A quick meal for a crazy week!

This time of year is nutso for me. A Tae Kwon Do tournament for all the guys in the household last weekend. One son's baseball season is in full swing. The other son's rock band has a big gig tomorrow (his band is the youngest band competing in the Battle of the Bands at the Water Street Music Hall). CRB has a big gig next week. I'm working part-time at Wickham Farms, and gearing up to be PTA president next year. You get the picture...

These are the weeks when I barely have time to put dinner on the table. This is the perfect time to throw together a quick meal, like Creamy Chicken Marsala Pizza, a finalist from the recent Pillsbury Bake-off contest. I made it recently and can report that it comes together quickly and has yummy classic flavors. It's one of those "I wish I had thought of that" recipes. The base: a tube of refrigerated Pillsbury pizza dough.

There are people look down their noses at such products, such as this blogger, who devoted a blog post to putting down the participants of the Pillsbury Bake-off contest.

"Kudos to all the participants," she sniffs. "Hey, at least they’re spending time in the kitchen rather than idling in the takeout lane at McDonald’s."


Just to set the record straight, I can and do make my own pizza crust. Do a search of this blog and you'll find plenty of examples of "from scratch" pizza crusts, yeast breads, quick breads, cookies, and so on. But there are days where I'd rather spend that time helping my son with his pitching. Or watching both sons compete in Tae Kwon Do (my younger son won his division in board breaking, by the way). Or practicing for my band's gig.

A couple of years ago I spent a much greater part of my life devoted to food -- cooking, blogging, and developing recipes for cooking contests. It was my most successful year in the world of cooking contests, but it didn't work for me. As much as I love food, I didn't find it healthy or interesting to put that much of a focus on it. If that's the kind of life that blogger wants, good for her. She can have it. My life is often hectic and it's not perfect, but it works for me.

Bananas for bananas!

My kids: "I'm huunnnggry.... what can I have for a snack?"

My usual response: "Have a banana."

I think they are nature's perfect snack food -- a sweet, satisfying treat in a handy package. Unfortunately, my kids don't always heed my recommendation and the bananas get black and squishy on the counter. That's when they are perfect for banana bread. In fact, I have some in that state right now and I have a new recipe for banana muffins in the queue for today.

Until I get those muffins made, the Banana Bread Round-up at Not Quite Nigella has 79 ideas for what you can do with your over ripe bananas. In fact, she is asking people to vote for their favorite! The recipe I contributed is probably my favorite banana bread so far, with six bananas packed into one loaf. If people could actually taste my entry, I think I'd have a shot at it. But my photo isn't a work of art, as usual, so I'm not holding my breath. Whether or not you want to vote, pop over there for some great ideas!

My "Iron Chef" experience

It is a long way from participating in the Pillsbury Bake-off to competing across from the ladies' bathrooms at the 102-year-old Rochester Public Market. But that's what I did on Saturday ... and I'm hard pressed to say which was more stressful.

The contest: an "Iron Chef"-type format in which ingredients are not known in advance, and contestants have 30 minutes to prepare a dish from them. The prize: various items valued at $750 and a chance to compete as part of a team in Slice, Dice and Spice NY. My biggest fear: in a fit of hysteria, I would put nothing on the plate at the end of my allotted time.

My fears were grounded in the fact that I am a "recipe" cook. I rarely just throw stuff together. Even when I create a recipe for a cooking contest, I combine the techniques and flavors from a few different recipes. I start my process by writing a recipe on paper, and then I tinker -- and it usually takes a whole lot of tinkering before most of my creations are contest ready. So why did I do this particular contest? Well, I have spent a fair amount of time armchair quarterbacking shows like "Iron Chef America" and "Top Chef." I wanted to see how I'd do if I was in the action.

I plan to do a separate post about the Public Market, but it's like markets in any other city -- there's a huge assortment of produce, flowers, and other assorted items. I was warned in advance that about 35 thousand people were expected to be there that day, and parking would be a problem. As a result, I grabbed a $2 parking spot a few blocks away from the market, and hoofed it the rest of the way. I got to the market almost an hour in advance of my scheduled cooking time of 1:50 p.m. (I was told to be there at 1:35 to look at the ingredients and decide what to make.)

