WPCWL Battle V: The Fungus Fracas

Posted in Battles on February 22, 2012 by Jay

Contestants:  Rob and Jay

Venue: Bowery Way, Lawrenceville

Secret Ingredient: Mushrooms

Judges: Becca, Bobby, Carly, Carrie, James, Jim, Liz, Paul, Riley, Rob C, Ryan

Play by Play: Carly

Special Thanks/MVP: also Carly

Rob’s Menu

***Note – All measurements are approximated. Sometimes badly. The recipes, to the best of my recollection, are how I actually made the dish in competition, not necessarily how I would make them given another chance***

Mushroom Ramen With Pork Belly
(serves 8-15)

components:
Mushroom ramen broth
Quick-pickled beech mushrooms
Pork belly
Egg
Tempura button mushroom
Ramen noodles
Garnishes: mung bean sprouts, sesame seeds, cilantro, nori sheets, sesame oil

For the ramen broth (some of the mushroom broth went to the second course):
– Approx 10 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
– 5 ounces button mushroom trimmings
– Tablespoon oil for sautéing
– 2 ounces dried shitake mushrooms
– 1 medium to large piece of dried kombu (maybe 2 ounces?)
– handful of bonito flakes
– 1/4 cup miso
– The bottom half (white end) of a bunch of green onions
– A generous thumb’s worth of fresh ginger
– 1/3 cup of neutral oil – I used safflower
– About 3 tablespoons of soy sauce
– Generous splash of mirin
– Salt to taste

Sauté the cremini mushrooms until deep brown. Place the sautéed mushrooms in a pressure cooker with the dried shitakes and the un-seared button mushroom trimmings. Add about 5 cups of water and cook at full pressure for 30 minutes. Release pressure and strain the broth. Discard mushrooms (or if you were as short of mushrooms as I was, keep them to add later to the quinoa in the second course)
Meanwhile add kombu to 8 cups of water on the stovetop. Slowly heat, but don’t let it boil. Keep the kombu infusing in water that’s just below a simmer for about 30 minutes. Remove and discard the kombu. Bring the water to a boil. Turn off the heat and add bonito flakes. Let the bonito flakes infuse for a couple minutes. Then strain the broth. You’ve now made dashi.
Meanwhile, combine the green onions, ginger, and neutral oil. Blend thoroughly.
When all 3 components are made, combine the dashi with 3 cups of the mushroom broth (save the rest of the mushroom broth for the second course). Add miso and green onion-ginger oil. Emulsify thoroughly with an immersion blender. Season the broth with soy sauce, mirin, and salt. Ramen broth is complete – now keep it hot.

For the quick-pickled beech mushrooms:
– 5 ounces separated beech mushrooms
– 2/3 cup water
– 1/3 cup white vinegar (I would have used rice vinegar if I had it)
– 2 tablespoons of mirin
– Tablespoon of coriander
– Tablespoon mustard seed
– Salt
Combine water and salt (about 1-2 tablespoons – you want the final pickling solution to be just shy of seawater-salty). Add the coriander seed and mustard seed – it would probably be better if you toasted em first, but I didn’t do that. Bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and add vinegar and mirin. Mix and then add mushrooms. Let infuse for a few hours.

For the pork belly:
– 1 1/4 pound slab of pork belly
– salt
Score the fat cap of the pork belly and season both sides with salt. Grill on a very hot charcoal fire. Flareups are fine – let em happen. Blacken the surface of the pork belly on both sides (fat side especially), more charring than you’d normally go for on a grill, but not burnt to a cinder. Rinse the pork belly under water, rubbing the surface to remove some of the excess char. Then put it in a pressure cooker with 1/2 cup of water and more salt to taste. Cook at full pressure for 40 minutes or so until tender. Remove the pork belly and slice it. Let the liquid sit for a bit, pour off most of the fat, and reserve for the next course.

For the egg:
– one medium egg per serving
Cook the egg sous vide at 147 deg F for 70 minutes or longer. Hold in sous vide water bath until service.

For the tempura button mushrooms:
– One half of a medium sized button mushroom per serving
– 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
– 1/3 cup rice flour
– oil for deep frying
Heat oil to 350-375. Mix the flours with about 2 cups very cold water to form a thin batter. Don’t overmix. In about 3 batches, dip the mushrooms in the batter and then deep fry until batter is crisp, about 90 seconds.

For the Ramen noodles:
– The noodles from 3 packs of instant ramen
Discard the packets from instant ramen noodles. Boil noodles until cooked. Strain. Cover. Seriously, ramen noodles are a bitch to make from scratch.

To plate and serve:
Put the ramen noodles in a bowl. Carefully crack a sous vide-cooked egg into the bowl next to the noodles – don’t worry if a little bit of the white stays in the shell. Re-emulsify the ramen broth if necessary, then pour the hot ramen broth over the egg and the noodles (the broth firms up the egg white just a bit while leaving the yolk molten). Put the mung bean sprouts and pickled beech mushrooms on top. Then a slice of pork belly. Then, on top, the tempura mushroom. Stick a piece of the nori sheet into the side of bowl, upright. Sprinkle the whole thing with a few sesame seeds, cut cilantro, and a scant drizzling of sesame oil. Serve with chopsticks.

Rob’s thoughts: Most of this dish worked pretty well. There were faults, of course. Not enough of the pickled mushrooms to go around – I was worried they wouldn’t be well received but they seemed to be the biggest hit of the dish. Not enough mushroom broth to make the mushroom flavor pop in the ramen broth the way I wanted it to. The tempura sat too long to stay crispy and in some cases tumbled into the broth. All of which surely cost me in terms of ‘use of ingredient.’ But I think on a basic level this dish was enjoyable. It’s an elaborated (and mushroomified) version of something I occasionally make for myself to gussy up instant ramen. Mushrooms in ramen made a kind of obvious sense to me, so I went with it, to decent-but imperfect results. The egg and pork belly were especially nice, though neither had anything to do with mushrooms.

Jay’s dish had better focus on mushrooms than mine did. There was a powerful, upfront, slap-you-in-the-face mushroom flavor that I very much enjoyed and that really set the tone for the contest. Unfortunately, whereas Jay’s other well-focused dishes were also executed with excellent technique, this one had a major technical flaw: the soup was not thick enough, not luscious enough. It’s hard to make a good mushroom soup without dairy. That’s one problem with Jay’s more focused, less busy style – one noticeable technical error can really damage the overall effect of a dish. If only he’d kept up the technical flaws in his next two offerings. )-:=3 (that’s a frowny face in a toque. Lame, you say? Shut the fuck up)

Chorizo-Stuffed Mushroom with Mushroom Quinoa and Pork Shoulder
(serves 8-15)

Components:
Chorizo stuffed mushroom
Pork shoulder*
Risotto-cooked mushroom quinoa
Sautéed portobello
Demiglace*
Garnish: celery leaves
(*partially made in advance)

For the chorizo-stuffed mushroom:
– one large cremini mushroom per person
– 1 1/4 lb ground pork
– 1/4 lb pork fat, diced (i cut this from the raw pork belly in the ramen)
– 1 tbsp sherry wine
– 3 tbsp white vinegar
– 5 cloves of garlic, minced
– 1/4 cup paprika (or ‘a lot’)
– teaspoon cumin
– teaspoon cinnamon
– 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
– salt, to taste

Mix all the ingredients except the mushrooms together in a bowl. Sauté up a little piece of the chorizo to see if it’s seasoned correctly. Add salt, spices, or vinegar as needed to adjust. Cover and refrigerate for 2 or 3 hours.
Core out the button mushrooms. With a paring knife, dig out a little X in the top of each one if you want to be decorative (I did – did anyone notice? I have no idea). Set aside.
Heat oven to 375. Fill the cored mushrooms with chorizo (I believe the vegetarian got chevre cheese mixed with green onions). Bake chorizo side up until cooked through. Or if you want to do it exactly like I did, overcook the shit out of em.

For the pork shoulder:
– One 3.5 lb pork shoulder
– Salt and sugar
Remove the bone from the pork shoulder if necessary, being careful not to mangle it too badly. Cut the now-boneless shoulder lengthwise into 3 steaks that are each about an inch to an inch-and-a-half thick. Coat each steak with a 50/50 mixture of salt and sugar. Cook sous vide at 144 degrees for 22 hours (each steak in its own bag). Chill in an ice bath and then refrigerate. At time of meal, cut the steaks into serving-sized chunks. I only used two of the steaks. Sear the cold pork chunks on a very hot grill. Once again, flareups are just fine. You want to singe the outside for a nice appearance and smoky flavor, while only warming the inside (it’s already cooked). Rest for a few minutes before serving.

