As far as cooking shows go, Top Chef is by far my favorite. Each season, it seems like the caliber of contestant talent gets more impressive. I also love the inventiveness that is showcased on the show, the expertise that Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio bring to the Judge’s Table, and seeing a new city’s culinary culture featured each week. But I have always felt intimidated by the dishes the cheftestants make, like they are too complicated to recreate. Probably because these are chefs trained at fancy culinary schools and under some of the most well known chefs in the world. But when I really think about it, I shouldn’t be. A lot of the cuisine made on the show is prepared in a few hours, for a few hundred people. Tom Colicchio frequently talks about the importance of keeping food simple, and using a few quality ingredients to highlight flavor. I mean, the chefs all shop at Whole Foods. I should have just as much access to the products they are using, so why can’t I make those same dishes?
So that is what I am going to do. Every week, after watching the show, I am going to pick one dish that someone has made, and make that dish myself. In week one, as I was watching the show, I felt myself gravitate towards two dishes. Mei’s congee with caramelized pork, and Gregory’s Haitian stewed chicken with fried bananas. Mei’s dish won, and sounded delicious. I’m going to come back to that one, but for my first dish, I decided to start with Gregory’s runner up dish.
I don’t own any Haitian cookbooks, and have never made a Haitian inspired recipe, so I turned to Google for help. After searching my options I decided to use Saveur’s Haitian Stewed Chicken recipe as my guide, and immediately learned that proper french name for the dish is Poulet Creole. Good to know.
Breaking down chicken and choosing the right hot chili
My recipe suggested buying a whole chicken and cutting it into 8 pieces. I seriously considered going the lazy route and just buying chicken thighs, but 1) I need to practice breaking down a chicken, and 2) I need to make another batch of chicken stock, so I needed the bones. Since I’m only cooking for two people and my chicken was on the smaller side, I only cut mine into 6 pieces- 2 wings, 2 breasts, and 2 leg/thighs. I think I did a pretty good job, considering how extraordinarily dully my knives are.
For my marinade, I must say I chickened out (ha!) a little bit on the spice. In the show, Gregory made a huge deal out of the fact he was using a Scotch bonnet chili pepper. Without ever having tasted one, it was made clear that this pepper is hot, hot hot! Saveur’s recipe also calls for a Scotch bonnet, but while my husband loves spice, I was concerned about making my first dish inedible. The situation worked itself out when I got to the grocery store and my chili pepper options were ghost peppers (eek!), a nefarious pepper assortment called a Scorpion Mix (um, no), or a yellow hot pepper. I went with the yellow hot. To give you an idea of how this might change the dish, a Scotch bonnet pepper scores between 100,000-325,000 units on the Scoville Heat Scale. It is comparable to a habanero. A hot wax pepper scores between 5,000-10,000 units, and is comparable to a chipoltle pepper. So, yes, my marinade was pretty wimpy in terms of heat.
While my chicken chilled in the fridge, I sliced up my bell peppers and onions. So pretty!
I also read a raging discussion in the comments section of my recipe on whether or not lime should be included in this dish. Apparently, lime had been accidentally included in the original recipe, and then deleted. Several commenters passionately argued that lime is a necessary part of the dish. I had already been to the store and hadn’t bought limes. After great debate in my head, I decided a different acid is better than no acid at all, and juiced the lemons in my fridge that were going to go bad any day. Since my juice didn’t make it into the marinade, I decided to throw it into the stew pot in the final step.
Finally, it was time to get this chicken cookin. I scraped off my marinade as instructed and browned up my chicken. Once it had some good color, I scooped it all out, put it to the side, and threw in my veggies.
Once everything was all softened up, I threw in the browned chicken, not-so-spicy-marinade, and the lemon juice. I also substituted a cup of vegetable stock in place of a cup of water. Once I pushed the chicken around a little with a wooden spoon to make sure that all of the pieces were partially submerged in liquid, it was ready to be left alone to do its thing.
Peeling a plantain is not like peeling a banana
On Top Chef, the Judges described Gregory’s combination of fried bananas and spicy chicken as “funky,” “something you either love or hate,” and Padma specifically said “that dish was so close to me hating it…it was right on the verge.” He managed to pull it off, but I really didn’t want my first attempt to be a disaster, and I’m not crazy about bananas anyway, so I decided to fry plantains instead. Except, I’ve never actually cooked plantains. I’ve probably only eaten plantains a few times in my life. So, there was a little bit of a learning curve involved in this process.
One, I’m still not sure if my plantains were ripe or not. I always thought plantains were supposed to be totally black before you ate them. Two different internet sites told me that plantains were best fried when they were a dull yellow color with a few black spots. All of the plantains at the grocery store looked exactly alike, and I needed them within a few hours, so I had to work with what I had. Could they have gotten riper? I have no idea.
The second thing I learned is, you do not peel plantains the same way you peel a banana! I always thought plantains were sort of the banana’s crazy cousin, but peeling one is a whole different experience. The peel is stuck tight, and it takes a little effort to get it off. Again, after consulting Google, I learned that the proper way is to cut off both ends, make a slit down the length of the plantain, and then peel off the skin. I had to dig in with my finger a little bit to get the peel going, but by the third plantain I had the hang of it. I had to cut off quite a bit of peel on the first two, and by the third, I was less scared of damaging the plantain and was a little more firm pulling it off. Don’t be afraid to dig in there- plantains are apparently pretty sturdy.
From there it was pretty easy. I cut my plantains into rounds and fried them up. The recipes I looked at recommended 1 to 2 minutes per side. I’m not sure where I went awry, but I found mine took more like 5 minutes a side to really brown up. Again, maybe not quite ripe enough?
In the end they came out just fine. I do wish I had seasoned them with something. Salt and pepper at least. I think a coating of brown sugar and cinnamon might have been really good, and contrasted with the (sort of) spicy chicken. Oh well. Next time.
The last step in recreating Gregory’s Top Chef dish was to add the spicy relish component. Gregory made a relish out of- what else- Scotch bonnets. I happened to have a batch of chow chow in my freezer. If you have never tried chow chow, I highly recommend it. It is a relish made out of a combination of cabbage, sweet and hot peppers, that is cooked down with vinegar. It’s popular in the South and used on everything from pinto beans to collard greens. I made my batch after reading Secrets of the Best Chefs by Adam Roberts. This is one of my favorite cookbooks because every chapter features recipes from a different well-known chef, and the book covers an array of culinary styles and cuisines. The chow chow recipe comes from Angelish Wilson, owner of Soul Food in Athens, Georgia. Check out the book. And try some chow chow. It is awesome.
Not exactly the authentic Haitian relish Gregory made, but I think it is in the same spirit. And I needed to use it up anyway.
Yum, yum, yum. Finally time to put everything together. I plated a breast and a wing, covered it with some sauce, making sure to include the peppers and onions. I added some plantains, and topped the whole thing with chow chow relish.
My final thoughts? This dish is super easy to make, and was a great choice for me to take on in my first week of trying to (sort of) copy a Top Chef. Next time, I might try a hotter pepper and gradually add it to the marinade, to avoid making it too hot. I also might give the fried bananas a go next time as well. It worked for Gregory, right?