If you’ve ever watched Masterchef you know how terrifying this challenge is. You show up to cook with no knowledge of your ingredients, and the second you remove the lid you have to put together a 5-star dish. You have 60 minutes and no time for self-doubt, and it has been the undoing of many a great chef. So naturally, I had to try it!
My challenge was amended a little bit from the Masterchef format- I had only 5 ingredients in my box verses 10-12 contestants normally have, and I had to use ALL OF THEM. Yep. So this was more like Chopped actually, but I still gave myself 60 minutes to feel “connected” with the poor people who always run around like headless chickens.
It couldn’t be too bad, right?
Bare with me- and DO try this at home- if you are up for a challenge and the quickest hour of your life.
Get a trusted friend/family member without sadistic tendencies to pick out some random ingredients for you (I chose my favorite local organic grocery store, which has some pretty wacky things). My dad put mine together and maniacally laughed with a mysterious grocery bag with some sort of green leaf sticking out of the top.
Now, on Masterchef (AU) the chefs are allowed to use a “staple pantry” of flour, butter, milk, sugar, salt, eggs, oil and vinegar (the things that everyone has and needs) so I put that together first and asked my dad to get the mystery box ready. We set a timer for 60 minutes and I finally lifted the lid.
It was a dream come true for someone like me who is a Masterchef super fan and always yells at people for running out of time, dropping things, etc. I’ll admit I was cocky going into this, it’s always looked really fun to me and allows for maximum creativity. But I wasn’t prepared for the pure confusion that was the array of my ingredients.
My first reaction was confusion and dread. Who the hell would ever want to eat a dish with dried mackerel, processed cheese, granola, parsley and lemon rose water? LEMON ROSE WATER?? After a moment of panic and being flabbergasted, I got to work.
I decided to make the mackerel the hero of the dish. I was hoping there was a protein, but I certainly wasn’t expecting this to be it. Thinking of dried fish, I knew I had to cut down the saltiness and smoke somehow so I decided to make a fish stock (fumet) with the mackerel and lemon rose water. Hold on, I know, this sounds insane, but stick with me!
I got that going with some parsley for freshness, almost like you would use lemongrass or other fresh herbs in a Pho, so I decided to gravitate towards Asian flavors and presentation. Leave it on medium heat for as long as possible to reduce and get flavorful. And yes, I put the whole damn bottle of lemon rose water in.
Next I decided I needed to do something else with the protein, the mackerel, and thought of a delicious bowl of ramen with fried or grilled meat on top. I decided to make sort of a ballantine by pounding out a piece of the mackerel between cling wrap and stuffing it with the cheese sticks (grated), mixed with egg and parsley and salt for taste.
I then wrapped the sucker up like a sausage and popped it in the freezer to get firm for as long as possible before cooking it out of fear of the filling spilling out.
In hindsight, I was wary of the cheese from the get-go, especially working it into a good Asian dish since processed yellow cheese is SO American, so go light on the filling. And by all means, if you don’t have to use cheese sticks then DON’T!
Next I decided to make a breading for the mackerel out of the granola- another totally non-Asian ingredient (what was I thinking exactly?). Thankfully the parsley helped, as I pulsed the granola, a little flour, salt and parsley in a food processor. It turned out to be a nice pale green color, almost like matcha powder.
I set that aside for later and prepared another pan with flour and one with egg beat together with a little milk. If you aren’t familiar, this is the classic FEB(ruary) method for breading- the flour helps the egg stick and the egg helps the breadcrumbs stick for a beautiful crust!
At this point I have my soup going, my mackerel in the fridge, the breading ready, and everything ready to cook so I felt super confident! I thought that the mystery box must be over-hyped, that’s it’s not too hard, that the pressure of the competition must add so much pressure. I’m cool, calm, collected. And then I start to overthink things.
With SO much time left, I should definitely make another component, right? How about 3?
I think back to a delicious bowl of ramen and I know I’m missing noodles. Long story short, I spent about 15 minutes mixing, kneading, chilling the dough and trying to roll it out with no luck. There was something seriously wrong- it was very stiff and crumbly and I knew I couldn’t make ramen out of it. In the trash we go!
Okay this is when things start getting intense. 30 minutes seems like SO much time, and then 15 is basically 10 because you need 5 minutes or so to finish and plate. And I had given myself way too much to do.
