Aug 30, 2006
Dishing with Miguel Morales
‘Top Chef’ contender drops in on Spencer inn
By Barbara M. Houle FOOD EDITOR

The guy can really cook.

We’re talking about Miguel Morales, one of the 12 aspiring chefs who last season competed for “Top Chef” on Bravo’s TV reality competition series filmed in San Francisco.

Morales brought his knives and his unique cooking style to the Red Maple Inn in Spencer this month at the invitation of Shari Alexander, an executive chef who owns the bed and breakfast business with her husband, John Bills.

Alexander first met Morales at a cancer benefit at the swanky Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York, where Morales works.

“I adored him on the TV show, so when I heard he was in the kitchen, I had to meet him,” Alexander said. “I told Morales that I was a former New Yorker, and someone who loved to talk nonstop about food and wine.”

Alexander said Morales accepted her invitation to Spencer without hesitation. “I described the inn and its quaint New England location, and then I threw in the fact that there is a hot tub on the premises. I think it clinched the deal.”

If you watched the “Top Chef” series, you know that Morales did not make the final cut, but he was one of five finalists. Morales said of the show, “It was intense, and it was geared toward food. The challenges weren’t always easy, but I’m proud of what I did. Hey, I was chosen from 300,000 people who auditioned for the show. I’m used to pressure. I work 18 to 19 hours a day at the Mandarin. My way of dealing with pressure is to have fun. Good spirit brings out good food.

“Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’ changed my life,” Morales said. “I had the chance to rub shoulders with some great people and big culinary stars.”

One of the stars, he said, was Tom Colicchio of New York’s Gramercy Tavern, who served as a judge and mentor to the competing chefs on the series. One of Morales’ dishes, Tom Sandwich: Vegetable Mini With White Grape Gazpacho, was named for Colicchio.

Morales in his bio describes himself as a “Hispanic-Jew” who was raised on New York’s Lower East Side. He grew up around big families and lots of food. Each of his parents is one of 10 siblings.

He said his food comes from the soul, and it can soothe one’s soul as well. He is passionate about what he does. During the cooking demo at the Red Maple Inn, Morales said, “Shari and I have a lot in common. We love to cook, and love sharing food with people. We’re both pretty good at talking it up.”

Morales graduated from The Art Institute of New York, formerly known as The New York Restaurant School. Alexander is a graduate of The New York Restaurant School.

Morales’ dinner began with the Tom Sandwich, followed by mixed greens with roasted fig and brie, and a goat cheese and watermelon Napoleon drizzled with a balsamic vinegar that had been aged more than 18 years. The entrée was Asian short ribs (he made it for the TV show), smoked smashed potatoes and Asian ginger spiced syrup, and shrimp with sweet summer corn and tequila syrup. The evening ended with a wonderful almond cake with fresh peaches, rum ice cream and a milk chocolate sauce to die for.

Morales, who spent several days in Spencer, shopped with Alexander for most of the ingredients he used in his dishes. He said he picked out fresh produce at Breezy Gardens in Leicester, and artisan breads at the Five Loaves Bakery in Spencer. Several “fans” recognized him while he shopped at the Price Chopper store in Spencer. “My black cap was a dead giveaway,” he said.

The chef wore a black cap during all his TV appearances.

Some of the chef’s thoughts during his cooking demo:

• On sautéing: “A pan will tell you when it’s time to move ingredients around. Listen for the sizzle.”

• “Chunk Le Funk” was Morales’ nickname on the show. Junk food junkie? You bet. “I’m a real human being,” Morales said. “Pizza is a chef’s favorite dinner in New York.”

• “The Chinese created the word cuisine, and the French stole it.”

• “Searing is one of the best methods of cooking. It keeps the moisture in the meat and seals the flavor in.”

• “TV reality for me was about wearing make-up and a mike 90 percent of the time. I was locked in a room for two days undergoing psychological tests. It was an emotional thing when I went out for a burger at an In-N-Out.”

• “Talking 45 minutes straight is pretty easy for me.”

• “I like Chinese and Italian food. I would love to own a bistro. Anyone interested in opening a little place in Spencer?”

• “Unsalted butter really is a cook’s friend. OK. In moderation.”

• “I prefer fresh ingredients. Personally, I don’t go the frozen route.”

• “If there was one thing I could take back from the show, it would be that I wouldn’t have been so confrontational. Remember when I called you know who a snake and did the sssssssssss thing? Bad, bad.”

• “I refer to my cooking style as nouvelle International.”

• Worst kitchen disaster for this single guy was when he put “Palmolive” in the dishwasher.

The dinner Morales prepared at the Red Maple Inn was terrific. The best part was watching him cook. And the Asian ribs were so tender they melted in your mouth.

Guests were involved with Morales’ cooking. They helped him pick herbs from Alexander’s nearby garden, and they all seemed to enjoy it when he joined them at the dining room table to talk more about each course he prepared.

Morales said he had such a good time that he plans to return to the inn for another cooking demo, maybe in December. As he hugged guests as they were leaving, he presented each of them with a gift-wrapped bottle of extra virgin oil, courtesy of Alexander.

Charisma is what this guy is about.

These recipes were prepared by Miguel Morales at the Red Maple Inn in Spencer.

3 pounds (16-20) shrimp

20 ears of corn

3 cups tequila

2 red peppers

2 yellow peppers

1 pound shitake or other kind of mushrooms

1-1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup chives

1 bunch cilantro leaves or Italian parsley

Peel and clean shrimp. Season with salt and pepper and extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil. Place shrimp on grill and cook until done. Clean mushrooms and cut in strips. Sauté with oil of your choice and season with salt and pepper. Cut corn off cob and add to mushroom mix. Cut cilantro or parsley and add to mushrooms and corn. Sauté lightly. The corn and mushroom mixture is spooned into individual serving dishes, topped with grilled shrimp and tequila syrup.

For tequila syrup: Put tequila in a small pot and burn alcohol off. Then add the sugar until it dissolves.

2 pounds beef short ribs

1 10-ounce jar Hoisin sauce

4 tablespoons Chinese 5-Spice powder (available in supermarkets)

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

1/2 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

3 cups water

1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped (quality vanilla extract can be substituted)

Kosher salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 tablespoons grapeseed oil

3 tablespoons blended oil

Bag of smoke chips or use liquid smoke

3 quarts of cream

3 pounds butter

Zest of 1 orange

3 tablespoons fresh ginger, coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves, if desired

3 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves

4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 cup white wine

Yukon potatoes

For the short ribs: Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Asian braising sauce: In a small saucepan, combine the Hoisin sauce, brown sugar, rice wine vinegar, water, kosher salt, pepper and the vanilla bean and bring to a boil.

Season the ribs with salt and pepper and sear. Place in saucepan with the Asian braising liquid, cover and braise in oven until fork tender, approximately two to three hours until tender. Then strain the sauce in a fine strainer.

For the smoked potatoes: Quantity of potatoes depends on how many servings you want to make. Peel potatoes, put in water in large pot, and cook until tender. If you desire smoked mashed potatoes, place pot over burned smoke chips. Note: A small amount of liquid smoke can be added to potatoes for flavoring.

Drain potatoes and mash them with cream and butter. Season with salt and pepper.

The ribs are served with the strained sauce and the mashed potatoes. Add a cooked green leafy vegetable. Add a mixture of green and yellow string beans if in season. Cooked asparagus stalks can be plated with the ribs.

Miguel Morales has participated in many star chef cook-offs held throughout the country. He will showcase dishes at the 21st Mushroom Festival next month in Kennett Square, Pa.

Copyright 2006 Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.