Monday, 3 March 2008

Masterchef challenge - the write-up

The Scientist and I have been enjoying watching Masterchef over the last few weeks. It's a bit of an annual ritual in our house, and this year the finalists were all absolutely amazing. Any of them could have won, though we were privately backing James, who was the eventual winner. In case anyone hasn't watched this program since its bad old days in the 1990s, it's now a jazzed up, fun, but very high standard cooking competition, where amateur chefs cook up a storm for two judges. As the most successful contestants went through to later rounds they had to take on an increasingly diverse array of challenges, including devising a meal from a box of ingredients, cooking in a pro kitchen, catering for an army troop in Belize, cooking lunch for a big BBC cast on location, entertaining some of the top chefs in England, and catering for a posh wedding at Blenheim Palace. We love the chefs' creativeness, as well as their passion for what they're doing. This year's final was particularly noteworthy as it featured an eighteen-year-old who was more creative and imaginative in her cooking than you would ever imagine. I particularly loved her campfire-inspired final dessert, but her all-round skill was pretty awe-inspiring. And she had a place at Oxford, was brilliant at art, and seemed like a really nice person. Some people, eh?

After the final last Thursday I asked The Scientist if he would like a cooking challenge: to do a meal in the style of Masterchef. He accepted my challenge. [that was supposed to sound dramatic - not sure if I pulled it off]

The meal was kept a complete secret in advance, to the extent that he did his own private shop at Sainsbury's while I got the main weekly groceries. He did ask me to defrost as many blackberries as I would like in a hot drink, which completely foxed me. Only enough for me? What was he doing?? Some sort of individual mushroom soup and berry shot? Suffice to say I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

Since the Masterchef contestants are interviewed as they cook, I hung around the kitchen asking irritating questions as The Scientist prepped his veggies and got going with the meal. I'm pleased to report that he handled the pressure very well, even when he had lots of things reaching perfection at the same time. He said that his meal was worthy of Masterchef because of the planning, the quality ingredients, and the attention to presentation. Here is what he started out with:

The mug contains garlicky mayonnaise, and the leaves are rocket. The bread was an organic sunflower and honey roll. He also had some chopped red pepper and asparagus (v bad as from Peru, but he's allowed his own rules :) ), some eggs, and (most baffling of all, especially since I don't like coffee) some instant latte sachets.

The Scientist is a more creative cook than me - I like to follow recipes, whereas he likes to optimise an idea. He is also apparently much more regimented in his kitchen routines:

The whole meal was very well planned, and quite quick, once the prepping was done. He had to watch over numerous different cooking processes, but all reached perfection at the same time. Here's the finished product (his had smoked salmon instead of the mushrooms):

It's called 'Essence of Bill's Breakfast'. Bill's was our absolutely most favourite eating place in Lewes, where we used to live on the south coast. It's a posh grocery shop with a cafe, but that doesn't even begin to describe its laid-back atmosphere and amazingly good food. It had one long table down the middle where you sat elbow to elbow with other punters, and there were cook books and newspapers lying around that you could browse through as you waited, and even hot water bottles in the winter. The menu was full of fresh and well-cooked but quite simple dishes, and half the time you couldn't even identify the vegetables on your plate as they were so specialised. Sometimes this meant that they were pretty exotic, but the eponymous Bill and his staff seemed to be getting more actively involved with promoting locally-grown produce in recent years, which I was very pleased about. I used to love stopping by on my way home in the summer and picking up a few local apples or a bag of greengages from the boxes that spilled out onto the street. We both always had one of two favourites when we visited: for me, poached eggs on toast, or mushrooms on toast (hey, I'm a girl of simple tastes, and one of the best things about Bill's was that they did their breakfast menu all day), and for The Scientist, steak sandwich with grilled veggies and flavoured mayonnaise, or a full Bill's breakfast. To drink we'd either have fruit smoothies (always served with a huge wedge of melon, or a giant strawberry on the rim of the glass), or a hot fruit cordial for me, and a latte for The Scientist. It was a blissful treat on a lazy Saturday and we haven't a hope of finding a substitute in our new town. Sigh.

The Scientist's Masterchef meal was designed to capture the best bits of this experience. The eggs on toast and the mushrooms represented my favoured options (I am a complete nightmare to cook poached eggs for as they have to be just so, so he sensibly went for the scrambling option), while the griddled asparagus and peppers, and the garlicky mayonnaise were reminiscent of his steak sandwich. The rocket was a reminder of the obligatory frond of greenery which always adorned the plate, but was generally sadly left to one side - a whole branch of dill is not that appealing to eat rather than to smell! The berries, which had foxed me so much, were served in a fruity herbal tea for me, while he had a home-made instant version of his latte treat.

Just look at those luscious mushrooms!

Needless to say, it all tasted lovely, and because it was so simple all the flavours of the vegetables tasted beautifully fresh. What touched me most though, was the amount of thought he'd put into it all. I was particularly taken with the attention to detail in the drinks, which really did transform it from a posh brunch into the essence of Bill's. It might not be Raymond Blanc, but The Scientist is now reigning Masterchef champion in our house. We were going out to see a comedian the same night so we hadn't planned a dessert - in fact although Bill's did the most amazing desserts we were always too full to try them. Luckily, however, I had just decorated a batch of cupcakes (see the previous Mother's Day post), and since dolly mixture-studded fairycakes were always one of the options at Bill's, we did have a fitting if impromptu end to the meal. What would John and Gregg have said of The Scientist's meal? What they always say when they're pleased: 'He is cooking what he loves, using high quality ingredients. The man can cook!'


Tracy said...

Just a quick note to say that I can't believe I'm seeing "The Scientist" and "mushrooms" in the same post. Now THAT really is touching. I owe you an email, Lysy - will be in touch soon!

Lysy said...

Same post, definitely different plates! But very touching nonetheless. Give the junger Mann(?) a Barnyard Dance from me, and I'll look forward to that email!

Davy said...

Hi from JB(Junior Bro)