Entries from June 2010 ↓

Tim Dunlop laments Masterchef’s return of the eliminata

Tim Dunlop is one of the granddaddies of Australian blogging, and I’m not just saying that because it was his “Blogrolling” column in the Fairfax press that made me decide to go and investigate these “blog” things six or so years ago. He’s a serious home cook, and his current gig is writing Crikey’s excellent music blog Johnny’s in the Basement, where he has recommended music to sharpen knives to.

So the producers of the hit show have done again this year what they did last year: given a bunch of contestants who were eliminated a second chance to win the crown.

However, unlike last year, (where, as they showed in Monday night’s show) the returning contestants were welcomed back warmly, this year’s contestants were not happy to see four losers from earlier rounds reinstated. In fact, the decision went down like a cup of cold sick (or one of Joanne’s sauces).

As this is the most important thing in the world, let me offer a few thoughts.

It sucks. No way should eliminated contestants be allowed back in.

I think this is especially the case when the entire show is predicated on, not just going through the normal rounds of competition where, at various points you risk elimination, but because one of the key rewards in the show, once you win a particular challenge, is the chance to wear the immunity pin. Short of the title itself, that is, being crowned Masterchef of Australia, the immunity pin is held up as the ultimate accolade and symbol of achievement.

Under such circumstances it makes no sense to allow those who were eliminated back in. It completely devalues the reward and advantage that comes with winning an immunity pin.

In effect, the producers are giving a one-off immunity pin to people who have lost challenges.

Allowing the eliminata back, to my way of thinking, is not only a breach of faith with contestants who have got to this point in the challenge, it’s a breach of faith with the audience. Are we playing by the rules and spirit of the game or aren’t we? Apparently not.

I also think it was borderline cruel to make the contestants themselves the vehicle for the return of the three smallest losers. This just seemed a sneaky way to co-opt the contestants in their own tragedy, as if the judges/producers were implying, hey, even you thought they were good enough to be here.

Beyond all this, I think the producers are playing a dangerous game. It was clear from last night’s previews that they intend to play up the fact that those already in the house are unhappy about the failed four returning. In other words, the whole thing is being played for its controversy value in order to increase ratings.

Now, I’m not so dumb as to not realise that this is a commercial venture hellbent of maxing out the number of bums on seats watching, but there comes a point where such manipulation can become counterproductive. They are already pushing their luck with the ponderous pauses before every winner/loser/momentous development is announced, not to mention stuff like Matt’s ridiculous plate-throwing moment. It won’t take much more for them to be crossing the bridge too far.

Having said all that, I would probably be less concerned if Skye was one of those who got back in. I reckon she is better than all the eliminata and most likely better than at least Callum amongst the other remaining contestants, and probably Aaron too. In other words, part of the problem with letting people back is that those they let back really aren’t as good as the ones already there.

No matter who they have let back in, I’d guess it will end up as a showdown between Jonathan and Marion, though it depends which Jonathan shows up for the remainder of the season.

There seem to be two of him, Michelin Jonathan and McDonalds Jonathan. He either comes top or he comes bottom.

The other contender is Adam. I guess Claire is too, though she looks a bit fragile (as a cook). She is consistent, but it is consistent at a fairly middling standard. She rarely looks like she will hit one out of the park and no doubt that is what will be needed.

Anyway, bottom line is, I’m enjoying the show, but the return of eliminata is a bad move. Channel Ten need to be careful not to undermine their credibility with ill-judged gimmicks in the name of short-term ratings.

Emica’s metropolis – a culinary tour of New York

My oh my. Ole Blue Eyes had it right about New York when he said if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. London is a global city, but New York is a metropolis. They say you can tell a tourist from a New Yorker because the visitor spends half their time craning their necks upwards at the enormously tall buildings, while the locals are blase about living in a modernist architect’s model come to life. I am definitely in the provincial gawker category. New York is so tall! And wide. And busy. Looking at old photos in the wonderful, compact Museum of New York City, you can see that the skyline hasn’t changed a huge deal since the late 30s (with two notable exceptions of course), which must have made the scale of the city all the more impressive to country rubes when the Empire State, Chrysler, Rockefeller etc were first built.

It’s a topic that’s been exhaustively explored in books and film, but it remains true that New York is the great immigrant city. I was surprised by how Hispanic culture has a very strong presence in the city, naively thinking that because of the Mexico-American West connection, there wouldn’t be much of a Hispanic population in New York. But it was the brilliant and fascinating Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side that really brought home to me just how integral immigration and the immigrant experience is to the life and character of New York.