I scoped out where the contest would be held, and spotted it between the market office building and the rest rooms. I had been told they wanted the contestants to stay away from the contest area until it was close to their time to cook, so I wandered around the public market for awhile.

I haven't been there for a good 15 years for a couple of reasons: one, my Porter Farms CSA keeps me pretty well stocked with veggies throughout the summer and fall, and two, because I hate crowds. And man, the market was jammed. I found the combination of the crowd, the yelling vendors, and the sheer number of items to choose from to be overwhelming. I managed to buy two pounds of strawberries ($2 each) and wandered back to the contest area. When I got there, trying not to catch a glance at the ingredients, I found Michael Warren Thomas, who was running the contest, and he told me to come back in an hour. Groan .... if there had been an area to sit and read read the morning paper, that would have been just fine. But seating at the public market is a precious commodity, limited to a few crowded picnic tables around some of the food vendors. And it's not in a yuppy part of town where I could escape to a coffee shop. So it was back to wandering through the crowds. This time I bought some lettuce (50 cents each), garlic cloves (5 for $1 - a great score, until I saw that they were from China), a basil and a sage plant ($1 each), some cinnamon coated nuts, some garlic chives and a big artichoke. I also ate a couple of yummy empanadas. By 2:30 p.m., I noticed that some of the vendors were starting to pack it up for the day.

When I returned to the contest area, they still weren't ready for me and didn't want me hanging around. I mentioned to a nice man (Jim) that I was concerned that the area would be deserted when I was walking back to my car. He gave me a parking pass, so I walked to my car and moved it to a spot close to the cooking area.

After all of this, I was beat. Plus, I had band practice that night and wanted to get in some time on my guitar to prepare for it. I completely understand that a first-time contest isn't going to run like clockwork, so I wasn't miffed about that, but at that point I was ready to head for home.

But after a few minutes, Michael gave me an ok to look at the ingredients I had to work with (I had been told ahead of time that I didn't need to use them all):

Some wines
3 mustards -- one smelled very beer-y, one like a Dijon, and one with horseradish
Olive oil
Salt & pepper


Pasta, shaped like orzo

Tomatoes (I was dismayed at this out-of-season ingredient)
Mixed baby greens

A square flat bread, like for pressed sandwiches

Cheddar cheese
Swiss cheese
Fresh mozzarella
Heavy cream

Every time I thought of something to do with the ingredients, I'd arrive at a mental road block. No meat/poultry. No vinegar for a vinaigrette. No fruit for a sauce for French Toast. No sugar for caramelizing the onions.

Since the greens looked to be the best fresh ingredient, my strategy was a salad, even though I would have liked to have had some vinegar to use. I'd use the greens and asparagus and maybe boil an egg for a garnish. I would brush the flat bread with some herb-infused oil and throw it on the grill and cut it up to to make croutons. Maybe accompany it with a cheesy toast type thing.

The two techniques that I thought would set me apart would be used in my vinaigrette. I thought that if I roasted the tomatoes on the grill, I'd bring out what little flavor they had, and I could puree them and could use that as the acid in my vinaigrette. I would also roast garlic in olive oil on the stove and use the garlic and the garlicky oil in the vinaigrette. I'd also add some herbs and maybe some wine or honey to the vinaigrette.

I peeled a bulb of garlic and put it in olive oil on the stove, planning to roast it until it was soft and brown.

I put the tomatoes on the grill. I also put asparagus in the in boiling water (they had water boiling on the stove) for a few minutes until it was crisp-tender and put it on ice to stop the cooking.

I checked on my tomatoes and nothing was happening. Those firm red balls were as hard and red as they were when I put them on the heat. Michael was as helpful could be but the heat didn't seem to be working right. It was pretty breezy where we were so maybe the wind was either diluting the heat or moving it around.

At this point I was about 15 minutes into the competition and I decided that the salad wasn't going to happen. So I was left with some blanched asparagus, some garlicky oil (it was clear it wasn't going to fully roast in the time I had left), and the original ingredients. I decided to switch to making a panini.

I thought I'd try to caramelize some onions (not really possible in 10 minutes) and put them on the heat to saute.

