Slice of Life

The art of ‘Chopped’

ktanner@thetribunenews.comMay 2, 2013 

I was playing in the kitchen again.

Inspired by a 2012 Bon Appetit recipe and the hope that my family would eat more veggies, I was flash sautéing some farmers-market spinach, asparagus and red onion. I dressed the vegetables with freshly ground pepper, a sprinkle of sea salt, a knob of butter, a splash of red-wine vinegar and, hmmmm, why not? A spoonful of good red wine.

Bon Appetit had been trying to entice me into making my own red wine vinegar, from scratch. Not likely. So I was trying to find a more practical compromise.

In the process, I was having fun. I was like a grown-up little kid being allowed to ladle out the pancake batter for the first time, or spread the jam on the Mother’s Day biscuits.

Such culinary experimentation is my playful payback for flipping through a gazillion food magazines a year. A professional former caterer and baker, I now use recipes and cooking concepts as launching pads for meals to fit our tastes, diets and lifestyle.

Food, like life, is best when it’s adapted to the situation.

Maybe that’s why we’re hooked on the Food Network show, “Chopped” … an enthusiasm that astonishes friends who know how much we dislike most TV face-off competition shows, the ones that pit one performer against a host of others.

Why don’t we like those shows? Most of the judges are mean-spirited.

If they criticized their employees that way in a workplace, it would be called harassment. At school, it would rightfully be labeled bullying (... and we wonder where our kids learn that kind of cruelty…).

I suppose “Chopped” does fit into the reality-show format, with experts sitting in judgment of performances. But the top-drawer professional chefs who critique the dishes and disqualify the contestants (one by one until only one champion is left standing) usually present their criticisms with some grace and face-saving comments. They don’t skewer with cruel barbs just because they can.

But how “Chopped” judges chop isn’t really why we watch the show. Really, deep down, we just want to see what epicurean appetizer, entree or dessert each contestant might concoct with the highly unlikely mystery-ingredient combinations in their baskets.

In the past, those assortments have included such wacky components as duck tongues and testicles, gummy bears, lamb’s head, popcorn, leftover matzo ball soup, cotton candy and goat brains.

The toughest baskets so far? Some fiercely mismatched ingredients suggested by Machiavellian viewers!

Durian? Really?

At first, those durian-facing contestants were puzzled by the large, strange fruit. Then they were horrified. The judges seemed eager to see what the competitors would create using the bizarre ingredient with a big “eeewww” factor, but the panel members were a whole lot less enthused about actually consuming and judging the results.

No, I didn’t know what durian was, but the judges and contestants tried to explain. Afterwards, I researched further on the Internet. (Hey, I’m a reporter. I don’t like knowing that I don’t know something.)

FYI: NationalGeographic.com calls durian fruit “putrid, wretched … and beloved by millions.” Hotels in Southeast Asia ban durian because when it’s brought inside, the repulsive stench sticks to carpets, walls and bedding, requiring hours of specialized ionization treatments.

“No durian” signs are plentiful.

Wikipedia reports that bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain, who loves durian, said the “taste can only be described as ... indescribable, something you will either love or despise. ...Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing” a corpse.

And travel-food writer Richard Sterling reportedly described the fruit’s pungent and potent odor as a blend of “pig-s..t, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” How’s that for being descriptive?

See, watching “Chopped” can even be educational!

But about that spinach recipe: Tasting as I went along, I added a pinch of sugar, then a soupçon of freshly grated nutmeg. At the last minute, I dusted the dish with flakes of shaved parmesan.

Husband Richard loved it, devoured it and mopped up the last bits with some sourdough toast.

A winner!

I think even the “Chopped” judges would have approved … especially because the recipe doesn’t include durian. 

Editor’s note: According to www.foodnetwork.com/chopped, durian is among the final four in a viewer-decided competition for weirdest basket ingredient on the show. The other three? Shad roe sack, mashed-potato candy and, yes, goat brains. 

Email Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com. Read more “Slices” at thecambrian.com.

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