On my last night at home, I was alone. I was glad to be alone, not because I wanted to cry in private or watch dirty movies or even strip down to a white dress shirt and undies and reenact Risky Business. Nope, a night alone and a fridge and pantry full of food that needs to be used means one thing to me: Chopped night (cue the “aawww yeaaah” sound effect). Doing my finest Ted Allen impression, I open the fridge doors (after a pause to heighten the dramatic tension) and announce the basket ingredients for the appetizer round: cauliflower, cremini mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and a half-eaten summer squash. You have twenty minutes before Mom gets home and complains about the smell of vegetables cooking: your time starts … now!
After the twenty minutes had passed, I looked down at my plate in horror; none of the ingredients had made it to the plate! In fact, nothing at all had made it on the plate. With every plan I formulated, as I went to retrieve the requisite ingredients, everything I needed was packed away in boxes, irretrievable under fifty pounds of winter sweaters (yes, I need that many; Minnesota is cold, baby!). My first-choice treatment of cauliflower is to coat it with olive oil, toss it with salt, pepper, turmeric, and nutritional yeast, and roast it. Mushrooms I sauté in my designated mushroom pan (the best gift my Memere ever gave me!), a large stainless steel calphalon skillet. I toss in chopped garlic, deglaze with white wine vinegar, and try (usually without success) not to eat them all before they arrive at their final destination, be it pizza topping or whatnot. Brussels sprouts go raw into salad or are thrown in the pan with whatever else is cooking to get nice and caramelized and crunchy. But when no one else is home to complain about the smell, I have one of my favorite treats: roasted shredded Brussels sprouts with balsamic vinegar and toasted almonds, inspired by Kalyn. Pure vegetable bliss. Summer squash either gets shredded on the mandolin into faux-noodles and serves as the base for what I like to call veggiemess (my go-to meal most nights, consisting of whatever cooks fast and is about to go bad thrown in my enormous sauté pan (five quarts! Oh dear, my parentheses addiction is getting out of hand. A parenthetical insertion within a parenthetical insertion – grammar Inception!) with half a head of garlic and smoked paprika) or gets the simple, yet most delicious, treatment of slicing and browning in olive oil and topping with sea salt.
That sums up my basic cooking style the past year. Too busy to have time to make recipes most times and too tired to care to follow them the rest of the time, I fell into the habit of just taking literally whatever vegetables I pleased out of the pantry, slicing and dicing, and chucking in whatever seasoning tickled my lazy little fancy that night. Truth be told, I could eat this way for the rest of my life; it’s cheap, easy, completely customizable, and foolproof. You literally cannot mess up veggiemess because the whole point is to end up with a hulking bowl of plant matter that looks utterly unappetizing yet tastes like exactly what you’ve been craving all day. As a bonus, you can eat half a pound of squash, an entire container of mushrooms, half a bag of greens, and most of a head of garlic for usually under 300 calories. That way, if your stomach isn’t about to burst like a big fleshy grape being squeezed, you can have more dessert!
Anyway, after being chopped in the first round for my miserable performance (even when I did manage to produce something, the cauliflower was mushy and tasteless), I decided just to eat the dregs of the quart of Fage 2% that was meant to be a basket ingredient for the dessert course straight out of the carton to dull the sting of failure. If you need a reminder of how I feel about Fage 2%, just look back a few posts. I’ll spare you my poetic tributes and insipid metaphors about dairy clouds this time. As I was shoveling yogurt into my face with abandon and not feeling the least bit as embarrassed as I should have about it, I realized that I had stumbled upon a potential money-making idea. I should pitch to the producers of Chopped a new concept. As I discovered that night, it is far more difficult to cook without the ingredients to which one is accustomed than to cook with new ones. They should take certain staples out of the pantry instead of giving the chefs obscure ingredients, then tell them to make classic dishes that require said elements. I’m going to be rich, I tell you! Unless one of you dirty little sneaks writes to Ted Allen first, that is.