I adore Graham Elliot. I love the hipster cool of his white-frame eyeglasses and his innate kindness, but what melts my heart is the way he holds a fork in one of his ham fists, daintily slips a bite into his mouth and then stares into the distance, head tilted back, pondering the flavors.
Elliot is one of three judges on Gordon Ramsay’s “Master Chef” (Wednesdays on Fox), which is four weeks into its fourth season. And although the Chicago chef apparently isn’t always cute and cuddly (see Wikipedia’s entry about a tirade against the press and employee lawsuit regarding tip withholding), he is one of the reasons the reality competition is my favorite food show. Other reasons are the flamboyant personalities of some of the contestants (all home cooks) and the ridiculous feats they inspire me to in the kitchen.
“I’ve got a few minutes to spare before my doctor appointment,” I’ll muse, “might as well make some cheese.”
“Do you think you could be a contestant?” a friend asked recently. God, no. If I had to figure out how to cook an octopus tentacle in 45 minutes in a strange kitchen with a limited pantry and TV cameras in my face, I’d wet my pants. But I like to watch others excel or crumble under the pressure, and I love the sometimes-wacky dishes they produce.
So far this season, the most memorable concoction was the lobster-caramel popcorn that earned a contestant a spot on the show. A guy from New England was among the 100 cooks who made a signature dish on camera to try to snag one of 24 spots in the Master Chef kitchen. The judges scoffed until they tasted. Then they loved it.
I tried without success to find a recipe for that lobster caramel popcorn. Unfortunately, the combo is so strange that I can’t duplicate it without tasting. But while searching I did turn up other wild popcorn combinations. Who knew so much was happening in Orville Redenbacher’s world? (I actually met Orville once, by the way, and he gave me a clip-on bowtie that I still wear to costume parties.)
Among others, I found recipes for Cheddar-caramel popcorn, which supposedly is a Chicago thing; Buffalo-ranch popcorn, which I tried and hated; and truffle-Parmesan popcorn, which sounds promising. I’m sharing the truffle popcorn recipe from The Popcorn Board (who knew?) at www.popcornboard.org. It will have to do until we can find a recipe for lobster caramel corn. With all the popcorn shenanigans going on, it’s just a matter time.
- 1 1/2 tsp. olive oil
- 1 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. white truffle oil
- 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 2 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- Fresh-ground black pepper
Heat olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the truffle oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Add 3 popcorn kernels. When a kernel pops, add remaining popcorn, cover and pop over medium-high heat, shaking pan constantly. When popping slows, remove from heat and transfer popcorn to a large serving bowl.
Melt butter and stir in the remaining truffle oil. Drizzle over popcorn, tossing. Sprinkle cheese, salt and pepper over popcorn and toss to distribute evenly. Serve immediately.
HELP U COOK
Someone asked me recently how to “peel” an avocado. If you’re as tempted as I am to make The Mailbag recipe that follows, you’ll need to know that and more. First, buy a fist-sized, wrinkly green-black avocado that yields slightly to pressure, but not too much. Soft equals mushy. With a sharp knife, cut the avocado lengthwise all the way around, to the pit in the middle. With your hands, twist the halves apart. Hold the half with the pit in one hand and strike it with the sharp edge of the knife with the other hand. Hopefully, the knife blade sticks. Twist the knife and the pit will come away on the blade.
In the recipe below, the skin is left on. To remove the skin for other recipes, slip a spoon between the skin and flesh and pop out the flesh in one piece. If you want avocado slices, leave the avocado in the skin. Starting at one edge with a butter knife, cut slices and draw them up and out of the shell. Tony taught me to use a butter knife instead of a paring knife, which is too sharp and would mutilate the flesh.
From Pennie Fordham:
I love your idea for egg and lemon “hollandaise.” Will have to try it soon. I wanted to share an extremely easy breakfast recipe that has been floating around Facebook recently. It is for avocados (not from your garden, sadly) and eggs. Avocados are good for you right?