I pureed some of the roasted garlic with some thyme and spread it on the bread. I topped it with fresh mozzarella, the asparagus (halved lengthwise), and sliced tomato that I had seasoned with salt and pepper.

In a last-ditch effort to imitate the flavor of caramelized onions, I squirted some honey on the onions on the stove. I tasted. Bleeeccchh. Those went in the trash.

More mozzarella went on top. (Why didn't I use the other cheeses? I just wasn't sure how they'd work against the garlic.) I melted some butter with the oil that had been used to roast garlic and spread it on the bread (no pastry brush, used a plastic tasting spoon to spread it around). I grilled it using the pot that had been used to boil water to press on it like a panini.

At this point my 30 minutes were about up. It went fast. Michael told me that since I had trouble with my heat, I could have a little more time. At this point, I should have done a bare-bones salad to go with my panini, using wine in place of vinegar in a vinaigrette. But at this point I wanted this to be over with. So all I served was the panini. No garnish or anything.

I cut it in half, and then Michael told me to cut those pieces in half again so that he and I could taste it. As I did, some onlookers came by and asked if they could taste, so I cut my piece up and gave it to them (which probably was a no-no by New York's ridiculously stringent health department regulations). So I committed the biggest sin you can make on Top Chef -- I DIDN'T TASTE IT! I have utterly no idea what it tasted like. I was given a chance to explain the dish to one of the judges (market vendors) and I was so embarrassed by what I turned in that I didn't put any energy into explaining it.

In the end, I don't think I choked so much as gave up. I was tired and the crazy cooking conditions got the best of me. As I drove away, I thought about all the great egg dishes I could have made. But with the crazy heat? I don't know how that would have gone either.

Unsurprisingly, my fancy pants grilled cheese didn't get me the win. But I actually received a cool consolation prize -- two tickets to Slice, Dice and Spice NY! I had wanted to go, but the $50 price tag held me back. It's tonight. I'm taking my friend, Karen, who competed in the Pillsbury Bake-off contest (and won her category) in 2006. We can armchair quarterback the teams competing in the finals -- probably just as much fun as competing. Plus they'll have food and wine to sample (since wine makes me break out in hives --boo-hoo --Karen can describe the wines to me).

In the end, I'm glad I gave it a go. If I had a chance to do it again, would I? Heck, yeah. But I'd bring a fold-up chair and a good book and find a quiet corner of the market while I was waiting.

It's LiveSTRONG Day!

Today, the food blogging community is supporting LiveSTRONG Day with a blog event called a Taste of Yellow. LiveSTRONG Day is the Lance Armstrong Foundation's one-day initiative to raise awareness and funds for the cancer fight.

Maybe you'll want to commemorate the day by cooking something yellow. If so, you'll have 179 recipes to choose from at the LIVESTRONG A Taste of Yellow Roundup. Most of them, including my no-knead batter bread in the second part of the roundup, are probably a better choice than this one. But since I took a decent photo of the recipe, I thought I'd tell you about it.

When I selected the recipe to make for this event, I wanted a really good one. To that end, I thought I'd take on Banana Bread with Salted Caramel Sauce & Meringue, which garnered Chef Stephanie Izard high marks from the judges in this season of Top Chef.

I started with the bread. The batter was thicker than any other banana bread recipe I've made. But the thing that concerned me most was the full teaspoon of salt it called for. Despite my doubts, I dumped it in.

After the bread was done, I tasted a corner. It was dense and not as moist as my favorite banana breads. But bear in mind this was served as finger food on the show, so it had to be fairly sturdy. And, unsurprisingly, it was distinctly salty. On the show, it was served with a salted caramel sauce, so maybe the salt in the bread punched up the salty flavor of the sauce. Or maybe that teaspoon of the salt was a typo on the Bravo Web site, because it's hard to imagine that the judges complimented the bread I tasted.

I decided it wasn't fair to judge the recipe unless I had all of the elements of it, so I studied the recipe for the next steps -- the meringue and the caramel sauce. And then I got really perplexed.

