Seven weeks ago, when the second season of the UK food contest show MasterChef Goes Large  started, I set myself a personal challenge : to play along and make a dish (or for the last week, 2 dishes) with the list of ingredients provided in the Invention Test that was the first part of the preliminary rounds. I've made 26 different dishes, based on 23 different ingredient lists (I skipped one day).
It's been a very educational experience, and it has reinforced my belief that this challenge (to come up with an original plate of food from a set of specified ingredients) really is a great way to test someone's cooking abilities.
It has taught me how creative cooking can be when you are forced to come up with original creations. Of course, I drew upon the recipes that I had filed away somewhere in my brain, but ultimately I had to make something that was tasty, fit well together, and could be cooked within the allotted 40 minute time limit (50 minutes and 2 dishes for the final week). I didn't always succeed, but overall I was happy with the results.
It also made me pay a lot more attention to plate presentation. I do try to make the food I serve reasonably attractive, but sometimes I get too tired to bother. But simple things like mounding spaghetti cleanly in the middle of the plate instead of slopping it on, or paying a little bit of attention the color balance of a salad, makes so much difference - not only for the sake of the photographs you take for your blog or flickr stream, but also to the way the people that you serve your creations to react.
It's also helped me to discover what kinds of flavors I really like to cook and eat Just keeping up this site since late 2003 has helped to define my food personality, but this concentrate exercise has accelerated that process. While I may be a culinaric polyglot, I have an instinctive urge to add a Japanese twist to most of my creations.
The one thing that continuously bothered me throughout the challenges was that I was forced to cook out of season, because as I noted several times, it was quite obvious that the show was taped during the late summer or early autumn. But I now realize that emphasizing the importance of cooking "within the season" was one of the points of the cooking challenges presented throughout the show. If they were taping the show right now I'm sure they would have included ingredients like rhubarb and omitted ones like pears.
If I had one quibble with the ingredient selections, it's that I think they occasionally threw in an intentional clunker: the sticky rice on Day 22 , which is the only day I skipped, comes to mind.
Many of the ingredients pushed me out of my comfort zone, which was rather stressful at first. I did think about chucking the whole thing several times. I'm glad I didn't though, and I'm glad I was pushed out of my comfort zone, to explore unfamiliar combinations and tastes. While I'm relieved that it's all over and I can move on to new things culinarically speaking now, I'm really happy that I did it. It's really changed and refocused my food life.
The show itself is about to enter its final week. I can't wait to see who is going to emerge as the MasterChef. And, my respect for all the contestants who entered is limitless.
Finally, here's the Best Of list of recipes that were born during the challenges. These will be entering my regular rotation for sure.