S2E19 (Mystery Box) – Chicken

For the final mystery box challenge of the season, the contestants were asked to demonstrate how far they had come. They had to create a dish featuring chicken with an open pantry, just like one of the first challenges of the season. Jennifer struggled, turning in a dish with overcooked and undercooked components (Bacon Wrapped Chicken with Apples and Jalapeño). Christian (Bacon Wrapped Chicken with French Onion Sauce) and Adrien (Braised Chicken Thigh with Acorn Squash, Asparagus and Rice) created better dishes, but the judges only offered high praise for Adrien, who won the challenge.

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For this challenge, I decided to do an “empty the fridge” type of dish. While that’s not really what I usually do on this blog, I thought that I had ingredients on hand to do a great stuffed chicken breast with ratatouille and truffle-butter potatoes. For the chicken breast, I made the stuffing out of feta, chopped bacon, minced garlic, chopped yellow onions, thyme, oregano, and crushed red pepper. After mixing all of this together, I pounded out the chicken breast, spread the stuffing evenly over the top of the chicken and then rolled it all up so that the chicken totally enveloped the stuffing. I seasoned the chicken with salt, pepper and paprika, and poured in enough chicken stock to cover the bottom of the baking dish. I baked this in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes, spooning the broth over the top of the chicken every 15 minutes.

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While the chicken was cooking, I started making the sides. While I did not have the ingredients to make a traditional ratatouille, I certainly had enough to create my own version. I simply sautéed some chopped zucchini, chopped red onion, diced tomatoes, minced garlic, and chopped red bell pepper in some olive oil and butter. I let the vegetables cook together for a little bit. Then, I added a couple tablespoons of arrabiata sauce and seasoned the whole mixture with salt, pepper, oregano, basil, cumin, and cayenne pepper. I let this all cook together on low until the vegetables were tender and ready to serve.

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For the potatoes, I simply fried the slices in some butter for a couple minutes per side, sprinkled them with truffle salt and then popped them in the oven on a baking sheet until they were fork tender.

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The final component of the dish was the red wine reduction. When the chicken was finished, I took the broth from the bottom of the baking dish and poured it into a sauce pan. To this, I added an equal amount of red wine (in this case, a pinot noir that I had on hand), a tablespoon of honey, and the juice of 1/2 a lime. I let this simmer until it was reduced by half.

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I plated the chicken breast on a bed of the truffle potatoes and ratatouille with the red wine reduction spooned over top. Overall, the dish came together pretty well. The ratatouille and potatoes were delicious. I easily could have eaten just those and been perfectly content. The chicken, on the other hand, was just ok. The feta did not keep the chicken moist like other cheeses I have used in the past to make this dish. And the crushed red pepper was too strong, giving the stuffing, as a whole, a bit of an odd flavor. The red wine sauce was very strong. I let it reduce too far and I used a fairly cheap wine, so the overall flavor was much too sharp. While there are definitely some tweaks that need to be made to improve this dish, I do think that it could be refined into quite a delicious meal.

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S2E15 (Elimination) – Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup

As an advantage from her win in the previous challenge, Jennifer was able to pick the focus for the elimination challenge. She was able to pick from the three judges’ favorite childhood dishes of Joe’s Pizza, Graham’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese and Gordon’s Tomato Soup with Grilled Cheese. She picked Gordon’s dish and the contestants had 45 minutes to turn it into a gourmet version.

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Suzy (Grilled Cheese with Red Pepper and Tomato Soup) and Tracy (Tomato Soup with Pancetta and Fontina Grilled Cheese) had the best dishes and earned the job of team captains for the next challenge.

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Ben (Roasted Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese with Bacon and Onion), Christine (Heirloom Tomato Soup with Goat and Provolone Grilled Cheese), and Derrick (Gorgonzola Tomato Soup with Tomato and Bacon Grilled Cheese) were in the bottom three, with Christine and Derrick being sent home.

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When I saw this challenge, I knew that I wanted to use this as an excuse to try my hand at some homemade bread to use for the grilled cheese sandwiches. I have been trying to push myself to make items that I would usually just buy at the store. I did some research and found this delightful bread recipe: Potato-Rosemary Bread. I completely followed this recipe (including the roasted garlic, of course), and it turned out perfectly. It is a very time-intensive recipe but it was so worth it. Honestly, this is some of the best bread I’ve ever had and it worked really well with the other flavors in the dish. (Just a warning though: For those of us who are not regular bread makers and do not have biga just lying around, this recipe will take two full days to make).

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For the soup portion, I wanted to do a tomato and bacon bisque but I  had no idea where to start as I had never made one before. I used this recipe as an initial guide: Roasted Tomato and Smoked Bacon Bisque, but I changed and added enough components to make my own recipe.

The first thing I did was roast the tomatoes. I cut 5 pounds of roma tomatoes in half and removed the seeds from the center with a table spoon. Then, I sliced 2 shallots and minced 5 cloves of garlic. I tossed all of this in some olive oil in a large baking dish and put it into a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes (before and after roasting pictures are shown below). When the tomatoes were cool enough to touch, I removed the tomato skins and began my work on the soup.

