Challenge Basket #1


Shake and I love watching competition cooking shows. Shows like Knife Fight and Top Chef take us 3 hours to watch because we’re always pausing it and discussing the food and chefs and Padma’s outfits. I find the shows really inspiring-if two chefs can break down and cook an alligator in an hour, I can probably throw together a decent pasta from the frozen shrimp and linguine in my pantry. Playing armchair quarterback is also fun, but Shake and I decided to challenge me by setting up our own mystery basket experiment. Shake put the basket together and I didn’t compete against anybody, but Salty helped taste and judge the dishes I made. Since it was the first time I’d ever done anything like this, Shake picked ten ingredients and gave me two hours to cook at least three dishes. I cooked five dishes in an hour and 27 minutes, and I used every ingredient at least twice except the pastry dough because I kind of forgot it until the end. Some dishes were better than others, but it was a great creative infusion and I can’t wait to try it again.

challenge basket items

Mystery Basket Items 

Newport Steaks Saucy Note: Newport steaks are individual tri-tip steaks. I’d never cooked them before, but they were easy to get right.

Boston Lettuce

Mini Naan

Artisan Garlic Salt

Cheese Curds

Boursin Cheese

Canned Artichoke Hearts

Rainbow Baby Carrots

Fresh Chives

Pillsbury Crescent Rolls

Dish #1: In-N-Out Salad

Challenge Ingredients Used: Butter Lettuce, Artichoke Hearts, Boursin, Chives, Naan, Garlic Salt

Other Ingredients: White wine vinegar, olive oil, pink salt

This dish was never intended emulate California’s most popular burger, but I somehow achieved an oddly similar taste in a vegetarian salad. To start, I finely chopped the artichoke hearts and fried them in a little olive oil until crispy over medium-high heat. While the artichoke hearts crisped, I chopped the naan into bite size pieces. When the artichokes were finished, I removed them from the pan and added the naan with a little more oil and some garlic salt. I added them to the pan in one layer, shaking them occasionally until they were toasted and crunchy like croutons.

To make a salad dressing, I combined ¼ cup each of olive oil and white wine vinegar with about a third of the Boursin cheese and a pinch of pink salt. The result was delectably creamy without being overwhelmingly rich-I’ll definitely make it again for other salads since it was so easy.

To plate the salad, I overlapped three leaves of washed Boston lettuce in a bowl. I piled the artichoke hearts and croutons in the center and drizzled the mixture and lettuce with the dressing. I topped the salad with chopped chives and garlic salt.

In-n-out salad

delicious salad

Dish #2: Newport Steak Sliders

Challenge Ingredients Used: Naan, steaks, cheese curds, Boston lettuce, carrots, Boursin

Other Ingredients: white wine vinegar, olive oil, salt

For this dish I used the naan and steaks to make tiny delicious sandwiches with a side of rainbow carrot “fries”. I think all three of us agreed it was the best dish, and it was definitely the best composed. To start, I julienned the baby carrots and put them in a pan over medium heat with a little butter. To cook the steaks, I rubbed one of the steaks with olive oil and salt. I seared it on both sides in a hot griddle pan-I flipped it once the meat easily released from the pan. I finished the meat in the oven under high-broil for about 2 minutes, and then let it rest while I arranged the rest of the slider. I sliced the naan into square “buns” and spread each with a small amount of the dressing from the salad. Then I thin-sliced a few cheese curds and melted them on the buns under the broiler for about 30 seconds. I also sliced the steak very thin and piled it on half the buns. I topped the sliders with a small piece of Boston lettuce and another piece of bun.

Newport steak cooking

newport steak

newport steak sliders with carrot fries

Dish #3: Artichoke Cheese Dip

Challenge Ingredients Used: Naan, cheese curds, Boursin, artichoke hearts

Other Ingredients: salt 

Artichoke dip is a thing I make all the time anyway, so I tried using the Boursin and cheese curds to make some. I cut the naan into strips for dipping and toasted them while the cheese melted with the artichoke hearts in the oven. This was not my favorite preparation, but the Boursin is a good component and the naan is an excellent vessel for melty cheese (I can see why chefs on TV struggle to balance good overall taste while still highlighting special ingredients – even with something as seemingly simple as cheese) . In the future I would add a little crème fraiche or mayo to up the creaminess, as well as some mustard, lemon, or other acidic element.

