Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Ten Things I've Learned Watching "Chopped"
Chopped is a competitive program in which chefs compete against one another. The goal is to make it through appetizer, main dish and dessert rounds, using special ingredients from a mystery basket and the contents of the very well stocked pantry and fridges in the Chopped kitchens. The ingredients are sometimes exotic, sometimes just crazy and occasionally common ingredients that aren't typically restaurant quality fare.
As I watched this week I realized I've learned a great deal. Here are a few of them:
Never let time dictate safety. Because this is a timed competition the Chefs often get in a hurry. Where there's hurry there is carelessness. This is when burns and cuts happen, as well as spills, which lead to slips and falls. Many and many an accident has left me wincing in sympathy as a Chef tries to compete while dealing with a bad cut, a burn, or a wrenched ankle. Safety is always your first concern in a kitchen. Walk, don't run. Use proper chopping techniques and pay attention! Never pour grease into a hot pan. Always put oil in a cold pan. BE CAREFUL!
Basic flavoring and seasoning is EVERYTHING. Too much, too little or none at all and the dish is ruined. Salt and pepper are the most basic of seasonings and they truly can make a dish. A dish with too little salt will taste flat and boring. Herbs and spices can add wonderful flavor but if they are overused, the taste of the food will be off. Use your seasonings properly and add in increments. Be sure to taste to see if more is needed.
And for the record, while it's not a seasoning, sugar is a flavor. A 'savory' dessert is often pronounced as not being a dessert at all by the Chef Judges. Desserts may be lighter but they MUST be sweet. As one Judge recently said, "I have a lovely appetizer on my plate for dessert..." Even if you don't want a heavy sweet, be sure that if it's a fruit course after a meal that it is a sweet fruit such as a ripe and juicy pear, or fully ripened pineapple slices (with toasted coconut atop it's very refreshing) which have a natural sugar.
Sanitation Counts. Handling meat? Wash your hands and clean your surface well before you proceed with other dishes or ingredients. Tasting a dish? Use a clean spoon or fork each time you taste. I can't tell you how often I've watched judges cringe at the idea of eating a dish that a Chef has tasted time and again with the same spoon. Even if you're at home this is good advice. I keep a tin can of spoons near the stove, handy to grab for a taste test and then drop them right into the sink. Adding wine or liquor to a dish? DO NOT drink from the bottle first. Pour yourself a glass if you want a taste but for goodness sake don't take a swig and then pour into your soup or stew or pudding!
Measure, measure, measure. How often have I watched a Chef remove the cap from a Warehouse store sized container of spice or herb and half the contents of the container end up in their mixing bowl? Of course, you can remove some of the excess but the dish is almost always ruined because you cannot remove it, or at least not enough to not compromise the flavor. There's also the waste of all that product because it was contaminated. No time is saved when you ruin a dish and must begin again. And no money is saved through carelessness.
Part II: Measure, measure, measure: The best chef and the average cook have one thing in common: they both think they can eyeball a measurement. Seriously, if our eyes were such a reliable measuring tool we'd never have needed measuring spoons or cups or rulers! Use the equipment that you have to get the real measurement and save a few dollars because typically when we eyeball it we're using far too much.
Basic cooking techniques are generally the simplest and the best. Restaurant deep fryers, instant chill blasters, and such are cool, no kidding. BUT if you've never used them don't experiment when you're preparing an important meal, unless you have someone who is experienced teaching you as you go. Play with that fun equipment and learn how to use it but don't start at dinnertime! It's perfectly okay to make a recipe mid-day if you're using new equipment. I'll bet someone will be happy to eat your experimental foods, especially if you've got husband, children or neighbors.
Lose the Fear: Don't be afraid to experiment with flavorings or seasonings or food combinations. Many a chef has won the Chopped competition simply because he decided to be bold and pair items that normally don't go together. Granted we're unlikely to have the unusual items in our kitchen that the Chef's find in their baskets...and frankly some of the more common ones are not likely to be paired at any time in my kitchen (like Skittles or Cotton Candy to go in a savory course item...). But it doesn't hurt to TRY something new with one dish when you're cooking. Try braising chicken with apple cider, or adding dried fruits to a pot roast dish, or pumpkin to a beef stew, or cinnamon to baked beans.
Even if you personally don't feel comfortable attempting to make up your own recipe, at least experiment now and then with those recipes that might combine ingredients you would consider unusual. The Peach Basil Chicken I tried two summers ago is still a favorite but I'd never have put fresh peaches in a chicken dish prior to that. Another recipe we've tried was a kidney bean salad that included chunks of fresh apple...Not your typical salad but very good!
Properly Cooked Food is a Winner. Sometimes in Chopped a food requires a longer cooking time than the Chefs have. There's really not much they can do in that situation except make it as small as possible and cook it as long as they can. Fortunately I don't have to beat the clock when I'm cooking so I have little excuse to make it a habit to serve anything improperly cooked. Every cook has the occasional error in cooking times, however. I've solved that problem by taking time to substitute another dish for the one that is overcooked. I'll delay dinner for a dish that isn't as done as it should be. I'd rather serve a meal that is properly cooked, even though no one is awarding me $10,000 at the end of the meal.
Appearance Counts. Chefs are known as much by their plating as they are by their flavor profiles. In Chopped competition, plating counts for a lot. The judges are well-known chefs themselves and they really place a lot of weight on how the food appears when it's set before them. Occasionally they are so wowed by the flavor of a dish they will ignore the fact that it looks a mess on the plate, but that is rare. Plating doesn't have to be fancy schmancy at home, but you can add greatly to the appeal of a meal if you take time to think about how it will look when served and attempt to plate it as attractively as possible.
Contrasts in Texture and Color Add to the Experience of a Meal. Crisp green salad, crunchy and soft, cold and hot...It all adds up to interest in a meal. I've heard it more than once when a judging Chef tastes a dish: "It's good, but I find myself looking for something crisp or crunchy to accent the textures of this dish." It's because of watching this program that I find more and more often I serve a raw fruit or vegetable with nearly every meal, as a side dish or salad. It's done a great deal towards increasing our satisfaction with meals overall, adding much needed fiber and vitamins and incidentally filling us up sooner and with less food. That contrast in textures adds greatly to the satisfaction of a meal. A crisp toast or bread is also a good 'contrast' too. Think about how the cheesy crisp crouton atop onion soup enhances that simple dish.
These are a few of the things I've learned while watching the program on TV. I've said before that watching TV isn't a complete waste of time...What have you learned while watching television?