One of the most entertaining things we have done recently is to host a couples dinner party with a “Chopped” theme. It is something I’ve always wanted to do and it inserts a lot of fun and good food into otherwise boring, winter weekends. We have just finished round number two, and I think it is worth sharing how we’ve set it up. In the future, we are thinking of integrating more couples or turning it into a round robin tournament, but for now it’s just enough to figure out the teams and food.

First, teams: With two couples, we just trade spouses to make the teams (insert funny joke here). We didn’t think it would be fair to have married couples working together because they would be shopping for ingredients together and have a lot more time to plan/are more familiar with each other’s recipes and strengths. We also didn’t think girls against boys would be fair, because in our case, the women were the stronger cooks and the men (while very good cooks in their own right) might be at a disadvantage.

Second, courses: We decided to go with each team making a small plate, rather than different courses. It seemed like it would be more fair when judging occurred to have the same basic course rather than one dessert and one appetizer.

Third, ingredients: Each team is tasked with providing one meat or protein (we usually tell one team to select a meat protein and one team a seafood/vegetarian protein so it’s balanced). Each team also brings a starch or vegetable and two wild card ingredients. The wild cards can be anything and have ranged from ladyfingers to cornichons to ginger to canned corn. So while the ingredients are purchased by the couples, they still have no idea which 4 of the 8 total ingredients they will be cooking (a good incentive to not buy anything too crazy, because you might have to cook with it).

Fourth, assigning foods: When the couple arrives, we each write our four ingredients on slips of paper and track whether they are protein, starch/veg, or wild card ingredients. The protein slips go in one bowl, the starch/veg slips go in another, and mystery ingredients in a third and fourth. Each team picks their ingredients, so the luck of the draw tells you what you will be cooking with.

Fifth, structure: We give each team a few minutes to come up with their basic plan. Technology is allowed after you get your basic plan. Then each team has an hour to cook and plate their dish. We don’t cook simultaneously because that would be too hard in a normal kitchen. We flip a coin to see which team goes first, they cook, and then we do a quick clean up before the next team cooks. There is no real advantage either way because while the second team to cook has more time to plan, they also have more time to drink wine, which can negatively impact cooking skills.

Sixth, judging: We haven’t quite figured this one out in a systematic way and have just let my 11 year old daughter pick the winner. We generally aren’t too concerned with who wins as the point is to just eat great food and have fun. There is, however, always some good taunting going on.

Seventh, pantry: We try to make sure the pantry is well stocked with peppers, onions, garlic, salad greens, cheeses, cream, chicken broth, spices, etc. to make cooking easier. If you cook a lot normally, this isn’t very difficult to accomplish.

The first two dishes listed below were cooked (in some variation) by our teams the last time we competed. We generally plan the dishes and get an idea of what to cook and then search online for some basic recipes to guide us or help with proportions. And even though we use recipe aids, the dish still needs to be conceptualized, which is the fun part. Often times, cocktails are paired with the course. The lamb chops were served with a delicious asian slaw and the lobster/potato cakes were served over a coconut milk/edamame puree with lemon beurre blanc.

I’ve also been cooking a lot of great recipes from around the web lately. Here are some things that I have enjoyed or have on tap for the weekend.

Lobster Potato Cakes

Combo of gently cooked lobster and smashed fingerling potatoes is wonderful.

Rosemary Scallion Crusted Rack of Lamb

Delicious lamb dish that we have cooked for years. Can do ahead and great for entertaining.

Gnocchi with Brown Butter

Delicious and light. Not too fussy and used toasted pumpkin seeds instead.

Chilaquiles with Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

Plan to make this this weekend and serve with sunny side up eggs. Kids probably won’t eat it, but I don’t care.

Creamy North Fork Clam Chowder

The kids love clam chowder. Also on tap for the weekend.

Miso-Maple Sweet Potato Tacos with Coconut-Cilantro Sauce

Ingredients speak for themselves. Delicious.

Beer Braised Brisket

Cooked this without the veggies until it fell apart and made cheesesteaks with it. Yum.

Downtown Bakery and Creamery’s Cinnamon Sugar Donut Muffins

Delicious muffins that would be perfect for a brunch or shower.

Cookie Dough Frozen Yogurt

Not at all healthy (even using fat free greek yogurt), but a great use of Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter.


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