The final four: Recent thoughts on MC3

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cvn8c0oXZqQ&feature=youtube_gdata_player
And then there were four…

This whole MasterChef” thing has been a crazy journey. I know I say it all the time, but seriously. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’ve cooked for Graham Elliot, Joe Bastianich, and Gordon Ramsay. I can’t believe I’m about to cook for Daniel Boulud, Guy Savoy, and Alain Ducasse. I can’t believe I’m cooking like a fiend on national television. I can’t believe I’ve cried so much on national television. I can’t believe so many people around the globe have heard of or read about or watched me on the show. I can’t believe how transformative an experience it has been. Perhaps the top two things I’ve taken away from MasterChef are: (1) confidence in my abilities, and (2) relationships with other contestants.

Even before I’d made it to the top 100, before coming to L.A. To cook for the three judges in the auditions, I’d laughed it off whenever the topic of “MasterChef” came up among my friends. “I don’t have the drama queen personality for TV,” I’d say. “I’m not quirky enough.” Or “I’m just a cook; I’m not a chef.” Or “There’s no way I’m good enough to compete.”

But my making it this far is a testament to the possibility of the impossible. I grew beyond my self-doubt and started believing in my abilities. I would never dare say I’m the best cook in that MasterChef kitchen because, frankly, it’s not in my modest personality to say so, and moreover, I don’t and can’t know anything for sure—I could never see how my fellow competitors handled their knives, what sorts of techniques they employed during cooking, how they plated their finished dishes. I could never see any of it. All I could do was focus on what I was doing, taste my own food, adjust my own seasonings, do the best I can do with what I was given.

The friends I’ve made on the show are the best things I’ve taken away from the experience. The fact that you can throw a bunch of crazies from the most varied walks of life with personalities, interests, and backgrounds covering polar ends of a spectrum and have them bond so magnetically within such a short period of time prove the universality of humankind. I am uplifted every time I think about this phenomenon—how despite so many differences, people can still unite over such basics like food, art, things that sustain us. Our differences make us beautifully colorful, but it is our similarities that make us transcendentally homogenous.

Relationships are what make life worthwhile, and the ones I’ve cemented at “MasterChef” are priceless. That, along with knowing the tremendous positive impact I’ve had on so many perfect strangers, are things I would not trade for the world.

I just want to give a sincere, heartfelt thanks to all those watching the show and who have shown me love and encouragement. It makes getting up every morning so much easier knowing that I have more supporters than haters out there. Onward and upward! xoxo

MasterChef 3 returns Tuesday, August 14


“MasterChef” has been on hiatus due to the 2012 summer Olympics. I had mentioned on my MC3Christine Facebook fan page that there were no new episodes airing because of something pesky called the Olympics, and I got a little backlash from people saying I don’t support the quadrennial events by my statement. Apparently, sarcasm doesn’t translate well over the web. Everyone that knows me personally (and many of those that have “met” me in cyberspace via Facebook or Twitter) know that I have a very dry sense of humor—it doesn’t get played out much on the show because I guess the producers like to keep my image as a clean-cut, sweet angel. But in real life, I am incredibly sarcastic and possess a mean humor especially when it comes to my good friends. We all break each other’s balls, and it’s all outta love. And it’s true. I love humankind in general; I’ll always try to see the best in people. But if I ever start making fun of you, nine times out of ten, it’s because I love you enough and feel close enough to you to do so. The other one time, well, let’s just say I’m probably really just making fun of you.

Now that I’ve cleared up my reputation as a hater of the world’s greatest athletes, let’s move on to more important things (the sarcasm strikes again): MasterChef season 3. It’s coming back with a vengeance this Tuesday, August 14. We get the privilege (torture?) of taking over a Michelin kitchen. Here’s a sneak preview. Yes, Joe likes to play the villain. So before you lovely fans of mine go off and blast him with hateful words, remember that Joe is not an inherently evil man—he just plays one on TV. Or maybe that’s just the must-see-the-good-in-everyone side of me talking. Either way, please tune in to see how we two-left-footed amateurs handle cooking in a fine dining restaurant. Good luck to all; may the best cooks win.

Easy salmon poke

It’s August, and that means it’s the dead middle of the dog days of summer. So what do you do with these dog days? You eat cold fish, that’s what. And not just cold fish but raw fish.

