When I was about eight years old a new food company sent my mom --- a food writer and cooking teacher -- a large crate of frozen dinners to write about in her weekly newspaper column. Opening that crate was a true revelation for my older brothers and me. Until that moment, we never knew food could come broken into four separate compartments: for green beans, mashed potatoes, roast turkey doused in gravy and, finally, a small cherry crumble -- all ready in less than 20 minutes.
How it all tasted (synthetic and terribly overcooked) was beside the point. What mattered to us was how fun it was. Now, without supervision, we could prepare dinner ourselves without relying on Mom and eat it right in front of the TV! For at least a week, my poor mother had a hard time getting us to eat anything else.
The frozen food industry has matured a great deal since then. The choices available are a far cry from those classic TV dinners of my childhood. Bertolli is just one of many food companies that, in recent years, have mastered the technology of Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) foods. The process, which freezes each individual ingredient of a dish separately before packaging them together for sale, not only prevents excess moisture from accumulating and creating large ice crystals on food (otherwise known as freezer burn), it also preserves the integrity of each ingredient, allowing it to maintain its freshness and flavor longer. This results in a much higher quality frozen product than previously available.
Bertolli has taken the technology one step further by creating a product that gives its customers the satisfaction of finishing the dish on the stovetop with a quick stir and the addition of a garnish or two. This creates the comforting illusion of preparing a home-cooked meal. The re-creation of this sense of accomplishment, combined with the convenience of a 10-minute pasta dinner, was what we had in mind for this episode's Elimination. It was the first challenge I can recall where several of the contestants actually failed to understand what was required of them and, in turn, were unable to complete the challenge properly. I cannot tell if this was because they did not pay attention to the instructions and the time allotted, or if they were so worried about getting the task done that they forgot to do it well. Either way, I loved watching this episode after the fact. It really gives us all a sense of our contestants' personalities
. I really enjoyed sampling both CJ and Tre's Black Truffle & Parmesan Linguini with Grilled Chicken, Tuscan Kale and Tomato Confit, as well as Casey and Dale's Turkey & Pork Meatballs with Orecchiette, Vegetables and Spinach Almond Pesto. The question of whether or not all their ingredients were found in the Mediterranean region did not bother me.
At least they were from the general vicinity. You could tell that these dishes were cooked by individuals who were able to work together toward a common goal. That, to me, is what matters most.
Both dishes were well prepared. The ideas behind them were apparent; the ingredients tasted fresh. You could see that this team understood how to make a frozen pasta dish. Food always reflects when the kitchen it comes from has direction and focus. CJ and Tre won this challenge not just because their food was delicious, winning the vote of many Fresh Market customers, but also because they were able to cleanly execute the idea of IQF cooking. The still-frozen meatball issue Rocco had with Casey and Dale's dish definitely put CJ and Tre in the lead. Furthermore, CJ and Tre were the only team that had enough insight to take advantage of the hour they were given on the day of the challenge for re-assembling and packing their individual ingredients. They had every right to be as confident in their meal as they were. I hope they are able use their winning trip to go to Italy during truffle season!
It was no coincidence that the two teams that failed to get along served the weakest food. Howie and Sara M's Mediterranean Shrimp Pasta with Fennel & Sundried Tomato Vinaigrette suffered not only from including too many competing flavors, but also from overcooking. Since they did not use the IQF method, it went into the pan in one big chunk, which they cooked on far too high a flame, and therefore could not control the doneness of their ingredients. They also could not control each other!
Hung and Joey's Tri-colored Fusilli with Chicken and Garlic Sun-dried Tomato Sauce had many of the same problems. It went into the freezer in one frozen batch and came out of the pan a muddled, overcooked mush that lacked flavor and originality. Joey was sent home because he could not comprehend what was required of him in this challenge. Regardless of what Hung may have intended for their food, the end result is what we are forced to judge. Their dish's failure was obviously due to Joey's narrow-mindedness. I was sorry to see him in such a state at the end of the episode, as I thought he brought a lot to the show. That night, his passion seemed to get the better of him. I am sure Cafe des Artistes was happy to have him back, and I wish him well with whatever he chooses to do next. Let's just hope he stays away from the frozen food aisle.