Saturday, May 31, 2008

"C" is for Cabrales

I stopped at Whole Foods to pick up a few items and as usual, there were samples everywhere, ranging from barbecued brisket to olive oil to chocolate to (sigh...) cheese. And not just any cheese - there were creamy bits of brie, salty cubes of peccorino romano, tangy logs of chevre, freshly made mozzarella and (almost as if they had known I would show up) Cabrales blue - the holy grail of blue cheeses. Sadly, I noticed that unlike the other cheese samples, the Cabrales had barely been touched. Now, granted, it's not the prettiest cheese in the case, and maybe it is a bit pungent...But gosh darn it, you can't judge a book by its cover! It's worth a taste!

Why should I eat this moldy looking cheese, Java Junkie? I want to know why you want me, the unenlightened cheeseless wonder, to eat this particular cheese. It smells, it's expensive and as you pointed out, it is pretty darned short on looks. I'm scared. Convince me.

Well alrighty then - for those of you not familiar with this glorious cheese, Cabrales is Spain's famous blue. It's slowly aged in the caves near the Cantabrian Sea under cold, very humid conditions. Produced only in the village of Cabrales and two other hamlets of the Pe├▒amellera Alta Township on the northern spur of the rugged Picos de Europa in eastern Asturias, its texture is buttery and creamy rather than crumbly. The flavor of Cabrales is seriously assertive; it is salty and tangy and earthy and's a beautifully rustic blue...

Yes, yes, I get it - you like Cabrales...But with what should I eat it, Java dearest? How the heck will I get my family to try it?

Good question, Cheeseless! In my humble opinion, Cabrales is very versatile -it pairs well with both sweet and savory foods. It's wonderful drizzled with honey and spread on crisp slices of pear or apple; it's a great addition to sauces and compound butters. It's lovely on steak and lamb, and it's bloody brilliant by itself (with a little Amontiallado sherry for sipping). One of my favorite recipes uses Cabrales in a warm fig salad with crisped serrano ham and walnut vinaigrette. But please, don't just take my word on this - do your homework and try it for yourself. At the very least, find a store that sells it and ask for a taste. Just a little nibble. Then buy a smallish hunk to take home. Tell the kids that they are not, under any circumstances, to eat any - not even a taste. Tell them you're going to hide it from them (naturally, they will find it and eat it all). Never, ever let on that you tricked them into trying something new.

If you let your culinary wild thing run crazy and free, I think you just might find Blue Cheese stuffed Medjool dates or Grilled Tomatoes with Cabrales and Pine Nuts rolling out of your kitchen faster than you can say "Velveeta". And really, is that such a bad thing?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Scallopgate Schmallopgate...

To say that we've been underwhelmed by this season of Top Chef (or should we say "Top Caterer") would certainly be an understatement. Despite early claims of the superior skills of this set of chefs over past seasons chefs, we just haven't been too impressed.

Chicago is nice but we just haven't been seeing the "location vibe" showing up in the food like we did in Miami. Oh sure we had deep dish pizza as a quickfire and the Tailgate episode with the Bears but sadly Chicago's depth as a serious foodie town just hasn't been plumbed. I mean, here we are, the last episode before uprooting the finalists and what is the big hubbub? Frozen scallops in a steak joint's walk-in. And not just the joyous Hallelujah chorus that was heard in at least two dark dank basements last Wednesday. Nope, apparently just the mere appearance of frozen scallops within the hallowed confines of Rick Tramonto's restaurant is the story of the moment. Bah!

On a side note, I must applaud the producers for the smartest move they could have ever made, namely the hiring of Lee Anne Wong as their Food Wrangler. She is fiendishly clever at the twists the chefs must deal with when it comes to what's available to them, as well as how the challenges are set up. While she hasn't posted a blog entry for this episode I wouldn't be surprised at all if she had something to do with frozen scallops showing up as a possible boneheaded choice to trip up a not so astute chef. Thank you Lee Anne if it was you, thank you from the bottom of my dark, dank basement of a heart.The other thing that has been so disappointing this season is the lack of Anthony Bourdain's blog on Top Chef. It's no secret that we openly adore the man and his take on all things Top Chef. Imagine our glee when he popped back up on the Top Chef blogolicious radar over on his normal Travel Channel blog proving that the man is just as much as a Top Chef crack monkey as we are.

