Most years I prefer to downplay my birthday and simply get it over with, but this year I decided to use it to my advantage. I’ve been wanting to host a cooking competition with family friends for eons, and this was the perfect way to make it happen!

The evening was loosely based on the Food Network show Chopped, where chefs face off in head-to-head battles to quickly whip up appetizers, entrees, and desserts with a basket of mystery ingredients. Chefs are chopped one-by-one, until a single champion remains to claim the prize money and glory. I find the show strangely addictive.

Our rules were modified: the cooks would work in teams, only appetizers would be prepared, and the time limit was expanded to a full hour. We had four teams, and I sat on the sidelines to judge. Names were drawn for teams a week in advance, and each team arrived with three secret ingredients for another team to feature in their appetizer. I added the fourth and final mystery ingredient.

I was terrified people would bring exotic foods like alligator or rocky mountain oysters that are far outside my food palette, so I reminded everyone that we would all be sampling these dishes!

Despite the random drawing, the teams were a dream. There were no mixed family groups, and each team had one adult and one teen. (Okay, through the lens of Covid the teams were not a dream, but this is the small group we’ve been getting together with occasionally throughout the pandemic. And we are slowly but surely getting vaccinated – I actually got my shot on my birthday! What a gift!)

Back to the competition: Round 1 pitted Brandon and Lia vs. Keri and Maggie. They had to share the kitchen for an hour.

Don’t you love how Team 1’s ingredients are actually in a basket?! Clark found it in a thrift shop, and he and Emily selected the ingredients. Team 1 had to create an appetizer with raw chicken wings, Twix bars, and flour tortillas. My addition for this round was harissa paste. Would they bring the heat?!

They baked the wings, and then tossed them in a homemade sweet and spicy sauce. They also sautéed steak from the pantry to make some tortilla roll ups, which were drizzled in a mole sauce made with chocolate from the Twix and the harissa paste. They also snagged some bleu cheese crumbles from the fridge and created a delicious dipping sauce for the wings and fresh veggies. Perty impressive!

We all knew Keri and Maggie would be a tough team to beat, and they did indeed prove up to the challenge. Team 2 selected the bag of ingredients that Nancy and Sam assembled, and opened it to find pork loin chops, multi-colored carrots, and potato chips. They also had to use the harissa paste, which I knew would be a challenge because Maggie does not like spice!

It’s no surprise that this duo gets props for their creativity: they made a Shake-N-Bake Birthday Cake! It’s pork loin nuggets, dipped in an egg wash and breaded with crumbled potato chips and bread crumbs. They were air fried to perfection, and then layered on flat bread and drizzled with a “frosting” of puréed carrots and harissa sauce. First taste of the sauce was apparently not great, but they added chicken stock, garlic salt, lime, sour cream, and who knows what else to turn it around before time expired! The decorative spirals on the “cake” were created with carrot peelings – a definite nice touch!

The kitchen needed some serious scrubbing before we could move on to the last half of the competition. Oddly enough, spoons were the one thing we ran out of completely since both teams in the previous round made sauces that took a fair amount of sampling. We threw nonessential items in the dishwasher and handwashed the pots, pans, cutting boards, knives, blender and all those spoons. After this brief intermission we were ready for Part 2!

This time it’s Clark and Emily vs Sam and Nancy:

Nancy and Sam’s bag was put together by Brandon and Lia. Team 3 got ground pork, square dumpling wrappers, and Chardonnay BellaVitano cheese. This round my mystery ingredient was Chipotle Aioli. Sam gave the Aioli a sample and…. let’s just say he was not a fan! Even so, he managed to make an edible non-traditional dipping sauce for their dumplings, along with a delicious traditional one:

It’s crazy that Nancy landed this basket, since she makes dumplings a few times a year and recently gave us a tutorial on the process. They snatched garlic, ginger, rice wine vinegar, spinach, and scallions from the pantry to mix in with the pork, and then Nancy steamed the dumplings. Sam made the sauces and downloaded music for the presentation, in addition to preparing a speech. My birthday coincided with Chinese New Year, so they presented their dish with a speech about how people born in the Year of the Rat are known for their compatibility. Sam created a metaphor about the compatibility of his two sauces: the traditional dumpling dip and the nontraditional with cheese and aioli. It was a stretch, but the traditional sauce and dumplings were a hit. We devoured them!

Clark and Emily’s basket was courtesy Keri and Maggie. Team 4 was gifted a fully cooked ham, mandarin orange cups, and Gruyere cheese. Of course, they also needed to use my Chipotle Aioli.

Clark knows I’m not particularly fond of ham, so he relied heavily on the pantry and sautéed up some onions and mushrooms to serve alongside their mandatory basket ingredients. Clark also snagged what was left of the steak since he planned to fire up the grill to get some nice markings on the ham slices. Emily took the lead on the dipping sauce, which included puréed mandarins and aioli. She also melted the cheese beautifully, and turns out I’m a much bigger fan of ham when it’s drizzled in a Gruyere sauce. This team also gets top marks for working under pressure since they had to deal with a flare up on the grill! They got it safely extinguished, and Clark even made a mad scramble to the garage to get me a fresh, cold beer in the last seconds of the round. (Sadly, he grabbed a Blueberry Mojito instead, but still gets points for the thoughtful effort!)

My only regret from the entire evening was setting myself up to be the judge! It was impossible. I planned to score based on tastiness, creativity, presentation, and difficulty. The teens swarmed around me, touting the accolades of their dishes.

I loved those dumplings, but Team 3 only highlighted two of the basket ingredients. Did their musical presentation and speech make up for that fact?

Team 1’s wings were fantastic, and getting Twix in a basket is a serious curveball. How creative to transform it into a mole! And I do love me some bleu cheese!

Even though I am not a huge ham fan, Team 4’s ham paired perfectly with the Gruyere sauce. And that plate was full of love: I still can’t believe my mushroom-loathing husband sautéed me up a whole pan of them to serve alongside slivers of steak!

Team 2’s creative “cake” with perfectly cooked pork (which is not easy!) was impressive. And to top it off, later that night Keri surprised me a real cake for dessert. It’s a good thing we didn’t have a dessert round, because this ice cream cake would have blown away every bit of the competition! Look at all those layers!

Instead of declaring a champion, I got wishy-washy and we worked on the dishy-washing instead. I tried to distract everyone with my door prizes: all competitors went home with my favorite little knife – a serrated Victorinox paring knife. I use mine daily and love it!

Nobody likes participation prizes, but even today I can’t say for certain who won. I’m just grateful they were all game to play. I’m fortunate to have this crew in my life, and could never Chop a single one of them!

On my 49th birthday I headed to bed so very full… both my stomach and my heart!

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