by Melissa d’Arabian
I have to admit that watching Chopped actually stresses me out so much that if I watch when it airs late in the evening, I find that I can’t sleep. My husband thinks it’s “fun” to press pause and spit out quickly what he would do if he were getting the basket. Clearly he has never been in the Chopped kitchen himself. I can’t watch Chopped without feeling like I’m the one who actually has to pull off a culinary miracle in minutes, but for you, dear readers, I will take one for the team. I will give myself 30 seconds for each round to come up with a menu. Thirty seconds; that’s it (I’m on the honor system here, I realize). Time starts — now.
Appetizer basket: Fruitcake, shad roe sack, vodka and Tokyo scallions
I imagine opening the basket on that first course and pulling out fruit cake, my mind racing to the brandy-soaked monstrosity that my mom used to make for months leading up to the holidays. (Is this the Chopped basket where all fruitcakes go to die?) My mind would be spinning in despair, but not for long because the rest of the basket has potential — shad roe sack is amazing when simply sauteed, vodka and Tokyo scallions for the most part fit into the flavor profile. Even our (fr)enemy the fruitcake can play along nicely, adding some sweetness to play off the richness of the roe sack (think seared fois gras with berry compote). The biggest challenge for me is getting the onion not to overpower the rich roe sack.
My strategy: Very thin and crisp fruit cake crostini topped with seared roe sack with a vodka and brandy reduction and a drizzle of a quick-roasted scallion and cherry (or whatever berry or jam is available in the pantry) “chimichurri.”
Entree basket: Squab, peanut butter and jelly, karela and red quinoa
The entree basket is trickier. Squab is fairly straightforward and can go in many directions, but I have to make sure not to overcook it. Peanut butter and jelly (first step: separate into two ingredients) and karela (bitter melon) are my biggest challenges. Quinoa — as long as I get it cooked, it will fit in wherever needed. (My secret for fast and easy quinoa cooking: Use the microwave! A covered bowl and 10 minutes is all you need.)
My strategy: A creamy, slightly spicy quinoa (made with some coconut milk if in the pantry), top with a cumin and coriander spice-rubbed butterflied, seared-then-roasted squab. Drizzle with brown butter (if I don’t burn it … small window!) to soften the bitter melon and balance the heat. For the karela, I’ll make a chunky salsa: peel, dice and saute the bitter melon with onion and garlic, add plenty of heat with some dried chiles (pantry), adding jelly to soften the heat and some lemon or lime to curb some of the bitterness of the karela. Pulse in the processor and drizzle on top.
Dessert basket: Mitmita, Sauternes, cottage cheese and cream-filled snack cakes
Dessert: Woo-hoo — I made it to the final round. I’m so nervous! Oh, wait, this isn’t real (I told you, I get caught up in the excitement). For this basket, I rejoice at the mitmita (Ethiopian spice mixture) because I love spice in sweets, but my heart sinks at the cream-filled snack cakes. Wine and cottage cheese — I’ll work them in once I figure out my direction. What would I do with premade cake with its own second ingredient (creamy stuff)? Two words come to mind: cake balls. I commit and go.
My strategy: Reduce alcohol from Sauternes with a cinnamon stick (to warm up with a bit of dessert-friendly spice; will go nicely with mitmita) and have on standby. Pulse the snack cakes with the cottage cheese and sauternes to make moist crumbs. Add orange zest to help with the “packaged” taste. If it’s too crumbly, add some honey and cream cheese so they stick. Roll into balls and put into the blast chiller. In remaining sauternes, add sugar and caramelize. Melt down some white chocolate and dark chocolate with a bit of shortening or coconut oil (either will help in firming when chilling) in separate bowls (microwave if available or over double-boiler). Toast up the mitmita in a pan and taste. Add to the dark chocolate. Pull cold cake balls, add sticks or a fork to make pops. Dunk in mitmita chocolate, drizzle with the Sauternes, white chocolate and caramel. If I have time, maybe I’ll dust the balls with some finely chopped pecans (add salt) for a bit of crunch. If not, just a sprinkle of coarse salt will do. Blast chill if needed and have time.
Whew. My husband might be right. That was actually fun.