Sunday 24 February 2013

Mystery Ingredient Challenge: First Edition

My aunt & I, master cooks

This weekend I went to my aunt and uncle's place, a little over an hour out of the city. Last Christmas we organized a time where my aunt Tracy, who is a tremendous cook, and I would prepare a three course meal for our family and friends using a list of ingredients that they came up with. I talked about it briefly in my last post but I was wrong on a couple of details. Allow me to reexplain. Our friends and family (including my cousin and her boyfriend who have been  traveling the globe for the last four months) each chose 1-2 ingredients that we would have to include somewhere in our three course meal. We had to come up with an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. We could add any other ingredients that we wanted but we had to incorporate all of the ingredients chosen by the others. 

There are two curve balls to the equation. The other members did not know what each other had chosen. Everyone submitted their choices to my uncle who added his own final ingredient. Upon hearing the ingredients we had to use, my aunt and I were given only 15 minutes to come up with the dinner plan and write it out. The next day we went out to shop for the ingredients and then prepare them. Naturally, since no one knew what the other person was electing as their ingredients, and to challenge our cooking skills, we ended up with a rather bizarre and erratic list.  

The final list was of the following ten ingredients:

  • Couscous
  • Capellini (Angel Hair Pasta)
  • Sherry
  • Vanilla Bean
  • Ginger
  • Rum
  • Blueberries
  • Tortilla Chips
  • Pancetta
  • Canned Corn

For the first few seconds I was stumped but Tracy started throwing out ideas for the dessert and the creative juices just began to flow. We had so much fun and came up with a very creative dinner that everyone loved. At one point of the evening we had a facetime call with my cousin and her boyfriend in Singapore so they could see how everything was turning out. I couldn't have done it all without Tracy, but together we killed it! It was such a success that we're planning another event in the summer when everyone is back in Canada. So you'll have to stay tuned for that.

The Menu

We typed up the menu and posted it to the front door so that the guests could see upon their arrival. For the appetizer, we came up with an angel hair pasta dish with pancetta in a sherry cream sauce. For our main, we stuffed chicken breasts with a Moroccan couscous salad and breaded them in crushed tortilla chips and spices. That was served with stuffed acorn squash and sautéed kale. The dessert was a sumptuous blueberry and ginger pound cake with vanilla and rum whipped cream and a corn, pineapple and ginger purée.

The Appetizer

This turned out so good! It would have been an incredible main if there was more of it and a green salad on the side. Everyone raved about this. Each person got a little ramekin which was just enough to entice the senses in anticipation of the next two courses. We sautéed cubes of pancetta, finely chopped mushrooms, shallots, garlic, and a red chili that we seeded and diced. Once caramelized, we removed them from the pan and deglazed it with a bit of sherry. When the alcohol burned off, we added cream and whisked it into a sauce. We brought that to a low boil and added the capellini, the sautée, some fresh thyme and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. I don't know what else to say other than it was freaking amazing. 

The Main

There are four major components to the main dish: couscous stuffing, breaded chicken breasts, stuffed acorn squash and sautéed kale. Evidently it is winter, so this was a great way to use up some seasonal vegetables (as you should know, cooking with seasonal ingredients equals more flavour and less of a carbon footprint on the environment). 

For the couscous, we made a simple couscous salad that I generally use (and even made not too long ago on this blog). It's just regular couscous, dried cranberries, sliced almonds, fresh mint and fresh cilantro. My aunt had some saffron threads that we also added. We expected the saffron to turn the couscous a bright yellow, but it didn't. Afterwards, we figured out why. We threw in the saffron with the couscous, some salt and a little olive oil before pouring over boiling water. To get more of the yellow effect, we should have added the saffron to the water while it boiled before adding it. That would have dispersed the colour much better. We just used an electric kettle to boil the water, so doing it the way we did was just much easier. 

We butterflied the chicken breasts, covered them in plastic film and beat them with a rolling pin to flatten them into a uniform thickness. This made it much easier to roll up with a generous spoonful of couscous in the middle. Then we trussed the breasts in some kitchen twine, then dipped them in flour, then beaten egg and then the tortilla chips which we had bashed into crumbs. To echo the Moroccan vibe of the couscous, we mixed in some ground cumin, ground fennel, ground cinnamon and chili powder into the chip crumbs. Then we baked them in the oven to cook the chicken through and brown the tortilla breading. The tortilla breading worked really well, to my surprise, and would be a great alternative for people with Celiac disease (just check the ingredients on the package, because some varieties do contain wheat). The only thing that sucked was when we tried to remove the string it just destroyed the breading. Luckily we only tried that on one of ours, so for the sake of presentation we served the chicken with the thread still on and passed a pair of shears around the table. I wouldn't recommend that for honoured dinner guests but when family gets together for a wild cooking experiment, who can complain?

If this idea interests you, I would recommend breading regular chicken (not stuffed) for this method. Using tortilla chips as a breading was the one thing I had the least confidence in but it actually worked really well. They're very crunchy, browned nicely in the oven, and the aromas from the spices we added were intoxicating. That could also have been the drinks, but it did smell good none the less. By the way, couscous as stuffing for chicken = unbelievable!

For the acorn squash, this is another idea that I shared on the blog last October in my "Let's Talk About Squash, Baby" post. Personally, my favourite way to eat acorn squash is halved, seeded and steamed until tender. Then stuffing the cavity with walnuts, cooked yet firm carrots, fresh mint and maple syrup. We did a variation of that by replacing the carrots with canned corn and the fresh mint with fresh chives. It was great. Overall, I still prefer it with carrots and mint but my uncle's brother (who elected canned corn) particularly enjoyed it. I usually sprinkle some paprika around the outside (around the outside, around the outside) of the squash but completely forgot this time. Oops. 

Finally, we sautéed kale for another sidedish which was totally my aunt's idea. We both really like kale (as should you, it's hearty, robust and healthier than medicine) but she showed me a method of sautéeing it with butter, shallots, raisins and a little balsamic vinegar. It was very pleasant and I'll definitely be trying that again.

The Dessert

The very first thing that we made was the dessert. Which was a rich pound cake. We still had to use blueberries, vanilla bean and rum from our list so this was perfect. We put blueberries and ginger in the cake batter. At first we thought of grating the ginger and throwing it in but if you've ever grated ginger you'll know that it holds quite a bit of water and turns into more of a mushy paste than a finely grated product. To avoid it from clumping and hitting some unfortunate soul with a mouthful of hot ginger, we made a few thin shavings of it and minced them into little strips. Then we tossed them in a little flour so they would easily separate and distribute throughout the batter. Then we baked it in a butter dish until a skewer inserted came out clean. For the topping, we split a fresh vanilla bean and added the aromatic seeds and a little spiced rum to some cream before we whipped it up.

We didn't just stop there, to increase the amount of ginger and canned corn we made a purée of pineapple, corn, ginger and rum. It was mostly pineapple than anything else but after we puréed everything we heated it up on the stove to burn off the alcohol. The corn, which on its own is quite sweet, is also quite starchy which helped to thicken it up. We thought it needed a little of something else so we grated a bit of fresh nutmeg and were satisfied.

This whole adventure was a lot of fun and everybody really enjoyed it. We're thinking of turning this into a semi-annual tradition. This is a fantastic idea for you to try with your foodie friends and family members. I am really looking forward to our next session.

Well everyone, I hope you all have a great week. It's the last week of February which means that it's almost March. For me, this means that winter is almost over and soon it will be spring which means two things: a new array of seasonal ingredients that I can't wait to use and the blog's first birthday!

Thanks to everybody for the feedback and support. Be happy and stay fed,


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