey spoke to the local paper in Charleston about why skipping biscuits was such a mistake.

* Veteran dishes: The plates look better right off the bat, like maybe these chefs have been here before. Shirley made a pork belly and oyster stew with sweet potato, potato, and pork crackling … Tesar made Carolina rice with caramelized okra, green onion, and jumbo lump crab gravy; Tom, who hates okra, sort of liked it, although I think this is hackneyed Tesar work, throwing a fancy or expensive ingredient on at the end to boost an ordinary dish … Brooke made sweet corn biscuits with salted benne butter and dulce de leche, and, shocker, they were inconsistently cooked, some overdone on bottom, some underdone in the center … Amanda made a whole fish ceviche with old Bay, cayenne, sorghum, and lemon pepper … Casey made collards with turnips, coconut, peanut, crispy chicken skin, bread crumb, trout roe … Sheldon made eggplant stew with tomatoes, fish sauce, okra, and bitter greens … Katsuji made a shrimp stew with hot (spicy) pineapple sauce … Sam made a vinegar and tea-brined fried chicken with pickled yellow beets and hot sauce, which gets good reviews all around. Dennis approves of this meal way more than Morey did of the rookies’.

* Judges’ table: Veterans had the better meal, obviously. Tom says it was the best family-style meal he’s ever had on the show, and given how it looked I’m not that surprised – it just looked professional in a way most meals on this show don’t. The top three dishes were Casey’s collards, John’s okra, and Sheldon’s eggplant. Every single person around the table loved the greens. Tom almost grudgingly admits he liked Tesar’s okra dish. Frank says his chefs tell him (did I hear that right?) that “Your job is to make the food taste like what it is,” which has that ring of folksy wisdom that ultimately falls apart when you’re thinking about, say, a basic broiler-fryer that is all about how you cook and flavor it. Anyway, the winner is Casey and the collards.

* Their least favorite dishes were BJ’s pork loin, Annie’s tomato pie, and Jamie’s squash casserole. Jamie’s looked good, but when you cut into it, the custard broke apart because the squash released too much liquid. It just seems like Neck-Tat struggles with some fundamental execution, at least in the time constraints of the show. BJ’s pork was a mess – badly cooked and cut to varying thicknesses, which I assume is because he was rushing. Annie says her dough took longer than planned, so the crust was undercooked, and I agree with Tom that the crust should be the star of any pie, sweet or savory.

* I thought Sam commiserating a little with the rookies could have been an interesting scene, but instead we got just one sentence of it.

* The judges’ decision seems to come down to poor technique by BJ and Neck-Tat versus poor decision-making by Annie, trying to do a tart in a timespan that couldn’t accommodate it. I really thought Jamie deserved to go home more based on their commentary and this idea of execution versus concept, but Annie gets the boot, which is doubly brutal given that she didn’t want to do that dish in the first place (although she could have chosen a different twist on the tomato-pie concept). That’s two rookies out in two weeks.

* Last Chance Kitchen: Gerald versus Annie, with their cooking time determined by the ingredients they choose in a two-minute “shopping” spreed in the pantry. The catch is they have use everything they pick up. Gerald gets 33 minutes, while Annie gets 25. I’m going to fast-forward here to the end, because Annie failed to use one ingredient and was automatically disqualified, giving Gerald the win. I’m going to go on a limb and say I don’t think he’s going to go very far either.

* Very early rankings: I think Brooke is clearly the best of the veterans and probably the best chef here overall. Shirley’s my sleeper pick among the vets. Among the rookies, I think Silvia’s going to go very far given her pasta-making skills, and Jim is two for two so far, but none of the others has done anything to separate him/herself from the pack, and a couple have looked overmatched. Those would be my top four right now, with Brooke the current favorite – unsurprising since she nearly won her original season.

Top Chef, S14E01.

We’re in Charleston! Great food city, beautiful downtown. I wish I had more work reasons to go there and catch a Riverdogs game (they have great food there). I’m glad Top Chef chose Charleston now before climate change pushes the city underwater.

One bit of self-promotion first – I posted my annual list of cookbook recommendations on Monday, and it includes the work of a few Top Chef alumni, including two past winners.

* Half of the sixteen chef-testants are returnees. We get Brooke, who lost to Kristen Kish in the strange live-elimination format. John Tesar is back. There’s Sheldon, who got to open two restaurants post-TC. Casey, who’s been on the show at least twice before, is back for more. Were they having trouble finding enough new chefs to compete?

* Katsuji’s back, and asks “Am I getting subtitles on Top Chef this year or not?” I don’t think he needs subtitles so much as he needs a cap on his ingredient count.

