We are running slightly behind schedule on the Comfort du Jour “Chopped” Challenge, as our Chef Les decided to move a gigantic metal file cabinet by himself and smashed the dickens out of his little finger (ouch!). But, after a few days of wrapping it with ice and working to stay ahead of life in general, he is off the injured list and back into the kitchen action!
Here’s a quick recap of the rules Les and I established for our clear-out-the-inventory challenge:
- Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer.
- 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 (we do).
Here we go, with Episode No. 6!
The basket Terrie provided me for this challenge was unique in that the only protein was bacon. Now don’t get me wrong. I love bacon. God knows, I love bacon. I mean, I could never keep kosher because I love bacon so much. I like to believe it’s a forgivable sin for a Jew.
But I didn’t think I could create a good challenge meal with bacon as the star of the show. Oh, wait; that’s a different Food Network show.
My point, and I do have one, is that with bacon, polenta, chile morita seasoning (a blend we picked up from a vendor at our local farmer’s market that includes dried chile morita, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, olive oil and garlic) and a spicy, robust red blend wine, I felt I needed to add some ingredients to make a coherent meal.
So here’s what I did: I combined the concept of Italian and Mexican flavors into a red-sauce-over-polenta meal featuring chicken sausages.
Let’s talk about the red sauce first, because that was my idea from the start; I’m in my wheelhouse with sauces, especially those with an Italian feel. I sauteed onions, red bell pepper and mushrooms and threw in some diced garlic. I then transferred it all to a deep stainless pot and added a fat can of San Marzano tomatoes as well as a can of diced tomatoes. Seasonings thrown in (besides the salt and pepper that seasoned every layer of vegetables) were red pepper flakes, garlic powder, Italian seasoning blend, garlic pepper, bay leaves and about a teaspoon worth of the very smoky, flavorful chile morita. I also added two staples of my typical red sauce: about half a cup of our parm-romano blend and a pinch (well, two, actually, but they were small pinches) of sugar.
There’s a story behind one of the pictures with this post. It’s the image of me below with a very goofy smile, and if you look closely, you’ll see that in my right hand I’ve plucked a bay leaf out of the “Mexitalian” sauce. The reason I’m smiling is that Terrie and I were reliving one of the funny newspaper “headlines” I saved years ago from my former life as a journalist. It was in my then newspaper’s food section, where whoever designed the page left a very long space for a headline on a story about bay leaves. “Bay Leaves Not At All Dangerous Unless You Choke on Them.” One of the great “no s…, Sherlock” headlines of all time. I still have that headline clip in my file of crazy things that made it into print, a collection I started a couple of decades before Jay Leno ever had a late-night show.
Oh, about the sausages. You remember how we set this whole challenge series up to help us rid our refrigerators, freezers and pantry of ingredients as we prepare for our kitchen to be completely renovated? Well, one of the items I happened to find in the freezer was a package of chicken sausages flavored with sundried tomatoes. Score another one gone from the freezer!
I simmered the sauce for 90 minutes to cook it down, and about halfway through started working on the polenta. Earlier, I had cooked up some of the bacon, which I knew I’d add to the polenta. I mean, bacon goes with polenta like (fill in the metaphor of your choice). For the polenta, I followed a recipe of my favorite chef. I think you can all figure that one out. Terrie’s polenta recipe on the website goes with cajun shrimp & garlicky cheesy grits. So I had to adapt to my ingredients, and that was pretty straightforward. Out went the shredded cheddar and Frank’s RedHot Original sauce; in came parm-romano blend and chile morita seasoning. One of the things I’ve learned from my favorite cook and the too-much time we spend watching Food Network is that it helps to do things “two ways” because having flavor profiles in different parts of the same meal is pleasing to the palate.
Judge’s note: Yes, this is called “flavor echoing,” and it is a great way to achieve a composed dish. The judge (meaning Terrie) loves that Les employed this easy technique!
And that’s about it. It came together very well, as Terrie will attest in the video you can watch below.
Winner, winner! Mexitalian dinner!
This was another fun experience, watching Les flex his culinary muscles and put a tasty meal on the table. The flavors in his dish worked very well together, and I was pretty impressed to see how well he executed the polenta! We had leftovers from this meal and, as is always the case with tomato-based dishes, the flavors were even better the second time!