'I don't really want to eat this'
MASTER CHEF:It looks easy enough on TV, but cooking unfamiliar ingredients under the close scrutiny of ‘MasterChef’ judges is a challenging task, as three ‘Irish Times’ staff members discovered, writes MARIE-CLAIRE DIGBY
'DON’T BLAME US for that Heroshima of a plate.”
“I don’t really want to eat this.” “For me it’s a definite no.”
“It’s very hard to say anything positive about this.”
Chef Dylan McGrath, presenter and judge on MasterChef Ireland, along with restaurateur Nick Munier, is not sparing the feelings of the three Irish Times staff members gamely taking part in a mystery ingredients cook-off just like those undertaken by contestants on the popular television show which begins its second season next Thursday night.
All three contestants are keen and competent cooks – web designer Chris Carpenter makes his own charcuterie; sub-editor Joyce Hickey is a spice specialist, and Alison Healy is this newspaper’s food and farming correspondent.
Even so, there’s a frisson of trepidation in the classroom at Cooks Academy when we assemble for this “fun” challenge. The contestants have two hours to produce “a well presented, well cooked plate of food, of a standard you’d be pleased to serve in a restaurant”, according to Munier.
Sounds easy doesn’t it? But it’s not. Nerves get in the way and even Carpenter, who has gone to the effort of bringing his own knives with him, and outwardly looks completely in control, admits to being overawed.
When they lift the lid on their boxes of ingredients, there’s consternation. It contains a pigeon, port, plums, figs, ricotta, goats’ milk, gelatine, filo pastry, celeriac, kale and honey. Not the most user-friendly set of ingredients, but Munier is kind and helpful towards the stunned trio, who are completely thrown by the bird. “If you’re scared of it, don’t cook it,” is his sage advice. “But that would be unbrave,” says non-meat-eater Joyce Hickey, as she gamely sets to work on the carcass.
So whose idea was it to select this rather challenging set of ingredients? Karen Convery, food consultant and home economist for the TV series, says that she wanted an autumnal theme and picked pigeon because she didn’t want a “run of the mill” meat.
“I was thinking of the Moroccan dish pastilla , while leaving the selection open enough to make a range of different dishes, such as seared pigeon breast with celeriac mash and port jus, with roast figs or plums. The ingredients could also be used for a large range of desserts: fig, honey and ricotta tarts, plum crumble, pannacotta, creme brûlée or cheesecake.”
And the goat’s milk? “We used goat’s milk several times during the series and I put it in there to see if any of the more adventurous cooks would use it.”
Asked what he would have cooked with the given ingredients, McGrath says he would have brushed the filo pastry sheets with olive oil and sprinkled them with rosemary, before baking them off and topping them with onions Lyonnaise, cooked separately. He’d have cooked the pigeon “properly”, taking the legs off and cooking them slowly in the oven in olive oil, and panfrying the breasts, before serving the crisp onion tart and “pink” pigeon with gently poached figs.
Easier said than done, and our three cooks definitely think they’ve been thrown a curve ball. But when the contestants on the forthcoming series of MasterChef face a similar challenge, it’s even more ruthless. Invited to bring their own box of ingredients into the kitchen, they then find they’re instructed to swap places and have to cook with someone else’s selection.
“They’re a much more serious, more mature bunch than last year,” Munier says of the final 16 who made it through to this year’s contest, from an initial entry of 1,500. “Mary was the winner from the outset last year. This year somebody starts off well, then they falter and someone else comes up trumps,” he says, while admitting that it’s very difficult to keep the outcome of the pre-recorded series a secret.
As for our three contestants – well, they’re all champions. You can read their accounts of taking part in a MasterChef challenge overleaf.
The first episode of the second series of MasterChef Ireland is on RTÉ TWO next Thursday night at 9.30pm
Food and farming correspondent
I WAS AN avid follower of MasterChef last year. I marvelled as they opened their mystery box of ingredients and said I would never, ever, ever do a thing like that.
I love to cook, but only with a book before me, following the recipe religiously from beginning to end, right down to the artfully arranged sprig of rosemary on top.
I’ve never approached an artichoke, sallied with samphire or roasted a rabbit, but I felt strangely relaxed about the prospect. How bad could it be really? Then we opened the boxes. There was a small bird I couldn’t identify, a large vegetable I’d never seen before and a fruit that didn’t look familiar. Oh, and some really useful everyday ingredients like gelatine and goat’s milk. I had entered the seventh circle of hell.
I stared in wild panic at the bird for five minutes, willing it to rise up and tell me what to do with it. But it sat there obstinately, bony legs clenched in the air.
Nick Munier took pity on me, identified the bird as a pigeon and introduced me to the celeriac and figs. Sensing my unbridled fear, he suggested trying things such as using the port in a reduction. The only reduction I would make was in the size of the pigeon after I had roasted it.
Munier was the good cop. Luckily, the bad cop in the form of Dylan McGrath was late arriving which gave me ample time to relax while simultaneously overcooking the pigeon. It was an unappetising, greyish colour when I plopped it on my workstation. The bad cop prodded it unenthusiastically and ordered me to put it in the freezer to stop it cooking in its own heat. The good cop suggested wrapping it in tinfoil. Ten minutes later I removed it from the freezer and McGrath berated me for wrapping it up. I would add to his irritation later by reheating the unfortunate pigeon breasts on the pan before plating up.