* The chefs are split into two groups of eight, so first the new chefs compete. We meet a few of them, including Jamie, who is immediately Neck-Tat Guy; and Jim, the Executive Chef of the state of Alabama, a big Star Trek and Buffy fan whose voice is even higher than mine.

* First (rookie) quickfire: Testing everything from knife skills, time management, presentation. The chefs get one hour to creating as many dishes as you want featuring … a chicken. The loser of group one will face the loser of group two and the loser of that gets eliminated.

* Alabama wants to make three dishes, including something with the skin and the innards, because when he was a kid he would often share a box of fried chicken livers with his dad.

* Gerald is smoking a chicken breast and talking about a soup that might include a 63-degree egg. I do not want a 63-degree egg any more than I want a 40-degree day.

* Padma asks Neck-Tat: “Are you tattooed everywhere?” He says, “Almost everywhere. 75%.” This makes me uncomfortable. Then he tells the confessional that his former boss used to call him Rodman and claims the ink is his defense mechanism against the corporate world. Sure thing, buddy. I don’t think the corporate world is fazed.

* The Italian-born Silvia Barban is making pasta without a rest period for the dough. If she pulls this off I’d say she’s an immediate favorite to get to the finals, because the judges always love fresh pasta dishes. It got both Nina and Sarah G to the final two in their seasons.

* Charleston-chef, Emily, says she’s been fired from a couple of jobs because of her attitude. During their visit to her station, she tells Tom & Padma “anyway stop talking.”

* Tesar says “Top Chef is all about the clock.” The eight vets are watching the rookies on TV in the stew room are all yelling at them to plate. They’re sort of rooting for everyone, and remembering what it was like to be in the rookies’ place.

* Silvia gets the first dish out – fresh tagliatelle with chicken ragout and crispy chicken skin, mascarpone, and orange.

* Neck-Tat burned his vegetables. That’s a rookie error.

* Gerald says his dish “doesn’t represent me as a chef.” Alabama says it’s “totally worrisome” that he only made livers after these grandiose plans for two or three dishes.

* Here comes the food. BJ made a chasseur-style thigh with mushrooms, bacon, liver, and pressure-cooker stock. … Jim (Alabama) made fried innards with aioli, butter lettuces, strawberry vinaigrette; Tom says “I wish we saw some more” … Emily made buttermilk/black pepper biscuits with fried chicken, thick bread and butter pickle, and slaw; plus an Asian BBQ wing with tamarind and chili glaze … Gerald made a smoked, buttermilk-poached chicken, chicken jus, wild mushrooms, and a vegetable fricasee; he tells Tom & Padma “it looks easier on television” … Jamie (Neck-Tat) made a pan-roasted breast and a stripped-down chicken grand-mère with glazed spring vegetables and crushed potatoes. … Sylva, who’s Haitian, made a paprika and chili-marinated buttermilk chicken with grated corn pudding. I thought this had the best presentation … Silvia’s second dish was a corn, jalapeno, heirloom tomato salad with balsamic-marinted chicken. I love how she pronounces the “h” in heirloom, and Padma praises her for two dishes … Annie made a pan-seared breast, with a panzanella and a black garlic jus. Tom scoffs at her and says it’s not a panzanella. The vets all feel bad for her as they watch her face fall.

* Favorites: Silvia’s pasta, where they loved hint of orange and the texture of the crisped skin; Emily’s chicken wings, which were simple with a lot of flavor; and Jim, whose livers had a lot of flavor, crunch, and acidity.

* Jim wins, and gets immunity. Already we have weirdness in the judging – Silvia made two dishes that the judges liked, one they loved, and managed to execute a fresh pasta dish in a very short period of time, while Jim made just one dish and wasted almost the entire bird and won.

* Least favorites: Annie’s chicken was nicely cooked, but her “panzanella” was sloppy and just “a bunch of croutons” according to Tom; Gerald, whose sauce was greasy because his quick stock appears to have emulsified; Neck-Tat, who killed his vegetables by overcooked. Tom says Gerald’s was the worst, so he’s up for elimination. Gerald says in confessional it’s the least favorite dish of his he’s ever cooked.

* Silvia says in confessional that she “always had a little crush on Sam” Talbot, from season 2, who’s also back.

* Graham Elliott is the new fourth judge for this season. The veterans’ challenge is to get creative with shrimp and grits, with thirty minutes to make their versions of this classic dish. Casey says grits can barely be done in that time. The only way I know to make polenta, which is essenitally yellow-corn grits, takes a minimum of 35.

* Brooke is using ground shrimp rather than sausage to wrap and cook a Scotch egg, which seems risky just because the traditional method means there’s plenty of fat in the ‘wrapper,’ while shrimp is so lean that a ground shrimp mixture could dry right out unless she’s adding fat to it.

