Top Chef: Common Threads

On episode 8 of Top Chef (it aired two weeks ago) on Bravo, the chefs had to create a nutritious, delicious meal for a family of four. And a budget of $10. Immediately they cut to a few of the cheftestants crying about how nobody can shop for a decent amount of food for that little bit of money. I sat back on my French country sofa, took a swig of my distilled water, paused my TiVo and laughed aloud at these people.

Families make dinner on less than that every day. Hey, ten dollars is all they have for three squares for four people. Or more. I had a short but fruitful discussion with my mother by telephone about this episode:

Me: Are you watching this? Are you watching Top Chef, right now?

Mom: Yeah, I'm turning to it. [pause] They need to quit bitchin' and complainin'. [pause, clattering of remote control hitting hardwood floor] This show has been on three years now. They should know that not every competition is going to be gourmet 'n' shit.

Me: I know! I KNOW! You have to come with it! Haute and goat cuisine. For real. This is a competition. They should have come prepared with a few recipes like that in mind. Well, they have to shop at Whole Foods, too.

Mom: Wow... well, hell. Whole Foods. I don't know about all that.

Me: Well, I do. I know what I'd do. Bulk food is key. They have a huge bulk food section. I'd tear that shit up.

Mom: Go ahead mon petit chef. Tear that shit up.

I took it upon myself to do the same challenge: Take $10, 30 minutes, and shop for a nutritious, delicious meal for four.

Every episode, a product, person, or organization is featured and most of the challenges center around those things. That week it was Common Threads. CT is a non-profit organization started by Oprah's former personal chef, Art Smith. The mission of CT is to educate children on the importance of nutrition and physical well-being, and to foster an appreciation of cultural diversity through cooking. So children from lower-socioeconomic situations get to cook, learn about healthy eating habits, get culturally influenced, become better people, save the world with know...

Our local Whole Foods in North Carolina.

Working under pressure works well for a lot of people. I'm hit or miss. No rhyme. No reason. I usually take my time, I plan. I calculate. Time gets away from me. I always run over my allotted time during my cooking classes. I say dinner will be ready in 20..I really mean 40. I go to the grocery for an apple and come out with a block of cheese, a cutting board and new cherry pitter. And no apple.

When I walked into the store, I went straight for the protein. Let me get the meat, the most expensive part of the meal. I drifted over to the fish counter and hoped for something. There was nothing. I can make a stew with bits of fish, using one piece of fish. Too risky. I moved on to the meat counter.

On the show, nearly everyone chose chicken. Chicken is by far the cheapest meat. Pork comes in at a close second, but I am not a fan. I found a package of 4 chicken thighs for $3. I saw one for $2.74 but I was afraid it was more skin and bones than meat, so I chose the former.

After finding the thighs, I still had no idea what I'd do. Then I asked for four pieces of bacon (maybe I'd bard each piece?) and at $1.38 I asked to put two pieces back and made out for 55 cents. Then I thought about sides. The bulk foods section was crawling with people and I wanted to keep to my 30 minute limit so I looked at rice, beans, whole grains, pasta, and I found whole wheat couscous. I love couscous studded or jeweled with fruit and they didn't have any raisins or cranberries free standing, so I took time out to pick raisins and cranberries out of the California Trail Mix with the unwieldy scoop attached to the bin.

I wheeled around to the canned food aisle and thought about stuffing the thighs with a tapenade and then adding to it to make it my own. Maybe I'll sail over to the olive bar and do the same? Olives, garlic, peppers, onions... all doing backstrokes in tasty oils over there. I could make a quick vinaigrette! I digress. And hindsight is 20/20. That is what I should have done.

Then I got this bright idea: chicken cordon bleu, sauteed haricot verts, and couscous. Wait! I'd need a dessert! I'll figure something out...

So allllll the way to the other side of the store, I get 2 pieces of Virginia ham and I look for cheese. All of the cheese is pre-cut and wrapped with a price. I ask the charcuterie guy if he'd cut a piece in half for me. I found a nice piece of Leerdammer (it's like really expensive Swiss cheese) that wouldn't melt into oblivion in the oven or frying pan. He cut it lengthwise and it came out to be $2. Almost as expensive as the chicken! Yikes! I head over to the otherrrr side of the store, take a scant handful of green beans, and think hard about dessert. I could get some eggs and do a souffle. I could get some flour and make a pancake. I could... be seasonal and get some fruit. I grab ONE apple and ONE pear and head for the checkout with less than 4 minutes to go.

I told the checkout girl, briefly, what I was trying to do.

"This cannot go over $10."

Making sure I had a crisp (well, slightly used) 10-dollar bill in my wallet.

She looked confused when I mentioned Top Chef. And even more confused when I mentioned a 30-minute time limit, like Rachael Ray. And then I realized she was not from North Carolina. Or from the United States, for that matter. I took pity upon her only because I'm sure I was crazy-looking, demanding that she participate in my extra-curricular activity with fervor.
I couldn't buy the apple. I had to take away 1/2 of the green beans and I took the stem off the Bartlett pear...

If I didn't show it to you, you wouldn't have believed me. My total, including tax was $10 even. I didn't want to scare my cashier any more than I already had by doing a dance, jig, or other quick movements. I couldn't express my joy by pumping my fist into the air hard enough.

I hate taking pictures of half-eaten food, but this was important, so I thought I'd show my plate. I almost forgot to document my challenge on film. I think I did a great job!

