Sunday, November 30, 2008

Top Chef (Season 5; Episode 3): this post is brought to you by... soup

After a busy holiday weekend--75% of which was spent driving up and down the east coast--and emotional check-ins with family back home, I finally have a chance to sit down and post an update. Because so much time has lapsed, and thoughts have accumulated, this post is in 3 parts: Top Chef, Thanksgiving, and a freakin'-fantastic-recipe I tried a few days ago. In one of those seemingly predetermined moments of coincidence, I realized that all three topics I wanted to talk about have one very simple food in common: soup.

Top Chef...
The Quickfire Challenge asked our contestants to beget soup, inspired by other chefs' notable recipes in previous seasons compiled in the Top Chef cookbook. They certainly contrived some wonderful recipes, the white asparagus topping them off. Soups aren't easy to make (I should know, I have a damn 2 quarts of a disasterous attempt to soup-up canned pumpkin in my fridge right now--which is not, incidentally, the recipe I'll post below. That was pure delight.), and these chefs really did demonstrate inspiration, instead of pureeing the entrees they'd already begun to prepare before the soup-twist was thrown at them. What debased this creativity, however, was the latest of Bravo's shameless sponsorship exploits. Each chef was asked to use Swanson's Vegetable, Chicken or Beef Stock in what can only be documented as the most embarrassing product plug in the history of television. To top it all off, each chef replugged the stock while describing what he/she had made--obediently repeating the Swanson brand, in sing-song for the producers' ears. Add this to the cookbook plug, Kenmore appliances, Mac products, Saturn vehicles, and so much more. I wouldn't be surprised if we started seeing Padma in some accessories from the Project Runway design room.

When I was younger, I attended a small, private, primary school because my immigrant parents thought that it was the ticket to a better life in this country and worked numerous jobs each to afford the ridiculous tuition it charged. I was miserable there, to put it mildly--I was the only non-white, non-WASP child (except for one Jew and one Cuban) in the entire school, I lied about being Christian so I could fit in until I was caught not knowing any of the songs at a classmate's communion, and I threw up every day on the ride to school for months (not in the eating disorder kind of way, but more of the 'I can't show up to school covered in vomit' variety--didn't work, my parents were too clever and packed extra clothing). I digress. Point is, I hated that place--mostly because the other students were racist, spoiled, and, honestly, dumb as bricks. But there's one memory that I still recall fondly from those years and it was the school's tradition of Stone Soup.

Stone Soup is an old Grimm Brothers' tale that tells the story of two soldiers making a pilgrimage home after serving in a war. On the way, they stop in a village and ask its villagers for handouts, as they've run out of provisions. Each house snubs the soldiers, ignoring their service and selfishly claiming they have no food to share. The soldiers then take up a cauldron in the middle of the village square, and try to look their busiest as they stir warm water with nothing but a single stone mixed in. As villagers pass by, their curiosity gets the best of them and they ask what the soldiers are making. Stone soup! they exclaim, lamenting that their specialty just needs a bit of onion, or a single potato, or a pinch of herbs (you get the point) to reach its potential. To the soldiers' delight, each villager agrees to pitch in the 'missing' ingredient, in return for a helping of the promised perfection. And, in this way, a hearty, delicious soup is made (and enjoyed) by the entire village and its two cunning visitors.

On the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, our entire grade school (K-6, 140 kids) would gather in a clearing in the forest behind our campus. We'd all sit on logs arranged in a circle, around a single cauldron in the middle. The youngest student in the school would ceremonially place a single stone in the pot to kick off the tradition, and each student would then walk up to the pot and place some ingredient that he/she had been assigned inside. While the pot simmered, we'd listen to my favorite kindegarten teacher, Mrs. Hays, read us the story of Stone Soup and then we'd feast. And for that single day each year, for 5 years, I could momentarily sit in that forest and forget that the little shits sitting next me on our log made fun of my last name, my parents' accents, or the lunches I brought to school. For one day, we all ate each other's meal and I realized more and more over the years that spice was something to be celebrated--it's just that none of them knew any better.

Gingered Carrot Soup...
I must still associate soup with that sort of temporary comfort, because when things got particularly bad one cold night a few days ago and I was dreading the reality of what completing my dissertation will entail and feeling remiss that my partner is no longer in the same graduate program to commiserate with and regretting making all sorts of decisions that led me to this career path and shut the doors on others, I decided to dump my sorrows in a pot and make huge vat of gingered carrot soup. There were many ingredients, numerous steps, and much detail, but I'm telling you--when you feel like you've completely lost control over your own life and desperately think you're dependent on whims of fate, there's nothing like successfully making a really tasty, hearty soup that will last you for at least 9 meals. Every sip I took of this soup for the rest of the week reminded me that I can, in fact, complete things I set out to do on my own.

