Wednesday, July 14, 2010

play with your food.

Chances are you've heard of the Food Network's hit show, Iron Chef. If not, though, I'll give you a quick rundown: Two professional chefs are given an ingredient, any ingredient, from Andouille sausage to zucchini, and are given an hour (with a team of assisting sous-chefs) to prepare a multi-course meal. The rule is that each dish must contain the theme ingredient. Their dishes are then scored by a panel of judges after which a winner is dramatically announced.

So what does Iron Chef have to do with your journey towards healthy, sustainable, and affordable eating? Well, it's a bit of a stretch, but keep reading and we'll get there.

One rainy weekend  a couple of years ago my family decided to play-out our own version of Iron Chef. The chefs? My dad (Kris) and younger sister (Rachel). The ingredient? Apples. The judges? My mom, brother, and I. The winner? Rachel, by a hair. Our spontaneous new family activity was an instant success, and we've repeated it four or five times since, with my dad, sister, and I rotating as chefs. Sometimes my brother pretends to be the host of the "show" and has even videotaped us. And of course my mom needs to photograph the entire process as well as the finished dishes. Whether I'm a "chef" or a judge, my favorite part is always the presentation and tasting of the food. Each chef takes turns bringing in his or her finished products, one course at a time, giving each dish elaborate names and descriptions (parodying the TV show). Then the judges reciprocate with obnoxious critiques like "The soup was a potpourri of joyful flavors " or "This pie was the perfect blend of spring and summer. It tastes like June!" It's hilarious. And as far as the actual food is concerned, every time we get a little more creative and  adventurous with our cooking, and every time the food gets even better. 

Okay, so here's the point. In the midst of our busy lives it's easy to forget how the creation of a meal is more than the boiling of water and measuring out of spices, and more than the science behind the latest energy bars. Cooking is an event; cooking is an experience to be enjoyed, shared, and savored (literally). Playing "Iron Chef" reminds my family and I of this by pushing us out of our usual dinnertime routine. We buy unique ingredients, research culinary techniques and exotic recipes, and even put pains into the way asparagus is arranged on a plate. 

While I wish we could make Iron Chef a weekly or even a monthly tradition in my house, the fact is that life is crazy, and most nights we're lucky to all sit down for ten minutes together to eat. But I think that makes our crazy cooking-nights that much more special. 

How to host your own "Iron Chef" night:
1. Assemble at least four people, and ideally not more than eight. Two will be the competing chefs and the rest will act as judges.
2. Judges determine a "secret" ingredient. Anything goes, but we like to pick something that can be used in both main dishes as well as dessert.
3. Chefs are told the ingredient and given one hour to plan. We like to do three courses: appetizer, entree, and dessert, but you can change this up. Access to the Internet and cookbooks is essential, unless you're working with very experienced cooks.
4. Chefs are given one hour to shop for ingredients.
5. Chefs and judges agree on a prep/cooking time and begin. This will vary, depending on what sort of prep/cooking times the recipes require.
6. Chefs present their dishes for the judges. You can do this two ways: 1) The first chef can present their entire menu to the judges, followed by the second chef. 2) The chefs can take turns presenting their dishes course by course ("one-by-one, 'til you shout 'Enough! I'm done!' Sorry, couldn't resist. Beauty and Beast is one of my favorites). Judges should score as you go along. Official Iron Chef scoring is up to 10 points for taste, 5 points for originality, and 5 for presentation. But you can definitely put your own spin on scoring. 
7. Judges tally the points and crown the new Iron Chef! Said-winner has bragging rights, at least until the next showdown.

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