Chopped Challenge #2: mole inspired lamb and sweet potato chili with corn chip cornbread

Course: entree

Ingredients: lamb, sweet potatoes, chives, corn chips

The first thing I thought of when N. issued me this “mystery basket” was meatballs: the lamb and chives would be pressed lovingly into a tender little sphere perhaps reminiscent of these beauties from my meatball challenge year, and instead of pilaf, I would nestle them into a bed of softly cooked sweet potato noodles. Spoodles?

But there were those corn chips. As with last month, one of the players stubbornly refused to fit in. I thought halfheartedly of nachos, but then, remembering a play on mole spices crusted onto roasted sweet potatoes I’d attempted a few years ago, I suddenly envisioned a chili. Ground lamb, cubes of sweet potatoes, black beans, a roasty dark beer, all swimming in a sauce resounding with the flavors of that most famous player in Oaxacan cuisine.

Of course my mole is an approximation. It’s an adaptation of an adaptation of one of Rick Bayless’s recipes, and I can claim no authenticity. But mole and its flavors correspond well with chili: the peppers are there, of course, though lending more fruitiness than heat in most cases, and the warm spices play so nicely with lamb, taming its gaminess. Mole gets its thickening power (as well as flavor, of course) from toasted nuts and seeds, and I realized these would make an excellent thickening agent for the chili, as well as adding tasty, toasty depth. It felt like cheating to just sprinkle on the chives at the end, so I decided I would make a chive oil to drizzle on top, for a little fresh onion flavor and a bright burst of contrasting color.

Now that I knew I was making chili, the corn chips became easier to deal with. Again, as with the chives, serving them simply as dippable garnishes to the main event sounded delicious, but too easy. Since they are essentially cornmeal and salt (with a few extras), I wondered if I could grind them up and use them as a base for cornbread, which is our typical accompaniment to chili.

After about two bites, N. told me that “the judges” thought I would definitely progress to the dessert round, so I’m going to call this a successful experiment. Lamb and mole are meant to be together, and as so many makers of bean-based brownies have already discovered, black beans and chocolate – that most recognizable of mole ingredients – complement each other very well. There’s just enough heat to prevent the sweet potatoes from getting too saccharine, and the chive oil, though we agreed it was negligible in terms of flavor, was a very striking drizzle: bright emerald against cocoa-dark.

The cornbread turned out well too, although it was a touch sweet and not particularly strong in corn flavor – adding whole kernels of corn helped, but as I’ll also note in the recipe below, subbing in stone ground cornmeal for a portion of the chip powder would likely produce a cornier end product (or, you know, just use cornmeal…). Something about the flavor and the softer-than-usual texture reminded me of those scoops of corn cake you get at Tex-Mex restaurants, which made me forgive its otherwise regrettable lightness in flavor. In an effort to make it a little more savory, and get good use out of all of my ingredients, I whipped up a little chive butter in case we wanted to top the cornbread. We agreed this was probably unnecessary – the cornbread was nice and moist on its own – but tasty all the same, and how lovely to be able to do the whole thing in the food processor!

I’m including the recipes for both here, and the chive components, though I have to admit that with the chili, I wasn’t timing things too carefully. My directions about how long the recipe takes to make are… let’s kindly call them an approximation. I’d say you should make this, if you’re going to, over a leisurely afternoon, so you have plenty of time for things to simmer.

