Of the host of criteria that Food Network’s “Chopped” judges use in their evaluations, one has been strongly resonating with me lately—transformation.
The contestants who seem consistently to do the best are those who not only make their dishes taste good but additionally transform their required ingredients into pleasures for the eye and mind as much as for the palate. Creativity, skill, and intuition are rewarded as ingredients are broken down and reconstituted in ways that highlight something essential about them, or give expression to some immanent possibility. The form that expression takes could be a traditional dish or preparation but rejuvenated, or it may be some fusion of the familiar with the never before seen. In other words, a “Chopped” basket item must become more of itself, even if it takes making the ingredient in some way a stranger to itself.
Cooking is always an act of transformation: heating, cooling, combining, etc., in order to create textures and flavors and to make things not only palatable but in many cases even edible. Back when I was teaching writing for an associate degree program at a culinary institute, a student once provided me for an assignment a one-sentence definition of “cuisine” as “the art of transforming ingredients into a delight for your palate.” For her, cooking is more than a pragmatic task, more than just making food; it is a practice that gives us pleasure. This can be accomplished in the simplest of ways with a few quality ingredients, like a good steak frites.
Or it can be a bit more complex but still playing in concert with the traditional, like David Chang’s pork buns. Or it can be the crucible of radical transformation that is the “Chopped” kitchen.
It was Holly’s birthday last week, and we have a tradition of celebrating her birthday by me cooking an elaborate meal for just the two of us. This year she wanted something a little different: dinner and a show. Or a dinner that would be the show. She suggested that I do a home-version of “Chopped,” for which she’d choose favorite food items from her childhood for the basket ingredients. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I agreed, but the two things that guided me through the experience were knowing that Holly was thoroughly enjoying the surprise and nostalgia of those childhood flavors coming back to her in new guises and, secondly, channeling the “Chopped” dictum to transform. The night was fun but challenging mostly because the home-cook’s kitchen is not really equipped with the space and industrial tools of the real “Chopped” kitchen; you’ll find no blast chiller and anti-griddle here. Close to that challenge, however, was trying to use ingredients that a kid would enjoy. I think Holly must have been indulging in a little schadenfreude when she came up with her basket combinations, although she did sympathize enough to grant me a little extra time for each round.
For the appetizer, I had to use taco shells, green beans, a ranch dressing packet, and Little Smokies beef sausages. For the entrée, I was given chicken breasts, canned artichoke hearts, a box of cheddar and bacon potatoes au gratin, and jarred dried sliced beef. Dessert was probably the cruelest: ginger soda, chocolate chip cookie dough, chunky peanut butter, and Circus Peanuts. Holly was prescient with this last selection because Circus Peanuts made their way into the dessert round of the most recent “Chopped” episode.
For the appetizer round, we had Scotch eggs, which I’ll show here. The next two rounds were fine, but not nearly as successful. The entrée became a bacon-cheddar coated chicken using the au gratin mix with flour. I threw out the dehydrated potatoes and made fresh potatoes au gratin with pecorino, dried beef, and rosemary. I also made a fresh salsa with tomatoes, capers, scallions, artichoke hearts, and roasted mushrooms. This dish was nothing to write home about, but it tasted good. The dessert round was not very successful when it came to the finished plate, but transformation was definitely relied on. I made a trio of cookies: peanut butter chocolate chip, Circus Peanut chocolate chip, and a chocolate dipped chocolate chip. I tried to make a shaved ice with a ginger soda and Circus Peanuts syrup, but the syrup never got cold enough. All I made was a super sweet syrup drink. The best tasting components were two marscapone creams using fresh grated ginger: a peanut butter-ginger one and a chocolate-ginger-lime version. The dish looked like I made it with my feet. Still, being forced to think about transformation of these ingredients was a lesson I’ll carry with me beyond this spectacle.