fayetteville observer

'Top Chef' types take on military fridge challenge

Rebecca Logan
Published on Thursday, January 17, 2008

I know what the next "Quickfire Challenge" should be.

If you have no clue what I'm talking about, you clearly aren't a devoted (read: obsessed) viewer of "Top Chef" like I am.

Each episode of Bravo's cooking competition show begins with a "Quickfire Challege" in which contestants must quickly create dishes out of crazy ingredients. One time they had to use canned goods. Once they were given a few bucks to buy ingredients a gas station. You get the idea.

Well, I think producers should turn next season's contestants loose on a military family's fridge a few days before that family has to move. Chefs would have to use as many ingredients as possible to clean the darn thing out.

This little inspiration struck me after my now former next-door-neighbor issued the familiar "the packers come tomorrow so everyone come raid my fridge" proclamation. I've done that. But I've also thrown out ungodly amounts of food prior to some military moves.

How can I prevent this in the future? Who might have the answers to minimizing the waste?

I decided to ask some former Top Chef contestants. My motivation was, of course, to seek advice for you all. OK, it was also because I'm a bit of a "Top Chef" stalker. But mainly it was for the greater good.

Two great sports from "Top Chef" Season 1 were kind enough to humor me: the uber-health-conscious Andrea Beaman and Dave Martin of "black truffle mac-n-cheese" fame. Bubbly Betty Fraser from Season 2 also weighed in.

Each shared tips for making the most of what you've got to get rid of.

"Take all of your veggies that are sitting in the bottom drawer... and cook in water. Puree in the food processor and use that liquid as the base for soups," Beaman suggested in an e-mail: "It makes a nice creamy base without the cream."

Martin suggested making a list of the key dining categories (starters, salads, soups, entrees and desserts.)

"Take what you have and start rolling them into the different categories to help you create some menus," he said during our phone interview.

And here's a cool idea.

"I'd suggest you see it as an opportunity to have a final goodbye party with your friends," said Fraser in an e-mail. "Invite the girls over... put out everything, give everyone a one hour quick fire where they have to work in teams to create a dish that will be served when the rest of the friends and families come over."

"You could even make it tougher, especially if you have a lot of items and make each person on the team ... use at least five ingredients," Fraser continued. "If space is an issue, make them pull from a hat to choose the appliances in the kitchen that they get to use."

The prize could be not having to clean up, she said.

A homeless shelter might also appreciate the items, Fraser added.

I gave the chefs a list of what I happened to have in my fridge and freezer and asked them what they would do to use it up quickly.

On my list: French Vanilla Coffee-mate, pomegranate juice, maple syrup, pickles, ketchup, spicy mustard, rhubarb-strawberry spread, fat free blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette dressing, half a jar of Kalamata olives, horseradish, butter, bacon, cheddar cheese, garlic and herb cheese, fresh basil, lettuce, baby carrots, wheat bread, half a jar of applesauce, eggs, milk, grape jelly, apples, cream cheese, frozen corn, squash and green beans, frozen chicken breasts and ground beef; an open bottle of port and (yuck) Jagermeister.

"After reading what you have in your fridge... I can't believe you are still alive," Beaman wrote in her e-mail. "Congratulations."

She tried softening that with a smiley face. But I'm still ashamed.

"I only use naturally raised meats and organic foods in my home, so I'm hesitant to help you make something out of your ingredients..." Beaman continued. "But, I understand, you gotta eat... So here goes."

Beaman proceeded to provide some rather delectable sounding options. So did the others.

"We have to turn things into meals for... the staff each day," Martin said. "Part of a chef's job is to always be thinking of ways to take... leftovers and, as we like to say, 'reanimate' them."

Martin said that's true any time -- including during a move like the one he's getting ready to make.

"And I'm not taking much with me," he said.

And the winner is...

I'm making Betty Fraser the unofficial winner of my unofficial Quickfire challenge. Why? Because when I told her what was in my fridge, she came up with a breakfast, lunch, snack, and "farewell dinner" that would basically clean the whole thing out. She even found a use for that revolting Jagermeister. Of course, Andrea Beaman and Dave Martin came up with some winners as well. Here's what they suggested for my fridge full of ingredients.

From Betty Fraser, co-owner of the Hollywood restaurant "Grub"
(Top Chef Season 2 and the 2007 Holiday Special)

French Vanilla French Toast with Rhubarb Strawberry Syrup

Ingredients used: French Vanilla Coffee-mate, maple syrup, rhubarb-strawberry spread, butter, eggs and wheat bread

Said Fraser in an e-mail: "Mix the French Vanilla Coffee-mate with eggs to make French toast batter, dip the wheat bread slices into the mixture and cook to golden on a flat top grill. While that's cooking mix the maple syrup with some of the rhubarb-strawberry spread for a fun twist on the syrup. Serve the French Vanilla French Toast topped with butter with the warm rhubarb strawberry syrup."

Bunless Cheeseburgers with your choice of condiments and Spicy Corn and Green Salad with Bacon, Kalamatas and Blue Cheese-Horseradish Dressing

Ingredients used: Frozen ground beef, pickles, ketchup, frozen corn and spicy mustard, horseradish, blue cheese dressing, bacon, lettuce and kalamata olives.

Said Fraser: "The cheeseburgers are pretty self explanatory, but I do like to put the cheese into the center of the burgers. And if you haven't tried, add the ketchup and spicy mustard to the beef when mixing with seasonings it really makes a great flavor. For the corn, melt some butter in a sauté pan, mix in the spicy mustard and add the frozen corn, season with salt and pepper and serve.

Cook off bacon to crispy, drain and chop. Mix some horseradish with some of the Blue Cheese dressing for a nice change and toss lettuce with bacon, Kalamatas and dressing."

A late afternoon snack of Herbed Cheese Fondue with Apples and Baby Carrots

Ingredients used: Garlic and herb cheese, cream cheese, basil, baby carrots and apples

Said Fraser: "In the microwave, warm the cheeses to soft and blend, chiffonade the basil (which for reference means to slice thin in essence) serve with sliced apples and carrots."

Farewell Dinner of Balsamic Marinated Chicken Breasts with Port Pomegranate Reduction with a touch of Grape, Sautéed Squash and Green Beans with a splash of Jagermeister.

Ingredients used: port, pomegranate juice, grape jelly, balsamic vinaigrette, chicken breasts, frozen squash, frozen green beans, butter, Jagermeister

Said Fraser: "Defrost chicken breasts the day before and marinate in balsamic vinaigrette for minimum of 2 hours. Preheat oven to 375, remove chicken from marinade, pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Roast in oven on baking sheet for about 20 minutes. While that is cooking place pomegranate juice and port into medium size stock pot and let the liquid reduce to at least half, the longer the better, you're looking for a thick, rich syrup, when your happy with flavor add a touch of grape jelly and season with salt and pepper. Sauté the defrosted green beans and squash in butter and at final stage add a splash of Jagermeister (if you have some fennel seeds and dried lemon peel in the dry goods, this would also be a good addition to this) season with salt and pepper. Plate chicken breasts and top with Port-Pomegranate Reduction and vegetables."

Dessert: Apple Sauce