2 lbs carrots, peeled and chopped into 1 inch pieces
4 cups chicken broth, low sodium and fat free
1 tbsp butter
1.5 cups chopped onion
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp freshly grated ginger
1.5 tsp salt
1/4 tsp each: cumin
ground fennel
dried mint
4 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 cup lightly toasted cashews

1) Place the chopped carrots in a saucepan with the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until very tender (takes about 10-15 minutes).
2) In the meantime, heat the butter in a skillet. Add the onions and saute for a few minutes, until they start to soften. Then add the garlic, ginger, salt, and spices. Saute the mixture for another 10 minutes and then stir in the lemon juice.
3) Puree the onion mixture, boiled carrots (including the chicken broth) and toasted cashews together in a food processor or blender (you might have to do this in batches). Add water or milk to achieve the consistency you desire, because the recipe as is makes a very thick, creamy puree.
4) Enjoy--it's good for the soul.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


As the attacks on Mumbai continue, I'm thankful that my family back home is all accounted for and safe. Everyone is shaken--at the span, coordination and intensity of these assaults. And now, as we wait for resolve of some sort, I'm sure the city is holding its breath for the next phase that will inevitably follow. This city is sadly all too familiar with communal backlash that happens in moments like this, where the real perpetrators become conflated with communities they have no business trying to represent or speak for. And fear and frustration translate into hatred in order to feel some semblance of control in such chaos.

But as the nauseating media over here continues to describe this as an attack on Westerners, the violence against those in cinemas, hospitals, and train stations clearly means that this is a coordinated assault on humanity.

We're about to leave our home to spend Thanksgiving with family in NC, specifically an aunt and uncle who worked for years at the Taj in Mumbai. They've just learned that their best friend, the executive chef at the hotel, died this morning after being shot point blank, as well as another friend who was the general manager...along with his wife and kids. As stories like this start to trickle in, it makes me painfully aware how thankful I am for my family being safe, around the world, but how many more families are dreading similar news.

My thoughts are with that city, in its entirety.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Top chef (Season 5; Episode 2): No dessert for me, thanks.

Something that continues to puzzle me through 4 entire seasons of Top Chef is the contestants' aversion towards making desserts.  If you're applying to be on this show, either you've watched it diligently yourself, or you should do your research--either way, you'll discover that dessert is always each chef's achilles heel (note: with the exception of Marisa, the pastry chef from Season 4, who failed to win any popularity points).  You know there's going to be an episode where there's high likelihood that you'll end up on the 'dessert team' or that a quickfire will ask you to pair a dessert with some sort of liquor that is sponsoring Bravo. Why, then, do these contestants not prepare a few signature desserts--each!--before appearing on the show?

The politics between pastry chefs and what are called 'regular' chefs--assigning a normative bias to the latter at the outset--are pretty well-documented.  While baking is almost a science, non-baking cooking is seen as a more creative endeavor, allowing chefs to showcase their inspiration and talent.  The fact that dessert is often so much more than 'baking' gets ignored in these internal industry wars, and as pastry chefs are disparagingly called 'bakers' who simply know how to follow recipes to a tee, their salaries go down and it becomes very difficult to move beyond the pastry partition in most professional kitchens.  

This tension between creativity and precision resembles the ongoing feud between the
 humanities (and social sciences) and the hard sciences in academia.  I'll admit it, while I probably wouldn't want anyone from the engineering quad waxing politics in policy meetings, I also wouldn't want a political scientist within 76 feet of something that could potentially explode.   Both are important departments; education in the liberal arts bridges this divide for an important reason.  I'm just saying that I wouldn't apply to a contest that I know has asked contestants to build reactors in the past, expecting to win by simply crossing my fingers and hoping that my feminist interpretation of immigration politics would be enough.  

I think that the person who should have gone home yesterday was inexplicably given a second chance because we never expect these chefs to be able to do desserts well. Well, there's a decent dessert and then there's this: 

On a completely different note, Fabio (our Italian) repeated the following "Italian saying" twice yesterday: "In Italian they say, it doesn't matter how many dragon you kill, it's who take home the princess.  So I go for the princess." [translation: his]  I can't stand that the judges find this sexist jerk to be charming.  Thank god I had two European (men, I should add) sitting next to me on the couch watching this episode; after Fabio had treated us to more words, one of my friends couldn't help himself: "Oh, shut the hell up." 

Monday, November 17, 2008

Drinking through a crisis

The United States, in the midst of this financial crisis, will not abandon our commitments to people in the developing world; that the HIV/AIDS initiative, known as PEPFAR, will remain strong and vibrant; that our deep desire to significantly reduce malaria deaths in countries on the continent of Africa will not be diminished; that our obligation to help feed the hungry will not stop; that in the midst of all this turmoil and financial crisis, we will meet our obligations. These obligations are in our national security interests and our economic security interests and they in--are in our moral interests. --GWB, 11.15.2008

This is an excerpt from President-defect Bush's address to international dignitaries at the World Financial Summit on Saturday--a gathering (humbly) aimed at fixing the world's current financial crisis. His speech made three main points: 1) we must promote economic growth 2) we must adapt financial industry regulations to 21st century standards and 3) we need to reject protectionism and refrain from erecting trade barriers.