The caramel sauce called for egg whites, sugar, water, and corn syrup. I thought that was odd, because I've never seen a caramel sauce recipe with egg whites. And the recipe called caramel meringue had no egg whites -- a key component in meringues -- and it didn't call for the mixture to be heated until it browned -- which is how a caramel flavor is achieved. Then it dawned on me that someone mixed up the titles -- the egg white mixture was the meringue, and it wasn't meant to be caramel flavored. The other mixture was the sauce. (They have since corrected the switched titles, although the meringue is still called "caramel meringue" and the teaspoon of salt remains in the bread.)

After that, I decided I didn't have enough faith in the recipe to expend the energy to make the meringue and sauce. But I wondered if a caramel icing might make the saltiness of the bread less pronounced. I used my go-to caramel icing and poured it on the bread. It helped somewhat; my salt-loving son gobbled it up. But honestly, I would make any other banana bread I've posted on this blog over this one.

Caramel icing

3 Tablespoons butter
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
3 Tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup powdered sugar

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the sugar and the milk. Bring to a boil and continue to boil for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, add the vanilla and gradually mix in the powdered sugar.

My original directions say this icing hardens up quickly so you need to work fast, and if it hardens up too quickly, add some more milk to thin it out. I haven’t found this to be the case – in fact, I find that I need to let it cool off long enough to thicken a bit, so it doesn’t run right off the cake. This makes a lot of icing – I drizzle it in layers on top of the cake.

Banana Bread
From Stephanie Izard on the Top Chef Web site.
This makes a dense, salty bread so I would at least change the amount of salt.

1/3 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
3 ripe bananas
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt (I would use only a pinch)
2 cups flour

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixer, cream together butter and sugar; then add in bananas and vanilla. Combine dry ingredients and slowly add to batter. Mix to combine. Butter or pan spray in 9x9 inch pan. Bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean when tested.

What have I gotten myself into?

I was midway through writing my latest Top Chef post (which originally started as 15 minutes worth of random thoughts, and has grown into this long friggin' thing...)

Anyway, I just got a call that I'm "in" for the competition at the Public Market. See post below. I'm petrified.

Want to know what happens to me when I get really nervous? I get tired. Isn't that weird? I can barely keep my eyes open. I should be downstairs perfecting vinaigrettes or memorizing recipes but I'm going to bed.

I am a recipe cook -- and not a terribly creative one at that -- so I expect to crash and burn. But it could be an interesting blog entry! Stay tuned!

Calling all Rochester cooks!

Cool cooking competition coming up on Saturday at the Rochester Public Market! I signed up to compete, but they will hold a drawing to pick the 12 people that will actually cook. Frankly the whole thing terrifies me, because I'm a "recipe" kind of cook, but my husband and kids convinced me to do it.

"What's the worst thing that can happen?" they kept saying -- which is something I say to them all the time. Guess I have to put my money where my mouth is. But please -- sign up, and make it less likely I'll actually have to do this!


For more information, please contact: Michael Warren Thomas at (585) 328-8300 or Michael@SavorLife.com

Calling all amateur Iron Chef wanna-be’s! The weekly Chef’s Days Saturday kick-off at the Rochester Public Market will be Saturday, May 10, 2008 from 8am-2pm with a cooking contest to determine who will be a member of the Wild Card Team at the New York Wine & Culinary Center on May 14-15, for Slice, Dice and Spice NY. The “Cook-In” winner will participate in the Pro-Am, and also win a package valued at over $750, including a 2 night stay at the historic 1810 Morgan Samuels Inn in Canandaigua. Participants in the “Cook-In” only need to be present for their assigned 30 minute period.

The first annual Slice, Dice & Spice NY Pro-Am Chef Challenge begins on May 12, with three days of competition, and ends with the Final Cook-Off on May 15, 2008. This event is a tourism initiative featuring the culinary and agricultural assets of the Finger Lakes region. Professional chefs from Ontario, Livingston and Wayne Counties will be teamed up with four local “wanna-be-chefs." Similar to the Iron Chef competition, teams will use common ingredients to produce innovative culinary dishes and highlight our region's natural assets. Canandaigua Wine Trail, also a partner in the program, will provide all the wines for the competition.

