Alex Guarnaschelli: A Few of My Favorite Chopped Baskets
Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-School Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.
Have you had a chance to watch any of the “chopped after hours” webisodes where we Chopped judges cook with and dissect the baskets that foiled the contestants?
I am always curious to see how my fellow judges interpret the baskets and I love the chance to test myself against the clock and those ingredients. I have definitely cringed in my seat many a time when the baskets are opened to reveal that dreaded ingredient that no one knows how to use. I am sometimes so relieved to be sitting in that judges seat instead of sweating it out at the stove.
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And then there are those other times when I wish I could get up and give that basket a whirl! I often get asked what the “worst” ingredients are. I’d say that Durian, a 9-lb. gummy skull and baby food were some that come to mind as the most “challenging.” But I also have had a few baskets that have really made me feel as if I could have cooked with it in many different ways.
Some of my favorites? To be precise, in Episode 21 titled ‘Wish Upon a star fruit”, the dessert round basket was particularly exciting to me. It consisted of: grape leaves, sesame seeds, honeydew melon and pickled ginger. Aside form the famed French toast and bread pudding path, my mind raced with so many ideas.
How about toasting the sesame seeds and making them into a brittle with a sugar caramel?
Rinsing the salt from the grape leaves, frying little pieces and dipping them in dark chocolate?
Making a salad from the wedges of honeydew coated with a little lime juice and making a pickled ginger syrup from the liquid simmered with raw sugar and a few pieces of the ginger?
How about a pickled ginger sesame shortbread cookie sandwich with honeydew sorbet and a grape leaf and pink peppercorn syrup?
I love when the basket opens up the imagination.
Another favorite basket? Episode 72 from the “All-Stars food network personalities” episode. The main course round basket consisted of: rack of venison, dulse, gooseberry preserves and fruit ring cereal. I don’t mind when there is processed food like fruit ring cereal in the basket as long as fresh ingredients outweigh it. I love the juxtaposition of the different flavors here: the gaminess and clean flavor of the venison, the slightly briny favor of the dulse (seaweed), the tartness of the gooseberries and the slightly tart and quite sweet cereal.
I don’t automatically think to crust the venison in the cereal. I think more to sort one color of the fruit ring out (red, for example) to avoid that muddy color mixing all the colors of the cereal would create.
Sear the venison chops in butter with garlic cloves and fresh thyme? Yes.
Could you grill them and then let them rest and finish them in some brown butter? Yes.
I’d likely make a sauce from the red fruit rings mixed with the gooseberry jam and some red wine vinegar. Sweetness mixed with acid is wonderful with the bold flavor of the venison.
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I’d make a vinaigrette from olive oil with grainy mustard (for the texture of the seeds as much as for the slight heat of the mustard).
I would make a quick stock with the dulse and use it to cook some rice. I know: rice is risky but made early enough on and it will be fine!
What about a barbeque sauce made by steeping the dulse in warmed vinegar and a mix of spices with gooseberry jam?
Maybe some glazed carrots in fruit ring syrup?
One of my other favorites? It comes from episode 126 titled “Own it!” The main course round basket consisted of: goat chops, dragon’s tongue beans, cinnamon schnapps and dark chocolate. I really found the prospect of the goat, enhanced by the pleasant bitterness of dark chocolate a cool idea. The cinnamon schnapps would normally be a problem, but the goat meat could use some strong flavors.
I would juice some fresh ginger and mix with the cinnamon schnapps and whisk in some butter and a little horseradish to make a sauce.
The beans I would braise simply with some fresh herbs in water with a little butter.
I might just grate the chocolate right over the goat chops or, if I had time, made a little crust with some breadcrumb and chocolate with some of those cocoa nibs from the pantry.
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These are just some preliminary thoughts. Some of these baskets have me tying my brain in knots trying to think of the “best’ way to handle them. My daughter and I watched an episode the other day with rice cakes in the basket I turned around to find her sitting on the edge of the couch nibbling on a rice cake! That’s one of the most wonderful things about chopped: It inspires ideas and wakes up that culinary imagination.
I warn you, the pull of this cooking is amazing and exciting when you watch from the comfort of your couch. When you are actually in the kitchen cooking, it’s a totally different story…