MAY IT PLEASE THE PALATE: Chopped, or the recipe I never made

By Nick Roumel

We've all gone through the game of trying to fashion a meal out of random ingredients. The TV reality show "Chopped" takes this sport to a new level. Three competing chefs are presented with a food basket containing three wildly disconnected food items, and have to create something within 30 minutes to please the discerning taste of the celebrity judges. The loser is "chopped" and does not advance to the next round.

Question: guess which actual combination(s) have been presented on the show?

a) Strawberries, Turkey and Gummi Bears.

b) Macaroni and Cheese, Cola and Bacon.

c) Coconut, Calamari and Doughnuts.

d) Tofu, Blueberries and Oysters.

e) all of the above.

f) none of the above.

The correct answer is "e" -- all of the above. I watch this show with gruesome fascination when I am at the gym, on those days when I'm too late for Paula Deen.

Cooking dinner tonight, I felt like I was competing in my own personal version of Chopped.

It started innocently enough. There was a recipe for Red Quinoa and Lentil Pilaf in my March edition of "Food and Wine." The problem was, I had neither quinoa nor lentils. So I made do with brown rice and split peas.

So far, so good. Then I got to the call for coconut oil. A recent New York Times article notes the growing popularity of this ... trendy form of saturated fat. But! It's the good kind of saturated fat! And it makes food tastes coco-nutty, yeah!

I'll stick with olive oil, thank you.

Cruising along, I decided to combine this recipe with last week's spinach-rice combination and stuff it in peppers again. When they were done baking, I wanted to top them with a lemon-dill sauce. But -- where was the butter? The flour?

Let's just say that my lemon-dill sauce was finished with Earth Balance margarine, garbanzo bean flour, vegetable stock, and ... whew. I did have actual lemon and actual dill.

I garnished those puppies with roasted Marcona almonds. My daughter gobbled a handful. "These are stupid!" "Wha - ?" I replied in that clueless Dad voice. "Stupid! You know, really great!" she said, as if I were stupid.

The lesson here is that I improvised, combined two recipes, made liberal substitutions, and ultimately created something that was vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, stupid, and took three hours to make. Despite all that, it was delicious.

And then it struck me that we play "Chopped" at work all the time. For example, I practice employment law. I have to work with what I have. Let's say my basket includes a 30-year employee, who was fired after taking medical leave, and assaulted his supervisor. I have to blend those ingredients into a palatable dish, enough to convince a judge my client was wrongly terminated. Hopefully, I'll get into the next round.

As for this week's recipe, I will give you the original "Food and Wine" version, by Akasha Richmond, that I did not follow. I have no idea how it tastes. Suggested substitutions are noted in sarcastic font.

1) Assemble the following ingredients:

1 cup French green lentils, rinsed

(or split peas, or gummi bears)

1 bay leaf

1 thyme sprig

1 garlic clove.

1/4 onion

2) Place in a pot of cold water and boil, then simmer until lentils are tender, about 18 minutes. Discard the herbs, garlic, and onion, then drain and set aside.

3) While the lentils are simmering, assemble the following:

1 TBS coconut oil (or the lard from

a woolly mammoth)

1 shallot, minced

1 celery rib, minced

1 carrot, minced

1/2 cup red quinoa, rinsed (thought I was going

to say minced again, didn't you?)

1 cup vegetable stock

salt and pepper

4) Heat the oil, add shallot, celery and carrot and cook over low heat until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the quinoa and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes. Add the stock, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat until the grains are tender and plump and the liquid is absorbed, about 18 minutes. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes, while you perform the next step.

5) Assemble the following:

1 TBS coconut oil.

1 lb. cauliflower, coarsely grated or chopped.

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley.

1/3 cup chopped Marcona almonds.

6) Heat the oil moderately hot, and brown the cauliflower for about five minutes.

7) Toss the cauliflower, lentils, quinoa, parsley, and almonds. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot or at room temperature.

In my budding chef years, when I'd read the directions in the magazine, if it said use "1/2 cup Hellman's mayonnaise," I'd look at our jar of Kraft in disgust and abandon the project.

But today, when I started the above recipe, despite having just five ingredients, I was still able to pull something together. But what exactly was it?

Let's just call it "Plaintiff's Surprise" -- or just another day at the office.


Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor.

Published: Mon, Mar 19, 2012