”The competition is tough.
The basket is no picnic”
I’ve been hooked on Food Network’s ‘Chopped’–you know, the show where chefs get a mystery basket and they have to make a dish that showcases each ingredient in the basket. And it’s always some weird combination. Like, maybe you could figure out a dish that uses 3 of the 4 items, but its that last one that throws you a curve ball. My son watches along side me and being the encouraging guy he is always tells me, ‘you should be on that show–you can make anything taste good.’
I actually never watched a food show before about a year and a half ago, when I was staying at my brother’s house and stayed up all night with him and my sister-in-law watching back to back ‘Iron Chef’ and ‘Chopped’ marathons. Then I became addicted to ‘Top Chef’, ‘Top Chef Masters’, and ‘Master Chef’. And then my sister appeared on Food Network’s ’24 Hour Restaurant Battle’. And I got a job working on Syfy Channel’s ‘Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen’. And now I am addicted to watching and working on these culinary competition shows.
I watch a lot of food shows…and they’re all fascinating to me. But when I play that little game in my head of could I compete–the answer is always no when it comes to ‘Chopped’. So when I found myself at the farmers’ market the other day, I came across a beautiful bunch of green leaves that just smelled like summer. And so instead of my usual purchase of basil, Thai basil, or mint this week, I chose the Shiso. An herb I have only eaten as a garnish for sushi. It just smelled fresh and crispy, but still warm, like an ocean breeze on a sunny day. At that moment in time it seemed to encapsulate summer to me.
I did a little wiki-ing and found that shiso is also called perilla. It looks like basil, but is part of the mint family. It’s rich in minerals and vitamin and has anti-inflammatory properties. Also known as purple mint, Japanese basil or wild coleus. It’s so popular in Japan that apparently in 2009, Pepsi came out with Pepsi Shiso.
Instead of trying to use shiso with a bunch of different random ingredients, I thought I’d ‘Iron Chef’ the shiso and use it as the secret ingredient in as many dishes as I could think of–from a starter to dessert. Here’s what I came up with:
The Shiso Mojito
- Juice of 2 limes
- 1 Tablespoon kibi zato (Japanese brown sugar or cane sugar)
- 1/4 cup shiso leaves
- 3 ounces rum or mix of rum and Brazilian cachaca
As a little appetizer, I tried a quick pickled cucumber salad. I found this recipe on my favorite food site, food52. I added daikon slices and used Persian cucumbers.
I wasn’t sure which way to go with my shiso main dish. I had seen a dish on no recipe’s site for a shiso uni pesto with linguine noodles.
And I made this yummy mentaiko pasta from momofuku for 2 a while back and thought that maybe there was some combination of the two that could bring out the best of all the ingredients.
But as I set out the ingredients and tasted them, I began to think that these were two totally separate dishes. The mentaiko was salty and paired well with an acid–I added tomatoes. I also broiled some maitake mushroom with oil, salt and pepper and tossed it in squid ink pasta. The shiso may have just been a little too much.
So I started down the path of no recipe’s pesto–and decided to do something a tiny bit richer, creamier, and a little more decadent than a healthy sounding pesto. What this pasta wound up tasting like was an Asian carbonara–the urchin acting as a rich egg atop a nutty yet toothsome pasta. It was exotic, but at the same time a familiar bowl of comforting pasta.
Shiso Pistachio Noodles w/ Uni
- 1/4 cup mayonaise
- 2 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1/4 cup shiso leaves
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup pistachios, crushed
- 6 ounces spaghetti
And finally, for the dessert course. I picked up some fresh lychee at the Japanese market and remembered another food52 dessert I had been wanting to try from gingerroot. She made a lychee shiso sorbet.
My son refers to lychees as spike balls. He likes them–the peeling and pit aren’t his favorite thing, so when I offered to make an ice cream for him, he was thrilled. I started with the lychee, added coconut cream, shiso and some sugar.
The before ice cream maker portion tasted good, but I just couldn’t get the ice cream maker to freeze properly, so it didn’t turn out as I (or my son) would’ve liked, but I tried.
And in the end…I realize that none of the shiso recipes I made were totally original…which is why I said I could never make it on ‘Chopped’. But it has been a great challenge and learning experience. It’s fun finding a new ingredient at the market (or for some in their CSA box) and trying to figure out how to use this new food product. I think I’ll hone my ‘Iron Chef’ and ‘Chopped’ skills by trying this more often.