For the risotto-cooked mushroom quinoa:
– 1.5 cup dry quinoa
– 2 cups of mushroom broth (from previous recipe)
– 6 ounces diced oyster mushroom caps (stems reserved)
– 1/2 large spanish onion, diced
– 1 stalk celery, diced
– 1/4 cup sherry
– 2 Tbsp miso
– 1 Tbsp ketchup (I wanted tomato paste, but this was all I had)
– Reserved mushrooms from stock (because I needed more mushrooms – fresh would’ve been better)
– 1 can (14 ounces) coconut milk
– 1 Tbsp paprika
– 1 tsp cumin
– salt to taste
– Hot water as needed
– oil for sauté
Sauté oyster mushrooms in a hot pan. Meanwhile, heat the mushroom broth in another pot. When the oyster mushrooms are browned, turn heat down just a bit and add onions and celery, then quinoa. When fragrant (but not browned or burnt), add hot mushroom stock to the pan, just enough to cover the quinoa. Add miso, sherry, and ketchup. Stir occasionally, and do not cover. When the quinoa has absorbed most of the liquid, add more. Repeat the process, switching to hot water when you run out of mushroom broth. When the quinoa is soft but not too wet, add coconut milk, reserved mushrooms, paprika, cumin, and salt to taste. The idea is to make quinoa with the loose, creamy texture of a risotto.

For the sautéed portobello:
– 2-3 portobello mushroom caps (reserve stems for final course)
– oil for sauté
– pinch of salt
Slice mushrooms a bit thicker than 1/4 inch. Sauté in hot oil until browned. Add pinch of salt.

For the demiglace:
– 4 lb beef bones with a little gristle attached
– 1/2 pound beef chuck
– 1 medium onion, diced
– 1 medium carrot, diced
– 2 cups dry red wine
– reserved liquid from pork belly (see pork belly recipe above)
– stems reserved from oyster mushrooms, diced (see quinoa recipe above)
– splash of red wine vinegar – maybe 1 tsp
– 1 stick (8 Tbsp) butter, in 6-8 chunks
– salt if needed
Roast the beef bones in a 400 degree oven until browned, turning occasionally – maybe 90 minutes. When the bones are almost done, brown the meat on the stovetop. Add bones, meat, carrots and onions to the pressure cooker, cover with water, and cook at full pressure for 2 hours. Strain the stock thoroughly and refrigerate overnight. Skim the solidified fat from the top (reserve for whatever), and bring the remaining stock back up to heat. Add wine. Simmer down until thickened but not quite syrupy. Freeze in an icecube tray. You now have little cubes of intense demiglace you can use for flavoring or as a base for sauces.
On day of competition, reduce down the liquid from the pork belly along with the oyster mushroom stems. When reduced by about 3/4, strain out mushrooms, add splash of red wine vinegar and 3 cubes of frozen demiglace. Turn down heat to low. When cubes are melted and sauce is hot but not simmering, turn heat off and start adding butter, one chunk at a time, while stirring vigorously. Salt to taste if necessary.

To plate and serve:
Spoon quinoa onto middle of plate. Place stuffed mushroom (mushroom cap up) and pork shoulder at opposite sides of the quinoa. Lean the sauteed portobello slices against the pork shoulder cube. Spoon demiglace along sides of plates and garnish with celery leaves.

Rob’s thoughts: Again, a plate that was tasty and respectable, but with distracted focus and some technical flaws. As mentioned above, the stuffed mushrooms were overcooked. There, all the fat in the chorizo helped, and it was still enjoyable, though not as good as it should have been. Likewise, some of the thinner pieces of pork shoulder were slightly overcooked because the grill wasn’t hot enough to sear quickly, and they had to sit on the heat for too long. The demiglace was well-received, but didn’t have much mushroom flavor. The dish as a whole could’ve used just a bit more brightness and acid.

But the quinoa was probably my biggest disappointment of the night. For one, I simply did not buy enough mushrooms or make enough mushroom stock to get the intense mushroom flavor that I wanted. Exacerbating the problem, I made WAY too much quinoa, further diluting what little mushroom flavor I had. The basic technique was promising, but it was supposed to be the mushroom-bomb of the dish, and it fell well short. On a very mixed upside, the pork tasted so good that it further distracted from the mushrooms – I love that particular way to cook pork shoulder, because it slowly develops the texture of a fine cut of steak while retaining the most intense porkiness. I’m okay with that. I just wanted my mushroom elements to stand up and they didn’t. >-|_)-:=3 (that’s a frowny faced toque-wearing motherfucker holding a huge, insanely sharp knife… still think it’s lame?)

Jay’s carpaccio was glorious. It achieved a kind of brightness of flavor that I could not match. The mushroom held its own as one of the dominant flavors of the dish – here again, I could not match. It proudly showcased Jay’s technical skills (Jay wanted his beef even thinner, but I don’t see what that even accomplishes). It was beautiful on the plate. Two quibbles: I thought his mushrooms might have benefitted from a texture that was either smoother or chunkier, but not in-between as it was. Also, his plate was more of an appetizer than a main course. That’s a fairly small and petty little attack on my part though, because it ignores the obvious: it was the best appetizer ever served in the Culinary Warfare League. It just happened to be served as a second course.

Molten Chocolate Cakes with Mushroom White Chocolate Ganache
(serves 12)

Components:
White chocolate mushroom ganache
Molten chocolate cakes
Beet and rhubarb sauce
Candied portobello stems

For the white chocolate mushroom ganache:
– 4 ounces button mushrooms, minced
– 3/4 cup heavy cream
– 6 ounces white chocolate
Combine the white chocolate and mushrooms in a small pot and slowly heat. With the lid on, keep the cream at the barest simmer for 30 minutes. Crumble white chocolate into a bowl. Strain the cream and mushroom mixture into the white chocolate. Discard mushrooms. Stir until the chocolate is melted. Pour mixture into an 8 inch by 8 inch pan. Freeze mixture.

For the molten chocolate cakes:
– 10 ounces good dark chocolate
– 2 egg yolks
– 4 whole eggs
– 12 tbsp butter (I used salted, cuz fuck it), plus more for lubricating pan
– 2 tbsp AP flour, plus more for dusting pan
– 2 tbsp sugar
– Frozen white chocolate mushroom ganache (recipe above)
Preheat oven to 375. Smear cupcake pan (makes 12) with butter, then dust with flour. Set aside. Melt chocolate with butter in double boiler, microwave, or (like me) over very low heat stirring constantly. Meanwhile beat eggs and yolks with sugar until frothy. Once beaten, add flour and mix in. Then add melted chocolate-butter mixture. Stir to combine. Pour 1/2 of mixture into cupcake pan. Cut 3/4 inch circles of frozen ganache and put one in each cake, pressing down slightly (there will be some left over). Pour in the rest of the batter until the ganache is covered and the tins are just over 3/4 full. Bake in oven until done (I think it took me about 14 minutes, but I checked on em a couple times, surely prolonging the baking).

For the beet and rhubarb sauce:
– 2 medium beets
– 2 long stalks rhubarb (each was about 14 inches), finely diced
– 1/2 cup water
– sugar to taste
– most of the juice of one lemon
– about 1/2 tsp ultratex3 tapioca powder
Skin the beets and roughly dice. Transfer to food processor and blend. Place blended beets, rhubarb, and water in a pan and heat. Simmer for 10 minutes. Strain. Add sugar and lemon juice to taste. Now, you should chill it, but I didn’t have time. Finally, add ultratex3 in small amounts while agitating with an immersion blender (regular blender works too, even a whisk if need be). Stop at desired thickness (mine never got there – too hot for ultratex to work well).

For the candied portobello stems:
– 3 portobello stems, grit removed
– 1/2 cup sugar
– water (just enough to wet sugar)
– 1 tbsp butter
With a vegetable peeler, peel stems lengthwise into thin strips. Julienne those strips with your knife. Heat sugar and water in pot until it’s a thickened syrup (about 235 f), then add julienned mushrooms and butter. Keep cooking until the mixture browns slightly, then quickly take off heat. Pour mixture onto parchment paper. As it’s cooling, separate the mushroom strips from each other, taking care not to burn yourself or break the strips. Cool for a few hours to firm up.

To plate and serve:
Place cakes on plate, off-center. Did the ganache stay inside your cakes? Mine didn’t. Spoon some of the extra ganache (rapidly melting), onto the cakes and the plate. Spoon the beet-rhubarb sauce onto the plate in stylish culinary fashion. Garnish with candied portobello stems.

