Curious Cook: I’m Chopped to pieces

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The end product from a 'mystery basket' experiment turned out delicious.
The end product from a 'mystery basket' experiment turned out delicious.
Courtesy of Debbie Matthews

Chopped is a show on Food Network. Four chefs are confronted by three baskets with four mystery foodstuffs in each. With them, they must cook an appetizer course, then main course, and finally dessert.

The time is limited, and the pressure is immense. After each round, one contestant is eliminated, so at the desert cook-off only two remain.

The Kid and I are big fans of the show, and do lots of back-seat cooking. “Really, hash? Out of ideas already?” “Noooo! Not the truffle oil!” “Don’t put those greens on the hot food! They’ll be completely wilted!”

So finally, to see how hard it really is, I decided to play Chopped with The Kid. Armed with my cash, my child picked up four items at the grocery store. I would be presented with the mystery foods, and cook a (hopefully) edible, and maybe even delicious meal. The rules would be a touch different. The ingredients had to include one protein (meat, or meat-like substitute). Only one course and I’d have no competition or time limit. And no seafood; I never cook it, so it would be an insurmountable curveball.

Finally, my very own mystery basket arrived with the four cryptic components:

1. Bison flank steak. I was kind of impressed with this one, exotic, but not totally out there. But I had a concern. Flank steak from a cow, which is much fattier is really easy to overcook. Bison is very, very lean. I would have to tread carefully.

2. Broccolini; an Asian hybrid of broccoli and kai-lan (I don’t know what that is either). I’ve never eaten broccolini, but I’m curious.

3. Chipotle in adobo. This one is hilarious to me. The Kid hates this on principle. My little chef can’t abide the product because of its trendiness. It’s actually smoked jalapeno peppers in a tomato sauce.

4. Mango. This one is hilarious to my child. I’ve always hated mango. I think it tastes like baby food.

But my lot in life is to use it, so I shall. My plan was to make a barbecue sauce with the chipotles and mangos. I’d sear the steak in my cast iron, then paint on the barbecue sauce, and finish it under the broiler. It would be served on a bed of my Anson Mills grits, cooked according to the directions of former Carolina Inn Executive Chef James Clark (good thing there’s no time limit; they take at least an hour to cook).

As for the broccolini, I decided to make a slaw. I’d keep it raw, and dress it with an Asian/citrus kind of thing. No mayo, though; I want something light to balance the rich grits and red meat. On the big day I started by poaching some crushed garlic cloves in olive oil. I’d add this to the mango and chipotle.

When I asked The Kid how hot the chilis were, all I got was an evil smile, and “You’ll have to taste for yourself.” So I did. Yowza! That stuff is hot. An hour after a tiny, tentative sample, my mouth was still burning. Because of this I would only use the adobo; the spicy tomato sauce in which the smoked peppers were packed. With the mango and adobo sauce, I made a barbecue sauce. I tossed it with a dressing I made with lemon, Dijon mustard, olive oil, honey, a little peanut butter, and a couple drops of toasted sesame oil. I added salt and pepper and a pinch of five spice like the BBQ sauce.

My mystery basket turned out pretty well. The steak wasn’t overcooked, and the sauce wasn’t too spicy. The slaw was a nice cool, crunchy counterpoint. But to be perfectly honest, the tastiest part of the plate was Chef James’ awesome Anson Mill grits.

Thanks for your time. Contact debbie at

Chef James’ Grits

1 1/2 Cups Stone Ground Grits

3 Cups Milk

1 1/2 Cups Water

1/4 Pound Butter

Salt and Pepper

First, soak the grits in cold water and skim away all the corn germ that floats to the top. Stir a few times and get as much of the germ skimmed away. Drain the cold water from the grits and use this water for the grits. In a heavy bottomed pot bring the water and milk to a simmer and slowly mix the grits into the hot liquid with a whisk so there are no lumps. Then let cook slowly for about an hour to an hour and a half stirring often. Once the grits are cooked and soft add in the butter and season with the salt and pepper. If grits become too thick then just add a little milk.

Mango Adobo Barbecue Sauce

1 mango, roughed chopped

1 shallot, peeled and rough chopped

1 tablespoon of the adobo sauce from a can of chipotle peppers (or more to taste)

2 cups ketchup

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons spicy brown mustard

1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese Five Spice Powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Put all ingredients into a food processor or blender and blend until completely smooth. Put sauce into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer and cook until thickened into barbecue sauce consistency.


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