Top-Master-Chopped-Iron-Chef #1

2014.May.23 Friday · 7 comments

in Books & Other Media, Food & Recipes, Life

A friend of mine, Kevin Hopp, who used to live here in BA and now lives in the Florida Keys, proposed that we come up with a sort of online cooking competition. But not really a competition, because we’re more than a few kilometers apart, and no one can really do much more than judge how something looks and sounds, but more, for both of us, to get the creative culinary juices cooking. So we bantered back and forth and came up with an idea to start it off, and a couple of nights ago held the first event. We opened it up to anyone via our Twitter, Facebook, Google+ feeds, and after a bit of searching the internet, settled on a video chatroom on TinyChat as the place to host it. We even garnered three other folk who dropped in to chat – though none of the three fired up either webcam or microphone, so we kept having to read their text comments to respond to them. We’ll work out the logistical kinks over time, but it would definitely have been better had they at least turned on microphones (I doubt there are many folk with computers out there that don’t have a microphone these days even if not a webcam).

Now, neither of us have massive pantries of ingredients, so we couldn’t really follow a straightforward competition format. Nor did we have a third party to pick out the challenge. So what we decided to do was each pick two ingredients, and 24 hours beforehand had a quick Skype chat to reveal our two to the other person. The goal, create a dish that used all four ingredients. (We’d actually planned to start last week and done the same, but a work emergency on Kevin’s part and then on rescheduling, finding out that Henry had a group of friends coming over for dinner and needed the kitchen, ended up with us postponing.) So, the “big reveal” as we took to calling it, Kevin picked lamb and beets, I picked mussels and leeks. We then had a day to think about it, buy ingredients, set things up, and get cooking. All told, the event lasted just over an hour, it was great fun, and for both of us, we came up with some really interesting ideas. We also had another call the next day to debrief and discuss the dishes and format and such. So, away we go.

I’m going to start in Kevin’s kitchen with his unedited writeup:

Kevin’s mussel lamb beet leek dish
Kevin’s mussel lamb beet leek dish

When I saw the ingredients for our first session I started sweating garlic – what home cook has ever made Mussels and Lamb together? And beets? Good grief, Charlie Trotter.

But, a challenge we asked for, so a challenge we faced. And from what I gather everything was edible!

Lamb Chops with Mussels, Beer and Beet Fries
Required: Leeks, Lamb, Beets, Mussel

Big meaty lamb chop seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil, pan seared and finished in the oven.

Cut fries, batons, dice beets, whatever – I seasoned mine with Alderwood smoked sea salt, and roasted until crispy.

Maybe I was going the safe route because I had my tail between my legs on the lamb and mussel combo, but between all of those flavors mustard and tarragon work very well.

For the sauce, sauté leeks, shallots, garlic. Add half cup amber ale, cook the alcohol off and add chicken stock. Cook down. Add tarragon and some parsley. Add mussels. Remove when open and cooked through. Rinse capers, add several along with grain and dijon mustard to taste. Finish off with salt and pepper.

At this point it is up to whether you want to puree, and/or strain, or leave it chunky. You may even want to add the mussels to the blender.

I served the lamb chop with lemon, extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of smoked sea salt, and tarragon.

Now, the followup thoughts – Although overall he and his wife liked the dish, Kevin felt that there was an odd astringency to the dish, something that wasn’t quite right. We talked through the procedure and a trio of things came to mind. First, a common home cooking mistake, not rinsing the capers – the brine that they’re in often has a bit of bitterness. Second, although in his recipe he specifies amber ale as the beer, he actually used PBR, which is a lager, not an ale, and much lighter – I find that cooking with lighter beers ends up with little flavor leftover, especially if the sauce boils, which his did, and what you’re left with is just that hint of hops bitterness – had he used an amber ale, it would have added more depth and flavor to the sauce. Third, maybe instead of a sharp, stoneground mustard, something a bit more subtle like a dijon, perhaps even a beer-infused one, would have married better in the sauce.

We did have a little discussion about how cohesive the dishes need to be – in the sense that, for example, he served his mussels simply on the side of the lamb chops. They did contribute a bit of flavor to the sauce as well, as they were cooked in it, but in presentation, the lamb and mussels were simply two halves of a plate, separate, though, from his perspective, which I totally get, they were tied together by the common sauce.

Kevin’s mussel lamb beet leek dish
Kevin’s mussel lamb beet leek dish

Lamb Merguéz Meatballs, Roasted Beets and Leeks, Orzo, Mussel Yogurt

So, I went a very different route, basically a Moroccan inspired dish, with that being the tie-together of the elements.

