Nothing can enhance a culinary experience both on the palate and in the spirit like a well-made wine. I’ve had an interest in wine pairing ever since my wines course at the ol’ Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, circa 1996.
We learned the fundamental techniques of pairing food and wine including putting together complimenting flavors and contrasting flavors—but bridging flavors is my personal favorite. In addition to my classroom book learnin’ time, I spent 3-plus years working, living and especially eating great food and drinking amazing wine in the Napa Valley. When I wasn’t working, I spent much of my time galivanting through the valley attending countless tours, tastings, afternoon wine bar sessions, multi-coursed wine dinners and everything in between.
As part of opening Tuli Bistro in 2007, I created and maintained a unique and eclectic wine list and hosted a breadth of wine dinners over the years. All of this adds up to me feeling pretty confident entering this challenge.
We began the team challenge with the presentation and description of the Alamos Malbec. After that, the wine hit our lips. Malbecs are often found reinforcing Bordeaux blends with their big rich structure and sturdy tannins, and the Alamos representative from Argentina—where stand-alone Malbecs have become ubiquitous—is no imposter. It hit me in the mouth with its rigid tannins but quickly rolled into rich fruit: reminiscent of deep, dark plum and ending with a bright, cleansing acidity. Great food wine, but it’s big and it’s serious! If I think back to my wine instructor’s helpful tool, “The Tower of Power,” we find ourselves with this wine pretty much at the top of the pairing tower. At the top, fatty, gamey meats and big bold aromatics are paired with full-flavored and rich wines like this Malbec.Next is the big reveal of our mentor’s chosen “secret” ingredients. What could be better? Five hand-chosen ingredients meant to pair perfectly with this goliath of a wine, and . . . Malarkey pulls a David Akers and biffs the 36 yard chip shot. Right off the goalpost. I’m thinking he’s going to go with ribeye or better yet lamb—or even goat—mushrooms, a nice aged cheese. I don’t’ know how else to say it, but we needed something with balls to stand up to this wine. But alas we end up with this list:
Malarkey’s Secret Ingredients
Sea salt, which by its nature doesn’t pair with anything (sure, nice to have but there’s already some in the pantry).
Almonds. Really? I hope he’s getting a check from the almond board on this one. Unless we’re pairing with a big oaky Chardonnay or perhaps a nice, malty amber ale, they’re useless. And again, I think we’re already packing some in the pantry.
Bone marrow. Not one of my favorite ingredients, but at least we’re getting on the right track. Chefs have made bone marrow über popular of late, but to me its place is more in a stock pot or my dog’s mouth. But they do provide a level of fat that this Malbec is craving (and Khristianne is taking some), so I’m in on the Bone Marrow.
Figs? Okay, I’m feelin you, Malarkey. They’re not quite a centerpiece but they should provide the rich earthy fruit I’m looking for. Now for the main event: Oh yeah, right . . .
Beef filet. Come on, Malarkey! We’re pairing with a Malbec and you pick the wet blanket of red meats? When filet went to school it had its lunch money taken by ribeyes and New York strips. If filet was a movie, it would be The Notebook. Don’t get me wrong, filet mignon has its place, it just isn’t with Malbec.
I can feel Bourdain pointing and laughing from behind his enormous pile of animal parts. Oh look, a huge hunk of ribeye. How’d you come up with that brilliant pairing, Tony? Maybe in Argentina? Possibly while drinking Malbec fireside with Gauchos who likely split a steer that very day? Even nigella picked liver and two forms of lamb! Meanwhile Ludo’s holding his own episode of Chopped, giving his team Eel, Bonito and, wait, is that charcoal? Ok, maybe we don’t have it so bad.I still have a predicament with my main event so I run straight to the fridge to see what random goodies they have left for us. Boom, squab! One of my favorite birds to both cook and eat, squab is a baby pigeon with red flesh and a light gamey flavor that is best served medium rare. I dive right in and immediately break the birds down, taking the ample breasts off and exposing the bony cages that go straight into a 500 degree oven for a little Maillard session (if you’re not familiar with Maillard, it’s one of the most important reactions in cooking—google it!).
I season the breasts and set them aside, the salt starting to extract moisture from the fatty avian skin and drying it out ever so slightly, which will result in a crispier, more flavorful result. Meanwhile I prepare some aromatics for my squab stock as the bones are almost ready. At the same time I brown a couple pieces of bone marrow, blast them with a healthy splash of Malbec and forget about them for a while.
My squab stock, the base for my sauce, is simmering away, the bone marrow is braising, the figs are roasting, and now it’s time to cook my birds. I pull out a big plancha, or cast iron griddle, and get it pretty hot. The birds go down, skin side, and I top them with a weight to flatten them and ensure ideal contact between their flesh and the iron. I have added some Malbec to my squab stock in an effort to “bridge” the food and wine, the pairing technique I like which I mentioned earlier.
