Monday, April 18, 2011

"Chopped" at Home

My very favorite TV show is "Chopped" on The Food Network. If you haven't seen it, it's a show with 4 chefs as "contestants." They have to cook three courses for the judges: appetizer, entree, and dessert, and they have to use each of the 4 ingredients provided in the "mystery basket" for each course. They mystery ingredients are usually pretty kooky and they don't know what they'll be until they open the basket, right before they have a limited time to cook their dish (20 minutes for an appetizer and 30 minutes each for the entree and dessert rounds). Fruit Loops in an entree. Miso paste in a dessert. Gummi bears, rice cakes, powdered strawberry milk, and on and on. It's not uncommon for there to be ingredients I've never heard of in the baskets. After the chefs cook their dishes, they are tasted by the judges and the chef with the worst dish gets "chopped." You get the picture. If you've never watched it, I highly recommend it for great entertainment without all the trash that is so often found in prime time TV shows (it's on Tuesday nights at 10 EST).

Anyway, my husband and I love the show. It's so fun to see what the chefs will come up with at the spur of the moment using the most insane ingredients. So, we decided to do our own little Chopped adventure at home. Except it isn't a competition. I'm the only contestant. And no one gets chopped. I hope.

We are currently working on a list of ingredients. Mostly I'm leaving this task up to my husband, and he's having some fun with it. Fortunately for me (and for him I guess since he has to eat what I cook), our Chopped Challenge is a lot easier. I have only one "mystery ingredient" each week. And it's not really a "mystery" in that I get to know about it in advance and plan what I want to do with it. This is obvious since I do all the grocery shopping. The tricky part of it is that I am not allowed to look up someone else's recipe that uses the ingredient. I have to come up with the recipe for whatever I make on my own. I do lots of cooking and have made some delicious dishes, but I have done very little recipe creation to this point in my culinary maturation. So I'm a little nervous, but also very excited.

Last week, my husband gave me my first assigned ingredient. We have already had some confusion in this process, as he told me "grits" but I heard "Ritz" (as in crackers), so I was planning a recipe using the latter and when I started talking to him about it he looked at me like I was nuts. We managed to figure out the disconnect, and decided that I could use Ritz this week and next week will be grits. Yikes. I don't even like grits. But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it I suppose. For today it was Ritz crackers.

I started out thinking I would use the Ritz with some ground venison to make meatballs, and then just went from there. I scrounged in the pantry and refrigerator and used what I had on hand for this entire recipe. I was pleased with the outcome, though there are some things I would do differently next time. I will give you the recipe as I prepared it, and then tell you what I didn't like about it and what I would do differently at the bottom. So without further ado, here's my new recipe for the dish I made today.

Not So Swedish Meatballs

1 lb ground venison or beef (probably could use pork or turkey too)
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 egg
1/4 cup soy sauce
25-30 Ritz crackers, crushed (Miss had a blast crushing these for me in a Ziploc bag)
8 oz Egg noodles
Canola oil (or olive oil, or vegetable oil)
1 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves minced or pressed through garlic press
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup white wine
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 cup low sodium chicken broth

Prepare egg noodles as indicated on package.

Combine first 7 ingredients (through Ritz crackers) thoroughly. Roll into about 1.5-inch meatballs. Heat a saute pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add about a teaspoon of the canola oil. Once the oil is hot, put 5-6 meatballs into the oil. Sear the meatballs, but don't worry about getting them cooked all the way through (about a minute or two on each side). Remove to a plate, add another tsp of oil, and repeat with 5-6 more meatballs. Repeat these steps until all your meatballs are nicely seared. Add about another teaspoon to the pan and add the onion and half-teaspoon salt. Stir until the onion softens and starts to brown. Add garlic and stir until fragrant (30-60 seconds). Pour in the wine and scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce the wine by about half, then add in the soy and chicken broth. Bring to a boil and then add the meatballs back into the pan. You may need to add a bit more chicken broth, as you want the liquid to cover the meatballs at least halfway. Cover the pan to let the meatballs finish cooking, 7-8 minutes. Put some egg noodles on a plate and top with some meatballs and sauce. Serves about 4.

The outcome of this recipe was very good. It had a very rich and full flavor. Browning the meatballs and onions and then deglazing the pan to make the sauce and putting the meatballs back into the sauce to finish really gave a nice flavor to both the sauce and the meatballs. But, it was just a bit too salty and a little bit heavy for me. I was a little afraid of this, since the crackers have salt on them, and obviously soy sauce is super salty. And the trick with meatballs is that you can't taste them before cooking them, so I just had to hope I didn't have too much soy. Unfortunately I think it did have just a bit too much. My husband raved over it, but he tends to like things more salty than me. Also the sauce was too thin. I knew this when I served it, but it had taken me so long to make the dish, I just said, "screw it" and served it as it was instead of thickening the sauce. Otherwise, I think the dish was great.

What I would do differently:
Less soy sauce in the meatballs. I would reduce the amount of soy sauce to about 1/8 cup and increase the lemon juice to 2 Tbsp. That would really brighten the flavors and decrease the saltiness a bit, while keeping the richness of flavor. I might also add more thyme. Honestly the reason there was so little was that I just got sick of picking the leaves off and was trying to hurry.

I would add some sort of thickening agent (a rue, cornstarch slurry, or even just a little butter or cream added off the heat) to the sauce, and also probably add more of the low sodium chicken broth to make just a bit more sauce than what I ended up with.

Next week (deep breath) grits!! I actually already have a plan forming in my head, so here's hoping it will come together!!

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