Monday 6 April 2015

Mystery Ingredient Challenge 2015

My aunt and I are big time foodies and we usually do a semi-annual event with other family members. Everyone chooses a mystery ingredient for my aunt and I to incorporate into a multiple course meal that we prepare for everybody. In the last few challenges we've also been presented with one or two additional secret ingredients after we've already planned out the menu. It's a lot of fun. It's actually been about a year since our last cook off because of all of the preparations surrounding my cousin's wedding last summer. It kind of got skipped. So we were all very excited for this particular challenge. 

It was a smaller crowd this time around. Other than my aunt and I there was my uncle, his brother and his wife, my cousin and her husband. So we only had five initial ingredients which were:

  • Cabbage
  • Sausage
  • Rhubarb
  • Chili pepper
  • Tofu

My aunt and I decided on four courses: two appetizers, one main and a dessert. For the first appetizer we decided on marinated tofu and veggie skewers. The second course was a fresh ravioli with a spicy tofu filling, arugula pesto and fresh Parmigiano Reggiano. For the main course we made cabbage rolls stuffed with ground beef and sausage with a salad and crusty bread. Then for dessert we decided on a rhubarb crisp with the choice of freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. We incorporated the chili peppers in the tofu marinade for the skewers, the ravioli filling as well as the cabbage roll stuffing. So we had all of our bases covered. One problem that we encountered was that the market was out of rhubarb and we were out in the country with limited options so we had to replace one of our secret ingredients. Rhubarb was chosen by cousin's husband, Steve, who picked apple in its place (so that we could still make a crisp). So instead of rhubarb we used two different kinds of apple, raspberries and blackberries. We called it a rhubarbless rhubarb crisp, lol. Poor Steve. He had chosen rhubarb as his ingredient in a previous cook off but we encountered the same problem. Steve can't seem to catch a break.

After we committed to our menu and finished all of our grocery shopping we were presented with our two additional curve ball ingredients: Kiwi and a novelty Reese's chocolate-peanut butter Easter egg.  

We felt that both ingredients would work best in the dessert course. We decided to add some of the kiwi to the fruit in the crisp and scoop out most of the peanut butter from the Reese's Egg and use the chocolate to melt into a sauce. That way we could fold some of the chocolate sauce into the whipped cream and save the rest for a drizzle over those who prefer ice cream. Then we got the bright idea of adding Chambord (a French, raspberry liqueur) to the chocolate for extra flavour that would tie it in with the raspberries in the crisp. 

Well, the Chambord idea didn't work out so well. We melted the chocolate in a double boiler and then added a bit of Chambord which we reduced slightly to burn off the alcohol. I'm sure there is a simple scientific explanation for this but as soon as we mixed in the Chambord it caused the chocolate to crystallize and turn all grainy. We tried to save it by returning it to the double boiler with a little extra chocolate but it was no use. Never the less, the chocolate was an ingredient we had to include in the course so we used it anyway. The texture wasn't what we planned but at least it tasted fantastic.

Whomp, Whomp...

As usual we printed the official menu and posted it for all to see. We made the chocolate sauce after printing it and of course wasn't anticipating the hiccup in the texture so although it reads "Chambord drizzle" there's no way it could be drizzled as you can gather from the photo above. These challenges have yet to turn out without a single hitch. lol

For the first course we marinated firm tofu in a combination of oil, rice vinegar, fresh garlic, chili pepper, ginger, salt and pepper for a few hours. We tossed some button mushrooms in a little olive oil, salt and pepper and gave them a head start on the barbecue in a perforated pan. Then I added some yellow bell pepper and the tofu and let everything get caramelized and smoky. Then we skewered them with some fresh cherry tomatoes and served them with a Thai peanut sauce. In retrospect, these skewers would have been perfect with a little red onion. Otherwise they were a big hit. My uncle's brother said he'd never eaten tofu before and was surprised at how much he liked it.  



For the second appetizer we had to make some homemade pasta for the ravioli. If you'd like to learn how to make your own basic pasta, check out my recipe for it. We made a large batch of a slightly different recipe. We used 3 cups of pastry flour, 1/2 cup semolina flour, a dozen egg yolks, 2 tbsps of extra virgin olive oil, a good pinch of salt and few tbsps of cold water as needed. My aunt has an actual pasta machine attachment on her mixer which was a real treat for me. Every other time I've made pasta I've rolled it out on a counter and used a knife to cut it. 