Pears poached in white wine.

Now, on Top Chef, they have a pantry available to them during most challenges. I don't remember if they were able to use any items from it this challenge around, but I assumed so. My kitchen is MY pantry, so everything was up for grabs. I didn't go overboard and use any of the flavored oils, seven types of rice, finishing salts, tri-colored pasta, or alderwood chips I have.

Chicken Cordon Bleu
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/2 cup FiberOne cereal
1/4 tsp salt, pepper, dried oregano, garlic powder, thyme, marjoram, basil each
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
4 slices Leerdammer cheese
2 slices Virginia ham, cut in half
nonstick spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Coat a baking dish or sheet pan with nonstick cooking spray. Combine all dry ingredients in food processor and combine until crumbs are fine. Put on plate for dredging.
Pound chicken thighs to 1/4 inch thickness.
Sprinkle each piece of chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Place 1 ham slice and 1 cheese slice on top of each thigh. Roll up each piece, and secure with a toothpick. Spray each piece on all sides with nonstick spray. Roll each thigh in the crumb mixture. Spray each piece again and repeat. Place all pieces on baking pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Remove toothpicks and serve.

I had to debone the thighs myself. It's always cheaper to buy a whole fryer chicken and cut it up yourself and the same goes for pieces of chicken too. I did NOT have any toothpicks in the house (I know...what kind of hostess am I?) so I rolled up each piece as tightly as possible and placed each piece opening-side down in my skillet and seared them before placing the pan in the oven. It made the bottoms crusty and yummy. And the Leerdammer did it's job and didn't melt out like crazy.

Sauteed Green Beans
1/2 lb green beans, snapped
3 cups vegetable stock
1/2 tb butter
2 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp No-Salt seasoning

Simmer green beans in a large saucepan for 3-4 minutes until crisp-tender. Remove from heat, drain, then plunge beans into ice-cold water to stop the cooking process and retain color. Drain.
Heat skillet with butter.
Add garlic and seasoning. Gently sauté for one minute. Add blanched green beans and sauté for three minutes. Serve.

Fruit-Jeweled Couscous
1/2 cup raisins/cranberries
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups vegetable stock or broth
2 cups couscous
In a saucepan combine raisins, stock, and salt to taste and bring to a boil. Stir in couscous, cover and remove from heat. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Uncover, fluff couscous with a fork. Serve warm at room temperature.

I do not like Israeli couscous (because of its size. No other reason. Oh, and it reminds me of Kix or Body Buddies)

Poached Pears
1 cup white wine
1 cup water
2 tbsp Dixie Crystals Extra Fine Granulated Sugar
1 firm Bartlett, Anjou or Bosc pear, sliced, unpeeled, seeded

Heat wine and water and sugar until the liquid begins to simmer. Lower the heat to maintain a very slow simmer. When the liquid simmers carefully lower them into the poaching liquid. Let them simmer gently for about 10 to 15 minutes, then begin testing them with a fork or skewer. The pear should be tender but not mushy. Cooking times will vary from 15 to 30 minutes or more, depending on ripeness, quantity, and variety of pear. Remove them and let them cool. Reduce poaching liquid until barely au sec. Pour reduction over plated pears. Use piece of Leerdammer for garnish.

In my picture there is a strawberry on the plate. I know. I really wanted it to look good for the camera ;) But it is sitting on top of a piece of Leerdammer.

I have never been able to understand why people have cheese for dessert. It's not refreshing, it's not light, and it doesn't aid in digestion. If you are reading this and you know, please...enlighten me.

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About the author

Nikki Miller-Ka

Nikki Miller-Ka

Ms. Miller-Ka is a classically trained chef with a BA in English from East Carolina University and a Culinary Arts Associate Degree from Le Cordon Bleu-Miami.

Formerly, she’s worked as a researcher, an editorial assistant, reporter and guest blogger for various publications and outlets in the Southeast. She has also worked as a catering chef, a pastry chef, a butcher, a baker, and a biscuit-maker. Presently, she is a food editor, freelance food writer, and a tour guide for Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours.

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  1. It's amazing what a wonderful meal you prepared for 10 dollars!

  2. That is hysterical! and great.
    We have 12 at our house. yep 12..and If I could afford to spend 10 per meal I would be in heaven!

  3. you are so lucky to have a whole foods nearby. and your $10 story was fabulous!

  4. Love it, Nikki! Your budget meal looks delicious- I have got to try this challenge for myself! :)

  5. Lisa: Thank you for your sweet comment!
    Marye: You have 12 people in your household? $12 to spend for the whole day? $10 per meal is extravagant these days. $10a day is more like it.
    Becca: Whole Foods is so fabulous. Every community should have one or petition to get one.
    Maddy: I can't wait to see/read what you come up with!

  6. Chocolate ain't any of the things you said about dessert, either, toots. :)

    Hey, I was totally yelling during that episode bout the bulk section, too! They never hit that!

    Open casting for next season is still on....(hint, hint)

  7. Nikki! You are the woman! This post was so much fun to read! You had me laughing as I was picturing you running around the store, asking for 4 pieces of bacon and then putting 2 back!!!

    Once I was shopping with a slightly crazy friend and she broke the stems off of a bunch of large mushrooms so they would cost less (she only wanted the caps anyway!) Total mortification on my part!

    Thanks for this post.


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