Undaunted, I pressed on, boiling the celeriac in milk to make a mash. The figs, plums, port and honey were combined to make a jam for the pigeon and I fried some grated carrot in butter to add a bit of colour and divert attention from the grey-looking pigeon. While grating the carrots, I sliced my knuckle. It was nothing serious but when the Cooks Academy staff asked me as a matter of routine if I needed to go to the hospital, I briefly wondered if it would be more enjoyable to spend six hours in the AE department or face the ire of McGrath.
The judging was not to be my finest moment. Munier praised the presentation and liked the fig jam. Dylan McGrath looked at my plate as though it was something he had stepped on in the park. He said it was a “definite no” from him, at least twice, and went on to say other bad things, but I chose to block them out in case I became too traumatised to ever hold a saucepan again.
What did I learn from the day? Munier is strangely attractive in real life. McGrath’s sardonic persona is not a media construction. And anyone who volunteers for MasterChef is either extremely brave, or foolhardy. Or perhaps a bit of both.
‘YES’, I SAID, ‘YES, I’m definitely game for a morning of MasterChef.’ But I didn’t know, when I cycled through a flock of foraging pigeons on my way into the challenge, that they would have the last laugh.
And there, in the box, was the little dark bird, summoning my nine-year-old self. I recoiled at the memory of braces of pheasant, frequent gifts from my parents’ friend, which used to hang in our garage staring sunkenly until they were casseroled. I wasn’t keen to cook a pigeon; I had no idea how to handle it and I certainly wasn’t going to eat it. But, as it was clearly the point of the exercise, I roasted it in a pan with port and juniper berries and at the end I made a sauce with the reduced juices and a squirt of honey.
A tart, I said, I’ll make a tart. Let’s set the world on fire. I lined a flan tin with three layers of filo, put in the caramelised onions, mixed the ricotta with honey and star anise and arranged the fig slices.
Nick Munier nodded encouragingly, with his lovely telly teeth. Dylan McGrath arrived; a fizzing force of nature, a Michelin-star man. Oh, I was so pleased with my subtle flavours, as I sautéd the kale with butter and nutmeg and toasted almond flakes to decorate it.
At first I wasn’t ruffled. It was rather luxurious having two hours to cook dinner with no one doing their homework on the worktop. But Munier was right. I should have trusted my now-gutted instinct and ignored the stupid pigeon. (McGrath, while helping me to carve it, chastised me for calling it stupid. “I’m not the one on the plate,” I said with a haughty harrumph.)
It’s easy to say now, when I’m not an under-pressure cooker, but instead of getting into a flap about the bird I should have thought more about the tart. I still can’t believe I forgot to blind-bake the pastry. I should have loosened the filling with egg. I should have cooked the onions more. And I should not have served the slice that contained the star anise. That really got McGrath going. I fear my reply was in the order of “You’re not supposed to eat it, silly.”
I wasn’t expecting much, but I hadn’t anticipated such searing, seething criticism. After McGrath’s scathing verdict – the nicest thing he said was, “Hmmm, all right, your sauce is okay”, and I forced him to admit the tart was halfway pretty – Munier poked it all to bits but didn’t taste any of it. Not the undercooked pastry, not the old-boots bird, not the greens.
I’m not one to complain in restaurants anyway, but now I would never dream of it. And the contestants on the real MasterChef, when I watch it through latticed fingers, will have my utmost respect and empathy.
After the carnage, still trembling, I went and bought the boots I had been coveting, and they’re as soft as I imagine a properly cooked pigeon should be. Not that I ever intend to find out.
And the winner is
HAVING INHALED AND digested my library at home of some 70 cook books, I found myself standing in the magnificent kitchens at Cooks Academy and the nerves were setting in. Nick Munier outlined what was required: “Cook a single dish worthy of being eaten in a restaurant. You may now open the box in front of you.”
Whoever chose the ingredients in front of me did so in a supermarket with the lights off, at random, with an utterly evil streak. A celeriac looked up at me: “watcha gonna do?”. Some plums and figs cowered in the corner alongside some filo pastry. Hiding under the curl kale was a pigeon. A bag of port (to steady the nerves I wonder?), some goat’s milk, leaf gelatin and ricotta cheese completed the ensemble.
Very quickly I decided on my dish: pan-fried pigeon breasts with a port reduction served with celeriac purée and steamed curly kale.
Filleting knife in hand, two hours on the clock, I set about preparing the pigeon. Setting the breasts aside with the legs, seasoned with salt and pepper, I needed a stock. The remaining carcass was chopped up, fried in a little oil and covered in water. A chopped onion and carrot followed into the pot: a classic stock preparation. Skimming and keeping a left eye on it, I moved on to the celeriac. The jury is still out on the brother of celery. In hindsight, I would have added a lot more butter and some roasted garlic to my effort as it was judged to be lacking seasoning: then again I reckon I could make polystyrene taste pretty good with lashings of butter. The curly kale was just steamed, not much else I could have done. By searing the pigeon in some oil and butter, flipping it over a few times and then leaving it to rest on a board, I could finish the port reduction.
With the clocks stopped, knives put down and the food plated, it was judging time. It’s very humbling when a Michelin-stared chef and a restaurateur pass very positive comments about something you have just cooked. I love cooking, eating and spending time with those who enjoy the same pursuit and I doff my chef hat to my fellow MasterChefs for the day. It was a great experience, one that I thoroughly enjoyed.