Rob’s thoughts: This one could have been awful, but it wasn’t bad. Despite my complete disregard of measurements while making the cakes, they were just about perfectly textured, which is due to a combination of picking a cake base that I know is forgiving to inexact proportions as long as you pull it from the oven at the right time, and sheer dumb luck. The mushroom and white chocolate combination worked better than I expected it to – the mushrooms came through as sort of nutty, and not particularly off-putting in a dessert. It leaked through the cakes because it wasn’t fully frozen or, at times, fully submerged in the cake batter, but that didn’t hurt the dish much. The candied mushrooms were too few to leave a strong impression, but were also surprisingly edible.

The biggest fault of the dish was not enough focus on the mushrooms. If any one part of this dish was truly inspired, it was the beet-rhubarb sauce… which I only came up with last minute because I couldn’t find persimmons. It looked just like a raspberry sauce you might normally serve with a chocolate cake. There was an obvious earthiness to it (my thought was, if you’re going to make a dessert out of mushrooms, you may as well go big with the ‘winter vegetables as dessert’ theme). There was no attempt to hide the beet flavor. But it was sweet and tangy and came off as totally natural in a dessert. It’s a shame that I didn’t get the thickness that I wanted, but it still left a major impression, I think. Unfortunately, it also stole some of the limelight from the mushrooms. Some judges commented that the dish would have been pretty similar in effect without the mushrooms. That might be true.

Jay’s dessert, like his other courses, had better focus than mine. It was a bit simpler, nicely flavored, well textured, well balanced. I’m not going to say its reception shocked me, but I think some of the judges were really blown away first and foremost by how well Jay can make dairy-free ice cream. I had already tried Jay’s green tea ice cream – I knew full well how good he is at it before tasting his dish. He’s so good at it that he’s made me forget how bad most homemade ice cream can be, much less homemade dairy-free ice cream. In honesty, I think his mushroom flavor was actually similarly subtle to the mushroom flavor in my dessert. But Jay wisely made a dessert that was otherwise subtle, so the mushroom stood up to the rest of the dish. Me – no such luck. )-:=3 #M_M_M_M_M (that’s a frowny faced toque-wearing Sephiroth-style badass using mind rays to burn down your world and everything you love)

I just want to add [boast] that it’s sort of odd that Jay and I are now making desserts without looking up recipes, and that we’re competing at a fairly respectable level for the dessert course. Considering how bad we both were at dessert when we started competing and also that, as far as I know, neither of us has a major sweet tooth, it’s a surprising turnaround.

Jay’s Menu

**Note – Yeah, I basically never measure a damn thing. Whenever I can, I’ll give proportions and general ideas of how much of this for how much of that  – it’s just how I cook.**

Mixed Mushroom Soup

Components:
Mushroom Soup
Infused Olive Oil

For the soup:
-Portobello mushrooms
-Shiitake  mushrooms (dried)
-Button mushrooms
-Spanish onions
-Thyme
-Soy-based creamer
-Salt and pepper
Give your onions a rough chop and throw them into a big stock pot with some olive oil. Sautee them until they get some color and turn a little translucent. Throw in your mushrooms, a few sprigs of thyme, and add water enough to cover it all and an inch or so extra. Boil and reduce. Once it’s all cooked and fragrant, hit it with an immersion blender until it is as fine as possible. Run it through a strainer and return it to the pot. Salt and pepper to taste and add the creamer for texture.

For the infused oil:
-First Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil
-Lemon Peel
-Walnuts
-Dates
Put everything together and heat gently for a while (mine was on and off for almost an hour, but it wasn’t enough).

To plate and serve:
Ladle the soup into a bowl. Take a small spoonful of the oil and drizzle it on top. Throw some fresh thyme leaves in there and serve.

Jay’s thoughts: Phoning in an appetizer against Rob is never a good idea. The logic here was simple: go over the top with mushroom flavors while employing a method which would allow me time to focus on the technically weirder stuff I had to do for the following dishes.

This dish would not have been such a weak spot if it hadn’t been for a couple of flaws. Firstly, I just didn’t pay enough attention to it. I was worried about other stuff and didn’t monitor the extent to which the concoction had reduced (or, as it turned out, how much it hadn’t). And also because there really is no substitute for milk fat when it comes to thickening soup. There ‘s a lot you can get away with, but it appears this is not one of those things.

The flavors were alright, but not as deep as they should have been. The texture was disappointing as well. I wasn’t pleased with it, but as I said I wasn’t thinking about it enough.

Rob’s soup was fantastic. I knew I was in trouble when I saw him working on that dashi. Soups and sauces are some of Rob’s biggest strengths, and I’d sampled his Japanese-style home cooking a number of times before. The whole thing looked great as well, with the Ramen providing a playful platform for the rest of the dish. One of the coolest parts was how all the bold flavors stood on their own – the belly, the broth, and the mushrooms were powerful individually and were combined in such a way that they didn’t step on each others’ toes, so to speak. It was just great.

Beef Carpaccio with Portobello Puree

Components:
Beef Carpaccio
Grilled Portobello Puree
Savoy Cabbage Slaw
Pistachios

For the carpaccio:
-Grass-fed top round raw beef
– Salt and pepper
-Wax or parchment paper, oiled
-A sharp knife, a kitchen mallet, and some patience
Start by slicing the beef against the grain into thin broad pieces. Remove all the fat and connective tissue you can see. I never told you this would be easy. Place the little chunks of meat between your oiled sheets, about a quarter of an inch apart. Don’t worry if your gaps end up too big, you can put more meat in there. Now, find a safe surface to do so and pound it flat with your Mighty Mjolnir. Start in the center and move your way out. I then took the large sheet and cut it into rectangles, but if it’s just for one or two, go ahead and leave it in large sheets. Just make sure you leave it between the pieces of paper until you’re ready to plate.

For the puree:
-Portobello mushroom caps
-Olive oil
-Salt
-Dry white wine
-Balsamic vinegar
Toss the caps in the oil and salt. Grill them until they soften and take some nice grill marks. Make sure you reserve the juices they’re going to let out as they cool. Reduce the wine in a saucepan. Use your food processor to puree the mushrooms, adding the mushroom juices, the wine, splashes of vinegar, and salt to taste.

For the slaw:
-Savoy cabbage
-Spanish onion
-Red pepper
-Olive oil
-Lemon juice
-Salt and pepper
Finely shred the cabbage, onion, and pepper at a ratio of about three to one to one, respectively. Season with the oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper.

To plate and serve:
You’ll want to season both sides of the meat, so place the pieces on the plates and remove just the top sheet. Sprinkle on some salt and pepper and then flip them. Remove the final sheet and season again. Put a dollop of the puree on there in an artful location. Don’t just gob it in the center of the squares, there. I saw you try to do that. Put down a light covering of the slaw – make sure you can see the meat through it, and sprinkle on some crushed up pistachios.

Jay’s Thoughts: I’m very proud of this dish, it’s a testament to what I’ve learned since I became a professional cook. Rather than blundering through dishes with good general ideas but no form, this was a technical and difficult undertaking and I think it took Rob a little by surprise. After the drubbing I endured in the last battle, I was determined not to enter the field without some tricks up my sleeve. I wanted to get that carpaccio a little thinner than I did, as it would have separated into individual bites a little better, but no one else seemed to mind.

What can I say? Rob knows how to cook pork. I had some down time while he was plating his second dish and gleefully devoured the leftover pieces of pork shoulder while he was finishing it.  The only real complaint I can come up with is the lack of mushroom flavor in proportion to the excellent other flavors found here. It’s a Rob classic, with great tastes and textures from the meat, and a lovely tangy zing from the sauces – so much so that the mushroom risotto got lost in there.

Beech Mushroom Ice Cream Float

Components:
Beech mushroom coconut milk ice cream
Spiced ginger soda

For the ice cream:
-2 packages (~3.5 oz.) fresh beech mushrooms
-2 cans coconut milk
-8 egg yolks
-2 cups sugar
Puree the shit out of the mushrooms, adding small amounts of coconut milk to help that along. Then add the puree in with the rest of the coconut milk and warm slowly over low heat. Beat the egg yolks. When the milk has warmed, slowly add the eggs and sugar. Stir often until you’ve got a custard that clings to the back of a spoon. Chill. Later, throw it into your ice cream maker.

