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Fresh From The Third Coast

Chef Monica Pope owns one of Houston's hottest restaurants, t'afia, where she's doing what chefs in New York, Chicago and San Francisco have done for years - bringing the concept of fresh, organic seasonal food to a restaurant table.

For that reason, she's often called the "Alice Waters of the Third Coast," in a nod to the pioneering organic restauranteur.

Here is the three-course menu for four she prepared on a budget of $40 for The Saturday Early Show's Chef on a Shoestring challenge.

Pope makes Endive and Grapefruit Salad, Balsamic-Caramel Chicken with Broccoli and Walnuts, and Butterscotch Custard.

Endive And Grapefruit Salad
5 whole spears red or white Belgian endive
20 pecans halves toasted
12 segments organic pink grapefruit (one whole grapefruit)
2 oz crumbled bleu cheese like Roquefort, sweet gorgonzola or maytag

For the honey dressing
Yield 2 cups

3 tbls. red wine vinegar
3 tbls. balsamic vinegar
1/2 small lemon, juiced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbls. shallots, chopped (approx. 2 each)
1 tbls. Dijon mustard
3 tbls. honey
1 cup grapeseed oil
salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lay pecan halves on a sheet pan and place in oven for 10-15 minutes. While pecans are toasting, cut the endive in half, remove the core. Set aside 8 leaves and then cut the remaining spears on the bias into 1/4-inch slices. Put in stainless steel bowl and set aside. Cut the peel and pith off of the grapefruit. Cut grapefruit segments out from between the membranes. Reserve segments to garnish.

Remove pecans from oven and let cool.

While the pecans are cooling, make the dressing. Put all dressing ingredients except for the grapeseed oil in a blender and blend on the lowest speed until fully incorporated. While the blender is still running, drizzle in the grapeseed oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Chop the cooled pecans and put in bowl with other ingredients.

Toss the salad with the dressing; use approximately 8 tablespoons.

To serve, put 2 whole endive leaves on each plate (one at 12 o'clock and one at 1 o'clock), with the pointed ends at the top. Mound the salad in the middle of the plate. Drizzle a little dressing around the salad.

Balsamic-Caramel Chicken with Broccoli & Walnuts
1-1/2 lb chicken breast tenders (all-natural, no hormones/no antibiotics), cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes
1 bunch organic broccoli stalks, cut into uniform florets
1 cup shelled walnuts, toasted
1 cup flour, seasoned with 2 tbls. kosher salt & 1 tbls. freshly ground pepper
2 tbls. grapeseed oil

For the Balsamic-Caramel Sauce
2 cups canned vegetable or chicken stock
2 tbls. soy/molasses mixture
2 tbls. balsamic vinegar
1 tbls. sugar
6 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced

For the soy/molasses mixture:
1 tbls. soy sauce
1 tbls. molasses
1 tbls. sugar

Combine all the ingredients in a small mixing bowl or ramekin and set aside.

Method: Preheat oven or toaster oven to 350 degrees. Lay walnuts on a sheet pan and place in preheated oven for 10-15 minutes. While the walnuts are toasting, put 2 quarts of salted water on the stove and bring to a boil. While waiting for the water to boil, combine all ingredients for the balsamic-caramel sauce and set aside. Once water is boiling, put broccoli florets into a wire mesh basket and drop into salted boiling water for 3-5 minutes (broccoli should turn bright green).

Dredge the chicken cubes in the seasoned flour. Pat off excess flour and sear in a sauté pan that you have drizzled with grapeseed oil for 2-3 minutes on each side. This will cook the chicken only halfway. Do not put too much chicken in the pan at one time - make sure there's just one layer in the pan. Do as many batches of chicken as you need; wipe the pan clean after two batches.

Put all of the seared chicken, blanched broccoli and toasted walnuts back in the pan. Pour in 1/2 cup balsamic-caramel sauce and bring to a boil. Cook over medium-high heat, shaking pan occasionally, until the sauce has slightly thickened, about 5 minutes (add more balsamic-caramel sauce in 1/2 cup increments if sauce starts to thicken too much). Freeze any leftover sauce for future use.

Fall Custard
Fall Custard
2 cups water
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
6 each organic egg yolks
1/4 cup single malt scotch

Special equipment:
4 6-oz., 4 1/2 inch-diameter oven-proof ramekins
baking pan large enough to fit the 4 ramekins

Yields 3 cups (makes four 6-oz ramekins)

Method: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Heat two cups of water in a saucepan. The water will be used for the water bath.

Pour the heavy cream into another saucepan. Ocver medium heat, bring the cream to a boil and remove from the heat. Set aside.

In a bowl, using an electric handheld whisk, mix together both sugars and the egg yolks until fluffy. Slowly whisk in the warm cream, then strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. Ladle off any bubbles or foam. Add the scotch, whisking lightly to incorporate it ino the mixture.

Divide the custard mixture evenly among the four ramekins. Place the ramekins into the baking pan, then carefully pour the heated water around them. The water should come about 2/3 up the side of the ramekins. Cover the pan with foil. Bake for 45 minutes, or until just set. ( Iif you tap the side of the ramekin, you'll see the whole custard move as one; if the center jiggles, it's not done.) Remove the ramekins from the water bath. Let the custards cool to room temperature.

To serve: top with whipped cream.

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