According to a legend, nearly a mile beneath the foundation of Food Network headquarters in Chelsea Market, there exists a culinary lab of the most peculiar type. Comestibles from all over the world are gathered and transported here. The ingredients are tasted by robotic tongues. The flavor data is analyzed and each ingredient is classified by its ability to fuse with other ingredients.
Some play nicely. The humble egg frolics with oils, citrus and tiny mustard seeds. Cutesy strawberries jump with glee on a bed of goat cheese.
Some are more clique-ish. The ever-attractive artichoke only associates with the briniest of morsels. And some don’t play at all. They sulk in the corners of our gastronomic playpen. These are the palate destroyers — the over-powerers. They are preserved. They are fermented. They are canned. They are weird.
Each week, one of the most elite of Food Network’s team of sustenance scientists hand-selects four edible elements. They are placed into a sturdy black basket and transported to the surface. The baskets are presented to the most-talented chefs in the land to assemble. From what appears to be a picnic of pain emerge glorious dishes, never before seen! They are crafted with ingenuity. Upon their judgment they sing palate-pleasing songs forgotten since childhood.
Or the judges can barely choke it down and the chef has to go home with their apron between their legs. Welcome to Chopped.
Appetizer basket: smoked eel, cream cheese spread, quince paste and haricot verts
I once worked in a fancy French restaurant and a customer asked me what haricot verts were. I told him it was a $5 word for green beans.
Any time I see quince I either think of John Quincy Adams or a line from a poem: “They dined on mince and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon.” As I doubt the judges would be impressed with a portrait of our former president crafted of green beans, I’ll be making mince and quince. It’s a blessing that the quince is already prepared — they can be tricky, as they are a fruit that must be cooked — but that’s for another episode.
Smoked eel is already cooked. Next time you sit at a sushi bar, order some eel and watch the chef slice two pieces and place it under a broiler. When it’s warm, it’s removed and served. It’s a pretty simple solution for a “terrifying” ingredient. The flavors are also very simple — sweet and smoky, somewhere between catfish and the dark meat of a chicken. One of my absolute favorite flavor combinations is eel, shiso and sansho. To simulate these flavors I would chiffonade basil and mint (both great with haricot verts) and mash this with some green peppercorns and chunks of eel. Use a cookie cutter to form the mix and place it on a sizzle platter to be broiled last-minute.
In Brooklyn we have America’s best bagels (please feel free to argue this statement in the comments below). To accompany, we serve schmears (flavored cream cheeses) of all kinds. It’s time to make green bean-flavored cream cheese. Blanch the green beans to enhance their color and tenderize them. Shock them in cold water, then dice and pulse them in a food processor with a little lemon juice and salt to make a light and fluffy, semi-chunky haricot schmear. Using a soup spoon, grab a dollop of this mix. Plop it on the left side of the plate and drag the back of the spoon through the center of the mix to make a sort of cream-cheesy comet-looking thing (yes, that’s how they do it).
Put your eel pucks in the broiler. Cut the quince paste to be about 1/3 the thickness of your eel puck. Remove the pucks from the oven. Place the pucks on the plate near the tail of the cream cheese comet. Top the eel pucks with the quince paste. Garnish the quince paste with fleur de sel and a few crushed green peppercorns.
Serve while reciting “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
Entree basket: frog legs, yuzu marmalade, gin and tofu
Take a sip of gin and think for a moment.
Frog legs are just the chicken wings of the pond — so the only difficulty in this challenge is how to make what is normally served as an appetizer stand tall and proud as a composed entree. I see a lot of chefs serving “composed” plates of “______ served three (or whatever number) of ways.” This is risky business because the chef will always be judged by the weakest iteration of the preparation methods — Alton Brown once told me that. What I need to do here is make a big canvas to paint on.
Pasta has been making negative space taste good since the mill was invented.