For the soda:
-ginger
-anise seed
-fennel seed
-coriander
-a few whole cloves
-sugar
Heat the spices in a dry pan, just enough to become fragrant. Then, using a double boiler, make a simple syrup with equal parts water and sugar. Incorporate slowly, allowing the spices and ginger time to flavor the syrup, then strain and chill. Add four tablespoons of the syrup to each liter of carbonated water (I used a sodastream).

To plate and serve:
Place a dollop of the ice cream in a cup. Stick a straw and spoon into the ice cream and pour the soda on. Easy.

Jay’s Thoughts: I wasn’t sure this was going to work at all. I’m no expert on mushrooms. Wracking my brain to think of some kind of dessert, I found the beech mushroom. Advertised as “mild and nutty,” I figured it was my best chance. Nibbling on one, I found it to be pleasantly earthy and nut-like. The aroma, however, is very different. Pungent, almost mossy if that makes any sense. Not what I’d want in my dessert. However, I was committed by the time their odor wafted out of the food processor. My hope was that the aromatic soda would overpower their scent and allow their essential nuttiness to shine through and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it did.

This round was a fun one. Rob’s ganache really had me worried. He made it early in the day and I was surprised at how well the white chocolate worked with the mushrooms. Unfortunately for him, he made his second error of omission with his course, allowing the other amazing flavors to overpower the taste of the mushrooms in his dessert offering – which, when you put it like that, doesn’t really sound like much of an error at all. I’d pay good money for that dessert. Indeed, as someone without much of a sweet tooth, my eye would be drawn immediately to it. “Molten chocolate cake with beet and rhubarb sauce” would make me save room for dessert – something I almost never do.

Final Score:

Rob: 562
Jay: 567

Jay’s final thoughts:
I won’t lie, I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well in this one. It was, of course, the much-anticipated, over a year in the making grudge match between Rob and me. But in my head it was also a referendum on my time as a professional cook, something I was not when we last met in battle. I guess I needed to know that I’d accomplished anything since I took up the spatula for money.

And it’s nice to know that the answer was yes. Mind you, I’m not just talking about the victory – it was barely a victory at all when you think about the point spread there. What makes me most proud is that is was kind of a breeze. The cooking was a breeze, at least. I’m not a big mushroom eater, and was completely taken aback by the drawing. The planning and ingredient collection phase of this competition was characterized by unbridled, frantic terror.

However, once I had my ideas and components in front of me and my apron on, things just felt right. I told a young cook I was training just before leaving my first job that a line cook has to be able to see blocks of time when thinking about the tasks at hand. Once you see that, you can fit them together Tetris-style and everything is done at the right time. And so it was.

That, coupled with a commitment to keep the secret ingredient’s flavors central to every dish (which was how I beat him before) was the key to my strategy and it paid off – but again, just barely. Because I served up a lackluster first course, and Rob was the clear victor on the basis of flavor alone, there’s little room for me to gloat.

But I think there’s plenty of room for us to gloat, for four times we have battled now, and four times we have succeeded in serving really excellent meals to people with limited resources and limited space. And each time we did so, it was as smooth as possible. Despite blood loss and slipping in puddles of oil, we worked against and with each other to make sure that this is always a battle of concept and technique and the final products are as good as they can be.

I want to thank everyone who showed up and contributed to this battle. We’d probably do it anyway because it’s like that, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun without your input. I’d like to thank Becca for loaning me some equipment, that sodastream was crucial. I also want to thank Jim for taking charge of the deciphering of ballots and tallying of votes. Finally – and although I thanked her by excluding dairy from my entire menu – I’d like to again thank Carly for driving us around, running extra errands, putting up with my crankiness, and generally being an excellent co-host.

I think this was the best one we’ve had so far.

Rob’s final thoughts: 
Before this meal, I had brainstormed ideas for a dozen ingredients or more. Onion-based dessert? I had ideas for that. A meal’s worth of banana-specific techniques? In the bag. I could go on for a while. But mushrooms had escaped my mind. In complete honesty, until that particular little slip of paper came out of the hat, I had forgotten that it was in there. Jay said he too had forgotten it. This first threw me into a quiet panic. But in retrospect, I was a great thing that I had overlooked mushrooms. We know the list of ingredients not to give us an advantage in cooking but because that’s the only practical way of running this contest. But in its pure form, this is what the WPCWL aspires to be: a contest where you learn the ingredient only the day of the contest and then have to make something great via only your own skill and creativity and ingenuity. And I feel that despite my sleep deprivation and bad headspace for much of the competition and despite Jay’s throbbing head and brutal previous night at work, we both rose to the occasion.

In a lot of ways, I’m actually pretty happy with my meal. Most of it was the kind of cooking that I love to eat and that I really respect. It was founded on a deep love of and interest in cooking technique, and the techniques used were fairly diverse. It tasted good – I think I did a pretty good job of showing off technique in service to flavor, rather than technique in service of showiness. Less important but still nice, my food looked better and was better plated than my previous efforts. Of all that, I’m proud. Does that mean I’m also OK with losing to Jay? Fuck no. It’s going to take me some time to reconcile how proud I was of most of what I put out there with one plain and simple fact: it wasn’t good enough.

The recurring theme of my meal was this: not enough mushroom. I didn’t buy enough of em for what I needed to make. I didn’t highlight their flavor well enough. I didn’t use them as the backbone of my offerings. Jay did. And his food tasted great.

Any praise of my meal should come with an asterisk that Jay was a great help in plating my courses, while needing no help for his own (while I’m at it, Carly was of great help to both of us in putting together the whole event – hats off to Carly). Jay wisely conceptualized his courses in such a way that they were all basically ready to go, one after the other. My courses relied on a great deal of last minute cooking (with rapidly diminishing space in which to prep the latter courses) and some of that clutter and chaos and panic came through in my plates. It seems to me that I might have out-worked Jay, but Jay out-focused me. While I wrecked the kitchen and lost sight of the end goal, Jay isolated flavors, hammered out his plates, worked in a clean and efficient manner, and graciously helped me plate so that our guests wouldn’t wait too long. Like a pro.

In discussions before this cook-off, we had framed it as ‘pro vs nerd,’ each of us carrying the aspirations and pride of our ilk into battle. Well, the pro won. Have I let my fellow nerds down? Perhaps. Was it all a little too close for comfort for the pro side? I hope so. To my credit, I may have lost, but I don’t think the matter was definitively settled. Nerd vs pro, me vs Jay: it might end differently next time. Will there be a next time, seeing as we’ve now had our rubber match? I’m going to go out on a limb and say ‘probably.’ I sure wouldn’t mind sitting judging a couple first though.

Finally I’d like to thank everyone who came and judged. I love making people happy with my cooking. I appreciate getting feedback and compliments (and a couple free beers after the meal). But nothing gets my rocks off as a cook like watching people take the judging serious as fuck, picking apart dishes, getting into the minutiae of the meal, discussing what worked and what would have been better. Inspiring that kind of enthusiasm and passion is endlessly rewarding as a cook (even if you inspire it with the occasional misstep), and I thank our judge-guests for bringing their love and knowledge of food and cooking to the party. I hope everyone had fun.

WPCWL Battle III: The Duel of the Squash-bucklers

Posted in Battles on November 3, 2009 by Jay

You can see it in their eyes.Contestants:  Rob and Jay

Venue:  Bowery Way, Lawrenceville

Secret Ingredient:  Pumpkin and Squash

Judges:  Andy, Carly, Chris, Karen, Larry, Nia, and Thiago

Photos:  Larry

Play by Play:  Chris

Jay’s Menu

Course 1 — Bacon-wrapped Blue Hubbard Squash with Maple and Sage

Bacon-wrapped squash

-Blue Hubbard Squash, cored, peeled, and sliced
-Maple Syrup
-Cream Sherry
-Fresh Sage, chopped
-Apple wood Smoked Bacon, thick, strips cut in half

Cover squash slices in a mixture of about 1 part syrup to two parts sherry and toss in the sage.  If it doesn’t  completelycover the squash, mix it periodically.  Allow the squash to marinate in a refrigerator for at least an hour, but more time won’t hurt.  Then, wrap the pieces of squash in bacon, using a toothpick to hold the half slices in place.  Cook over medium heat until bacon begins to crisp up.  Pour the remaining sauce from the marinade into a pan and reduce at high heat until viscous.  Drizzle some of this sauce on the plate for dipping and serve.

Thoughts:  Yes, yes.  I know it was a bid of a pandering dish.  Who doesn’t like things wrapped in bacon?  While I acknowledge this particular criticism, I must point out that I was attempting to subvert the diner’s expectations concerning texture more than blow them away with unexpected flavors.  And yes, I was trying to garner brownie points with bacon.  Hey, all’s fair in love and culinary war, right?

