Melissa’s Take on the Chopped Basket — Champions Round Three

By: Guest Blogger
Show: Chopped

Related To:

Melissa d'Arabian on Chopped All-Stars

(left to right) Chef's Amy Finley, Aarti Sequeira, Jeff Mauro, and Melissa D'Arabian at the judging table during a "Next Food Network Star" special episode, as seen on Food Network’s Chopped, Season 12.

Photo by: Todd Plitt ©2012, Television Food Network, G.P.

Todd Plitt, 2012, Television Food Network, G.P.

Last week was fun. So now I’m back, this time playing virtual Chopped 30,000 feet in the sky (I forgot my headset and how many times can I see Arbitrage anyway?), so here goes. My 30 seconds to plan starts now!

Appetizer basket: smoked eel, cream cheese spread, quince paste and haricot verts

Smoky eel, cream cheese and sweet quince all work well together, but how to get the green beans in on the act? I first think of my daughters’ favorite, “crunchy green beans,” which is a nice way of saying batter-dipped and fried. A fritto misto it is. First I'll get the oil heating. Then I take inspiration from crab puffs and create a little dumpling out of wonton skins (I’m pretty sure they have those in the pantry, but if not, then some other kind of dough or bread rolled super thin) filled with the eel and cream cheese, a little onion and a touch of smoked paprika.

A great trick in the Chopped world: Pump up your favorite flavor element of an ingredient using something a little bit easier to manage. In this case, smoky paprika will boost our eel’s impact. For example, on the episode of Chopped when I competed, I added maple syrup to boost fenugreek in the cake I made in the dessert round. Make a fritto misto of the green beans, the wontons and a few very thinly sliced lemons (for color and acid hit), using a simple flour and beer (or water) batter. Maybe I’d add something cool to the batter if last-minute inspiration hits. Next, I melt down some quince paste to create a dipping sauce, adding spice (dried chili), acid (fruit vinegar if available, if not, rice vinegar) and a salty flavor base (soy). Plating is key here: Use a paper towel or some fun plates to play off the casual nature of a fried pub-type app.

Entree basket: frog legs, yuzu marmalade, gin and tofu

Oh! Frog's legs — so tiny and tasty. While serving them with the bone in is completely standard, I think of poor Jeff Mauro who got eliminated in round one of my episode of Chopped for leaving bones in his smoked fish (herring, if I remember right). I'll take the chance. Frogs legs are best when just sauteed, so that’s one decision made.

My biggest challenge: I’m given two proteins and they don’t play naturally with each other. My solution is to use the tofu not as a protein, but as a side. Blended, it's super creamy, so I decide to use it to make a creamy polenta. Polenta cooks quickly, but to make it dreamy-creamy, I’d need two hours. My cheat is to get it cooking right away and add lots of heavy cream and tofu blended together at the end. If the soybean flavor is too strong, I might add a smidge of cream cheese to tame it. I add in the yuzu and make a citrusy-creamy polenta. I saute up shallots in butter with a bit of rosemary (will bridge well between pine notes of gin and citrusy yuzu), and add in the frog's legs if I’m at least halfway through my time (don’t want to overcook, but also I need time to plate). To combat the sometimes too-soft texture of polenta (don’t want the judges to feel like they are eating baby food), I toast up some pine nuts (perfect with the gin and yuzu). I use gin to deglaze the frog leg pan, remove the frog's legs and reduce the sauce, adding some citrus and a pat of butter and splash of cream. Serve: tofu-yuzu polenta topped with frog's legs, drizzled with reduced sauce and a sprinkle of toasty, salted pine nuts.

Dessert basket: jackfruit, Araucana eggs, coconut macaroons and chocolate-covered pretzels

Assuming the bones didn’t send me home, I would be rewarded with a fun basket. Araucana eggs I’ll treat like regular chicken eggs. (As a side note, I had 38 chickens as pets in my backyard growing up, some of which were some distant relative of Araucanas. And no, I did not live on a farm, but I digress.) Anyway, my eyes zoom to the eggs and I think custard, but I also know that’s my easiest ingredient, so I force them out of my mind and contend with the trickier one: jackfruit. It’s tangy and has a bit of a creamy flavor, which makes me think banana pudding. (I guess the eggs weren’t as far out of my mind as I’d like to believe.) I start by steeping some cream with the jackfruit and keep it on standby. Then I’ll make a salty coconut and chocolate crumb crust out of the pretzels and macaroons, to sub in for the traditional Nilla Wafers (little butter crumbs, press into individual tart molds or other serving dishes, chill). Get jackfruit (peeled and chopped, no seeds — although edible, but not right for my pudding) sauteing in butter in a skillet, and in a saucepan, make my custard using egg yolks, milk, jackfruit cream, sugar (if they have coconut sugar, I’ll go with that; otherwise, brown). A quick glance at the clock — do I have time to start a quick caramel? If so, I do it knowing it may not be done in time, or may accidentally burn it if I turn up the heat too high. It’s worth the 10 seconds of making the pan of sugar and a splash of water. Heck, I’m practically married to the stove anyway, nursing my custard over gentle-but-high-as-possible heat, stirring almost constantly so it doesn’t burn. Knowing I will be very short on time and that a true custard relies on chilling to thicken, I cheat a bit by adding a touch of cornstarch. My priority now: get that custard done and into the crusts and back in the blast chiller. Back at the stove, add some banana to the jackfruit (see my paprika strategy above), a touch of brown sugar (more if my caramel chances are looking slim), cinnamon and a touch of salt. Once caramelized, chill to remove the heat. Finish the caramel with my jackfruit cream.

To serve: Place the tarts on plates (probably won’t be able to demold safely). Drizzle with jackfruit caramel, top with a tiny dab of sour cream and coat with macaroon and chocolate pretzel bits.