Thursday, June 12, 2008

It's All About Focus

My Nikon and I need to have a heart-to-heart.

It'll go something like this:

ME: Camera, why do you all of a sudden refuse to take clear, crisp photos?

NIKON: [silence]

ME: I keep your batteries fresh, I take you everywhere with me, I spend plenty of quality time with you - what else do you want from me?!?

NIKON: [more cold silence]

ME: Tell you what. I'll give you a little vacation - it is summer after all - if you promise to stop taking blurry pictures and help keep my blog from completely unraveling.

NIKON: [complacent silence]

ME: So we're agreed then.

Until that chat, this photo-less blog will have to suffice. Well, it won't be utterly devoid of visuals (I do have access to Google image search, you know), but this post will not feature the meticulous, step-by-step pictorials you've grown to (hopefully) love.

But focus (and the lack thereof), it turns out, is a fitting theme. The occasion for an elaborate meal was, of course, the Top Chef Season 4 Finale - in my opinion, the most surprising, dramatic, and triumphant finale in Top Chef history. A female Top Chef winner? An African-American (almostifogdhelpusbarackbeatsjohnmccainohpleasegod) in the White House? This is real progress, people!

My congratulations to Stephanie Izard! Hopefully I'll see you around town and congratulate you in person.

Taylor and Sarah, my most faithful (and geographically advantaged) judges came over for a meal that I hoped would be worthy of my own reality TV star fantasies.

I made herb-rubbed, roasted pork tenderloin with a lemon-pear sauce with wild rice and cheddar squash casserole.


2 yellow squash
2 zucchini squash
1/2 onion
1 leek, white and light green parts only
2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
2 c. lowfat milk
3 T. butter
3 T. flour
salt and pepper

1 pork tenderloin roast, about 1/3 lb. for every person who's eating
3 T. chopped fresh thyme leaves
salt and pepper
cayenne pepper
dried oregano
chili powder
3 T. olive oil

2 c. wild rice
chicken broth
white wine (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

3 T. butter
1 large shallot, minced
3 T. lemon curd spread
3 pear halves, coarsely chopped (jarred or canned, drained)
3/4 c. white wine
3/4 c. chicken broth
salt and pepper
2 T. white vinegar

A much more beautiful casserole than mine:


Halve the squash and zucchini lengthwise, then slice into thin half-moons. Coarsely chop the onion and leek. Place in a glass casserole dish, and lightly season with salt and pepper. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and whisk in the flour to make a roux. Whisk in the milk slowly and cook until it thickens. Stir in 3/4 of the cheddar until melted. Pour the cheese-roux mixture over the vegetables. Top with the rest of the cheese. Bake at 350 (when it's in the oven with the pork), then turn the heat up to 375 and bake until the edges are bubbly and the cheese on top begins to brown, about 35 minutes.

A hippie tenderly cradles some wild rice:


Cook rice according to package directions, substituting mostly chicken broth and a little white wine for some or all of the water (if desired). Simmer until the liquid is absorbed and season with salt and pepper.

This is what pork tenderloin looks like before it's cooked:


Preheat the oven to 350. Place the tenderloin in a baking dish, and rub it with seasonings and herbs (to taste), pressing them into the meat. Top with the olive oil, rubbing it in with your hands. Bake uncovered until the meat is semi-firm when pressed (about 40 minutes). Let the meat rest for 15-20 minutes, covered in aluminum foil. Slice into 1-inch thick slices to serve.


Melt the butter over medium heat in a saucepan and stir in the shallots, cooking them until they're translucent. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook over medium-high heat until thickened and reduced. When the pears begin to soften, mash them with the end of a wooden spoon until the sauce is the consistency of runny applesauce. Spoon over the pork servings.

Sometimes, the thing you worry about the most turns out to be just fine, while the thing you thought you had under control ends up being what you should have focused on. Which is precisely what happened with this meal.

The pork, by all accounts, was perfect. I must have finally learned my lesson from many years of overcooking meat, and that lesson is this: if you cook the meat on a lower temperature than you think, and for a shorter time than you think, it will be delicious. I'm not advocating eating raw, possibly salmonella-infected meat, but as long as it reaches an internal temperature of 145 (medium rare), you're in the safe zone.

A delicious-looking herbed pork roast from the interweb:

The casserole, however, was not so perfect. I thought that at this point, I was beyond screwing up simple vegetable side dishes. (And I bet Richard of Top Chef thought he was home-free, too, but I'll get to that later.) Apparently I still have a lot to learn about the subtle nuances of the lowly squash. Squashes are nature's sponge, and when the heat wrung them out into the casserole, you can guess what happened. What I thought was going to be a rich, cheesy delight turned out to be a sloshy, watery mess.

Thank God for slotted spoons. I drained each spoonful as I was serving it, and it wasn't half bad. I perused some squash casserole recipes online, and it seems that I should have cooked the squash before I put it in the casserole, so next time, I'd saute the veggies and drain them on a paper towel before baking. I might also add stuffing mix or bread crumbs to soak up some of the excess moisture, and use a thicker white sauce from the beginning (less milk).

The wild rice was, in a word, annoying. It took fffooooorrrrreeeevvvvveeeerrrrr to cook. I thought we were going to be there till the Top Chef Season FIVE Finale before that rice got done! It was a little, er, rustic for my palate. I know that as an informed, health-conscious consumer, I should really prefer the brown and/or wild rice varieties, but to me there's nothing better than diving into a pile of processed, bleached-white fluffiness (with, of course, a hunk of butter melting on top).

Taylor pointed out that a failed casserole would be good for the blog's storyline, as most of the dishes I've made have been tastier than I would've predicted. He's absolutely right, and the casserole would've been a whole lot worse if not for the saving grace of the aformentioned slotted spoon. Long story short, the dinner came out nicely. I was once again flabbergasted that I didn't overcook the meat, but oh so glad that I didn't once I had the first tender, savory bite. The rather al dente rice actually turned out to be a nice complement to the mushiness of the squash.

"The most important meal" of Richard's life, however, did not go so well.

I think all of America assumed the Top Chef finale would come down to Stephanie and Richard battling it out. Who knew that petulant, unpopular Lisa would make a Thai soup so good, it almost overshadowed her horrible personality and season-long streak of mediocrity? Richard suffered from a lack of vision and planning, and admitted at Judges' Table that he "choked." So it was down to Stephanie and Lisa. Ultimately, to the chagrin of Lisa's 3 total fans in all of America, Stephanie made the meal that left the judges wanting more, and thank God!

It seemed so close there for a minute that we all started playing the "If Lisa Wins Top Chef I'll ____________" game.

Feel free to play along at home! Some popular answers:

If Lisa Wins Top Chef I'll:

- Move to Canada
- Never Watch Bravo Again
- Roast Padma and Serve her to Tom
- Boycott Asian Cuisine Forever
- Shave My Head in Protest and Inadvertently Resemble Lisa Herself

Luckily, it didn't come to that, and the wonderful Stephanie was the Season Four Queen de Cuisine. WOOT!

Just goes to show that when you really focus in the kitchen, when you achieve that Zen-like calm even while wielding a sharp object, as Stephanie did in this most crucial of battles, great food will follow.

Thanks to my guests! And thanks for reading.

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