In a recent “MasterChef” episode, Felix lovingly assigned me a beautiful whole salmon. Salmon is one of those fish that I love to eat raw but can’t stand cooked. In the form of sushi or sashimi, I gobble it up. Even smoked, I’ll throw it on some bread with cheese and herbs. But cooked? I can’t stand the stuff. I think it’s dry and foul-tasting. I have yet to taste a cooked salmon that I could call delicious. (This is a challenge for you folks now; give me a cooked salmon that can stand on its own next to some beautiful sashimi.) I groaned when I realized which fish Felix had given me because my mind was immediately sent reeling into oblivion: while I would love to serve the salmon raw, Kaimana from the top 100 had not been given an apron for his out-of-this-world tuna tartare because the judges said serving it raw showed no cooking technique. And so I was torn. I decided to bake a salmon filet but not before slicing off the fatty belly to set aside in case I got the guts to follow my instincts and make a tartare or a roll.

Alas, a big FISH FAIL for me in that challenge. I went against my intuition and served the judges something I myself would hate to eat—breaded baked salmon and rice—while leaving the beautiful salmon belly to rot on the side of the Boos block.

After that day, I learned to never again doubt my instincts, always cook what I love, and not worry so much about what the judges wanted. I figured that if I followed my palate, I would fare better because I’d actually believe in my dishes and have pride in what I put on the plate.

As an “in your face” to salmon, I recently made salmon poke to not only redeem my crappy salmon dish but also to avenge for Kaimana’s raw audition dish. My poke was only a fraction of his tuna’s goodness, but I enjoyed eating it all the same. Obviously you can use ahi tuna in lieu of the sashimi grade salmon—ahi tuna is more common to this dish anyway—but I wanted to put a twist on the tradition.

Poke (pronounced POH-kee) is a common raw fish salad eaten in Hawaii where the fish are super fresh and therefore celebrated. I like to eat my poke on sheets of nori (seaweed), won ton crisps, or sesame crackers. It’s super easy to make and delicious and healthy. The only downside is you’ll have to splurge a little bit to buy the fish but you’ll still be saving lots of dollars making it at home rather than ordering it in a restaurant. Just remember to use a very sharp knife to cut the fish, and employ a clean single slice as to not butcher the beautiful piece of fish you’d just spent $$ on. And remember if the Blind can [not] Cook it, so can you.


Recipe: Salmon Poke

Ingredients

  1. 1 lb. sashimi grade salmon, cubed
  2. 1/2 c. Soy sauce
  3. 3/8 c. Chopped scallion
  4. 1 tbsp. Sesame oil
  5. 1/2 tbsp. Toasted sesame seeds
  6. 1/2 tbsp. Crushed red pepper
  7. 1/2 tbsp. seaweed seasoning

Instructions

  1. In a med. Bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hrs. Before serving.

Preparation time: 10 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 4

Beignets

At the beginning of summer, I’d cooked a special farewell lunch for my grad program friends: Cajun stuffed Cornish hens, dirty rice, and Brussels sprouts with candied bacon. For dessert, I kept with the Louisianan theme and served homemade beignets and Cafe du Monde New Orleans-style coffee with condensed milk, just the way Vietnamese people love to drink it.

While I grew up around Cafe du Monde’s ready-to-brew coffee grounds (which came in those notorious mustard yellow tin cans that afterwards became every Vietnamese family’s piggy bank/knickknack holder), I didn’t have my first beignet until college when I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I visited the brick-and-mortar Cafe du Monde and did what all the other tourists did: sat in the open-air cafe and sipped on steaming chicory drip coffee with the powdered sugar from the three beignets snowing all over my mouth and lap. It was a heavenly combination of flavors, and boy, all I can say is those French sure know their fried desserts.

Beignet, which literally means “bump,” is the French version of the American fritter. I love to eat them with powdered sugar and honey. They should be pillowy on the inside with a very light crunch on the outside. Before “MasterChef,” I always got my beignets from local shops. But then I learned how to make them from scratch, and there ain’t nothin’ like a beignet fresh out of the fryer. My friends gobbled them all up, their faces and fingers covered in white. If it hadn’t been for food coma written all over their eyes, they would’ve been mistaken for a bunch of cokeheads. Try these out, and let me know what you think. If the Blind can Cook it, you know you can too.

