And so am I. Only just realised that I hadn’t posted here for MORE THAN A MONTH. Oops.

Last year I proceeded to painfully blog every episode of Masterchef. This took many hours of my time and many thousands of words (probably because I can’t shut up). I shall definitely be aiming for a more condensed version this year, mainly for my own sanity. However, Masterchef itself seems to have made this slightly easier for me by airing two heats and then a quarter-final all in one shot this week, making for around 2.5 hours of viewing and hopefully a neater recap.

My husband was asking me yesterday why I still bother with Masterchef given the poor pronunciation of some foodstuffs (it’s not “alioli”, for ****’s sake) and the overly dramatic, deeply contrived format of the show. The answer is simple. It is basically gratuitous food porn, and I also enjoy testing my own skills (watching the recipes, and working out the degree to which I might be able to recreate them, which can result in some fervent scribbling as the show rolls). It’s a good job the food looks good, because frankly some of the contestants are complete munters (naming no names). I get that if you’re male there isn’t a great deal you can do about your appearance. However, for some of the women seen on the show so far, the effort has been poor. I know that the show is about the food more than the contestants’ looks. Nevertheless, the contestants are ultimately aiming to become the equivalent of celebrity chefs (in several cases), which involves a lot of cameras being on you, whether you’re filming a new show or having photos taken for your latest book. So why not take a look in the mirror before going on Masterchef?

In short, in terms of the contenders themselves, we’re left with two by the end of week 1: Dani, a bartender who produces creative cuisine, and Robert, who cooks forgotten classics with a twist. Dani, perhaps more than Robert thanks to his more consistent performance, seems to have a greater chance of going further. These two have been whittled down from 12 in the heats – whom, as ever, it’s refreshing to see come from a range of ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. Let’s make no mistake, though – they’ve all been chosen for their ability to cook.

This means that the food porn starts from early in episodes 1 and 2, where the contestants are asked to cook their own dishes, and at which moment we’re treated to sights like this:

mrah

Robert’s mushroom ravioli with apricot, hazelnut and truffle salad

Trina's hibiscus and raspberry tart, served with spun sugar and edible glitter

Trina’s hibiscus and raspberry tart, served with spun sugar and edible glitter

Other delicious concoctions that you might want to attempt at home were:

  • brandy basket filled with white chocolate cheesecake and served with limoncello sorbet
  • prawn, pork and shiitake dumplings served with ginger and rice wine vinaigrette

NOM.

The invention test follows this – but rather than there being an open larder for contestants to choose their ingredients from like last year, they have to choose from two sealed boxes: the blue contains ingredients for a sweet dish, while the green contains ingredients for a savoury plate. In episode 1, the box blatantly pointed to North African cuisine thanks to the lamb, aubergine, cumin, yoghurt and mint that were included. Predictably, most contestants tended towards lamb koftas and burgers, with there being little attempt at anything more invented. The one contestant (across BOTH of the first two episodes) choosing the sweet box was thus able to stand out a little more, using the mystery box to create a delicate fig crumble with lavender mascarpone. The savoury box yielded the same predictable results in episode 2, which mainly consisted of pork loin wrapped in Parma ham six ways.

At this point, two contestants were asked to leave from each episode, before things heated up again the next day, with the remaining four would-be chefs being asked to cook a main and a dessert each for three past Masterchef finalists. On day one this included Thomasina Miers; on day two, the group featured Tim Anderson as well as last year’s winner Natalie Coleman. Naturally this put the pressure on, and predictably, not all contenders were able to rise to the challenge equally. Collapsed fondants, runny sauces and unbalanced seasonings all featured, but so did visual and (we’re told) taste sensations like this:

Holly's pan-fried sea bass with almonds, figs, five spice and sweet potato

Holly’s pan-fried sea bass with almonds, spring onions, figs, five spice and sweet potato

Kate's white chocolate and chili Key Lime Pie

Kate’s white chocolate and chili Key Lime Pie

Other dream dishes you might want to try at home include:

  • cardamom rice pudding with pistachios, vanilla, poached peaches, rosewater and edible rose petals
  • rabbit liver with pancetta crisps, peas, mashed potatoes, and marsala gravy
  • snail, artichoke, red pepper and rabbit paella with aioli and microherbs
  • trio of profiteroles: lime and ginger with dark chocolate, orange liqueur with milk chocolate, and coffee with white chocolate
  • rum and coconut sponge with pineapple syrup
  • raspberry and fig tarte tatin with almond praline

With contestants shown the door, we’re down to four for the quarter-final – which seems a little quick given that we’ve got another 4 weeks of this routine to go. Said quarter-final sees the wannabes trying to imitate John Torode’s jungle curry, which tests their ability to joint a guinea fowl, make an authentic curry paste, and cook rice successfully. Kate, Robert, Greg and Dani need a grown-up palate (in Gregg Wallace’s words) to identify the chillies, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste, dried shrimps, palm sugar, turmeric and galangal in the curry paste. Fish sauce and Chinese wine further accentuate the flavours, and it’s certainly true that contestants will need to be familiar with Asian food to identify them. Coconut cream is mixed with rice and water in the pan and the lid kept on until all of the liquid has evaporated. This naturally is done with varying degrees of success by the participants.

Finally, the four are left to cook for Waitrose Kitchen editor William Sitwell. Greg’s squid and lobster ravioli is a fabulous idea let down by poor technique; equally, Holly’s beautiful loin of venison served with pomegranate and kale is slammed due to overcooked meat. Due to this, it’s no surprise that Robert goes through with his reworked poached cannon of lamb with pearl barley risotto and root vegetables, as does Dani, thanks to his lamb cutlets on celeriac purée, Padron peppers, and garlic spinach, and asparagus on red pepper, served with Rioja and port reduction.

Dani's lamb cutlets on celeriac purée, Padron peppers, and garlic spinach, and asparagus on red pepper, served with Rioja and port reduction

as above

In a way, this shows that nothing changes on Masterchef. Every year there are triumphs and disasters, visions of loveliness and plates of amateurishness. However, the fact that nothing changes is perhaps what has kept people watching for a decade. It’s a never-ending story of inspirational food and voyages of self-discovery as mental resilience improves and skills evolve. For that reason, I’ll be back here reviewing episodes 4-6 with relish.

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