Wednesday, February 29, 2012

MasterChef: Five Becomes Four

If it's Wednesday night it must, therefore, be yer actual Keith Telly Topping's beloved MasterChef again. The pressure is, of course, mounting faster than, well, than a ... big sort-of mounting thing, dear blog reader. As the five amateur cooks still left in the competition - Big Hard Jay, Big Sweaty Eamonn, Little Steve Diggle lookalike Andrew, was-it-him-what-turned-down-the-oven-on-Aki Tom and bossy-if-very-talented Shelina - enter the seventh week of the cooking competition of their lives. Yep, ramp up the hyperbole to eleven, we're down to just the five of them now that Aki's got the tin-tack. Breathless India Fisher was even more breathless than usual in telling us about what a right rough-tough-bee-atch of a episode this was going to be. With the stress, and the nerves and the wailing and kicking of teeth. It was almost biblical, so it was. Yer actual John Torode and Gregg Wallace had set the contestants the challenge of cooking for three leading restaurant critics - always a particularly sarky and discombobulated point of any MasterChef series. The five would have to pull out all the stops as they were charged with making their own finest three courses to try and impress the hyper-critically palates of their guests. These were the sour-faced dragon's from the bowels of Hell its very self; lard-bucket Peter Griffin-lookalike Charles Campion ('The Godfather of British food critics', said India which, hopefully, doesn't mean he leaves horses heads in the bed's of people who give-a him a-no respect), 'hasn't got a good word to say about just about anybody or anything' Tracey MacLeod of the Independent and ... the, admittedly, quite funny when he puts his mind to it Jay Rayner from the Observer and The ONE Show. With one contestant due to leave at the end of the episode, the pressure was intense - up to, if you will, pressure-cooker levels in the MasterChef kitchen as timings were about to go awry, emotions take over, and dishes either exploded with flavour or crashed and burn. And not in a remotely good way. Skill. Of course, the  BBC continuity announcer promptly went and spoiled some of the ensuing tension by boldly announcing that Shelina has done well. Well, she didn't say that exactly but who else was going to be cooking 'Mauritian street food'?! Anyway ... the episode kicked-off with one of those little round-ups MasterChef often do of the contestants being filmed in their home and work environments. Shelina, we were told, has recently left her job as 'a diversity manager', whatever the hell one of those is. (How do you actually 'manage' diversity? I always thought that was a state of  being that just sort of happens organically.) Eamonn was, we were told, moving from working with timber to working with food. Andrew, a financial analyst (which, one would have thought these days consists of telling his clients 'you haven't got any finances, my analysis is, you're a bit cattled') was, he said, 'totally, unexplainably' taken with the possibilities of his progression in the competition. Tom is, apparently, still juggling the demands of plastering with the bish and bosh and slap-it-on-all-over and being in this here cookery show whilst Jay, the big Lancastrian security firm director, said that 'food is, like, me love,' and noted that he'd even started to get some of the bouncers who work for him interested in the cookery books he's buying. It was all very pleasant and amiable stuff. Shelina's occasional stroppiness when someone has the nerve to criticise her cooking aside, they all seem pleasant, thoroughly likeable gents - and lady - all of whom have clear, demonstrable talent. Now, it was time to show off what they could do.

Shelina's dishes were, for starters a Mauritian street-food platter. And, we knew from what that plank the continuity announcer had said, this was going to go down well. It, basically, consisted of chilli crab fishcake fritters with a coriander and mint chutney and dry shrimp. God, it sounded good. And it looked good. And, by the way everybody wolfed it down, it seemed to have tasted good too. Tracey MacLeod called it 'nice girl food.' Ice formed on the upper-reaches of Charles Campion at this point but he still seemed to quite enjoy the dish once he'd tasted it. Gregg described it as 'a ferocious rocket of taste in my mouth.' Job well done. Shelina's main was spiced monkfish on a red lentil dahl and tomato and coriander sauce. The critics liked it, although Jay felt is a 'a little restrained.' Gregg loved it but John wanted more chilli in the dahl and seemed disappointed. For dessert, Shelina cooked molasses ginger cake with vanilla tea ice cream and a rum and cardamom sauce. Again, this got everybody really excited with Campion virtually licking the plate at the end. Gregg even did a little happy dance after eating it. He'd already demonstrated his total Yo-boy hipness by giving Shelina a lengthy quotation from Lamont Dozier's 'Going Back to My Roots' (hey there, soul man!) Which Shelina didn't seem to recognise but congratulated him on his 'rap' apparently believing that he'd come up with it himself. He's a greengrocer, love, not an award-winning lyricist! There seemed little doubt at this stage that, whatever happened thereafter, Shelina was going straight through. Jay (Tinkler that is, not Rayner) was next. His starter was pan-fried cod with crushed minted peas, broad beans and pancetta. He slightly undercooked Tracey MacLeod's fish which, sort of, set the tone for much of what was to follow. Almost, almost, but not quite. When he's told Gregg that his main course was to be loin of venison with spiced pears, Brussels sprouts and chestnut purée, Gregg said this was 'bothering me more than a dodgy Christmas present from my nan.' I think that meant he was concerned this seemed a little left-field. In the end, like the fish, the meat was, ever so slightly, rare. 'I suspect if I put a few volts of electricity through it, I might get it to twitch,' said Jay Rayner, adapting a - rather good - joke from an episode of Spender, circa 1988 if you're interested in such minutia. (When Stick is presented to a plate of - very bloody - meat at a restaurant and told, by the waiter that it is, perhaps, 'a little rare', he replies: 'A little rare? A decent vet could have that bugger back up on its feet!' Ah, the late Sammy Johnson. A great miss.) Anyway, for Jay's dessert, there was vanilla panna cotta with pink grapefruit, stem ginger and crushed praline. Which didn't go down with pretty much anyone, the general consensus being that including the sharp grapefruit was a mistake (although Campion made various disparaging remarks about the presentation too). So, very much an 'almost but not quite' set of dishes for Jay. He seemed positive at the end but, you sensed, someone else was going to need to have a bad day for Jay to remain in the competition which he has so enhanced with his good old fashioned down-to-earth Northern blokery so far.

