CHOPPED #1 – Natalie

KC is late. KC is late for our first-ever Chopped competition and I am waiting in the Bowery Whole Foods strolling back and forth in the cosmetics and home aisles. Katie and I have decided we’re not allowed to pre-game by checking out ingredients in the main part of the store in order to start the competition as unprepared as possible. And since KC is late, Katie and I are trade home-purchase advice over email, compulsively checking our phones for updates from KC:

KC (3:35P): Heading to Whole Foods to make my selection…might be a little later than 4 but that only adds to the drama, right?

Katie (4:12P): It just means Natalie and I stand around the health and beauty aisle like assholes.

Natalie (4:13P): I already spent $50 on candles and shampoo.

Katie (4:14P): Shit I need a candle.

Natalie (4:16P): 25% off Pacifica brand here love.  I am partial to Spanish Amber.

Katie is at a Whole Foods in San Francisco. Katie is in San Francisco because she moved there. This is our attempt to stay connected while instilling a healthy sense of competition and hopefully schooling ourselves in new flavor combinations, preparation techniques and stretching beyond our culinary safety nets. We get a list of ingredients that contain 1 x protein item, 1 x produce item, and 2 x freebies, left up to the judges discretion. We each have a budget of $50 to complete this challenge. To be honest I am nervous. I have been thinking about this day for two weeks now. There have been phone calls and countless gChats and google spreadsheets relating to this topic. I gave up scouring recipes the other day, defeated because I JUST DO NOT KNOW WHAT KC WILL CHOOSE! I started looking more for techniques rather than recipes, but I don’t know how much that will help. I am the type of person that can look in her fridge and whip out a meal from what’s on-hand but what if he comes out with, like, a whole flounder and some Skittles? I’m going to shit a brick. When the ingredients email comes through 33 minutes late, I am relieved to see that I recognize everything on it – Cornish game hens, strawberries, artichoke hearts, and…oat and honey granola.

Okie dokie.

Miraculously, I had just watched an episode of the Food Networks’ Chopped where this guy opened his basket to find fish and licorice (not quite Skittles but close enough) and he whipped up this licorice-crusted fish that won him the whole competition and $10,000. This is where I get the idea to crust the hen in granola. Fine. And I am going to make a strawberry sauce. With browned butter. Yeah. And the artichoke hearts. Shit. Well, I’ll figure that out as I go along.

Never have you seen someone look more crazy running through Whole Foods. I have to go back and forth across the store three times to get different things for the artichoke heart salad I decide I will attempt. My scarf gets caught on someone’s cart, so I am literally choked / dragged for about 5 feet in the produce section, almost loosing my footing. I am rude, pushing and shoving my way to the shortest of those damned multi-colored lines. I have a goal to be shopped and back at my apartment within a half hour, leaving an hour and a half to cook. It’s raining like the devil outside, the wettest day in New York City all year it seems, and I almost think I am not going to make it. I crash through my door at 5:03P EDT, drop umbrella, grocery bags, purse on the ground and take a moment to catch my breathe. I feel good. Aside from being wet and cold and on my kitchen floor, I made my goal to be home in 30 minutes and I stayed under budget. I peel myself off the floor because I know Katie must be home by now as well, and with the time ticking anyway, I have things to do.

This is probably a good time to talk about my kitchen.

Or lack thereof. Stretch out  one arm and take note of the distance from your shoulder to your fingertips. That is how big my kitchen counter space is, including the sink. I have a small gas stove at the opposite end of the apartment  and a small refrigerator unit on the right side, making my right-handed knife wielding clumsy and in-accurate. This is New York studio living at its best. But it’s all I got, so here we go.

I pre-heat my oven, clean my hen and marinate it in lemon juice, garlic and honey for appoximately 30 minutes, all the while doing calculations in my head and setting timers. I feel primed for this. My years producing and assistant directing movies and commercials have taught me the value of counting backwards. Case in point:

I have to be done at 6:33 so that means I need to put the hen in the oven at 5:55 so it can rest for 5 minutes before I plate which means I need to have it out of the marinate, crusted, and searing in a skillet by 5:45. It will take me 6 to 7 minutes to crust, so therefore I need it to be out of the marinade by 5:38 at the latest. Therefore chicken in marinade by 5:08.

I decide I am doing an artichoke heart salad with quinoa and braised fennel, so I start with the quinoa. I have a mini heart attack when I realize I have no way to pulverize the granola into finer bits that will stick to the hen- not a blender or a food processor or a rolling pin – but quickly decide that an unopened wine bottle will be a perfect substitute for a rolling pin. I wrap the granola in a clean dish towel (because I don’t even have Ziplocks!) and start going to town, feeling like a champ. Things go smoothly for a while and I am feeling good. Quinoa is rockin’ and my happy hens are marinating and I am frying up some fennel for my artichoke salad and my strawberries are drowning in browned butter, champagne vinegar and broth. It’s  5:44. I have pull my hen out of the marinade and bread it in the oat and honey granola and I’m about to throw it in the sizzlingly hot skillet when I realize that it doesn’t look very sizzlingly hot at all. In fact the oil, which at this point should be almost rippling hot, has barely spread to the edges of the cast iron. I check out my burners and there’s just a barely a flame coming out of the three lit burners, enough to keep a pan warm but no where near hot. I feel the side of the oven and my heart drops into my stomach – it’s cold. There is not enough gas in my dinky old apartment to feed both multiple burners and the oven at the same time. It’s one or the other. I can’t have my sauce on, my fennel frying, my hen browning in a skillet all the while keeping my oven hot to finish the cooking.

I am panicking. The only thing I can think to do is turn everything off – burners and oven alike. I restart the oven, get on my hands and knees and watch for the burner to ignite. It does! I crank it up to 450 and start saying Hail Mary’s. As I turn on one of the stove-top burners I want to kiss KC for choosing not a normal chicken but a very petite hen. I might just be able to pull this off in time without giving anyone salmonella. I manage to get one stovetop burner to work relatively well while the oven maintains heat, so I brown my hen and get it in the oven. The rest of the prep is a total blur. Where I thought I had time I don’t. I have to selectively choose what to do and when to do it with my limited burners. At some point KC shows up with a bottle of white wine and I glug a glass down greedily all the while mixing and tasting and pulling hot things out of the oven. I feel betrayed by my kitchen. I realized I only had 2 plates, one cracked, to serve from. Katie used to be an art director and she has an amazing eye for balance and color, so I know I am not a contender to win in Presentation, but I wanted to show well. Mental note to visit Crate and Barrel for dishes next week.

The second I see Katie’s photo I knew I have lost. Not by much (one point!) but enough. The woman made granola blinis for crying out loud. She nailed me in presentation and she stretched her limits beyond what she was comfortable with and I roasted a chicken and made a salad. A hen. Excuse me. Next round I need to be better at plating and be more conscious of my photo set up. The main bummer in all of this is that I do not get to eat Katie’s dish and she doesn’t get to eat mine, but it was fun enough trash talking and running around Whole Foods and gabbing about food and healthy competition all week. But just so you know Katie, next time, I am gunnin’ for you.

Final Dish: Granola Crusted Hen with Brown Butter Strawberry reduction and an Artichoke Fennel Salad.

Score: 36 out of 50. 

To read more, click here.

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