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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 wit. If you’ve ever watched an episode and found yourself yelling at the TV that you would have made this or that instead, then these are the posts for you.
by Justin Warner
I’ll be frank: sometimes I don’t know everything. Sometimes I call it a steamer and you’ll call it a sloppy Joe. Sometimes I call it a clam and you’ll call it a steamer. Sometimes you don’t know what the heck is in the basket and you just have to taste it and roll along. Even the most complex things in the food world are made of simple things. It’s when you don’t know the simple things that you should be worried about what’s in the basket!
Appetizer basket: Fruit cake, shad roe sack, vodka and Tokyo scallions
Fruit cake — fahruit cake — fahhhruuit cake. Let’s face it: it’s sweetened bread. Salt and lemon will shut it up. It’s pre-made bread though, right? With caviar? And vodka? And onion? This is a gift basket if you ask me.
What I’d do: Slice the fruitcake into 2-inch pieces and freeze them on the anti griddle. Once frozen, slice them paper-thin and hit them with a quick toast in a broiler. Add a little lemon zest to tell those candied fruits to quiet down. Meanwhile, sear those roe sacks in a hot pan to kick some water out and concentrate the salinity. I bet the judges would say, “What is Justin doing? It’s already way too salty.” Well, yes it is, and I’m making it saltier by getting rid of some water, but I’m also doing two other things — making a better and less runny texture and adding brown and dark flavors (see haggis on horseback) to add some depth to that salty mass. Before we were tidal, now we are abyss.
Mix the vodka with sour cream, creme fraiche, heavy cream or whatever dairy is laying around until it tastes okay and is a spreadable texture. Do not season! I’m telling this to myself because I’m so in it right now. The point of this mix is to calm down that super salty roe we just made. The fats and alcohols in this mixture will spread that salt all over Scott Conant’s tongue and he’ll forget about the fact that this dish is topped with raw onions. Well, actually they’re Tokyo scallions — I don’t care if they’re big or little; it’s the flavor that counts. Mince and soak them in some lightly sugared and acidulated water. Then rinse the onions and pat dry them dry with a clean towel before topping your Fruitcake Blinis With Vodka Cream, Shad ‘Caviar’ and Tokyo Scallions.
Entree basket: Squab, peanut butter and jelly, karela and red quinoa
Pro tip — If you get a bird on Chopped — debone it or, at worst, spatchcock it. You’d be a fool not to. In the end, it’ll show off your fancy knife skills. Five minutes in butchery (if you are slow) saves 10 minutes in cooking. It wouldn’t hurt to learn how to hack a pressure cooker, too.
I have to admit that I do not know how to cook quinoa and have not cooked quinoa before writing this. But if I was in the weeds, I would pressure cook it with chicken stock. I would really hate to go home because of a grain. Just put it in the pressure cooker already, OK?
Back to that deboned squab. Separate the light from the dark meat. Tie the thighs around batons of karela. The fat from the thighs makes bitter take a back seat. Now take these happy parcels and drop them in the olive oil that should have been heating at around 200 degrees F. You cannot overcook this. Pull it out and season as soon as the judges start yelling about the clock and the dude next to you loses a finger plating. Just make sure you season it!
Now butterfly the breast and throw the PB & J inside. Just relax. Have you ever had satay? Ever had turkey with cranberry? It all works, don’t worry. Hit the skin with some salt and pepper and cook this guy on high in butter, basting it as much as you can.
If the quinoa is cooked and has excess liquid, throw it in a colander and toss it over a bowl. Add that liquid to the butter from cooking the breasts. This is your “sauce.”
Plate it: Pile on some quinoa and add some breast butter and a teeny amount of salt to it. Put the breast on top, skin side up. Place the untied thigh to the right. Call this dish as it is — Squab With Quinoa and Bitter Melon. It doesn’t always have to be a dish with a name. It just has to work.
Dessert basket: Mitmita, Sauternes, cottage cheese and cream-filled snack cakes
Pro Tip — If it looks like wine or liquor, drink at least 2 ounces of it. Worst-case scenario is you’re wrong and you accidentally just drank fish sauce. Best-case scenario, everyone is jealous because you knew that Sauternes was a deliciously sweet wine, generally served as a dessert or as an accompaniment to foie gras. If you want to get me a stocking stuffer, I like Yquem.
Disclaimer: I do not know what mitmita is. If I wasn’t just writing this I could taste it. Based on the other ingredients, I would wager that it was something either salty or a spice. (Editor’s note: it’s actually a powdered seasoning mix used in the cuisine of Ethiopia.) Either way, here I go.
I would first combine the mitmita, cottage cheese, Sauternes, some whipped egg whites and a dash of heavy cream and dump it into the ice-cream maker. The alcohol will keep this guy from freezing entirely. What we’ll have here is a dairy-based sorbet. I don’t know what the technical term is, but let’s just call this a semifreddo and put it in quotes.
Next put the cream-filled cakes in a food processor. Form this mix into cookie-sized patties. Fry these patties in a tiny bit of butter. Instead of letting them cool, put them on the anti-griddle.
Make “Semifreddo” Sandwiches! And cross your fingers that mitmita tastes like spices, salt or both because I won’t know what it is until I am done writing this.