His take on why Dale was auffed during Restaurant Wars is sublime. I love his thought process on judging - who would he want to hire and the evaluation of the dish set before him. He skates the thin ice of inconsistent judging by stating "Judging on Top Chef -- as has been pointed out repeatedly (most recently and succinctly by my learned colleague, Ted Allen) is on a "What Have You Cooked For Me Lately" basis. We are not supposed to care what has been achieved previously." It's that "supposed" that leads me to believe that while he might not state it out loud, our dear Father Tony might not be convinced that the "regular" judges don't take into account the wins and losses of the chefs before them. Not that he really cares. Give him the task of Head Judge for a week then yes, he's wearing the blue jacket and crunching down on all the fun that goes with it. I'd say he was even polite in his criticism of Dale at judges table of what is now known as the Worst Dish Ever on Top Chef (Dale, those butterscotch scallops replaced CJ's brocolini on line one - we're sure he gives you his deep, deep thanks).

No, Father Tony is just having too much fun. So, gnash your teeth, tear at your hair and spout conspiracy theories until the Tomahawk Beef comes home, Tony says you are wrong. Since the man has been there as a guest judge, a head judge and most importantly, an avid fan of the show, I'll take him at his word. All of his words. Just as long as he keeps writing them

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Where's the beef???

For a mere $164.95 plus shipping and handling, you can order two (count em'!) "Tomahawk" long bone ribeye chops from Allen Brothers, the company that supplied the steaks seen on last night's episode of Top Chef. These dry aged beauties are about an inch and a half thick, and weigh in at 30/34 oz. each.

If you're too impatient to wait for delivery, you can visit your local Whole Foods, where the fine folks in the butcher department will cut and french dry aged rib eye into "tomahawk chops" for about $35.00 each ($5.00 less per chop than quoted by my local butcher!). Bon appetit!

Monday, May 19, 2008

We've Been Slimed

Yes it's true, ever since consuming the last episode of Top Chef, both the Gals have experienced a keyboard clogging SLIME! Each time they went to post or chop their photos, a dreadful slime would appear to gum up their efforts. It wasn't even an exciting slime, just boring, lay there and do nothing sort of slime. Our geeky computer Yoda masters tell us that the life span of this particular slime lasts roughly a week. The Gals will be back this Wednesday, hopefully slime-free. Until then, enjoy the slimy goodness because we do so love to share.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Gals Say "Give Johnny Cubert White an Emmy!"

Last season, we had the pleasure of interviewing Johnny Cubert White, the incredibly creative and talented Art Director for "Top Chef: Miami". Johnny is being considered for an Emmy nomination for his amazing work last season, and we thought our readers would enjoy a second look at his interview, which was originally posted on the "TC Gals" blog in August of 2007.

Not that we don't love chef interviews, but there are so many of them out there this season that we thought it might be interesting to go behind the scenes and see who is responsible for the vastly improved sets for this season's Top Chef...and who better to start with than Top Chef Miami Art Director, Johnny Cubert White.

BS: Johnny, how long have you been an Art Director?

JW: I received my MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in filmmaking and came to LA after directing and producing a feature film (Temporary Girl) with my friend Lisa Kotin, an amazing actress/writer. When I first arrived in LA, in 2000, I was not going to wait tables or be a production assistant. I had too much experience and I did not come to LA to not make my next film.

After two years of not working, I would go to Chicago and Boston for work AND did game shows to win cash. I finally took a job on Master & Commander in Mexico. I was cast as the lieutenant of the marines under Russel Crowe's command and spent seven months in Rosarito as a glorified extra. (My nephew says he saw me 15 times in the friends sometimes miss my two close-ups).
When I returned I was determined not to be unemployed in Los Angeles and took the first job I could get - being a day painter on "The Bachelor". It was the Firestone season, and my neighbor was the Art Director. I begged him to consider me and told him of my experience with my mother and step father building our home in Florida. (The night before my GREs I was smoothing our cement driveway!)