artichoke dip

Dish #4: Steak Roll-Ups

Challenge Ingredients Used: Crescent rolls, steaks, cheese curds, Boursin

Other Ingredients: white wine vinegar, olive oil, salt

This dish could have been better, I’m just going to say that up front. I used to love Pillsbury rolls as a kid, but as with many of our favorite junk foods, they just don’t taste quite as good anymore. I rolled the crescent rolls around strips of beef, chopped cheese curds, and the Boursin dressing, and then baked them for about 8 minutes in a 400° oven. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with them, I just felt uninspired by the dish as a whole.

pastry dough

tri-tip roll ups

Dish #5: Tri-Tip Dinner

Challenge Ingredients Used: Naan, steaks, carrots, garlic salt

Other Ingredients: chicken broth, sherry

I ended this little culinary experiment with dinner for Salty and Shake, since that seemed like the nice thing to do after they helped me with this fun challenge project. Since we had been snacking for a little while, it was on the lighter side, but I came up with a really yummy carrot pan sauce that I will definitely make again. I cut the carrots into ½ inch pieces while I melted butter in a large sauté pan. When the butter was foaming, I added the carrots to the pan and sautéed them until the butter had cooked down and the pan was almost dry. I deglazed the pan with a splash of sherry, and then added about a cup of chicken broth and gently boiled them, uncovered, until the sauce was reduced and the carrots were tender. The flavor was surprisingly deep for such a simple combination of ingredients. I poured a spoonful of the carrots over each steak and served it with a side of naan and garlic salted butter.

tri-tip dinner

Challenge Conclusion

 I’m so excited to try doing a challenge basket again. Shake made me a pretty easy one and gave me extra time for the first round, but from now on it will be more difficult. Required ingredients can be surprisingly uninspiring, but overcoming that tedium and making something awesome is very fulfilling.

Simple Gravy


I make gravy all the time, sometimes with more success than others. This particular attempt turned out quite well, and kept in the fridge for several days, so it seemed right to share it with you-not to mention it only took about 15 minutes, and was very easy to make. Try it on the potato croquettes-so good.


Makes about 1 cup

32 oz. low-sodium chicken broth

1-2 chicken necks Saucy Note: I happened to be smoking two chickens at the same time as this recipe, so the chicken necks were really an effort in not wasting things. One neck will suffice, or use frozen ones that you saved.

1 oz. salted pork belly, cubed Saucy Note: Pork belly is something I always keep on hand, because its cheap, flavorful, and more versatile than bacon. I buy it by the pound, use what I need, and then cube and freeze the rest for future recipes. Throw a cube in simmering soup or use to sauté some vegetables and you’ll soon do the same.

1 bay leaf

¼ cup sherry

1 tbsp. butter

1 tbsp. flour


Set a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add pork belly and cook until the fats start to render. Add chicken necks to fat, skin side down, and sear until deep brown, repeating on each side. Continue stirring the pork belly so it does not burn.

When the chicken is well seared, deglaze the pan with the sherry (please keep hands, face, and any other sensitive exposed bits away from the steam). Add the chicken broth and bay leaf and bring to a low boil-reduce it at this temperature. Remove the bay leaf halfway through the reduction.

While the sauce reduces, make a roux. I know the minute a fancy French food word gets thrown out there half of you start running scared, but stick with me. This is easy, and worth mastering. Just make sure you have a couple minutes to give it undivided attention.

Melt the butter in a small, heavy bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat-I like to use my 1½ quart enameled cast iron for even heat. When the butter is melted, add the flour and begin stirring constantly. The butter will foam initially, and then the two ingredients will begin to form a smooth paste. Continue stirring, being careful not to burn the flour-use your nose and eyes, since smell is one of the easiest ways to judge the character of a roux. Stir slowly but constantly, reducing the heat if the mixture is getting to hot-I usually pick the pot off the stove instead of adjusting the burner, since it gives you quicker, more fluid control. Cook until the mixture takes on a pale golden color and the flour no longer smells raw, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, continuing to stir for a few seconds before setting aside. I’ve found that you can cheat your way to a darker, richer roux if you leave it in the cooled-but-still-hot pan for a few minutes while the gravy finishes reducing. Just be careful its not too hot to burn when you set it aside.

