Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Top Chef - Episode 6 - The First Thanksgiving

Ahhh, the Thanksgiving episode. I'm sure it must be weird for the chefs and the judges to be cooking/tasting this kind of food weeks or months before the holidays, but I'm glad they do it because my mood is gearing up for the holidays.

The Quickfire

We started out strong here: with guest judge Tiffani Faison (of Top Chef Season 1, Top Chef All Stars, and Top Chef Duels) taking the chefs out to a cranberry bog to harvest cranberries. I'm definitely a city slicker; I had no idea cranberries were grown/harvested that way, even though I'm sure I've been hearing the phrase "cranberry bog" all my life.... it's so easy to forget to ask where food comes from!

BUT we quickly went downhill: it's fine that the chefs harvested the cranberries, but why did it have to be a physical competition to see who could do it the fastest? Enough with these physical contests that are completely unrelated to cooking! To add insult to injury, the winners were the four who "filled" their baskets first, which to me seems a fairly subjective thing. If they really felt they had to do this, each basket should have been on a scale, and the contest should have been for which baskets reached a specified weight first. Sigh....

Back at the kitchen, Padme and Tiffani announced that the chefs would have 30 minutes to cook a dish highlighting cranberries, and hopefully not resorting to Thanksgiving standby dishes. The four fastest harvesters, who were Adam, Doug, Gregory, and Katie, would have access to better ingredients, while everyone else had to make due with an obviously inferior pantry table.

There were lots of fun dishes here that I would liked to have tasted, which I found amusing because I've never tasted cranberries -- I never eat them at Thanksgiving. Of particular interest to me were Gregory's arctic char with sweet and sour cranberry sauce, mushrooms, and pears (if anyone is going to get me to try a wider variety of seafood, it would be Gregory); Melissa's fried turkey bite with apple butter, cranberry compote, pecans, and fried sage (I'm a sucker for small bites); and Mei's sweet and sour pork with pickled mustard seeds and apple salad.

Tiffani singled out Mei's dish along with Katie's borscht and Doug's glazed pork tenderloin as the best three dishes, having noted that Doug's dish tasted "like fall in New England" and she would eat Mei's dish every day. In the end, though, Tiffani found Katie's borscht to be the boldest and most unique, and gave her the immunity. The bottom three contenders were Katsuji, who used skirt steak to make a tartare without cutting it finely enough; Adam for having a non-cohesive dish with his glazed New York strip steak (he had burned some element he'd wanted to put on it); and Stacy's curried cauliflower soup for a lack of seasoning and an overall "clunkiness." Padme had also noted that the cranberries in Stacy's dish had the least amount of sugar. I was actually surprised that the dish didn't get a "not enough cranberries" comment since it looked as though they weren't very prominent in the dish.

Elimination Challenge

For the elimination, the chefs were told they would be making a traditional -- a really traditional -- Thanksgiving meal to be served family style at the Plimoth Planation to descendents of both the Mayflower and the Wampanoag tribe. They would only be allowed to use ingredients and cooking utensils/methods available at that time.

This challenge can be summed up by something that Adam said after they'd finished cooking: "Us nine absolutely nailed it as a team." And they did. No fighting, no drama, no bad dishes, and people helped each other with the final plating. It was lovely.

The chefs had been instructed to split themselves into two courses, and Doug, Katsuji, Stacy, and Melissa ended up going first. Doug served a spit-roasted rabbit with garlic, ramps, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and radish. I was a bit worried for him when one of the Wamponoag guests noted that they would have served the rabbit whole, whereas Doug had served it in chunks, knowing that the diners would not have forks available to them. Fortunately, the judges' later dicussion indicated that they really liked his dish. Katsuji served a roasted butternut squash with poached lobster, chestnuts, and an ancho chili butter, which was well received. Melissa served roasted vegetables: parsnips, green beans, and zucchini with a ramp and onion vinaigrette. Tom said there was a lot of flavor but that the zucchini could have been cooked a little more. Stacy produced ramp-smoked clams with butternut squash, lobster, and ramps. Tom seemed to like it, but Gail noted that there was a flavor she couldn't identify. Overall, Tom said it was a great course.