* We got a lot of foreshadowing stuff here that ended up going nowhere. Katsuji’s scorching tomatoes and peppers on the burner but appears not to be paying attention. Sheldon’s hand blender doesn’t work. Amanda hasn’t been cooking in almost two years due to a back problem. Here’s a spoiler: None of them lost.

* And the food: Brooke did make that shrimp Scotch egg with grits, lemon fennel salad, and espelette … Sam made shrimp with coconut milk grits, blackened tomatoes, vinegar, chili, and maple syrup … Shirley made her “bowl of hug,” shrimp and grits with steamed egg custard made with shrimp stock, fresh corn, and bacon; Graham said it had “explosive” flavor and noticed touch of sesame at the end … Katsuji made adobo-style shrimp and grits, with fish stock, charred tomatoes and peppers; Padma said – who saw this coming – that Katsuji “could use a little editing” … Casey made coconut shrimp and grits with corn, smoked tomato sauce, peach and fennel salad; she cooked the shrimp and corn in coconut oil, and corn ended up the dominant flavor … Tesar made Korean shrimp and grits with faux kimchi … Amanda made head-on shrimp with tasso ham, pickled raisins, peaches, and kale chiffonade (why?) … Sheldon made dashi-poached shrimp and miso grits, yuzu miso broth, and pickled cabbage; the judges felt this was a little flat.

* Favorites: Amanda, Brooke, and Shirley. The judges praise Brooke’s technique, especially the perfect cooking of the egg at the heart of the dish. Tom said Shirley’s “gave you a hug after it slapped you.” The winner is Brooke, unsurprisingly, given the risk she took.

* She mentions in the confessional that there’s an “old wives’ tale” that whoever wins the first TC challenge has a better chance of winning the whole thing. I could look it up but I’m too lazy.

* Least favorites: Casey’s fell flat; it was tasty, but not at the level of others. Tesar’s dish didn’t seem to make much sense to the judges, and Tom couldn’t figure out what the kimchi was doing there. Katsuji didn’t include enough of his pickled vegetables to get them in every bite. Tesar is the bottom and has to face Gerald in an elimination quickfire.

* Tesar is 58. I don’t think he looks that old, and he doesn’t act that old. Katsuji advises him to mess with Gerald’s head, but to Tesar’s credit he doesn’t seem interested in that kind of gamesmanship.

* Gerald says – I think I got this right – that he used to live in his car when he and his wife were going through a separation because he couldn’t afford two residences, one for his wife and five kids and one for himself. I rewound this twice and still am not 100% sure if that was past tense.

* The elimination challenge takes place at Boone Hall Plantation, a working plantation that is also a sort of museum of slavery, with tours available for people to see the slave quarters. The main house reminded me of Django Unchained, but that was filmed in Louisiana.

* Padma explains that “since the 1950s it’s been open to visitors … to honor those who worked and toiled here.” Those were slaves. Just say the word. In fact, shout it. Don’t gloss over it as “work.” And maybe this wasn’t a great place for an episode.

* Elimination quickfire: Apparently this plantation is home to one of the world’s largest oyster festivals. Tesar and Gerald each have 20 minutes to make an oyster dish, and there’s a fire going for an oyster roast.

* Tesar brought truffles and busts them out for his dish. Apparently Top Chef allows contestants to bring a few ingredients with them. Other chefs are all “whoa,” but 1) truffles are the most cliché ingredient imaginable and I hate when judges give chefs credit for using them and 2) I doubt every contestant has the cash to buy a truffle or the access to ‘borrow’ one.

* Gerald only puts a couple of oysters on the fire, which looks like a rookie mistake, and when the first batch turn out to have little crabs in them (ew) he has to go cook a second batch. I had to look this up, but apparently these are called oyster pea crabs, and they’re both edible and considered a delicacy. Wikipedia linked to this 1913 NY Times article (PDF) about the little bugs, and a quick google search turned up this Delmarva Now story about them. I guess Gerald should have kept the crabs and used them?

* Tesar made an oyster “stew,” with cream-poached oysters, truffle butter, hot sauce, shaved truffle. He put the raw oyster in the bowl and poured the hot soup liquid over it to “poach” it, although that’s a stretch on the definition of poaching. Tom says “the oyster is totally raw.” … Gerald served roasted oysters with thai-style mignonette and tomato compote. He jokes that he “can’t do too much. I didn’t bring truffles.” I think the judges are underwhelmed by the concept – it’s a very basic preparation.