Unfortunately, the texture experiment was not a complete success.  I had never attempted to cook any manner of gourd in this way before, and to top that off, I had never even heard of a blue hubbard squash before the day of the contest.  As it turns out, they’ve got a thicker, tougher outer layer of flesh than your average butternut or acorn squash.  Now I know.  While marinating and then quickly cooking the inner part of the plant proved effective enough, some of the outer flesh remained firmer than I would have liked.  I think the judges felt the same way.

Course 2 — Acorn Squash stuffed with Spiced Lamb

Stuffed Acorn Squash

-Ground Lamb
-Acorn Squash, halved and cored
-Butter
-Brown Sugar
-Cinnamon
-Chili and Serrano peppers, chopped
-Spanish onion, minced – slice a small handful without mincing
-Garlic, minced
-Fresh Basil, chopped – save a few whole leaves for later
-Dates, chopped
-Spices – cloves, allspice, paprika, nutmeg, pepper, cardamom, salt, cayenne or crushed red to taste

Melt butter and add brown sugar and cinnamon.  Brush acorn squash halves with this mixture and bake in oven until they begin to soften and brown.  Mix lamb with peppers, garlic, onion, basil, spices and brown on the stove top.  Fry onion slices and toss with paprika and cayenne.  Fill the baked squash halves with the lamb and top with a few onion slices.  Broil on high for a few moments (a little extra if you you let the lamb cool down too much), garnish with a leaf of basil, and serve.

Thoughts:  I give myself good marks for taste, but little else.  This dish was not particularly challenging, and although it was tasty, it is still pretty disappointing for that reason.  It’s a fairly straightforward presentation of a style and flavor profile with which I am very well acquainted.  I could have been more aggressive with the spices in the lamb, I suppose. I could also have tried to use the squash as a more active part of the meal — although some commented that they liked being able to control the lamb to squash to fresh basil balance for each bite.

However, as Rob reminded me the day after the battle, I could have just gone with some version of the pumpkin chili I made — and freaking rocked — about a year ago.  For some reason, it never even crossed my mind.  Curses!

Course 3 – Butternut Squash Torte with Raspberry and Red Zinfandel Sauce

Butternut Squash Torte

-Butternut Squash, halved, cored, peeled, and cut into thin slices
-Flour
-Macadamia nuts, crushed
-Lemon, juice and zest
-Honey
-Butter
-Fresh Thyme, chopped
-Brown Sugar
-Spices – cinnamon, nutmeg
-Red Raspberries
-Orange Juice
-Red Zinfandel wine

Mix spices, brown sugar, and thyme into flour.  Melt butter.  Mix macadamia nuts and lemon zest, set aside.  Butter the inside of a deep, round casserole, preferably one with a lid.  Lay down a single layer of squash slices, overlapping enough to cover the bottom of your casserole.  Apply a little butter, and a thin layer of flour.  Squeeze some lemon juice and honey on that.  Repeat this procedure until you have reached the desired depth.  Sprinkle more flour and honey on top, and add lemon zest and nuts.  Bake covered at around 375 for 30 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, puree raspberries with just enough orange juice to cover them.  Strain seeds out as best you can.  Over high heat, reduce this mixture with roughly equal parts red zinfandel into a sauce.

Remove the lid and bake the torte for another ten minutes or so (cooking times will vary depending on how thinly sliced your squash is.  Make sure it doesn’t burn, but otherwise don’t be afraid to overcook).

Jackson Pollock that sauce onto a plate.  Slice and plate the torte in pie wedges and serve.

Thoughts:  I wish I had cooked like this all night.  Looking back, the other dishes were passable, but pedestrian in comparison.  Although there was a slight problem serving something tart like this directly after Rob’s very sweet dessert, a sip of wine or beer — which was flowing freely at that point — cleared it up.  This was without a doubt the best thing I cooked.

I had some trouble keeping the slices together, so in the future, I’d cook it longer and slice the squash thinner.  I would almost suggest you trim the skin off, and then just keep on going with a run-of-the-mill peeler.  The smaller pieces might gel with the whole dish a little better that way.

Rob’s Menu

Course 1 — Butternut Squash and Ginger soup with Stone Crab

Butternut Squash Soup

For the Soup:

-1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
-¾ of a large onion
-Chicken stock – I dunno, maybe 2 ½ cups
-Ginger root, peeled and cubed
-1 granny smith apple, peeled and diced
-A few cloves of garlic, peeled and diced
-Honey
-Cream to taste – maybe ½ cup
-Cumin, cayenne pepper, paprika, turmeric, salt, pepper
-Oil

For the Garnishes:

-About 6 stone crab claws
-Butter
-½ a small butternut squash, peeled and seeded.
-Flour
-Enough oil for deep-frying
-2 Avocados
-Sriracha

Set oven to about 360 F. Toss cubed squash in oil, salt, pepper, and drizzle with honey. Roast until soft. When squash is almost done, sauté onion in oil until translucent. Add apple and ginger. Sauté a few more minutes. Add now-cooked squash, garlic, and a small amount of chicken stock. Cover and sauté for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the chicken stock and spices. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes. Transfer to a blender and blend thoroughly. Add cream to taste and adjust seasoning. Keep warm.

For the garnishes: early on, boil the crab claws in salted water until barely cooked. Remove meat (be careful not to massacre it) and set aside. Also early on, cut squash into thin sheets with a vegetable peeler. Tile sheets and julienne (cut into matchstick like strips). As the soup nears completion, heat enough oil to deep fry to 350 F. Toss the julienned squash with just enough flour to coat lightly and deep fry until crispy. Dry on paper towels, blotting excess oil. Preheat grill pan over highest heat setting. Cut avocado into ¼ inch wedges, toss with oil and salt, and grill until you get dark grill marks in its flesh. Lightly sauté crab meat in butter with a sprinkling of salt, just enough to re-heat.

Place soup in bowls. Lay down grilled avocado slices on top, two each bowl on opposite sides. In the middle, place crispy fried squash. On the bed of crispy squash, lay small portions of crab meat. Dot the soup with just a few drops of sriracha. Serve.

Cook’s Thoughts: I was happy with this dish, for the most part. I am surprised it scored as well as it did with the judges however. Problems – for one, the soup seized up just a bit while waiting for its garnishes. The texture was supposed to be just a bit thinner and smoother. Also, I made this to my tastes – heavily spiced, lots of ginger – which can be a negative for those who prefer more subtlety or at least less cayenne and hot sauce –sriracha is too powerful for some, even in small doses. That said, the flavors of this dish were really spot on in combination with each other. A nice balance of salty, sweet, creamy, and spicy. I got nice textural contrast, originality points, and use of ingredient points with the fried squash. The avocado helped to cool down the spiciness of the soup. And the dish looked good, too. Was the crab necessary? Not strictly. Did it add to the dish? I think it did – it fit the dish’s flavor profiles perfectly, and just that tiny bit of crab per bowl gave the dish a new element of substance, that feeling that the dish wasn’t meant to be eaten with something else but enjoyed by itself.

I wondered if some people recognized the concept of Jay’s dish – it was a play on cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto. I was very impressed by his marinade. He managed to make the squash not only look like cantaloupe but gave it a similar sweetness and texture. That’s something I didn’t know you could do. And I loved his presentation – his plates looked like a pair of mice slurping up a trail of the sweet sauce. However, due to the format of this contest, I never got to try the sauce itself. I heard it may have been stickier and harder than he would have liked. Sounds like he may have heated up the sugar in his sauce too close to that 300 degree mark (without going past to create caramel) and wound up with candy instead of sauce. Not to rub it in or anything (too much), but Jay’s “numbers complicate things” philosophy may have gotten the best of him here – my thermometer was ready for the taking. Just saying is all.