Corn chip cornbread with chive butter
Makes a 9x9x2 inch square loaf
About 40 minutes
For cornbread:
1 cup corn chip powder, from about 2 cups corn chips, loosely packed (note: this will produce a less corn-y tasting bread. For stronger corn flavor, use only 1 cup of the corn chips, and add ½ cup stone ground cornmeal. If you do this, you may have to add just a touch of salt)
1 cup all purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool but not refrigerator cold
1 cup buttermilk (or just shy of 1 cup milk with a splash of vinegar stirred in)
1 egg
1 cup defrosted or fresh corn kernels
For chive butter:
3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature (what remains from the stick you used for the cornbread works very nicely)
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
salt to taste
  • Preheat your oven to 375F and spray or grease a 9-inch square baking dish. Buzz the corn chips in a food processor until they become a fairly fine powder (they won’t go completely to dust because they do already contain fat, so stop processing before they become wet). Add the flour, the sugar, and the baking powder and process until well combined.
  • Cut the butter into roughly tablespoon sized chunks and add to the food processor; pulse 2-3 times for 2 seconds each until the butter is distributed in small to medium chunks. Add the buttermilk and the egg and pulse again in 2 second intervals until the mixture is combined – at first it will look quite liquid, but then suddenly thicken an puff (this is the baking powder activating).
  • Add the corn kernels and pulse once or twice just to distribute, not to break up the corn.
  • Scrape and pour into the prepared baking dish and bake at 375F until golden on top and cooked through: about 25 minutes.
  • Let cool at least 10-15 minutes before slicing, though we like ours completely cooled to room temperature.
  • To make the chive butter, use a spatula, spoon, or small whisk to combine the butter and chopped chives. Season with salt if desired. Serve with the cornbread.


Mole inspired lamb and sweet potato chili with black beans
Makes a large pot – at least 6 hungry diners
Approximately 2 hours
For chili:
3 dried ancho chiles
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup sesame seeds
½ cup skin-on almonds
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cloves
3 dried bay leaves
1 medium red onion, peeled and diced
1 medium poblano or pasilla chile, stemmed and diced (take the ribs and seeds out if you don’t want the thrill of potential spice)
5-6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound ground lamb
1-2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼-½ teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 15 ounce can black beans, drained
1 12 ounce bottle dark beer, such as a stout or porter
1 28 ounce can low-sodium peeled tomatoes (I like whole, but you can use diced or even fire-roasted, if you prefer)
optional: up to 1 cup low sodium beef broth or water
1-2 tablespoons lime juice, if desired
For chive oil:
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons roughly chopped chives


  • In a dry pot over medium high heat, toast the dried chiles 2-3 minutes, until fragrant. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
  • In the same pot, heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, then add the almonds, the pumpkin seeds, and the sesame seeds. Toast until they are beginning to brown, then remove these as well, keeping as much oil in the pan as possible.
  • Again in the same pot, add the cumin, coriander, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, cloves, and bay leaves, and toast until fragrant, stirring frequently. If the pot seems very dry, add another tablespoon of olive oil. After just a minute or two, add the onion, garlic, and fresh poblano, stirring to integrate well into all of the spices, and sweat until the onion and pepper are softened, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the ground lamb, the salt, and the black and red pepper and raise the heat to medium high. Cook, breaking up the lamb with a wooden flat-sided spoon or spatula, until no longer pink, around 10 minutes.
  • Use a spice grinder or small food processor to grind the reserved dried chiles, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds into a paste. Add this to the pot along with the cocoa powder, stirring well to fully integrate.
  • Add the sweet potato chunks, the drained black beans, the bottle of beer, and the can of tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium low, keeping the mixture at a simmer. If at this point the mixture seems way too thick, stir in some of the beef broth. Keep in mind, though: it will loosen up as it cooks.
  • Continue to simmer the mixture for at least an hour, until the sweet potatoes are very tender and the flavors have had time to meld.
  • Shortly before you are ready to serve, taste for seasoning. It may need more salt. If it feels a little flat, add a squeeze or two of lime juice.
  • To make the chive oil, combine the olive oil and the chives in a blender and blend until uniformly liquid. Swirl on top of the chili before serving.
  • Other topping options: freshly chopped cilantro, greek yogurt or sour cream, crumbled cotija or queso fresco cheese, cubes of avocado, more of the corn chips, or fresh chopped chives or green onions.

Chopped Challenge #1: Sausage stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce

Course: appetizer

Ingredients: bulk sausage, bell pepper, sriracha, panko bread crumbs

Here it is! The first “basket”! N. decided that for the first challenge of the year, it would make sense to offer the first course of the meal, so to speak. He says he will change up and randomize courses later on, but I know for sure that January = appetizer, February = entrée, and March = dessert. That doesn’t tell me much, but it does offer a solid start.

