This column recently appeared in my hometown newspaper the Devils Lake Journal in Devils Lake, N.D.
One of my favorite Food Network shows is “Chopped.” If you’re not familiar with the program it features four chefs in a cooking contest in three, timed challenge rounds with a chef being eliminated after each round by a panel of three judges. The rounds are generally appetizer, entrée and dessert with 20 minutes allotted for the first round and 30 minutes respectively for the last two rounds. I don’t know about you but I can barely make spaghetti and a salad in 20 or 30 minutes much less a gourmet dish, which is what these chefs are darn well expected to do. However, even these experienced chefs struggle to create something uber fancy in the allotted time and make their fair share of mistakes in their efforts to create greatness, and oh yea, win $10,000.
In the beginning of each round the chefs open a mystery basket of ingredients with which they have to make the dish. The longer this show is on the air the more wacky the ingredients seem to get and the more unlikely they really go together to make a cohesive dish. In some recent episodes the mystery baskets have contained leftovers, often met with disdain by the competing chefs. In one episode the chefs got leftover tacos, cake fondant and I don’t remember what else and were expected to make something edible.
I recently was perusing my cable lineup trying to find something to watch when the word lutefisk popped out at me from the program description for an episode of “Chopped,” and being a good North Dakota Lutheran I thought “well I gotta watch this.” Lutefisk was one of the mystery basket ingredients in the entrée round and it was paired with hazelnuts, Pinot Noir wine and dried lobster mushrooms. At least two of the chefs had never even heard of lutefisk, and one of them gave it such a look of disdain you would have thought it was an undesirable creature from another planet. I guess these chefs weren’t Midwestern Lutherans whose church had an annual Lutefisk supper. But the chefs literally have about 20 seconds to decide what they are going to make, so there really is no time for ingredient contempt. One of the chefs decided to make a fish cake with the lutefisk and two of the chefs opted to make something more soup like, one making a noodle dish and the other lutefisk laksa, (which actually has a nice ring to it) which the chef says is a soup from Singapore. After much high intensity cooking, the fish cake chef got eliminated with the judges saying the chef didn’t cook the fish cakes all the way through. The other two chefs’ dishes looked very similar with both chefs using a lot of exotic spices and ingredients, which must have been the key because none of the judges really made any comments about the taste of the lutefisk itself, although they liked both dishes overall.I haven’t had lutefisk in oh probably more than 30 years. I think the only time I have ever had it was at the annual lutefisk supper at St. Olaf Lutheran Church, and my only real memory of it was that I thought it smelled bad and that I didn’t like the way it tasted, although I have no real clear memory of the actual taste. I don’t think my mom or dad, Fast Eddie, ever prepared lutefisk, however, they will certainly let me know if I’m wrong. However, these “Chopped” chefs showed there is more than one way to cook a lutefisk – season the heck out of it and bury it in soup! So here’s a shout out to the Lutheran churches still doing a Lutefisk supper – make some lutefisk laksa or noodle soup!