Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this

If you’ve looked at the “About” section at the top of the homepage, or even if you remember the week when we were making cakes inspired by The Great British Bake-off, then you’ll know that Professor Plum loves watching all the cooking shows. It seems like she’s not the only one as there’s only the tiniest of gaps between one series finishing and another show beginning. Nowhere is this more obvious than with MasterChef.

Since its 2005 reboot as MasterChef Goes Large (thankfully the “goes large” part was quickly dropped as it sounds ridiculous) MasterChef has grown and grown. 2006 saw the addition of Celebrity MasterChef, then MasterChef: The Professionals in 2008 and Junior MasterChef in 2010. You now hardly have to wait at all for another MasterChef to come around (especially since Professor Plum discovered MasterChef Australia, a show whose opening credits sequence is more gloriously cheesy than any food the contestants could ever cook, on freesat).

The most interesting version of the “cooking doesn’t get tougher than this” perennial is probably the Professional version where the standard of cooking is often incredibly impressive. For MasterChef: The Professionals shouty Australian John Torode is replaced as the judge paired with equally shouty potato faced costermonger Gregg Wallace by two Michelin starred Michel Roux Jr, part of the famous family of chefs.

Before they even get to meet the esteemed Franco-English chef, though, contestants must impress his sidekick and sous-chef Monica Galetti.Monica’s succession of bizarre and expressive facial contortions in reaction to some of the contestant’s odder choices is probably the high point of the competition at this stage. You can only assume that they really film most of these in later pick-ups as its hard to imagine any contestant not noticing her rubber faced look of disgust as they go about their preparations.

Monica GalettiMasterChef: The Professionals returned to our screen last week with its opening round – the Invention Test. Basically the contestants are given seven seemingly random ingredients and have to cook a dish with them within an hour. After watching this Professor Plum decided to challenge me to do the same. She would go to the supermarket and buy seven ingredients and I’d have an hour to cook something with them. This is what she came back with:

Invention Test

For anyone who can’t make out some of the details in that picture, my selection contained:

– Aubergine
– Beef shin and bone marrow
– Cherry tomatoes
– Dark chocolate
– Orange
– Red onion
– Ricotta

Confronted with this selection I reacted in the way I imagine many MasterChef contestants do: with a complete mental blank and blind panic. I had literally no idea what to do with these ingredients and an acute awareness that I hadn’t a great deal of time to come up with something. All the time that I spent thinking up things to do with the ingredients was less time actually to cook them.

Obviously these ingredient sets have always got flavours that work together. In fact, this series has added an extra bit where Monica shows off something far better than anything the contestants can come up with using the same ingredients, just to show it’s always possible. Obviously Professor Plum had considered this and a little bit of thought began to show some obvious options.

My first thought was to do a dessert. Chocolate and orange is a favourite pairing of mine and possibly a good reason why Professor Plum put that in there. I considered some sort of chocolate orange cheesecake, but soon made up my mind to make a main course instead. The deciding factor in this was distinctly un-MasterChefy. Simply we didn’t have a lot of other food in the fridge. If I didn’t use these ingredients to make our dinner’s main course then we’d just be eating dessert instead. Probably that’s not a concern for the people on the show.

Thinking about a main course dish, then, I thought to use the chocolate in conjunction with the beef as I’ve done before. However, that thought was quickly quashed by the variety of meat on offer. Shin is a cheap cut of meat that can have delicious results, but in order to achieve this it needs slow cooking for hours, just not a possibility in my limited time frame. I considered trying to make something work with the meat, but thinking that you can do something that normally takes multiple hours in the space of one is just about the biggest mistake contestants can make in this type of challenge.

The other potentially interesting element of the meat was the bone marrow. Waitrose (unlike the BBC I haven’t blanked out the branding on our products) gained quite a bit of publicity last month for their decision to start selling this, so it’s kind of a novelty, albeit one that years ago was far more common. Of course it’s the popularity of using unusual or old fashioned parts of meat on shows like MasterChef that has brought the likes of bone marrow into fashion and made it available in Waitrose.

The fact remained, though, that having never cooked with it before I didn’t really have much of a clue of what to do with bone marrow. It’s not like the confines of a challenge like this really allowed me to go spending my time looking up ideas and recipes, so I left it for another day (once again a consideration that is probably not part of the process on MasterChef).

