Introducing the Croque Señor — Rebel Remix
Every Tuesday, Justin Warner, winner of Food Network Star Season 8, is back remixing the Chopped All-Stars baskets as seen in the episode Sunday night in pure Justin Warner style: edgy, intense, passionate and full of wit. If you've ever watched an episode and found yourself yelling at the TV, "I would have made this and that instead!" then these are the posts for you.
Welcome to the second installment of Chopped All-Stars Rebel Remix. In the space below, you will find my woulda-shoulda-coulda of Sunday's showdown. Just so you know, I give myself no more than 45 minutes to write these little posts. It gets pretty intense. I actually sweat, a little.
Appetizer: Black sea bass, wakame seaweed, cream soda and black garlic
If this isn't your first Rebel Remix rodeo, you know that I am as big a fan of cooking as not cooking. Black sea bass, or Suzuki as the Japanese say, is a great fish to use in a classic raw preparation called Usuzukuri, meaning "thinly constructed." Often this dish is presented on a dish with a pattern (generally a no-no in fine cuisine) so that it may shine through the fish. The idea is that you slice the fish so thinly that it is transparent. With its firm and semi-translucent flesh, the sea bass was practically made for this dish. Wakame, a seaweed generally found in miso soup is a no-brainer. Black garlic may look scary, but its common counterpart is actually more dangerous in the kitchen. Black garlic is fermented, which leaves the garlic sweet. Another nifty fact is that it doesn't cause garlic breath, so you don't have to worry about blowing the palate of the judges for the subsequent rounds. Usuzukuri is often topped with some sort of allium, generally green onion, but in this case, black garlic will do just fine if we play it right. Raw white fish, aka shiromi, is prized for sweetness as well, so we are really on a roll here. This leaves that bottle of corn syrup and bubbles they call cream soda. If we can reduce the cream soda and amp up the flavor, we may be able to make a knockoff of sweet soy sauce, which would really bring this dish home.
I would wager that the competitors will all rush to attack the sea bass, but stick that guy in the freezer until there are only 10 minutes left on the clock. This will firm it up, allowing us to slice it with more precision at the end. Get the cream soda in a pan with some of the black garlic, salt and a few dried mushrooms. These guys will make a sort of mushroomy tea out of the cream soda. Mushrooms are often used to bump up the savory flavor in soy sauce. Let them rehydrate while cooking the cream soda down, then fish them and the garlic out. Add some agar agar to the mix. If you've seen any of my exploits on 24 Hour Restaurant Battle or the Fashion Week Challenge on Food Network Star, you know I'm a huge fan of agar agar's quick jellifying properties. For my next trick, we will carbonate the knockoff soy gel. We only need about a half cup for all of the dishes, so use 1/2 teaspoon of agar agar in 1/4 cup of the reduced cream soda. Now add some more of the regular cream soda to the agar mix, and place this whole kit in the freezer to firm up. The effervescence will be trapped in the gel, causing a pleasing tingling sensation on the judges' tongues. Quickly rehydrate the wakame in a mix of water and lemon juice. This takes about two minutes. As the seaweed rehydrates, it will suck up some of the acidity in the lemon juice and be a killer counter-balance to our sweet cream-soda knockoff soy.
Lay the seaweed out like Jackson Pollack on a white plate. Slice your fish as thinly as possible and lay it on the wakame. If you are as good as Morimoto, you should be able to see the seaweed through the fish. Get it? See-weed. Ahem, now get your gel out of the freezer, and break it up in to little golden pebbles. Top the fish here and there, making sure each slice of fish has at least one gel pebble. Hit the whole kit with a little olive oil and lemon zest. Call the dish what it is: Suzuki Usuzukuri. Say that three times fast.
Entree: Oxtail, labaneh, mustard greens and fruit cocktail
When I was on Food Network Star, my housemates and I were treated to a special night of takeout Chinese food. I perused the menu and found a gelatinous gem: oxtail. I spent the rest of the night enjoying its tender meat and bonus bits of marrow while my envious housemates pushed PFR (pork fried rice) around their to-go containers. Oxtail also makes incredible soup stocks — it's ingredient number one in pho, my favorite Vietnamese dish. I could go on and on about this jewel that wags lazily behind the rest of the cow, but this is Chopped, and there isn't time for poetry. Put that oxtail in a pot with some pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. The French call this combo quatre epices, FYI. Add some red wine and get it cooking.
Now we address the issue of fruit cocktail, which is neither fruit nor cocktail, in my book, until you drain off all of that horrible syrup that it is packed in. Wash the fruit. Get that stuff off of there. Now we have a cocktail of fruits that is worthy of human consumption. Put it in a pan with some grapeseed oil (doesn't impart flavor), soy sauce and ginger. Cook this until it gets some color. Meanwhile, get out some white rice and wash it until the water runs clear. Chuck in the rice and the mustard greens, which will now soak up all that yummy flavor that our oxtail has released. The rice will also turn purple, which I think is a fun trick.
Next we attack labaneh, which is a scary way of saying "Greek yogurt." Greek yogurt has a really unique tang to it and is rich as can be. It makes a great backbone for sauces, and in this case we will put it in a blender with our stewed fruit cocktail, lemon juice and nutmeg. Alton Brown keeps nutmeg on a keychain. Really. There's some mysterious property in nutmeg that makes "dairy" turn in to "dairy." Think about egg nog. Is there anything more "dairy" than egg nog? Lastly, add some wasabi powder to the mix. I categorize wasabi as a "mustard agent." What we've just made here is a creamy mostarda di frutti sauce. Return to heat until it's plating time.
With eight minutes left, scoop out the rice first and plate it. Next, remove the perfectly tender oxtails. Hit them with a little fleur de sel, especially on the marrow-containing bone. Finally, fish out the mustard greens and toss them with our mostarda sauce.
Call this dish Coda di Bue con Mostarda di Frutti e Riso de Vino Rosso, because it sounds like a classic Italian dish, when, in fact, it's just a crock of stuff.
Dessert: Peanut brittle, Mexican chocolate, grape tomatoes and sponge cake snacks
Peanut brittle and grape tomatoes sound like terror, but remember that our little red friend is actually a fruit, and fruits and nuts are like Forrest and Jenny or like PB and J. If you missed out on Rebel Eats, you probably don't know the glory of a deep-fried PB&J, but I sure do ( watch the full episode here). Get some oil going to 350 degrees F. Blend the tomatoes with some raspberries, sugar and some adobo sauce from a can of chipotle peppers until homogenous. Cook this down for a few minutes. The raspberries are here to get our friend tomato out of its veggie suit and tie and in to a sweet, fruity bathrobe. The chipotle adobo is here to add some smoky intrigue. You see, we are turning the humble grape tomato in to the most-interesting fruit in the world. Meanwhile, pulse the peanut brittle and Mexican chocolate together in a food processor. Smash the sponge cakes and get them on the anti-griddle to freeze. Mix up a quick batter with some eggs, flour, water, salt and baking powder. Scoop your raspberry and tomato compote on to a smashed sponge cake. Add some chocolate brittle bits and top with another cake. Use a skewer to dunk this bomb in our batter and drop it in the fryer. When it's GBD (golden, brown and delicious), pull it out, dust with powdered sugar and serve it up. Say the following: "I don't always make dessert — but when I do, I make a deep-fried sandwich, and I call it a Croque Señor."