Monday, March 7, 2011

Spinning Together the Mystery Ingredients

by Jennifer AlLee

Several years ago, when my husband had to change careers, we went through a bit of a cash crunch. As a result, we cut back wherever we could, including our cable TV services. It wasn't until we bought our house last November that we upgraded to more than 12 channels. Now, I've found a few new shows (new to me, anyway) that I simply love. One of them is Chopped.

Chopped is a Food Network series in which chefs compete to make wonderful meals out of mystery ingredients. Each round is a different timed course - appetizer, entree, and dessert - and each course has its own basket of mystery ingredients. One chef is eliminated in each round, and the final chef standing wins the title of Chopped Champion... and $10,000.

I'm not a cook. I don't understand how a lot of foods work, therefore, I don't enjoy cooking them. So it surprises me how much I LOVE this show. What I like best is watching these truly talented chefs working with bizarre ingredients, some of which they've never seen before. One time, the entree basket contained baby bananas, black eyed peas, poblano peppers, and ostrich steak. Not only do they have to use all these items, they have to incorporate them into a cohesive, tasty, visually appealing dish. It's no wonder these chefs are sweating buckets by the time the round is up.

(I'm not kidding about the sweat... sometimes it's dripping. And I can't help but wonder if any of it falls into the food... but I digress.)

Sometimes, a chef looks in the basket and immediately knows what dish to prepare. Other times, he's clueless and has to wing it. And then there are the times when the chef knows exactly what he wants to do, but something goes wrong and he has to adapt and whip up a Plan B. All in just thirty minutes.

I may not know how to cook, but I've had a little bit of experience with throwing together things that don't seem to mesh. Once in college, I made dinner for my roommates out of what was in our cupboard. I combined sliced hot dogs, a can of Veg-All, and mayonaise. In a pot. On the stove. Yep... hot mayonaise. Oh, and the reason I was cooking is because my roomies were sick at the time. This dish did NOT make them feel better.

So... my cooking concoctions haven't turned out so great. But there are other areas where weird mixes are a good thing. As a reader, some of my favorite books contained surprise components. Currently, I'm reading a book that has an omniscient narrator. While this device was commonly used in classic novels, it's not something you see much of anymore. In fact, most writers are advised against trying it. But for this novel, it works. It infuses another bit of flavor into the narrative, a little surprise punch I didn't expect. Bravo!

In general, I think many of life's most delicious moments come with a marrying of unlikely ingredients. My actual marriage comes to mind. On the surface, my husband and I probably seem ill-suited for each other. But we are the perfect balance of sweet and sour, spicy and subtle, loud and subued (I won't tell you which one of is which.)

The older I get, and the more mystery ingredients I pull out of the basket, the happier I am that God wrote the cookbook for my life. I may not always get it right... my sugar might be burnt, and my sauce might separate... but most of the time, I end up with something tasty on the plate!

Silly question: What's the oddest concoction you ever put together in the kitchen? How did it turn out?

Serious question: What mystery ingredient has God thrown you that you're the most thankful for?

JENNIFER ALLEE believes the most important thing a woman can do is find her identity in God – a theme that carries throughout her novels. A professional writer for over twenty years, she's done extensive freelance work for Concordia Publishing House, including skits, Bible activity pages, and over 100 contributions to their popular My Devotions series. Her first novel, The Love of His Brother, was released by Five Star Publishers in November 2007. Her latest novel, The Pastor’s Wife, was released by Abingdon Press in February 2010. Her upcoming novel, The Mother Road, will be released by Abingdon Press in April 2012. She's a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of America, Christian Authors Network, and the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance.


  1. What a tasty treat today, Jen! I love how you pulled bananas, blackeyed peas and poblano peppers into a recipe for appreciating the surprise ingredients of our own lives.

    When I was first married, I tried some strange concoctions from cookbooks and I swear I once mixed up a cucumber and a zucchini squash in a baked dish. My husband was a chef by the way.

    I've improved. He's still a chef and no, that's not what ended our marriage.

    Hey, that right there might be the mystery ingredient. I didn't expect that I would be a single mother most of my life but I wouldn't trade any of it away.

  2. I have to admit I was only 10 years old when I threw together my most interesting ingredients. I wanted to make breakfast in bed for my parents. I recently learned to make pancakes from a cookbook, not a box mix. I searched for that "something special" to put in the pancakes. I came up with hot dogs. Yep, you heard me. Sliced hot dogs in pancakes. With maple syrup. Let's just say my parents only pretended to be impressed.

    In writing, it would have to be killing off the heroine just after the hero realized he was in love with her. (Don't get too excited. She's not really dead. She's in witness protection. He doesn't discover that part until the sequel.)

    In writing, I love surprises. In life, not so much. Thanks for sharing this post!

  3. So much easier to handle someone messing with my expectations in a book than in real life.

    I've never made any wild creations myself, but I've suffered through some. Including the "sausage pizza" we were served in Seychelles that was topped with hot dogs.

    Is it just me or does hot dogs seem to be the unofficial theme of the day? Why do they figure in so many bad recipes?!

  4. Hmm...Christine, I'm thinking hotdogs and pancakes might not be too far off from sausage and pancakes.

    I don't really use recipes. I pretty much wing everything. 90% of the time it's good. I do a lot of semi-homemade stuff.