* They send Gerald home, saying his Thai flavors weren’t hot enough – that if you’re selling something as Thai, it should have some heat. I’d have preferred to lose Tesar and see someone new stick around longer; Tesar’s act wore thin last time around, and it’s not as if he made it to the finals like Brooke did.

Cookbook recommendations, 2016.

This year’s cookbook post is pretty much last year’s cookbook post with a couple of little changes up top – one new rec, one book I want because the author is great, and then the same standbys I always recommend. I’ve grouped my suggestions into categories: The essentials, which any home cook regardless of experience level should own; the advanced books for expert home cooks; a few cookbooks from Top Chef-affiliated folks that I recommend; and bread-baking books, all by one author because I’ve never needed any others. My gift guide for cooks is in a separate post, detailing essential and frivolous toys for the chef in your life.

New for 2016

I added just one new cookbook of note to my collection since last year’s post – I’ve acquired others, but there’s only one I can really recommend. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s mammoth The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, named for Kenji’s acclaimed and indispensable column over at Serious Eats, is a must for any advanced or aspiring home cook. Unlike many of the books here, The Food Lab is a better resource for its text than its recipes – I’ve made a bunch of dishes from the book, with a few that just didn’t work out (e.g., the pork shoulder ragout), but every page seems to have something to teach you. The one caution I’ll offer is that it doesn’t include any sous-vide recipes, which is something Kenji does a lot on Serious Eats’ site, although he does have a section on replicating the sous-vide technique using cheaper materials like a portable cooler.

The book I don’t have yet but am hoping to get in the next, say, 27 days, is Alton Brown’s latest, Everyday Cook, which I think is his first cookbook that isn’t somehow branded with the Good Eats title. I’m a longtime fan of that show and of Brown in general – many of his recipes remain staples in my kitchen – but I haven’t used his books much because they’ve often repeated what was on TV. This book looks like a departure for him, and he’s said he was able to do some stuff here he couldn’t do on television (because lawyers). Plus I just enjoy his humor and writing style.


There are two cookbooks that I insist any home cook have. One is the venerable Joy of Cooking, revised and altered through many editions (I own the 1997, now out of print), but still the go-to book for almost any common dish you’re likely to want to make. The recipes take a very easy-to-follow format, and the book assumes little to no experience or advanced technique. I still use it all the time, including their basic bread stuffing (dressing) recipe every Thanksgiving, altered just with the addition of a diced red bell pepper.

The other indisputable must-have cookbook is, of course, Ruhlman’s Twenty, by the best food writer going today, Michael Ruhlman. The book comprises twenty chapters, each on a technique or core ingredient, with a hundred recipes, lots of essays to explain key concepts or methods, and photographs to help you understand what you’re cooking. It’s my most-used cookbook, the first cookbook gift I give to anyone looking to start a collection, and an absolute pleasure to read and re-read. Favorite recipes include the seared pork tenderloin with butter and more butter; the cured salmon; the homemade mayonnaise (forget the stuff in the jar, it’s a pale imitation); the pulled pork; all three duck recipes; the scrambled eggs with goat cheese (using a modified double-boiler method, so you get something more like custard than rubber); and the homemade bacon. I’m trying his weekday coq au vin recipe tonight, too. Many of these recipes appear again in his more recent book, Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient, along with more egg basics and a lot of great dessert recipes; and Twenty itself builds on Ruhlman’s Ratio, which shows you master formulas for things like doughs and sauces so you can understand the fundamentals of each recipe and extend as you see fit.

I’ve long recommended Baking Illustrated as the perfect one-book kitchen reference for all things baked – cookies, cakes, pies, breads, and more. It’s full of standards, tested to ensure that they will work the first time. You’ll need a scale to get maximum use from the book. I use their pie crust recipe, their peach pie recipe, their snickerdoodles recipe (kids love it, but moms seem to love it even more…), and I really want to try their sticky toffee pudding recipe. The prose can be a little cloying, but I skip most of that and go right to the recipes because I know they’ll succeed the first time. That link will get you the original book from the secondary market; it has been rewritten from scratch and titled The Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book, but I can’t vouch for it as I haven’t seen the new text.

If I know someone already has Ruhlman’s Twenty, my next gift choice for them is Nigel Slater’s Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, a book about vegetables but not strictly vegetarian. (There’s a lot of bacon here.) Each vegetable gets its own section, with explanations on how to grow it, how to choose it at the market, a half-dozen or more basic ways to cook it, and then a bunch of specific recipes, some of which are just a paragraph and some of which are a full page with glorious pictures accompanying them. The stuffed peppers with ground pork is a near-weekly occurrence in this house, and the warm pumpkin scone is the only good reason to buy and cook an actual pumpkin. I own but have barely cooked from his sequel on fruit, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard, because it’s more focused on desserts than savory applications.