Local amateur cooking enthusiasts are invited to register by 12 noon on Friday, May 9th for a drawing to choose twelve people to do a 30-minute “Cook-In” demonstration at the Rochester Public Market as part of the Slice, Dice and Spice NY Pro-Am contest. Participants will be given a market basket of ingredients and access to spices, with 15 minutes to plan and 30 minutes to prepare their entry. The Rochester Public Market will provide a propane grill which also has a burner for pans during preparation. Time slots will be assigned between 8am and 2pm for May 10.

Local farmers will judge and pick one contest winner who will become part of the Wild Card Team at the New York Wine & Culinary Center on for the last preliminary round on Wednesday, May 14th. If the team wins that preliminary round, they will compete in the Finals at the Center on Thursday, May 15th with the grand prize winning team announced that evening.

Registration for the “Cook-In” at the Rochester Public Market can be made by contacting Michael Warren Thomas at (585) 328-8300 or Michael@SavorLife.com. The deadline for registration is 12 noon on May 9th. More information on the Slice, Dice and Spice NY event is available at www.SliceDiceAndSpiceNY.com, including the tickets for the Finals that are open to the public on May 15, $50 in advance, $55 at the door.

Chef’s Day Saturdays at the Market will continue each week throughout the summer and fall depending on the weather, with professional and amateur chefs providing demonstrations, recipes and advice, but no samples due to Health Department regulations.

Contact: Michael Warren Thomas at (585) 328-8300 or Michael@SavorLife.com

Peanut butter and tomatoes do too go together!

During the most recent episode of Top Chef, Stephanie Izard made a sauce for chicken that included peanut butter and tomatoes. Twice Tom Colicchio talked as if he was repulsed by the idea of the combination. As I watched the episode, I thought I had used those flavors together at least once. It didn't take much digging to find an example. But let me give you some background first.

When my kids were in third grade, the curriculum focused on various parts of the world, one of them being Africa. The unit culminated with an African "Harambee" night at the school, during which the kids performed African songs and dances (the 2003 performance shown here).

Before each son's performance, I hosted an African-themed dinner. The boys invited a few classmates and their families, as well as their teachers. The first time I did this, in 2003, I included some authentic dishes like Injera bread and Ugali, but after those were mostly uneaten, I decided not to get hung up on authenticity. Instead, I just decided it was good enough to give people a sense of the kinds of foods and flavors served in the various countries in Africa.

For both dinners, the favorite dish was probably West African Peanut Soup, from the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook. (Moosewood, by the way, is located in Ithaca, a couple of hours east of here.) In fact, the first time I hosted the dinner, it was gobbled up so quickly I didn't have a chance to eat some! My serving dish was practically licked clean. And both times, people asked me for the recipe. Two of the ingredients: two cups of tomato juice, and one cup of creamy peanut butter. While Stephanie's dish might not have been great, I rest my case that the two flavors can work together. I might add that the dish is a great example of a nourishing vegetarian dish that is inexpensive and has plenty of protein. Maybe I would have done that if I had faced that challenge as a contestant in Top Chef. Add a salad and a bread and you're good to go.

While I'm at it, I thought I'd include another favorite recipe from both African dinners -- ground beef Samosas.

Both of these photos are from 2003, before I had a blog, so I didn't take close-up shots of the food. This is the only photo from both evenings that included the food at all. I have to laugh at me in the photo -- I was wearing a heavy sweater while I was cooking and boy was I sweating. Duh!

West African Peanut Soup
(from Sundays at the Moosewood Restaurant, with my notes)

2 cups chopped onion
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cayenne or other ground chiles
1 tsp grated peeled fresh ginger
1 cup chopped carrots
2 cups chopped sweet potatoes
4 cups vegetable stock or water
2 cups tomato juice
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1 Tablespoon sugar
chopped scallions, for garnish
chopped roasted peanuts, for garnish

Sauté onion in oil until it is translucent. Stir in cayenne and ginger. Add carrots and sauté a couple minutes more. Mix in potatoes and stock, bring to a boil, simmer 15 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Puree the vegetables with tomato juice (and some of the cooking liquid if necessary) in a blender or food processor (or with a stick blender). Return the puree to the pot. Stir in the peanut butter until smooth. Check sweetness and add sugar if necessary. (I did add the sugar.) Reheat gently, using a heat diffuser if necessary to prevent scorching. (I did this in the crock pot). Add more water, stock, or tomato juice to make a thinner soup if desired. (I did not thin the soup.) Serve topped with plenty of chopped scallions and chopped roasted peanuts.

