Planning and living through a kitchen remodel can be stressful business, and my husband, Les, and I are looking for fun ways to distract ourselves from the chaos that will undoubtedly ensue when our remodel begins at the end of summer. We both want to whittle down some of the excess pantry and freezer inventory in our kitchen (and the overflow in the laundry room and the garage) so that we don’t carry it over into our redesigned space. I will admit that I am a bit of a pack rat when it comes to foodstuffs—I cannot seem to resist purchasing unusual ingredients when I see them on a market run. I mean, one never knows when it might be handy to have an extra package of raw cacao on reserve. Or three. Yes, we have a lot of stuff.
Les and I are avid fans of “Chopped” on Food Network, and we play along vicariously, suggesting (OK, sometimes shouting) to the chef competitors how they might use the ingredients in their mystery baskets. We cringe when we see them do something that never ends well, such as putting cooked potatoes in a food processor (instant glue, coming right up!) or repeatedly opening the oven door to see if their dessert still isn’t baking fast enough. We feel the anxiety of the judges in the final seconds, and we often join their chorus, urging the competitors to “just get it on the plate!”
When I casually mentioned to a friend last week that I needed to get creative about using up our own kitchen surplus, she joked that she could imagine me doing my own version of a “Chopped” challenge and scratching ingredients off the inventory list as the weeks wear on for our kitchen work to begin. It was a brilliant idea, and we are off and running with our first episode!
Les and I will not be competing against each other, because we are on the same team. Also, we don’t have multiple cooking stations, ovens and deep fryers, and we certainly do not have a blast chiller or an anti-griddle or a salamander (professional grade broiler oven), as they do on the set of “Chopped.” We do not plan to enforce a time limit on completing the challenge, as our goal is simply to use up our stuff and, of course, eat and enjoy the meals we create through this experience. We are not going to record every moment (you’re welcome), but we will let you in on the fun of the challenge with the unveiling of the mystery baskets we prepare for each other. And, of course, the outcomes.
Before we started our challenge, Les and I established and agreed upon the following rules for setting up each other’s baskets:
- Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer. No sought-out, wacky ingredients for the purpose of stumping each other.
- The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
- Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
- Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
- Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats (and we do).
The first challenge was mine. Press “play” on the video to witness the unveiling of my mystery basket. Here we go!!!
The mystery meat was easy to identify, once I was able to stop laughing and remove the cover. It was leftover barbacoa, which I made back in February, and five months in the freezer did not do it any favors. It still had plenty of spicy flavor, but the texture was somewhat mushy. To transform it, I would need to combine it with something else, or put it inside something else to make the unpleasant texture less noticeable.
The brownie brittle is a crispy, chocolatey dessert snack that I picked up at Costco. It’s very tasty but in true Costco fashion, there’s just too darn much of it. We have tendency to buy products like this one, and we get bored with it about halfway through. As far as I’m concerned, the brownie brittle is the red herring in this basket. There’s no obvious way to use it, so I’ll set it aside for now.
The butternut squash, as Les pointed out, genuinely has been wearing out its welcome in our kitchen. I bought it near the end of winter, but then I got excited about cooking things for spring and I just kept putting it off. For better or worse, winter squash has a long shelf life. The biggest challenge with the squash is that it’s big, and so there’s a lot of it. My plan to use it up will be to incorporate it into our meal in multiple ways, and I might also try to slip a few pieces to my kitchen assistant, Nilla, who is always on standby and happy to help.
Finally, the poor, sad little apples that have been buried in the fruit drawer for a least a month. They aren’t even the same variety—one Granny Smith and one honeycrisp, although there’s nothing crisp about either of these tired fruits. They won’t mix with the barbacoa, so I will transform them into a dessert, and I’ll use some of the squash in it, too. This is the easiest part of the basket for me. Might as well map this one out; I pulled a box of puff pastry from the freezer (heaven only knows how long it’s been buried in there), and some simple dessert spices.
I cubed the other neck piece and tossed it into the oven to roast, with oil and a little salt and pepper. I love roasted squash, so the hardest thing for me will be not snacking on it while I figure out the rest of the basket. The remaining squash went into a saucepan to simmer until tender, and that’s when the rest of the dish came into focus for me.
Some of the tender squash could be worked into a pasta dough, and it would be a nice color as well as flavor! The barbacoa could be used as a filling for ravioli, but what about my red herring, the sweet brownie brittle? And that’s when it hit me that chocolate is used in mole, and Les always puts a little cocoa powder in a pot of his chili. There it was, I would crush up the brownie brittle and add those dark, chocolaty crumbs to the meat filling! This made sense to me, and when Les took a taste of the barbacoa-brownie brittle mixture, he confirmed it was working. He could taste the chocolate, and said it was good.
The ravioli plan had taken so much attention, I had put the squash and apple tart on the back burner. I thawed a sheet of puff pastry from our freezer, rolled it out to smooth the wrinkles, sprinkled brown sugar and cinnamon over it, then alternated rows of squash and the two kinds of apple, and another sprinkle of cinnamon. Then I folded up the edges, as if making a galette, brushed them with egg white and into the oven.
I also needed a quick sauce to drizzle on the baked squash-apple tart, because it was rather dry and plain from the oven. I melted butter with maple sugar, tossed a small handful of chopped walnuts into it, then more maple sugar and a splash of maple-infused balsamic vinegar. A little bit of tartness is usually exactly what any dish needs to feel and taste “finished,” and both Les and I were sampling this sauce beyond what was necessary. I wish I had made more because it would be great over ice cream. The squash and apple tart turned out tasty, even as leftovers the next evening.
Rolling the pasta didn’t take long (I have been practicing lately and will share more about that soon), and I was thankful to have my ravioli mold to make quick work of finishing that part of the meal. I made an easy “sauce” for my ravioli, using up a half onion from the crisper drawer, the last dregs of a bag of frozen roasted corn, some veggie broth and half and half, and some kind of seasonings but I honestly can’t remember! The finished dish seemed a little boring in color, and everything had a soft texture, so I chopped a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds and scattered them on top. And this one is done.
“Chef Les, I have prepared for you a spiced butternut squash ravioli with barbacoa-brownie brittle filling.
It is topped with a simple roasted corn sauce and caramelized butternut squash, and accented with toasted pumpkin seeds for a little crunch.”
“And that means, Chef Terrie, you have conquered the basket ingredients and chopped your way to victory in the first challenge!”
Will Les have what it takes to do the same? Find out next week, when we unveil his mystery basket ingredients!
Oh, and just for fun, I combined the final 1/2 cup of cooked butternut squash with some rolled oats, brown rice flour, a touch of cinnamon and the rest of the pasta egg mixture. Processed it, scooped it out and baked it up as cookies for my kitchen helper. 🙂 ❤