The second group consisted of Adam, Katie, Mei, Gregory, and Keriann. The diners seemed to love Adam's succotash with beans, corn, summer squash, wilted spinach, and spiced goat milk. They were sort of perplexed, but in a good way, by Katie's blueberry stuffing with blue cornmeal cornbread and lobster; Gail couldn't get over how "wacky" it was but admitted that she kept eating it. I have to admit that on appearance alone, it looked somewhat unappetizing to me, but there was a certain sameness in color and texture to most of the dishes that I know was because of the ingredients and techniques available.

Mei served a duckfat-roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette that was well received. Poor Gregory, who had trouble controlling the heat levels and was worried about overcooking his goose, ended up with a dish that somewhat undercooked, which I have to imagine I would have found pretty unappetizing. Tom was gentler in his criticism that I've seen him be at other times; it's very obvious that he really respects Gregory, and I'm sure he would hate to see Gregory go down for something like this. Keriann initially intended to serve blueberry pie but saw that it wasn't going to work, and switched to venison with a blueberry compote. She assured Tom she hadn't sweetened the blueberries yet so it would be savory, but although the table complimented Keriann's dish in her presence, they later indicated that the blueberries were too sweet. Before the judges left the table, they noted that their least favorites were Melissa's (not as flavorful as other dishes); Greg's (not as powerful, and undercooked); Keriann's (blueberries too sweet), and Stacy's (that unidentified flavor, which by now had become "offputting" to Gail).

Judges Table

Good news comes first: the judges called forward Katsuji, Doug, and Mei as their favorites. Tom said that Katsuji produced great flavors with simple ingredients, while Gail said that Mei's cabbage was brilliant and unusual with a lovely texture. They also felt Doug's rabbit had just the right amount of smokiness. Guest judge Ken Oringer then named Katsuji as the winner.

For the least favorite dishes, the judges named Stacy, Melissa, and Gregory. Not for one minute did I think Gregory would go home (and I'm glad he didn't; it would have been a real loss to the competition), but I didn't know if they would eliminate Stacy or Melissa, the latter of whose dish they said sort of blended into the background. In the end, Padme asked Stacy to pack her knives, although Tom made a point of saying that it was a tasty dish, just the least favorite among all of the tasty dishes. Stacy said she was sad and a little relieved, and that the stress of being the "home" contestant from Boston had been keeping her from sleeping. While I can sympathize, I'm not sure if it makes much sense in the context of this challenge, because contemporary Boston chefs wouldn't be expected to know how to cook in dirt over a fire pit any better than anyone else.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Katie has been stepping it up lately, and she seems like such a nice person, so I really like her. Mei is consistent and determined, so that I find it hard not to root for her in some ways. Doug is a nice guy and has a lot of talent. And although Gregory had a bad week, I think he's still the most talented one there. I am finding the show more enjoyable as we get down to more manageable numbers and I feel like I know the chefs' strengths and weaknesses better.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Once again I was more interested in the Quickfire dishes than the elimination challenge dishes. My first choice would be Melissa's fried turkey bite. If I had to choose from the elimination challenge, I would probably go with Katie's stuffing or Mei's cabbage.

Coming Up: There's no show next week on the Eve of our actual Thanksgiving, but the show returns on December 3 with the infamous Restaurant Wars. I always cringe, because I get scared that the person who takes the front of the house is going to get screwed -- they're in a bad spot if the kitchen can't get food out, and they have to trust the other chefs to oversee their final food plating, which I think would be terrifying. Once in a while, though, a chef really manages to nail the front of the house role to perfection.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
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Monday, November 17, 2014

Opera Times Three

Photo by Lynn Lane from the Houstonia Magazine website; Ailyn Pérez as Desdemona and Simon O'Neill as the title character in Houston Grand Opera's Otello.

Opera Times Three

By chance, my husband and I happened to see three different operas in nine days: Houston Grand Opera’s Otello on Friday November 7 and their Così fan tutti on Saturday November 15, and Arizona Opera’s Rigoletto in Phoenix on Friday November 14. In the days between, we were attending the Division of Planetary Sciences conference in Tucson, and had found out that one of my husband’s planetary science colleagues would be performing in the chorus of Rigoletto. Naturally we didn’t want to miss the chance to see him, and had a wonderful time meeting some of the chorus members afterwards in our hotel bar.