When the liquid in the pan is reduced to about 1 cup, turn off heat and remove solids. Add roux, stirring gently to incorporate. Serve immediately, or cover and set aside to keep warm. I didn’t need to add salt because of the pork belly, but add salt and pepper to taste if necessary.

Coconut Lime Risotto

coconut lime risotto

I needed a side dish for pulled pork the other night, so I went prowling through my pantry for potential treasures. I wanted to make rice, but I only had sushi rice and Arborio, which is commonly used for risotto. I had plenty of time and six people to impress if I pulled it off, so I figured it was worth a shot. However, shortly after committing to this risotto plan I realized I only had 3 cups of chicken broth. My solution was to supplement with coconut milk and water, and I was quite pleased with the result. A splash of fresh lime at the end makes for a bright, creamy, and surprisingly easy dish that I can’t wait to make again.


Serves 6-8 

2 cups Arborio rice

3 cups chicken broth

4 cups water

½ cup gold rum

1 can coconut milk

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 tbsp. butter

¼ lime, juiced



Combine the coconut milk, water, and chicken broth in a medium saucepan or stockpot. Cover and heat gently-this is the cooking liquid you add to the risotto, so you want it to incorporate well.


Once the cooking liquid is warm, add 2 tbsp. olive oil to a sauté pan or high-sided skillet. Heat over medium heat, and then add the rice, stirring immediately to cover with oil. Stir until rice is slightly toasted and turns a pale golden color. Immediately add all of the rum, and stir until completely absorbed (the stirring part doesn’t end, so get used to it).

When the alcohol is absorbed, add about ½ cup of cooking liquid to the pan, stirring constantly. I like to use a small plastic ladle, since it makes for easy transfer from pan to pan. Continue stirring until the liquid is almost completely absorbed (the rice shouldn’t dry out, but shouldn’t have the slightest soupiness either) and then add another ½ cup of liquid. The liquid should boil every time it hits the pan, but stop when you start stirring it into the rice. Use that to guide your temperature. Liquid, stir, repeat. Go.

toasting rice

Saucy Note: Risotto is laborious and time-consuming, so only make it if you have the time and attention span. Keep a close eye on the rice, since dry spots can start to form if your mixing technique is not thorough. If that happens, add more liquid and breaking and folding the dry section into other, moister parts. It also will take forever to cook if your heat is too low, but too much heat evaporates the liquid before it has a chance to absorb. You have to know your stove and equipment well to achieve good results.

After about 20 minutes of adding liquid and constantly stirring, the risotto should be breaking down and getting creamy. Continue adding liquid and stirring until the rice is completely tender, 10-15 minutes more. The best way to test risotto is to try a piece of rice-if its chewy, crunchy, or anything besides soft and creamy, its not done. You also should not stop until all your cooking liquid is gone, as the added moisture will only improve it.

When the risotto is creamy and cooked-through, remove rice from heat and add the butter and lime juice. Salt to taste, and serve immediately.

coconut lime risotto

Easy Tomato Sauce

easy tomato sauce

This is the kind of sauce I whip up when I need something quick for a simple pasta or homemade pizza. The ingredients are simple and easy to keep on hand, and once you’ve made it a couple times it becomes second nature-you’ll give up on jarred sauces very quickly.


Yields about 1½ cups of sauce

 1 can (15oz) tomato sauce

3 tbsp. olive oil

4-5 cloves garlic, pressed


2 large fresh basil leaves, shredded Saucy Note: Basil helps brighten the sauce up, but it can be dried or omitted if you don’t have any fresh.

1 tsp. red wine vinegar (balsamic works as a substitute, but I personally find it a little sweet)

½ tbsp. Taste #5 Umami Bomb Original Tomato Paste Saucy Note: If you do not possess this magical secret ingredient, subsititute by mixing 1 tbsp. tomato paste with ½ tsp. garlic powder, ½ tsp. onion powder, and ¼ tsp. salt. 


