Zucchini. Peaches. Cinnamon. Popcorn.
We thought the ingredients list for the Champions Round of the Pantry Kitchen Challenge was perhaps the most challenging yet. After all, what on earth do you do with popcorn other than slather it in butter and compulsively cram handfuls into your mouth while watching a movie?
But, there’s a reason the 12 contestants were invited to participate in this round! They’ve all shown the uncommon ability to transform everyday pantry staples into creative, appetizing meals.
Eleven of the 12 earned their spots by placing among the top three in at least one of the five previous rounds. The 12th — Connor Simpson — earned a wild card entry into the champions round because he’d competed in all five rounds. Judging was based on presentation, creativity and how well the four ingredients were incorporated into the dish. We originally intended to pick the top three submissions and make their recipes to select a winner based on one added criterion: taste. But things were so close at the top that we couldn’t just make three dishes. We picked four and I dubbed my wife, Lauren, the pastry chef, enlisted a cooking-enthusiast friend as sous-chef (thanks, Amanda!) and we spent two nights trying to replicate the top four recipes!
The winner of the Champions Round, and the recipient of a $50 gift card from a grocery store of her choice, is Alea Abrams!
Alea Abrams, for shrimp and popcorn grits with spicy peach sauce
Judges’ notes: In case you’re wondering, making grits from popcorn is as challenging as it sounds. It involved a tedious, repetitive process of boiling and then straining copious amounts of soggy, waterlogged popcorn. But the result was delicious. A well-composed dish that came together beautifully, and was perfect as a light meal on a warm summer evening.
All three tasters loved the smoothness of the popcorn grits. The dish was “super inventive and very clever,” said sous-chef/taster Amanda, who doesn’t even usually like grits, but enjoyed these grits because of their silkier-than-usual texture. I loved that you could taste the peach notes and just a touch of heat in the sauce.
Alea says: “I went back and forth so many times when deciding what to make for this final week. … I wanted to challenge myself to make something savory with the sweet-leaning ingredients. After much deliberation, suddenly this idea came to me: shrimp and grits. Grits are made out of cornmeal, so could I make them with popcorn? Maybe! Let’s give it a try. I had to experiment a little bit (should I use popped or unpopped popcorn? How should I cook them?), but I found a method that worked well. I boiled the popped popcorn for one minute and then pressed it through a strainer to create a gritlike texture. The end results tasted a lot like grits, but with a popcorny note. I added cheese for richness (and because extra cheese is never a bad thing). My husband and I really liked them and would definitely do it again.
“I made a spicy peach sauce to put on top of the shrimp and grits. It was sweet, savory and had a bit of a kick, which went well with the savory flavors. I cut the zucchini up into small, bite-sized pieces with green pepper and tomato, which gave the dish a nice crunch and rounded it out well. Everything was really balanced, very easy to make, and was pretty healthy! We are adding this to our menu rotation.”
Darci Rogojin, for popcorn sugar cookie ice cream sandwiches
Judges’ notes: Darci gets all our respect for the ingenuity behind this dish. She found a way to make ice cream that really tasted like popcorn. And the sugar cookies that sandwiched the ice cream came across like what you’d get if a cookie and a piece of cornbread had a baby. It was very creative overall.
But, the judges agreed that a couple of tweaks would have elevated this dessert from “good” to “stellar.” We loved the peach chunks in the popcorn-flavored ice cream, but the pieces of zucchini bread mixed into the concoction bogged everything down quite literally because they got soggy. The nuts adorning the circumference of the ice cream sandwich also needed to be roasted at a temperature higher than 300 degrees, because they didn’t come out as crunchy as would have been ideal. “She should have made a zucchini bread sugar cookie,” our sous-chef suggested.
Darci says: “This incorporates two loves of mine; popcorn and ice cream! I went with something sweet this round as I just got a new ice cream maker and have only had a couple of chances to use it this summer, for basic vanilla, so really wanted to come up with something fun. I’m also a huge fan of Christina Tosi and she uses popcorn in all sorts of ways, which inspired me to do the same by making popcorn flour and popcorn cream. This recipe is involved but it turned out exactly how I envisioned. My husband especially loved the popcorn sugar cookies — so soft and perfect for a sandwich as sometimes the cookies can be too hard to bite into.”
Carrol Harris, for salmon crêpes
Judges’ notes: Overall, we were most impressed by how Harris, like Abrams, managed to transform popcorn from snack food into an actual, substantial dinner carb. That, we agreed, is a COVID-era life skill! “The crêpe is light and airy, with a nice texture,” said pastry chef Lauren. And you could taste the popcorn in it! We also loved the Greek yogurt zucchini sauce, which was reminiscent of tzatziki and complemented the crêpe beautifully.
However, the peaches didn’t seem to belong in the filling with the salmon, zucchini and green onion. The fruitiness stood out and they felt a bit out of place. The filling could also have used more seasoning, we thought.
Carrol says: “Popcorn! How could I retain the distinctive flavor without the characteristic form? Could I boil it? Yes! And after a little experimenting, the corn crêpes idea was born! I used a boiled-and-strained popcorn “slurry” in my crêpe recipe and mixed part of the batter with chopped-and-boiled zucchini peel to make a green-toned batter. The resulting crêpes had a delicate corn flavor with beautiful swirls of green.
“[For the filling], I seared a salmon fillet that had been rubbed with chili powder and a lot of cinnamon. Then I sautéed green onion and ‘nude’ zucchini, and added the chunked salmon and diced fresh peaches for a flavorful filling. I topped the filled and rolled crêpes with a crunchy garnish of crumbled popcorn broiled with olive oil, chili powder and cinnamon until it was almost blackened. I served my crêpes with a raita-like sauce made from plain Greek yogurt, grated zucchini and coriander.”