Needless to say, this was all a bit frenetic, especially Saturday, when we had to drive from Phoenix to the Tucson airport, then fly to Houston, then drive straight from the airport to HGO. (I literally changed into a dress in the 50-degree rainy weather in the Park N Fly parking lot. Hey, I’m not proud!) Miraculously, especially considering that United managed to put another flight’s luggage onto our plane and then needed forty minutes to correct the error, we made it just in time for curtain.

But starting back at the beginning... The first opera of HGO’s 2014-15 season was Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (libretto by Arrigo Boito). I have to admit that I was not overly excited to see this, mainly because my husband and I were both exhausted from trying to finish the draft of a planetary science textbook chapter that day, after several late nights working on it. Also, back when I was a bratty college student and didn’t appreciate Shakespeare as much as I do now, I took a seminar class in his tragedies, and remembered our professor telling us that the plot of Othello could be described as “someone drops a handkerchief and all hell breaks loose.” So much of opera and theater is based on misunderstandings and misapprehensions, and I just didn’t anticipate that I could take this story seriously and be invested in it.

I was completely wrong.

I don’t know exactly what it was about this production, but I was completely engrossed in the story and I truly bought into its tragic nature. I was convinced that Otello (Simon O’Neill) and Desdemona (Ailyn Pérez) were very much in love, and that they were the victims of a manipulative, evil bastard (Marco Vratogna as Iago) who sows chaos for the sake of chaos. Of course, Otello is an idiot for believing Iago, but it still rang true rather than feeling contrived, in contrast to the plot of (for instance) Rigoletto. Otello’s sets and chorus scenes were impressive, and I absolutely loved the scene in Act II with the children’s chorus. Although I don’t believe in gods or saints, or in the idea that beauty is inherently virtuous, when the ethereally beautiful Desdemona greets a crowd of children while they sing in their lovely high voices, well, that’s as close as I get to a feeling of religious awe. I will definitely be buying a recording of Otello, and also have plans to explore the play further in both audio and visual forms. (A note of interest: Wikipedia tells me that Shakespeare’s Othello, written in approximately 1603, was based on an Italian short story “Un Capitano Moro” ("A Moorish Captain") by Cinthio, first published in 1565.)

A final note on Otello: I heard more than one person mention they were back to see it a second time during the run. The night we attended was the last performance; if we had gone to an earlier one, I would have been very tempted to come back a second time as well.

Our second foray was a visit to the Arizona Opera in Phoenix for Rigoletto, also by Verdi. The libretto is by Francesco Maria Piave, based on Victor Hugo’s play Le rois’amuse, which Wikipedia translates as “The king amuses himself” or “The king has fun.” I quite liked this production; it had lovely costumes and sets, and, well, the music was Verdi.

Unlike Otello, however, in this case I really had to struggle to get past the plot. The title character is court jester to the Duke, a notorious womanizer. Rigoletto mocks a count, whose daughter the Duke had courted; the count curses Rigoletto, who shortly thereafter meets an assassin, Sparafucile, and ponders the idea of hiring him. Rigoletto then returns home where he meets his beloved daughter, Gilda, whom he essentially keeps locked up. It turns out that the Duke had spied Gilda at church and has followed her home. They profess their love for one another but Gilda is ignorant of the Duke’s true identity. The hostile men of court decide to kidnap Gilda, believing her to be Rigoletto’s mistress, and they trick Rigoletto into helping them by saying they’re kidnapping the count’s wife.

And all of this is just in the first act.

Confusion aside, it’s pretty hard not to be disgusted by almost everyone’s behavior. The courtiers think it’s fine to kidnap Rigoletto’s mistress, but it’s unclear to me if they would have taken Gilda if they’d known she was his daughter. I don't think they would have, because I think perhaps in their minds the difference is that a woman who is a mistress is already “ruined,” whereas kidnapping a virtuous young virgin would actually ruin her, since a woman who has been at the mercy of a group of men such as this will at least have her reputation devastated even if she is not actually despoiled. But while we dislike the men at court for deciding it's okay to kidnap a mistress (who are the very least will be terrified at the possibility of rape), how are we supposed to remain sympathetic to Rigoletto later when he too goes along with the kidnapping, believing the count's wife to be the victim? Just because the count was an ass to him, his wife must suffer?

