Culinary mind freeze stalks us all. One day you realize that for weeks you have had the same takeout salad with the same dressing for lunch, and the same boneless, skinless chicken breast with balsamic vinegar for supper. You're in a food rut. I know, I've been there.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You've got all of those chefs on "Chopped" who are inspiring you, but a lot of us get in a rut. What are some of the ways to get out of that rut?
Ted Allen: I think that's a common problem. Every night I turn to my partner, Barry, and I say, "Hey, what do you want for dinner?" Of course he never has any ideas. I don't think anyone does when you put them on the spot. We all have to find inspiration somewhere.
Sometimes for me, it can be a tool in the kitchen. I can spy my melon baller and think, "Oh, yeah, let's do something with melon!" But you're right, the search for inspiration is a big part of the problem of the home cook.
LRK: Where are some of the specific places you like to go for inspiration? What are some of your favorite sites?
TA: There are so many. I love a blog by my friend Liza Shoenfein called Life, Death & Dinner. Liza is a home cook, but she used to be an editor at Saveur. She has been in the food world forever. It's very personal; she does the photography herself, she tells stories about her family, her sons and her husband.
I have a challenge that I want to throw down, if I may. You're in a rut -- you're cooking the same chicken breast every day, you're tired of broccoli. One thing that I like to do: I go to the grocery store, maybe go to a different store, particularly an ethnic market. I especially love Asian markets because I like to look for things I've never seen before. When you grow up in Indiana and you go to an Asian market in New York City, you're going to see things and not know what they are.
Here's the challenge: Pick a vegetable that you think you hate, or that you do hate, and try to conquer it. I did that with beets. I like the taste of red beets, but I find the color a little bit off-putting. Then I discovered golden beets. If you can find golden beets, I think you've overcome the thing that so many adults and children find off-putting about that wonderful, sweet vegetable.
Then do something different to them: pickle them, roast them. Sunset magazine gave me a recipe for roasting beets in a salt crust: You leave the skin on, you mix egg whites together with kosher salt and you pack that around the beets. It entombs the beets inside this crust and they just roast in the juices. It's a fabulous thing.
LRK: You say you look at restaurant menus online for ideas. I had never thought of that.
TA: I have the privilege of talking about food all day with people like Alex Guarnaschelli, Scott Conant, and Amanda Freitag, our judges on "Chopped." Their lives are about innovating in food. They need to come up with -- and people say there are no new ideas -- newish ideas for ways to dazzle their customers.
I was looking at the menu for the restaurant Prune in New York City, Gabrielle Hamilton's wonderful restaurant. She had a menu item that was a sandwich with fried chicken livers on it and bananas. And there was something else interesting on it: mustard. I thought, "That is something I have never seen." When you are in a rut, where better to turn than to the people who are innovating this way?
I had a barbecue for “Chopped” judges at my house, which is a brilliant thing to do because when you invite chefs over, they come with food in enormous quantities usually. One of the other judges, Geoffrey Zakarian, who is a wonderful chef, came over with a salad that is just mind-blowing to me. This was at the peak of summer, so we can't make it yet. It was white peaches and heirloom tomatoes topped with this luxurious Italian soft cheese called Stracciatella, which is like a very soft burrata that has cream added to it so it's impossibly decadent, drizzled with a balsamic vinegar. Peaches and tomatoes: they're both sweet, they're both juicy, they're strikingly more similar than you might think in their flavor profile. They go together in a way that's wonderful.
I came up with a bruschetta recipe that marries tomatoes and strawberries. I love to serve it to people without telling them what’s coming because you taste it, it's familiar, but it's unusual and it's surprising. I love little surprises like that in food.
LRK: What about the workhorse: the boneless chicken breast. What do you do to add a little bit of variety? Because it can be very boring.
TA: It can. We all eat boneless, skinless chicken breast. The good thing about them is that they're a canvas for all kinds of flavor. There's a recipe in my new cookbook -- I can't claim to have authored it -- that’s a pretty familiar idea to people who are chefs, but to a home cook, maybe you haven't done this.
The first step -- and I'm talking about pan-frying a chicken breast -- I always pound my chicken breast to an even thickness. I put them under wax paper and pound them until they are a uniform thickness. I cut them to make sure they are all the same size, salt them, pepper them, and wrap them in a piece of prosciutto -- that wonderful, super thin-sliced, Italian-cured ham. It's salty, it's just packed with concentrated flavor from having been dried and cured. If you like, you could dress this up by placing a couple of sage leaves on the chicken breast and then wrap prosciutto around it. Then you just heat up a pan to medium-high, splash a little olive oil in there, cook that thing 5 minutes a side and you're done. It even looks pretty on a plate. You could serve that for a date and still only pay $5 for your ingredients for two people. Not too bad.