What is the best way to get creative in the kitchen while cleaning out your fridge at the same time? Hold a Chopped-style challenge with two or more players right in your own home.
For those not familiar with the show Chopped on the Food Network, it’s a four-chef, three round culinary competition hosted by Ted Allen. In every episode, each chef is given a mystery basket filled with four foods that don’t necessarily go together. For an appetizer round in 2009, for example, the boxes were filled with watermelon, canned sardines, pepperjack cheese, and zucchini.
The chefs have to find a way to make all these ingredients work together or they could be the chef who is “chopped.” One chef is eliminated in the appetizer, entrée, and dessert rounds until a $10,000 winner prevails.
Faced with a fridge of odds and ends a few weeks ago, Kenny and I held our own Chopped event at home. With only two players, it wasn’t a competition, but rather a fun way to stretch our culinary creativity.
For Kenny’s ingredients, I chose tofu, strawberries, spinach, and Heritage Heirloom Grains cereal.
Kenny gave me pickles, tempeh, whole wheat hamburgers buns, and – the real curveball here – coconut milk.
For prettiest plate, the winner was obvious. Kenny’s a visual artist, so he paid careful attention to how he constructed his plate. He made a sauté of spinach, edamame, and crispy onions, which he carefully mounded on our plates. He coated the tofu with cereal to create a crusty topping, and placed the slabs in an attractive slant on top of the vegetables. A pretty sliced strawberry, warmed on the stove, topped the dish.
I liked Kenny’s dinner. The sweetness of the strawberries went well with the warm and savory tofu and vegetables. I love a good sweet and salty combination.
For my dish, I went cold. As soon as Kenny gave me pickles, I knew I wanted to do some kind of play on a Cuban sandwich. When we went to Miami last year, our hotel served the most delicious Cuban sandwiches. They were made with thin slices of pork and ham, tangy mustard and pickles, and Swiss cheese, and served with a side of thick-cut Yucca fries that had just the right amount of salt and, I think, a hint of lime. Unsatisfied with my crab and avocado salad one night, I stole bite after bite of this sandwich from Kenny’s plate.
So I decided to make a Cuban salad. I chopped up my hamburger buns into rough squares, tossed them with oil, salt, and garlic powder, and baked them until they were crispy on the outside by still soft in the middle. On a bed of spinach, I added chunks of cheddar cheese and diced pickles and crumbled crispy veggie bacon on top. Easy stuff, so far.
I stumbled with the tempeh though. It’s an ingredient that I’ve never figured out how to use well. This time I tried slicing it thin, sautéing it in oil on the stove, and sprinkling salt on top while the slices were still warm. But the tempeh lacked flavor. (Next time, I’ll try marinating it in soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, rice wine vinegar, and water, then baking it in the oven.)
I also didn’t effectively use the coconut milk. I stirred together a few spoonfuls of the coconut milk and Dijon mustard to make a dressing for the salad. I thought the sweetness of the coconut milk might mellow out the mustard without completely masking its tangy flavor, a necessary element in a Cuban sandwich. In the end, we could taste the mustard, but not so much the coconut milk.
Despite a few missteps, the dinner was pretty good that night. But it was even more fun to think about the different ways we could use the ingredients we were given.
Have you ever held a culinary competition at home? Or participated in a real competition? Tell us about it.