I checked on the soup and added a little water to both cut the sweetness of the juice and to stretch the broth, knowing it would reduce more in 15 minutes.
Next I took my mackerel out of the freezer and I was super happy with how well it was holding up. After cutting off the plastic, I rolled it in flour, egg and my parsley/granola breadcrumbs and got a pain with some oil heating to fry it in.
While I waited for that to heat up, I started to think of new ideas and doubted that the absence of the noodles would be impressive enough as a dish. I tried to make a parsley mayo with a stick blender, egg yolk, vinegar, and oil but I scrapped it. No one wants/needs mayo on top of meat in their soup?!?! Am I wrong?
I also decided I might need another crispy element to compensate for the soup. I fried off some stems of the parsley. They tasted really interesting and had a satisfying crunch, and I set them aside for later. 1 more thing done!
I started to cook the mackerel and knew I had to keep a close eye on it. I also didn’t want to cook it for long at all since the meat was pre-cooked and I only needed to crisp it up.
Oh my god. This is what those poor, poor people go through on TV, except they have cameras in their face, judges screaming at them, and a massive ticking clock taunting them. I’m starting to feel the pressure.
I finish frying the meat and once it’s golden brown all over, I set in in a pan to rest for a few minutes so I could cut it at the last very minute and plate.
I start freaking out, and my coping mechanism is quietly laughing to myself and running all around. I should have moved WAY faster at the beginning when I was so confident..
I keep thinking that there’s something missing- but I don’t have time to dilly dally so naturally, being an overachiever, I decide to poach an egg. I LOVE a good runny egg with ramen and meat! The water would not boil fast enough, so it turned into a fried egg!
I am freaking. the hell. out. I grab a nice bowl and strain in the soup, which thankfully tastes DELICIOUS?!?! Who knew? More on that later.
I’m trying to be delicate cutting through the mackerel but it is so flaky and crumbly and too hot to have really clean pieces. So I decide to hide it with the soup. I frantically pour the soup back in the pot, burning my hands, and place the fried pieces at the bottom of the bowl with some parsley on top.
With 2 SECONDS LEFT I remember the egg and basically throw it onto the bowl like an frisbee and the timer goes off. I’m tempted to ignore it and keep going, because I’m not on a tv show after all and I can do what I want, right? Nope- I accept that this is my first attempt and it’s too late, and I don’t think what I make is too horrible.. Right?
So I have my family taste the end result with me after I pour the soup over the meat for a little theatrical presentation. I wish I had a sauce jug like they always do on Masterchef and a much bigger bowl, but hey! I’m at home after all.
Here it is- my very first mystery box/Chopped basket. The description on TV would say “mackerel and lemon rose water soup with fried stuffed mackerel fillet, fried egg and parsley.” And that’s when I realize I forgot the fried parsley stems. Oh well, someone always forgets to put something on their dish, and now I understand how easy that is!
So, are you curious to know how it tasted?
It was- delicious?!?! (I was surprised too). Knowing that my cooking ability was enough to transform such weird and wacky ingredients into something crave able, unique and satisfying was pretty gratifying!
The actual soup is smoky, a little fishy, but had a delicious umami/sweet balance. The sickeningly sweet lemon rose water that I feared was a perfect counterpart to the mackerel, and it created this new flavor I had never tasted before. It somehow tasted Asian-inspired without having any Asian ingredients, and was enhanced by the freshness of the parsley.
The fried mackerel was just crispy enough still yet coated in the delicious sauce and had a delicious salty meaty flavor and delicate texture. The cheese was my least favorite part- it felt extraneous and a little odd, but I didn’t mind it too much. I’m still trying to think of how I could have used it in a more satisfying way, but I’m stumped.
And the fried egg was just runny enough and melted into the soup beautifully. I was stunned by how well it came out, and I know have a newfound confidence for cooking on the fly. Although I barely finished in time, messed up the noodles and struggled to find balance, I would gladly eat it again, and weirdly, want to make the stock.
Imagine how delicious and deep in flavor this could be with more time, care and a range of ingredients. Maybe I’ll try it again with no restrictions? Maybe I’ll forget about it.
But one thing’s for sure, I can’t wait to try the mystery box again!