Sunday, January 18, 2009

Top Chef Season 5: Our Quickfire Family Challenge

As you might recall, we are big fans of Top Chef. BIG fans! We taped the new one (Season 5, Episode 8: Down on the Farm) this week and watched it together last night. You can read a full episode recap over there, but the part that really caught our interest was the QuickFire Challenge at the very beginning of the episode.

In that challenge, the chefs had 15 minutes to make a dish from an assortment of canned and processed ingredients. While the chefs were slightly dumbfounded and made many comments about how hard it was to cook with that type of food (instead of the hand-delivered, fresh whole ingredients to which they are accustomed), I found myself thinking that it just sounded like a typical midweek mealtime dilemma to me!

Sure, there was stuff in there that even I, an ordinary canned food user, have never even purchased and would find extremely challenging to use -- like SPAM, for example. I admit to thinking it a bit beneath it's only natural that these up-and-coming gourmet chefs would too, right? But, listen to this -- the winning QuickFire dish was one that used the Spam!

(And as a total aside here, if you read the episode recap I linked to above, past winner Stephanie Izard sings Spam's praises in her blog....which makes me wonder if I am actually missing something! Do I need to try some Spam??)

After watching the episode, my son and I decided we were going to try the canned & packaged pantry challenge for ourselves. We started the timer and rushed off to investigate our available ingredients.

There was a lot of stuff in the pantry cupboard, but it was a challenge to find things that seemed likely to pair well together in an inventive combo...or that would be done quickly enough.

...So we decided anything in the fridge should be fair game, too. We pulled out a variety of options, and then quickly made our game plan for THREE separate dishes.

Depressing or inspiring? Depends how you look at it...

The first dish was inspired by Ramen Noodles, a pack of Teriyaki Salmon, and a head of lettuce.

Eww! (It's been in the cupboard for months, just waiting for someone to give it a try...)

We threw the salmon in a skillet to heat...but it looked pretty unappetizing and definitely needed to be doctored up a bit. We added soy sauce and rice wine vinegar...and ginger! (I realize this isn't a typical pantry item, but we decided it was the perfect addition.)

Fresh ginger -- lucky us!

After sauteing together, the ginger mellowed and the sauce reduced to a delicious caramelized coating.

It's a miracle that Junior has never actually burned his NOSE while watching me cook.

We used lettuce leaves as a base, then layered in the Ramen noodles and salmon. We sprinkled crushed peanuts over each filled lettuce cup, but it was way too salty.

I bet the Top Chef kitchen doesn't have one of these ever-useful, old-fashioned potato mashers...

Checking the pantry and fridge once more, we mixed up a sweet sauce to drizzle over the cups and garnished each with fresh lime.

With a little cilantro & mint, it would have been the perfect Thai dipping sauce.

Here's the finished dish: Asian Lettuce Wraps with Teriyaki Salmon.

Despite taking so many pictures, it seems I neglected to take pictures of the next dish's humble beginnings. So instead, I will simply take a picture of its humble ending and label the layers.

Meet dish number 2: Inner Beauty Briskettes, the appetizer with a great personality. (Bubbs summed it up well when he urged, "Try them! They taste a lot better than they look!")

Good thing the plate was colorful...

Surprisingly tasty, but definitely missing something fresh. Or something not brown.

The third dish was, admittedly, a bit of a cheat. It would equal sudden death in a real Top Chef challenge, but was a lovely little addition to our menu.

There was a leftover pan of cream cheese brownies sitting on the counter...

...and some Hershey's syrup and whipped cream in the fridge.

Voila! Dish number three: Double Chocolate Pastries with a Duo of Cream!

Because "Prepared Brownie Mix with Canned Whipped Cream Leftover From Thanksgiving" just didn't sound right.

The three dishes were presented to our Esteemed Panel of Judges (also known as Our Family, thus including both of us chefs...but not Tootsie, who heard the word "salmon" and caught a glimpse of Inner Beauty Briskettes and promptly resigned).

Judge Number 1 gave the menu a very solid Thumbs Up.

Judge Number 2 enthusiastically agreed, giving it Two Pointy Fingers.

Judge Number 3 (me), put her camera down and chowed.

Judge Number 4, Head Judge for this event, had the honor of announcing the winner...

...Asian Lettuce Wraps with Teriyaki Salmon, you are the winner for this challenge!

Inner Beauty Briskettes, please pack your knives and go.

(Double Chocolates with your Duo of Cream, you know you don't really count because you have immunity. Still, your performance tonight was integral to the success of your team, and you will remain safe.)

Congratulations to our winner!

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