Though Top Chef Masters might sound like a head-to-head battle between the former finalists of all the previous Top Chef seasons, this spinoff instead pits some of the country’s most renowned chefs against each other in the familiar “quickfire” and elimination challenges for the benefit of the charity of the winning chef's choice. The first episode aired this week, and according to Twitter, it was the highest rated debut of any series that has ever premiered at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday on the Bravo network. Way to go.
The level of experience and professionalism of the chefs might preclude the trash talking and petty dramas that help make the regular series so fun to watch, but it was definitely refreshing to see these contestants behaving maturely, dealing in a respectful manner with the critiques of Girl Scouts and the difficulties of cooking in dorm room toaster ovens, instead of whining like little bitches. But the whole rating system with the stars—from 1 to 5, including 1/2 stars, like in a restaurant review, for a possible 20 stars after averaging the scores from the quickfire challenge and then adding the ratings of the three judges after the elimination challenge—is cumbersome, clearly. Who wants to do math while they’re watching TV?
Dinner on the table
Anyway, being that my brother Daniel hosted the season finale of Top Chef last February, it was my turn to have him over for the Top Chef Masters premiere. And not to be outdone by his fabulous Indian feast, I cooked up a Southeast Asian spread featuring Thai grilled chicken with hot and sweet dipping sauce, a Yunnanese take on mapo tofu flavored with ground pork and chile oil, and a chile-spiced cucumber salad.
All the recipes were from Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (not to be confused with Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet by Top Chef’s own Padma Lakshmi).
A cookbook for the coffee table
Measuring nearly 2 feet across when open and weighing over 5 pounds, it’s really more a coffee table book than a practical everyday cooking guide. But the recipes, each of which includes a tidbit about its specific region or an anecdote about the dish, are superbly written and easy to follow. Just look at the results.
Grilled chicken with hot and sweet dipping sauce
The best part, of course, is the leftovers. Nathan decided to skip the salad for his lunch the next day, so I used the spicy cucumbers in a banh mi–inspired baguette sandwich.
Leftovers two ways
Here are recipes for some of the above dishes, from Hot Sour Salty Sweet:
LUSCIOUS CHILE-OIL TOFU
1 Tbs peanut or vegetable oil
3 scallions, trimmed, smashed flat with the side of a cleaver, cut lengthwise into strips, and then cut crosswise into 1-inch lengths
1/4 cup (about 2 oz) ground pork
4 blocks fresh tofu (about 1 1/2 lbs), cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 to 3 Tbs Hot Chile Oil (recipe follows, or store-bought)
1 tsp salt, plus a pinch
1/8 tsp freshly ground Sichuan pepper, or more to taste*
1 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in 1 Tbs water
Place all the ingredients near your stovetop. Heat a wok over high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat, then toss in the scallions, reduce the heat to medium-high, and stir-fry briefly. Add the pork and stir-fry, breaking up any clumps with your spatula, until it has all changed color, about 1 minute. Pour off any water that has drained out of the tofu cubes and add the tofu, chile oil, salt, and pepper to the wok. Raise the heat, turn the ingredients gently to mix well, and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Stir the cornstarch paste, add to the wok, stir to blend, and cook for another 20 to 30 seconds until the sauce thickens.
Turn out on to a plate or into a shallow bowl. Serve hot or at room temperature, to accompany rice or noodles.
Serves 3 to 4 with rice and one or more other dishes
*I don't have Sichuan pepper so I used freshly ground black pepper.
HOT CHILE OIL
1/2 cup peanut or vegetable oil
3 Tbs dried red chile flakes
Heat the oil in a wok or skillet. As soon as it starts to smoke, toss in the chile flakes, taking care not to splash yourself, and remove from the heat. Let stand until completely cool, then transfer to a clean dry glass jar and store in a cool place. If you wish, in several days you can strain out the chiles and store them separately or discard them, leaving you with just a gleaming orange hot oil.
Makes about 1/2 cup oil
GRILLED CHICKEN WITH HOT AND SWEET DIPPING SAUCE
2 Tbs Pepper-Coriander Root Flavor Paste (recipe follows)
2 to 3 Tbs Thai fish sauce
3 pounds chicken breasts or breasts and legs, chopped into 10 to 12 pieces
Hot and Sweet Dipping Sauce (recipe follows)
Place the coriander root paste in a large bowl and stir in the fish sauce. Place the chicken pieces in the marinade and turn to coat well. Let stand, covered, at room temperature for about 1 hour or in the refrigerator for as long as 3 hours.
Heat a grill or preheat the broiler. If using a grill, place the chicken pieces 4 to 5 inches from the flame, bone side down, and grill until the bottom side is starting to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Then, turn over and cook until golden brown on the other side and the juices run clear when the meat is pierced.
If using a broiler, put the chicken pieces in a lightly oiled broiling pan, bone side up, place 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the chicken is starting to brown. Turn the pieces over and broil for another 8 minutes, or until the juices run clear.
Transfer the chicken pieces to a platter and serve with the dipping sauce and plenty of sticky rice.
Serves 6 as part of a rice meal
PEPPERCORN-CORIANDER ROOT FLAVOR PASTE
2 tsp black peppercorns
5 to 6 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped (about 2 Tbs)
3 Tbs coarsely chopped coriander roots*
Pinch of salt
1 tsp Thai fish sauce
Place the peppercorns in a mortar with the garlic and pound to a paste. Add the coriander roots and salt and pound to a paste. This will take 5 to 10 minutes; if you have a small blender or other food grinder that can produce a smooth paste, use it instead. Stir in the fish sauce. Store in a well-sealed glass jar; this keeps for 4 days.
Makes 2 to 3 Tbs paste
*I don't know where to find coriander with the roots still attached, so I just used coarsely chopped stems.
HOT AND SWEET DIPPING SAUCE
1/2 cup rice or cider vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 to 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
Place the vinegar in a small nonreactive saucepan and heat to a boil. Add the sugar, stirring until it has completely dissolved, then lower the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle or a bowl and the back of a spoon, pound or mash the garlic and salt to a smooth paste. Stir in the pepper flakes and blend well. Remove the vinegar mixture from the heat and stir in the garlic paste. Let cool to room temperature. Store sealed in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Makes about 1/2 cup sauce