Thursday, March 4, 2010


Inspired by this post over at the very enlightening (and frequently hilarious) NYC food blog F the Chef, I challenged my girlfriend to a cooking competition a few weekends ago. The idea was that we'd go to the supermarket and each pick out three or four ingredients that the other one would have to use to create a dish. It was to be a contest fraught with intrigue and peril. How did we fare? (Watch out, don't miss the food pun, there.)

With the understanding that we could use anything we already had in our apartment in addition to the secret ingredients we'd pick out (and that the point of the competition wasn't to screw each other over by buying things like toothpaste and baby formula), we headed to the supermarket, grabbed a basket each, and split up.

I headed to the meat department first, figuring I'd select a protein and then pick out some other ingredients to go along with it. I ended up grabbing a package of small chuck steaks, thinking that if she also picked beef for me then I'd go back and pick something else, or give her the option to do so. In the produce section, a colorful trio of bell peppers grabbed my attention, so into the basket they went. I needed at least one more ingredient for her, some sort of starch. I was leaning toward rice, when I discovered that the particular Stop & Shop we'd gone to stocked Maseca corn flour, and that decided it for me.

Her challenge: Create a dish using these steaks, peppers, and corn flour.

We met up again in about 15 minutes, and I got to see what she'd picked out for me: Some nice inch-thick pork chops, fresh asparagus, a loaf of French bread, and a wedge of Gorgonzola.

My challenge: Create a dish using these pork chops, asparagus, French bread and Gorgonzola.

Nothing immediately came to mind upon seeing the ingredients she'd selected. There was always the extreme fall-back position of simply pan-searing the pork chops, steaming or sautéing the asparagus, and slicing and oven-toasting the bread and smearing some Gorgonzola on top of it. Bang, there's a dinner, right?

But where would be the fun in that? This was supposed to be a challenge. Competition fosters innovation, all that good stuff. By the end of the drive home, I'd started to formulate a plan.

Once back in our apartment, we acknowledged the tiny size of our kitchen, and realized it would make it difficult for us both to effectively whip together our own dishes at the same time. I suggested that we split the challenge over two evenings, one of us creating their dish that Saturday night, and the other on Sunday. My girlfriend volunteered to go first if I would act as her sous chef (in the sense of just running around grabbing whatever items she needed, or slicing/dicing/chopping whatever she was too busy to slice/dice/chop at any particular moment, etc.), so that's the way we went.

Now, despite being right there in the kitchen and helping her out every once in a while, obviously seeing what she was doing and all, I couldn't ascertain what her final product was going to be until the very end-- when she told me. I watched as she seared the salted-and-peppered steaks on each side, then added some red wine to the pan and braised them for a little while, until they got almost fork-tender. She took them out of the pan and tossed in the diced red, orange and yellow peppers, along with some red onion and yellow corn. While that sizzled away, she measured out some Maseca and made a couple of little dough balls, which she flattened to 4" discs about a quarter of an inch thick, and then browned in an ungreased pan, before finally adding some canola oil and lightly frying them on each side. She asked, "Have you figured out what I'm doing yet?" I hadn't.

She shredded the steaks with a couple of forks, added the meat back to the pan with the peppers/onion/corn, added cumin and chili powder, and simmered the mixture for a couple of minutes, before dividing it into a couple of little soup crocks. She asked me again if I knew where she was going with it, and I admitted I still didn't. Then she placed the fried corn-flour cakes atop the beef and veggies mixture in each crock, shredded some cheddar on top of each one, and stuck 'em under the broiler, pronouncing them to be Mexican pot pies.

Hot damn, this was satisfying. Mexican pot pie!

What I think I liked best about her idea was the regional approach to a really traditional and basic comfort food. The particular spices in the filling, the use of corn flour dough to make the crispy "crust" on top... it absolutely reminded me of a regular pot pie in terms of texture and appearance, but the flavor was distinctly Mexican/Southwestern. A definite Would Eat Again.

I gave her a very enthusiastic thumbs-up for getting into the spirit of our competition, and coming up with a dish that was: A) Something neither of us had ever thought to try, and B) Delicious.

The following evening, it was my turn.

Eager to put my new copy of The Flavor Bible to use, I flipped through and reaffirmed some flavor combinations I'd been kicking around: Bleu cheese with apples. Pork chops and mustard. Something to make the chops crunchy? Walnuts baked right on top! I just needed to come up with something interesting for the asparagus.

I had been (still am) going kind of crostini-crazy since our Valentine's Day dinner at Bar Americain, where I'd had as an appetizer the Kentucky ham with ricotta and blood oranges served with toasted bread on which to pile it all, and it was such an outstanding synthesis of flavors --ones that I'd never in a million years thought of combining myself-- that I spent the next several nights trying (mostly in vain, but hey, it's learning) to create my own. So with crostini still on my mind, I decided to create little mini-omelets folded around the asparagus tips and a little Parmesan, and place these atop slices of the baguette that had been brushed with olive oil and baked to golden-brownness. Eggs and toast, the fancy way.

While I was putting those together, the pork chops baked in the oven. First I'd seared them for a minute on each side in a pan, then spread a thin layer of Dijon mustard on one side of each, into which I pressed a handful of crushed walnuts. The mustard served the dual purpose of flavoring the chops while also giving the walnuts a sticky surface to adhere to, so that worked well.

For the final touch, I put together a sort of "salad" (I don't know if it can rightfully be called a salad, but I don't know what else to call it) of Gorgonzola, dried cranberries, and thin slices of green apple. The idea was that it could be eaten by itself, or spread onto bites of pork chop. Apples + pork = good, Bleu cheese + apples = good. This was my line of thinking.

Coordinating everything toward the end became tough, and I cooked the eggs a little too long. I would've preferred a creamier egg mixture, but in the end my little asparagus-Parmesan omelet crostinis made a nice appetizer.

 In a moment of inspiration, I stuck the apple slices vertically into the cheese...

The pork chops came out pretty well (at least I didn't overcook 'em!), and I was pleased with the walnuts adding some crunch, and the mustard imparting a little flavor. I can't say I felt like the entire main course came together like absolute magic, but a bite of pork chop together with a bite of Gorgonzola with apple tasted pretty good, and I was honestly proud that I'd managed to cook a meal that was outside the realm of things I'm usually comfortable throwing together. I also kind of cheated, in not using all of the ingredients she picked for me together in a single dish. If this were the actual "Chopped" show, I assume that'd disqualify me.

All in all, it really was a fun way to spend a couple of evenings, and we're looking forward to doing it again soon, with new sets of mystery ingredients. Any excuse to crack open the Flavor Bible and get crazy with interesting combinations of tastes that complement and enhance each other, and I'm happy.

Also, she insists I won.

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