Another essential if you want to cook more vegetables is Hugh Acheson’s 2015 book The Broad Fork, which has become the first book I consult when I have a vegetable and am not sure what I want to do with it. Acheson conceived the book in response to a neighbor’s question about what the hell to do with the kohlrabi he got in a CSA box, and the whole book works like that: You have acquired some Vegetable and need to know where to start. Organized by season and then by plant, with plenty of fruits and a few nuts mixed in for good measure, the book gives you recipes and ideas by showing off each subject in various preparations – raw, in salads, in soups, roasted, grilled, pureed, whatever. There are main course ideas in here as well, some with meat or fish, others vegetarian or vegan, and many of the multi-part dishes are easy to deconstruct, like the charred-onion vinaigrette in the cantaloupe/prosciutto recipe that made a fantastic steak sauce. Most of us need to eat more plants anyway; Acheson’s book helps make that a tastier goal. It’s also witty, as you’d expect from the slightly sardonic Canadian if you’ve seen him on TV.

You know, a lot of people will tell you go get Julia Child’s classic books on French cuisine, but I find the one I have (Mastering the Art) to be dated and maddeningly unspecific. Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom is a slimmer, much more useful book that focuses on the basics – her explanation of vinaigrettes is still the gold standard, and her gift for distilling recipes and techniques into simple little explanations shines here without the fuss of three-day recipes for coq au vin. Oh, that’s in here too, but she does it in two and a half hours.


The The Flavor Bible isn’t actually a cookbook, but a giant cross-referencing guide where each ingredient comes with a list of complementary ingredients or flavors, as selected by a wide range of chefs the authors interviewed to assemble the book. It’s the book you want to pull out when your neighbor gives you a few handfuls of kale or your local grocery store puts zucchini on sale and you don’t know what to do with them. Or maybe you’re just tired of making salmon the same way and need some fresh ideas. The book doesn’t tell you how to cook anything, just what else to put on the plate. Spoiler: Bacon and butter go with just about everything.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is an outstanding vegetable-focused cookbook that uses no meat ingredients (but does use dairy and eggs), although Ottolenghi’s restaurant uses meats and he offers a few suggestions on pairing his recipes with meat dishes. The recipes here are longer and require a higher skill level than those in Tender, but they’re restaurant-quality in flavor and presentation, including a mushroom ragout that I love as a main course over pappardelle with a poached egg (or two) on top and my favorite recipe for preparing Belgian endives (a pinch of sugar goes a long way).

Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery cookbook ($10 for Kindle right now) is is easily the best baking book I’ve ever seen, but unlike Baking Illustrated, the recipes are written for people who are more skilled and incredibly serious about baking. Ingredients are measured to the gram, and the recipes assume a full range of techniques. It has the best macaron recipe I’ve ever found – close second is I Love Macarons, suggested to me by Richard Blais’ pastry chef at the Spence, Andrea Litvin – and the Bouchon book also the homemade Oreo recipe I made for Halloween (but you need black cocoa to do it right, and I use buttercream as the filling instead of their unstable white-chocolate ganache).

Bobby Flay has an absurd number of cookbooks out there, but the one I like is from his flagship restaurant Mesa Grill, which includes the signature items (including the blue and yellow cornbread) and a broad cross-section of dishes. There’s no instruction here at all, however, just a lot of recipes, many of which have an absurdly long list of ingredients.

For the really hardcore, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is an essential kitchen reference, full of explanations of the chemistry of cooking that will make you a smarter cook and help you troubleshoot many problems at the stove. I haven’t read it straight through – it’s 700-plus pages – but I’ll go to the index and pull out some wisdom as needed. It also explains why some people (coughmecough) never acquired the taste for strongly-flavored cheeses.

April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig has the duck fat-fried potato recipe that got my daughter hooked on the dish, as well as a good selection of staple sauces, dressings, and starches to go along with the numerous meat dishes, including some offal recipes, one of which (made from minced pig’s heart and liver, with bacon, onion, and breadcrumbs) can’t be named here.

Top Chef Division

Richard Blais’ Try This at Home has become a staple in my kitchen both for about a half-dozen specific recipes in here that we love (sweet potato gnocchi, lemon curd chicken, arroz con pollo, sous-vide chicken breast) and for the creativity it inspires. Blais has lots of asides on techniques and ingredients, and if you actually read the text instead of just blindly following the recipes, you’ll get a sense of the extensibility of the basic formulas within the book, even though he isn’t as explicit about it as Ruhlman is. His second book, So Good, comes out in May 2017.

