December 6, 2008

The dreaded “Mystery Basket” class. Imagine your own personal Iron Chef experience, except you don’t have a list of possible ingredients ahead of time and six months to prepare. Seriously,
I recently read in the new Food Network Magazine that six months before taping begins, producers picked a season’s worth of secret ingredients and issued the Iron Chefs and their challengers three potential choices for each battle–the contenders discover which of the three is the final ingredient while the cameras roll. Many chefs, including the Iron Chefs, practice beforehand, preparing for any possible scenario.
We were told that anything we’ve cooked the previous 12 weeks of class could end up in the mystery basket so it was hard to narrow it down. I imagined a basket of kohlrabi, kale, celery root, jicima, and millet and who knew what “proteins” we’d get. I tried to prepare by studying recipes and copying numerous recipes into my little spiral notebook. We had been allowed to use our textbook to look for recipes in previous classes so I thought I would just have a selection of recipes at hand. I spent quite a bit of time typing recipes, cutting and pasting them into my little notebook, thinking I was going to be prepared for anything.
I don’t know why this particular class was so nerve-wracking, but it was, and I was not alone. My classmates were all worried as well.
After being given the rules and instructions for the class (basically, make anything with our basket of ingredients, at least 4 or 5 dishes, and use anything in the par stock unless labeled for another use) we were allowed to go into the kitchen and see our basket.
I worked with my usual partners, Robert and Ray. We looked over our items:
Pork, chicken legs, fish fillet, purple potatoes, asparagus, spinach, zuchinni, leeks, eggs, apple, and quinoa. Yikes! The dreaded quinoa–no one wanted that. Ray selected pork, potatoes, asparagus, and apple and Robert selected fish. I took the chicken legs, egg, leeks, zuchinni and quinoa. Moment of panic!! What was I going to do with the ingredients? I made roasted chicken legs marinated in a Mediterranean style marinade of garlic, olive oil, oregano, salt & pepper. I would use the quinoa as a side dish, maybe a salad. I decided to make a frittata with roasted vegetables including the asparagus, zuchinni, and leeks. I found a recipe for a quinoa salad in my notebook and started making it. Chef Sively glanced at my notebook and asked me about it. I explained and she remarked that rather than using “recipes” we should be at a point when we were beyond relying on recipes and should be making things on our own. So much for the permission to use our books or the Internet we had gotten in previous classes I thought.
Now that I’m writing this entry a month later I realize her remarks were life changing for me.
I have since stopped being so stuck on using recipes! Heck, I’ve been cooking since I was a child of 12. My mother worked at night so I started making dinner for my father, brother, and myself at 12. Ok, so I made things like “shake and bake”, canned vegetables, and instant mashed potatoes, but I was still in there cooking, so it’s been 42 years of cooking. Surely I don’t have to have written instructions to make a decent dish or do I? I am realizing that my own repertoire is sadly limited since I have been cookbook and Internet dependent for the past several years.
I’m always running to the Internet to get the recipe from Bobby Flay or a Top Chef contestant.
Since the Mystery Basket class I have changed my thinking and have begun to think in terms of using the knowledge I already possess instead of being dependent on the written instructions of others. I am still collecting recipes but trying not to worry so much about the exact ingredients, more like using them for guidelines.
Back to Mystery Basket class:
We were allowed to present the dishes as they were ready. My dishes were not so great.
The chicken legs were fine, could have been cooked a little more but my quinoa pilaf was way too oily. This is a good example of not relying on my own knowledge. I had glanced at a recipe for quinoa salad and used the recipe’s instructions which called for a lot of oil. Had I just thought about it I would have used a much smaller amount for better taste.
Robert’s fish and risotto got good remarks for taste but the raw cabbage was deemed inedible.
Ray’s pork, potatoes, and asparagus were all good. I believe he garnished them with apple and was told it should have been on the side instead of on top of the food.
We got some bonus points for making extra dishes such as an apple waffle. (Ray’s idea)

I don’t even want to talk about my frittata. It was another example of not using my own instincts. In a nutshell, it was overdone but I was trying to get it to look like the fritatta I made for a cooking school event which was a very rich golden brown. I should have taken it out a lot sooner and knew it.
Overall, the best part of Mystery Basket was surviving it and learning not to be dependent on recipes.