If youre a food nerd like me, you cant watch Top Chef without screaming obscenities at the contestants while peacefully pondering what youd whip up for Transcendently Beautiful Padma each Quickfire. If a case of backseat cooking is what ails ya, dig this fresh weekly column featuring recipes based on each TCQF.
This weeks Top Chef
episode (read our recap
) had remaining chefs Tiffany
, Jersey Kev
, Amanda Isabella Soprano
Skeletor cooking a dish based on a succession of mystery ingredients concealed in mystery boxes. Which, naturally, brings to mind ...
It also made me think of The Riddler, but Drew Lazor beat me to that reference
. Riddle me this: How would the Quickfire Kid recreate this challenge at home? Lazor stepped up and went grocery shopping at Hung Vuong
(Wing Phat Plaza, 1122 Washington Ave.), hiding his culinary curveballs in bags labeled 1 through 4. Id start with No. 1, and open each consecutive bag in 15-minute intervals. I was sure hed bought me a durian.
I hit the time and opened bag #1 to find:
, a broad-leafed, saw-edged tropical herb that tastes and sounds (but doesnt look) like its cousin, cilantro, and head-on shrimp
, which, as I made clear the other day,
I really, really like.
I washed the culantro and set it aside before turning my attention to the peeling and cleaning the beady-eyed shrimp. I yanked off the heads and using kitchen scissors, snipped through the shell from where the skull had been back to the tails. This makes it easy to remove the shell, as well as exposes the shrimps digestive tract. I ran the peeled shrimp under cool water and set them aside:
Heads and shells went right into a sauce pot; they pack so much flavor in their entrails-splattered hollows that throwing them out would be a tragedy. I added bay leaf, black peppercorn, a halved corn on the cob and two cloves crushed garlic to the pot, filled it with water and set it on high heat. What Id eventually end up with was anyones guess, but I knew whatever it was would involve homemade shrimp stock:
Buzz! Bag No. 2:
A ripe mango
, easy-peasy. And ... sardines canned in tomato sauce
! Have I mentioned that I really, really, reaaaaally dont like sardines? (Oh yes, I have
.) I smelled sabotage. I opened the can of sardines, steeled myself and dipped a finger into the marinade. It wasnt terrible thin, vaguely tomatoey and not as fishy as youd expect from a can that cost 49 cents. Using a mesh strainer, I separated the sardine fillets from the sauce and tossed them into the now-bubbling stockpot.
How to proceed? The culantro and mango dictated a dish with a Latin-American or Southeast Asian profile, so I went the latter way, whisking the tomato sauce with circa-2006 tamarind concentrate and red curry paste, ground five spice, salt and pepper into a fly Far East marinade for the shrimp:
Buzz! Bag No. 3:
Pre-cooked Hong Kong noodles
a score that said soup I could base on the aromatic shrimp stock and an imposing head of red cabbage
, which threw a wrench into those plans just as fast as they coalesced. I could never braise the cabbage tender in time, so I halved the head and shaved it coleslaw-style. Possibly a garnish for the soup, something crunchy?
I remembered the cornthere was more in the fridge. I pulled out an ear, shaved off the kernels do it in a bowl or on a towel so they dont bounce everywhere and added them to the cabbage with a fistful of chopped culantro. The dish was coming together, but I still had a mango to deal with. Not exactly the stuff soups are made of.
Buzz! Bag No. 4:
s, easy to work in as a thickener for the soup, and a jar of something brown and murky as swamp water. Pickled lettuce
, according to the label. Pickled. Frigging. Lettuce.
Confound you, Drew Lazor, you dastardly scoundrel!
I popped open the jar and stared at the bog inside. The lettuce looked like chopped celery; it was crisp, but didnt taste like anything except the brine, though brine is probably the wrong word for this glossy, viscous liquid. It reminded me of an intensified soy sauce thick, salty, sweet. Caramel! Reducing the brine into a syrup, maybe with no yes, definitely with the mango would be a great way to incorporate both ingredients as a finisher for the soup.
I peeled and chopped the mango, ran it through my juicer, poured it into a saucepan with about half a cup of the lettuce brine and cranked the heat. Soon, it looked like this:
By now, the stock was ready. To remove the solids, I poured the contents of the pot through a mesh strainer into a bowl, but even this doesnt remove the smaller particles of gunk. Pro chefs would prob use a chinois, but I find a wet paper towel (or cheesecloth) and rubber band work just as well. Cover a bowl with the paper towel, draping it so theres a crater in the middle, and fit the rubber band around the rim, which keeps the edges from falling in. Like this:
MacGyvered chinois! The liquid will trickle into the container below, while the solids stay in the paper towel well. Voila! Pure, clear stock:
Only a few more steps to finish the soup. I got a teaspoon of red curry paste toasting in pot, added the shimmering shrimp stock and a few dashes of soy sauce and brought the soon-to-be-soup to a high simmer. In a bowl, I whisked six quail eggs till smooth, tempered them this way
and slowly added the huevos to the pot. I lowered the heat to a slow simmer and whisked until the broth turned frothy and pale gold. I cracked in some black pepper and tasted a spoonful. Bangin.
I seared the marinated shrimp on both sides:
And meanwhile finished the corn-cabbage-culantro relish by adding a handful of chopped pickled lettuce to the mix and seasoning with salt, pepper, lime, sugar and fish sauce:
Two bowls came out of the cabinet. I filled them with soup noodles, nested a spoonful of relish in the middle and arranged the seared shrimp around the rim. I poured the broth right in the bowls, its heat relaxing the noodles, and garnished the soup with additional chopped culantro and a dab of mango caramel:
Not bad for cooking blind. Were I going to recreate this recipe, Id fortify the broth with ginger, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass, but this was still pretty damn delicious. A head in Brad Pitt's box might have ruined his day, but the ones in mine made for some dynamite impromptu eats.