We Have Been Chopped

If there’s one thing that can be said about our family, it’s that we love to eat. (It could also be said that we tend to sing a lot and that we always have dog hair on our clothes, but eating is more fun.) Rather conveniently, we also love to cook — all four of us. One of our favorite things to do together is watch cooking and baking shows, from Cake Boss to Restaurant: Impossible to The Next Food Network Star to MasterChef Junior.
We stumbled upon Cake Boss in 2010 before the show’s popularity skyrocketed; the day we visited Carlo’s with my mom and stepdad, Buddy flew to Chicago to be on Oprah… and everything changed!
Naturally, the girls are blurry so that the baked goods could be in focus…

We have also logged a lot of time watching Chopped, the Food Network show where the four contestants receive baskets containing “mystery ingredients” (i.e. rice cereal, squid, jelly beans, and cucumbers), all of which need to be incorporated into their final dishes to be presented to the judges… within 20 or 30 minutes. The moment those baskets are opened, we four backseat chefs get to work calling out what we think could/should be done with the ingredients, oohing and ahhhing and gasping and groaning at the chefs’ crazy and awe-inspiring creations.

Although Annie and Ella are very comfortable in the kitchen and, for years now, have been combining… unusual… foods just for the fun of it, they have long opined that it would be truly great to participate in their own version of Chopped — to be given mystery ingredients and then to create something, not only edible but delicious, out of them.

A good many years back, my dad and GrandMeg had gotten to know one of the chefs on Kiawah Island. Eventually, Chef Patrick left the restaurant business to focus on a more entrepreneurial, private chef approach; since then, he’s made several fabulicious meals at my dad and Meg’s house (on Kiawah) for special occasions. For Christmas this year, my dad and Meg very generously “gave” us dinner with Chef Patrick.

Normally when Patrick does his private chef thing, he does all the cooking; occasionally, he gives basic cooking lessons. Seeing that we were going to be in close quarters with a top notch chef who might be able to really teach us a thing or two beyond what we already know, I sent Meg the following email proposing something a little bit different:

