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The Next Food Network Star Episode 4: 'It made my plate sing!'

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Host Bobby Flay and Episode 4 guest judges (l-r) Jonathan Waxman and LA chefs Susan Feniger and Eric Greenspan (Photo courtesy The Food Network/Used with permission)

Host Bobby Flay and Episode 4 guest judges (l-r) Jonathan Waxman and LA chefs Susan Feniger and Eric Greenspan (Photo courtesy The Food Network/Used with permission)
For its sixth season, The Next Food Network Star was shot in Los Angeles, and among the 12 finalists vying for their very own Food Network show are 3 locals, including food blogger and LAist alum Aarti Sequeira. Each week, Aarti will give us her take on the episode, from her unique insider's perspective. Will she be named The Next Food Network Star? We won't know until the finale. Last week, things got hot hot hot on the red carpet; here's how Episode 4 looked from inside the kitchen...

What's not to love about Susan Feniger?

There's that spunky personality, a smile so big that seems to squeeze her eyes into little slits (a trait I share!), the umpteen dangly earrings hanging from each lobe... oh and that laugh. That infectious laugh! It starts somewhere deep in her tummy, and ends somewhere in yours. I love it.

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Plus, she's a hometown girl. Boy, did I want to impress her!

But oh, how happy was I when I DIDN'T get her favorite food memory to re-create. Fried chicken?! Uh-uh, honey. Not my forte. No, I was well-chuffed with getting Jonathan Waxman's lamb and potatoes dish. I immediately thought of my favorite lamb dish, kofta kebabs with pomegranate molasses. Plus, I thought Susan would get a kick out of it. Since opening Street, she's become synonymous with international street foods. And that's a kind of food that really speaks to me. It's honest, pretension-free food, borne out of the cook's love of one particular dish -- they usually have a very personal connection to their concoction, especially if it's good!


Aarti cooks during the "Peppers" Camera Challenge (Photo courtesy The Food Network/Used with permission)
Street food is usually affordable, and you're eating with everyone from the fancy suits to the people whose hands are gnarled and dirty from working with them all day. It's the great common denominator. Sometimes the food is messy; you have to use your hands, and lick your fingers. It's visceral. Plus, there's the face-to-face interaction between the cook and the recipient, which was something I missed when I did my stint in a restaurant. I love seeing people's reactions to my food, especially if they like it! The vitality, the life force surging out of street food vendors is magnetic. You want to see what they have to offer! And clearly, I'm not the only one who loves it. To say food trucks are everywhere in LA would be an understatement. In fact, that day, after cooking at Feniger's restaurant (with Mary Sue Miliken) Ciudad, we got to sample some of the goodies from their Border Grill Truck. The churros, people. You've got to try those gosh-darned churros. Ooof!

So, what you didn't see on the show, was Bobby pushing me. Hard. He came into the kitchen, striking a cold streak of fear in our hearts -- I still can't believe I got that much cooking done in an hour -- and while I impressed him by telling him I'd made pomegranate molasses from scratch, he quickly spied the pile of Persian cucumbers on the table.

"What are those for?" he asked.

I start sweating profusely, worried about my onions burning on the stove, and a little annoyed that he'd noticed the cucumbers. I hadn't told them about the cucumbers.

"Well, if I have time, I was going to make a cucumber raita to go with the lamb and potatoes," I answered meekly.

"Aarti," (I love the way he says my name. He really hits that "t"). "Aarti, you have got to work faster in the kitchen. You've got to multitask."

"I knooooow, Bobby," I whined. "But..."

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"Nope. I want that raita. You've got to make it."

Sigh. "Yes, chef."

So in between spluttering panch poran (Indian five spice blend) and caramelizing onions, mashing 2 lbs of potatoes through a ricer, forming kofta kebabs, cooking them on a commercial grill (so much hotter than my little grill pan at home, so my skewers went up in flames!), and basting them with the pomegranate molasses glaze I'd made... I made a raita.

And I'm so glad he pushed me to do it. Because it made my plate sing! And hey, I won!

It's the perfect weather for raitas. I make the traditional kind a lot: cucumbers (either grated or sliced into coins), a clove of minced garlic, a handful of mint, lots of yogurt and a pinch of salt. Cucumbers are cooling, and both the yogurt and the mint help you digest. But don't be restricted by the traditional version. I've seen them with chickpeas, tomatoes and cilantro. Think of the yogurt and mint as a very simple ranch dressing. The fresh veggies at the farmers market are your playground!

The Next Food Network Star airs Sundays @9 p.m. on The Food Network.