Tuesday, February 25, 2014

You've Been Chopped: Organizing a Kids' Cooking Contest

Final plating: Spinach Salad with Cranberry Croutons, Coriander Vinaigrette, and, inexplicably, Whole Coriander Seeds
I am returning with recipes, I am, I swear. (For scrambled eggs? A glass of beer? Three Finn Crisp crackers with cheddar and yellow mustard on them? I will have to try and make some actual food.) But I keep wanting to tell you this: you have to set up a Chopped contest for your kids. It's a lot like the Iron Chef Lunch that I have written about, but it is less open-ended and more contestish. If you haven't seen the Food Network show Chopped, it works like this: competitors are judged by famous chefs on the dishes they prepare, but they have to use all the ingredients in a specially presented basket. So, you're making an appetizer, only you have to make it with spelt vinegar and fresh tobacco leaves and Froot Loops. You can use other ingredients too, but you have to include the designated ones. Then you cry and tell the judges that your cousin's pet hedgehog is dying and you really need to win so that you can help pay the vet bills. And the judges scowl and tell you that you really didn't capture the essence of the Froot Loops in your raw-tuna carpaccio, which is why (sorry about your little paw, Mr. Curly) they have to "chop" you. If you try this at home, you can skip these last two elements.

However, for a pair of kids or a small group of kids or a large group of kids, playing Chopped is extremely fun, on the one hand, and, on the other, gets all or some of your dinner made. We've now done it loads of times (birthday parties, sleepovers, play dates, summer "camp") and kids get totally psyched, even if they're teenagers and you'd think they'd be too cool to get excited about celery seeds or almond extract. They'll surprise you.
An unretouched photograph of enthusiastic teenagers competing at salad. Bonus Ava sighting!
Here's what you do.

1) Come up with a game plan. For kids with limited or unknown cooking skills, plan for them to make just a salad or dessert (more experienced cooks can do more courses and/or an entree, but make sure you have enough time). Gather or buy the 3 or 4 special ingredients that the cooks will have to use, and make sure that you have others that they'll likely want or need. So, say you're doing a salad: put the weird or fun ingredients in the basket (we've done raw cranberries, dill pickles, bread, coriander seeds, pomegranate molasses, shallots, hearts of palm, dates, turmeric and vanilla extract, among others) and then make sure you have some basic salad stuff (greens, cukes, carrots) on-hand. (We did a dessert one on New Year's Eve with a huge group of kids, and I think they had to use baguette, cocoa powder, navel oranges, and heavy cream. Tofu is a great ingredient for entrees, since it's safe to eat even if it's cooked improperly). I usually put a small amount of each required ingredient in a shopping bag for each team, so they can grab-and-go when the contest starts.

Edited to add a comment from below: "LOVE IT!! Just think that my kids and the kids we know wouldn't be as adventurous as yours. We might need to use Cream cheese, peanut butter, mini chocolate chips and apples in order to get them to produce anything eatable. Thanks for the tip!" Of course! That's a great idea. Rice cakes or toast could be a great base for an easier assembly-type project.
A mortar and pestle is so great to have. Here, cranberries are getting shown what's what.
2) Gather the rest of the supplies. Each team will need a plate for each chef, plus an extra one for the judges to share. I put out cutting boards and knives, dish towels, and the mortar and pestle, but I'm always available to help them find whatever they need.

Shallots getting chopped, before being sauteed and added to a cranberry vinaigrette.
3) Divide the kids into teams. (This is easy if there are only two children.) We usually make sure to have at least one big kid and/or experienced cook on each team. We try to split up the littlest and rowdiest kids.
The littlest AND rowdiest kid, all rolled into one sharp-knife-wielding contestant! But look at that concentrating face. Those cranberries weren't going to cut themselves in half, after all.
4) Explain the ground rules. "You will be making a salad. You will have 30 minutes. You will need to use the ingredients in the basket. You can also use other ingredients, but you must use all the ingredients in the basket. You will need to 'plate' the dish, which means arranging it nicely on a plate. You will be judged on the presentation of your dish, as well as on its flavor and the successful incorporation of required elements. Nobody may cut themselves with a knife or burn themselves at the stove."
It is fine to make a "no heat" rule! There have definitely been some alarums, if you know what I mean. And what I mean is the smoke alarm going off.
5) Present the basket. Now, as you know if you've ever, say, played Candyland, this activity will be only as much fun as the energy you put into it. That means you have to take each ingredient out of the basket with a great deal of dramatic and/or comedic flourish. Think: Will Ferrel playing Liberace unpacking his weird groceries narratingly.