When we watch these cooking shows, what impresses us the most is how the chefs are able to think on their feet, how they understand foods and flavors and how to work with the ingredients to create delicious dishes with amazing flavors… We can cook any recipe well; we want more!
So, THAT’S what we’d like to learn. How food works. What ingredients go well together and why? What basic sauces go with what foods, and how do we make them on the fly? What are some simple ways to elevate basic meals to something more flavorful? If we’re getting dinner on the table in a hurry, how can we mix things up so that it tastes different even if we’re pressed for time and using more or less the same ingredients?
So, you know… Essentially Culinary School 101. 😉
Meg then forwarded my rather, um, broad request to Patrick, who responded like this:
I think a great place to start would be stocks, sauces and soups and then go into flavor pairings. We could cover the different areas of taste buds on the tongue which make different combinations of food taste so good together… Also covering ingredients you may have sitting in the pantry which could be used to whip up or add flavor to a dinner would be great.
We could also get the creative juices going with a couple of surprise baskets with different ingredients in them like the show Chopped and see what y’all can come up with for dinner. You could all decide what you could make for dinner with whatever is in the basket. Of course it will be more like some blue plastic boxes. Sounds like fun to me!!
I was dumbfounded. We get to pretend like we’re on Chopped? But with a real, live, uber-talented chef to guide us? Are you freaking kidding me?? When I read the email to Ella and Annie, they could barely contain their excitement. DREAMS DO COME TRUE, Y’ALL!
For the first few days of our spring break, we simply took in Kiawah and Charleston, like always, and enjoyed hanging out with family… but really, we were barely containing our excitement for our dinner with Patrick. When at last the day arrived, Chef Patrick showed up and, as promised, lugged in several blue plastic boxes and set them on the counter. Once he’d gotten everything ready, he invited the girls to do the unveiling; they were more than happy to oblige.
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One box held proteins – chicken, sausage, etc. The others held vegetables, fruits, and starches – squash, carrots, parsnips, peppers, white and sweet potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, kiwis, fresh herbs. Additionally, like the contestants on the show, we could help ourselves to the “pantry” – a section of the counter on which Patrick had spread out staples like pasta, garlic, onions, cream, salt and pepper, chicken stock, etc.
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As soon as they looked everything over, both girls immediately had ideas about what to make. Rather than just listen to their thoughts, Patrick had the (genius) idea of inviting them to draw their finished dishes so they could really envision their creations as actual meals instead of just ingredients.
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Next, he checked out their illustrations asked them to describe their “recipes” while he wrote down the key ingredients.
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Yes, that coat does have the Super Bowl insignia on it because Patrick was one of the chefs at this year’s game. So, that’s not cool or anything…
Once he’d gotten a feel for what the girls wanted, the fun really began. See, ’cause while their ideas were very original and creative, they weren’t necessarily… doable… in their original form. Not wanting to disappoint or discourage them, Patrick considered their suggestions and, working with each girl, tweaked them into something more polished.
Or, in other words, the tables were turned and suddenly Chef Patrick became the Chopped contestant. Take these random ingredients and make something amazing out them HAHAHA GOOD LUCK.
Annie’s idea was fairly simple: chicken and pasta with mushrooms and red wine. With Patrick’s guidance, they agreed upon pasta with grilled chicken and mushrooms in a sundried tomato, pesto, and red wine sauce.
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Annie’s drawing was… interesting…
Ella’s idea was a bit more out of the box. Originally, she envisioned “sausage and potatoes with basil-stuffed raspberries.” After much discussion, with Patrick gently trying to figure out how the heck to incorporate raspberries with the sausage, he and Ella decided on Italian sausage and potato cakes with a raspberry basil balsamic glaze.
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You’ll notice the raspberry glaze drizzled nicely around the outside of Ella’s plate…
Then it was time to get to work. Although Patrick absolutely ran the show, we helped out in every way that we could – chopping vegetables, chiffonading basil (I don’t know if you can  add -ing to chiffonade but I’m doing it anyway because it sounds way more chef-y to be “chiffonading basil”), browning sausage, boiling potatoes, cutting chicken. When we got to forming the potato cakes (a combination of Italian sausage, white potatoes, onions, basil, and olive oil), we were really winging it – even Patrick admitted he’d never attempted anything like this before, so there was little “advice” to be given.
Over the course of the several hours it took to pull everything together, Annie and Ella grew antsy and would occasionally wander away to play. As their dishes were nearing completion, we called them back in to show them how things were looking — that Chef Patrick was nearly finished with turning their ideas into a real, honest-to-goodness dinner.
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Watching Patrick add salt to the sauce for the pasta.
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Checking out the nearly-complete raspberry glaze.
Finally, after an evening of thinking and prepping and cooking, everything was ready. We set the table, gathered up the two main courses, and sat down, anxious to see if the final dishes would be anything beyond merely edible.
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Annie’s pasta with chicken and mushrooms in a sundried tomato, pesto, and red wine sauce. (Obviously, I’m not a food photographer… Carry on…)kiawah cooking15Ella’s Italian sausage and potato cakes (raspberry basil balsamic glaze to the side).
You guys? They were more than merely edible. They were delicious.
The pasta was light and fresh but filling. The sausage-potato cakes, the ones that Ella and Chef Patrick invented on the spot and then had to actually make doable? SO. FREAKIN’ GOOD. The potato and the sausage combined beautifully, the texture was just right, and the onions and basil added the perfect amount of flavor; even the raspberry sauce was fabulous, a sweet-ish (but not too sweet) complement to the saltiness of the cakes. We were in heaven; when Patrick joined us (we insisted that he eat with us because duh), he agreed, somewhat stunned, that their collaboration had turned out pretty damned well.
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Just a wee bit proud of herself… 
Oh! And you can see the raspberry sauce in the tureen, too.kiawah cooking17Thumbs up!
After dinner, Annie helped Chef Patrick assemble two super-easy pudding fruit tarts. They, like the main courses, were absolutely dee-lish.
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It got late, so she changed into her jammies…
It’s a month later and still we can hardly believe it: our girls created recipes off the top of their heads (recipes that were inspired by Chopped-style baskets!) and then a world-class chef took their ideas and turned them into dinner. CHEF PATRICK MADE THEIR RECIPES! It’s like we sent an idea to JK Rowling and she wrote a story based on our thoughts! Holy crap, people!!
Or, at Annie succinctly put it:
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They say that, if you’re aiming to cultivate happiness, focus on experiences and not things; you’ll soon grow tired of the latest gadget, but the memories you make while doing something incredible will provide you with lifelong joy. I can say, without a doubt, that the memories of our evening spent watching Patrick make magic (and dinner!) with our girls will continue bringing us happiness for – well, pretty much forever. How unbelievably fortunate we are, and how grateful we are to Chef Patrick (and my dad and Meg) for making it so!
We have been Chopped… in the best possible way.