He called and offered me one day of work painting a wall. I was to make one hundred flat and could expect no more work. I took the bus to Malibu immediately. (Did I mention that I don't have a car or a cell phone in LA?!) That one day painting gig on The Bachelor evolved into me being the seamstress, set dresser, leadman -- by the time we were shooting Meredith, I was the Art Director, it took six months. That was in 2003.

BS: Exactly what does an Art Director do?

JW: That's a great question and the answer really changes with every production -- film or television -- depending upon what needs to be done and if there is a production designer involved and to what extent that designer is actually involved.

When I was art director with The Bachelor, we rented a house and decorated it. The designers (Tiffany Dior, Angelic Rutherford) were very hands on, and on the set every day. (Angelic Rutherford came in as designer after Tiffany Dior left the show) With Top Chef, Jeff Hall (America's Next Top Model) did a fabulous job designing the kitchen. As the Art Director my duties included decorating the kitchen and the penthouse living space; and designing, constructing and dressing the interview rooms and the "stu" room (the storage room where chefs wait while the judges deliberate). Plus all the pragmatic duties of heading the art department, hiring, budgeting, spending, accounting....My team also made the benches for the dining room table, the driftwood bed sets w/ side table and headboard, and researched and set decorated for every challenge. The headboards are actually bath mats from Crate & Barrel!

BS: Were you involved in Top Chef 2?

JW: No. I worked on Top Design with Bravo, fall 2006.

BS: How do you think the seasons compare artistically?

JW: How do YOU think the seasons compare artistically?

BS: What were some of the challenges you faced when designing the overall look of the Penthouse?

JW: Filling such a gigantic space. I wasn't allowed to paint or put holes. And the limited time to get all of the work done - less than two weeks.

BS: The Penthouse is located in the luscious Fontainebleau Resort in Miami. Wasn't the rest of the hotel undergoing renovation during that time? Did that mean no housekeeping while the chefs were there?

JW: There was a lot of construction going on around the hotel in the resort, but the hotel was new and fabulous.

BS: Did the producers have any "reality TV show requirements" in your design that you might not normally encounter as an Art Director?

JW: All of my experience art directing has been in reality TV, so to me their requirements/ requests were pretty normal. Shauna Minoprio (executive producer) warned me not to go too "Surreal Life" on her - she wants the people and the food to pop, not the background. (On the Bachelor/ette, Lisa Levenson would shout out from the control room over the walkie to me "Too Temptation Island!" when she felt we went overboard with flowers and/or candles.)

BS: Did you only work on the Penthouse or did you work on the kitchen or some of the location shoots?

JW: All of the above. I had a lot of help from Lee Anne Wong (Season 1 contestant and now Culinary Producer for "Top Chef 3 Miami") in the kitchen and the Asst. Art Director Jenn de Mahy on the locations. I was spread pretty thin but had a great team working with me to make sure it all came together. Even the producers would jump in! It really is all about the team.

BS: Any penthouse disasters you can reveal? Sculpture as hat racks, blenders in the hot tub?

JW: Funny that you have mentioned the hat rack! Contestant Brian had a collection of hats, and on one of my visits to the PH to make sure everything was still camera ready and in one piece, I popped in while they were out shopping. In an alcove in the foyer someone had placed one of his hats over a borrowed Jonathan Adler vase -- a metal vessel of fine porcelain with an over glaze of platinum. I was enraged. (Silly, I know, but what if a camera shot it? And of course one did, and it made an episode!) I took his hat, kicked it and threw it in a utility closet. (One of my few tantrums throughout the season). If I've learned anything about the set is that the little things you let slide show up in the final cut. I hate electrical cords, tape, holes in walls, and hats on vases!

BS: Who came up with the idea to use Hobart parts as decoration? We love it. I keep expecting for them to show up on Ebay.