Visits to the museum are based on a number of themed tours where the immigrant past of the area is explored. As our guide explained (herself of Italian background), the area had previously been known as Kleine Deutschland and was almost wholly German speaking prior to 1880; the decades after this, into the early 20th century, saw huge numbers of Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Russia and other parts of central and eastern Europe. After that the area became home to the Sicilians, the Puerto Ricans and the Chinese in the 1970. At one point, a quarter of New York’s population was Irish and very large numbers of African Americans moved from the South, settling in Harlem. Describing how these waves of new Americans managed to deal with the sweatshop conditions where large families lived and worked in three or four rooms in these tenement slums, our museum guide made the point that they had nothing to go back to; working out how to survive and thrive in the new country was the only option. The caricature of New York as a hustler city seemed at least partly true, with a very active, pushy street life and people by turns aggressively rude and exceptionally kind and friendly. Without going overboard on the basis of one week’s holiday, it struck me that this character is perhaps a cultural by-product of New York’s eternally arriving population and their determined drive to make it.

And of course, one of the great things about immigration is the food traditions that come with the new residents. From the Jewish side of NYC’s population, Katz’s Delicatessan almost doesn’t need an introduction, so well know is it from When Harry Met Sally. Internet debate rages about whether Katz’s is the real thing or over hyped or whether other delis are more authentic and/or better. I dunno, but the pastrami and pickle sandwich I had was amazingly, meltingly delicious. I’d never had proper pastrami and it doesn’t even begin to compare to that wafer thin prepacked sliced stuff from supermarkets. They’re also famous for own-brand soda. I think that should be infamous because The Man had Cel-Ray, a celery flavour soft drink which tasted like mineral salts crossed with Lucozade; I had a root beer that tasted like cough syrup filtered through the collective footy socks of both grand final teams. Disgusting.

London doesn’t have much of a Hispanic population and American friends moan about lack of proper Mexican food. We had an amazing lunch at a tacqueria (taco joint) in the back of a Mexican grocery in the Hell’s Kitchen area. It had a dozen stools at a counter which offered 5 kinds of hot sauce and, like so many restaurants of the newly arrived, ordering in English was hit and miss, it was cheap and damn delicious. I particularly liked my taco of corn fungus but the slow cooked goat quesadilla was awesome.

Chinatown and Little Italy are next to each other and we were a bit dubious about eating in either, figuring there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of marketing guff giving an area an “identity” and the quality of the cooking. A good review sent us to Chinatown and the New Yeah Shangai Deluxe. With a name like that, how could anyone say no?! Unfortunately, it had disappeared since the review, so we crossed the road to another place where the scallion (spring onion) pancake was raved about. Not sure why it was such a feature as was a bit dull, but The Man’s slow cooked beef with greens and noodles was beautiful. He complained that it was a bit too real, with gristly bits and bony bits but I think that’s picking holes; the beef was melting and the broth beautifully spiced with star anise. I had fine noodles in chicken broth with a pork stuffed poached spring roll and stuffed deep fried tofu, which was good – chickeny in the right way – but not a patch on the beef broth.

Harlem is an iconic area and, apparently, more white people have moved in but it didn’t seem that way to us on a mid week lunch time. Sitting at the counter of Fishers of Men, the only white girl in this Southern style fry-house, I definitely felt I stood out but was made to feel very welcome. Fishers of Men is a hole in the wall hotdog and fried fish outfit.

Established by a deeply religious family, the Ten Commandments are printed on the wall and evangelical FM radio plays the Word of the Lord over the PA. It’s not just a hokey cliche though, because the fried catfish is damn good. Four generous fillets in a light, seasoned batter were sandwiched between white sliced, with mayonnaise and some kind of house made chilli sauce. We added collard greens, a Southern speciality which we discovered were something like silver beet with shredded ham hock, and was both smokey and pleasantly bitter. Unfortunately my coleslaw was made with that sweet industrial mayonnaise but was commendably crunchy and obviously freshly made.

Every holiday I have a food Mecca that I have to visit. For NYC it was Momofuku Ssam Bar. It sort of crept into my consciousness, although the post by Melbourne Gastronome prompted me into action. David Chang opened the first of the Momofuku family, the noodle bar in the East Village, in 2003 and the ssam bar opened in 2006. I believe ssam means wrapped food in Korean and the original intention of the ssam bar was an Asian burrito cafeteria style place. As this profile from a few years ago outlines, that idea didn’t really work out and a more structured approach was introduced to the restaurant when it failed to take off. Certainly, the only remnant of the burrito bar idea we could see when we went for Friday dinner – and again for lunch on Saturday – was the pared back utilitarian decor and the pork belly buns.

