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Notes on Notes

Tom talks about pairing Pinot with pig, and where Ash went wrong.

By Tom Colicchio

Having just come back from the Southeast, where pig is a mainstay, I’m primed and ready to talk about this week’s challenge, cooking for Charlie Palmer’s “Pig and Pinot” fundraiser. It’s a big event, and it’s great that Charlie lent it to the show. My ten-week old baby is smiling away at me as I type this … I suspect he’s going to like both pig and Pinot down the road as much as his dad does.

About the pairings aspect of this week’s challenge: Pinot Noir is a very complex grape. It can be very feminine, with sweet, bright red notes like strawberries or cherries, or it can go to barnyard complexity (as Toby was trying to articulate) with cooked fruits and wet hay-like notes … and it runs everything in between. Chocolate notes, leather notes, stewed fruits, tar … all kinds of stuff. Charlie hit on it very quickly in the episode, saying that you can either work with “opposites” or “similars”: so many of the chefs used cherries in their dishes because by doing so they were echoing what they found in the wine. The other way is to go the complete opposite, as when pairing an eggplant-colored dress with an acid-yellow clutch (my wife tells me). Just as opposites really do attract with people, opposite flavors in a wine and a dish can often complement one another very well. So it was fun to see what our cheftestants would discover in their pinots and how that would translate into the choices they made with their food.

I also really liked the challenge because it used all the parts of the animal. You treat the belly very differently than the leg, the loin very differently than the shoulder, so this challenge highlighted the versatility of this animal … if not the chefs.

What do I mean by this? Well, for example, a shoulder has a lot of connective tissue and collagen, so you’d want to braise or confit it, to break down those collagens or connective tissues. When done correctly, this can yield a more flavorful piece of meat than some of the easier ones like loins or chops, which could go for a quick roasting or grilling. In general, the animal takes smoke well. It can go Asian, Italian, Korean, or All-American such as BBQ. These are the reasons that, as I stated above, this was a great challenge for showcasing the abilities of the remaining chefs.

Michael and Bryan upped their own stakes: because they had both worked for Charlie before, they felt they had to perform well to impress him, and thus they put themselves under a great deal of additional pressure. With his root beer braised pork cheek, Michael was clearly going for the various notes in the wine and was introducing them into the dish. Kevin also turned the heat up under himself, feeling that because he had put himself forth to in this competition as “the pig guy,” nothing short of the win would be acceptable. Luckily for them, these three are good competitors; not only do they not buckle under pressure, they actually do perform better.

I think you’re seeing by now, as evidenced by Kevin’s win this week, that when we judge the Elimination Challenges, we’re not getting snowed by the “fancy” cooking of the two brothers. Kevin has made consistently smart and strong choices in his approaches to the challenges in this competition, and he did so again here. Kevin had drawn the leg of the pig to work with. There are a few things one could do. For example, one could have roasted the whole thing, or steamed it out and then sliced it into cutlets and made a schnitzel. Kevin went very simple: he chose to grind up the whole thing and make a pate, a terrine. It was kind of risky, actually, as a terrine really needs to be made well in advance to let it cure and let the flavors blend. Another potential pitfall is that while a terrine seems like a simple thing – basically a cold meat-loaf – you need to make sure that everything (and I mean everything) is very, very cold when you’re grinding it – the pork, the blade, everything – so that you’re actually cutting it and not just making mush. And, finally, a terrine needs to be seasoned well from the get-go; you can’t cook it and adjust the seasoning at the end. It is thus deceptively simple while actually requiring finesse and skill in execution on several levels to pull off well. Kevin had that skill. Further, Kevin knew from having visited the Sokol Blosser Vineyards that there were hazelnut trees on the property. As wine grapes can often take on the flavor of something they’re growing near, and there may have been a very slight hazelnut note in his wine, Kevin very smartly incorporated hazelnuts into his dish. He also used just a tiny bit of cherry, just the right amount to be in balance with the wine.

Let’s contrast this with Laurine’s dish. Laurine opted to make a pork butt rillette, but the problem was that she didn’t know how to make it. She thought it was a braised meat. No, no, no – you confit it in pork fat first, so that the water is forced out and is replaced with fat. After you’ve completely cooked the meat over several hours on a low temperature submerged in fat, you take it out, whip it up with a fork (or a mixer with a paddle), slowly incorporating more of the fat with which you cooked it, and you end up with very lush, rich, unctuous meat. By just braising it, Laurine wound up with a stringy, watery dish. She really screwed up. Charlie and I both hit on it right away, asking her, “You braised it, didn’t you?” At least her chutney and salad were quite good.

As for why Ash’s dish was even worse (which it was … even if Dana did say that she thought the texture of Laurine’s dish was like cat food … which it wasn’t), at least Laurine managed to get some flavor out of her dish. Ash had a prime piece of pork – the loin – and while I’m all about simple food, that loin was barely seared, slightly overcooked, and barely seasoned. All in all, in Ash’s, we wound up with a dish that we did not expect from this competition. Plainly put, it was just not good. Just because Mike Isabella suggested that Ash cook something cold ...? C’mon. Ash could’ve roasted the pork loin whole with herbs, wrapped it in bacon, and served it with polenta and bitter greens, and it could’ve been a great dish. Instead we were served something very bland and not very pork-y, that didn’t work at all with the wine with which he was supposed to pair it. Ash spent his time in this competition telling us that he had not yet had a chance to cook “his own food,” yet looking around at all times to see what everyone else was doing instead of just presenting his own style. He’s been very unsure of himself, has second-guessed himself throughout, and that lack of confidence has come out in his food; his cooking has not only been tentative in feel but in flavor. And never more so than in this challenge.

From here on out, we are almost at a point in the competition where you’re either in the top or the bottom; there’s almost no middle left. At this point, any mistake could really get you sent home. You almost have to hope that if you’ve made a mistake, someone else has made a bigger blunder. Remember that anyone could go at this point … this isn’t a cumulative competition ....

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