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When the tomatoes were done, I browned 1 cup of chopped bacon in a large pot. Once finished, I poured off the rendered fat and added 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of butter, 1 yellow onion (chopped), 1 shallot (minced), 1 red bell pepper (chopped), 8-10 cloves of whole roasted garlic (which I roasted previously while making the bread), 2 large carrots (chopped), and 2-3 stalks of celery (chopped) to the pot. I seasoned this with salt, white pepper and black pepper and cooked this all together until the vegetables were tender.

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I then added the roasted tomatoes (without skins), shallots and garlic to the pot with 3 1/2 cups of chicken stock and 1 cup of white wine. I seasoned this mixture with 5 leaves of fresh basil (finely chopped), 1 bay leaf, 1/2 of a tablespoon of dried oregano, 1/2 of a tablespoon of dried thyme, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and some additional salt and pepper. I let this cook together for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Then, I added in a half pint of heavy cream and allowed this to simmer for 10-15 more minutes.

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Finally, I pureed the soup in a couple batches with a blender. I put the pureed soup back into the pot without straining it because I wanted a thicker soup. If you prefer a thinner soup though, I would recommend taking this step. I brought the soup back up to a simmer to ensure that it was still heated through (and to keep it warm while I was doing the grilled cheese), and then garnished it with a yellow cherry tomato (cut in half), a couple thin strips of fresh basil, and a few dollops of greek yogurt that I had mixed with some fresh lemon juice. This is completely unnecessary to enjoy the soup, but I did it to give it that “gourmet plating” look (and also to get a good picture).

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With the soup complete, it was time to make the gourmet grilled cheese. I wanted to go with some bold flavors for this component so I decided to create a grilled cheese sandwich with arugula, portobello mushrooms, prosciutto, gruyere and smoked gouda on thick slices of my homemade potato-rosemary-garlic bread. I lightly cooked the thinly sliced portobello mushrooms in some olive oil and then layered the sandwich components as seen below (with gruyere on one side and smoked gouda on the other). I then spread a generous layer of butter on both of the outer sides of the sandwich and grilled it on a hot griddle for a few minutes a side (basically until it was brown and crispy, as shown below).

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I cut the sandwich in half and served it in the soup. All together, this was delicious (and honestly one of my all-time favorites from this blog). The sandwich and the soup were both gourmet versions of the classic and tasted wonderful in their own right. But together, the flavors were magical. Ok… that might be overstating it a bit. But seriously, this was AWESOME! So good, in fact, that as soon as I woke up the next morning, I wanted the leftovers. (For the record, this is great for breakfast too). I certainly think this would have made a splash in the challenge and I definitely recommend trying this out for yourself.

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S2E6 (Team) – Five-Course Meal

Employment Update: I wrapped up my position with Churchill Downs and have moved back in with my parents. (Whomp. Whomp…) I am back to the full-time job search, AKA as the worst thing ever, but there have been some exciting things happening and I have been pretty productive recently. Since my last post (sorry – I know it’s been a while): 2 phone interviews, 20+ e-mails and LinkedIn messages, and 5 job applications. 

This week’s team challenge had the two teams catering a five-course meal for 350 office workers in the building that included a soup, a salad, pizza, a special entree and dessert.

The Blue Team produced Chicken Chili, Seasonal Salad with Blue Cheese and Nuts, Arugula and Bruschetta Pizza, Beef Hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Cookies.

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The Red Team produced Chicken Orzo, Watermelon Salad with Cucumber and Feta, White Pizza, Cheesy Lasagna and Fresh Berries with Cream.

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The Blue Team had several issues with their service (including running out of food) so the Red Team was declared the winner. Since I am not going to be cooking a five-course meal for 350 people anytime soon, I decided to use this challenge as an excuse to try some recipes that I have been wanting to take a stab at.

For the soup portion, I wanted to try Giada de Laurentiis’s Italian Wedding Soup Recipe. I followed the recipe completely and it was so simple and tasty. If I did it again, I might try adding some other types of vegetables and seasonings to give it a more complex flavor but this is a great recipe for a straightforward, delightful dish.

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The salad course was where I decided to get a little adventurous. I saw this recipe a while ago and I knew that I wanted to try it: Roasted Beet and Citrus Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette. I had not planned on making any changes to this recipe but my grocery store had other plans. It did not have golden beets, microgreens, ruby red grapefruit, valencia oranges or blood red oranges. So I had to improvise. I kept the roasted beets (all red), mixed greens, fennel and mustard vinaigrette, but everything else was different. I used mango, navel orange, and pomelo on the salad and eliminated the pistachios all together (because I do NOT enjoy nuts in my food). While it was nothing like what I had originally set off to make, it was really delicious! This was my dad’s favorite dish of them all and it was definitely one of the best from my point of view as well. It’s a really unique and flavorful dish, and it looks totally beautiful with all of the bright colors of the fruit and vegetables. It is something that I will definitely do again when I want to impress people at a dinner party.

