My family and I are big fans of the TV cooking show, “Chopped”. We don’t actually have a TV, but when we go to the beach, one of the perks of those dismal, rainy days is getting to stretch out on the sandy couches and watch our favorite celebrity chefs produce gourmet viands.
“Chopped” is a cooking contest in which four chefs compete to produce a three-course meal using key ingredients from baskets, which they are each given at the beginning of the round. There are three rounds, one for each course, and one chef is eliminated each time, leaving one chef the champion of that “Chopped Challenge”. The ingredients in the baskets are unknown to the contestants until they actually open them, on the show, and they are given a very short amount of time to produce their entries – exciting. They are judged on taste, presentation, and creativity. The ingredients are usually either odd combinations or just plain weird, so the show is very fun to watch (if you’re into cooking).
We came up with an idea to play off of this show on our own, and stage a personal “Chopped” night here at the Residence. All of us love to cook, and Christine, Mary, and I thought we might be up to the challenge of cooking with surprise ingredients, selected by our mom. We chose to cook together, as a team, rather than compete against one another. Competing would have been a little too difficult, I believe, since we would all be in the same kitchen at the same time, getting in each other’s way and stealing each other’s ideas. <wink> Plus, our family is all about unification. 😀
So, weeks ago, my mom started planning our “Chopped” night. She carefully selected the ingredients for each course, and successfully kept them all completely secret until we saw them (moments before diving into the kitchen to cook). She invited another couple to join us as judges (Rick & Beverly Hergenreter), so that a [hopefully] gourmet three-course meal would not go to waste on two. Peter decided to play Ted Allen’s role of emcee, and get to partake in the food as well.
Last night, we finally did it.
Christine, Mary, and I had been looking forward to this evening for weeks. We were so excited about seeing the ingredients our mom had chosen, and just a little nervous about coming up with a creative idea for each “basket” (our mom actually did paper bags, which was cooler).
Our guests arrived, and the chefs and judges were introduced. My mom had given the three of us chefs toques, which we were sporting with pride. My grandfather assures me that if you’re going to cook, you need to wear the hat; otherwise, people tend to question your seasoning choices or cooking times. The hat, he insists, gives you ultimate authority in the kitchen. I have to agree with him there.
Amid much excitement and suspense, we opened the first paper bag. For the appetizer round, we had to use radicchio, boxed macaroni & cheese, fresh strawberries, and multigrain corn thins. I was absolutely horrified when I pulled out the macaroni & cheese. Junk food?! What was my mom thinking?? What in the world were we going to DO?
We dashed into the kitchen. In less than two minutes, we had a plan. Even I can’t believe we decided on something that quickly. We decided to form the macaroni & cheese into mock arancini, coat them in corn thin crumbs, fry them, and serve them in a pool of strawberry sauce on a radicchio leaf (radicchio is a purple, bitter, Italian chicory). Arancini are fried rice balls, commonly made from leftover risotto, coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Christine and I had made them once or twice before this, and had had huge success. We just hoped that using cheap macaroni & cheese would work as well as risotto.
Mary started on the strawberries, I got a pot of water boiling and peeled off radicchio leaves, and Christine threw the corn thins in the blender to pulverize. On “Chopped”, the contestants are given 20 minutes for the appetizer. I guess we had that in mind, because we were moving as fast as we possibly could, even though we had decided not to time our rounds. Before long, our macaroni was cooked and the disgusting cheese packet added. We were at a little bit of a loss when it came to forming our macaroni balls, though. Risotto is very starchy, so it sticks together automatically. Macaroni & cheese, on the other hand, doesn’t. We dumped a few things in, we used a pastry blender to chop up the noodles a little more to allow for golf-sized balls instead of tennis-sized, and began to fry. Christine is an expert fryer. I am petrified of hot oil, myself, so we were all grateful to have Fearless C on our team. 🙂
I tackled the strawberry sauce while the arancini fried, adding a little balsamic vinegar to cut the grease, and then some sugar, to soften the acidity. Mary painstakingly sliced strawberries into little fans, leaving the green tops intact, to use as a garnish. Peter was frequently in the kitchen with Christine’s camera, asking how things were going, so we have pictures of each of dishes, as well as our entire experience.
A radicchio leaf, a scoop of sauce, one of our arancini, and a strawberry on top for garnish – we named it “Mock Arancini with Strawberry Balsamic Reduction, served on Radicchio”.
We wowed our judges with the presentation of the appetizer – I’m not exactly sure what they were expecting, but apparently not what we gave them. I think that’s a good thing. 😉 Combining scores, they gave us a 7.5 for taste, 10 for presentation, and 8.5 for creativity (all scores out of 10), 8.5 overall. Our strawberry sauce got rave reviews, but our arancini were lacking flavor, and one of the judges dinged us on creativtiy, saying, “Using the radicchio leaf as a cup for the rest of the appetizer is SO 5-minutes-ago.” Regardless, we were pleased with ourselves for surprising them, and for using the macaroni in a creative way, rather than sticking it in a pile on the plate.
We opened the next bag.
For the entree round, we had gluten-free granola, tilapia fillets, fennel bulb, and freeze-dried apple chips.
Honestly, I wasn’t too worried until we got back into the kitchen and opened up the apples. I was expecting those little apple chips you see in stores sometimes…really thin, kind of crunchy, a skinny band of red peel all the way around the edge…hard to explain. Anyway, these were NOT those. They weren’t just dried; they were freeze-dried. That meant that they were basically the same size as regular apple slices, but they had the consistency of styrofoam and a strong fake flavor. We brushed them aside for the moment, went with the obvious path of crushing the granola and breading our fish in it, and using the fennel in a chutney of sorts on top. The apple chips were the bane of our existence. What to do, what to do?