JW: When I saw the mixing accessories at the kitchen supply store - I saw sculptures. My intent on the living space was to decorate it with objects and images that complimented the look and the theme of the show. I loved the jagged curves, and steel color.

BS: Did you get to decorate Casa Casuarina in Episode One?

JW: I would say set decorate, but not decorate. We added practical items for our purposes... Jenn de Mahy, assistant art director, led the team through that challenge. She did a great job. It was a huge day, for everyone!

BS: I absolutely love the photography decorating the Penthouse. Steven Hamilton Photography, I believe. How did you guys hook up with him?

JW: Stephen and I met in Chicago - we both went to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he studied photography, I studied filmmaking. We became friends while working together remodeling his studio loft where he runs his business. Again, when I was brainstorming on how to decorate the house, I thought of his photographs. I was really careful to showcase images of the tools and ingredients and not images of finished meals.

BS: What have you been working on since the end of Top Chef?

JW: I did a reality pilot for NBC with Reveille Productions (The Office) and then went to Chicago for a filmmaking summer camp for teens that I've been a part of since grad school. In one of the classes we studied Jane Eyre and created a short film based on the text. You can see it on You Tube

BS: Okay, last question. It's the Honorary Harold Dieterle
Underwear Question. We asked, he answered, so why stop a good thing. Boxers, Briefs or Commando?

JW: It depends on my mood and the company I plan to keep.

BS: Thanks for chatting with us, Johnny, it's been a pleasure!

JW: Thanks for your humor...I LOVE YOUR SITE!!!!! You guys are great.

Originally published 8/28/07

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Just How Much is Crow per Pound?

I've always said our readers are a smart group of people. It was one smart reader (props to you Teleburst) who had his doubts about how I conducted my own $10 meal for the "Common Threads" challenge. In reviewing my notes I discovered two things. Well, actually only one thing, I already knew my math skills were atrocious. I made a simple math error while calculating my grocery store tape when subtracting the other items on the tape not related to the challenge. The real cost of making the recipe from the ingredients purchased from the cheaper grocery store was $16.72, quite a bit more than my original $12.45.

The second error concerned not paying attention to the details. You see I thought the recipe I pulled off the Top Chef site was for four people even though it lists it in tiny type right above the directions. It's a recipe that serves eight. This gives us all some insight into how they ran this challenge. My smart reader also pointed this out and it's by pure food cost. Take my total from the non-Whole Foods store cut it in half and you get under the $10 ceiling. If Nikki shopped at Whole Foods and found chicken on sale that day and made the dish to serve eight then she can meet the challenge by just taking half the cost. But as we know this doesn't really work for us in the non-Top Chef world. I can't buy half a cucumber, pint of grape tomatoes, onion, apple, or prepackaged herbs which is why I think they listed that recipe to serve 8. Plus there's still no indication of what the chefs were allowed to use from the well stocked Top Chef kitchen pantry. For all we know, Lee Anne, Purveyor of the Pantry may keep a large stock of fresh herbs for the chefs to use. She may even buy them in a large enough quantity that brings down the price way below what Nikki would have to spend at Whole Foods not to mention if there were onions, carrots and garlic back at the ranch. But as you can see from our very unscientific poll, fresh herbs is only slightly ahead of miso for dead last of items readers keep in their pantry. Again it's that unique Top Chef math.
Did the chefs actually meet the requirements of this challenge? Again attention to detail is needed. Was the requirement that they HAD to shop at Whole Foods or just that they were taking them to Whole Foods to shop for items not already in the pantry. Looking back at my tape I believe this is the case. They didn't walk into Whole Foods with a single ten dollar bill and come out with a bag of groceries and that's where I have my problem with the way this challenge was presented. This episode revolved around the organization Common Threads and getting families to budgeting and eating nutritious meals together. It wasn't aimed at the usual Top Chef high end, expensive restaurant (or this season, catering) food consumers. It was aimed at getting people to cook at home more. Shopping like a mother of two kids who only has ten dollars to get that meal for her family of four seems more honest than having the chefs spending whatever they spent, buying enough to serve eight and dividing the cost to come in under budget. I still believe that they did no favors to Whole Foods by giving the impression that you can easily make a meal for a family of four shopping at Whole Foods for just ten dollars.