Hugh Acheson’s first book, A New Turn in the South, and Top Chef season one winner Harold Dieterle’s Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook are also regulars in my cookbook rotation. Acheson’s book reads the way he speaks, so that it comes off more like you’re hanging out with the guy, talking food, rather than taking instruction. His bacon-wrapped whole fish recipe is unbelievable, more for the powerful aromatics (winner, best use of fennel) than for the bacon itself. Dieterle’s book requires some harder-to-find items, but his side essays on specific ingredients run from the mundane to the esoteric and drop a ton of knowledge on how to choose and how to use. My particular struggle with both books is that they use a lot of seafood, with Dieterle’s including a ton of shellfish; my wife is allergic to shellfish, so I don’t even bring that into the house any more, which requires some substitutions and means there are some recipes I just have to set aside.


I’ve owned and given away or sold a lot of bread-baking books, because nothing has been able to beat the two masterworks by baker/instructor Peter Reinhart, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and Whole Grain Breads. Reinhart’s books teach you how to make artisan or old-world breads using various starters, from overnight bigas to wild-yeast starters you can grow and culture on your countertop. If that seems like a little much, his Artisan Breads Every Day takes it down a notch for the novice baker, with a lot of the same recipes presented in a simpler manner, without so much emphasis on baker’s formulas, and is a steal at $20.00.

Stick to baseball, 11/5/16.

My big news this week was the formal announcement of my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, which will be released in April of 2017. I have gotten many requests from readers over the years for a recommendation of a book to let them get up to speed on ‘new’ stats, and since the book on that topic didn’t exist, I decided to try to write it. You can pre-order it via amazon and other sites already; it will be out in hardcover and as an e-book, but Harper Collins has not decided on an audio version yet. I also do not yet know what appearances I’ll be making or if there will be any sort of tour.

I held my regular Klawchat on Friday this past week, and my latest boardgame review for Paste covers the Hanabi-like deduction game Beyond Baker Street, where you can’t see the cards in your own hand and must give clues to other players on what cards they hold.

My email newsletter has now passed 2500 subscribers; thank you to everyone who’s already signed up. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 8/20/16.

I discovered that my upcoming book has an amazon page for pre-orders! The tentative title is Smart Baseball (not #smrtbaseball, although we’re playing off that) and the tentative release date is April 27th. I suppose I need to finish writing it soon.

My main Insider piece this week covered the Reign of Error in Arizona under Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart, both of whom should be replaced now that their contracts are expiring. I held a Klawchat here on Thursday afternoon and discussed that piece a little more.

I was the guest host on the BBTN podcast this week, on Tuesday with Jayson Stark and WATERS singer Van Pierszalowski (a big Dodgers fan), Wednesday with Eric Karabell and Tim Kurkjian, and Thursday with Jerry Crasnick and Nick Piecoro.

I’ll be reviewing a boardgame a week for Paste through the end of the year, and the latest review is on Costa Rica, a light family game from the designer of Relic Runners and Elysium. It’s fun for the kids but I think too unbalanced for adults to play on their own.