Serves 6-8

Samosas (also spelled Samoosas)

This dish originated in India. One of my sources said it was served in Kenya. Another one said South Africa. This is an amalgam of two different recipes I saw for this dish.

1 pound ground beef
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 large onions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon red pepper

1 pound egg roll wrappers

Brown meat; add remaining ingredients, and cook together for about 30 minutes.

Cut egg roll wrappers in half (into two long rectangles). Imagine the top half as a square that you will fold in half along its diagonal. Put a tablespoon of filling in the middle of that half. Fold top half down over the filling diagonally, so that the top of your strip is now a triangle. Then fold this triangle over the next section of the strip so that you have a square. Finally, fold once again along the diagonal so that you end with a multi-layered triangle. (This is easier to demonstrate than to write). Seal all edges with water. Be sure there are no open corners, or you'll lose the filling during frying. Fry in moderately hot oil until brown and crisp.

These can be held in a warm oven but they get tougher.

Top Chef Chicago, episode 8

This week's Top Chef consisted of a 15-minute dish made with Uncle Ben's rice as well as dinner for four, prepared with kids, for 10 bucks. Welcome to my world. Ho hum. The guest judge was Art Smith, Oprah's personal chef, which struck me as another ho hum.

The first thing I noticed about this episode is that they showed a lot of Stephanie, and they always show a lot of the person who gets cut. I was uneasy that my early favorite is in trouble...

The Quickfire Challenge: a 15-minute meal using Uncle Ben's microwave rice. This is my arena -- I love a recipe contest with really restrictive requirements. But it takes me days or weeks to come up with an entry, not the minutes these chefs have.

Some notable dishes:
Stephanie: a pancake with scallops. "I have no idea what it tastes like...," she says. Uh oh, I'm thinking that's not good. "Very clever," says Art Smith when he tastes it. He seems like he's trying to find something positive to say to each contestant, which I like. Those chefs deserve a pat on the back for the stuff they pull off.
Antonia: rice in a salad, something she grew up with. She talks about it like it's this really unusual idea. I've made rice salad for years, so I don't understand what's so unusual about it until Art remarks, "I like the hot in the cold." Hot rice in cold greens. Hmmm...
Mark: Miso-glased turkey breast ... noticing a lot of miso this year -- and the camera catches him double dipping in his sauce! Again -- after the judges told him to clean up his act! Ugh. I am almost certain this goes on in restaurant kitchens all the time -- at least those in which the chefs care enough the taste the food -- but you'd think you'd be wise enough to not do it in front of the camera!
Richard: a "little play on" steak and tomatoes. It's funny that are all of his dishes seem to be a play on something else. He makes a seared tuna steak that's very rare on the inside. I've never liked tuna done that way.
Dale: a fried rice that includes scallops and long beans - one of his favorite veggies. It looks the best to me, like something I'd order at a restaurant.

Bottom three: Mark (for dry turkey), Stephanie (for heavy pancakes), and Lisa, for an unoriginal Southwest dish. Come on Stephanie! Get your mojo back!

Top three: Dale's fried rice, Richard's salmon dish, and Antonia's rice salad. And Antonia's Rice Salad with Skirt Steak. Surprising.

The Quick Fire was heavy with product placements – the Uncle Ben's challenge, close-ups of Glad plastic wrap. I understand why companies want to promote their products this way, because in this era of Tivo and fast forwarding through commercials, people are watching fewer commercials. I could live with the product placements if they resulted in fewer commercials ... but noooo! In my impatience to watch this show, I watched it in real time -- which I NEVER do -- and the commercials were interminable. They made me want to scream with impatience.

The elimination challenge: a delicious, nutritious meal for a family of four with a budget of $10. She says it should be simple enough that “even a child can help make it.” Andrew calls the challenge impossible. Richard, frightening. Antonia gets it – people don't always have lots of money to spend on food.