A complex wine and meat-based reduction sauce such as this is usually a 24 plus hour affair, certainly no less than 6, but I’m attempting to pull it off in an hour. This requires a little culinary trickery, so I get 2 large sauté pan and crank ‘em as high The Taste’s cute little set kitchen will allow. I strain my tasty but languid stock right into screaming-hot sauté pan number one with an intense explosion of sputtering liquid as what dreams of being a sauce when it grows up instantly boils harder than it ever thought it could. What was a quart is now 2 cups. That goes into ripping hot sauté pan number two. The reaction repeats and voila: we have about one cup of rich, flavorful sauce.
My birds are crispy on the outside with a moist ruby center, the figs are caramelized, and my sauce finally has the lacquer sheen I’ve been toiling for. I’m still missing something. Although my marrow is tender and scented with Malbec and aromatics, it’s still just lumpy fat. I think about incorporating some into my sauce but the idea just sends me into flashbacks of the Deepwater Horizon debacle and I refrain (something went bad there with oil and water, maybe it rings a bell). So Malarkey says, “what about some blue cheese?” Not a bad idea, with these variables in play: I feel like I’m missing something, the pairing mostly appeals to my culinary sensibilities and, at the end of the day, I want to do right by my mentor. If he feels included in the finished product, the better chance he’ll have of picking the dish. Ok, let’s go for it.
Now for him to make a selection. I knew this was going to be a problem before we even got in the kitchen since our team is made up of full on alphas. We all want immunity and we all cook great food. I didn’t go on a cooking competition show to say, “Nah, your food is better, let’s go with that.” No, I cooked my ass off and produced the best wine pairing I could with the time and resources I was allotted, and both my teammates picked filet! Choosing mine was a no-brainer to me. Hence: “Chef, make the call . . . make the call chef . . . the call, chef make . . . (time is ticking away) . . . CHEF, MAKE THE CALL! And he did and it felt good. Even though Mack and Kinch (the guest experts) didn’t quite get it, it was an honor to have them taste my food. Although I still wonder how my dish would have gone sans blue cheese.We headed into the elimination challenge with a choice of 4 wines, most of which I didn’t care for and since mine was going to be one of the first spoons the judges tasted, I kept it light and went with the Chard. The wine was not the super-huge buttery oak bomb that a lot of Napa Chardonnays have become, but a more subtle representation with a rich body but nice clean acidity. Immediately seafood comes to mind. Wanting to go with what I know, I choose to make a bouillabaisse.
The bouillabaisse base is a non-issue: I’ve made it a million times and it always goes over big. Plus my mom loves it. Some garlic, leek, fennel, a little tomato, some of the Chardonnay of course . . . that’s right, you got it: bridging. The big trick is cooking all the seafood properly so most of my effort went there. With my base rolling and coming together I set out to prepare my mussels, halibut, Dungeness and scallops which all in all came out to my liking. My saffron aioli, again using a little Chardonnay, was one of the best I’d ever made in my opinion.
One of my favorite parts of bouillabaisse is a nice piece of garlicky grilled bread but this is where the spoon factor becomes a problem. How does one fit 4 varieties of seafood in a chunky broth on a spoon with an aioli and somehow get bread on there? I let it go. Why did I let it go? Even though I got to hear Tony say “I love the dish,” I will hear “[I need] a crust of bread to mop around in there.” Dammit! A fine consolation was the words of my mentor, “I could eat a whole bowl of that.” Then there’s Nigella’s reaction . . . hmm, I shouldn’t say how I really feel so let’s just leave that alone. Suffice it to say I disagree with her assessment.
So here we are. The season is half over with only four shows to go and two eliminations behind me, but the competition is getting pretty serious. Thanks for all the support! Keep it up and come see us in the Sterling Ballroom on Tuesday for Dinner and a show—this week’s “Art of Sandwich” won’t disappoint! Tickets are available at: http://thetaste5.eventbrite.com
The first elimination challenge is over and I live to cook another day! Comfort food is one of my favorite cuisines but it’s one that is highly subjective to every individual and culture. What I find comforting may not be comforting to you or another. Comfort foods typically come from our past, offer a sense of nostalgia and remind us of happy times with family and friends . . . for me, they’re foods I tend to crave when I’m hungover. All in all I really enjoyed this challenge. Our team finally got to meet our mentor, the gregarious Brian Malarkey, and we learned a little about his history and culinary style. He gave us some feedback on our audition dishes and took some time to get to know our individual styles. Chef Malarkey also gave us some great intel on the Ludo’s palate, Nigella’s culinary desires and Tony’s predilections to hopefully help us when crafting our dishes.
