It’s Thanksgiving week on Top Chef, and I feel like the season has finally found its groove. For the elimination challenge all of the contestants had to make a Thanksgiving dish that was reminiscent of what the pilgrims ate on the first Thanksgiving. Instead of the traditional fare we usually think of, the contestants had available ingredients like lobster, butternut squash, duck fat, and a goose. They also had to use the same cooking equipment that was available to the pilgrims. And the results were…tasty! The Judges declared that every dish on the table was strong, however, they gave Katsuji the win with his roasted butternut squash stuffing and lobster offering. So for this week, I will be attempting my own version of Katsuji’s winning dish.
When I saw some of the ingredients the chefs were working with this week- rabbit, a goose- I was worried that I was in for another long week of searching all over town for ingredients. Instead I had the surprise pleasure of finding everything I needed at one grocery store. Including lobster tail and chestnuts. My only excitement was when three different people had to hunt down the sale code for “chestnuts” because apparently, their shoppers have no holiday spirit and do not buy festive nuts. Not a lot of open fire nut roasting happening in Las Vegas.
Usually when I take on a Top Chef dish, I look at several different recipes to get any idea of how I want to make my own. This week, Bravo actually posted “Katsuji’s recipe” on their website. I use quotation marks because, there is something about it that seems like a major piece of the puzzle is missing. Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, I used it as a jumping off point to create something original to call my own.
One thing that bothered me about Katsuji’s recipe was everyone referred to the dish as “stuffing” even though it didn’t contain a bread product. To me, you can’t really call something “stuffing” if it doesn’t include bread. On the show, Katie made a blueberry cornbread stuffing, that I thought sounded gross, but the Judge’s were impressed. It did remind me that cornbread is amazing, and also that I had ground cornmeal in my pantry. An idea for butternut squash and cornbread stuffing was born.
I make cornbread on occasion, and always end up using a different recipe. For my stuffing, I wanted a basic, no frills, cornbread, and found a recipe from Taste of Home. I more or less followed the instructions to the letter, except that I used Almond milk instead of cow’s milk, and substituted 3 teaspoons of baking soda in the place of baking powder.
I don’t bake a lot, but when I do I’m always reminded of how fun it is. It’s fascinating to me that you can throw butter and sugar into a bowl, and it starts out as two completely separate things. And then with a little mashing, you have a clumpy mess that looks totally unappealing. But if you keep mashing, and whipping, and working on it, you eventually get a substance that is creamy and smooth. It seems like such a magical process. I also love gradually incorporating dry ingredients with wet ingredients; I find it satisfying to watch the batter come together and transform into the substance you need it to be. Plus, if you are like me and can’t be bothered to get a cheap electric mixer, it is a great upper body workout.
I made my cornbread early in the day, so that it had time to cool completely (and so I could taste test it…can’t have insufficient cornbread). Luckily, the cornbread came out light and fluffy. And by the time I was ready to start dinner, I had an actual plan in place for how I was going to modify Bravo.com’s bare bones squash stuffing recipe.
First, I preheated my oven to 350 degrees, and prepared my chestnuts. Have you ever had a chestnut? I hadn’t. I had to look up what to do with them, because I had no idea. As it turns out, chestnuts have a tough, protective skin around them, and cannot be consumed without first being boiled or roasted. Prior to roasting your nuts, you have to carve tiny X’s into the skin to prevent a nut explosion from happening in your oven. It is kind of like scoring a duck. If you have a lot of nuts, it get’s tedious pretty fast. After you get through the hassle of scoring your chestnuts, and roasting them in the oven for 35 minutes, you then have to let them cool, and then you have to crack them out of their shell. If they are done, you should be able to pinch the sides of the nut, and it will neatly split open at the place you cut your incision. If it isn’t done, you will probably have to pry the shell from the nut, and cut up your fingers in the process. Once your chestnut is free from its protective shell, eat away.
The process is a lot of freaking work to eat nuts but it is totally worth it. As it turns out…chestnuts are amazing! I can’t understand why I have never had one of these little goodies before. Once you finally get to the center, you have a little, perfect nugget of nutty goodness. It’s meaty, and sweet, and chewy….I’m not a huge nut lover, but YUM. Chestnuts have a new number one fan.
Anyway, I roasted my chestnuts, and threw an Anaheim pepper in with them halfway through the roasting process. Once my nuts and pepper were done, I replaced them with a butternut squash, which I wanted to partially cook for about 15 minutes. While my squash was in the oven, I cracked open all of my nuts, and placed them in a bowl (I probably had 15-20 chestnuts all together). I pulled my cornbread from the fridge and crumbled around 2 cups worth into the bowl. I also peeled, seeded and diced my chili then set it aside to use later. And then brilliance really struck me, and I decided that bacon is an amazing accompaniment to both chilies, and nuts, and cornbread (and most other things). So I diced up some bacon, sauteed it, and added that to my big bowl of goodness as well.
Once my butternut squash had cooked just long enough to make cutting through it easier, I took it out of the oven and diced it up. I put my squash into the bowl with everything else and set it aside.
Then I started my version of my stuffing sauce. I gradually melted about a cup of butter on super low heat in a small sauce pan, adding a tablespoon at a time. While my butter melted, I added in my minced chilis, three cloves of minced garlic, and half a cup of apple cider vinegar. Once the butter was melted, I was satisfied with the combination of acid from the vinegar and heat from the chili. I transferred my mixture of cornbread, squash, bacon and chestnuts from the bowl to a 13×9 baking pan, and then mixed the butter sauce into the dish until everything was wet. I then placed the baking pan into the oven to cook for about 30 minutes.
My final step to figure out while my stuffing was in the oven, was the lobster tails. Having never cooked with lobster, there were a few things I needed to figure out. Like how to remove the tail meat from the extremely tough shell.
After consulting several different websites, and finding not totally consistent answers, I decided to lightly steam my lobster tails for a few minutes, before cutting the meat out of the shell.
This method worked fairly painlessly. A few minutes of steaming was enough to make the meat easier to detach, but not enough to cook my lobster through. Starting from the back, I cut my shell down the center, and was then able to fairly easily crack the shell open, and remove the top and underside shell, leaving just the tail meat.
Finally, I was ready to poach. So. Much. Butter. I melted another half cup on very low eat into a sauce pan. Once all of the butter was melted, I poached my tails, about 3 and a half minutes per side, keeping the heat on low the entire time.
Once my stuffing and lobster were ready, I scooped out a spoonful of stuffing, and topped it with a lobster tail. I drizzled a little bit of the leftover butter on top, and ta da! A traditional meal eaten by pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving. Probably.
And just like the Top Chef’s Boston cast, I feel like my cooking is starting to come around. The heat from the roasted chili and the saltiness of the bacon was a great compliment to the cornbread. The squash was tender, and the chestnuts gave a great chewy quality to the dish. Plus, topping anything with lobster makes it better. Total winner. I would consider bringing the stuffing to a Thanksgiving potluck any day.