My mission: combine chestnuts, mango, duck breast, and polenta into a semi-edible, one-dish entree, without getting chopped. Fortunately, no one invited Ted Allen over, so the game was rigged in my favor.
If you haven’t seen it, Chopped is a spin-off of Iron Chef America in which contestants (actual chefs) are given one basket at a time of mystery ingredients and are charged with creating an appetizer, followed by an entree and dessert. The show is actually more interesting to me now than Iron Chef, even though I found it somewhat simplistic on first viewing, because you’re able to better see the process of creating individual dishes. Whereas Iron Chef makes you sit on your couch, comfortable in the knowledge that you would absolutely wreak havoc trying to do what those guys are doing, Chopped has the tendency to make you want to see if you can pull it off yourself. After the latest episode, Karen and I decided we would challenge each other to a version of the home game. The only main modification would be dropping the time limit.
The rules were: we’d make a visit to the supermarket together and each fill up a basket with four mystery ingredients for the other person: one protein, one carb, one fruit or vegetable, and one ingredient of our choice. We exchanged baskets prior to leaving the store, and then each person was allowed to purchase other ingredients for use in the dish. We were allowed to refer later to cookbooks or the web, but only for guidance in cooking technique, not for recipe ideas. The idea for the dish had to be decided at the supermarket, and you had to use at least some of each of the ingredients you purchased.
The ingredients Karen bestowed upon me were the above-mentioned chestnuts, mango, duck breast, and polenta. The ones I picked for Karen were: ground lamb, a package of basmati and wild rice, leeks, and duck fat. By the end of the night, we would have enough duck fat left over to keep an average person obese through the next world war. But think of it this way: I was seriously considering giving her fish stock instead.
As soon as I saw the basket of ingredients she picked for me, the basic idea pretty much came to me immediately: roast the chestnuts and mix them into the polenta, and use the mango as part of a glaze or sauce for the duck breast. I should probably point out that until this game of Chopped, I had never cooked with chestnuts or duck, and I can’t say I’m a huge fan of mango. But I have enjoyed mango and habanero salsa, so adding chile pepper to the mix made sense. Habaneros were not available, and since I wanted to use a fresh pepper, I picked up what turned out to be a ridiculous quantity of jalapeno peppers.
The corn meal cried out for cheese, but our local supermarket’s huge cheese selection was a blessing and a curse. I was looking for a semi-soft cheese, though, and the word “nutty” stood out to me on a description of a fontina. (Fontina was also one of the recommended cheeses on the bag of polenta, but come on, don’t rain on my inspiration.) For the glaze/sauce, I was thinking honey to help hold the mixture together. I wasn’t big on the idea of one-dimensional sweetness, though, so while browsing the jams and jellies, I saw something I had never used before: lingonberries. Described as both sweet and tart, I thought: what the hell, it’s not like I have $10,000 to lose here. As my vegetable, I would roast carrots and serve the duck on top.
The lingonberries turned out to be in the form of a preserves, meaning whole berries with extra juice gelled by added pectin. I pureed some with nearly all the mango and one-half of one jalapeno pepper, to create the glaze/sauce (still TBD). As is usually the case, bits of jalapeno didn’t quite puree, but not a big deal. The tartness from the lingonberries blended well with the mango, and since the mixture was sweet enough as is, I decided to leave out the honey.
For help with the duck breast, I consulted Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef. As much as I wanted to steal his idea of sauteing the carrots in duck fat, I didn’t want to use an ingredient we only had because of the competition. But I did steal his idea of sauteing the carrots prior to roasting, which I did in olive oil instead.
Where I semi-blundered was in not reading the weight of the duck breasts in Colicchio’s recipe; his were half the size of what I was using. This only affected the roasting time, but enough so it made sense to eat Karen’s dish first. The cooking process would be the same: sear the skin-side of the duck breast for about five minutes, the other side for about one, and then roast in the oven. My duck breast was over a pound, and roasting in the oven took upwards of 15 minutes on 375°. Incidentally, he suggested searing on medium heat, which was a reason I went with his technique over Eric Ripert instructions in another cookbook. (I knew I’d be splattering enough fat without cooking on high.)
Colicchio’s suggestion to slice some criss-crossed lines into the fat (not into the meat itself), and his suggested five minutes on the skin/fat side, gave the duck the perfect sear. I cooked the other side for a minute, which also seemed to be the right amount of time, and then placed the duck breast on top of the carrots and roasted it. Oh, and it was at this point that I decided to paint on the mango-lingonberry-jalapeno mixture. It looked good, and it was able to conveniently squish down between the slits in the meat. The recipe for an 8-oz. breast recommended five minutes in the oven, and like I said, it ended up being around 15, though I didn’t count. The result looked quite nice:
Almost forgot to describe the polenta. That, I had done by this time. I had roasted the chestnuts for about 15 minutes in the toaster oven, and after hearing two loud “pops”, I realized that a couple of them had exploded out of their shells. I then stabbed each of the remaining nuts as a preventative measure. I threw the unshelled nuts and some chopped fontina into the food processor with some truffle salt and then mixed into the polenta. (We had just eaten the ridiculously good polenta at Scarpetta made with preserved truffles, which gave me the truffle salt idea. One note on truffle salt: the pro is that it seems to keep indefinitely, the con is that it doesn’t add much truffle flavor.) I tried to keep things somewhat healthy by skipping cream in the polenta, but I was missing it. I think I actually would have preferred some milk or cream over the cheese. I guess I can’t get over the childhood memory of cheesy grits.
When I put the duck into the oven, I was pretty sure I had seared the duck good enough and rendered as much fat as I was going to. Looking at the photo now, I’m not so sure. But I’ll say this: it tasted good, and we both thought the skin was great. I added a bit more of the sauce as I was eating it, but Karen didn’t think it needed much more than the glaze. The carrots, after further cooking underneath the duck, were super tasty. The polenta I felt was cheesy without really improving the flavor so much. The chestnuts were somewhat evident, though it isn’t something I would rush to do again.
So, who won the competition?
Well, here are the extra ingredients Karen picked up to complete her meal:
And here’s her final dish:
Since she already had rice as a carb, she opted against a lamb burger and opted instead for a seasoned kebab. The leeks, along with various spices such as cumin and coriander, were inside the kebab. She painted the kebabs with a little duck fat, and also used some with the carrots and peas in the rice, which was cooked in beef stock. She served it with a Greek yogurt sauce flavored with garlic and herbs.
I thought Karen’s rice definitely beat my polenta in flavor, and the yogurt sauce was delicious with its mint, garlic and lemon juice. My carrots kicked butt, but I think the proteins were very much on par, though I think the flavor and doneness of mine was a bit better. In the end, though (drum roll, please), I guess I’d have to go with Karen’s dish overall.
Not a bad game to play on a Saturday evening, I have to say, and it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a supermarket. Well, unless you count that time in college when I ordered a live lobster from the seafood section and set it free in aisle 7.