As seems so often to be the case with real Chopped baskets, three of the four ingredients seemed to go together well however I shuffled them. Sausage, bell pepper, panko: reasonable! Sausage, bell pepper, sriracha: okay. Even bell pepper, sriracha, and panko seemed to fit. But all four? I couldn’t wrap my brain around how it was going to work and still keep this an appetizer.

Ultimately I landed on a blast from the past, if you will. I’ve been digging mushrooms lately, and realized at least three of the four: the sausage, the bell peppers, and the panko, could get crammed inside (or at least on top of) a mushroom and baked into a tasty, bite-sized little throwback classic. The sriracha would have to become part of a sauce – I didn’t fancy a spicy kick inside my mushrooms (besides, one of the biggest complaints from the judges on the actual show is the relative dryness of a dish – they are always after a sauce or dressing component).

To wrestle the heat into the dish, but also to ensure more exposure for the bell peppers, which were really just going to get minced and cooked down with the sausage and some onions, I decided roasted red pepper would be a nice flavor base for the sauce. It would need something to enrich it, though, and goat cheese would provide a tang and a welcome thickness. There. I had my dish.

Though this definitely took me more than the twenty minutes allotted on the show (could I have done it in time if pressed? Maybe… with a much bigger mess…), it came together well. It’s hard to fault pork sausage cooked with aromatic vegetables, especially when it gets mounded with panko soaked in what seems like an excessive amount of oil and baked until feverishly crispy. At first taste we weren’t sure the sauce matched the mushrooms – the roasted red pepper has such a strong vegetal clarity that, blended down and even spiked with hot sauce, it can stand up to and overpower its supporting players. Yet we kept going back to it, sliding the mushroom caps through and dotting on another spoonful, and when we each tried a mushroom bare, it was good, but we wanted that kick from the bright, orange-red smear left on the plate. Ultimately I think the sauce was on the right track, but needed a little something to combat the overly heavy vegetal quality, so the recipe below cuts the pepper-forward flavor with the addition of broth. I suspect this will help it meld with the mushrooms better.

We tried out two serving options, just to see which we preferred: a puddle of sauce topped with a few stuffed caps, and a row of caps drizzled with sauce. Though we decided the puddle of sauce on the bottom would be better for hors d’oeuvres that were going to sit around for any length of time, as the sauce-on-top styling could damage the pristine and glorious crispness of the panko topping, we preferred the sauce-on-top delivery method as both prettier and easier to eat. In either case, a final dusting of parsley made for a prettier presentation and a welcome little herbal freshness to the bite.

* Photo note: this week, as I wait for my new machine, I’m using the editing features on Preview on my laptop. I’m… underwhelmed. Le sigh.

Sausage stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce
Makes 12 mushroom caps + extra sauce
40-45 minutes
For mushrooms:
12 large crimini mushrooms, stems removed
½ cup finely minced onion
½ cup finely minced red bell pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 sprig thyme, optional
8 ounces bulk pork sausage
¼ – ⅓ cup panko bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste
For sauce:
6 ounces roasted red pepper (you can do it yourself, of course, but the jars are so quick and easy)
3-4 ounces goat cheese
3-4 ounces vegetable or chicken broth
2 teaspoons sriracha, or to taste
To serve:
chopped parsley