Next up was Tom, who started off with a seared tuna salad with wasabi, salmon roe, pickled ginger and beetroot jelly and anchovy toast. 'If I was to look up the word "concern" in the dictionary it'd have a picture of Tom,' said Gregg when he heard that. And, to be fair, it looked horrible when plated. 'It will either be magnificent or it will be ghastly' opined lard-bucket Campion. Neither John or Gregg seemed over impressed but, John said, he was willing to bet that the critics would enjoy it. And they did. Even Campion, much to his obvious sour-faced disapproval. The critics, clearly, thought Tom was a bit of a star, something confirmed by his next dish, spiced rack of lamb with an almond and apricot crust, crushed roasted potatoes, paprika and a pomegranate glaze. By this stage Tom could, quite simply, do no wrong even if he'd served them with a plate full of diarrhoea. His dessert, thankfully, wasn't that or anything remotely like it. It was, instead, a mango millefeuille and chocolate cheesecake with vanilla mousse and chocolate ganache and it almost got a round of applause. So, that was Tom through without any further debate! Then we came to Andrew. His opener was described as 'a new England Raviolo' which got Jay Rayner all cross and bolshy because he wanted to know what was in it. Actually it was a sort of scallop and potato ravioli with a chowder of clams and a sweetcorn velouté. Jay liked it. Tracey liked it. Campion tutted and said it 'too clever for its own good.' Jay disagreed. Which was funny. John and Gregg disagreed too. Which was even funnier. Next Andrew delivered a main of rack of lamb (another one) with a mint and nut crust, caleriac purée and rainbow chard. The critics, again, got a bit sniffy about it (lots of comments about it being, essentially, style-over-substance) but John and Gregg both thought it was great which was what really mattered. Andrew's dessert was black treacle tart with spiced ice cream and roasted crab apples. Having been very late with his first course, Andrew pulled it back on the next two dishes although he did almost cause John Torode to have an aneurysm by constantly on stopping to explain what was in his dish when he should have been plating up. It was clear from John and Gregg's comment that Andrew had also done easily enough to stay in the competition.

That left Eamonn, whose cooking and confidence have visibly grown through the various rounds. His starter was horseradish marinated mackerel with soda bread and garlic aioli. Lots of garlic in the aioli. That didn't go down well with the critics and even less well with John and Gregg, the former pulling faces like he'd just been forced to eat a dirty nappy full of cabbage water and tripe. He hated it. I mean loathed it with a vengeance. The main course was partridge breast with porcini mushrooms, bread sauce and game chips. None of which, quite, came off. The partridge was, everyone said, a bit dry, the bread sauce a bit thick (like wallpaper paste suggested MacLeod, unkindly and, you sensed, not that accurately). Campion, strangely, was the kindest judge. 'A near miss,' was his opinion. The dessert was banana sponge with ginger and thyme custard and a butterscotch sauce. Campion made noises about how he was the world's greatest custard lover but he would kill, with his bare hands, anybody that defiled it by putting thyme in it. Both MacLeod and Rayner were as snooty as they'd been all episode, the former describing the dish as being like something she'd give her children to hide an ingredient they didn't like eating and the latter, on a similar theme, noting 'if I was about nine I'd be really pleased to get this!' And, what's wrong with being nine, eh? The critics then left and it was down to John and Gregg to make the big decision.
With Shelina and Tom having floated, and Andrew walked, through it was between yer actual Keith Telly Topping's two favourites Big Blokey Jay and Big Blokey Eamonn for the final place. Both hadn't had very good days at the office. Both, one sensed, were capable of more. Both looked knackered. John and Gregg lined them up, milked the tension for a few minutes, and then announced that Eamonn was going home and Jay was through with the other three. The former was, obviously, very disappointed but was philosophical and gracious about the others and said that his journey to this point has been 'a ball.' Jay simply looked like he couldn't believe it. So, next up the final four are going to Thailand. Let's hope they don't try to carry any spices through Bangkok airport just in case.

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