Whatever teething troubles that may have beset Ssam, they’re certainly long vanquished. We got there around 8.30 on a Friday and had a lengthy, but not unpleasant wait with gaggles of would be diners in the adjoining Milk Bar, which serves cake, cookies, beer, ice cream and pork buns. To their credit, the restaurant staff keep an eye on you, offer you drinks and remember you’re waiting to eat. Our pork buns were truly delicious. A flat pita shaped bread of the same fluffy consistency as steamed pork buns at yum cha is served open, wrapped around two generous slabs of soft pork belly, smeared with hoisin and topped with spring onion and coriander. We came back the next day for more of these little guys. Yum.

It makes sense to describe Momofuku as fusion, but actually it’s almost beyond categorisation because, although its influences draw from around the world, it’s not pretentious, cheffy or up itself. I say this now because alongside the pork buns we had a plate of Arkensas ham with butter and crusty bread and a plate of the most zingily interesting pickles – included were kimchi, carrot, cauliflower, mushroom and, best of all, rhubarb.

The food wasn’t without a few bum notes. My air dried beef with various accoutrements and hot stock poured over was incredibly salty and for afters we had one of the compost cookies. These are something of a trademark and they’re OK; I may sound a bit pernickity, but they suffer from the wrong proportion of butter and sugar to dry ingredients, which Dr SO so accurately identified in this post. However, all was forgiven because of the cereal milk soft serve – it really does taste like the milk after you’ve eaten all the nutri grain and The Man asked for it to be rolled in salted corn flakes. This is what good, modern, interesting and thoughtful food looks like.

So far in this epic post most of the eating has been a global tour of NYC’s various populations, but we ate a lot of ‘American’ food as well. A juicy burger with American cheese (basically plastic cheese slices) at Williamsburger in, you guessed it, Williamsburg Brooklyn overlooking the impressive derelict sugar refinery. A stack of pancakes with a jug of syrup and sausage at Big Daddy’s Diner; I was on a sugar high after that! And the most amazing donuts at The Donut Plant in the Lower East Side.

A combination of nosiness (me) and friendliness (the nice New Yorker) meant we got chatting with a fella sitting next to us at the Hester Street artisan market, where for breakfast we ate Vietnamese baguettes filled with lemongrass, coriander and pork meatballs and fruity Mexican style icy poles from La Newyorkina. He recommended the Donut Plant, round the corner – a fine piece of synchronicity because we were just about to head across the river to Brooklyn in search of donut excellence. I didn’t know this at the time, but the Donut Plant was the first in a wave of donut visionaries reimagining the donut and recreating it as a viable pastry, not some kind of aerated styrofoam police officers’ snack. For our first round The Man had a square blackberry jam donut and I had a hole-less creme brulee version, which had sweet eggy custard in the middle and a crackly glaze on top. It is one of the yummiest things I’ve ever eaten. For the second round I had chocolate – chocolate glaze, chocolate cake and chocolate ganache inside; The Man had the healthy carrot cake option. And, exemplifying New York’s tension between bad-ass attitude and helpful friendliness, the previously surly super cool server unexpectedly gave me a fifth donut, their famous tres leches flavour with some kind of creamy deliciousness inside.

And they’re rounding the bend … or sending Dr Sister Outlaw around one: Midseason Masterchef post

So, nine to go, which means eight eliminations before we find out who is The One. We are getting to know the personalities, and everyone surely has their favourites and their hot tips, and enough good people are gone now to be a bit upset (Jake and Skye, for instance). Last night Matt Preston tweeted that every week of episodes equals 10 days of filming and we are catching up to where the remaining contestants are really at.

While we wait to see who goes home from tonight’s Blue Team (which contains most of my favourites), it seems a good time to reflect on the series thus far. I will present the following observations, for the purpose of discussion and debate. (With the exception of the first point, which is beyond question, OK?)

1. Joanne simply has to go. No one can take any more of her ingratiating manner, which is so incongruous with her tightly pursed lips. Lest anyone think my loathing of her is about appearances, let me make it very clear – she put Carrie in it with the creme brulee even though she contributed to it by making Carrie fix her peaches and she dumped on Jonathan’s leadership. This is where we need a voting mechanism – Australia hates dobbers.

2. I really like Jonathan now, and it seems to me that, after a rough start, the others are fond of him too. Under pressure he’s a good leader, he takes responsibility and if he can survive the emotional strain of one more elimination challenge, he’s a contender. He’s also a fearsomely talented cook and I’d like to read a cookbook he wrote.

3. Aaron really needs to wash his hair and shave because I don’t like thinking about him handling food as he currently appears and I am in no way particular about these things. Also, he should get over himself.

4. I really like Claire, Adam and Marion, but I think that they might be disadvantaged by having faced too few eliminations. Adam and Marion’s immunity may weaken them in the longer term.

