by Justin Warner
Too many times I see chefs label themselves, to their demise. A Chopped champion is one who can abandon his or her style and cook according to the ingredients in the basket. Sometimes the most rebellious thing a chef can do is to be conservative and make simple fare. Having a set point of view should not be equated to wearing blinders. If anything, a POV gives a chef a different vantage point, so as to differently survey what is necessary to put food on the table.
Appetizer basket: sour-apple martini mix, mortadella, white asparagus and fennel
Sour-apple martini mix is disgusting stuff. It doesn’t taste like apples; it tastes like green candy. I don’t know where in its evolution sour apple decided to taste like something unrelated to apples, but overcoming this challenge is why I’m here. Mortadella, white asparagus and fennel can all play together — it’s just a matter of getting that bottle of green treacle to play nicely, as well.
As opposed to whipping out the xanthan gum and Anti-Griddle, I’ve decided that the best way to get these sore thumbs to function like proper digits is to invite a whole posse of arugula to the party. Yes, I’m making a simple salad. Sometimes you can’t force ingredients to work together; you have to give them space.
First, melt some butter. Cube the mortadella and plop it in a food processor with some salt, black pepper and a tiny bit of ground star anise (same flavor compounds as in fennel). Blend this with the butter until smooth. Chill this mixture until plating time.
Shave half of the fennel as thinly as possible. If there are any frilly greens on top, save a few of those for garnishing. Put the rest of the fennel in a pot with the sour-apple martini mix. Heat this until the fennel is tender, then place into a blender. Pass through a chinois and add a little champagne vinegar. Vinegar, being rotten juice, has a delightful organic flavor to it, which I think can temper the inorganic flavor of the martini mix. Now emulsify this with whatever nut-based oil is in the pantry. Why nut based? Mortadella has pistachios in it, so now your vinaigrette can tango with it. While we are on the subject, grab some pistachios from the pantry and smash them up — if they are in the shell, save this step for last. These will add another dimension of texture to the dish, but it would be a real shame to not have any plated dishes because we were futzing around with pistachio shells.
Use a peeler to shave the asparagus. Mix this with the fennel we shaved earlier. Toss this with the arugula. The goal of the arugula in this situation is to make the white and green elements kind of equal.
Use an offset spatula to smear the “pate of mortadella” that we just made onto the bottom of the plate. Cover this with your fennel-asparagus-arugula mix. Top with fennel fronds and the nuts mentioned above. If there is a spray bottle dump the dressing in there, and mist the salad.
Why pate on the bottom? When the judges stab at this with their forks they will use the plate to spear the ingredients onto the tines of said fork. This action will cause a little of the salty pate to be the last thing on the fork and the first thing in their mouths. The accompanying greens will provide texture, while also amplifying and echoing the flavors of the pate.
Does it have a name? No. Is it completely wacky? No. Am I in the next round? You bet.
Entree basket: calf’s liver, fava greens, honey wine and halloumi
People always ask me what the weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten is. Probably raw calf’s liver, with raw garlic and sesame oil (delicious!).
I think you know where this is going, and this is where I would be labeled “a serious contender” or “a complete nut job.”
Another high-risk maneuver? The chefs are going to use the calf’s liver as the centerpiece; I’m going to use the halloumi instead. What? Cheese as a main course? Read on.
Put the calf’s liver on the anti-griddle. We are going to freeze it so we can make paper-thin slices of it later.
Fry some bacon up and wilt half of the fava greens in it. Deglaze with honey wine. While this is going, put some sesame oil, sesame seeds and garlic in a blender with the rest of the fava greens: sesame fava pesto. Add plenty of lemon juice — acidity in this dish is key. Fava greens are earthy, liver is livery and honey wine is sweet. I can’t stress enough the importance of this step.
Grill the halloumi — that’s what it’s there for. It’s a cheese that doesn’t melt. So get over it and grill it! All the while baste with honey wine. Once you’ve got a nice lacquer and some grill marks on it, sprinkle some toasted sesame seeds and black pepper atop. Cut this in to “steaks.”
Working quickly, pile some of the greens on the plate. Rest the “steaks” on top of this. Put your knife in to a flame and shave off some liver, as thinly as possible. Place these raw liver strips on top of the “steak.” Dress the whole thing with fava pesto.
Name this dish: Formaggio alla Griglia con Fegato Crudo e Pesto di Fava
Why in Italian? Naming a dish in another language signals a few things. First, that you are such a well-studied chef that you know many ingredients in many languages. Second, that you are drawing inspiration from Italian cuisine. Finally, it makes raw liver sound elegant.
Dessert basket: marashino cherries, Greek yogurt, canned espresso and corn nuts
I don’t understand this basket. If I had a big bowl of all of these things, I’d devour it. I guess the idea is getting the ratios correct.
First, drain the goo from the cherries. Put it in a pot with some espresso and bring to a quick boil. Add some ice cubes to chill it, but also to dilute it. We’re kind of making a pre-sweetened cherry Americano. Pass this through a chinois.
Scrape some vanilla beans into the yogurt. Add some egg whites and some of your cherry Americano mix. Transfer to the ice-cream machine. The second it comes out of the ice-cream machine, put it in the blast chiller. We want this to be cold, because we are about to make fried ice cream.
Heat some oil to 375 degrees F. Pulse the corn nuts in a food processor with a little cayenne, some salt and a little of the espresso. Transfer to a bowl and add a bit of baking powder. Make a batter of this using club soda.
Scoop the fro yo, roll quickly in all-purpose flour, dunk in the batter and quickly fry.
We call this: Cherry and Coffee FroYo