And now, the links…

  • Juanita Broaddrick was the most credible of all of the women – and there were a lot – to accuse Bill Clinton of sexual improprieties; her accusation that the then-Governor of Arkansas raped her stood up to what scrutiny was possible twenty years after the incident. Buzzfeed talks to Broaddrick about her opposition to Hillary’s candidacy and asks why her case hasn’t gotten the attention today it deserves. (Hint: it might be because pretty much all non-right-wing media want Trump to lose.)
  • Florida’s Duval County prosecutor Angela Corey tried to charge a 12-year-old kid with second-degree murder while appearing to conspire with his public defender to coerce the kid into accepting it – then charging the same kid with molesting his 5-year-old brother after he rejected it. Corey and Jacksonville’s elected public defender, the delightfully-named Matt Shirk, appear to be crossing numerous ethical lines, including frequently charging minors as adults in felony cases. Corey is up for re-election this fall and if you live in Duval County you should examine her record.
  • Forget Zika or Ebola; yellow fever could be the next pandemic, and we are totally unprepared for it.
  • If you have young kids, when they turn 11 get them vaccinated against HPV. Just fucking do it.
  • A year ago it appeared that vaccination efforts had eradicated polio in Nigeria and thus in Africa as a whole, but it’s back thanks to Boko Haram. So vaccine deniers and murderous Islamists have something in common!
  • Why did NASA, an agency of the U.S. government, issue a $1 million grant to study theology? And why is it now refusing to reveal details of the grant?
  • You could see this coming a mile away: The Austin American-Statesman has run a redemption story for Paul Qui, the former Top Chef winner who was arrested for a domestic violence incident in March.
  • The Atlantic looks at the imminent climate change-induced demise of Kiribati after one of its weightlifters does a dance following a lift.
  • A new study published in Nature Communications found more evidence that neonic pesticides are harming bee populations. Neonics probably aren’t safe, and we should curtail their use until manufacturers can prove they are.
  • Gay BYU students who are victims of assault are disciplined for being gay when they try to report the crimes.
  • The 2016 Olympics haven’t had a major disaster, but the Guardian‘s Marina Hyde notes that they’re a disaster for the host country anyway. Her best point: arguing that the IOC itself should build a permanent home for the Games.
  • Arranged marriages are still common in many poorer parts of the world; NPR ran a fascinating story on one father’s campaign to free his daughter from a marriage he helped arrange.
  • Popular Mechanics explains that chemtrails aren’t real no matter what you read on tinfoilhat dot com.
  • I’m 36 and not on Facebook. You probably shouldn’t be either.” doesn’t quite make the case the headline promises, and I don’t agree with the conclusion, but I think it’s a point worth considering especially as social media, especially Facebook, change the nature of friendships in my generation and those that follow.
  • WIRED endorsed Hillary Clinton for President, the first official endorsement of a Presidential candidate in the publication’s history.
  • Those of you aged 35 and up might remember the Gopher internet protocol, which eventually lost out to the world wide web despite some early promise as the first user-friendly way to access information on the Internet.
  • British physicist and professor Brian Cox took on a climate change denier politican from Australia on the ABC (Australia) TV show Q&A, where the politican came off pretty clearly as a conspiracy theorist loon.
  • Physicists at UC-Irvine, building on research by another group working in Hungary, found evidence of a new subatomic particle that may carry an unknown force. The standard model of physics has long held that there are four fundamental forces; three of them, the weak, strong, and electromagnetic forces, appear to have all been unified at the moment right after the Big Bang, but a solution unifying gravity with the other three has proven elusive. This particle, thirty times heavier than an electron, might carry a fifth force previously unknown and unaccounted for in standard or modern models.
  • The “proton radius puzzle,” where the measurements of that subatomic particle’s radius differ depending on what is orbiting the proton, was further confirmed in experiments using deuterium, a hydrogen isotope with an atomic weight of 2 due to the presence of a neutron in the atom’s nucleus.
  • An experimental physicist in Haifa, Israel, created an artificial black hole to test one of Stephen Hawking’s predictions, namely that black holes will emit a type of feeble radiation (now known as “Hawking radiation”) that, over time, will lead to the black holes shrinking and vanishing entirely – taking all information lost in those black holes over their existence with them. These are early results and incomplete ones at that, but the linked piece gets into Hawking’s predictions and the information paradox.
  • The Romanian soccer team recently donned uniforms with math equations instead of numbers to encourage kids learning math, with kids also getting soccer-themed math questions to work on.

Monteverde Chicago.

Fellow Top Chef fans will remember Sarah Grueneberg from season 9, where she was the runner-up to Paul Qui, who dominated the season like few other contestants have done, overshadowing her own skill set – especially when it came to fresh pastas. Chef Grueneberg left Chicago’s Spiaggia about a year ago to open her own place, Monteverde, in Chicago’s West Loop, and I finally got to try it out Friday night (and chat with Sarah herself) while in town for the Under Armour game. It could not have been any more impressive, not just for the pasta but for the quality of everything that went on every plate.

The menu is short but covers a lot of ground, from small plates to a half dozen pastas (three traditional dishes and three of their own creation) to a few substantial mains, and they accommodated me as a solo diner with some smaller portions so I could try more things. I started with the fiore di zucca, fried squash blossoms, a special right now since they’re in season and a very traditional Italian delicacy. The squash blossoms are extremely delicate and usually must be cooked within a day of their harvest; they’re stuffed with ricotta, battered, and fried, in this case with a tempura-like coating and served with a grilled vegetable relish and bright pea hummus underneath it. One was plenty – they’re so rich – but a plate typically contains three for the table. I rarely get to eat these so there was no question I was ordering it, and it met expectations largely because of the ricotta. I assume Monteverde makes their own but if not they’re using some of the best around because the texture is just perfect.

The single best dish I had on the night was the tomato salad, which is Monteverde’s riff on an insalata caprese, here using several kinds of tomatoes, some whole and some blanched and salted; apricot slices; burrata, which is mozzarella wrapped around a filling of cream that was decadent; basil; and za’atar seasoning. The tomatoes were singing – bright, sweet, just a hint of acidity, like they’d been picked an hour before. The best restaurants I’ve ever been to around the U.S. have all had one thing in common: they care about produce enough to get items like these tomatoes. And yes, the burrata was incredible, but it ended up playing second fiddle to the tomatoes.

