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Every Wednesday, Justin Warner, winner of Food Network Star Season 8, is remixing the Chopped Champion baskets as seen in the episode the night before in pure Justin Warner-style: edgy, intense, passionate and full of witty. If you’ve ever watched an episode and found yourself yelling at the TV, “I would have made this and that instead!” then these are the posts for you.
by Justin Warner
I play the Chopped game differently from most. My goal is not to transform things but to find the simplest way to make them work together. I’m not a magician or a craftsman — I’m more like a negotiator or ombudsman. I also try to think of the ingredients as something other than what they are. Yes, they might be duck tongues, but it’s easier to play with them if you think of them as chicken tenders. Make sense? With all of that said, here’s what I would do with the baskets from last night’s episode.
Appetizer basket: Haggis, smoked Gouda, celery and prunes
First things first: We have to get over haggis. It’s just a scary version of sausage, boudin noir, liverwurst, scrapple, etc. These are all things that our grandparents ate when they were kids and they didn’t bat an eye. So let’s just relax here and assume that this is a gamey, offaly-good sausage.
Looking at the rest of the ingredients in the basket, there is a common thread of earthy, smoky, gamey and raisiny flavors. These are friends already, so the last thing to figure out is the celery, which, thankfully, is crisp and refreshing. So I came up with the idea to make a funky, earthy, smoky main component with a sauce or condiment of celery.
What I’d do: Fill those ugly prunes with smoked Gouda, then cut off a few chunks of haggis. I’ll then grab some nori from the pantry and cut them into strips to strap the haggis to the prunes. I’d heat those suckers up, then season with a little lemon juice, salt and pepper.
The celery? I’d use this as the backbone of a finely chopped pico de gallo to offset the flavors of the haggis and prunes. Behold, a modern-day version of devils on horseback!
Entree basket: Fish heads, hon shimeji mushrooms, crema and sugar cookie dough
Rolly, polly. Just say it. Fish heads are great for stock — so it looks like this will be the backbone of a stock, but they also contain some of the most primo meat in the fish — the eyes and the cheeks. Eyes might sound gross, but they are highly prized in Japanese cuisine. They have a discernibly sweet flavor and an extremely unique (to put it diplomatically) texture. The stock could be fortified with the crema to make a sauce. Add mushrooms and we have a fish-based stroganoff. Stroganoff requires pasta and since we already have dough, I’m set there.
What I’d do: Roast the fish heads in a hot oven. Simultaneously boil some water with a colander floating in it. Add one-half the mushrooms, some kombu or bonito flakes, soy sauce (great with mushrooms, big umami flavors) and plunge the fish heads in after removing the cheek meats and eyes. Let this roll until it’s time to fortify with the crema. Roast the mushrooms with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Roll out the cookie dough with a little extra flour, salt and lemon zest to neutralize some of the sweetness. Cut them into tagliatelle and boil like noodles.
Remove the colander of heads and weeds. Blend the crema with the fish stock and adjust for seasoning. Plate the noodles, add the mushrooms and top with the sauce. Place the seasoned eyes and cheeks on top. Garnish with lemon zest and no regret.
Dessert basket: Spiral ham, green plantains, water chestnuts and spiced rum
I think the first thing everyone is going to think of is bananas foster, but a green plantain is not a banana and never will be. You must think of these ingredients as what they really are. The ham is salt and smoke. The plantains are a starch. The chestnuts are texture. The rum is sugar and spices.
What I’d do: Tostones! Slice the plantains into one-fourth-inch pieces. Smash them once and drop them into a fryer. Remove them, hit them with powdered sugar. Brunoise the ham and water chestnuts to be the same size. Chuck the ham into a pan with rum, brown sugar and butter. Now we are making salted caramel, albeit ham-salted.
Put the water chestnuts in lime juice and a little sugar to give them some actual flavor. The lime juice will play nice with all the other ingredients.
Plop a tostone on a plate and add a few water chestnuts. Add another tostone on top. Add a spoon of caramel ham chunks and another tostone layer. Add chestnuts then another tostone. Add another spoon of caramel ham chunks. Top with a final tostone and hit it with powdered sugar on top. Garnish with a sugar-dipped lime. Did I just make a Napoleon? No, I made a mille-feuille. Is there a difference? Yes! I don’t make Napoleons on Chopped.