Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cooking with Top Chef 3.25.10

This week, Jenn Murphy of Sweet Water tries out a recipe from Top Chef Masters season 1 winner Rick Bayless and one from TCM1 finalist Michael Chiarello. Thanks again, Jenn, for sharing your kitchen experiences with us.

I just had to try this soup by Rick Bayless.

I actually didn't realize he was so famous for it until, um, 30 seconds ago when I did a quick google seach with his name and the soup. I just wanted to give a Mexican recipe a try.

Mexican flavours are not ones I indulge in much. I think I've been a bit jaded by my general perception that Mexican food has been franchised out and reduced to chihuahuas yapping about tacos and quesadillas.

On one of the few occasions that SeaBass decided to take me on a romantic dinner date (this was at the beginning of our relationship. The attempts at romance have only gone downhill from here) he made a reservation and would only tell me that he was taking me out for a wonderful meal of "real" Mexican food at this restaurant he had heard about. As we drove closer to our destination I started to get a bad feeling about just where he had "heard about" said restaurant.

Woman's intuition is a powerful thing.

We were headed for "Mexicali Rosa's". He had heard about it on the radio. In one of their incessantly repeated commercials.

We were headed for the typical Mexican fair of tortilla chips and salsa and crappy margaritas. I was trying very hard to be pleasant.

The funny thing was that SeaBass totally didn't recall being inundated with commercials with this place. He was sure that someone he knew had given him a hot tip on a great place.

Their ad agency better have been well paid.

SeaBass also did not recall, until he saw the sign for the restaurant, that we had just eaten at another one of their franchises a couple of weeks before with some of his rowdy friends.

Yep, his romantic destination was filled with families with screaming children, drunken boys and bad food.

I think that's the night he gave up control in our relationship.

Hmm...maybe some good did come out of it.

I have for some time now been wanting to give Mexican fare another chance though. Especially since my brother just returned from a trip during which he got to experience a bit of the real Mexico. No Acapulcan resort food on this journey.

Now he keeps walking around mumbling about "tortas" every time he gets within hearing distance of me. Can anyone help me with this?

Back to Bayless and his Sopa Azteca. It was damn good. I loved all the layering of flavours involved. The tomato base was very nice on its own but building on the soup with the condiments and garnishes to suit your own taste was my favourite part.
(Full disclosure: This pic is from Bayless' website. I was having an off day when I made the soup and hated all the pics I ended up with. I had a bit of a temper tantrum and deleted them all. I am a huge whining baby. Thank you for understanding.)

Sopa Azteca
(adapted from Rick Bayless recipe on
Serves 6

*1 large dried pasilla chile stemmed and seeded
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes in juice
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 med white onion sliced
3 garlic cloves peeled
2 quarts chicken broth
**1 large epazote sprig
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves cubed into 1/2 inch
1 large ripe avocado pitted and flesh scopped out
1 1/2 cups Mexican melting cheese
approx 4 cups broken tortilla chips
1/2 cup mexican crema, sour cream or creme fraiche
1 large lime cut into wedges

*no pasilla chiles in my neck of the woods. I used a scotch bonnet and dried red chili.
** I substituted some dried oregano and savoury

Quickly toast the chili over an open flame (or in a dry pan over medium heat on both sides) for just a few seconds. Break chili into pieces and put in blender with tomato and juices. Heat oil in large saucepan over med. high. Add onion and garlic. Saute until golden. Remove onion and garlic with slotted spoon (leave behind as much oil as possible.) Put onion and garlic in blender with tomato and chili. Blend until smooth.
Return pan to med high heat. When pan is hot add tomato puree and stir constantly until reduced to tomato paste consistency (approx 6 mins.) Add chicken broth and epazote (or herbs.) Reduce heat to med low and simmer 15 mins. Season with salt. Approx 5 mins before serving add chicken to simmering broth. Divide acocado, cheese and tortilla chips up soup bowls. When chicken is cooked (5 mins) ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with cream.

Here's how my brain functions (or malfunctions - I leave that for you to decide) if I don't like what I perceive to be the personality of a given singer/actor/chef/general celebrity type I cannot, in turn, enjoy any of their work.

Take Bono of U2 for instance. He seems like a pompous ass to me. That's exactly how I describe him any time the topic arises. Luckily for me it seems to arise often and I get to shout out "pompous ass" and get all kerfuffled about my obviously very valid judgment of his pomposity.

Another good example: Alanis Morrissette.

I don't care that she's Canadian, I really don't. I care that her songs back in the day were ridiculous and stupid and therefore she is obviously a fool. Don't get me started on the now infamous "Ironic" lyrics. Complete idiocy.

And so I couldn't even stand to be in the room when one of her songs was played. Back in the 90s I was so well known for harbouring these strongly held opinions about people I totally have no personal knowledge of that my friends once took it upon themselves to trap me in a room and force me to endure Morrissette and her Ironic philosophizing.