5. George really should stop saying beeyouteeful and just say bewdiful, like he really wants to.

6. Last time I posted about Masterchef, I observed a distinct skills deficit, but the skills really have improved. This makes me wonder just how much training they do off camera.

OK, so that’s my two cents’ worth. What do all youse think?

Anthony’s Authentic™ Soupe ou Pistou

Mid-autumn in Melbourne coincided with a burst of hot weather, which meant fresh borlotti beans were in my green grocer’s at the same time I was contemplating how to cook summery meals. My thoughts turned to soup. Now normally, in Melbourne’s peak temperatures, the only soup that attracts is a cold and garlicky gazpacho. But my second favourite warm weather soup is soup au pistou. This is basically a pretty bland soup based around (ideally fresh) shelled beans, some pasta, potatoes and summer vegetables (zucchini, green beans) which is enlivened by a spoonful of pistou (which, as we’ll see, is just the Provençal version of pesto) stirred into bowls at the last minute.

I was first introduced to this soup in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, but have more recently followed a recipe of Patricia Wells, which I adapt below.

The success of the soup as a summer tonic lies of course in the pistou. And the secret of a good pistou is a mortar and pestle, not a food processor. Patience Gray in her remarkable book Honey from a Weed has a whole introductory chapter on ‘chopping and pounding’. There she writes: ‘Pounding fragrant things – particularly garlic, basil, parsley – is a tremendous antidote to depression…Pounding these things produces an alteration in one’s being – from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure. The cheering effects of herbs and alliums cannot be too often reiterated’.

Before I get to the recipe, I just want to reiterate what a peculiar — in a good way — cookbook Gray’s book is. She co-wrote an earlier cookbook, published as a Penguin paperback, with Primrose Boyd in the 1950s, called Plats du Jour, then she absconded to Europe to make a life with a Flemish sculptor for the next forty or fifty years, living in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia: in effect, chasing the marble that a sculptor needs.

One remarkable aspect of her book lies in the subtitle: ‘Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cylcades and Apulia’. Not only does the word ‘fasting’ rarely appear in connection with contemporary cookbooks, but here it is given priority of place before the word ‘feasting’.

Many contemporary cookbooks on regional cuisines are embedded in some sort of narrative — explicit or implied — about The Quest for Authenticity. It is not enough to know that we are going to use olive oil in a recipe; we need to be told that the dish was originally tasted on a hiking trip near Carrara, using oil obtained from the first pressing from the gnarled trees of a domestic grove of a poor but honest Italian farmer and so on. This Quest for Authenticity along with a persistent nostalgia coalesces to give us the Mediterranean Diet as Culinary Pastoral. Yet what we today evoke as the Mediterranean Diet probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. Up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine.

Gray’s book is one of the few Mediterranean cookbooks to acknowledge this in its overall approach. She captures what the anthropologist Carole Counihan, writing about rural Sardinia, observed when referring to an ‘iron clad ethic of consumption: daily consumption took place within the family and was parsimonious; festive consumption took place within society at large and was prodigal’, there being a ‘rhythmic oscillation between these two different modes’.

So yes, Gray’s cookbook-cum-travel memoir does play the authenticity card, but without the reassurance and comfort and warm fuzziness that comes with most books of this genre. At one stage she watches, and describes for the reader, a Greek islander woman’s method of cooking fresh haricot beans into a soup over an outdoor fire. When Gray takes some of the surplus soup to a neighbour, the neighbour ‘believing them to be cooked by me and foreign in consequence, later threw them to the pig’. The Mediterranean diet, like Tolstoy’s ideal of love, can be a harsh and dreadful thing.

Anyhow, the promised recipe for La Soupe au Pistou:

If you have access to fresh borlotti beans, buy half a kilo which will come down to around 200 – 250 g shelled beans.

Warm some oil in a saucepan with chopped garlic and some thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs and a bay leaf or two. Add the beans and cook for a minute or two. Add a litre of hot water and cover and simmer for around ten minutes.

In another pot, start the soup: oil, onions and garlic sweated over a low heat. Add chopped carrots, chopped potatoes and again more bay leaves, some thyme and parsley sprigs. Saute all this for ten minutes or so, stirring regularly, to build depth of flavour.

Then add the beans and their cooking liquid to the vegetables with some diced zucchini and some tomatoes (fresh or from a tin, whatever’s at hand) and another litre of water. Simmer gently until all is cooked. Add some small pasta shapes and cook until the pasta is cooked.

Serve the soup hot, passing both pistou and grated pecorino or parmigiano cheese to swirl into the soup

Pistou:

For pesto or pistou, I’d go with a cup of basil leaves pounded together with a tablespoon of pine nuts, a clove of garlic, half a teaspoon of salt and four tablespoons of olive oil. Enjoy.


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