Course 2 — Bluefish on Blue Hubbard with a Deep-Fried Brussels Sprout Salad

Bluefish

For the Blue Hubbard Puree:

-4 strips of bacon
-Maybe one cup of chicken stock
-Butter to taste
-1 Blue Hubbard squash, seeded and cut into sections
-About ½ cup shitake mushrooms, stems removed, rough chopped
-½ Onion, diced
-Several cloves of garlic, diced
-Real maple syrup
-Salt, pepper, oil

For the Bluefish:

-One large fillet of bluefish – about 1.5 pounds
-Salt, pepper, paprika, oil

For the Fried Brussels Sprout Salad:

-About 2 cups of fresh brussels sprouts
-Enough oil to deep fry
-Salt
-Decent balsamic vinegar
-¼ large onion, fine diced

To garnish:

-½ cup oyster mushrooms
-Salt
-Butter

Drizzle squash with oil, salt, pepper, and maple syrup. Cook in 350 F oven until generally soft. Cool enough to handle and scoop out flesh from the thick skin with a spoon. Set aside. Cook bacon in sauté pan until just shy of crispy. Remove and set aside. Sauté onion and shitake in bacon fat until soft. Add garlic and squash and sauté lightly. Add chicken stock and bacon, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a blender. Blend thoroughly, adding more stock if necessary. Since I (and probably you too) don’t have a vita-prep, you’ll probably need to scrape down the sides often and really work that blender. Emulsify with small amounts of butter as needed, maybe 3 tablespoons. Season with salt, pepper, paprika, and more maple syrup if necessary. Keep warm.

Check fish for scales and bones, wash, and carefully portion with a sharp knife. Cut a few diagonal slits in the skin of each portion (so it doesn’t curl up when cooked). Season with salt, pepper, and paprika and let it sit for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, sauté oyster mushrooms until soft and caramelized in olive oil. Set aside. Heat enough olive oil to deep fry to 360 F. Remove stem/core of Brussels sprouts, cut alternately into halves and quarters, and break up mostly into individual leaves. Deep fry in batches until mostly brown and crispy. Dry on paper towels and gently blot excess oil. Add salt. Meanwhile sauté fish skin side down in olive oil over medium high heat until crispy. Flip fish over and transfer to a 375 F oven until done, just a few minutes.

Add raw onions and balsamic to Brussels sprouts. Spread puree on plate with a spatula swoosh-motion thing, and place fish touching this at a right angle. Spoon Brussels sprout salad over fish and open areas of plate. Garnish with sautéd oyster mushrooms.

Cook’s thoughts:  This was a fairly ambitious dish, just in terms of how many things had to be done at the last minute, each requiring a good deal of attention. Also, the fried Brussels sprouts are among my favorite things, but the salad’s sharp flavors have the potential to drive off potential eaters (I usually put capers and anchovies in this type of salad if it’s just for myself). I had one problem in execution – the fish sat off the heat longer than I wanted it to so the skin wasn’t crispy anymore. But otherwise, it was executed quite well, I thought. I was again happy with this dish. It showcased most of what I want to do when I cook – delicious protein, contrasting textures, complex flavors, technically sound, perhaps even a bit innovative. I lucked out that the piece of fish I bought was glorious. God, I love bluefish. That said, whenever a dish gets as complicated as this one, there’s the potential to lose your eaters to confusion in between bites. I know I was docked use of ingredient points (a squash puree, even a good one that pairs nicely with the rest of the dish, is not that impressive and was not center stage), but if I remember correctly this dish scored the worst out of my three dishes. I don’t think that was all on account of use of ingredient. The strange thing is it might be the dish I’m most proud of.

Jay’s spiced lamb in a bowl of acorn squash was excellent. As usual, Jay’s use of spice was fascinating and bold. The glaze on the squash along with its sweet flesh gave the lamb a sweeter flavor than most meat dishes I’ve ever had – and the spiced lamb held up to it beautifully. There were a few minor issues with it, just as there were issues with mine. I personally thought the lamb could use more salt, but no one else mentioned this. What they did mention was that the squash was too difficult to scoop out. I don’t mind having to work for my food, but my complaint is similar – there wasn’t quite enough squash to scoop. I happen to know Jay used squash in a similar way prior to this battle. And when he made it, he used entrée-sized portions. I suspect that in sizing this down to competition portions, he merely chose squashes that didn’t have enough meat to get soft and easy to scoop. A minor problem in a tasty dish, but costly in a competition as tough as this one was.

Course 3 — Frozen Pumpkin Parfait on a Mint Tuile

Pumpkin Parfait

For the Mint Tuile:

-Handful of mint, minced
-¾ (or so) stick of unsalted butter, softened
-Confectioners sugar
-Flour
-1 egg white

For the Pumpkin Parfait:

-9 egg yolks
-1 cup heavy cream
-Sugar
-Pumpkin puree
-Cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt

For the Dulce De Leche:

-1 quart milk
-1.5 cups sugar
-½ teaspoon of baking soda
-2 vanilla beans, opened with seeds

For Garnish:

-Blue hubbard seeds
-Oil, salt, sugar
-Mint leaves

To make the frozen parfait, you start with a Pate a Bombe- you mix roughly 2/3 cup sugar with just enough water to make a liquid and heat it to 250 F. Meanwhile whip egg yolks thoroughly. Slowly mix sugar into whipped egg yolks while continuing to whip. Heat mixture in double boiler while mixing until thickened. You now have Pate a Bombe. Season with spices, heavy on the cardamom. Whip cream to stable peaks. Add pumpkin puree and sugar to taste. Whip this mixture into Pate a Bombe mixture. Taste. When the sweetness, amount of pumpkin, and spice all taste perfect, add just a little more of each – freezing dampens these flavors. Spoon into a cupcake tin and freeze for a few hours. Before serving, remove from freezer and allow to melt just slightly.

For the tuile, heat oven to 350 F and mix the ingredients together (roughly equal parts sugar and flour) until a thick paste is formed. Spread this paste thinly and evenly on parchment paper lined trays. Bake until browned at the edges – I dunno, 10 minutes? Carefully peel off parchment paper and while still hot, lay serving sized pieces over upside down bowls or cups. Allow to harden.

For dulce de leche, heat ingredients slowly to a near boil and then gently simmer down, stirring frequently for about three hours until thick and dark brown. Remove vanilla bean shells after 1 hour.

For toasted seeds, first wash and dry seeds thoroughly. Quickly blanch in hot oil to help remove excess water and squash fibers. Toss in oil salt and sugar and bake in 350 F oven until browned and crispy.

To serve, place tuile in center of plate and place parfait on tuile. Drizzle with dulce de leche and sprinkle on toasted seeds. Add mint leaf garnish.

Cook’s thoughts: Another good dish. Biggest complaint was the texture of the seeds was somewhere between chewy and crunchy. Not entirely sure how to fix that one as I left them in the oven as long as I could without the toasted flavor becoming really overpowering, but I’ll keep working on it. I also wanted the tuiles to look a bit nicer than they did. Once again, sloppy technique and lack of space was to blame. I needed a bigger oven, one more pan, and a steadier hand. The dulce de leche (which I made prior to this competition) was sorta slopped on rather than artfully drizzled. It was too cold to drizzle well and I hated to let everything else sit while I warmed it up. Despite all this, I still thought it was a pretty impressive dessert, especially as I don’t have an ice cream maker. I liked the pairing of pumpkin pie flavors with mint – I thought it worked well and was a bold choice.

Jay’s dessert was fantastic. Unfortunately, it was only subtly sweet and it suffered from following my much sweeter dessert – your palate was blown out when you first tasted it. Upon first bite, his was one-note sour. But after cleansing my palate with a swig of beer, his dessert was magical, running deep with flavor and texture. Someone commented that the dessert could use some apples or pears in the mix –that may be true, but this dessert was all about the squash and any more fruit, while singing a helpful high note, would also take the spotlight away from the squash. I personally thought his dish was gently calling out for a dollop of barely sweetened vanilla whipped cream, but maybe I just like whipped cream a little too much.

Final Score

Jay:  378.5

Rob:  435.5

Gang colors, you dig?Jay’s Final Thoughts: It wasn’t much of a surprise, really.  Not after I tasted the second dishes, at any rate.  While I did not serve anything I’m ashamed of, I failed to set the bar high enough on a night Rob was particularly on top of his game.

Squash soup is a delicious thing.  I considered making one myself (which would have been a far better use for that tough blue hubbard), but decided against it in round one.  Rob’s soup was good, but I have to say I thought the spice level in the soup and drizzled Sriracha were a little over the top and may have hid some of the lighter and more subtle notes.  I say this with the addendum that this might just be my problem.  No judges seemed to mind, so maybe the years of hot curry, chicken wings and chili have dulled my senses to the point that the other offerings in Rob’s dish were drowned out due to the contrast.

I looked at Rob’s bluefish and for a moment I thought I had this course in the bag.  It looked a little slapdash, and the main ingredient was a mere orange smear on the plate.  Mind you, that was before I took a bite.  While I think one could still find issue with the structure of the dish with regard to WPCWL’s “use of ingredient” criterion, there is precious little else to complain about.  The bluefish was clearly the star, but the puree was a really fun and unexpected companion for it.  The judges didn’t like this one as much, which is surprising to me.  Actually, now that we’re on the topic, I’ve noticed that Rob and I agree with each other more often than we agree with the judges.  Interesting.

