Top Chef: Manuel’s Recipe for Chicharrón Crusted Tuna

Top Chef: Manuel’s Recipe for Chicharrón Crusted Tuna
Chuck Hodes/Bravo

04/03/2008 AT 12:00 AM EDT

Top Chef went to the movies Wednesday -- or rather, the movies came to the chefs. Challenged to create a six course meal, the chefs paired up (save for Dale, Richard and Andrew who worked together) to cook for Chicago critic Richard Roeper and actress Aisha Tyler. Their challenge? Pick a movie as an inspiration -- then infuse their dish with something specific to the flick. Richard's group eventually won after going high-concept, appealing to imagination after selecting Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and offering the unlikely pairing of wasabi and white chocolate served with smoked salmon. In the bottom, Spike and Manuel's team, whose summer rolls based on the film Good Morning, Vietnam -- um, literal, anyone? -- underwhelmed and perplexed the judge's panel and Manuel was sent packing his knives.

But Manuel is still cooking up a storm. The ousted chef has shared his recipe for chicharrón crusted tuna with pickled ramps, pea tendrils and chipotle red wine honey. Sounds delicious! Learn how to make it, then find out what he has to say about the movie challenge, molecular gastronomy and working with Spike. --Brian Orloff

Manuel's Chicharrón Crusted Tuna with Pickled Ramps, Pea Tendrils and Chipotle Red Wine Honey

Serves 4

4 - 7 ounces tuna fillet -- cut in blocks 12 ounces pork cracklings -- ground fine in a food processor 1.5 punds Pea Tendrils, washed and spun dry, trimmed of any tough ends Pickled Ramps (ramps are wild leeks only found a few weeks in the beginning of spring. When available I buy all I can and pickle what I can't use immediately) 12 baby carrots, peeled and blanched and trimmed 1 cup fresh baby peas 1 bottle red wine 1 can chipotle in adobo, pureed fine 1 cup honey

For the chipotle red wine honey: begin by reducing the red wine in a non-reactive over medium low heat saucepan until "au sec" (until it is almost completely dry and evaporated, leaving it thick and somewhat syrupy, should coat the back of a spoon well). When this consistency is reached, set aside. Once cooled, whisk in honey 1/4 cup at a time, tasting after each addition. Keep adding until balanced and slightly sweet. Finish by seasoning with the chipotle puree to taste, adding 1 tbs. at a time until desired heat level is reached. Reserve for plating.

For pickled ramps: 1 lb ramps, washed and outer layer peeled off, cut into 1-inch sections 1 cup white wine vinegar 1 cup water 1/3 cup raw sugar 1/4 cup salt 1 tablespoons peppercorn 2 bay leaves 1 teaspoon red chili flake 1 teaspoon whole coriander seed 1 teaspoon anise seed

Trim root end off of the raps and reserve in a large stainless steel or ceramic bowl. Combine all other ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan over medium high heat. Once a boil is reached pour over ramps. Let stand a few minuets before cooling over ice. Store in an airtight container.

To finish: Season tuna with cracked black pepper (taste crackling mixture, salt might not be necessary as most cracklings are usually well salted) Press tuna in ground cracklings until crusted all over. Sear in a hot pan over medium high heat with 2 tablespoons canola oil. Sear on all sides to achieve a nice crust and a rare interior. Meanwhile, sauté carrots and peas together. When hot, add pea tendrils and pickled ramps. Season well with salt and pepper. Wilt tendrils only slightly.

To plate: place a bed of pea tendrils in the center of a plate, top each with a mound of the peas, carrots and ramps. Cut the tuna on a bias to form 2 large triangular pieces. Place tuna; cut side up, on top of peas and carrots. Drizzle with the chipotle red wine honey.

For who may not know, what's a chicharrón? They are crisp pork cracklings that are found all over Mexico and in many other places in the world. Commonly eaten as a snack, I like to grind these crisp, puffed pork rinds up and use them in an interesting crust for tuna. I like serving this dish with an acidic pickle and a sweet and spicy red wine reduction. I find the acidity of the pickle cuts the fat well and the sweet spicy reduction adds balance to the dish.

Tell us about your recipe.I used to do a regular Sunday menu at my previous job at a Mexican restaurant. So, I would come up with different regions. This particular dish originated in the summer for a wine grower's festival in Baja, Calif., where I used to work ... I think when you taste the dish, the one thing that sticks out is the sweetness. You need something sweet, and then you've pretty much hit all sensory notes on the tongue. So, I picked a red wine reduction ... The end result was really phenomenal. And I've never seen anyone do anything chicharrón-crusted anywhere.

You talked about learning a lot -- what were some of the big things you picked up?One of the things that really opened my eyes was that a lot of really have a lot of Asian influences. That, if anything, is not my strength ... the other aspect, really, was the molecular gastronomy. I come from the old school and don't really know -- it wasn't part of my repertoire. So seeing things like that and learning -- Andrew making his iceberg and Richard doing everything that Richard does -- I brought a spoon when Richard brought an immersion circulator.

One of the judges' critiques was that you used your movie inspiration too literally. Were you judged fairly? What about the others?Looking around the room, there were some who did a better job than others at that. There were some who didn't even come close. I look at the Top Secret dish. Even though it was a pretty good dish ... it was very Asian. I think that was really one of the flaws of the challenge. A lot of didn't understand what it was ... Richard's team did a very good job putting together the whimsical nature of Willy Wonka -- and even adding chocolate to it ... Other just missed it, and as the judging progressed, I don't think that was solely weighed. I think the judging was a little all over the place. Some was dish oriented. Some was movie-oriented. Some was presentation-oriented.

How did you work with Spike? At the elimination, both of you seemed reluctant to blame the other for your dish's problems.In the end when it was just Spike and I, there was a little bit of pushing from the judges. They were looking for us to go at it. And Spike and I were looking at each other and said, "You know what? We're not going to play that game because we worked on this dish, we stand by this dish. It's not for us to decide. It's for you to decide." ... Our styles in the kitchen are different and we've never worked together so it's not something we could have foreseen. And I tend to forget that I'm a little bit older, and a little bit more experienced than most of these contestants. That was one of my flaws last night -- putting a little too much blind trust and faith into Spike. Chuck Hodes/Bravo

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