AVOCADO AND EGGS
- 1 avocado
- 2 eggs
- Chili powder
- Diced tomatoes
- Shredded cheese or salsa (optional)
Preheat oven to 425. Cut the avocado in half lengthwise and remove the pit. Leave the shell on. Place the halves cut side up in a baking pan small enough to keep them from tipping. Crack an egg into the indentation in each half. (I always have more egg than avocado.) Bake at 425 for 20 minutes. Season with salt, or chile powder if desired. Do it after cooking so you will more easily see how the eggs are cooking. Garnish with a little bit of diced tomatoes, or cheese or salsa. I don’t use anything. Makes 2 servings.
I am sure you can improve on this — overflowing eggs, inconsistency in doneness in the eggs, but I just love it.
Also, I have a question for you. Is there a list of all the farmers markets in the area by date? I have a few memorized, but I would like to be able to go when the mood or need strikes.
Dear Pennie: First, the recipe. I’m intrigued, and because my husband buys avocados by the case (California sushi rolls are popular), I have a constant supply. Yes, avocados are good for you, relatively speaking. They contain fat but it’s mostly monounsaturated, the kind that is good for your heart (it may actually help lower blood cholesterol levels). Avocados aren’t exactly celery, however. One-half of a medium Haas avocado (those are the tasty, wrinkly greenish-black ones) has about 125 calories. Not celery, but not too bad. Since the entire raw egg won’t fit into the indentation left by the pit, why not either 1) scoop out more of the avocado or 2) buy medium rather than large eggs if you can find them? If you choose to scoop, go wide rather than deep, which should help the egg cook more evenly.
Regarding farmers markets, in May Beacon Journal food writer Lisa Abraham published the list you want (http://www.ohio.com/lifestyle/food/2013-farmers-markets-1.399637). The markets have become so popular, she says, that more than 30 now operate in the five counties that surround Akron. I’m a member of the board of directors of Copley Creekside Farmers Market, so that’s where I usually shop from 3 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays.
From Ron Chamberlain:
Regarding arugula, could you sauté it like spinach? We like spinach sautéed in a little olive oil, garlic and bacon bits. Season with a bit of salt and pepper. A whole bag of grocery-store spinach makes enough for two or three.
Dear Ron: I don’t cook arugula because I’m afraid heat would kill the peppery bite – to me, its primary allure. However, a friend who carted home some of my excess reported the next day that her sautéed arugula was delicious.
I’m sending you a photo of a rice holder I’d like to purchase. What are they called and where might I order one? A Japanese friend said it was called a “hitsu.” Googling didn’t help. Dear D.H.: The lidded rice tub in your photo looks like a cross between a hangiri (http://www.thekitchn.com/a-roundup-of-sushimaking-essen-103264) and an insulated rice tub. (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dgarden&field-keywords=insulated+sushi+rice+containerr&rh=n%3A1055398%2Ck%3Ainsulated+sushi+rice+containerr). Sushi chefs cool and season cooked sushi rice in a hangiri, a wide, shallow, flat-bottomed wooden vessel that looks like a barrel that has been chopped off 5 inches from the bottom. The tub in your photo looks similar, but it is small and deep rather than shallow and wide. Tony brought his hangiri from Tokyo many years ago and uses it every day. His is about 3 feet in diameter. The cooked rice is transferred in a precise manner to the hangiri (the rice is scattered with a wooden paddle in a back-and-forth motion to separate the grains). Then it is seasoned with vinegar, sugar and secret ingredients, turned and separated with the paddle some more, and then fanned for 10 to 15 minutes, turning rice once.
Traditionally, pleated paper fans were used. Tony has switched to a small electric fan. The turning and fanning process prevents the rice from becoming gummy and leaves each grain of rice separate, while still able to stick together. Then the rice is transferred to an insulated tub (Tony’s is metal) and placed beside the chef for making the sushi. The hangiri is not covered, while the insulated tub is covered with a damp cloth. Leftover rice is never refrigerated and saved for the next day, because that would change the texture that has been so painstakingly achieved.