Our first guest mentor/judge was Gabrielle Hamilton, chef at her ever popular New York Restaurant Prune and author of Blood, Bones and Butter, which Bourdain has referred to as, “simply the best chef memoir ever.” Last I checked that spot was held by Bourdain himself so that’s a pretty serious endorsement. I’m only a few pages in but I already agree with Tony—I can’t wait to get back into it. Chef Hamilton gave us a great story of what comfort food was to her and then we got to taste it! It was a simple Italian-inspired soup with a light yet intense Parmesan scented broth adorned with spinach and egg, and although I had never had anything like it, I found it quite comforting indeed. We put our empty soup cups down and she announced the secret, must-use ingredients: bacon, eggs and cheese. Then the huge red digits appeared on the overhead display: 1:00:00 . . . 59:59 . . . 59:58 . . .
Bacon, eggs and cheese—there were many varieties of each—are some of my favorite things to cook, and more importantly, eat. They are also extremely versatile ingredients which is great, right? Wrong! Not for me. There are an almost infinite number of dishes that could be prepared with such ubiquitous and adaptable ingredients, and they all started flooding my head. Do I focus on one? Do I use them all? Bacon? Pancetta? There’s like 8 fuckin’ cheeses on the table! 58:45 … Think!
Comfort … comfort … comfort. Got it: eggs Benedict. I could probably eat a good eggs Benedict anytime, anywhere. As my brother and I were growing up, eggs Benny were a tradition on many a holiday morning or better yet, at the always well-received “breakfast for dinner.” When it came to this dish, it was mostly Dad’s gig, except for Mom’s mock yet delicious blender hollandaise. At a very young age I made an effort to decipher and understand this enigma of a dish that for some reason we only got to eat a handful of times a year. The hell with that, I want to eat it whenever I please! Thus, I banked one of my first recipes ever.
For this version of eggs Benny, obviously the final dish is being plated in a single spoon, so things immediately change. There are no English muffins in the pantry anyway. Let’s start with what we do have and get back to that bread situation. The quail eggs were a no-brainer while living in “spoon world” so I grab those. Of all the delicious pork products to choose from I see something that I’d only seen only once before, ever! Black Forest . . . wait for it . . . Bacon. Everything you love about Black Forest ham rolled into bacon. Intensely smoked and slightly sweeter than your run of the mill bacon, I thought it would be the perfect play for a sexied-up spoon-sized Benny. From there I didn’t want to stray too far away from the essence of the dish which, at the end of the day, is very simple. When you go simple though, every component needs to be perfect: the bacon crisp yet tender and tacky from just a touch of honey. The eggs poached just enough so their golden centers can ooze out to combine with the velvety-smooth, brightly acidic hollandaise. All this in oral concert with perfectly toasted micro-croutons delivering that bready crispness with just the slightest hint of butter that only thought about being brown. I was pleased with every component and the finished spoon it produced. Although Malarkey seemed to enjoy it, he never had Dick Pechal make it for him on New Year’s Day! As a side note, Jeff’s “Mac ‘n’ cheese” was pretty damn delicious as well.
With the individual challenge I went with fried chicken ‘cause who doesn’t like fried chicken? And even if it sits a little, cold fried chicken is still fantastic. I chose to go with a slaw to help brighten and balance the dish and provide a plethora of flavors and textures. What you didn’t see (which is ironic as I literally worked on it throughout the hour) was my deliciously crispy chicken skin. I’m sad to say things really came down to the wire and the skin didn’t make it onto the spoon. I felt good about my execution and flavors but had wished I had done more. Although I rode the middle I was pleasantly rewarded with Ludo’s applause—he’s LA’s king of fried chicken—and saying that he “liked the crust.” More rewarding was hearing the chefs razz Greg for using crispy chicken skin! I guess my skipping the skin was meant to be.
Next episode is “Daring Pairings” where everyone gets a little saucy and I think we may see a few fireworks. Team Malarkey may have lost one of its own but we’re bringin’ him back for redemption at this week’s Dinner and a Show! Come eat and drink with us!
I hope everyone enjoyed watching the first episode of the Taste, I know I did! It was great watchin’ some of my new taste buddies go through the meat grinder, for better or worse. Although some of us were just down there for a few days, great friendships were made and much fun was had! It was interesting to watch the judges discuss the audition dishes, they really don’t hold back and you get a sense of how insanely different each of their culinary tastes are! Come back and see us for part 2 of the auditions where I’ll make my grand debut! Come down to the Sterling Ballroom, wish me luck and join us for a 3 course family style dinner! Tickets available at https://events.benchmarkemail.com/event/1C6B3B4A9