Food & Spirits: “Chopped” Challenge at a Friend’s House

The judges in the middle of a tasting in the first round. My opponent's dishes are in front of them, while mine are towards the back of the table.
The judges in the middle of a tasting in the first round. My opponent’s dishes are in front of them, while mine are towards the back of the table.

It was more like Cutthroat Kitchen than Chopped! Seriously, I think the chefs on the TV show had it easier than we did last night. My friend has a group of friends that get together and do a Chopped challenge every once in a while. Knowing I like to cook, I was invited to take part in this next one. They do it slightly different: the entree round is extended to 45 minutes and in each round, the judges are allowed to add up to two additional secret ingredients midway through the round, after your dish is already on its way to being prepared. That is the real curveball here. Things that are kept the same are the three rounds (appetizer, entree, dessert), four secret ingredients in a basket to start each round, and us having to prepare a dish for each of the three judges. The theme of this showdown was “wasted”. No, we weren’t getting drunk. It was foods that are either normally thrown out, were already prepared for something else, and others that are just plain odd. Will was the master torturer basket-maker last night, never failing to keep us on our toes. Below is the recap.

Round One: Appetizer (30 minutes)

Frozen Clam Strips

Slice of stale chocolate cake

BBQ Sauce

Frozen cherry limeade

Marshmallow fluff (midway)

Mango (midway)

As soon as I saw the chocolate cake and BBQ sauce, I knew I was making a Mexican mole sauce, something I normally do not like. I put a chunk of the frozen cherry limeade into a pot so it would melt, and added the BBQ sauce and cake, along with some milk and butter, stirring until it became a liquid. I then added finely chopped jalapenos so it would have a kick. I struggled to think about a use for the clam strips, since they were breaded and really small. I decided to play it safe, and make a fritatta, throwing them into a scrambled egg mixture along with diced onion. The heat on the stove was giving me trouble, so it ended up more like a sloppy omelet. I plated it, stuck a tortilla chip in it for garnish, when in walked one of our friends with marshmallow fluff. I immediately added a heaping spoon to the mole to thicken it up and add a little sweetness. It ended up working just fine.

The plate would also be garnished with a slice of avocado and small scoop of sour cream. I was done and feeling confident when in came someone else with a mango and only five minutes on the clock. Great, what do I do with that? Having never eaten or even cut into a mango, I hacked it into chunks and threw it into a saucepan with butter and cinnamon to serve as a palate sweetener for after the fritatta. Surprisingly, this is what the judges enjoyed most out of the entire dish. Final verdict: they loved the mango, generally liked the mole sauce, and thought the fritatta was decent though they said the clams were not robust enough in the dish.

Round Two: Entree (45 minutes)

Can of salmon

Packet of funnel cake mix

Cherry jello

Banana peels

Whole wheat tortilla wrap (midway)

Chocolate-Mint Girl Scout cookies (midway)

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Making a fried salmon cake would have been a no-brainer here, but the can was so small and not enough for three plates. I went into the pantry, and lo and behold, there was a can of spam sitting there. I grabbed it and diced it up, adding it to the salmon which I shredded with a fork. The funnel cake mix would essentially serve as my “bread crumbs” for the mix, and bind the cakes together along with an egg. I fried them in a pan, and they actually smelled good. They were a little too thick for my liking and fearing they might be uncooked on the inside, I placed them in the oven for the duration of the round, hoping that would finish them off. It did. The cherry jello was up next. Not knowing where to go, I scooped it into a pot and cooked it until it liquefied. What next? I added some spinach to the liquid and steamed it in that, throwing in some salt. That was my side dish. I was now contemplating making a sandwich out of the salmon-spam cakes, but in came the midway ingredients of a whole wheat tortilla wrap and chocolate-mint cookies. I threw the tortilla into the hot oil and fried it to a crisp. That would serve as the base for the cake, almost a take on an open-faced sandwich. However, the brown of the cake and brown of the tortilla would not look too amazing. Into the fridge I went for some red, yellow, and orange peppers, and an onion. I grilled them and put them on the top of the cake.

I thought my meal was going well. The components were looking “normal” but alas, what to do with those damned banana peels? Are they even edible? Well, when it doubt, fry it! I sliced the peel into thin strips and flash-fried them to a crisp. When they were done, I added a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar and rubbed them with cookie crumbles to hopefully pick up some mint flavor. With time running out, I wanted to make a dipping sauce for the salmon cake. I whipped up an extremely simple spicy mayo, which consisted only of mayonnaise and hot sauce. Final verdict: they liked the salmon cake but thought it was too thick (I agreed with that and knew it would be a hindrance before I even plated it), enjoyed the spinach, surprisingly thought the fried banana peels were okay, and lastly, absolutely loved the spicy mayo (the easiest and simplest thing I would cook all night—go figure!).

Round Three: Dessert (30 minutes)

Canned roast beef with gravy

Block of melted Jolly Ranchers

Previously squeezed limes

Stale snickerdoodle cookies

Shredded carrot (midway)

Jalapeno peppers (midway)

dessert

I’ll be perfectly honest: this round was a pain in the ass, only because of the canned beef with gravy. It looked disgusting and smelled worse. Hell, the stuff was like something I would feed my cat. Anyway, before the round started I told myself I was going to make a French Toast and go from there. The beef held me up initially, but because there was so much gravy and hardly any beef, I pulverize-mixed it into a sauce and added cinnamon and brown sugar to give it a dessert element. While that simmered, I made the French toast. One of our friends then came in with shredded carrots. No problem there: I added them to the beef gravy and threw in heaping spoons of granulated sugar to counter the rawness of the carrot. Now for that block of melted Jolly Ranchers. It was so hard that it could not be cut in two. So, my opponent and I agreed to deal with it together and just use the finished product differently. Hoping to make a glaze, we threw the chunk into a pot with a bottle of beer to reduce it and also the lime wedges to add some acidity. Towards the end, someone else came in with jalapenos. We diced them and threw them into that Jolly Rancher reduction for some heat. It smelled really good and actually tasted ok—very sweet and spicy.

I began to plate, topping my French Toast with the Frankenstein beef-carrot concoction. Needing something else on the plate, I browned some banana slices in butter, topping with sugar and crumbs from the snickerdoodle cookie. I would then place this on top of the dish. With my plate essentially done, I had not found a use for the Jolly Rancher reduction. Being too thin for a glaze, I was puzzled. Staring at me on the table was a bottle of white wine, so I decided to pair my dessert with a spiced wine. A few spoonfuls of the reduction went into each wine glass. Not the best idea, but I needed to find some use for it. More shredded carrot was used to garnish the plate. Final verdict: whoever selected that horrid beef as an ingredient severely hampered anything either of us could produce. One judge thought my combination of the beef-carrot mix and toast tasted good, while the other two thought it was just okay. All loved the banana and wished there was more of it on the plate. As for the wine, no one took more than a couple of sips, but said it was okay. All agreed that both of us did the best we could given the ingredients at hand.

And the winner is…

Overall, the judges decided that I was the winner. The appetizer was a toss-up with me having a slight edge, they liked my entree more, and the dessert was pretty even as well. The decision was a close one. It was a lot of fun, and my opponent was very creative. She made a salad in the first round, and even dared to try a ratatouille for the main course. If you have a group of friends that like to cook, and the person making the baskets has a sinister personality, give something like this a try. Its a great way to kill a night, and the cooks really get a chance to put their skills to the test. Just please, don’t give anyone that canned beef!

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