That salad is one of the piattini or small plates on the menu, along with two other items I tried. The grilled artichoke crostini comes with fontina fonduta (fontina cheese melted with milk and/or cream and Parmiggiano Reggiano to make it into a sauce), more ricotta, a sweet Italian onion called cipolla di tropea, and shaved summer truffle. I had just one piece but the balance was perfect across the various elements because I could still appreciate the quality of the bread underneath, which had a creamy texture on the interior but the hard crust of good old-world recipes.

The other small plate I tried, specifically at Chef Sarah’s suggestion, was the fegattini calabrese, wok-fired chicken livers – yes, wok-fired – with tomato, peperoncino, corn, fava beans, shallot, and polenta ‘fries’ around the outside. Sarah said customers compare it to an upscale chicken parmesan, which fits with the tomato/chicken combination, but I also found it reminded me of the Ecuadorian dish lomo saltado, where steak is served in a stir-fried dish with French fries cooked in the same pot or skillet. It’s a true one-pot meal, with your protein, starch, and lots of vegetables within it, hearty like a winter stew, bringing richness from the livers and unexpected sweetness from the corn and the polenta.

Chicken livers with tomato, shallot, fava beans, corn, and polenta "fries" at @monteverdechi

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

Choosing one pasta dish at a restaurant known already for its pastas was not simple, but sitting at the bar I could see the two chefs making the pasta dishes to order, including the “twin” ravioli, where each piece contains two pockets with fillings, one with eggplant, pinenuts, and more ricotta, the other with lamb sausage, yogurt (very little), and charred onion. They’re served in a piquant red sauce with olive oil and a crushed pepper mix, although there’s just enough sauce to coat the top of the dumplings. The pasta itself remains the focus of the dish, as it’s an incredibly strong dough (they use whole eggs and egg yolks) that the pasta chefs roll out very thin for the dumplings; I’ve made pasta at home a bunch and I doubt I’ve gotten close to this kind of dough strength before, because if I rolled anything that thin it would tear. Of the two fillings, I preferred the lamb sausage and onion, which sort of gave the dish an inside-out pasta and meatballs connotation.

I tweeted some pics while I was at the restaurant and several of you said I had to try the cannoli (but to leave the gun). Monteverde makes its cannolis in-house and fills them to order with sweetened ricotta, dipping one end in dark chocolate bits and the other in bright-green Sicilian pistachios, with a painted swipe of chocolate sauce and some bitter orange bits (candied, I think) on the plate. I grew up strongly disliking cannolis, because most Italian bakeries on Long Island didn’t make their own shells, which meant they had all the texture and flavor of fried wonton strips, and used lower-quality ricotta that gave the filling a cheesy flavor rather than a sweet one. Monteverde does it all from scratch and it shows, and the part with the chocolate bits brought me back to eating straciatella (chocolate chip) gelato in my last trip to Italy in 1999.

Ricotta cannoli with pistachios on one end and dark chocolate on the other @monteverdechi

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

As you’d expect Monteverde has a long wine list, but I’m not much of an oenophile and went for their cocktail menu instead. They do a take on one of my all-time favorite cocktails, the negroni, using mezcal in place of the gin and Luxardo bitter in place of traditional Campari (although Luxardo and Campari are very similar, with Luxardo bringing a more bitter and less sweet profile). It was a good way to riff on a classic, preserving the essential features, with the bitter flavors out front, with a subtle change underneath I doubt I would have identified as mezcal if I hadn’t known ahead of time.

So, I had a pretty good meal at Monteverde and while I did receive some special treatment I would have said the same things about the food anyway. I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys high-quality food, let alone high-quality Italian food, walking away unsatisfied. There’s enough diversity on the menu for just about anybody (I think you could be gluten-free here pretty easily, in fact) and every dish I had was just one bright flavor after another. I’ll certainly be going back.

The rest of my trip to Chicago featured places I’ve been before; I had coffee at Intelligentsia, as I always do when I’m in Chicago, and then stopped the Tortas Frontera location at O’Hare on my rebooked flight out (my original flight on Southwest out of Midway was cancelled). Frontera is one of the best airport food options in the country, with tortas, a pressed Mexican sandwich on spongy telera bread, made to order inside of ten minutes. I tried a new option this time, the vegetarian torta with mushrooms, black beans, arugula, and goat cheese, because I had to atone for my gluttony the night before. I’ve never had a bad sandwich at Tortas Frontera but I do find their sandwiches with meat a little heavy, whereas this turned out to be just right, especially since my flight was delayed over two hours by thunderstorms and I was on the plane for close to five hours in total.