Christine suggested we try throwing them in some hot water to rehydrate them, and use them that way. We did that with a few of them, but thank goodness we didn’t use the whole package – remember, they weren’t DRIED. They were FREEZE-dried. So all of the fake apple flavor with which they had been injected was sucked out into the water, leaving us with limp pieces of white mush, which somehow used to be apple.
We threw them into the pot with our fennel, and added some real chopped apple on top of it, to reinforce the apple flavor. A little butter, some white wine, fresh lemon juice, and a handful of cranberries, and our chutney was well on its way to being ready.
The fish, breaded in crushed granola and parmesan, was in the oven. It was hard to remember to keep an eye on it, but it ended up not overcooking (baruch HaShem!).
Christine realized that we had no filler. We had used pasta in the first round, so we knew we couldn’t double that up and use it as a bed for our fish in this round…but what to use instead? Rice would take too long, so we went with quinoa. Well, we *started* to go with quinoa, but then we ditched it and cut up some potatoes. Christine crisped them up in some oil, getting that nice brown color on both sides. Mary made a mustard sauce to add some pop (one of the judges had specifically mentioned mustard in the previous round, so we hoped this would win us some favor).
A swirl of mustard sauce, two crispy potato rounds, a fish fillet gently resting on top of them, with a scoop of fennel chutney and a lemon twist – we called it “Granola-Encrusted Tilapia Fillets Over Crispy Potato Rounds, served with a Fennel Apple Chutney and Creamy Mustard Sauce”.
The judges gave us 9.5 on taste, 9.5 on presentation, and 8.5 on creativity, for a total of 9.0 overall. They cited a lack of color on our plate – everything looked a little brown; if we had added a green vegetable of some sort, it would have really added to the presentation. The taste was great (the fish was perfectly cooked!), and our mustard sauce was the star of the show. We lost points because there wasn’t enough! One judge renamed it the “Dancing Lemon, Reclining Tilapia”, and another said that our chutney was amazing, and there was a perfect ratio of chutney to fish.
At this point, we opened the next bag, but we didn’t start on it immediately. We took our time, had some dinner ourselves, and stared thoughtfully at our dessert ingredients.
For the dessert round, we had to use cinnamon-sugar donuts, white chocolate, aged cheddar cheese, and limes.
I was totally stumped.
All of my ideas incorporated everything so perfectly, and I would get excited about trying them, and then I would remember the cheddar, and that I hadn’t worked it in. It stuck out like a sore thumb – like the fourth side of a triangle.
We brainstormed as we ate, feasting on revamped arancini, the remainder of the fish, drowned in mustard sauce, and grape leaves stuffed with rice (an Earth Fare treat my mom had picked up for us). Finally, we decided.
We cut the donuts in half and toasted them, melting some of the cheddar on the bottom halves, and sprinkling them with some turbinado sugar and shaved ginger. The top halves, we dipped in melted white chocolate, grated lime zest all over them, and stuck them in the refrigerator to harden. Looking for a sandwich effect, we made a lime and cream cheese filling to stick between the layers, which turned out to be our demise. A lot of lime juice went into that cream cheese, and we still weren’t happy with the end result. Right before we finished plating, we decided it needed more color, so we stuck some bright yellow mango on top.
A donut half, topped with melted aged cheddar, turbinado, and ginger shavings, with a dollop of lime cream and a mango strip, with another donut half, dipped in white chocolate and covered in lime zest, leaning against it – we had such trouble coming up with an inventive name! We went with “Lime Cloud atop a Sugar Donut with Ginger and Aged Cheddar, served with a Mango Involtini”. As an aside, an involtini is actually a thin strip of something (usually beef or chicken), stuff and rolled up. In this case, it was a mango roll, but we wanted a classier name than that. The judges were suitably impressed. 😉
We dove back into the kitchen as soon as we brought it out, because we all knew it wasn’t going to be great. We didn’t want to hear the judges reactions. We were exhausted, exceptionally hot, and very ready to sit down and relax.
Sure enough, our dessert scored lowest. We got a 6 on taste, 8 for presentation, 7 for creativity, and a 7.0 overall. The taste, the judges said, was confusing. They loved the top donut half, with the white chocolate and lime – excellent! But the lime cream was too sour, and they didn’t have enough cheddar cheese to get that exciting salty flavor in with the sweet. We could only agree.
Of course, after the whole thing was over, we figured out exactly how we should have used the cheddar, to create a stunning and delicious dessert. But then it was too late. <sigh>
Mary made us chefs some anise tea (a new Pukka digestif we picked up recently – great stuff!), and we sat down with the judges and talked the whole thing through, beginning to end, all the dirty details. It was such fun. They were kind enough to say that it was very hard for them to critique us, as they were blown away by what we had done with each paper bag.
Be that as it may, I’m just in shock that we were able to do it at all. No recipes, no measurements, no prior knowledge of the ingredients? I’m amazed! Just goes to show you what an incredible cook and teacher our mom must be, you know?
Happy Mother’s Day, Mums. 🙂 We love you!
P.S. – we’re looking for a repeat performance next month! Woohoo!
[today is twenty days of the Omer; that is, 2 weeks and 6 days]