Chopped Appetizer Competition

Happy mid-week, everyone!

Today’s post is one I’m super excited about, because it was so much fun to document.  Every year a friend of mine hosts an appetizer cooking competition, in conjunction with her annual birthday BBQ.  Each year there is a different theme or challenge that we have to use for our appetizers.  There’s usually about 10-15 entries, and everyone at the BBQ is allowed to taste and judge.  Votes are cast for taste (1st, 2nd and 3rd place), and presentation (just one winner).  We even have a “trophy” for the winners…it’s a wooden rolling pin, and each year the winner is etched into the rolling pin to document their success!

After the competition last year’s Rick Bayless recipe competition, my friend announced that next year’s competition would be a Chopped challenge!  Is anyone else addicted to Chopped?  It’s honestly one of my favorite shows!

So, last year, we all wrote down an ingredient, she threw them all into a hat, and selected 4 ingredients.  The final 4 were: Ritz crackers, popcorn, cayenne pepper and cotton candy.  Right away, I felt these ingredients were too obscure, but knew I had a year to come up with something awesome to enter into the competition.

Over the weekend I spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen creating my appetizer.  I decided to do a fried ravioli bite with marinara dipping sauce.  My plan was to incorporate the 4 ingredients into some aspect of the dish, and hope that it comes out tasty and bring home a win!  Here’s the details on what I did!

First up was the marinara sauce.  My plan was to incorporate cotton candy here.  I’ve seen some recipes for homemade red sauce that include sugar, for a sweeter taste.  I was nervous about the cotton candy, but I assumed it would melt and incorporate to make my marinara sweet.

I started with a simple recipe from Giada de Laurentis from the FoodTV Network.  I started with the normal ingredients.  Crushed tomatoes, carrots, celery, onions, garlic, seasonings and olive oil.

I chopped up the onions and put them in the pot with olive oil for 10 minutes, then I added the chopped garlic, celery, carrots and threw some rosemary in too.  Have you seen these individual packs of fresh herbs at your grocery?  Not only are they cute, but it’s a smaller portion, so I don’t feel like I’m wasting herbs when I can’t finish the larger packs. 

  

Next, I added the cotton candy!  I was pleased to see that it dissolved up right away, and didn’t turn into a clumpy mass of sugar.  I just had to stir it up, and it incorporated throughout.

  

Once the veggies were soft, it was time to add the crushed tomatoes (Jeff opened the big cans for me, like a nice, sweet man!).

  

I added the crushed tomatoes, bay leaves and seasonings, including thyme and dried sweet basil leaves.  I let this simmer on a low heat for about an hour.

  

And the marinara was done!  Next, I got started on the pasta.  Since I wanted to stuff my own raviolis, I decided to make homemade pasta…another thing I had never done before!  I bought some Bob’s Red Mill semolina flour from the grocery, and decided to just follow the recipe on the back of the package for the pasta.  The ingredients seemed easy enough…

  

I was concerned the actual process of making the pasta would be difficult, since I don’t have a pasta making machine. 

First, I piled the semolina in a heap on my cutting board and made a little well in it (I totally should have used a different color of cutting board, but you’ll get the point…).  Then I beat 2 eggs and the water in a measuring cup and recruited Jeff’s assistance once more.  He poured a little bit of the eggs into the well at a time, as I mixed it all together.

  

It was a bit of a messy process for a few reasons.  #1-you get eggs all over your hands…yuck!  #2-even though I looked up homemade pasta advice online, I ignored the one thing people stressed…only pour a little egg at a time!  If you don’t, the egg gets away from you and you have egg all over your kitchen counter.  That wasn’t documented with the camera, but yes, it happened!

So, once all the egg was mixed in, it started to come together.  I kneaded the dough for about 10 minutes, then wrapped it in cellophane and stuck it in the ‘fridge for an hour.  I learned that this helps the gluten proteins combine and strengthen the dough with elasticity, so it won’t tear apart when you’re working with it.

 

Moving on to the next Chopped ingredient…popcorn!  I wanted to use the popcorn inside the filling of the ravioli, as well as in the breading before I fried the raviolis.  In the spirit of making things from scratch, I bought kernels at Trader Joe’s and popped the corn on the stove-top…another first!

  

Per the instructions on the TJ’s bag, I put the olive oil in the bottom of a large pot.  I added 4 kernels and waited until they popped…

 

At this point, I was so excited I called Jeff over to watch as I added the remaining kernels and they quickly turned into a batch of fresh popcorn!

  

I stuck a couple handfuls of popcorn, along with some cayenne pepper into the bullet cup, and ground them up to make them like crumbs. 

  

I set the popcorn aside and got to work on the ravioli filling.  I decided to use hot Italian sausage, which I removed from the casing and cooked like ground turkey with garlic, along with some cotton candy (why not?!).  Once the sausage was cooked, I let it cool on a paper towel and I start mixing my filling.  I stirred it up with ricotta cheese, cayenne pepper and some popcorn .

 

Next up was the final Chopped ingredient.  I put a package of Ritz crackers, some Italian breadcrumbs, popcorn and cayenne pepper in the bullet cup and it was ready to be a coating!

 

Now it was time to pull it all together!  After taking the pasta out of the ‘fridge and letting it rest for 20 minutes, I rolled it out into thin, long strips of pasta.  I used a pizza cutter to cut the right sized pieces.

  

I took 1 square of pasta and piled some filing onto it.  Then I covered it with another square, and used a fork to close up the edges.

  

I wanted to try just one before entering it into the competition, so I heated some olive oil on the stove-top to fry this baby.  I coated the ravioli in buttermilk first, then the Ritz/cayenne/popcorn coating I made and fried it up!

  

I took it out when it was golden brown and sprinkled sea salt and parmesan cheese on top.  I served the ravioli up with a side of marinara sauce, and Jeff and I dug in.

  

We decided it was tasty!  I really like the sweetness of the cotton candy marinara, with the heat from the cayenne and sausage.  I did think that there was too much excess pasta, so as I was preparing the rest of the raviolis, I used just one square of pasta, and shaped them more into a circular pouch, what I wound up calling ravioli nuggets, or ravioli bites! 

I cleaned up the kitchen, packed up the goods, and we headed to my friend’s house.  I fried them up there, right before plating for the competition.

  

(Also pictured: an ice cold Shock Top…well deserved after a hard day spent in the kitchen!)

At this point, the camera action came to an end because it was time to taste all the yummy creations!  We had 10 entries this year, 2 of which were dessert entries, the rest were savory.  Sadly, I did not win, but I sure had fun tasting everyone’s dishes!  The winner was a chicken tender on a stick, with a chipotle/cotton candy dipping sauce.  The sauce was so amazing, and definitely the hottest (spiciest) entry!  I love me some spice!

After the completion, we all hung out for hours, chatting and enjoying the company.  We also found out next year’s theme….it’s another Chopped challenge!  This time we all wrote down 4 ingredients: 1 vegetable, 1 meat, 1 spice and 1 “whacked out” item.  Then my friend pulled 4 cards, and took 1 ingredient from each category.  Next year’s ingredients are: corn, bacon, cumin and sunflower seeds.  I don’t think they sound too challenging, but I’m also blown away by the creativity and talent of our group of friends and family!

The rest of the weekend was spent with Jeff, Freddie & friends.  We spent time with Orange County friends, and took Freddie to the beach in Corona Del Mar.  He wasn’t allowed off-leash, but he sure seemed to enjoy the ocean air!

  

Have a great rest of your week!

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