One thing I did not agree with, however, was his use of seeds in the third round.  I like food.  Obviously, I’m enough of a foodie to subject my kitchen and psyche to these grueling contests periodically.  There are few things in the culinary would that I just don’t like.  Olives, and seeds.  I never got pumpkin seeds, and I cannot stand sunflower seeds (although I admit they could just be a stand-in for chewing tobacco and not of much use otherwise and I’d never know).  It’s like, “hey, you wanna chew on some wood for a while?”  Rob’s prep took a lot of this fibrous nastiness out of the equation, but I still would have preferred some toasted nuts in place of the squash seeds on his otherwise delicious final dish.

I think the main reason I lost was because I was totally outclassed as far as technique.  I always knew Rob had more tricks up his sleeve, but he certainly did not hold back this time.  Consequently, his well-flavored dishes were all the more impressive when the judges got hold of them.  You know you’re in trouble when your rival is actually teaching you shit in the kitchen — during the competition itself — as he did while making the pumpkin parfait.

There is much I do not know.  Typically, I’d rely upon my own method-from-madness-style of cooking to pull out the win, but that proved to be insufficient this time around.  Lesson learned.  And now we’re all tied up.

I think this is getting easier.  Not only are Rob and I a well-oiled machine sharing a kitchen at this point, but we started earlier and that helped a lot.  Although, I did notice I had some time to just stand around due to the fact that I rely on a lot of quick cooking and I didn’t want the prepared food to just lie there on the counter getting cold and gross until it was time to serve.  That’s really just my problem, though.

It was a great battle, though.  I did my best, but Rob was really on top of things and deserved the win.  However, I mentioned this the night of the contest and I want to re-iterate it here for all to see.  We are holding the WPCWL hostage for a time.  It is time for new blood.  Get involved and take the plunge.  I’ll continue to host them if that’s the issue.  I want to see some more competition before you get to see the thrilling grudge match conclusion to break the tie between Rob and me.

Rob's so sweet, he needs to add salt.Rob’s Final Thoughts: When we started the Western Pennsylvania Culinary Warfare League, I had a vision in mind. Or maybe more like a happy daydream. In that vision, my opponent and I would serve plate after plate of delicious, surprising, and impressive food, the quality and conception of which are clearly pushing the borders of ‘home cooking.’ The service would be smooth and timely. The judges would alternate between having impassioned discussions about the merits and shortcoming of the dishes in front of them and just being delighted by the food. The Dual of the Squash Bucklers came about as close to that daydream as I could have hoped. It was exhilarating to be a part of it, and I hope I don’t sound too boastful when I say that I am proud of participating in this battle.

Of course, because it was my lame little daydream, I always won in the end. And so I did here, but to focus on that seems like missing the forest for the trees – it was a night of really great food with few slipups and highly coordinated timing between Jay and myself. Jay’s dishes were delicious, playful, unique, pretty, and ballsy. He stayed true to his own style and pulled off dishes that I could not have made.

Of course some of the success of the night was due to starting earlier in the day. Just a couple hours earlier into Pittsburgh seemed to make a world of difference. Also helpful – the grocery store had a table full of squashes like you wouldn’t believe. It was beautiful and so timely. I couldn’t imagine a better ingredient for this time of year. People will never believe that it was drawn completely by random on the day of the showdown. Our judges were especially awesome this time around as well – some very well versed in food and food preparation. We got great comments on this meal – detailed accounts of what did and did not work for individual diners, and why. That kind of feedback is completely invaluable.

I liked the format of this battle. It led to a good dinner, I believe. However, Mark (who was not there, incidentally) pointed out the next day that I clearly outspent Jay. This is true. While I hold that I in no way try to ‘buy’ a win, I must admit that crab is more expensive than ground lamb. In part I think that my spending more is a direct result of our cooking styles – I prefer cooking seafood for starters, and that tends to run more expensive. I also lean towards more elaborate dishes. With more ingredients. This is not a value judgment – my style has hurt me at times, leading to overly fussy dishes with poor flavor (remember my swordfish with grape sauce?), dishes that lack of focus (my peirogi?) or dishes poorly executed due to too many elements and not enough time (braised pork with raisin macadamia sauce). But in any case, that’s my style. Take it or leave it. I’d hate to think, however, that this competition can be bought. So, readers out there in Readerland, PA – any suggestions? Jay, is this a problem? Is it beside the point or is it working its way right into the point’s quavering heart?

I hope this battle was enjoyed by all who were there. I certainly enjoyed it.

So… anyone new willing to step up and battle?

BONUS!

Live Twitter coverage can be found at http://www.twitter.com/wpcwl. Warning: may contain course language, lurid descriptions, and a general lack of regard for civility.  Reader discretion is advised.

A big thanks to our good friend Chris for making this happen.  I think it would be fun to continue to do this in the future.

DOUBLE BONUS!

For the hell of it: Rob’s Spiked Pumpkin Lassi

-Plain yogurt
-Milk
-Sugar
-Pumpkin Puree
-Brandy
-Honey
-Seasoning

Mix milk and yogurt, 1 part to 2 respectively, in a blender. Mix in pumpkin, honey and sugar to taste. I honestly don’t remember how I seasoned this one, so just wing it. Add Brandy to taste and finish blending. Chill. Serve in mugs with nutmeg sprinkled on top and cinnamon sticks.

WPCWL Battle II: The Potato Bloodbath

Posted in Battles on July 11, 2009 by Jay

potatotitle

Contestants:  Rob and Jay

Venue:  Bowery Way, Lawerencevile

Secret Ingredient:  Potatoes

Judges:  Alex, Jim, Mark, and Paul

Photos:  Alex

Rob’s Menu

Course 1 – Two-Cheese Potato Skins with Chipotle Sauce and Bacon

rob1

7 small russet potatoes
Vegetable oil
Sour cream
8 oz sharp Vermont white cheddar
4 oz smoked Gouda
Large bunch of cilantro
1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
4 strips of thick sliced bacon

For the sauce:
1 large Vidalia onion
2 good medium tomatoes
2 medium Serrano chiles
1 can chicken stock
About 1/8 cup of chopped chipotles
6 Tbsp butter
Black pepper
Smoked paprika
Juice of 1 lime

Serves 7 with sauce left over

Preheat oven to 375. Rub oil on potatoes and bake for 1 hour.  Cut in half lengthwise. With a spoon, scoop out most of the middles, leaving ¼ inch or so of meat on the skins. Reserve for another purpose (pierogi, perhaps). Increase heat in oven to 425. Oil skins again and sprinkle on salt. Bake skins for approx 30 minutes, until edges just start to brown. Remove. Sprinkle on grated cheddar and gouda, and return to the oven. Cook for 10-15 more minutes until cheese is melted and bubbling.  Meanwhile, dice onion and Serranos roughly and saute in vegetable oil over medium heat in large saucepan. Once onion begins to turn translucent, add diced tomatoes and chipotles. Saute for 5 minutes and then add can of chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and then cook for 15 minutes. Transfer to a blender and blend thoroughly. Strain through a fine mesh strainer. Discard pulp. Return to saucepan. Heat to a simmer and add salt, black pepper, and smoked paprika to taste. Add lime juice. Add butter in small chunks one at a time, stirring sauce.  Also meanwhile, fry bacon on a skillet until crispy. Set aside.  In a blender, combine a handful of cilantro (reserving a few sprigs for garnish) and olive oil. Blend. Strain through fine mesh strainer. You now have cilantro oil.  Pour it into an emptied out mustard dispenser.  Spread chipotle sauce on plates. Place two potato skins on each plate on top of sauce. Dollop with sour cream. Pour more chipotle sauce on top of potatoes, but do it artfully. Drizzle drops of cilantro oil all over the place, letting the force guide your hand. Crumble bacon and sprinkle on top of each dish. Garnish with a couple sprigs of cilantro. Serve.

Cook’s Thoughts: This was the only dish of the contest I had made before, or at least had made each constituent part before. Aside from the work involved in making it, the dish was fairly easy — it’s not hard to make cheese and bacon and sour cream taste good together. That said, I have a few minor problems with the way it turned out. The biggest problem — I think I may have used too much sour cream and thus drowned out some of the other flavors. Another problem (worsened by the just-mentioned sour cream misstep) — the chipotle sauce (delicious when used well, by the way) was perhaps too thin to hold up to this format. A chunky salsa using the same flavors might have been better. And finally, I know deep inside that making this dish at all is a cheap trick, since the potato is not truly the star here, but rather a delicious bowl for the more flavorful ingredients. Still, I knew when serving this I should be scoring pretty big on flavor. It went up against Jay’s potato and carrot latkes, and I figure that I took the first round if you don’t notice the cheap trick and Jay took it if you do. Ehh, not a bad dish, all in all – if you ever make it yourself and bring it to a party, it should disappear pretty quickly at least.