First up, it turned out that we hadn’t thought about seasonality – lamb is much more available in spring, especially here in BA where things are just more available on a temporal basis. I ended up hitting half a dozen butcher shops and four supermarkets before finding one small shoulder of lamb (actually, one of the butchers had a full leg of lamb, but at nearly three kilos and him wanting almost 400 pesos for it, I left that as an only dire emergency backup). I decided that I was going to grind the lamb and create a merguéz sausage meat from it, made into meatballs. Because the shoulder didn’t have a lot of fat, I also bought a section of oxtail to add to the mix – though a good fatty pork would also work.

500 gm ground lamb (and oxtail, about 5:1 by weight)
2 Tb sweet paprika
1 Tb fennel seeds
1 Tb cumin seeds
½ Tb coriander seeds
½ Tb salt
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cayenne
½ tsp black pepper

Toast the fennel, cumin and coriander seeds together in a dry pan, then grind. Mix all the ingredients together well and then form into meatballs. Now, I will first say that I’ve corrected the salt amount above, somewhere in there I mis-copied it from my old notes and I’d put a full tablespoon in, and it was just too salty. Brown the meatballs in a little olive oil, then add a splash of water to the pan and put it in the oven to let them finish cooking through, roughly 10 minutes.

1½ cups semolina flour
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp bicarb
2 eggs

Mix all the ingredients together well and knead to form a smooth dough (I used a mixer with dough hook). Let rest for 20 minutes and then separate into walnut sized balls of dough, roll each out into a long thin rope and cut orzo shape with a knife – there’s a great YouTube demo of how to do it here. I’d say that given the format of what we were doing I made the orzo a little too big, otherwise it would have just taken too long, but it meant that it came out almost more like small spaetzle.

Cut into 1″ lengths, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasted for an hour.

Peeled, cut into wedges, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasted for 40 minutes. Then tossed with a couple of tablespoons of harissa paste and roasted another 20 minutes.

Harissa paste:
100 gms hot red chilies
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp caraway seeds
1½ tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp dried mint
olive oil

Toast the caraway, cumin and coriander seeds in a dry pan (I’d done this before we got started, and the same with the merguéz spices above, just for timing’s sake), then blend all the ingredients together, adding in just enough olive oil to blend to a smooth paste. I’d say I used about a quarter cup of olive oil. This makes far more than you need for this recipe, but it’s great to have a fiery hot chili paste around the house, you know?

Tossed a half kilo of fresh mussels in a pot with about 2 teaspoons of black pepper, covered the pot, cooked over high heat for about five minutes until the mussels popped open.


Blend the cooked mussels and the liquid in the pot with a cup of plain, unsweetened yogurt and one of those little packets or capsules of powdered saffron, until you have a smooth sauce. Season with salt to taste. Keep warm, but don’t boil or the yogurt will break.

Putting it all together:

Cook the orzo in boiling salted water, drain, toss with sauce, separate into individual bowls or make it up family style. Top with meatballs, beet wedges and leek segments. Garnish with parsley and cilantro leaves, thinly sliced red onion (which I soak for about 15 minutes in cold salted water to take out some bitterness), and thin slivers of orange zest.

The followup: As noted, I used too much salt in the meatballs, easily corrected. I found that the harissa beets, which while amazing on their own, kind of took over the dish – not so much the beets, but having one element that was so spicy while the rest wasn’t, was out of balance. I think I’d likely if I was doing the dish again just roast the beets the full hour and serve the harissa paste on the side for people to add themselves to their own tastes. And, I’d probably use pre-made orzo, the homemade is just too much work, especially to get the really small size (which mine were not) – I’d also probably leave the bicarb out – the reason for adding it to pasta dough is to give a little inflation to pasta as it cooks and also virtually guarantees that al dente character, which maybe for orzo, you don’t want the little bits to puff up slightly, you want to keep it small and “rice-like”. But I’d happily eat this again. Henry wasn’t as enamored of the pasta and sauce (too al dente for his preferences), not surprisingly thought the meatballs were too salty, but ate every beet wedge in the kitchen that I hadn’t gotten to. If I got nothing else out of the evening, I’ve got a great new side dish of harissa roasted beets.

We’d love to have more people join us, either just to chat (please, at least with microphone if not fully on with a webcam), but also to cook. We’re aiming to do this most Tuesday evenings at 8 pm BA time, with some fiddling depending on our schedules. We’ll announce each week when we’re going to do it on both our personal varied social media sites, but also for those of you not connected to one of us personally, on the Casa SaltShaker twitter feed and facebook page. Look for the ingredient announcements late on Monday evenings. The chatroom link, at least for now, is going to be on TinyChat, here.

Oh, and we’re taking suggestions for what to call this “competition” event!


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