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The pizza course was another one that I decided to have some fun with. I saw a recipe for Brussel Sprout and Bacon Pizza recently, and given how much I love both ingredients, I knew that I had to try it. I pretty much followed the recipe, but it called for A LOT of resting time for the dough (both in the refrigerator and at room temperature). I was way too impatient (and hungry) to wait so I skipped most of the resting time and the dough was still wonderful. I’m sure it would probably have been better if I had followed the recipe exactly… but if you can get really tasty dough in half the time (or less), why the hell not? Overall, the dish really surprised me. It was unique but still tasted just like a pizza, a REALLY good pizza but pizza nonetheless. This was one of my Mom’s favorite dishes of the day and it is definitely one that I want to make again. I think it would also be really good (and a little more unique) to substitute the tomato sauce for a barbecue sauce or garlic cream sauce to switch up the overall flavor. (I’ll let you know how that goes when I try it).

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For the entree portion, I decided to make use of the leftover turkey from thanksgiving (don’t worry – I made this when the turkey was still good) and made a turkey pot pie using this recipe as a guide: Ina Garten’s Chicken Pot Pie. I mostly followed the recipe with several key exceptions:

  • Substituted chicken with the leftover turkey
  • Used yellow and green onions instead of yellow and pearl onions
  • Added garlic and celery to the filling
  • Used all butter for the crust instead of vegetable shortening and butter
  • Added oregano, thyme, cumin, sage and red pepper flakes to the filling

The pot pie turned out great. The crust was flaky and delicious and the filling was super flavorful. It was a great dish and a wonderful way to utilize all the extra turkey from Thanksgiving.

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Finally, for dessert, I decided to try my hand at a homemade cake. I found this recipe: Spicy Chocolate Stout Cake and I knew I wanted to try it as soon as I saw that it called for Guinness (one of my favorite beers). For the batter, I kept everything the same except I added a pinch of cayenne pepper to give it a little more of a kick. I wasn’t a huge fan of the idea of the peanut butter frosting so I decided to switch that out to a Salted Caramel Buttercream Frosting Recipe. It was more work because I had to make the salted caramel sauce but it was SOOOO worth it! I am honestly not all that into cake. I mean, it’s good, but I’d rather have almost anything else for dessert. I could eat this cake, though, all day long (which may prove to be an issue). The caramel frosting and the spicy chocolate went so well together. And it ranked in as one of my mom’s favorites as well.

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While it certainly took me a while to cook my way through this challenge, it was a lot of fun to try a lot of recipes that I have wanted to. They were all delicious but the ones that I want to have more of right now are the roasted beet salad and the brussel sprout and bacon pizza. In fact, I’m going to go have some more right now!

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S1E10 (Mystery Box) – Venison

Employment Status: Had a really positive conversation with the hiring manager of a super exciting opportunity that encompasses pretty much everything I’m looking for. I’m really hoping it works out but I’m still keeping my options open. 

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For the last mystery box challenge of the season, the chefs were given several unique ingredients to work with. The box contained a rack of venison, bacon, red cabbage, fingerling potatoes, blueberries, quail eggs, beets, hazelnuts, brussel sprouts and red wine. Sheetal (Roasted Venison), Whitney (Venison with Southern Gravy) and Sharone (Pan Seared Venison with Blueberry Puree) were declared the top three with Sheetal having the best dish overall.

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As soon as I saw this challenge, I knew that I would have to come up with a substitute for venison. After some research, I settled on grass-fed, free-range flank steak. It is clearly not as tricky to cook as venison, but the flavors are similar enough to test out flavor profiles. With this in mind, I decided to do a pan-seared flank steak on a bed of roasted vegetables with a red wine-balsamic reduction.

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My Mystery Box

This dish was really simple with most of the work coming in the prep stage. I first seasoned the flank steak with salt and pepper and marinated it in some red wine. Then, I started with the vegetable component. I cleaned and chopped up the potatoes, beets, brussel sprouts, onions, garlic and jalapeño. Then, I tossed this with olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano, basil and thyme, and finally, added some small pieces of bacon. (See below  for the compiled dish before it went into the oven). This dish just went into a 425 degree oven until the vegetable were tender (about 30 to 45 minutes depending on how small you chop the vegetables and how well done you prefer your vegetables to be).

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While the vegetables were roasting, I started the red wine-balsamic reduction. I put about 1/2 of a cup of red wine and 1/2 of a cup of balsamic vinegar in a saucepan with a sprig of rosemary and let it simmer until it was reduced by half. With 10 minutes left on the vegetables, I pan seared the steak in some hot olive oil for just a couple minutes on both sides. I plated the flank steak on top of the vegetables and drizzled the entire dish with the red wine-balsamic reduction. (See below for the finished product).

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Pan-seared flank steak on a bed of roasted brussel sprouts, beets, and fingerling potatoes with a rosemary-red wine balsamic reduction

This dish was delicious! It is definitely one of my favorite things that I have made for this blog. The roasted vegetables were AMAZING and the steak was tender and tasty. I have no idea how I would have done with the venison, but everything else was so good, I think I could have made an appearance in the top three for this challenge.