Thanks again to our smart detail oriented Top Chef Crack Monkey readers. Keeping me on my toes and thinking makes bringing this blog to you all the more enjoyable! You'll have to excuse me now, my crow l'orange is getting cold...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

New Guest Judge Qualifications...?

In the Bravo preview, Chef Antonia indicated that next week's guest judge would be "tall, dark and handsome." We'll have to give her tall and dark...

Got hats? Apply Now!!

Whether you have a passion for food, creativity and a thorough knowledge of cooking techniques, or just a lot of damned hats that you want to show off on television, don't forget that Bravo is casting for Top Chef Season 5.

Open Casting calls will be held in:

Monday, April 14th 2008
10:00am – 2:00pm
430 Rue Dauphine
New Orleans, LA, 70112

Monday, April 21st 2008
10:00am – 2:00pm
545 Post St.
San Francisco, CA 94102

Sunday, May 4th 2008
10:00am – 2:00pm
MGM Grand Hotel & Casino
3799 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89109

Saturday, May 10th 2008
11:00am – 1:00pm
1946 Campus Drive
Hyde Park, NY 12538

Sunday, May 11th 2008
10:00am – 2:00pm
399 Lafayette St.
New York, NY 10003
(at east 4th street)

Monday, May 26th 2008
10:00am – 2:00pm
617 S. Olive St.
Los Angeles, CA 90014

Email right away for more info

Email right away for more info

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Unofficial Pantry Poll

Which of the following do you consider "pantry" items?
Olive/Vegetable Oil
Dried Herbs
Canned Tomatoes
Fresh Herbs
Tomato Paste
Tomato Sauce
Dried Beans/Legumes
Dried Pasta/Couscous
Miso Paste
Free polls from

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Someone's in the Kitchen with Shamu...

It's Chef Nikki and her almost winning recipe for roast chicken with apple and mixed vegetables. Yes, I actually bought all of the ingredients for this recipe. And while I spent a tad over my ten dollar limit, it's still a pretty good value for the amount of food I made. Sorry Whole Foods, I went with the local grocery store.Apples and Onions and Brussels Sprouts, oh my!Here's my one quibble with the dish. It's got some serious schmaltz going on. I added no liquid to the roasting pan, but since the recipe calls for legs and thighs there was some serious fat drainage. And that's not even counting the thigh fat that I trimmed before the chicken went into the pan. Yet, I suspect that not unlike bacon (and its fat), anything roasted in chicken fat comes out tasting much better than when it went in, even Brussels sprouts.All in all a very good dish. The sweetness of the apples and carrots balances the slight bitterness of the Brussels sprouts. Did the chefs really spend ten dollars and buy ALL of their ingredients at Whole Foods? I seriously doubt it, and rumors are flying that the well stocked Top Chef pantry played a much bigger role in the budget finagling than we viewers were led to believe. That being said, please don't let that deter you from at least trying Whole Foods. They have a wonderful variety of good food.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Happy Cinco De Mayo!

The Junkie's will be celebrating with a dinner of caldo de camarone, arroz con pollo, carne asada, black beans, homemade tamales and tortillas, and a tres leches cake (from a family recipe compliments of Charlus!)

If any of our readers are celebrating, please let us know what your feast will be!

Also, we send our congratulations to Chef Harold Dieterle - today is the first anniversary of the opening of his restaurant, Perilla!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Top Chef Discount

Top Chef has always had it's own math. Never was it more evident than in this past week's episode. A dinner for a hungry family of four ÷ $10.00 spent at Whole foods = a fairly interesting elimination challenge. Yet something One itchy little detail, that shopping at Whole Foods in 30 minutes. Can we talk about a serious suspension of disbelief? Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Whole Foods but I'm not a family of four. When I mentioned the challenge to a co-worker, she guffawed and said that it wasn't called Whole Foods in her house, it was better known as Whole Paycheck. It's a valid point. Not satisfied with just wondering if it could be done, I decided to take the challenge myself. Batten down the hatches, Big Shamu is going shopping.First the particulars. Kansas City does have a Whole Foods. In general food prices in KC seem to be in the middle range, not as expensive as NY or San Francisco but not bargain basement prices. However $10.00 just won't buy you much at any Whole Foods in the country. Would it come close to what the chefs produced on the show?