Pour the olive oil into a cold, medium sized nonstick saucepan. Use a garlic press to crush the cloves into the pan, and then turn the heat on to medium-low. Cook slowly until garlic starts to sizzle and become fragrant. Begin stirring constantly to keep garlic from burning, until it reaches a light golden brown. Add the vinegar and cook for a few seconds more, and then add the tomato sauce. Add the tomato paste, and stir to incorporate. Stir occasionally until the mixture starts to bubble, and then stir continuously for 1 minute more. Remove from heat and stir in shredded basil. Cover for 3 minutes. Salt to taste.



diced basil

Classic Mashed Potatoes


Mashed potatoes are wonderful. Even the pickiest eaters like them, they’re easy to make, and the leftovers provide all sorts of bountiful options, like my potato croquettes. Ultimately I believe a well mashed potato needs nothing more than butter and salt, but there is nothing wrong with a few helper ingredients either. Whether you choose to go simple or dress them up a little, the trick is getting the potatoes cooked quickly and consistently, and the following technique is the best I’ve found so far.


Serves 8-10, or 3-4 with enough leftovers for croquettes or other delights

3 large Russet potatoes, scrubbed, peeled, and evenly diced

1 stick butter, cut into 1 inch pieces

¼ cup crème fraiche

¼ cup whipped cream cheese Saucy Note: Regular cream cheese is fine too, but it will incorporate better if you soften it in the microwave first.


Garlic powder

2 tbsp. Dijon mustard


Scrub and peel the potatoes. Dice the potatoes into ½ inch cubes. Prepping the potatoes this way helps them cook evenly and in much less time than a whole potato, and helps prevent lumps when mashing.

Put the potatoes in a large stockpot or saucepan. Cover with 2 inches of water and add 1 tbsp. salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, and turn it down slightly once the water is rapidly boiling. Boil until potatoes are tender when pierced with a skewer, about 15-20 minutes.

potatoes cooking

Drain potatoes gently into a colander. Return pot to stove and add butter pieces. If using a ricer to mash, process the potatoes back into the pan. My preferred method is the mashed potato attachment on my KitchenAid immersion blender, but not everybody likes kitchen gadgets like I do. A regular old-fashioned masher will also do the trick, since the potatoes are already diced small.

When the potatoes are halfway mashed, add the remaining ingredients. Taste one potato unseasoned to determine how much salt is needed-sometimes the salty water is enough. Continue mashing to incorporate the rest of the ingredients until the potatoes are smooth, but try not to over-stir or they will get gluey. Serve hot, keeping warm in a crockpot if necessary.


Meal Plan: Sunday Fry-Up

sunday fry up

A friend from the Commonwealth was in town last weekend, so we decided to do a classic Sunday fry-up for everyone to recover from the festivities of the visit. I’d planned ahead, so I had leftover mashed potatoes and gravy from earlier in the week. All we had to do was smoke bangers, and I fried the potatoes into delicious little croquettes. Steam some frozen peas and serve with a hot loaf of bread, and any Irish grandmother would be proud.


Serves 6-8, with extra for hungry people

10 English-style bangers

2 cups cold mashed potatoes Saucy Note: Leftover mashed potatoes are best for this recipe because they are easier to form into balls. They also get more flavorful as they sit if you put garlic or other herbs in. 

1 raw egg

1-cup flour

1½ cups panko breading

1-cup gravy

4-5 slices bacon, diced

1 bag frozen peas

1 loaf crusty bread

Optional: Fried eggs are also usually part of a breakfast like this, but I was out from making deviled eggs the night before. A gooey yolk really helps fill the overindulgence gap between smoked sausage and fried potatoes though, not to mention you should take every opportunity to eat fried eggs with gravy on them.

            I never claimed this was healthy.


If serving bread, preheat the oven.

Grill or smoke the sausages. Pan cooked is fine, but grilling is superior for reasons I shouldn’t have to explain. Fresh air is good for you anyway. Put somebody you trust in charge of cooking the sausages, or just yell at the nearest person to turn them every 8-10 minutes until they’re done. To smoke them, I set the smoker to 350° and cook them for about 30 minutes. They take about the same amount of time on a medium-low grill, turning every 8-10 minutes. Cooking them over too high of a heat will cause them to burst and dry out, so make sure to take your time with them.

