Wednesday, April 14, 2010

master meals, week 1: jimmy bradley's orzo lentil salad

So today's post introduces our first weekly feature on Garlicus Maximus: a dinner featuring a recipe from one of that week's Top Chef Masters competitors. I'm calling it Master Meals. (I'm sorry if that's unspeakably corny, but I kinda like it.)

Nathan's Top Chief pose

I've been a fan of Top Chef since its second season, and it actually was a big influence on me as I began cooking more and more. The Masters spin off is arguably better than the original, as the chefs are way less bitchy and competitive. Much of that stems from the fact that they are established and successful chefs, and are playing for charity, rather than to jump start their careers with nationwide exposure and prize money. There also seems to be a great camaraderie between all these culinary giants, and it is great to see how much they all respect and admire each other's different cuisines. The challenge of our Master Meals will be to find recipes from these great chefs that can be easily prepared by the home chef, aka Nathan and me. Needless to say, I don't expect we'll be making anything of molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne's, but I hope we can find some cool things to cook.

The season actually started last week, but I had a job interview so Nathan and I were not able to prepare our first Master Meal until Sunday night. While finding the time to cook was tricky, selecting a cheftestant was easy. My parents took us to the Red Cat for my birthday last month, and we were just blown away by the Jimmy Bradley's food and the restaurant as a whole. I especially loved that everything I read about Bradley's approach to cooking and dining echoed what we had experienced at the Red Cat. A "purveyor of straightforward, occasionally irreverent, food, and contagious conviviality, all of it wrapped up in an attitude-free package"? Yep, that was our meal in a nutshell. Not to mention the incredibly solicitous and helpful staff! As Bradley said himself in this (otherwise somewhat boring) interview, "All of my restaurants are chef-driven. Everything starts from the kitchen. My places aren’t about what’s fabulous, exclusive, and snooty. Customer service is a top priority, too. I concentrate on anticipating guest needs and recovering when we fail — we need to know what you need before you need it, and when we do make a mistake, we should be able to make up for it easily." I can say from first hand experience he's made that vision a reality.

For our Jimmy Bradley Master Meal, I found this recipe for Lentil and Orzo Salad. It seemed easy but tasty, with tomatoes, cucumbers, toasted almonds and fresh herbs. I basically picked it because I was intrigued by the french lentils, which Nathan's stepsister Helen had recently blogged about with great enthusiasm. I didn't know where I'd get them, but I happened to take Matt to the Chelsea Market on Friday, where recent addition the nut box was serendipitously selling them for only $2.50 a bag. Because the dish called for mint leaves, it seemed natural to pair it with lamb chops, which we rubbed with mustard, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper before pan frying. I also decided that I needed to try my hand at mojitos, my favorite cocktail, the result of which was incredibly exciting and satisfying and summery. We rounded out the meal with some cumin roasted carrots, which I'll be covering in depth on another post.

lamb chop, orzo, and a sprig of mint

As much as I would have liked our inaugural Master Meal to be an unqualified success, the recipe wasn't all that exciting. I wouldn't call it a dud, necessarily, but it was a little bland and forgettable. Nathan and I both felt that the lentils seemed out of place in a pasta salad, like they were a very conscious attempt to add protein to a vegetarian dish. The toasted almonds were a nice touch, but there were so few of them that they were easily overlooked. It also probably didn't help that the out of season tomatoes were flavorless pink mush. I also would have added way way more basil, and maybe some red peppers or a crumbly cheese or something. As Nathan pointed out, it's easy to make a good orzo salad, and we could easily improve on this one, perhaps even at the Whole Foods salad bar. I'm sorry to say that I wouldn't recommend this recipe.

orzo and french lentil salad

Unfortunately for Bradley, his time on Top Chef Master's went much the same way. While his seared lamb carpaccio salad was beloved by the judges, they found his partner, Gorvind Armstrong, had a prepared a rather dry and boring lamb chop. Sadly, the team finished in third place. I had been rooting for Bradley to move on to the Champions round, but I'm looking forward to seeing more of winners, Tony Mantuano and Susan Feniger. Meanwhile, for a Bradley fix I can just head back to the Red Cat, or try swinging by the Harrison. As for the rest of the French lentils, maybe I'll try Helen's sausage recipe before the weather gets much warmer.

Tonight's episode looks like it is featuring some heavy hitters, and I'm looking forward to it. After work, Nathan and I are meeting at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods to shop, and then we'll head up to his place to cook, eat, and "watch what happens." We've already selected our second Master Meal, and I'm excited to say we'll be preparing a dish by the one and only David Burke! Stay tuned to find out what it is!