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Hungry Woman

Jamie Lauren doesn't care to eat vegetarian, and makes a confession about her childhood eating habits.

By Jamie Lauren

OK. This one is going to be fun for me, especially after my blog two weeks ago that was a complete and total homage to the pig and all of it's glory. I bet you all can imagine how I feel about vegetarians. Let's put it this way: I was a vegetarian once in my life. It lasted about a week. I dated a vegetarian once in my life; that lasted about a week. I think that bacon is the best thing in the universe. I am clearly not vegetarian-friendly, no matter how hot Natalie Portman might be. So that being said, this episode made me laugh, and made feel fortunate not to be in the chefs' shoes (except, I would have LOVED that TV dinner challenge). I hate cooking for vegetarians. You may not realize how difficult it is, but it really sucks. Soups are easy, making a vegetarian pasta is easy, but coming up with a hearty, well-balanced, all vegetable entree is really, really tough. There are times at Absinthe that I have customers who can't eat certain things due to allergies, dietary restrictions, or personal preference, and they always want us to make them something special. For the most part I always oblige, even when I am being slammed because that's what we do as chefs. We are here to please our customers and make them happy. However, not going to say that it isn't a challenge, especially since most of our stuff is pre-prepped during the day and may include some sort of meat stock, or cream (for the word I hate to mutter: vegan). Vegan is way worse. The chefs should be stoked they didn't have to deal with that.

But first, let's discuss the Quickfire Oh my god ...TV dinners ... I loved it! I grew up on those suckers, well, before the cholesterol scare of the mid-'80s and then we weren't allowed to eat anything from a tray, but I was obsessed with the Hungry Man Salisbury steak dinner (I can't believe I am admitting this on a Web site). I loved the awfully overcooked green beans, the pasty mashed potatoes, the bizarre excuse for a dessert which was usually some sort of berry or apple crumble, and of course the piece d'resistance: the Salisbury steak. Ask me now what Salisbury steak is and I could hardly tell you, even as a chef. I remember once trying to replicate it years ago, but I couldn't come close without it becoming too chef-like. This was a Quickfire right up my alley. I thought that Kevin really nailed the Sopranos with the meatballs and cauliflower and it all looked great, and Micheal V. also put together a delicious-looking TV dinner for Cheers (though I think I would have went with something a bit more bar foodish). I didn't quite understand Robin's dish. It didn't make a whole lot of sense to me in relation to Sesame Street and that burger looked hideous. Jennifer's tray looked a little disappointing as well, and that pea salad was kind of weak. Seems like she threw this one away, or at least gave up a little. Bryan's meatloaf also looked good, and his definitely fit in with the TV dinner theme.

Now here's the funny thing about Top Chef: nothing is ever what it seems, and the fact the chefs actually thought that they were just going to roll into Craftsteak and make whatever they wanted is hilarious to me. There is always a curveball, and the producers sure know how to throw them, and what a better way of doing it then to turn a steakhouse into a farmer's market for a night? I literally laughed out loud when Natalie Portman came walking into the kitchen. I have known she was a vegetarian for years (yes, I read People magazine, so sue me). I knew exactly what was going to roll off her tongue, and the looks on the chefs' faces were priceless. The good thing is that there were a lot of great vegetable options in the walk-in. I love fresh garbanzos, and was excited to see them on the show. However, I wish Robin used them in a different way as opposed to just tossing them on the plates (well, some of the plates). Also, the fact that they had access to items like garlic blossoms, wild asparagus, Brussels sprouts, fennel, and wild mushrooms made it exciting to see what they came up with.

Kevin's idea of smoking the kale was very smart. Smoke is a great tool to use, especially for vegetables, because it adds an element of depth that makes you think of meat, because a lot of items that are smoked usually come from an animal. However, I think it would have been kind of cool to smoke the mushrooms instead. They are really porous and I think they would have had a super interesting flavor if they were smoked (in fact, I might try that ... never had a smoked mushroom before. Think of the possibilities: smoked mushrooms with scallops, smoked mushroom soup ... blah blah blah.). Another one who impressed me was Picasso. Banana polenta? Never heard of it, never would think of putting those two things together, but I it worked. I can't imagine what it must taste like to have banana polenta, asparagus, and tomato on a plate, but apparently the judges liked it because he ended up in the top three. I do have to say, I was most impressed with Eli though. For the first time I thought he really created an awesome looking dish, and I hate eggplant, but the idea of confiting it and then serving it over lentils with that fresh, crisp radish salad just seemed so smart. He had all different textures on the plate. He used a vegetable that is hearty and meaty and then he paired it with garlic puree, which for me was my favorite part. I swear I could live off garlic, and when it is cooked down and pureed it becomes so sweet and delicious, almost like candy on the plate. I was impressed. I think the top three really nailed the vegetarian challenge. They created well-balanced (which is key), flavorful, beautifully-presented dishes that deserved to be in the winner's circle.

On the other hand, I have to say that I was less impressed with some of the other chefs. Surprised a little to see Bryan and Jenn still sitting in the Stew Room, but not at all surprised by Mike I. and Robin. I think the two of them had the worst of the dishes of the episode, and that one of them will probably be departing. Mike's leek looked vapid and tasteless, like he boiled it or steamed it. Leeks are so lovely and there are so many ways to make them taste delicious. His just didn't seem to cut it, and the carrot puree, although pretty in color, seemed to have nothing to do with a big hunk of leek. Where was the tie-in? How did these ingredients play off each other? It seemed like they were just put on the plate for the sake of going on the plate. Then there's Robin, who shaved some beets, stuffed a limp looking squash blossom with mushroom and added a lot of salt, so who deserves to go home? I can't imagine it would be Jenn or Bryan, so my guess is that it may finally be Robin's turn. After all, I know A LOT about over-salting, and I know best that it doesn't fly on Top Chef.

PS: I do read all your comments. I can't respond, but if you wanna try and chat or something like that hit me up on Twitter. I do my best to respond to people when they have questions. It's @chefjamielauren. Thanks for reading!

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