Have you ever run into one of those television marathons -- non-stop episodes of Laverne and Shirley or Seinfeld? On New Years Day, we were pooped and so were sucked into the vortex of a marathon viewing of the tv show Chopped.
For the uninitiated, let me explain how Chopped works: four contestants are each given a basket of mystery ingredients, access to a well-stocked kitchen, and 20 minutes to make an appetizer. One of the shows we watched the other day asked the contestants to use Korean short ribs, gefelte fish, lemon thyme and zucchini to make their appetizers. When the clock runs out, the food is served to professional chefs who are really exacting judges. One contestant is eliminated -- or chopped -- before the entree round, and then another before the dessert round. After dessert, the Chopped Chef Champion is crowned.
The show gave Dave a brilliant idea: we would provide each child with a basket of ingredients at the beginning of the day and they would be required to serve us a three-course meal. They could start as early as they liked -- our only time requirement was that they had to be prepared to plate (see, I paid attention to the lingo!) by 6:00 p.m. sharp. Judging would follow -- with results released after Thursday's meal. Everyone but the chef was allowed to vote in three categories: Taste, Presentation and Creativity. Parents' votes counted for double the points.
We drew lots to see who would go first. There was exchange of cash for switching of positions (first place cost $1.25, I believe).
Our first chef rose earlier than he has all holiday. He is the child who has attended chef camp three times now and is an accomplished cook. He was given as his list of ingredients: delicata squash, snow peas and Asian pears. At the last minute, we added coconut to the list of required ingredients.
In late morning, our chef and his dad went shopping: leeks were required for his plan. By noon, he was on the job. Great smells wafted up to me where I was working, and I was called down for consultation about how to cut the squash.
The first course was a vichyssoise -- a cold potato leek soup -- garnished with a puree of squash, roasted with ginger and brown sugar, and snow peas. Let me say that I've never seen a squash roasted to such caramel perfection. I begged a taste from the chef and my mouth was dazzled. At the meal itself, the soup was delicious, seasoned to perfection, with the puree and the peas offering a surprisingly fresh counterpoint to the creaminess of the soup. The soup was a bit chunky -- which led me to ask the chef why he had chosen this, him to explain that he didn't want it to be just a big liquidy soup like a bowl of vomit, and his siblings to discuss the actual chunky texture of vomit. But, remember the part about the caramel perfection. Yes, let's focus on the caramel perfection.
The second course was handmade pasta with a deliciously light tomato-beef sauce. The sauce apparently was lightened by the addition of chicken stock. The pasta was quite heavy, though well-cooked. It turned out that our pasta maker was also temperamental today, so the pasta had been rolled and cut by hand. It was more than edible. Our only complaint was portion size: we wanted more. This raised the issue of eel: on one episode of Chopped, the chefs had been given eel to deal with and several of them had offered far, far too much snaky eel as part of their entrees. Light tomato sauce, light tomato sauce.
Dessert followed and explained the buttery smells that had permeated the house all afternoon. The chef had caramelized butter and maple syrup with slices of Asian pears, and then had covered the fruit with a layer of buttery pastry to make a Tarte Tatin. He cut this into wedges and served it with lightly-sweetened fresh whipped cream and toasted coconut. We had learned from the Chopped judges to look for a variety of textures and an interplay of tastes and this course delivered. So much so that there were no gory allusions made throughout this course. Instead there was moaning and applause.
As we drained our glasses of blood orange frizzante, garnished with slices of blood orange, we gave our feedback to the chef and then wrote our judgments on individual pieces of paper, which were then collected and put into safekeeping.
Tonight's chef had tired legs after an afternoon in the kitchen, but he was satisfied. As his sister prepared her menus and checked on her marinating pickled beets in the fridge, though, he had to wonder: Would It Be Enough?