So here I am, doing my first “Chopped”-like challenge for Terrie’s blog as she and I continue emptying our pantry and refrigerator in advance of kitchen remodeling and who do I wind up stealing an idea from, of all people, on my first basket? My late mom.
Now, I loved my mom dearly, but her cooking was, shall I say, ummmm, well, it fed me. Mom’s favorite dish, and she was happy to share with anyone how “good” it was, was stuffed cabbage. I endured that dish twice a year for years. Bland ground beef balls with white rice (yuck, says 10-year-old me, in recollection) inside steamed (boiled?) cabbage and mom’s secret ingredient, which I’ll share more of later because, quite frankly, I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s slow down and go back to the beginning of this challenge.
Press play on the video below to see what ingredients Les had to work with.
The four mandatory ingredients in my basket (thanks, love!) were: hot Italian turkey sausages, dried cranberries, two sweet potatoes and cocktail onions. Now I have to tell you all that I am a decent cook, and I like being creative. But I’m most definitely not Terrie. Creative for me is putting things together in a way that allows me leftovers for lunch during the week.
With these ingredients, my first thought was to pair the cranberries and sweet potatoes in a sweet concoction (think Thanksgiving side or dessert), and then figure out a plan for the sausage and cocktail onions. But the morning of my day to cook, I was struck by one of the signature aspects of “Chopped.” You’re supposed to create a unified dish with the ingredients. Hot Italian sausage and a sweet side or dessert didn’t speak “unified” to me. And I’m both competitive and a stickler for detail; I wanted to get my first basket right.
Les is straying from the format a bit here, given that the previously agreed-upon rules for this Comfort du Jour challenge permitted multiple dishes made from the basket ingredients. Let’s review:
- 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).
Is Les a bit of an overachiever? Let’s find out, as he digs into his challenge.
Like Terrie, who often studies Pinterest for ideas, I turned to an outside source—Google. I plugged in sweet potatoes and Italian sausage and came up with quite a few recipes. I settled on one that, with some creativity and tweaking, just might work. Plus, it would incorporate all four basket ingredients and even clean out a couple of extra pantry ingredients. And, extra bonus, a one-pan dish! Now that’s my kind of meal: simple.
I peeled, diced and boiled the sweet potatoes (OK, technically, I guess I used a pot and one pan). I removed the sausage from the casings and browned it, setting it aside, and then using the fat left behind to sauté the cocktail onions, some leftover sweet onion (to counterbalance the sour in those cocktail onions), red and orange bell pepper, mushrooms and garlic.
Once the veggies were done, I added back the sausage and sweet potatoes, as well as the last jar of my canned homemade salsa (the recipe called for salsa, which was convenient because it rid our pantry of another item) as well as a can of diced tomatoes (not in the recipe, but that was my intuition, and it worked well). Along the way I seasoned every layer (thanks, love, for that simple cooking instruction that I follow religiously now, thanks to you)* * , also adding cumin. The meal came together in less than an hour.
**Is it me, or does it seem that Les is flirting with the judge for bonus points?
Ah, but I left something out, didn’t I? And I don’t mean the cocktail onions, which I almost omitted (cause for being chopped in the real “Chopped”) except that Terrie reminded me when she saw the jar still in the fridge after I’d started prepping (thanks, love!). Yep, he is definitely flirting. No, the part I left out is the completion of the story about my mom. It turns out the “secret” ingredient in mom’s stuffed cabbage was raisins, which she added to the pot as her dish cooked for hours. I despised those raisins. For me, raisins were meant to be as they came out of the little boxes, not as bloated, warm, soft “things.”
By now, I imagine I’ve done enough foreshadowing that you know I rehydrated the dried cranberries from the basket and as the final touch in my one-pan dish, added them to the sausage, sweet potatoes and vegetables.
The bloated, warm, soft cranberry “things” gave the dish a fine, sweet complement to the spice of the sausage and salsa. I may still have unfortunate memories of her stuffed cabbage, but I’m not embarrassed to say, “thanks, mom.”