Sunday, January 11, 2009

Top Chile

Marcy recently bought me the Top Chef Cookbook. So far, this gift has been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it has pushed me to grapple with recipes that are more lengthy and complex than the recipes listed on what I call houselor websites – those that are targeted at housewives and bachelors, two demographics whose only overlap is their desire to crank out food quickly and without any headache. and will get you dinner on the table faster than you can say microwaveable.

Although I’m a bachelor, I like to think of myself as an overachieving one. Top Chef recipes are a pretty good way to test that. In fact, when I tackled my first recipe, I think I got a little taste of what it’s like to be on Top Chef. Did I mention that the new cookbook has also been a curse?

A list of the ways that my preparation of Chiles Rellenos, the dish served by Sara during season 3, made me feel like a Top Chef:

1. Like the chefs on the show, I was operating under severe time constraints. Admittedly, one small difference is that the contestants on the show are trying to finish cooking before Tom Colicchio tells them it’s time for the judges table, whereas I was trying to finish in time to eat dinner before going to bed. I got off work late, which, if I was making Barry’s 27 word long Bachelor Chow recipe, wouldn’t be a problem. But given Sara’s flair for complicating things, I found myself about halfway through the recipe at 10:45 pm. Worried that this was going to turn into an all-nighter, I began to scramble for the finish line, running around the kitchen like a Top Cheffer fearing Padma’s icy stare.

2. The recipe called for a higher level of skill than, for example, your average momwhothinks must demonstrate when making “happy apples.” This highlights another small difference between the Top Chefs and me: they actually possess that higher level of skill. The recipe required that I roast the chiles over a gas flame, turning with tongs until blackened. I quickly found that if you don’t burn long enough, the skin can be hard to peel. And if you burn too much, the flesh turns blackish – also hard to peel. After stumbling through the burning process, I found the task of peeling the skin of the peppers to be delicate as well; I didn’t want to remove all the blackened skin because I liked the char flavor. I began to appreciate why chiles rellenos are so expensive at restaurants. You’re paying for the labor. And such attention to detail, when you need to be doing something else, like going before Top Chef judges or lying in bed unconscious, is tough.

3. I enjoy artistically arranging food on a plate, but I find that your typical online recipe doesn’t provide much advice about how to Picasso-up your dish. The Cookbook recipe included a fairly long “To Serve” section, and the photograph was also instructive. The bell pepper sauce laid a foundation, and then I spooned some beans on the other side of the plate, forming concentric red and brown circles, an earthy backdrop for the big green poblano pepper, which is placed in the middle. An avocado slice goes aside the green butter to provide a clue about the butter’s main ingredient. And a sprig of cilantro gives you a hint of spicy pleasures awaiting you inside the pepper.

4. Just like the Top Chefs, I too toiled away in an effort to satisfy an audience that does not spare the rod when evaluating my performance. The Top Chef Cookbook required a two-page spread to cover all the put-downs Anthony Bourdain has used to denigrate chefs. And although Marcy has never accused my food of falling into “cat food territory,” she can be tough. Her criticism usually takes a more passive form, though, like getting up from the table and returning with a salt shaker. But I strategically arrived late in the evening to ensure that she would be hungry to increase the receptivity of her tastebuds. Then, as she took her first few bites, I aggressively fished for compliments – “Isn’t the squash a nice contrast in texture to the avocado butter?” – to coax her into compliments that would create a binding record, forcing her to give the meal a good score. When I told her how long the chiles took, I tacked on an hour to embellish the degree of difficulty, which, in our scoring system, accounts for one/fifth of the points. These tactics seemed to work as she initially called the food “great.” But then she grew quieter, and when she got up from the table, I knew the salt shaker was about to make an appearance. Ultimately, she gave me a good point total, but not the 100 that I hoped for. I gnashed my teeth at the injustice, like a Top Chef contestant who wasn’t quite good enough to win the Quickfire Challenge, holding back a range of angry comebacks so as not to damage my relationship with the judge.

The Recipe:

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