We’re on the juice

I would like to apologize for the enormous rumbling sound you’ve been hearing for the past week. To clarify, that would be my stomach, burbling so loudly we’ve all been bracing for an Alien-style invasion. See, stomachs do that when you don’t put anything in them for five days. Well, anything except juice.

Nick and I were on a juice diet this week, and by “juice diet” I mean “consuming nothing but unappetizing nasty healthy juices made in our juicer from fresh fruits and veggies.” And when I say, “nothing,” I mean nothing. No food. Nada. Zilch.

Like refugees. Or prisoners of war.

I can hear you shaking your heads from here. Or see you. Whatever. All of the energy that would normally go to making my brain function has been used to keep me upright.

Cucumbers and celery. It’s what’s for breakfast!

The reason for wanting to go on a juice diet was pretty simple: we are crazy. Or, equally accurately, I am crazy about my husband. Believe it or not, Nick was the driving force behind this; I just went along for the ride. The long, cold, slow, joyless ride.

Nick had been talking about going on a juice diet since last summer, when two (married) college friends of ours posted about their very successful juice diet on Facebook. By successful, I mean that they’d been motivated to better their eating choices – and their overall health – by the movie Fat Sick and Nearly Dead, and decided to begin their journeys with a ten-day juice fast. They wrote of losing relatively significant amounts of weight and generally feeling fantastic both during and after the fast. It was, I’ll admit, tantalizing and inspirational – but we just couldn’t find the time to make it work.

There simply wasn’t a week when nothing else was going on — no traveling, no work dinners, no family visits — during which we could give up eating and take up juicing. Which was just fine by me. I (very luckily) don’t really need to lose any weight, and my diet is pretty good overall (save for my Starbucks addiction), so I wasn’t in such a hurry to do the juice thing.

Nick, on the other hand, never forgot. (Unlike the cable boxes that remained in his car for over a year-and-a-half and never made it back to Time Warner. Not that I’m counting.) He’s been wanting to take better charge of his health for quite some time now, but really wanted a way to jumpstart the process, especially after having been in such an emotional haze since early summer. When he looked at the calendar and realized that we had over a full week between family visits and his next work trip, he decided to take the plunge. Being the martyr ever-devoted wife that I am, I decided to join him. Like a lemming.

Fun fact: beets turn your poop magenta. Yay, science!

He bought a juicer, researched juice recipes, bought a crap-ton of fresh produce, and we were on our way. I wanted to support Nick, yes, but I was also eager for the other benefits that juicing was sure to bring. For one, I was excited to be all cleared out — removing the toxins and all that. Some of it sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but it makes sense; we eat junk, and some of the junky stuff gets stuck in our bodies. I’ve got IBS. I know what junky feels like. And getting rid of some of that was pretty darn appealing.

I was also hoping to break my late-night snacking habit. Dessert, fine. (Or, should I say, dessert, HELLZ YES.). But, a handful of Trader Joe’s chocolate-covered toffee pieces and a bowl of ice cream and some dried cherries and two handfuls of gluten free pretzels, just aren’t necessary. Usually. Despite my constant admonitions to knock it the heck off, I do this almost nightly, and I was hoping that juicing would help break that habit.

Also, everyone on a juice diet feels amazing. At least, that’s what the websites say. Yeah, the first few days are torture, but after that, it’s nirvana. Your skin glows. You gain abundant energy. You feel clear-headed. You feel clean. Each glass of juice is might as well be water that’s been turned into wine by Jesus. It’s that incredible.