  • Preheat the oven to 400F and place a wire cooling rack in a baking tray or cookie sheet – we are making a slightly elevated platform for the mushrooms to prevent waterlogging.
  • Using a small spoon, carefully scrape the gills and some of the innards from each of your mushroom caps. We need lots of room for filling. Finely chop the “guts” you’ve removed.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the mushroom pieces (not the caps), the onion, the red bell pepper, and the thyme sprig, if using. Season with black pepper if you like that sort of thing, and cook, stirring once or twice, until the onions are tender, around 5-7 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, place the hollowed out mushroom caps stem side down on the cooling rack and place into the oven. This gets them started cooking and allows some of the water they will expel to drain right into the cookie sheet. Cook them until the sausage is done.
  • When the vegetables in your skillet are looking tender, add the sausage and use a wooden, flat-sided spoon or spatula to break it up. Continue to cook over medium heat, breaking up the sausage and stirring often, until the meat is just cooked through. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Remove from heat and let cool a few minutes for easier handling. (Reminder: at this point you should also remove your mushroom caps from the oven!)
  • While the sausage cools, toss the panko and the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small bowl until the crumbs are thoroughly moistened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • When you are ready to fill, flip the mushroom caps over so the hollow side faces up. If you want, you can move each and lightly spray the rack with non-stick cooking spray; they do start to cling a little bit while baking.
  • Fill the mushroom caps with heaping spoonfuls of the filling, lightly but firmly packing it in. It will be a little crumbly, so be determined but not rough, as that can break the delicate mushroom caps. Top each filled cap with a mound of panko, then carefully place back into the oven to bake at 400F for 15 minutes.
  • While the mushrooms cook, make the sauce. Using a standard or an immersion or stick blender, whiz together the roasted red pepper, the goat cheese, and the broth until very smooth. Pour into a pan (I used the same skillet I’d cooked my vegetables and sausage in, just wiped clean with a paper towel), add the sriracha (start with just 2 teaspoons; you can always add more) and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Simmer about 5 minutes, then remove from heat.
  • To serve, either spread a puddle of sauce on the platter and place the mushrooms on top of it, or arrange the mushrooms on a platter and then drizzle sauce over each. Both are pretty. Either way, sprinkle some chopped parsley over the top to add freshness, and serve warm.

Behind the 8 ball + 2018 challenge announced

As seems par for the course this year, I concluded 2017 finding myself running behind. Sigh. However, my New Year’s resolution for 2018 is to be more patient. Even with myself. Maybe especially with myself. So even though December is now a full week in the past, I’m going to finish my soup project. I have my notes, I have my plan; I just need a little more time to unpack and regroup.

Meanwhile, I can reveal to you my project for 2018. I had a lot of trouble coming up with this one – I auditioned a number of ideas and nothing felt quite right – and then N. hit on the perfect idea during our drive home from northern California this past weekend: a monthly Chopped challenge. If you aren’t familiar, Chopped is a competition cooking show on Food Network. The contestants have a set amount of time (mostly 30 minutes) during which they must cook and plate either an appetizer, an entrée, or a dessert featuring 3 or 4 “mystery basket ingredients” which can range from items as banal as halibut fillets or carrots to as mystifying or repulsive as gummy bears, kelp noodles, or the much maligned “chicken in a can.” The contestant who makes the least successful dish each round is “chopped,” leaving one winner at the end who takes home a cash prize.

I am mildly obsessed with this show. I yell at the contestants, I pause at the moment the basket ingredients are revealed to announce what dish I would make, and a year or so ago I created the hashtag #ChoppedConsultant, which I used to tweet dos and do nots while watching episodes (“don’t make bread pudding!” “don’t cook rice in the appetizer round!”). As I’ve mentioned previously, N. and I sometimes play the game of imagining what dishes we would make with a set of ingredients while we are waiting around somewhere or on a long drive. I have, on occasion, deemed a set of assigned ingredients “easy” and rattled off something immediately. Now, he’s suggesting I take my bragging to the stove and share the results. This sounded like fun.

Here’s how the challenge will work: once a month, N. will give me a “basket” of ingredients, and specify whether they are to be used in an appetizer, entrée, or dessert.  We aren’t going to require a time limit, at least not at first (and maybe not ever), in part to make it feel doable for me, and in part because, as N. commented, he doesn’t want to do the dishes it would take for me to complete a full dish in X amount of time. For extra fun and some audience participation, if you will, the day before I post the results, I’ll reveal the “mystery basket” here, including which part of the meal it applies to. Then, if you want, you can envision what you would make with these ingredients and post your idea in the comments!

I can’t promise all of these posts will present dishes you’ll want to try yourself. This is a bit of a departure from previous annual challenges I’ve assigned myself in that I’m not looking to learn a new skill or master a type of cookery. It’s really more… well, fun. And if the completed dish is a little odd, then so be it. We can still get some enjoyment out of imagining what we would make, and in laughing or smacking our lips over what results.