Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Top Chef Vocabulary Round-Up

In Sunday’s post, I mentioned that I like how shows such as Top Chef and Project Runway introduce vocabulary that novice foodies and the non-apparel-obsessed might not know. It seemed only reasonable, then, to post about food terms on this week’s Top Chef that I either had not heard before or recognized but hadn’t ever looked up.

The big one this week was dropped during the Quickfire Challenge. Angelo used the mystery box ingredients to make what he called a pot-au-feu. The term literally translates from French as “pot on the fire” and refers to a French style of beef stew that, according to Wikipedia, often includes cheap cuts of beef and along with carrots, turnips, leeks, celery and onions. Though Angelo’s take on the pot-au-feu didn’t feature sides, a traditional might offer coarse salt, strong mustard, and pickled gherkins and samphire. That last one is also a new one to me — it can refer to any number of edible plant species, but in this case would most likely be Crithmum maritimum. (The name samphire has no relation to sapphire, which is what I guessed, but is a corruption of the French Saint Pierre, patron of fishermen, because the plant grows near the sea.)

I’ve seen the term tataki on menus before but never knew what it meant. Tataki (literally translated as “pounded” or “hit into pieces”) is a Japanese style of cooking in which meat or fish is briefly seared in fire or in a hot pan, marinated in vinegar, sliced thinly and served with ginger paste. It’s that last bit, the ginger pulverized into goop, that gives the technique its name. (I think I may have previously confused tataki with rumaki. Contrary to what Betty Draper thinks, rumaki isn’t Japanese at all but apparently American, likely having originated at Trader Vic’s. Wikipedia calls this bacon-wrapped poultry concoction “mock Polynesian” and theorizes that the rumaki may come from the name of the Japanese spring roll harumaki.)

Though I feel like I learned the word fricassee from Bugs Bunny cartoons (along with other naturally funny words such as succotash and hasenpfeffer), I never knew what it meant and had certainly never tried it. A fricassee involves poultry or other white meat stewed in gravy, usually along with vegetables. Know we know.

I knew what Kelly meant when she said she’d prepared her dish in a Yucatecan style, but I thought it was worth pointing out that I’d couldn’t recall ever hearing the demonym for the Mexican state of Yucatan.

All that verbal business out of the way, some other thoughts on tonight’s Top Chef:
  • Whoever devises the Top Chef challenges has come up with some good ones that play nicely off the Washington D.C. setting. I enjoyed this week’s main event in particular — “disguising” traditional American dishes and then serving them to higher-up spooks at the CIA. However, this particular challenge gave me more reason to dislike contestant Amanda, who realized that her gussying-up of French onion soup would not fool anyone and who then verbalized this fact by saying that even Helen Keller would be able to spot the original dish. Not that I didn’t grow up with countless schoolyard Helen Keller jokes, but dude — Helen Keller was deaf and blind, she didn’t lack taste buds. Get your famous disabilities right.
  • Of all the politicos to guest judge Top Chef challenges so far this season, CIA director Leon Panetta was the first to actually call out lousy dishes. Previously, people like Nancy “Jerri Blank” Pelosi and Rep. Aaron “Turquoise Belt” Schock hemmed and hawed about dishes they did not like, but Panetta — who was appointed to his current position, not elected — spoke with refreshing bluntness. I should also mention that it’s extremely weird to me that Panetta — the former representative for California’s seventeenth district, where I once lived — is now the CIA head and therefore guy who, as Top Chefer Kelly noted, knows where all the extraterrestrials are.
  • Could Tiffany actually win this thing? I would not have guessed it at this season’s outset, but she certainly seems to be headed for a showdown with Angelo once he remembers how to cook. Tiffany’s culinary feats have not yet wowed me, but I will say she has one of the sunnier, more likeable personalities of any Top Chefer in recent memory. Plus she has the good taste to like La Femme Nikita, though I’m guessing she probably was referring to the Peta Wilson version.
  • Kevin — the one contestant neither in the top nor the bottom of this week’s episode — looks like a grown-up version of Manny from Modern Family


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