 

Recipe: Beignets

Ingredients

  1. 196 g AP flour
  2. 98 g Sugar
  3. 4.5 g baking powder
  4. 3 g Salt
  5. 95 g Milk
  6. 8 g lemon juice
  7. 83 g butter, melted
  8. 1egg
  9. 1egg yolk

Instructions

  1. Preheat oil to 350° to 365°F.
  2. In a mixer bowl, combine less than half the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
  3. Whisk together the milk, lemon juice, melted butter, egg, and yolk.
  4. Add the wet to the dry and mix on med. Speed until smooth.
  5. Lower the speed and add the remaining flour. Mix until just combined.
  6. Turn out dough on to a floured surface. Roll out to 1/4- to 1/2-in. Thick. Cut with a ring cutter.
  7. Drop beignets carefully into fryer. Once they rise to the surface, fry until golden brown.
  8. Drain on paper towel lined pan or wire rack. Serve warm with a sprinkling of powdered sugar on top and a side of honey.

Preparation time: 30 minute(s)

Cooking time: 20 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 6

Thoughts on MC3

This third season of “MasterChef” is more than half over, and since last night, I’m proud to say I’m still in it. Top 6, baby!

Ever since the show started airing, my life has embarked on a wild ride. If you would’ve told me a few months back while I was still filming the show that all this craziness would ensue, I would’ve rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, right.” Having lived life in relative anonymity for 30+ years, fame is hard to fathom. But here it is, and I must say, it’s been an incredible experience. I still find it hard to call all my emails and messages “fan mail,” but regardless of what they are, I’m touched that so many people from all over the globe have reached out to tell me their stories, their fears, their struggles, their desires, their accomplishments, their failures. It’s not easy to be vulnerable, and I want to erase the stigma that dependence has. It’s all right to ask for help sometimes. We are all more alike than different, and working together produces exponentially better results.

Speaking of teamwork, it was difficult for me to watch the latest episode where Stacey and I had to tag team making a Japanese platter. People ask me what it’s like to watch these episodes, if we’ve seen them before they air on national TV. The answer is no, all of us cast members watch it for the very first time right alongside America. And, for me, it’s an emotional roller coaster. I find myself cracking up most of the time because it’s like watching a bunch of your best friends acting silly or mucking up dishes on TV. And then sometimes I cry when they’re especially hard moments like when Josh and Stacey leave. It is like reliving those days all over again, and I always need a drink to get me through each episode.

It tickles me to see how fans can be so diehard. Ryan assigned me a live crab, and his head was virtually bitten off over the internet. At the same time, I curse in that kitchen about 500 times more than they’ve let on camera. Naturally, I’ve become the angel and Ryan worse than Satan himself. But honestly, it’s TV, and there is this crazy manipulative thing called editing. While I am very much relieved I’ve been made to look like the heroic underdog on the show, I feel terrible for how some of my friends have been portrayed. I know I can’t speak for everyone, but I myself am the kind of person that tries my best to see the good in everyone. Hate is just poison to our minds, and I’d much rather fill my head and heart with love. Life’s hard enough—why spend it and all your energy on loathing someone?

Anyway, life has been pretty crazy. When people tell me I’ve inspired them to cook, to try out for the high school soccer team, to go to grad school, to go to culinary school, to pursue their dream vocation; it makes it all worth it. I’ve always hoped my past struggles could be used to positively impact at least one or two others that I’d meet in life. And my hopes and prayers have been answered to the nth degree. I just want to tell everyone that I am grateful for the love and support. Know that I do read all of your messages, emails, posts, and tweets; I may not be able to respond, but I do read them. And yes, for the last time, it’s really me on Twitter and Facebook!

Keep on fighting the good fight. Much love. xoxo

Roasted Brussels sprouts with candied bacon

Brussels sprouts, as they’re named, are of Belgian and Roman origin. They resemble miniature heads of cabbage, and while that may not sound appealing, Brussels sprouts are one of my favorite vegetables of late. They’re nutritious and delicious with their anti-cancer properties and earthy, nutty flavor. Overcook them, and they’ll be gross. But when made right, Brussels sprouts offer just the right balance of texture: tender yet crispy. So forget those soggy, bland, dull gray Brussels sprouts of yesteryear. Roast and/or broil them, and you’ll get some stellar sprouts. My foodie twin, Sherry, fed me Brussels sprouts tossed with candied bacon and a classic homemade vinaigrette, and I’ve been dreaming of them ever since. The candied bacon combine both salty and sweet components and add an oomph of flavor to the Brussels sprouts. Then the vinaigrette pushes it into bliss with the acidity edge. Serve them as a first course salad or as a vegetable side component like I did with the dirty rice stuffed Cornish hens. If the Blind can Cook it, so can you.