Smoking sausages

While the sausages cook, prepare the potato croquettes according to the instructions here. Don’t cook them until the sausages are almost done though.

Have you checked on your sausages? Go! Or yell!

Put the bread in the oven about ten minutes before the sausages are done. Warm the gravy if not making fresh.

Cook the peas in the microwave while you cook the croquettes. They should take about the same amount of time, and as long as the sausages are ready, the meal will be ready to serve when the potatoes are. Serve a banger alongside a couple croquettes and some peas, then top everything with bacon crumbles and a drizzle of gravy. Serve with mustard and hot bread, along with the remaining gravy.

sunday fry up

Marion-Blackberry Campfire Cobbler

campfire cobbler

Summer is coming, which means outdoor cooking is about to get awesome. We smoke and grill all year round, but I especially love campfire cooking, which just isn’t as fun when it’s freezing cold outside. Yesterday it was actually slightly warm, so we burned a big pile of yard debris (yay pine trees in wind storms), which resulted in a mountain of glowing embers perfect for making Salty’s favorite cobbler, a throwback from his Boy Scout days. You can also make this recipe in the oven if open fires aren’t an option where you live, but there is something extra satisfying about burying a big Dutch oven in glowing coals if you get the chance. Experiment with different fruit combos too-Salty’s favorite is canned peaches, which are also easy to transport for actual camping.


Serves 6-8

Special Equipment: Camping Dutch oven (non-enameled, with a lipped lid to hold coals and a handle for removing it from the fire), or a regular enameled Dutch oven if using a conventional oven.

2-3 cups fresh, frozen, or canned fruit

Saucy Note: If you’re using fresh or frozen berries (thaw them first), macerate them with sugar before adding them to the cobbler. Simply spread the fruit out on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with 1-2 tbsp. sugar (tart berries need more sugar, so use your best judgment.) Let the berries sit with the sugar on them for 30 minutes, and then mash slightly with a fork or spoon. If using canned fruit, like peaches, one large (15.9oz) can with syrup is all you need, and then all you have to do is dump the ingredients together.

1 box white cake mix


Build a campfire (or set your oven to 325°F). The cobbler needs about an hour of cooking time, so the fire needs to be big and sustainable enough to keep hot embers around the Dutch oven, but not so hot as to torch the cobbler. There also needs to be enough coals to mound around the sides and on top of the oven, so plan on having the fire going several hours before starting to cook. Invite your best pyro friends over and grill dinner outside and you’ll have no trouble achieving this task.

Macerate the fruit, if using berries (see note above). Line the Dutch oven with foil-the fruit can get really baked on if it leaks, so do a good job with this part. Grill foil can really come in handy, since it is wider than normal, or you can buy Dutch oven liners that are a single piece and make cleaning up super easy.

berries in sugar

dutch oven covered in foil

Pour fruit into the Dutch oven first, then sprinkle the powdered cake mix on in an even layer. Cover the Dutch oven with its lid, and make sure the foil is not interfering with the seal-you don’t want to get ash in your cobbler.

ready for the fire

Create a well of hot coals at the edge of your campfire. It should be hot enough that you can’t hold your hand over it for more than 5 seconds. Place the oven in the well and gently push the coals up around the edges, as well as mounding an even layer on top of the lid. Maintain as constant of a temperature as you can-don’t move too many coals around, keep an eye out for sections that look like they’re getting cold, and be very patient-opening it early will not help anything. The best indicator of doneness will be the smell of caramelized sugar-you’ll start to notice the smell about 5-10 minutes before its done, and it will continue to deepen as it gets closer. The overall cooking time should be between 45-60 minutes depending on your fire temp, so if you start to smell caramelizing before at least 40 minutes of cook time your fire is too hot.

cooking in the fire

Once the smells of hot sugar have developed, carefully brush off the top coals and expose the sides enough that ash won’t fall in when you remove the lid. If finished, the cobbler should look crackly and golden brown. Replace the lid to protect it when removing it from the fire. If it needs more time, replace the lid and mound more coals on top for another 10-15 minutes.

Serve immediately in small bowls (or camping mugs if you’re actually roughing it). A little ice cream is great on top if you are enjoying the wonders of electricity.

