Top Chef All-Stars: Judges get uptight about loose risotto

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They sent Tre home on last night's Top Chef All-Starsbecause his risotto wasn't loose enough? Give me a break. Perhaps it tasted terrible. Perhaps Anthony Bourdain was right in saying the focus should be on the rice, not the accompanying ingredients (Antonia had commented earlier that Tre wasn't cooking the rice properly, making sure every grain was toasted). But not loose enough? Not flattening sufficiently on the plate?

I hate it when the judges pronounce that there's only one proper way to cook a certain dish, and anyone who deviates is damned. Some people like risotto stiffer, some like it porridge-like, and while it's true almost all cookbooks agree that there should be a teeny bit of bite at the center of the rice particles, some people prefer them soft all the way through.

But don't listen to me. Here's the dean of Italian cookery, Giuliano Bugialli: "Only enough hot broth is used to get the rice to that point of al dente firmness and chewiness. Then it is done." And Marcella Hazan: "All risotto can be grouped into two basic styles that differ in the consistency at which they aim. There is the compact, more tightly knit, somewhat stickier style of Piedmont, Lombardy, and Emilia-Romagna and the looser, runny style of the Veneto, known as all'onda, 'wavy.'"

The two others at the bottom with Tre -- the challenge was to prepare traditional, home-style Italian dishes at New York's Rao restaurant -- were Dale, whose odd little pasta dish looked inedible and was apparently tasteless, and, despite his Italian heritage, Mike Isabella. Mike had made fresh pasta, but there wasn't time enough for it to cook through.

Coming out on top were Tiffany, who wept with relief since she'd been stumbling in recent episodes, Fabio and Antonia. Antonia won, and there was a fair amount of resentment because her dish was such a simple one: steamed mussels with fennel. But apparently it was delicious, and Antonia's comment that Italian food required excellent ingredients, beautifully prepared, must have been on the money. I couldn't help wishing Fabio had grabbed the prize, though. His chicken cacciatore made me hungry.

I must say, it was fun watching everyone cook dishes we could all recognize and imagine preparing at home.

The plates for the elimination challenge were judged by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi solely on eye appeal, with Padma standing beside him wearing a strange, shiny gold dress that made her look like an Oscar statuette. It was a valid challenge, I guess, since plating is an important part of the eating experience. But Mizrahi's comments were annoyingly vague and high-handed.

If it was hard seeing Tre go, more distress is sure to come now that there's no one really obnoxious or incompetent left to dismiss.

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