 

Recipe: Candied Bacon

Ingredients

  1. 12 slices bacon
  2. Ground black pepper
  3. 1/3 c. Light brown sugar

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Put bacon slices in a bowl. Season with pepper and toss with brown sugar. Cover baking sheets with parchment or foil and arrange in a single layer. Sprinkle any leftover sugar from bowl over the bacon. Top with another layer of parchment or foil, and top it squarely with a second baking sheet. (This will flatten the bacon as it cooks.)
  3. Place tray in center of oven and bake for 12 to 16 min. Halfway through cooking, flip bacon and drag through syrupy liquid. If bacon is not yet golden brown after 16 min., bake for another 5 to 10 min or until dark as mahogany.

Preparation time: 10 minute(s)

Cooking time: 20 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 4

Recipe: Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Ingredients

  1. 2 lbs. brussels sprouts, unwashed & halved lengthwise
  2. 3 tbsp. Cooking oil
  3. 2 tbsp. Melted Butter
  4. Salt & pepper
  5. Candied bacon, cut into bite-sized pcs. (see recipe – 2 servings)
  6. 4 tbsp. Vinaigrette dressing (see recipe – add 3 tbsp. reserved bacon fat)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 or 420°F.
  2. Toss brussels sprouts with oil, butter, salt & pepper. Arrange sprouts, cut side down, in one layer on a baking sheet covered with foil. Roast sprouts for 30 to 35 min. Until crispy on top.
  3. Combine sprouts with bacon. Right before serving, toss with vinaigrette dressing.

Preparation time: 10 minute(s)

Cooking time: 35 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 6

Recipe: Vinaigrette Dressing

Ingredients

  1. 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil and/or bacon fat
  2. 1/3 c. balsamic vinegar
  3. 1 heaping tbsp. Brown sugar
  4. 1 generous tbsp. honey
  5. Juice from 1/2 lemon
  6. 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  7. Salt & pepper

Instructions

  1. In a sm. Bowl, combine ingredients and whisk until blended.

Preparation time: 5 minute(s)

Cajun Cornish hens

With the end of crawfish season comes a need to find other ways to fulfill our Cajun cravings. In my last post, I tried my hand at making dirty rice. And now here’s how to up the flavor in that rice. Try stuffing it in a Cornish hen. Juicy goodness will drip into the stuffing during cooking, adding an even more savory dimension to the rice.

Cornish hens, despite their names, could be either male or female. They are a hybrid breed of chicken growing no more than five weeks and weighing no more than two pounds. Their meat is sweeter and more tender than regular chicken, and they cook quicker, too, making them choice for entertaining.

Because I’d gotten rid of my roasting pan, we had to MacGyver one out of a tin pan, aluminum cans, and rolled up balls of foil. By placing these cans and foil balls loosely in the pan and setting the hens on top, the juices will trickle between the gaps and collect at the bottom instead of directly underneath the hens, thereby keeping them from getting soggy. Ghetto-rigged brilliance.

I used ready-made Cajun seasoning instead of making my own just because I already had it in my spice drawer. You can try making your own by mixing to taste kosher salt, ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder.

The Cornish game hens came out not as spicy as I’d hoped (I suggest liberally rubbing on the Cajun seasoning), but it was still a good complement to the dirty rice. I served each person half a Cornish hen with extra dirty rice and a side of roasted Brussels sprouts (recipe coming soon to an entry near you). Pretty simple yet really tasty. Come on, if the Blind can Cook it, so can you.


Recipe: Cajun Cornish Hens

Ingredients

  1. 4 Cornish hens
  2. 4 tbsp. butter
  3. 6 to 8 tbsp. Cajun seasoning
  4. 3 c. dirty rice

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Rinse Cornish hens and pat dry with paper towels.
  3. Stuff the cavity of each hen with dirty rice. Pack it in real good.
  4. Wedge a tbsp. of butter between the skin and breast meat of each hen. Then liberally rub the hen with Cajun seasoning.
  5. Place in the roasting pan and cover with tented foil. Roast in the oven for 45 to 60 min. Then remove cover and roast for another 10 to 15 min. Let sit for 10 min. before cutting in half lengthwise and serving.

Preparation time: 15 minute(s)

Cooking time: 1 hour(s) 15 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 4

Dirty rice

I was a wee one when I had my first taste of dirty rice, and it was from Popeye’s. Something about the deep savoriness of this mean little concoction made it one of my favorite Cajun dishes. (For a quick lesson on the difference between Cajun and Creole food, visit my entry on crawfish boils.) And then I found out years later that offal is what makes dirty rice taste so damn good. Who knew? A recent food trend is food that used to be considered less palatable, I.e. Food the lower socioeconomic levels partook in. Think the leftover parts of an animal—offal—such as livers, gizzards, oxtail, feet, snout, ears. For vegetables, think collard greens, mustard greens, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and so on. And so with this trend, we see a rise in these sorts of ingredients becoming gourmet. And with the gourmet status comes the hefty price tag. So what can you do? Learn to make it yourself.