Heat oil to 375 degrees F. Boil and salt some water. When the oil is at temp, drop the legs into the fryer. Cook until warm in the thigh — use a cake-tester to figure this out. Let these cool for a minute and move on to your sauces.
Two sauces: one for the legs and one for the pasta. Over low heat, melt the yuzu marmalade with some butter. Once this is bubbling and sticky, stir in some chili powder, a little allspice, some clove and mustard. This is now a Cajun glaze for our frog legs. Keep this warm.
Tofu, whether carnivores like it or not, is a staple in most East-Asian diets, and is highly regarded for its flavor and health properties. It can also lend a nice creamy consistency to sauces. Most chefs in America use tofu as a canvas, when in fact it should be a pretty shade with which to paint. Leave the canvassing to fettuccine, which you should have started boiling at the beginning of this paragraph. In a blender, combine some gin, salt, lemon juice, the tofu and some cream to loosen. What we are making here is somewhere between a fake ranch and a fake Alfredo sauce. Gin is flavored with herbs, so in small doses it can add a really nice gardeny flavor to things. Blend all of this together and pass it through a chinois to make it smooth. Press it if you have to. Make sure the tofu flavor is not masked by the cream. Heat this sauce until it is time to plate.
Rip the meat off the frog legs. By cooking it a little, it’s less prone to tearing and should slide right off. Drop these meaty bits into some rice flour and re-fry until golden brown and delicious. It shouldn’t take long, because they are already cooked and warm. Remove from the oil and toss these amphibian nuggets in the Cajun-esque yuzu glaze. Toss the pasta in the warm tofu sauce. Plate the pasta and sauce first, topped with chunks of Kermit. Garnish with fresh black pepper.
Dessert basket: jackfruit, Araucana eggs, coconut macaroons and chocolate-covered pretzels
On Food Network Star, I made a vegan dish for Paula Deen. I love being able to cook for anyone, no matter the limitations or restrictions. By studying vegetarian cuisine, I learned about jackfruit, which is basically the pulled pork of fruits. I have no idea what Araucana eggs are, but it must be either a bird or a reptile. Please don’t do this at home, but if I’m making it to the dessert round of Chopped I am going to win by any means necessary. Even if that means eating a raw egg. In Japan, a lot of folks beat an egg with a little soy sauce and add it to “natto,” which is a kind of foul-smelling fermented soybean. I like this dish and am very capable of eating a raw egg in one go, so just to understand the flavor of the Araucana eggs I would do this. To many this would seem gross, but I’ll be gross all the way to the bank if I win the dessert round.
Separate those eggs and put the whites in a stand mixer with some sugar and orange juice; beat it until fluffy. Reserve the yolks. Spoon out this mass onto a plate. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and put the plate in the microwave for just a few seconds to set the proteins. Now we have a sweet cloud of orangey goodness. This is called a Vauquelin and it was invented by Herve This, one of my favorite people ever. Cut your Vauquelin into two shapes to resemble hamburger buns. Put equal parts of macaroon and pretzels in a food processor and pulse until uniform. Throw this in the microwave for 20 seconds on half power, stir and repeat until it is gooey. Form this into two fast food-looking “patties” and put it in the fridge. You just made a no-bake cookie “burger.” Now jackfruit is crazy sticky, so oil up your blade and one hand. Cut through the fruit and scoop out the flesh that surrounds the seeds. Pull this apart so it resembles pulled pork. Toss it with a little brown sugar, some lime juice and a nice chiffonade of mint.
Now it gets crazy. Put the bottom “bun” on the plate. Add the “patty” and top the “patty” with some “pulled pork” and make a well in the center of it. Carefully put the egg yolk in the well. Sprinkle with a little sugar and brulee. Gently cover with more “pulled pork” and another “patty.” Put the other “bun” on top. Immediately before serving, cut in half and watch that sweet egg yolk drip down the center.
Congratulate yourself for making the world’s first confectionary Araucana Juicy Lucy. (The Juicy Lucy is a popular style of burger in Minnesota.)