Lyra Young for stuffed peaches
Judges’ notes: First off, we unanimously agree that Lyra should bottle and sell her caramel corn component of this dish! Lyra! We could not stop eating it! The baked peach and the zucchini bread/caramel corn stuffing made an excellent dessert.”
However, we also thought that overall, it could have benefited from a wider variety of textures. We couldn’t really taste the crunch of the corn within the zucchini bread. As a result, every component of the dish was “soft.” To deliver a more interesting mouthfeel, we sprinkled a bunch of the caramel corn bits over the peach concoction and drizzled more caramel sauce as well. We spooned additional caramel corn bits into our mouths with every bite of the peach/bread combo and thought that really pulled it all together better!
Lyra says: “I knew that a caramel coating would keep the popcorn from becoming soggy, but I wasn’t sure how to combine the sweet flavors of caramel corn with what I was first thinking of. I moved on to the dessert side of things, and immediately thought of stuffed peaches. With the zucchini, I of course thought of zucchini bread, but, instead of adding walnuts to the batter, I added small pieces of caramel corn, which would supply a crunch, just like the more usual nuts added.
“I mixed the corn and batter and poured it in the peaches, and then baked. The peaches became much softer during the cooking process, but they still tasted fantastic when they came out, like a warm peach cobbler. I let my mum try some, and she commented on the crunch inside the peach. She liked it! All in all, this was an interesting experiment, and something I’d try again.”
All the rest
Peach gazpacho with Parmesan pickle popcorn croutons
Gazpacho can go in many directions. If you have more of one ingredient, add it. If you like it spicy, don’t remove the seeds from the jalapeño (or add another!). If you don’t have peaches, use more tomatoes. Note: If you use more tomatoes, you might want to blend in a slice of bread to soak up the juice. If you need to extend it for surprise guests, add V8 or tomato juice. We’d never made it with peaches before and it turned out luscious. The cinnamon added a “Wow! What is it that flavor I’m tasting? It is delicious!” Our neighbors taste-tested and gave it many thumbs up.
— Steve Venard and Cathy Martin
Happy Hour Cracker Jack
For this challenge I decided to pretend that I was in a bar drinking a cold beer, listening to some awesome band while eating something salty, spicy, fruity and crunchy. The best pub snackies. Because who doesn’t miss happy hour with their pals? And live music? And cold beer on draft in a public place? And their friends? So I made Happy Hour Cracker Jack. Then I bagged it up and delivered it to my friends because they are lovely people.
— Sarah Holt
Chocolate zucchini roulade with peach cream cheese filling, peach glaze and chili popcorn crumble
The unwitting stars of this dish are the zucchini blossoms. Initially, they were added for looks, but their crispness added an interesting textual element to a creamy dessert. The spiced popcorn also added nice touches of heat and played well off the rest of the dish’s sweetness. A huge amount of credit goes to my wife, Libby, who was the workhorse behind putting this dish together. While the ideas may have been mine, she did almost all of the actual work.
— Jeff Abrams
Zucchini, popcorn and peach trifle
I decided to make a trifle — which has so many elements that I was certain I could include them all with some interesting touches. Peaches … easy! Cinnamon… hey, it’s dessert … a little cinnamon and sugar can go on nearly anything and make it taste great. But what about popcorn? There must be a way to include popcorn that wasn’t simply decorating something with popcorn. So I put packaged popcorn in a food processor, and then sifted the results. Voilà … popcorn dust. Throw a cup of that into a zucchini sponge for the Swiss roll and there you have it. And to finish, a bit of zucchini candy. … The big challenge here is that with COVID and social distancing, how am I going to get 20 folks over to devour the trifle?
— Paul Shapiro
Chicha flower pie
The inspiration for this dish comes from a joke and a food memory I don’t have. When the Champions Round was announced, my husband suggested I make a cocktail. I jokingly said I could make chicha. It’s a fermented Peruvian drink based on corn, squash and fruit (usually something tart). It’s made in homes throughout Peru. A red flag is placed outside the door when the chicha is ready for consumption. We have been to Peru once. And though we did our fair share of sampling the pisco sours, we were strongly cautioned to not drink the chicha. That was long ago — we have since learned to ignore this kind of travel advice. But in this case we listened. I have still never tasted chicha. But I ran with the inspiration and specifically, the idea to incorporate beer into the pie.
— Micaela Ellison
Gluten-free zucchini dreams with cinnamon kettle corn
What do we all think of when we think of zucchini? Zucchini bread, of course. Well, I think of scrambled eggs with zucchini. What do these have in common? Shredded zucchini! Well I wanted to use the zucchini in a different way, so I decided to purée it and that brought to mind “sonhos” (dreams), Portuguese raised pumpkin doughnuts/fritters sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. These sweet treats are traditionally served during the holidays. Developing a recipe for these “dreams” incorporating the peaches was not hard. The challenge was the popcorn! [After four experiments with popcorn] one of my son’s friends who is one of my eager tasters, suggested caramel popped corn as a topping!
— Maria Galvao
Peach gazpacho with zucchini cornmeal croutons, goat cheese gelato, candied zucchini ribbons and cinnamon-infused honey and olive oil
My slowly ripening Sungold tomatoes sparked the idea of a peach, zucchini and tomato gazpacho. As I plowed through my treasure trove of soup recipes, I was reminded of a lovely chilled peach soup with goat cheese in the mix of ingredients. Goat cheese is a wonderful dessert component — I love the savory richness that it adds to cheesecakes in particular. And that is how this savory sweet dessert was born.
— Laura Jones
Steak with peach glaze and popcorn-crusted zucchini
My dish was a seasoned and seared sirloin steak with a peach glaze and popcorn-crusted, pan-fried zucchini.
— Connor Simpson