Just which recipe to choose? Neither Antonia's whole wheat pasta nor Andrew's Paillard interested me as much as Nikki's roasted chicken with vegetables. Now to figure out the recipe.
Do I go by this?

Even the vegetables in the photo aren't mentioned in the on screen lineup? However Nikki's guests did help me out.

Maybe I would have better luck with Top Chef's recipe site.

That's a little better but notice no mention of a "whole" chicken or potatoes. We'll tackle Top Chef attention to details some other day and go with this recipe. Still the amount of chicken seemed a little too generous. Maybe her choice of the cheaper parts of the chicken would ease my doubts. The meat department would be my first stop to see just how hard that chicken would cut into my ten dollar bill.

I had many choices but finally settled on the thigh/leg quarters value pack (4 quarters to a pack). Cutting the legs from the thighs once I got home was no big deal and it was cheaper. Still at $2.39 a pound this was going to hurt. If I went by the recipe and bought the chicken in the quantities listed I'd end up spending at least $8.60 for the chicken alone?!?! Time to "improvise" (no, I'm not substituting the long lost Polish Sausage) and go with one package of chicken and end up with 4 legs and 4 thighs, enough for each family member to get two pieces of chicken.

While that problem was solved, other obstacles remained. Three ingredients, while readily available at Whole Foods and other grocery stores, cannot be purchased loose so you must pay the full price no matter how much you need. I agreed with Nikki's choice of grape tomatoes since regular tomatoes are worthless in taste and texture. However they are not cheap. One pint would take $3.99. I again decided to deviate and went with the cheaper Roma tomatoes. The brussel sprouts only come in one pound bag and since they don't sell them loose I was stuck with their $3.99 price. The real kicker was the fresh herbs in her salad. While parsley, thyme and basil are a wonderful flavor combination they cost me a whopping $7.00. Once it was all said and done, even with my cheating the recipe of less chicken and different tomatoes my final total at Whole Foods was a not so frugal $24.76. Ouch.

So we suspected it wouldn't really work at Whole Foods. Could I make it work at a store other than Whole Foods? Time to find out. I chose a mid-range store, with a large and varied stock, not the most expensive but not the cheapest. Every single item on my list was substantially cheaper, especially the chicken. I still went with the thigh/leg quarters and at $1.49 a pound I could purchase the chicken quantities the recipe called for. Still the biggest problem remained, fresh herbs. They still ate up half my budget at $5.37. (Note to self, plant that herb garden STAT!) Despite my frugality and not adding the cost of what I'm assuming were "pantry items" (olive oil and red wine vinegar) and only deviating on the tomatoes my grocery store tape still added up to $12.45. I also wasn't allowed to haggle at the cash register by skinning off portions of veggies in the hopes of coming in under budget.

So I failed. At least with Nikki's dish but looking over the other chef's recipes it's hard for me to imagine how any of them realistically did it shopping at Whole Foods. Wasn't that partially the point since I assume Top Chef is on board with the Whole Food philosophy of healthy, nutritious food? If you're telling folks that you can feed that family of four for dinner on $10.00 a night at Whole Foods when it's not true you are doing a huge disservice to both Whole Foods and families on a tight budget. You only reinforce the cries of economic pain working families express any time someone mentions buying organic or sustainable agriculture. Whole Foods may want to "...implement this new vision of the future by changing the way we think about the relationships between our food supply, the environment, and our bodies." but it won't mean a thing if that hungry family of four has to choose between paying $3.50 for a gallon of gas so Dad can get to work or shopping organic. Then again, it's hard out here being a sponsor pimp...