Now, Bush is no James Joyce, but some of these state leaders may have had a difficult time making sense of his speech, considering their menu from the previous night. On Friday evening, these same dignitaries were hosted at a State Dinner with the following menu:
  • fruitwood-smoked quail with quince gastrique
  • quinoa risotto
  • thyme-roasted rack of lamb
  • tomato, fennel and eggplant fondue
  • a salad course of endive, baked brie and walnuts
  • pear torte
I'm not arguing that State Dinners should be 'macaronis au fromage avec le boeuf,' but it's well known that these dinners are paid for by tax dollars (as opposed to personal dinners at the White House, the groceries for which are paid for by the President himself). When you're discussing launching the $700 billion bailout that's asking individual taxpayers with mortgage crises that are increasingly transitioning into food-on-the-table woes, indulging on wine at $500 a bottle seems absolutely immoral. Quail, lamb, fondue and brie... well, that's just rubbing it in.

You can read the rest of Bush's speech here. I, for one, cannot wait for January 20th--the day where I no longer have to listen to a president who sounds, on his best days, like a 6 year old who just fell off the monkey bars, nailed his nuts on the see-saw, and then tries to tell us he did it all on purpose.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Top Chef (Season 5; Episode 1)

My post-election fog has lifted (slightly), because I'm happy to say that the fifth season of Top Chef has finally arrived. Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows that this show affects my bio-rhythm in its entirety--I measure my sleep, plant my crops, and take my meals according to this show. Have you ever watched this show and thrown something at your television after an upset victory, or jumped off your couch after someone corruptly turns off a fellow contestants' burners? For the next three months, you can count on this space to discuss--what else?--the politics of Top Chef.

Episode #1:

1. the army wife. lauren's husband is serving in iraq, making the role of army spouse an official contender in the realm of identity politics catered to by reality television. or the war has affected so many people in the last 5 years that the odds landed an army spouse on the show. either way, it's clear that the war has continued to ravage lives around the globe and that's pretty disheartening.

2. playing the "ethnic" card. radhika says in one moment that she doesn't want to be stereotyped as the indian chef who makes curries with a bunch of spices; almost immediately afterwards she's off making chutney because that's what she knows how to do. we see a lot of this on this show--certain chefs are pidgeonholed into a type of cuisine and the esteemed panel of judges doesn't hesitate to completely essentialize regions of the world and make egregious claims that contestants should challenge themselves by cooking outside of their 'asian' comfort zone. seriously? i think it's particularly irritating when we use an arbitrary u.s. census category to cluster completely different cultures under one insulting label, but then to insinuate that their palates are also indistinguishable? that's akin to asking padma to stop wearing dresses because they all look the same.

3. speaking of essentialism. the challenge asked these chefs to find inspiration from neighborhoods in nyc that are so ridiculously eclectic themselves, i was baffled. chinese, indian, middle eastern... these judges were on a roll. i want to know how a dish smothered in something called 'masala sauce' wins accolades when masala literally just means spices. also, since when is little india considered to be curry hill on lexington ave. in
manhattan? i think any indian in the ny/nj metro area remembers weekend trips out to jackson heights, queens, where restaurants and few street vendors and bangles' shops lining a short section of street aren't considered to be an ethnic community. the 'little' prefix has a special place in urban history and it carries with it stories of settler-narratives, mono-lingual comfort, and marginalized ghettoization. there's a reason that indians from all over the u.s. are known to make a pilgrimage to queens and not curry hill--the variety and authenticity you find in that maze of streets is often heralded as the closest an indian in the american diaspora can get to the homeland they left behind.Link
4. team rainbow. top chef has a rich history of gay pride and while i think their casting director may have been personally scorned by a lesbian in the past, it's always great to see that a good number (this season: 3) of contestants feel comfortable enough on this network or in this industry to wear their sexuality with pride.

5. global citizens. there's some anti-americanism/anti-europeanism brewing in the flat and i'm laying down bets on how bad it's going to get. it's been launched by an alliance between the finnish and the italian making fun of the overweight new-yawkah and he's certainly lashing back. first, since when do finland and italy see eye to eye on anything, except maybe how much they both hate immigration? second, i suppose it's refreshing that the casting department didn't fall back on the old, reliable stereotype of frenchies insulting american chefs. talk about thinking outside the box.

It's definitely going to be an interesting season!
And on top of it all, we have head judge, Tom
Colicchio, introducing us to the concept of being 'fat-fit'--how in god's name does he manage it?