I’m not suggesting that the storyline be changed at this late date, or that there aren’t other things to appreciate about this or any other opera with a less-than-stellar plot. But like I said, it can be hard to get past these things. Fortunately, I found the second and third acts a lot more palatable: Act II consists of Rigoletto trying to get Gilda back, Gilda defending the Duke, and Rigoletto swearing vengeance (remember the conveniently met assassin from Act I?). In Act III, Rigoletto proves to Gilda that the Duke is unfaithful, as he is currently trying to seduce the assassin’s sister, Maddalena. Gilda decides she loves the Duke anyway, and upon overhearing that the assassin plans to kill the Duke, she puts herself in the Duke’s place and dies to save him. Rigoletto, realizing that his own plans for vengeance are ultimately responsible for killing Gilda, believes that the count’s curse has come to terrible fruition.

Actually, in describing Acts II and III, I realize that the plot really doesn’t become any less ridiculous than it was in Act I, but somehow the music manages to better transcend the silliness. It’s really quite wonderful when Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke, and Maddalena sing simultaneously, and it's easy to get swept up in the story for a short while, at least. But Gilda is the only truly sympathetic character (Maddalena is fine right up until she says that they should simply kill a beggar in place of the Duke). And it's hard to respect even Gilda when she’s willing to die for an unfaithful jerk that she just met -- here is where the motivation is a little hard for a modern audience to swallow. Dying for love isn't a problem in itself, storywise, but it’s a little more meaningful when the person deserves the sacrifice being made for him. So again, thank goodness for the music, and the overall production values of this performance.

Last but not quite least was HGO’s Così fan tutti, composed by Mozart with libretto, in Italian, by Lorenzo Da Ponte. (I’m beginning to think that the next language I should study after German and Japanese is Italian.) This is a comedy and actually very amusing, but it’s very, very long for the amount of story there is to be told. Two young soldiers named Guglielmo (Jacques Imbrailo) and Ferrando (Norman Reinhardt) are bragging about the virtues of their fiancées when their older and more experienced friend Don Alfonso (Alessandro Corbelli) makes a wager saying he can prove that the women, like all women, will be unfaithful when given the opportunity.

At Don Alfonso’s urging, Guglielmo and Ferrando tell their lovers they must go off to battle but they quickly return, ludicrously disguised as Albanians. Don Alfonso enlists Despina (Nuccia Focile), the ladies’ maid, to help things along as the two men each try to court the other’s fiancée. At first, the sisters Fiordilgi (Rachel Willis-Sørensen) and Dorabella (Melody Moore) resist, Fiordilgi with noticeably more vigor, but the “Albanians” perform increasingly silly antics, such as pretending to drink poison when the ladies will not return their affection. Eventually the men wear them down, even Fiordilgi, and they are on the verge of marrying when fanfare announces the “return” of the women’s original lovers and all is confessed and forgiven.

Good parts first: this performance was full of truly enjoyable comedic acting. The soldiers are laugh-out-loud funny as they twirl mustaches and capes; the sisters are amusing in their indignation and later their rationalization; and Despina, for me, sort of stole the show. The music is good, of course. Every one of the six main players has lengthy solos, each couple sings together (five couples in all, once you take the musical romance chairs into account), and the entire group sings together. The problem is that they do it several times, imparting the same sentiments over and over. If this opera were shorter by a third, I think it would make for a delightfully entertaining evening, but it is hard to sit still for so long with so little story as an anchor, no matter how pretty the music. I certainly can’t fault the performers, however; I thought they were well cast and I enjoyed their voices.

That said, I do think it would have been a lot more amusing if the two couples realized they were more suited to their new lovers than the original ones -- and physically, the new couples looked better together than the old.

There was one other thing that puzzled me: the costuming and actions of the small chorus. When Act I opens, the three male leads appear to be in a tavern, and Don Alfonso has a prettily dressed but bald woman sitting on his knee. In the background, additional chorus members do things -- another woman wearing a bald cap whose coloring is out-and-out yellow for some reason appears to be putting on make-up and then possibly sneezing. Was she supposed to be a performer? Was she sick? In addition to this performance, I had seen the dress rehearsal of Così a few weeks earlier, and both times I was equally distracted, trying to figure out who these people were and what they were doing. For a moment I had this strange conviction that they must be dying of consumption or jaundice or both while preparing backstage for a performance at the Moulin Rouge, but of course that wasn't the case, and in the end I never could make any sense of it. While I found this opera’s sets to be simple yet quite effective, I just could not figure out the use or purpose of the chorus other than to provide some of the means for Don Alfonso's manipulations. It's possible that I'm missing some historical context; I certainly don't fault the choral performers for this.

