I Pretended to Be on "Chopped" to Save on Groceries

Forcing yourself to cook only with ingredients you already have at home can make for unexpectedly awesome results!
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Ayana Isis V. Briones
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Forcing yourself to cook only with ingredients you already have at home can make for unexpectedly awesome results!

I graduated from college last May and living on my own has been quite a struggle. I don't think I'm ever going to get used to being away from my mom's home-cooked meals. Aside from the fact that the only kitchen appliance I know how to use is my rice cooker, food in New York is mad expensive. Seriously though, a box of Honey Nut Cheerios for $6 is outrageous!

This weekend, I decided to skip Seamless and the overpriced Food Emporium by my apartment to make everything I had on hand for the week. For someone who clearly can’t cook, Food Network has all of the answers. I’m not aggressively trying to learn while I watch or anything. I just love how every show makes my nightmare of cooking look so easy, especially The Worst Cooks In America where top chefs (my favorites are with my celeb chef crush, Bobby Flay) transform those who hyperventilate at the thought of frying an egg into those who can whip up gourmet meals.

Honestly, being exposed to the terminology and challenges of the kitchen is encouraging. I don’t know, something about watching people cook successfully really pumps me up and makes me think, if they can do it, so can I! By the end of a 12-hour Food Network binge, I’m compelled to make dinner and pretend to have my own cooking show.

Since I’m not inclined to even pretend to teach people how to cook, I decided to take inspiration from the show that equalizes its contestants: Chopped. It’s all a mental game, and can break down even the most experienced chefs. I admire that the show focuses solely on who prepares the best meal, showcasing chefs of all levels from cafeteria ladies to the judges themselves.

I’m sure most of you are familiar, but it’s a lot harder than it sounds. The challenge lies in the mystery basket of ingredients. Each chef must turn the ingredients into a dish that is judged based on creativity, presentation, and taste. Sometimes chefs are asked to cook with bizarre items such as goat brains, mashed-potato candies, or leftover pizza. There are three rounds: appetizer, entrée, and dessert. Chefs have access to a pantry and refrigerator stocked with a wide variety of ingredients. Each round has a time limit: 20 minutes for the appetizer and 30 minutes for the entrée and dessert. You must cook before time runs out, and in the words of Emmy-winning host Ted Allen, “If your dish doesn’t cut it, you will be chopped.” Oh, and whoever wins gets $10,000!

In my kitchen, that’s not necessarily the case. No money or stocked refrigerator and pantry for me. I could pretty much display all of my ingredients on my 12-inch countertop, the perks of living in a two-bedroom winged apartment in New York. My mission was to make the tastiest food possible out of it all. I brainstormed “recipes” in my head and split up the ingredients that way. Not exactly in Chopped form — you try making a dessert with pasta and chocolate! But I think I was able to capture the essence of the show.

Appetizer: Slight Representation of Cantonese-Style Chinese Noodles

Ingredients: Wide Noodles (don’t really know what else to call them), Lemons, Chinese Broccoli, Chinese Mushrooms, Mr. Yoshida's Sauce

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I eat in Chinatown a lot so I figure, why not try making a version of the cuisine at home? Thanks to my frequent trips to Chipotle (even during Juno – @eyesiscrisis), I always have extra lemons on hand. I also head to Asian supermarkets to save money on produce. I’d rather not pay extra to stand in a 45-minute line at Trader Joe’s. This explains the abundance of Chinese broccoli and mushrooms.

Like mother, like daughter, I sautéed these ingredients together with wide noodles and the Mr. Yoshida's sauce she shipped to me. In the end, I managed to create a giant pot at only $1.75/serving. Each ingredient cost no more than $3 (minus the Mr. Yoshida's sauce, thanks to my mom’s care packages) and it lasts at least four servings. I wasn’t trying to be fancy — not that I’m able to be — but my mom taught me that sautéing noodles or rice with a flavorful sauce makes for a quick meal. Let’s be real: that’s basically how the majority of Thai dishes are made –most of the time it even says that on the menu.

Entrée: Ramen 2.0

Ingredients: Shrimp Dumplings, Ramen, Chicken Broth, Tea Bags

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Frozen dumplings are a staple in my refrigerator. I never thought about it before, but the easiest way to step up a Ramen-noodle packet is to add more ingredients —ultimately bringing in more flavors. I boiled store-bought chicken broth and, as an alternative to spices, I used tea bags for seasoning. In the winter, I stock up on tea and carry a full thermos to keep warm. Here, I infused the natural flavors of green tea with the broth. I strained half of the Ramen and replaced it with the tea mixture. Together, it tasted more homemade and less artificial. I assume it’s better for you too! The ingredients together totaled only $7, and will definitely last me a couple of lunches.

This “recipe” has Chopped written all over it. If I had the luxury of braising quality meat, I would’ve built a stew to pack in as much flavor as possible. The importance of flavor is a big lesson I’ve learned from the show.

Dessert: Crazy Fondue

Ingredients: Jalapeño-Flavored Potato Chips, Toblerone, Pasta, Coffee

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I love snacking and chocolate. Every year, I always get a ton of candy for Christmas. There are also those chips and pasta deals at the supermarket. The other day, I got five boxes of pasta for $5, and these jalapeño-flavored kettle chips are leftovers from the Super Bowl.

After surviving two rounds, chefs naturally become more confident and creative. And with only 30 minutes separating you from $10,000, anyone would try just about every trick in the book to win. For me, this “recipe” has the most Chopped qualities. I figured the salty, spicy elements would pair perfectly with the sweet. I melted down the Toblerone and added in sprinkles of coffee, simply because I love both flavors. The consistency was a little chunky, but I spread the chocolate mixture on the potato chips and pasta (after cooking them of course). Then I heated the oven to 350 degrees and baked them quickly for five minutes. This helped the chocolate set, resulting in a cute and tasty treat.

Planning out daily meals may be the easier way to save money on food, but pretending to be on Chopped was so much fun! It’s cool to think of how ingredients can work together in different ways. I also tend to buy groceries every week out of habit, but forcing yourself to cook everything you have first can make for unexpectedly awesome results!

Are you as obsessed with the show as I am and have you already made weird meal combinations out of random items in your kitchen?