Having rejected my normal comfort zones of meat and chocolate, then, I was left to make something vegetarian, which is as far from my comfort zone as things normally get for me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it took me until Professor Plum’s birthday cake ten weeks into starting writing this blog to make something suitable for vegetarians (and that included the week when I did ice cream and the one where it was chips). In 27 weeks of this blog I’ve made just 8 non-meat based things and 6 of those were desserts, leaving just two vegetarian savoury dishes. Vegetarians never go far on MasterChef as there is a feeling that really fine dining has got to have meat in it somewhere. Nevertheless, I felt a vegetarian savoury option was definitely the best way to go right here and now. Were I really competing in the show I would have a chance to make something meaty later.

LarderAll of these considerations went through my head and I hadn’t even started cooking yet. I’m fairly comfortable working with pastry, so I decided to make a tart with some of the vegetables and the cheese on offer.

MasterChef invention test contestants also get to utilise a larder of basic cooking essentials on top of the seven possible key ingredients. I asked Professor Plum what this constituted and she gave me the option to use: flour, sugar, eggs, milk, butter, salt, pepper, various herbs, oil and vinegar.

From the flour, butter and egg I went about making a basic shortcrust pastry and began to blind bake this in the oven, while I thought about what to fill it with. Now that I was getting on with the cooking it was easier to come up with ideas. I decided to make a layer of caramelised onions on the bottom of my tart and cover it with egg and some of the ricotta cheese before topping that with slices of tomato and a little basil. While my pastry cases cooked, then, I chopped and caramelised my onions and prepared the tart filling. It was a little tart so it would only take about 10-15 minutes to cook properly at the end.

Aubergine chipsI could then turn my attention to what to serve alongside my ricotta and caramelised onion tart. I still had the aubergine to use up. It’s only a couple of weeks since I last used aubergine on here and it did occur to me to stuff it again, as I had then, with tomato and red onion, but that seemed like repeating myself. Instead I decided, in the absence of having the option to serve anything with potato in, to make aubergine chips. For these, I chopped the aubergine into chunky square shapes, covered them in flour and seasoning and deep fried them until they were nicely brown.

Things were going well at this point and I wondered whether I might have decided to do something a little too simple for having a whole hour to do it in, but even simple things like peeling and chopping the vegetables were taking up time.

RelishIt was simple enough, though, that it needed another element. For this I decided to make a relish or salsa from the remaining red onion and tomato. At the last minute as I was mixing chunks of tomato and onion in the pan and adding sugar, I decided to use the last ingredient that wasn’t beef or chocolate – the orange, feeling it might add a little tangy sweetness that wouldn’t be at all unwelcome in the relish.

The cooking, then, went relatively easily, but I was failing in a big way on keeping a neat, tidy, professional kitchen and, as the hour’s end approached, I knew that were she here Monica would be pulling disapproving faces at my ability with presenting things. I guess Professor Plum would have to pull the disapproving faces instead.

The final thing I tried to do was to utilise the balsamic vinegar in my larder for an extra flavour to my plate. I tried to reduce it to the point it was thick enough to streak elegantly across the finished plate, but I was too busy getting the aubergine chips out of their hot fat and the vinegar burnt. There was no time to thicken a second batch meaning that I ended up with a splodge of vinegar over the plate. I was quite pleased to arrange the aubergine chips in a neat little jenga pattern as is the wont of posh chips, but otherwise the presentation was no way up to TV chef standards.

Ricotta and tomato tart

But how did it taste? Had I managed to improvise something in an hour that made a palatable dinner?

On the whole, yes. My pastry came out fine and the caramelised onions enlivened what may have been a rather bland cheese tart otherwise. The aubergine chips were not amazing in taste, but contributed to the texture and the orange I added to the relish really kicked its flavour up a level. None of it was incredible, but it was a decent job with the time and ingredients available. Next time, Monica and potato faced Gregg would say, work on your presentation. Next week maybe I will.

PlumProfessor Plum in the Dining Room: I was working most of the evening, so I didn’t get to stalk around the kitchen shouting “Five Minutes!” or pulling my Monica faces, which was a shame. Choosing beef shin for the ingredients was a bit of an oversight, since it takes so long to cook (to be honest, I chose it mainly for the marrow – people are always doing weird things with bone marrow on Masterchef) but it did mean we got that rarest of the rare on a competitive cooking show: a veggie meal. The tart was nice, but not stunning; the aubergine chips were an interesting incorporation, if a little soft; but overall it was the salsa that really elevated the dish, the orange really taking it up a level. His area was a mess and his presentation needs a little work, but I’d like to see Colonel Mustard cook again. He’s through to the the next round.

3 thoughts on “Testing Invention

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