On a side note, it was fun for me to see another opera company that operates quite differently from ours. At HGO, for instance, the six main operas of the season are grouped together into three “rep periods,” so that the company overlaps and alternates the performances. On the plus side, of course, this gives the performers the chance to rest their voices, but logistically, it also means that they have to switch out some very elaborate sets with not much turnaround time. I’ve begun to enjoy watching how the opera season -- and the ballet season, since they perform in the same venue -- falls into the same scheduling patterns year after year. (Don’t ask me why; I find comfort in patterns!) In Arizona, they alternate the main performers within a single opera rather than overlapping two different shows. They'll perform Rigoletto a total of five times; the Duke and Rigoletto roles were each given a 3-2 split between performers while the Gilda we saw, Sarah Coburn, will have been spelled once by a studio artist named Andrea Shokery.

To conclude, I do feel as though I learn something every time I go to the opera, but on the other hand I realize just how very little I know. I still feel awkward “reviewing” opera when I have so little knowledge of the history and culture behind it, and no real ability to discern between good singing and great singing. Because of that, my thoughts are based almost entirely on my response to the story, the sets, the costumes, the acting, and the appeal (or lack thereof) of the music to my personal taste. In other words, I’m the exact opposite of a sophisticated opera-goer. But I’m trying, and enjoying the experience.

Photo of Rigoletto by Tim Trumble Photography, from the Arizona Opera photo archive.

Photo of Così fan tutti by Lynn Lane, from the Houstonia Magazine website: Norman Reinhardt (Ferrando), Melody Moore (Dorabella), Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Fiordiligi), and Jacques Imbrailo (Guglielmo).
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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Top Chef - Episode 5 - It's War

I arrived home very late last night from a trip to Tucson, Arizona, where I visited museums, saw a little of the desert, made the acquaintance of some wild pigs (a group of seven javelinas climbed the stairs into the patio bar of the place we were staying, and snuffled around for food before politely departing), and went to bookstores. On Wednesday evening, some of my husband's colleagues graciously entertained us at their house, so I wasn't able to watch last week's Top Chef until just now. Because I'm in "catch-up" mode, this will be a list of quick observations rather than an in-depth review.

- Aaron was more gracious than I expected he would be upon being eliminated. If he had behaved more like this the entire time, I would have been much happier to have him around. I'm still glad he's gone, however; I didn't appreciate his comments about dessert being a cop-out. I think he just operates in bravado-mode all the time.

- I liked the set-up for both the Quickfire and the Elimination challenge, with one reservation: I still think they should name an overall winner instead of just the winning team in every challenge. I think it would have been Gregory yet again in this case. The idea of having each head-to-head "battle" named after an important battle from the Revolutionary War was cute. I like Gregory and he seems an amazing chef. I think his obvious skill is making Mei feel a bit more humble, which is probably good for her. I suspect she'll still take a few challenges in the future. I fully expect both of them to be in the finale barring some Restaurant Wars type disaster in which the wrong chef goes home.

- This was the first episode in which I started to actively dislike Adam a bit. Hey Adam, stop calling Doug "little man." So he's short. You're being a condescending jerk by referring to him that way, and I'm glad he beat you in the head-to-head Quickfire. I wish he'd beaten you in the Elimination challenge as well.

- I got slightly mixed signals from Tom Colicchio, who said "you only had to beat one other person on your team," and "someone should have told Aaron he was making unwise choices." Isn't that a contradiction? For instance, if Stacy or Keriann had convinced Aaron to make his dish better, one of them likely would have gone home instead. Yes, you want your team to win, but if I'd been on Aaron's team, I wouldn't have wasted my energy, especially knowing how he's behaved in the past, by trying to argue with him.

- The dishes that I would have most liked to try were Gregory and Mei's steamed dumplings from the Quickfire.

Looking forward to this Wednesday's episode. In the meantime, just for fun, here is a photo of a javelina. There were some young ones among the group that came to visit us in the patio bar, but I wish I could have seen a baby as small as the one in this photo!

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Due to an unusual confluence of events, I was unable to watch Top Chef last night and I don't have access to the DVR recording, so I will put up an abbreviated post of this episode later in the week. I miss my Top Chef! Read more!