A handful of friends from my Creative Writing Program at UH recently graduated. And while they were becoming Masters of Fine Arts, I was off trying to become a MasterChef. Alas, I am sad to see some of my bestest writer buds move away on to bigger and better things, but I cherish the past four years we’ve had together. There were many discussions about literature, the writing craft, existentialism, and just about any possible subject under the sun and even beyond. (Because, you know, us writers are just so deep.) So as a farewell/graduation/appreciation celebration, I wanted to share myself and cook a meal for them. After all, they spent the last four painful years reading pages and pages of my manuscripts; the least I could do is finally give them something good to ingest.

I know the basic gist of dirty rice involves poultry offal—namely livers and gizzards—the trinity (two parts onion to one part celery and one part bell pepper); and rice. My next door neighbor, who makes a bad-ass dirty rice every year for our day-after-Thanksgiving leftovers potluck, promised to cook it with me one day, but I figured I’d try on my own first before I learn his secrets and then meld all of it together into one superpower dirty rice.

So here you have my first run at dirty rice. Yeah, I was brave to experiment on my friends, but I know they love me enough to still be my friend even if the food tasted bad. Luckily, the dirty rice was pretty darn good. And it tastes even better if you let the flavors melt together overnight. I used this to stuff some slutty chickens (as Chef Ramsay calls them)—more on that next time. Till then, make a vat and share; it’s an easy recipe for a crowd. If the Blind can Cook it, you can too.


Dirty Rice

Ingredients

  1. 1 lb. chicken gizzards, washed & rinsed
  2. 1 lb. chicken livers, washed, rinsed & trimmed
  3. 2 cloves garlic, minced
  4. 1 c. chopped onion
  5. 1/2 c. chopped celery
  6. 1/2 c. chopped green bell pepper
  7. 4 c. chicken broth
  8. 4 c. uncooked Minute rice
  9. 1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley leaves
  10. cayenne pepper to taste
  11. salt & pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Cook the minute rice according to package directions using chicken broth instead of water.
  2. Pulse the gizzards in a food processor until crumb-sized. Set aside. Then pulse liver until almost liquified.
  3. In a lg. Skillet, sauté the garlic until fragrant. Cook the meats until browned.
  4. Add the vegetables and salt & pepper, and cook until tender. If the mixture is too wet, let it reduce.
  5. Gently fold in the rice. Season with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Garnish with parsley.

Preparation time: 15 minute(s)

Cooking time: 25 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 12

Find my MasterChef alter ego on Facebook and Twitter

It’s all happening so fast, I can barely breathe. Many told me it would be crazy, a roller coaster, that my life would get turned upside down; but my small nugget of a head couldn’t wrap itself around the magnitude of this show. And it’s supposedly only the beginning. I’ve been getting some awesome fan mail that makes it all worthwhile: “You are the most amazing person I’ve ever heard of in life or TV…if I ever met you, I’d embrace you and weep” to “I’d like to write a children’s book with you as a character.” Wow wow wee wow.

The social media has gone through the roof too. After the first night’s premiere (which I believe you can watch on Hulu the day after they’ve aired), my Twitter more than doubled in followers and my Facebook crashed due to high-volume traffic. It’s all a little bizarre—okay, a lot of bizarre—but I’m enjoying the whole bizarreness of it and trying to make sure I stay grounded and humble through it all. Mostly, I hope to use this entire experience to have a positive impact on this world.

Sorry that I haven’t been posting recipes. But, seriously, I barely have time to cook, let alone write or blog. In the meantime, please “like” my Facebook page and follow me on Twitter for all things “MasterChef.”

You can post all things food or MasterChef related and keep up with the latest goings-on in the MasterChef kitchen through these avenues. Thanks for the support, keep watching to see how far I make it, and spread the word.

“MasterChef” airs on Monday and Tuesday nights at 9/8 PM CDT on FOX.

To kick off the season three premiere of “MasterChef,” I’ll be on the Houston FOX morning news at 9 AM CDT doing a short cooking demo of the very same dish I make for Gordon, Joe, and Graham during the audition.  Tune in if you want to see a very nervous gal looking awkward while trying to put together a plate and talking about her experience at the same time in less than five minutes.

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