Chopped: The Home Game – Round 2

by Jason Roth on August 31, 2010

Our first battle was close, or so I thought. The question was: how would I fare in the next home edition of Chopped, also known as Man v. Food. v. Wife? Our cooking skills were about a half-year better, but this time, there was a twist. Food shopping would be done at the local Chinese supermarket. Would that make a difference? Would Karen really try to screw me this time? And for God’s sake, would duck feet and sea cucumber make an appearance?

Not exactly, but close enough.

"Mystery ingredients" in several senses of the term.

Yes, before we left the supermarket, Karen would grace me with: baby octopus (make that “octopi”), king oyster mushrooms, wonton wrappers, and (imagine host Ted Allen’s pitch-perfect enunciation of the last doozy of an ingredient that seems to say, loudly and clearly, “let’s see what you can do with this!”): grass jelly.


Even being an in-law in a Chinese family wouldn’t save me this time. What the hell was grass jelly? And Jesus Christ, I think it’s safe to say that once someone has a bag of baby octopi in her shopping basket and then reaches for the grass jelly, there’s just a tad of sadism motivating the choice, don’t you think?

My mystery ingredients for Karen were laughably tame in comparison.

Mystery ingredients for Karen. Yeah, I know. I should have gone with the sea urchin gonads and gummi cola bottles.

Please, let me explain myself. My premise was that chicken, by virtue of being unordinary, would be challenging because she’d have to find something interesting to do with it. (This was a competition, after all, and yours truly was 50% of the judging panel.) I also thought that eggplant was not a typical side item for chicken. Sure, I see now that there are over 400,000 web pages with the phrase “chicken and eggplant”, but I didn’t know that at the time and neither did Karen. (And if she did, that would have been a clear violation of the official rules.) I also thought both orange and beer at the same time would be tricky, though she could always decide to pull the same trick I was thinking of with grass jelly: lose points in the “making the secret ingredient a star” category, but win in the “thank you, at least this is edible” category.

As per the rules of our first competition, we exchanged secret ingredients at the supermarket and then were each permitted to pick up other ingredients for our respective dishes that we didn’t already have at home. Again, would being in the Chinese supermarket have an effect?

That's chili oil and Chinese five spice seasoning in the middle. And those are potatoes. (Looks like someone's doing northern Chinese cuisine.)

The four ingredients on the left were mine. Normally, I’d call what possessed me to pick these things “inspiration”, but I think “grasping at straws” better fits the situation. I wanted something to “bring the flavors together”, as these chef-types are wont to say, and I had an idea that a rich, beefy sauce would go well with both octopus as well as the Chinese lasagna, make that dumplings, I was planning to make.

What was Karen planning? To start with, she browned the chicken. I’m not sure with chicken you need to brown in the pan first before roasting, but her results were good, so who the hell am I to say?

Browned chicken in the Dutch oven on eggplant and onions. Ehem. Notice she didn't have any octopi.

This maneuver allowed her to roast the vegetables and flavor them to some extent with the chicken. The vegetables were finished on the stove top. Looks like she didn’t snap a photo showing the creation of the orange sauce. That was where she sneaked the beer in.

These were good. And I'm glad one of us made vegetables.

So far, so good. On my side of the kitchen, however, I was busy staring at a can of freakin’ grass jelly.

The can of grass jelly opens... and is even less appetizing than a closed can of grass jelly.

What was this stuff, anyway? Well, a better description for the can, if we were in China where they don’t care about things like copyright, they’d call it “Grass Jell-O”. I was satisfied with the “grass” description, because that was exactly what it was, but “jelly” implied sweet to me, and this was more like something you’d say there’s always room for in one of the four compartments of your stomach, were you a cow.

Time to do something with this grass jelly stuff. So, ready for this? Here goes nothing: red wine, beef broth, butter, flour, grass jelly, and hoisin sauce. Oh, what the hell, let’s put in a little more hoisin… Not too sweet, it can use a bit more… [And Jason's saute pan officially gets out of control. Isn't anybody moderating this?]

Not my most beautiful work, admittedly. Blame hoisin sauce, not me.

I don’t know what it is about hoisin sauce (or was it the beef broth masking it?), but the sweetness engulfing my sauce completely appeared out of nowhere. Hey, I just happen to have the perfect solution for this. Grass jelly! Those lumps you see are not flour, but bits of grass jelly. I figured sauteing would melt it down, and I was right. I should add at this point that I don’t think anyone in the Eastern Hemisphere is, was, or will ever use grass jelly in such a way. Little did I know at the time that it’s usually used in desserts or drinks, with much sweetness added. Hey, at least I got the sweetness part.

The dumpling filling was the easy part.

Now I know why they're called "king oyster" mushrooms. Because when you cut them up, they look exactly like scallops.

