When it comes to guilty pleasures, mine include listening to Air Supply’s “All Out of Love,” consuming an entire canister of Moose Munch popcorn in a single sitting, and binge-watching “Chopped.” In a perfect world, it’s some combination of all three with a bottle of Chardonnay in arm’s reach.
“Chopped” has long been a favorite of mine. I love the moment when host Ted Allen dramatically lifts the cover off the loser’s dish and sighs, “Chef Blah Blah, you’vvveee been choooppppeeed,” in a single, long, drawn-out, breath.
I also like the judges. Tough-but-fair Alex Guarnaschelli, the red onion- and overcooked pasta-hating Scott Conant, and saucy Aarón Sánchez, who always pronounces Latino foods with a heavily-accented flair and roll of his tongue, making ingredients like taco chips baked from minced grasshoppers sound like something I actually might want to eat.
Sometimes I think I could be a contestant. I’ve had a lot of experience. In fact, Food Network could swing by my house on any given night and shoot an episode with little to no advance warning.
Too lazy to hit the grocery store and almost always out of food, I frequently cook dinner using only what I have on hand. This usually includes some kind of freezer-burned meat, a can of pumpkin expired in a different calendar year and a pencil sharpener.
Similar to the show, I often end up with a catastrophic injury, like the time I invested in a porcelain paring knife. Sharper than a French Revolution guillotine, the very first time I used the knife, I sliced open a finger attempting to chop garlic.
Serious enough to require gauze and medical tape, I dressed it, and returned to the task.
Apparently having learned nothing at all from the experience, I immediately did it again, almost severing a finger off the good hand, leaving me with two heavily-bandaged pointers, and shutting down production for the rest of the night.
As on “Chopped,” the judges at my house are a tough crowd.
My husband: on a required low salt, low sugar diet. My elder daughter: a vegetarian. And my younger daughter: a medically diagnosed supertaster.
Supertasters, for the uninitiated, have exponentially more taste buds than ordinary people, making many foods too pungent, bitter or sweet. In other words, it’s statistically impossible to cook anything they will eat outside of plain pasta and frozen Lego waffles.
Working under those conditions, the only thing I routinely put on the table that everyone agrees on is silverware.
Like most contestants, I have a compelling backstory. When I was growing up, my mom, who thankfully is still around and will hotly debate me on this, didn’t like to cook.
Oh sure, she made us a lot of wonderful meals. But there were also plenty of nights where she’d take out all the pans and set them on the stove, indicating that at some point she planned on cooking something in them.
Instead they’d sit empty for a couple of hours before she’d default to Stouffer’s Chicken Tetrazzini heated up in the microwave.
In similar fashion, she also liked to set the vacuum cleaner in middle of the room if we were expecting company, implying that they’d interrupted her just as she was preparing to go on a vacuum bender, even if it was the farthest thing from the truth.
When my mom did cook, everything was “gourmet.”
If we ate our salad after dinner, it was because that’s how the “Gourmets” did it. If we used frozen orange juice in our Minute Rice, it was because that’s how the “Gourmets” ate it. If dessert consisted of a banana set into a pineapple ring, topped with Miracle Whip and a cherry, that was gourmet, too.
And because we lived 20 miles from the nearest grocery store, we rarely, if ever, had all the ingredients for any given recipe, which meant that nearly every meal included at least one inspired substitution.
An optimist, my mom believed that it was perfectly acceptable to swap one ingredient for another, as long as they both fell into the same general food group, especially when it came to dairy products.
Sour cream worked for whipped cream on top of gingerbread. Skim milk was a stand-in for Cool Whip, because who doesn’t like that on top of sliced bananas? And since cottage cheese sounded a lot like ricotta cheese, they were virtually interchangeable.
When I think about it, my mom would have been the perfect contestant on “Chopped.” With all her gourmet dishes and creative improvising, she’d have won.