I’m a huge fan of cooking shows. Chopped is one of my favorites. I’ve been a big fan of Ted Allen since his days on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the show that made me realize how big of a slob I really am.
On Chopped, chef contestants are given a mystery basket of ingredients from which they must prepare a delicious dish or risk being Chopped. The winner is the chef that creates the tastiest meals that most delights a celebrity chef/judge through three rounds: appetizer, entree’, and dessert.
Most of us frequently face this kind of challenge. What am I going to make for dinner? Don’t feel like (too broke) going to market. How do I combine leftovers with what’s in the cupboards and icebox.
I see ham stock that I boiled down Saturday and Sunday from a delicious glazed ham my daughter baked on Friday. Simmered the bone and leavings overnight, cracked the bone to get at the marrow, and boiled for another day producing a rich, tasty broth.
Ham chunks from the boned ham. Potatoes that I need to use before they grow ears to match their eyes, carrots that will add sweetness and color, and, onions because onions.
Looks like I’m making a casserole.
Slice the potatoes into small chunks, little polyhedrons. Chop the onions into your favorite sizes. Slice the carrots down the middle first so they don’t get rolly on you. If it hits the floor it goes in the bin (trash).
Make a roux using equal parts margarine (butter) and flour. The roux should be light in color for a conventional French look and taste, or closer to mahogany for a rich Creole flavor. Sifting the flour slowly as you stir makes for a smoother roux.
Cool, I just found a partially used green pepper. That prompts me to caramelize the carrots to a nice golden for a Packer-colored dish.
Add a cup of ham stock to the roux. It will get darker with the French method or lighter if you went for Creole. Add more flour to thicken the sauce. You don’t want wall Spackle thickness, but you don’t want soup, either. Some of the liquid will boil off as the casserole bakes. This takes practice.
Saute the onions until they are nearly translucent. Add diced green peppers at the same time. Remember, they will cook more while baking, releasing more of their flavor to the sauce. The amount of onion depends upon personal taste. I love onions. My dish will always be onionee. I have met people that won’t eat a dish if it has a slightest hint of onion. I refuse to cook for those boors.
Consistency of knife cuts is paramount to cooking. Oddly shaped, differently sized fixings cook at different times leading to a mix of overcooked and under-cooked ingredients. I can’t stress that enough. And cooking should never be stressful.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Chop or tear whole wheat bread into consistently sized chunks, unless you already have croutons available. Toss them on a baking sheet and into the oven for about 5 minutes. Don’t forget them. If smoke is coming out of the oven, you left them in too long.
Combine the ham with the veggies as the filler for the dish.
In a large casserole dish coat the bottom with a thin layer of sauce. Place a single layer of filling atop the sauce.
We can’t forget our wonderful friend cheese. Place a layer of your favorite cheese over the fillings. I’ve got Cheddar Jack that I need to use before it turns green. Don’t let the haters dissuade you from using American or even Velveeta. Snobby, elitists one and all.
Repeat the preceding steps layer by layer until you’re near the top of the vessel. I always make cheese my top layer.
Cover and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Have some wine. You’ve done a fine job and deserve a reward.
Remove the cover after 30 minutes and liberally sprinkle croutons over the top. Bake for another 30. Have some more wine, you’ve earned it.
Yank the dish out of the oven. Use hot-pads, baking things are hot.
Let your masterpiece rest for 5 to 10 minutes while you’re guests heap compliments on you and drool, but not on you.
Name it whatever you wish. Tell everyone that it is your very own creation from the ingredients in your mystery basket. Pretty sure you won’t get Chopped.