    Early in our marriage my husband made, wait for it, "barbequed noodles." He didn't even drain the noodles. Just dumped BBQ sauce in the water. I think he did it to make sure I didn't ask him to cook. He's terrible about mixing weird things that don't go together. We all believe his mom managed to kill his tastebuds by age ten.

  5. Good post Jennifer
    I was around 10 years old when I saw a good recipe on TV and quickly jotted notes then prepared a wonderful surprise dish for my parents. When they came back they took a quick look and my mom told me that I should have cooked the eggs before mixing them with the salad :)

    Regarding your serious question, I think having Dina in my life is the best ingredient to spice and sweet every piece of it. Keep looking forward for the next mysterious meal.

  6. I like the post, Jen. It reminds me of when my girls lived at home. I taught all my kids how to read recipes by the time they were in grade school because we entered so many fairs. But then, I encouraged them to deviate from the recipes when they could, too. This was the easy part because I firmly believe in annotating my cookbooks and am always writing what worked and what didn't. In fact, I'm on my 2nd hard cover foolscap-size notebook where I write down any new recipe, where to find it (important when you have 53 cookbooks), any changes I made to the recipe, and the result.

    Both girls started their own notebooks where they jotted down their winning fair recipes and ribbons, etc. I still have Jessie's and I love looking at it. Sometimes there are drawings if she decorated a cake or cupcakes. I not only see what she wrote, but how she wrote back then. It's a treasure that I'd like to digitize before she claims it. One day I'll ask Crystal to bring hers back and do the same.

    My oddest concoction is probably what I add to my spaghetti sauce... a tbsp of sugar. I don't have any scientific proof for this, but it seems to take away that acidic flavour of the tomatoes.

    Anita Mae.

  7. Cute post, Jen!
    I can't think of too many odd combos I've made, although I'm sure there have been a few (probably involving hot dogs or ramen noodles). Most of my "winging it" meals are the ones my family likes best, and then they holler at me when I tell them I won't be able to make it again because I have no idea what I did.

    I'd have to say my mystery ingredient is my 4th kiddo. He came as a total surprise, but he completes our family and I can't imagine things without him. He's the frosting on the cake, so to speak.

  8. Dani, what a sweet comment you made. Every woman who reads it today is going "Awwwww." :+}

    It sure is fun finding out what risks y'all have taken in the kitchen.

    Christine, your mention of making your parents breakfast in bed reminded me of the "comfort" food I put together for my mom when she was sick: V-8 and Wheat Thins. She was very thankful for it at the time... now, I think she probably just didn't want to crush my enthusiastic little heart.

  9. BTW, the mystery ingredient for today's post is... my Inky sisters! Blogger was giving me fits last night and I could not get any pictures to go in. My post was done, but it was bland. Imagine my surprise today to find it all spiced up! I'm not sure who did it (although that great chef picture with my face in it makes me think it was Deb or Niki) but whoever you are, THANK YOU! It is my pleasure to cook with you.

  10. This was fun!

    We watched so many recorded episodes of Chopped last night that my husband dreamt that he was in the competition- he said that he was making brioche all night long...

    I made lamb burgers (once).

  11. There was the time in my early teens when I was trying to help out by making dinner. Chili, but we had no beans. We'd had this can of water chestnuts around for what seemed like forever so I figured, why not?

    Daddy, who ate everything I ever made without complaint, suffered through my crunchy chili. Nevermind that those canned water chestnuts were probably too old to use anyway. My siblings grumbled, but hunger won out.

    These days, I make a great chili...with beans.

    I LOVE Chopped! Fell asleep last night during the replay of the All Stars edition.

  12. Fun post, Jen. I love the idea of looking at surprises as mystery ingredients!

    Last year, I made a carrot soup recipe that called for lemon juice and milk. To save time, I combined them in advance. Now I know never to do that again, since the lemon juice curdled the milk. It was nasty.

    Live and learn. Timing counts!

    Thanks, Jen!

  13. Oh, Jen! LOL!

    I've had some kitchen doozies - still have them after being married almost thirty years. That's why most of our dinners are cooked by the Island Grill or Esteban's.

    The funniest "oops" was when I tried to make homemade spaghetti sauce for my husband. His mom is from Italy, and he misses her sauce. Well, I don't know what I did, but that spaghetti sauce was the best tasting Mexican salsa I've ever had. Unfortunately for the salsa lover in our house (me), I've never been able to recreate it. And poor hubby, he has to settle for Ragu when he wants spaghetti.

    Cute chef pic, Jen!

  14. I do have a friend who was trying to teach himself to cook. He didn't start easy. Instead he got an Emeril cookbook and went grocery shopping. Hubby and I arrived to find an... interesting meal.

    To a sort of cajun pasta dish with corn and tomato and green peppers and whatnot that went over the noodles, he was supposed to add heavy whipping cream to make a sauce. He'd bought cool-whip. And added it.

    Oh, in another or his experiments the recipe called for 3 sections of garlic. He used the whole cloves. I mean the entire head. It was extra garlicky!

  15. Oh, I love these stories. But how else do we learn without these silly mistakes?

    Christine, thank you for starting us off with hot dogs! Did anyone else have Beanie Weenie as a monthly staple on their school cafeteria menu?

    Spaghetti sauce like salsa?

    Curdled Carrot soup.

    Water Chestnut Chili.

    Good stuff ladies. Not! Thankfully we have Dani stopping in for an "awe..."moment.

  16. PS, the photo/graphics work was not me.

  17. The chef photo was not my handiwork either! Hmm... who is our mystery photoshopper?


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