Y’all, while I may be naive about a good many things, I’m not entirely stupid; I knew, no matter what The Internet says, that this wouldn’t be easy. I knew it would be a rough week. But I figured I could tough it out through those first difficult days and then be on my way to Last Supper bliss. I’d read a bazillion websites (and even one actual book) and I understood things. As nutty as it sounds (because, um, omg, NO. FOOD), I started on Monday feeling hopeful and optimistic.

By Tuesday afternoon, that optimism and hope had been replaced by depression and rage. And hunger pains so deep, my children were afraid to look at me because they were afraid I’d try to eat them.

First of all, juicing is expensive. Do you have any idea how many cucumbers it takes to make enough juice to fill someone up for a day? A LOT. An entire refrigerator’s worth, in fact. It just isn’t cheap.

Pretty, yes. As expensive as a dozen pizzas, also yes.

Secondly, juicing takes a long freakin’ time. We prepped most of the fruits and vegetables the night before (so we could immediately juice our breakfast and lunch in the a.m.), and that process alone took an hour.
“Breakfast” and “lunch.”

Then, in the morning, it took thirty minutes to juice everything, pour it into our containers, clean out the juicer, and wipe down the counter. So we’re talking ninety minutes to prepare and make and clean up breakfast and lunch. If I were to make from-scratch pancakes and a hot lunch every day, maaaybe I could approach ninety minutes. But when you’re eating Greek yogurt out of the container and eating some peanut butter on gluten free bread, you’re just not spending that much time in the kitchen. Juicing takes time.

Getting everything ready the night before.
When your meals fit into four plastic bottles, you know something’s up.

It should also be mentioned that most of the juices don’t taste good. They don’t taste terrible (except for the gazpacho juice that was slightly vomit-flavored; Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor earwax beans have nothing on this juice), but they don’t taste good. When the only thing you’re ingesting is juice, you at least want it to taste amazing. Turns out, I like celery and cucumbers just fine when they’re real foods, but when they’re liquified, they just don’t do it for me. BUMMER.

BTW: liquid parsley is nasty.

This one was decent and actually tasted a bit like orange sherbet. Like orange sherbet mixed with tomatoes and carrots, but still like orange sherbet.

As anticipated, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were horrendous. The days dragged on forever; we had absolutely no energy, were ravenous, and couldn’t shake our terrible moods. We were also experiencing many of the common side effects of going on a juice-only diet, including chills, sweating, headaches, nausea, fatigue, and chicken pox. Okay, maybe not pox. But it was miserable.

I was looking forward to Thursday and Friday, though, because that’s when Jesus was supposed to appear and we’d be reborn. We’d have flushed the majority of the toxins out and drawn in so many vitamins and nutrients, we couldn’t help but radiate warmth and health and juicy goodness.

Except… it never happened. Maybe we’re just juicing broken, but the nirvana moments never arrived. I didn’t feel quite as exhausted and draggy, but I didn’t feel great, either. I had lost weight, which was a nice enough side effect, but it wasn’t quite enough to make me feel all Born Again incredible. I was still hungry. I was still cranky. And, dear God, was I sick of going to the bathroom. Not in the TMI sense (although there was plenty of that, too… TMI?), but simply because when you put that much liquid in our body (along with the obscene amounts of water you need to properly hydrate and flush your system), it’s going to come out at some point.

Come to think of it, going to the bathroom probably accounted for half of the weight I lost. Not because of the fluids lost, but because of the actual going to the bathroom; when you sprint to the loo every forty-five minutes (especially when you’re substitute teaching – yay!), you’re bound to burn some calories.

Thankfully, the girls didn’t seem to mind our foul moods too much. They were generally really supportive of us, which was very nice of them but also probably easy, considering that their stomachs were full because I was still cooking them delicious, hot meals every day. That was a good time.

They, on the other hand, made our meals without any difficulty at all.

Creating our final day’s juices all on her own.

Making herself a little orange and pineapple juice.

