A Night – or Day – at the Improv

By Beacon Staff

This is not about stand-up comedy or the legendary chain of comedy clubs. After all, this is a food column. So it’s about taking the ingredients you have on hand and creating a meal. It’s about improvising.

If you’ve seen Iron Chef on the Food Network then you know the competitors have one hour to create five improvised courses using one main ingredient. But here’s a little secret: The day before, the two competing chefs are told that the secret ingredient might be one of two items. So if you’ve been wondering how these guys come up with these brilliant creations, they have at least a day to think about how they would use either of the two ingredients they are told about. And their assistants know exactly what their assignments are depending upon what “secret” ingredient is revealed at show time.

Chefs’ professional associations sometimes run what are called “Mystery Basket” competitions where the chef contestants all have the same 10 ingredients, completely unknown to them until it’s their turn to create. No clues the day before and no assistants. It’s serious business. Not show business.

Once the mystery basket ingredients have been revealed, each chef has 30 minutes to a create a menu using all 10 ingredients and once you turn in your menu you cannot change it – meaning that you can improvise only once – when you create the menu – and not again, during the ensuing four hours you’re given to cook and serve four courses and 10 portions of each course. And everything you serve must match exactly what you wrote on your menu.

It’s exhilarating, challenging, frustrating and exciting all at the same time. Sort of what it’s like when the pressure is on you to come up with dinner and you’re stumped. Well, sort of.

Okay, so maybe you don’t get goose bumps when you look in the pantry or refrigerator and try to come up with something for dinner. But if you have a basic sense of what goes with what, chances are you can come up with something for dinner with ingredients you have on hand. I know lots of home cooks who are especially good at this.

I once created a hearty Mexican style soup mostly with ingredients I had on hand. And with the exception of a trip to the meat counter, you can confine yourself to just two – maybe three – aisles of your supermarket if you don’t happen to have these ingredients in your pantry.

I call this “Taco Soup off the Shelf” and when you read the ingredients, you’ll see why. When you taste it, you’ll also understand why, based on the number of recipe requests I received, it’s one of the most popular dishes I’ve ever demonstrated on television.

1 pound ground chuck
1 large onion; chopped
3 undrained 15 oz. cans of black beans
1 undrained 15 oz. can whole kernel corn
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
1 undrained 14 1/2 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 4 oz. can chopped green chile
1 1/2 ounces taco seasoning mix
1/2 ounce Tabasco sauce to taste
1 ounce powdered ranch dressing mix
1 1/2 cups water

Cook beef and onions in a Dutch oven or large soup pot over medium high heat until meat is browned and onions are tender, stirring until meat crumbles. Drain excess fat.

Stir beans and all of the remaining ingredients into the beef mixture. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Top with corn chips, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, sour cream and shredded jack cheese.

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