It was pure torture. I still have nightmares.

The point is that this character trait of mine informs a lot of what I do and don't do in my life. I'm a little rash, I jump headlong into things.

I love as easily as I hate though. In fact, I don't like much. I love, I hate, there's not much in between for me.

Also, not really about the nightmares by the way, I'm not that pathetic.

So what does this have to do with Top Chef? Well it has a lot to do with Chef Michael Chiarello from Top Chef Masters.

The guy was a bit of an ass on the show. Sometimes more than a bit. He seemed to be dealing with some serious insecurity and self confidence issues. He was totally intimidated by Chef Keller and in every championship round made some mention of a personal competition between himself and Keller that Keller seemed to be totally unaware of.

When former Top Chef contestants arrived to act as sous chefs in one round, they all immediately felt the overcompensating ego of Chiarello as the "master" made them run ridiculous errands in the kitchen to prove their prospective worth to him. Those who were chosen to be on his team he treated like lesser beings and not the seasoned chefs they all certainly are.

Oh yeah, and he was also totally put off by the idea that former Top Chef winners would have a hand in deciding the Masters winner, stating clearly that they were not qualified to judge his food.

As you can see, I was a little annoyed by the guy.

Actually I more accurately vacillated between being super put off by his attitude and feeling incredibly sorry for him that he couldn't enjoy the comaraderie and friendly competition the way the other chefs seemed to because he was just so busy trying to prove himself all the time.

But his food looked good dammit.

I actually struggled with myself about cooking one of his dishes because his personality bothered me so much.

My own ego insisted that if I gave in to cooking Chiarello's food I would be giving in to...well, I don't really know what....his yucky pomposity I guess.

Then rational brain had a chat with ego and talked ego down off the ledge of self importance and all the voices in my head realized the whole discussion was stupid and really all any of us really wanted was some short ribs.

Does this mean I'm maturing? Growing more rational or less dramatic?

Probably not. I'm pretty sure most rational mature folks don't have multiple arguing voices in their heads

And also I still won't listen to U2 and I'll still throw up a little in my mouth if I hear Alanis Morrissette in my vicinity. And I still won't watch movies with Russell Crowe get the idea.

But a good short rib dish? Well I guess I have to draw the line somewhere.

I wanted to try this dish because the ribs are brined before braising and I haven't done that before. This extra step of marinating the beef in salt and really imparted some nice flavours on the meat.

My favourite part of this dish was actually the cabbage. It was so softly sweet and tender. The onions were subtle and sweet. The julienned carrots and raisins were visually beautiful and added a nice level of sugar to the cabbage.

They were such a perfect match for the ribs. Another brilliant dish in which the whole is that much greater than the sum of its parts.

On their own I found the ribs to be very good if a little too salty for my taste (salt loving dad thought they were just perfect). They were tender and falling off the bone and when met with the cabbage the whole dish gained a wonderful balance of flavours and textures.

Brined Short Ribs with 5 Onion Cabbage
(adapted from Michael Chiarello's recipe on

2 quarts water
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups kosher salt
2 tbsp. juniper berries
3 bay leaves

Bring all ingredients together in a saucepan. Stir to dissolve sugar. Let the brine cool completely and then cover the ribs with brine and refrigerate for 3 hours.

4 lbs. cross cut short ribs
olive oil
2 cups onion coarsely chopped
1 cup carrot coarsely chopped
1 cup celery coarse chopped
1 cup red wine
1 quart chicken stock

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Remove ribs from brine. Pat dry. Heat a high sided saute pan over medium high heat until hot. Add a layer of olive oil to the pan. When the oil begins to smoke add the ribs and brown on all sides. Note: They will brown very quickly due to the sugar in the brine. After browning place the ribs in an oven safe dish. Put onion, carrot and celery to saute pan and cook over medium heat until well caramelized. Add vegetables to dish with short ribs. Pour red wine into saute pan. Deglaze the pan and then simmer until reduced by half. Add stock to wine. Bring to a boil and then pour liquid over ribs and vegetables. Bring the ribs to a boil on the stovetop. Then cover and place in oven. Bake until tender (approx 4 hours).

5 Onion Cabbage
1 cup leeks sliced (white parts only)
1 cup green onions sliced (white parts only)
1 cup shallots diced small
1 cup red onion diced small
1 cup yellow onion diced small
1 cup grated carrot
extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 head savoy cabbage

Sweat leeks, shallots and all onions and carrot in olive oil. Add raisins. Saute for a few minutes. Add cabbage and cook slowly until very soft (approx 2 hours). Stir frequently.

If you have a Top Chef Recipe Experience to share with us, please drop us a line at We'd love to hear from you!

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