Caviar Deviled Eggs

caviar deviled eggs

Devilled eggs are always delectable, but you can really dress them up for a fancy dinner or indulgent snack with a few simple but luxurious tweaks. Caviar is a bit of a pricey garnish, but 1 oz. will serve 6-8 people, so a little goes a long way, and your guests will love you. I believe any dinner shared with friends is a special occasion, so make an excuse for yours to bring over some bottles of bubbly and relax.


Serves 6-8 as an appetizer

12 eggs

¼ white vinegar

⅓ cup crème fraiche Saucy Note: The crème fraiche is what really sets these eggs apart from the classic variety. Crème fraiche is much lighter and more sour tasting than mayo, so the brininess of the caviar really shines.

1 tbsp. mayonnaise

½ teaspoon salt

2 tbsp. Dijon mustard

1 oz. caviar


 Place eggs in a saucepan large enough to comfortably hold all the eggs in a single layer. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the eggs by 1 inch. Add the white vinegar and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water boils, turn off the heat and start a timer for 15 minutes. Prepare an ice bath. After 15 minutes, immediately shock the eggs in the ice water. Let them sit for at least 5 minutes before peeling.

peeled eggs

Peel the eggs, being as careful as possible to keep the whites intact. Slice each egg in half and gently remove the cooked yolk to a separate bowl. Arrange the whites on a serving platter.

Combine crème fraiche, mustard, salt, and mayo. Mix until thoroughly combined and smooth, adding extra sauces as necessary if the yolks are too predominant. Make sure there are no lumps, since they make piping the filling into the whites very difficult.

yolk mixture

yolk mixture

Transfer the yolk mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a small decorative tip, or cut a small hole in the corner of a resealable plastic bag. Gently squeeze about a tablespoon of filling into each white, so that the mixture mounds out of the top and fills to the edges of the hollow. Garnish the eggs with a small dollop of caviar, or use a caviar serving set to allow people to garnish their own eggs.

piping yolk mixture

caviar deviled eggs

Potato Croquettes

potato croquettes


Serves 4-6

2 cups cold mashed potatoes

4-5 slices bacon, diced

Optional: Gravy or ketchup to serve. 


Wearing gloves, form small balls of mashed potato, about the size of a Ping-Pong ball. Flatten the croquettes slightly between your hands and place on a plate. When all of the mashed taters are ready, arrange your workspace. You need five plates total-one with the taters, precious, one each for flour, egg, and panko breading, and one for the finished croquettes. Crack the raw egg into a small bowl and beat before pouring onto the plate. Spread the flour and panko evenly on their respective plates as well.

croquette work area

Take a ball in each hand (you can do them one at a time, but it’ll go faster if you have the necessary coordination. No judgment if you don’t) and roll lightly in the flour, egg, and panko, in that order. Place on the clean plate and repeat until all the balls are coated with panko.

croquette in flour

Fry the diced bacon in your largest nonstick skillet until crispy. Remove the bacon but leave the grease in the pan. You need at least 3 tbsp. of fat, so add ghee or olive oil if there is not enough.

Reheat bacon grease over medium-high heat. It will still be pretty hot, so it should not take long. Make sure the pan is evenly coated with oil, and then quickly arrange all the croquettes in the pan so they are not touching (do two batches if your pan can’t fit them all). Fry until golden brown on top and bottom, about 3-5 minutes. Make sure to flip them every couple minutes so they don’t burn, and turn the heat down if they’re getting too dark-you want the centers to be nice and hot, so they have to stay in the pan long enough.

frying croquettes

Top with bacon bits and serve with gravy or ketchup.

potato croquettes

Saucy Madam

The saucy madam

This is the perfect drink for these early season sunny days filled with outdoor chores and spring cleaning. Basil is a wonderful aromatic and herbaceous element to keep your nose engaged just as much as your taste buds!


Equipment: muddler, shaker, strainer, champagne flute

1½ oz Lillet Blanc

¾ oz fresh lemon juice

4 basil leaves, plus 1 leaf for garnish

Sparkling wine


Combine basil leaves and fresh lemon in shaker tin. Muddle gently, and then top with Lillet Blanc. Shake for 20 seconds and strain into champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine and garnish with a basil leaf. Cheers!

the saucy madam

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