I have to say, sauteing the king oyster mushrooms was one experience I’ll definitely be repeating. These things blew me away. I had eaten them before, but never Colicchio-style, as I now refer to it. Meaning: essentially pan-roasted over high-heat. The flavor was intense, and purely mushroom, not dirty or strong in any negative way. To them, I added garlic (of course), scallions, salt, pepper, and chili oil. In fact, the chili oil was what I used to saute them, and flavored them nicely without causing my competitor to run for the milk and/or tongue bandages.

I’m glad I went with the “boring” dumpling idea, because I had enough problems without trying to gauge how long to cook a grass jelly and octopus lasagna.

Initially, this was going to be lasagna. Score one for the left brain.

And no, I wasn’t planning on baking these, they were just hanging out on the pan until the octopus was nice and rubbery.

As per our officials rules, I was allowed to look up cooking preparations for particular ingredients, and I needed Google for those baby octopi. Unfortunately, I can’t blame Google for my combining techniques from two different search results. (At least, I think I read this on two different pages.) The first recommendation was to boil the baby octopi until tender in salted water, about 20 minutes. This is exactly where I should have stopped and everything would have been fine. But I had delusions of roasted octopus grandeur, so in addition, I would finish them by broiling with some chili oil for another few minutes per side. This might have actually worked, had I been watching them and not attempting to finish two sauces at the same time.

Perfectly roasted. If only I hadn't boiled them already.

It turned out that parts of them came out nice and crispy, presumably the parts that didn’t cook properly in the piece-of-crap Cuisinart toaster oven we have. (Yes, there is a cooking appliance that the company is apparently incapable of producing.) But before I start sounding like I’m just throwing sauces and toaster ovens under the bus to distract from my overcooked octopus, let me distract you by moving on to the next sauce.

Let me take the photo of this yogurt sauce so I can get back to my beer already.

Greek yogurt made its appearance in my brain somewhere at the point when I was considering lasagna, and adding the Chinese five spice to it would be my own Asian-Greek-Italian inspired béchamel sauce. I added some salt and a squeeze of lemon for some additional tartness, and it was pretty safe for human consumption. Actually, it was pretty tasty, though I have to say the Chinese five spice mixture was on the strange side. (Did I mention that I also had never cooked with this? I brought this one on myself.) The ingredients in the mixture are: anise, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, ginger, and… mmm… sulfiting agents.

So now, for the great reveal.

Baby octopi; king oyster mushroom, chili, and scallion dumpings; red wine-beef-hoisin-grass-jelly sauce; and Chinese five spice yogurt sauce.

Sure, my plating skills could use work, but this ridiculously complicated half-a-meal was actually 75% pretty good. If you discount the overcooked parts of the octopi, there were some good flavors here. Karen even gave me points for the yogurt sauce. (And no, in case you’re wondering, we’re not so geeky that we actually tally up points.)

And as for the orange-beer chicken and eggplant:

Orange chicken. (This is my website, so I don't have to sell you on it if I don't want to.)

To be fair, and since my wife is in another country right now, the chicken was slightly overcooked. But not entirely, and the flavor of both the nicely roasted skin and the orange sauce (which, as you’ve noted in the photo above, she spiked with Tropicana) not only came out very nicely, but really worked with her vegetable. I can’t say I tasted the beer in the vegetables, but it’s not like I went grass jelly crazy myself. (In fact, one improvement to my grass jelly sauce might have been to eliminate the grass jelly.)

All in all, we had a fun evening, if experimental to the tenth degree, and this time almost succeeded in making food consumable by only two human beings. I’m giving the win to Karen this time, and because I am a gracious winner, will do my very best to not give her four insane ingredients next time as pay-back. Well, that, and because I have to eat what she makes, too.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen September 3, 2010 at 9:44 am

The ingredients I picked for you were tough and you did really well with what you were given. I thought I’d kick it up a notch since we’re now pros at the Chopped Game. You probably didn’t taste the beer in the vegetables because there was no beer in the veggies. It was used in my sauce!

Jason Roth September 3, 2010 at 9:53 am

You probably didn’t notice that I already updated the post. (I had initially explained that the beer was included in Karen’s vegetables, but she corrected me, saying it was actually in the sauce.)

Get ready for next time, it’s going to be offally hard. I mean awfully hard.

Geoff October 1, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Mmm-mmm, who doesn’t enjoy kicking back a cool, refreshing can of grass jelly now and then? I can’t wait to see what ludicrous ingredients get picked in the eventual round 3.

Jason Roth October 7, 2010 at 2:03 pm

This NY Times Vancouver write-up mentions a “chrysanthemum tea with herbal jello”. I bet that’s the damn grassy jelly! (However, I do not plan to make it a stop on my Vancouver trip.)

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