When they shop, most of the chefs run to the meat counter, and most get chicken. How unimaginative. I wanted to yell at the TV, like my husband watching a Bills game (OK, maybe I did). VEGETARIAN!!!! Are you freaking stupid???? Pasta! Eggs! I think only a couple went the vegetarian route.

The chefs are joined by – surprise! -- no really, Padma gave it away during the introduction – some cute kids.

I did like that the episode gave us a chance to see the human side of the chefs. Antonia is a single mom with a daughter. Dale became a chef because his stature meant pro basketball wasn't going to work out. Spike lost a lot of weight by cooking for himself. Nikki cooked for herself from a young age. They all seem to enjoy working with the kids.

Tom Collichio spends the whole time in the kitchen – to make sure they are putting the kids to work, or behaving appropriately? Maybe that's why I don't hear a lot of profanity in the episode.
And then they show a shot of Tom looking over Dale's shoulder, with Dale's kid sous chef looking on, as Dale double dipped while tasting his dish! Again, this may well be a common practice in kitchens, but they raked Mark over the coals for that! Very inconsistent, if you ask me. Tom did his tasting in the kitchen, by himself.

The dishes:

Richard: Roast chicken with black beans and a salad that contains beets. Looks good. Art criticizes his including the skin, because you don't need skin. WRONG -- chicken has better flavor and is moister if it's roasted with the skin on. If you don't want to eat the skin after it's cooked, don't eat it.

Lisa: Roast chicken and black beans (are you seeing a trend here?) and a dessert of french toast with apples and peanut butter. Art says the chicken doesn't have a lot of flavor – that's because she took the skin off!!! Duh.

Dale: The brats with potatoes and cabbage -- not terribly original but it sounds good. I love brats. Padma thinks the flavors in the dish have to be more "universal" to appeal to varied tastes in a household. What works for one household is very different from what works in another household, so that comment doesn't hold water for me. In my household, everyone would eat the brats, although some would douse them in ketchup or hot sauce.

Pasta Puttanesca, carrot soup, and semi-baked apples. He did pretty well with his impossible task! Kids were excited about "spaghetti" -- glad nobody explained to the kids the meaning of "puttanesca."

Nikki: Roasted chicken (surprise!) with mixed vegetables, cooked in the one pan, and a salad. The skin was definitely on. Judges liked it.

Mark: Vegetable curry, cinnamon rice and a salad. Padma (who probably knows curry) thought it was too sweet and they said there wasn't enough protein.

Antonia: Stir-fry whole wheat noodles with a little chicken. Judges liked it.

Andrew: Chicken paillard with a salad. Delicious and well executed, said the judges.

Stephanie: Couscous, topped with a chicken in a sauce with peanut butter and tomato, and some apples, cooked with maple syrup, and topped with granola. It was panned by the judges. Gail says it's the sign of a restaurant chef that doesn't cook at home.

They show the contestants waiting in the kitchen with a big shot of Glad Cling Wrap in front. Enough already! Then a shot of Richard saying he wants to go home and make some baby Blaises. All the best to you, Richard. If you do, be sure to make some time for them.

Top three: Nikki, Andrew, and Antonia. Antonia gets the win. But NO PRIZE for this winner! What is up with these prizes?

Bottom three: Lisa, Stephanie and Mark. Mark says that he's there because Tom doesn't like him. What an idiot. Mark gets sent home (another whew! for Stephanie -- hope she turns it around). Tom says he wants to go out for a pint with Mark. I'd go out for a pint with Tom any day.

So the ho-hum episode turns out a pretty ho-hum blog entry! Nothing to get gleefully snarky about, no dung on a plate, no cool Chicago places.

But it did give me a clue about something I have often wondered about -- why there seems to be few chefs in the recipe/cooking contests that are open to both amateurs and professionals. As an example, when I went to the (sadly, now defunct) Southern Living contest in 2006, there were 15 finalists and only one was a chef. I would think that with the big money at stake (Southern Living had a $100 grand prize), chefs would enter them, and with their training they'd whup the amateurs' butts. But maybe chefs don't cook the way that home cooks do. And maybe after cooking all day, the last thing they want to do is go home and cook. Could be...

And it looks like next week, the chefs put on a wedding, and have 14 hours to do it. It makes me wonder -- who would ever plan a wedding that way? I guess we'll see next week.