The juicing wasn’t without its benefits. Ever since my bout with bronchitis three (four?) weeks ago, I’ve had lingering bronchial and sinus issues. At first, I’d thought that this would negatively impact the whole juicing thing, but no! Because when you cannot breathe, you cannot taste. THANK GOD. Additionally, my cough was so bad, I desperately needed cough drops. And when you’re not eating, cough drops are the greatest things to ever hit your tongue.

Another bonus to juicing was that I stopped flossing. Nothing chewed, nothing between my teeth. Boo-yah. (Dentists, no need to chime in. Let me have my moment.) This may not seem like a big deal – probalby because it’s not – but when you’re stuck inside a gigantic, starving cloud, that floss makes a mighty fine silver lining.

By Friday, I was done. Done with having the kitchen floor be constantly filthy because washing a million fruits and veggies and then moving them to the chopping board meant dripping a million drops of water onto the floor, which in turn meant inviting the dogs to trek through the water and leave paw prints everywhere. Juicing is dirty, you guys. I was done with having the skin underneath my fingernails sting madly after being pulled back waaay too far peeling lemons and limes. There’s a reason why people don’t consume these like oranges, and it’s not just because they’re tart.

According to the website we followed the most closely, when your’e done with a juice fast, you’re supposed to gradually add food back into your diet, starting with only fruits and veggies for a few days, then slowly adding in other foods, while avoiding dairy and meat for at least a week. We’d hoped to do that, but Nick’s going out of town on Tuesday, and he wanted to reintroduce food a bit more quickly so that his system isn’t in for such a shock when he’s at business dinners next week. I, too, was ready to reintroduce solid food into my diet, and maybe most of all, I was ready to not spend half my day in the bathroom.

But when the time came, I found my system wasn’t quite ready to move ahead all that quickly… So I started small:

My first solid meal in five days: kale, avocado, carrots, and dried cherries. Nothing has ever tasted so good. Okay, that’s a lie. But it was awesome.

I’ve eaten a little more since then, but am still taking it slow. It may have “only” been five days (WITHOUT FOOD. OR STARBUCKS), but I guess my stomach shrunk or something (I took AP biology but that was a long time ago) because every time I eat, it feels like my stomach has been hit with a ton of bricks. That said, even though it was a depressingly awful experience, I’m glad we did it. I haven’t late-night-snacked in over a week, and I don’t miss it. I have an intimate knowledge of every bathroom within a five mile radius of the house. Maybe most of all, I feel like a badass for actually having completed it. And that’s a pretty amazing feeling.

I’m under no illusion that juicing was some magic cure-all. Although I’m glad we did it, I’m even gladder (yes, I said it) that it’s over. Because it sucked. I’m bummed that we never experienced the euphoria that the people of The Internet describe; maybe we were doing it wrong, or maybe we just aren’t really cut out for juicing. Or maybe we needed to do it longer, in order to truly get to that place.

Which means we’ll just have to skip it, because five days was more than enough, thanks very much. I’ll read the Frommer’s Guide and call it a day.

Nick and I have definitely reconsidered the way we approach food and eating. We’re planning to add juicing to our regular diet, in spite of the aching fingers and the filthy floors. We’re committing to eating more vegetables and cutting out (a lot of) the dairy and crap. Nick’s really hoping that the weight he’s lost is only the beginning. Today, we both feel better, both physically and emotionally. We’re excited; it’s good.

When we started this, I’d assumed that chocolate was what I’d miss the most, and I was partially right; I definitely miss me some chocolate. But I was surprised to learn that what I really craved were Caramel Macchiatos and my favorite Starbucks lattes. Which means that, while on a juice-only diet, I craved liquids. The irony is not lost on me.

I’m eager to regain my energy and to use less toilet paper. I’m eager to try out new recipes, especially the ones that have been taunting me all week; if you’re not supposed to go to the grocery store when you’re hungry, looking at cooking magazines when you’re not eating is spectacularly stupid. I’m excited to see if we can maintain the changes we’ve made so far, to see if my ADHD – squirrel! – self can follow through on this one.

And I’m damn excited for the decaf tall soy Pumpkin Spice Latte with my name on it.
I mean that literally. They put my name on the cup. Cheers!