At Paris' renowned cooking school Le Cordon Bleu, the test known as le panier (French for "basket") strikes fear in the hearts of aspiring professional chefs. The challenge begins with a "basket"―not an actual woven container, but rather a short list of ingredients the students must transform into a cohesive recipe. They hope for harmonious items, such as basil, cheese, and tomatoes, but prepare for any possible combination, knowing a good cook has to think on his or her feet.
It's a common way to test the inventiveness of chefs in training and professionals alike. According to John Kinsella, certified master chef and president of the American Culinary Federation, professional chefs in Germany's Kuchenmeister, England's Master Craftsman, and France's Compagnon de France are put through similar paces. It has also been a requirement in America's Certified Master Chef exam since 1980.
Moreover, a similar competition is the backbone of many popular television cooking programs. When the Top Chef contestants one season had to troll a gas station minimart for ingredients, they rose to the task. One chef purchased Krispy Kreme doughnuts, with which she made bread pudding.
We thought it would be interesting to create a Cooking Light challenge for some of our favorite chefs, cookbook authors, and teachers. We chose cooks from far-ranging backgrounds, knowing that each would bring particular tastes and talents to the table. Next we devised an autumn market basket, filled with some of our favorite and most versatile seasonal ingredients. As is standard with basket challenges, we gave them a list of required ingredients, as well as a list of optional items. Some (butternut squash, apples) would likely find easy harmonies, while others (mushrooms, hot peppers) would take some finesse.
It was no problem for these cooks. One was inspired by soupe au pistou (a classic French summer vegetable soup), and with the addition of chicken and fall ingredients, it took on American flair and tastes like Thanksgiving in New England. Another brought Chinese flavor principles into the mix. A third saw the ingredients and created the season's first braise. All their recipes demonstrate that the same ingredients can yield a variety of dishes.
You don't have to be a pro to experiment with new flavor combinations, different techniques, and a world of cuisines. Sometimes your early efforts may tank (as a couple of our experts confessed theirs did), but when you start with fresh, seasonal ingredients, you'll ultimately end up with a winner.
Rules of Engagement
We asked each of our challenge cooks to prepare a healthful, balanced, and tasty meal following these guidelines:
• Base the dish on either a whole chicken or pork chops.
• Use at least six of the following seven ingredients: butternut squash, apples, mushrooms, walnuts, bacon, Swiss chard, and hot peppers.
• Freely add any common cold storage or pantry staples, such as broth, canned tomatoes, salt and pepper, onions, garlic, carrots, or citrus fruits.
• Add one optional ingredient of your choice.
• Pair the dish with an appropriate starch to round out the meal.