While I was in California, I was watching “Chopped” on Food Network − I’m watching it now too, so I guess the whole California part is irrelevant − which is a cooking competition where each contestant gets a basket with four secret ingredients and they have to make a dish using all the ingredients and ingredients from the communal pantry and fridge. Before you starting thinking, “Gosh, that sounds really easy”, it’s not. The ingredients are not things you would normally put together. Maybe in the beginning the producers weren’t quite pushing the boat out − one episode in the first season had duck breast, green onions, ginger, and honey as main course ingredients. Sorry, but who couldn’t make that work? − but here we are in season 16 and things are a bit more difficult. What would you do with freeze dried roast beef, torshi, rainbow chard, and mint yogurt soda (see more previous lists of ingredient here)?
Anyway, whenever I watch this show, I’m always yelling at the TV, “Why didn’t you just…”, “I would’ve…”, “These people call themselves chefs? They didn’t even think about…”. You get the picture. Like quiz shows, it’s always easier without the pressure and cameras and screaming voices in your head, but I was sure I could do this so I set about organizing an at-home version of “Chopped”. Luckily, all my friends were as excited as I was and took to the challenge with gusto. I appointed a judge, she invited a friend and then one of our fellow competitors ran out of time for her entry so she became the third judge.
It was Friday night before the challenge, 6pm, and the ingredients arrived by text to all competitors. Oh, the suspense! The four ingredients we had to use were ground turkey, rhubarb, blue cheese and corn flakes. The ground turkey started out as shrimp, but for ease of transportation and rewarming that was vetoed and ground turkey was substituted. When I finally got the chance to go to the supermarket, it was 10pm and I was wandering around, staring blankly at the shelves, muttering to myself about rhubarb and corn flakes. One of the rules was that we weren’t allowed to use the internet to look up recipes or get inspiration; this had to come totally from our own imaginations.
Ultimately, I decide that I was going to do meatballs (besides burgers and meatloaf, what the heck else am I going to do with ground turkey?) and we all know that turkey needs a lot of help to have any flavor. So, I started to think about what went with the other ingredients and what would work to flavor the turkey. Rhubarb…rhubarb, ginger…rhubarb, ginger, orange…rhubarb, ginger, orange and mint! Slowly a dish began to form in my head: turkey meatballs with ginger and mint with rhubarb, ginger and orange sauce…but it has to be a main course, it needs stodge. Gnocchi! We had just had a gnocchi dish the day before at Piacere and they would be the perfect starch to fill out the dish without adding heaviness. Plus, they only need to be boiled for a few minutes and then quickly browned in butter at the last minute. While we didn’t have any time constrictions within the competition, I had my own personal timing issues as we had a garage sale the day of the competition and I had very little time to get all my ingredients prepared. Lastly, I needed some sort of vegetable. I love greens and I think they go with everything; they always add the right amount of earthiness and bitterness and just round things out. I went for rainbow chard because the colors are beautiful and I thought it might be a green that the other competitors might not think to use.
So, turkey meatballs with rhubarb, ginger and orange sauce, gnocchi and rainbow chard. Wait! What about the blue cheese and corn flakes? At first I was thinking of coating the blue cheese in the ground up corn flakes and frying it, but I didn’t quite know how I would incorporate that with my meatballs to make a cohesive dish. In the end I decided to make a cheesy crumble to sprinkle over the top of the whole dish to add a bit of crunch. I gave the rolling pin treatment to the corn flakes and used them to dust a buttered dish. Then I added in the dough made from blue cheese, eggs, flour and milk and baked until golden and bubbling. After it sat for about 10 minutes, I broke it up into pieces. The blue cheese flavor didn’t come through as strongly as I hoped, but I didn’t have time to change my mind, so I moved on.
The next order of business was the rhubarb sauce. I chunked the rhubarb, slice up a thumb of ginger, and chopped a red onion. I sautéed this mixture in butter until slightly soft, then I added orange rind and the juice of an orange and reduced the sauce for about 10 minutes. At the end I added white balsamic vinegar and mint to give the sauce a kind of chutney vibe. I hand blended it until smooth and set aside.
Next were the meatballs. I minced garlic, ginger and mint and added them to the ground turkey with some panko and an egg. I thought afterwards that I could’ve used the corn flakes as the binder, but I doubt the judges would’ve noticed without me telling them so I don’t think I would change that if I could go back. I broiled the meatballs until brown and firm to the touch and then moved on to the greens. I sliced the chard thinly and sautéed with ginger and garlic. At the end of the cooking I added another splash of white balsamic to give them that edge and they were perfect.
The moment of truth was upon us and we all had to reheat and finish off our dishes for the judges. Somehow, even though I drew number one, I ended up going third. First up was a turkey blue cheese slider with rhubarb sauce and a raw rhubarb, celery and apple salad with corn flake crumbs. The rhubarb had been soaked in vinegar and it lost its sharp edge and went really well with the raw celery and apple.
Next up were turkey blue cheese meatballs (with corn flakes as the binder) with blue cheese mashed potatoes and kale with stewed rhubarb which had been soaked in jalapeño pickling liquor.
I was next up with my turkey, ginger and mint meatballs with rhubarb, ginger and orange sauce, pan fried gnocchi, ginger rainbow chard and blue cheese crumble. (You might notice that the photos go downhill rather quickly after the second plate. In fact, there is no existing photo of the fourth and final dish which is a shame because it was awesome.)
Fourth was a turkey kofte with tabbouleh, rhubarb and blue cheese tzasiki and garlic corn flakes. Sautéing corn flakes in garlic butter is genius and I’m only angry I didn’t think of it. We munched on those the rest of the night. Also, the rhubarb and blue cheese tzasiki worked so well, I couldn’t believe how delicious it was. The only place where the fourth dish fell down was in presentation and for that reason my dish won out with a half of a point to spare.
Ultimately, we all had a blast and we got to flex our culinary muscles. I was extremely impressed with the creativity and ingenuity of my friends: raw rhubarb soaked in vinegar and put in a salad, rhubarb soaked in jalapeño liquor and stewed with kale, blue cheese and rhubarb tzasiki! Just incredible and the whole night was a humongous success. Hopefully there will be many more of these competitions to come. Try it out with your friends, you never know, one of you might invent the next big thing!