One of my guilty pleasures is watching competition cooking shows. I don’t watch them for the reason that, I think, most people do, which tends to be getting deeply involved in the whole competition process. It’s easy to see on the online forums for these shows, people railing against judges whom they’re quite sure are idiots for picking the wrong chef-testant or dish or what have you, or making the challenge too hard or too easy, or carrying on at length about how they would have done it if they’d been there. I watch for the food and inspiration. You never know when someone’s going to whip something up that you look at and go, oh cool, I want to play around with that idea.
My favorite is MasterChef Australia. It’s not that the cooking is necessarily any better than any of the other MasterChef or Top Chef or Chopped Sweet Geniuses or Ace of Cake Bosses or whichever one I find myself watching is offering up. It’s that they take the time to talk about it, show details, and even give demonstrations. The show doesn’t air one night a week where we don’t get to see anything behind the scenes, it airs a whopping six nights a week during the season, and one of those nights is always devoted to a Master Class, where the judges and guest chefs actually revisit the challenges of the week to help out not only the contestants, but the viewers, to get a handle on several different cooking processes and ideas of what to do with different ingredients. I have to say that without exception, I’m always either reminded of something I learned so long ago that I’d forgotten it, or learned something totally new.
And, with all this online food inspiration streaming at me day in and day out, I often find myself with just a few too many inspirations. Sometimes I’m good at back-burnering ideas, sometimes I let my imagination get away with me. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t. But they’re always a moment to take some risks – because as I’ve said before, if everybody likes everything you do and never has anything to critique, it’s likely you’re not taking any chances, nor pushing yourself to try something new. And away we go with this weekend’s dinners – a quiet weekend with the holiday and the weather, but a fun one.
I wanted to simplify the little tartlet I made a couple of weeks ago, give it a more interesting crust and improve the presentation. I returned to the polenta and parmesan tart crust that I’ve played with a couple of times in the past. The filling – goats’ milk camembert, caramelized red onions, spiced walnuts, portobello mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and a light grating of parmesan over the top. Served over a balsamic reduction and topped with a scattering of arugula leaves dressed in good olive oil and tomato vinegar (something new I’m playing around with).
This is the first time in a very long time we haven’t had a soup course in the meal. It is a sort of soupy dish, but not soup. The sauce starts as a classic hollandaise – a vinegar and shallot reduction whisked over hot water with some egg yolks, then mounted with butter. But to that, I added a reduced shrimp stock (the stock: caramelize shrimp shells, fish “scraps”, fennel, carrot, celery, shallot in butter, add tomato paste and cook another minute or two, deglaze with a mix of pernod and dry vermouth, add fresh tomato, star anise, coriander seed and white pepper, top it off with water and simmer for about an hour, strain, bring the liquid to a boil and reduced it to about a cup of concentrate) – whisked that all up into a thickened broth, ladled it into the bowl. Atop that, broiled mussels and clams lightly brushed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and prawns sauteed with smoked paprika and salt in olive oil. For contrast to all that richness, some slices of roasted beets and some slices of spicy cucumber pickles, and some cilantro leaves and fennel fronds. Complicated as hell, but I think it was worth it – delicious dish – we ate through plates of extra seafood in this sauce back in the kitchen. Henry wants to call it our “Shellfish Forest”.
This dish changed between the two nights. This is a picture of the first night. There were two changes. First, the dish. Gnocchi. I’ve been playing around with a new way of making them (inspired by chef Gary Meghan who is one of the MC Australia judges/coaches, who was also the inspiration for the sauce in the above dish – neither are dishes he made, but ideas that sprang from things he was demonstrating – his gnocchi method is brilliant, look for it next weekend’s BA Herald article). I wanted it to be a heartier dish and so I made it using rye flour as the binder rather than wheat flour. Loved the flavor, but the rye flour I ended up finding and using wasn’t as fine as the one that I used in experimenting and the gnocchi had a slightly grainy texture to them because of that. Being Sunday, Father’s Day, yesterday, I couldn’t get more of the flour I’d used previously, so switched to straightforward wheat pastry flour for the second day.
The gnocchi are topped with a sauteed mixture of cauliflower, saffron milk-cap mushrooms (that just appeared in Chinatown out of the blue), brussels sprouts and artichokes (second change – first day I put in halved artichokes with stem, but in presentation they were too bulky for the plate, so second day I removed the stems and more of the leaves and quartered the hearts right into the saute), all finished off with a touch of molasses, garlic, salt and pepper. To garnish the dish, slices of smoked mozzarella and a drizzle of fresh chili oil. The last turned out to be too spicy for some of the guests – we loved it, as did about two-thirds of the diners, but that left a third who kind of pushed it around on the plate and tried to eat bits that didn’t have any chili oil on them – we only used a teaspoon per plate… we loved the dish, but it was definitely not the hit of the evening.
A reworking of a dish I’ve made before. No salmón blanco in the market that looked good, so I went with abadejo, or pollack. Lightly crumbed with panko – I didn’t want it to feel quite so fried as I thought it had that first time. As the meal already had a lot of heavier components I left out the quinua and served the fish over a simple squash puree. Instead of pear mostarda I sauteed quince slices and finished them with a hot smoked mustard. Scattered toasted squash seeds around the plate, plus a play on gremolata with blanched lemon rind threads, garlic chives and parsley. It was the favorite dish of several guests, and I definitely liked it better than the first time around, which I’d already liked.
A complete remake of a past dessert – using the same flavors as the base, but completely changing what sort of dessert it is. Previously it was a poppyseed pionono with a licorice pastry cream and lime syrup. I decided to go with cheesecake – the base a sort of shortbread cookie dough with poppyseeds added. The cheesecake filling infused with star anise and kaffir lime and just a hint of vanilla. And I was going to go with a simple lime syrup and segments again, but, then George Calombaris, the other chef judge from MCA had, in another class, done a really interesting presentation of a slice of cheesecake with different sauces and fruits, so I decided to spice up the presentation here. Below the cheesecake, the crema di mascarpone from last week’s Lombardia class that I taught. Then a spoonful of sweetened passionfruit pulp and seeds, slices of loquat fruit, and the lime syrup and segments plus candied lime zest. Now that’s a dessert – and a hit with everyone at the dinners.