We sautéed onions, garlic, mushrooms, tofu, chili peppers, rosemary, sage and thyme for the ravioli filling. 


Then it was just a matter of cutting out little circles with a cookie cutter and placing a small amount of filling on half of them and then sealing them with the other circles using a little egg white as adhesive. 

After sealing the raviolis together we used a fork to crimp the edges, just for appearance.

Since the pasta was so fresh it only took about a minute in simmering, salted water to cook. I made a pesto out of fresh arugula, garlic, toasted pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano, fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. We served the ravioli with the pesto and some extra Parmigiano on top. The plating turned out to be a bit of a flop but these were so good! Arguably the best course of the day. 

The star of the main course was the cabbage rolls. I'd never made them before and my aunt had limited experience but they turned out really good. We browned sausage and ground beef and combined it with cooked brown rice, onion, garlic, chili peppers, sage, rosemary and thyme. We parboiled the cabbage just enough to soften the leaves and then we filled them with our meat mixture and and rolled them up. My cousin is a vegetarian so we managed to make one cabbage roll with some of the leftover tofu ravioli filling.

We made a basic sauce of canned Marzano tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs and just a little balsamic vinegar to give it a depth of flavour. We topped the rolls with the tomato sauce. In retrospect we should have added a layer of sauce at the bottom, but as I mentioned, neither of us are cabbage roll connoisseurs, lol. 


We baked the cabbage rolls at 350 F/177 C for about an hour. They looked about the same coming out as they did going in. 

We put together a nice salad of romaine lettuce, crispy pancetta, red onion and freshly grated Parmigiano cheese.  We tossed the salad in my aunt's homemade Caesar salad dressing.

We also roasted a whole head of garlic and warmed up a multigrain baguette in the oven. Roasting garlic whole causes the cloves to steam and caramelize in their papery casings. This creates a creamy, spreadable product that we used on the bread. Everything was so mouthwateringly tasty and left everybody quite satisfied. 


For the dessert we made the "rhubarbless" crumble with a layer of cinnamon and apples, raspberries, blackberries and kiwi with a butter, brown sugar and rolled oat topping.  

For those who preferred fresh whipped cream, we incorporated some of my botched Chambord chocolate but I have to admit it worked pretty well. We managed to give the whipped cream a subtle chocolate-raspberry flavour without completely destroying the texture.

Unfortunately the ice cream variety wasn't quite as successful. We had intended to have an actual chocolate sauce to drizzle over the ice cream, but since we were left with a grainy paste all we could really do was plop some of the chocolate in the middle. The chocolate Easter egg was an ingredient we had to use, so we did. Although the texture wasn't anything to write home about, the flavours were delicious and the colours were beautiful. 

As usual it was heaps of fun we managed to eat some fantastic food in the process. We had some leftovers including cabbage rolls and pesto to enjoy for dinner the following night.

We had so much fun making fresh pasta for the cook off that we decided to do it again the next day. Only this time we made fresh fettuccine. 

We cooked the fettuccine in salted, simmering water and then tossed it with the leftover arugula pesto and a little bit of the starchy pasta water to stretch the pesto and give it a silkier texture. 

We served the fettuccine with extra freshly grated Parmigiano, more salad and the leftover cabbage rolls which we warmed up. It turned out to be a very special and enjoyable dinner too!

Not only was it a lot of fun to get together and pull off several courses of delicious food, but I got a good dosage of dog this past weekend. This is completely non-food related but we are big dog people and this gathering gave me a chance to see my aunt and uncle's dog, Keeva. She's about 14 months old now and even bigger than when I last saw her at Christmas. Keeva's made a few previous appearances on the blog.

Also, Steve and my cousin Megan got a new puppy since I saw them last, Oakley. He's a little over two months old and quite the little scamp, although down for the count in this picture. He is a gold retriever/poodle mix. Who doesn't love puppies? I mean, come on. :)

Well guys, I hope you enjoyed the photos from our latest mystery ingredient challenge cook off. Winter is finally beginning to give up its reign to Spring and that means all kinds of new seasonal produce and new recipes are coming to the site very soon. Spring is my favourite season of the year! This is also the time of year when my busiest season at work starts to die down and I'll have more time and energy to contribute material to the blog. I know that the momentum of posts hasn't been quite the same over the past few months and I'm sorry about that. Big things are coming and all that is about to change.

Until next time foodies,


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