6) Start the timer. Then retire helpfully to some comfortable nearby corner, ideally where you have installed a kitchen couch, like I am always reminding you to do. The kids will need to know where things are, especially if there are kids who aren't your kids. Also, they might want advice about ratios of oil to vinegar, and you can give it to them or not, depending on the ground rules you've laid out. Do be sure to give them time alerts in a dramatic and threatening way. Address them continually and menacingly as "Chefs!"
The final plating.
7) When the time is up, each team should bring one plate over to the judging table. Now you (and the other judges, if there are any) will taste each dish, making encouraging and damning announcements as you see fit, and disagreeing extravagantly about whether whole scallions, say, or minced prunes are or aren't a pleasing addition to a salad. Now you can go in one of two directions: Theatrically announce a tie (which is what I personally wish we could do) or know that you have the kinds of kids on hand who will kill you if you do this, and announce a winner, first shaming all the other teams by recapping the flaws of their pathetic attempts at a winning dish and telling them, with woeful schadenfreude, "I'm sorry. The vinaigrette was nicely tart, and that was a compelling usage of torn salami, but you've been chopped."

8) Now the kids can each pick a plate from another team or their own and eat their amazing creations! Before cleaning up.

23 comments:

  1. alison1:15 PM

    LOVE IT!! Just think that my kids and the kids we know wouldn't be as adventurous as yours. We might need to use Cream cheese, peanut butter, mini chocolate chips and apples in order to get them to produce anything eatable. Thanks for the tip!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! I am going to quote you.

      Delete
  2. I'm sending my kids over with elk sausage and dandelion greens!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I wish you would!

      Delete
    2. dale in denver6:01 PM

      I want in on that, Rachel!

      Delete
    3. Party at Catherine's!

      Delete
  3. As soon as you said "summer camp" I got inspired. We have a big camping event every summer, and about 20+ show up. This year I'm totally going to do Chopped the S'Mores edition. My mind is exploding with possibilities! Basil! Cayenne Pepper! Vanilla beans! I can hardly wait.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I love this post! We do a version of this at our house where my kids (ages 7-9) pick out the ingredients and I do the cooking while the kids commentate. I once had to make an "appetizer" out of assorted left-over easter candy, pudding and mandarin oranges. I'm now inspired to brave the consequences of letting my kids to do the creating.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This sounds like so much fun! I love it!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous12:52 PM

    YES! Kids love chopped. It is also a good way to put a fun spin on leftovers night--put the weeks leftovers in the "basket" and let the kids make dinner.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This sounds very fun...I'm thinking of doing it with my Girl Scout troop next time we go camping. Just so I'm clear, everyone has the same ingredients to work with, right?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Erin K.7:02 PM

      That's a great idea - I just sent the link to my son's den leader for cub scouts. This needs to happen in a kitchen that is not mine. :)

      Delete
    2. Correct. Everyone has the same ingredients.

      Delete
    3. I shared this post with my Cadettes and we are now doing a Chopped Contest as part of the New Cuisines Badge. "Step 4: Cook a dish that makes a statement." The badge requirement is to cook something with a veggie protein. Hooray for tofu!

      We couldn't get any parents to volunteer their kitchen, so we are doing a camping version in my co-leader's backyard. Foil packets on charcoal and camp stove one-pots... Can't wait to see what they make!

      Delete
  8. I love this idea so much! I've done something similar with co-workers (we had themed Iron Chef contests: mint, cinnamon, and the surprisingly awesome "layers"), but I can see that the Chopped idea would work great with kids. Will share this idea with others.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wow,Teacher & students All are enjoying !


    Camp America 2014 & Summer Camp Jobs

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great idea! I'm thinking that offering to organize and host an event like this would be a great thing to put up for next year's school auction.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This is a perfect example of keeping important records of all the loveliness!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Sounds very interesting.This is a good piece of writing mate for this particular topic.



    Summer Camp Jobs in America & Summer Camp Jobs

    ReplyDelete
  13. Months after reading this, we finally held our first Chopped competition today! The ingredients were cucumbers, chives, goat cheese and black raspberries. My 10 and 12 year old have become HUGE fans of the show, as has my 4 year old, who just named his new stuffed animal Ted after Ted Allen. For the competition, my son made a salad with mixed greens, pears, Granny Smiths and berries with a berry/chive vinaigrette (from a ChopChop recipe!) My daughter made SunGold tomatoes stuffed with chive goat cheese and quick-pickled cucumbers with raspberry drizzle. Then they wanted a Chopped After Hours (you can see the real ones online) where the judges cook using the same basket; I made goat cheese and chive timbales (!) with berry/chili sauce and tart cucumber salad. I am SO GRATEFUL for this awesome idea! They're already asking when they get to do a Dessert Round. Thank you!!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Wow...superb idea for encourage children to getting involved in kitchen...Here in this contest kids looking very happy & enjoying.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts.

    Camp America & Summer Camp Jobs 2015

    ReplyDelete