Course 2 – Two Kinds of Pierogi in a Brown Butter Sage and Honey Sauce

rob22

For the Dough:
2 Cups flour
1 egg
½ tsp salt
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup softened butter
¼ cup cooked potato

For filling #1:
1 cup cooked potato
½ cup chevre cheese (or so to taste)
1 large handful of fresh basil

Filling #2:
1 cup grated or shaved dry chorizo sausage
About 2 large handfuls of flat leaf parsley
¼ cup ricotta
¼ cup onions (well carmelized in saute pan)

For sauce:
1 stick butter
Large handful of fresh sage leaves
Approx 1 Tbls honey to taste
2 Tbls capers
Splash of plum brandy

Mix ingredients  for dough together. Mix until dough holds together. Dough should be damp initially. Knead in hands for approx 5 minutes – until dough is a bit elastic and somewhat less sticky. Set aside for at least 30 minutes. Mix ingredients for each filling together and set aside. Roll out dough to at most 1/8 inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 3-4 inch diameter circles using cookie cutters or the rim of a cup. Drop a spoonful of filling on each circle. Fold into a vaguely pierogi shape and pinch ends shut. Use a fork to scar the edges in a Mrs. T. fashion. Blanch in salted boiling water until pierogi float, keeping each kind of pierogi separate – approx 3 minutes per batch.
In a sauce pan melt stick of butter over med-high heat until butter begins to brown. Immediately remove pan to cool. After 30 seconds, replace on med low heat. Saute pierogi in butter and add capers and sage leaves, left whole. Once pierogi are slightly crispy,  remove pierogi. Splash plum brandy into pan – watch out for flambé effect. Drizzle with honey to taste and return to stove over low heat until alcohol is burned off. Put one pierogi of each kind on each plate. Drizzle sauce on top, Ensure each plate gets some crispy fried capers and sage leaves. Serve.

Cook’s Thoughts: Two cooks, two peirogi dishes, not the slightest bit of experience making pierogi between us. This could have been much worse than it was. There were several things I was actually quite happy with in this course. The brown butter sauce came out quite nice, in spite of the difficulty I had actually browning the butter – I couldn’t manage to get the pan hot. The potato and chevre filling tasted very good. The texture of the pierogi was right on – I thought I got the texture better than Jay who used a thicker dough. On the other hand, I massacred the shape of the pierogi, mashing them through shear force of will into the vaguest of half moon shapes. Jay’s were much neater. Also the chorizo filling did not turn out as desired. I was very concerned about texture with the dried chorizo. As such, I shaved it as thin as I could and added ricotta and carmelized onions in an attempt to make it palatably soft and creamy. This killed the strong flavors I was hoping for in the first place. I would have been much better off simply with fresh chorizo in small chunks and lots of parsley, forgoing the softer ingredients. Or better yet, I could have skipped the chorizo filling entirely as all it served to do was lose me points on the new judging category, ‘Use of Ingredient.’ The potato and chevre filling was plenty to carry the dish and played very nicely with the sauce.  Jay presented a much more challenging pierogi option for this course – I’m still not sure how I felt about it. I’m also not sure there was a clear winner in this mini battle of the pierogi. If only I had skipped the chorizo filling.

Course 3 – Yam Baklava

rob3

Frozen phyllo dough, thawed
2-3 yams
Honey
½ cup Walnuts
1 can condensed milk
½ cup cream cheese
Approx ¼ cup sugar
Ground Nutmeg
1 stick melted butter
2 eggs

Boil yams until very soft, approx 1 hour. Cool and scoop insides out into a bowl. Add condensed milk and a few tablespoons of honey to taste and mix. Add nutmeg to taste – I used a lot. Split mixture in half. Add egg to one half. Put aside. Mix cream cheese with sugar in another bowl to taste – should be cheesecake-like sweetness. Add egg and mix. Set aside. Toast walnuts on a dry skillet over medium heat. Set aside. On a large oven tray, lay out a sheet of phyllo dough. Brush surface with melted butter – quickly, or else I hear it all goes to shit. Add another sheet and again brush with butter. Repeat until five sheets are piled. Spoon cream cheese mixture on top and spread evenly. Repeat five more sheets of phyllo dough and butter. Spoon on potato and egg mixture. Repeat with 5 more sheets of phyllo dough and butter. Cut into serving-sized squares and carefully spread out over two oven trays. Put into a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, I grew anxious with their lack of browning and turned the heat up to 425 for a few more minutes until the edges were golden brown. Remove from oven. Place dollop of the potato-without-egg mixture on top of each square. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with crumbled toasted walnuts. Serve.

Cook’s thoughts: This was an experiment. I don’t mean that I hadn’t used phyllo dough before – I hadn’t but that’s not the point. I mean that I had no idea what I was making until it came out of the oven, or whether science would permit me to make it. I called it baklava because that’s what it turned out most like. But really, it was phyllo dough with yam filling, and some other stuff to ensure flavor explosions.  Sure there were a few little problems — the fillings were a little too runny prior to cooking to really pile them on (though the egg in them did it’s job nicely once cooked); the phyllo was difficult to work with, and my lack of skill left me with many sloppy edges; the two different pans I used yielded different results, leaving the bottoms of one tray just a bit overdone. But I also made one huge and costly mistake. In plating this dish, I decided I preferred the look of a little dollop of the yam topping to a plate slathered with it. So a dollop it was that the judges were served. But the yam topping was where all that potato (and nutmeg) flavor was hiding. It was delicious. And without very much of it, I lost most of what made this plate interesting and almost all of what made it a potato dish. I’m convinced I lost clutch ‘originality,’ ‘use of ingredient,’ and maybe even ‘flavor’ points because I wanted this plate to look pretty. As it was, Jay also took this course as an opportunity to ask a favor of science and made fritters out of yams. They were delicious, they emanated potato, and they were unlike anything I had ever seen anyone make. I went out of my way to give Jay shit for using store-bought ice cream, but I certainly didn’t roll out my own phyllo dough either. This course was probably the decisive one in our battle.

Jay’s Menu

Course 1 – Masala Latke

IMG_1147

-Golden potatoes, shredded
-Carrots, shredded
-White onion, chopped
-Coconut flakes
-Egg
-Flour
-Ginger, minced
-Olive oil
-Sour Cream
-Red pepper, finely chopped
-Green chili pepper, finely chopped
-Salt, pepper, smoked paprika, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, garam masala

Mix potatoes, carrots, onion,  coconut flakes, and ginger with egg.  I used around three times as much potato as carrot, and a small handful of the coconut.  Season with garam masala, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and paprika.  Add flour until you can shape patties with it.  In a flat pan, heat up a 1/4 to 1/2 inch of olive oil and fry the patties until golden brown.  Mix the peppers into the sour cream, adding cayenne to give it a little kick, as desired.  Serve the latke with a small dollop of sour cream.

Thoughts:  This dish was good, but perhaps a tad reserved.  The flavors should have been far bolder.  If I could do it again, I’d mix chopped aji and chili peppers into the latke batter, while reserving most of the sweetness for the sour cream.  In its original format, the kick came mostly from the scant dressing, which was not sufficient in my opinion.

Course 2 – Smoked Salmon and Raspberry Pierogies

IMG_1161

-Flour
-Sour cream
-Butter
-Egg
-Russet potatoes, cubed, boiled, and mashed
-Cubanelle peppers, finely chopped
-Smoked gouda, grated
-Smoked salmon, shaved
-Fresh red raspberries
-Shallots, minced
-Garlic, minced
-Merlot and raspberry blended wine
-Slivovitz plum brandy, 100 proof

For the dough, use 2 cups of flour, 1 egg, 1/2 cup of sour cream, 1/4 cup of butter, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Knead this until the proper consistency, roll it flat on a floured surface, and cut it into discs with the top of a drinking glass.  Mash the potatoes with the peppers and gouda, and fill each pierogi with that mixture, along with a few small pieces of salmon and one raspberry.  Sauté the shallots and garlic.  When soft and almost clear, add a splash of the brandy.  After the flames subside — oh yeah, there will be flames — add the wine and simmer into a sauce.  After briefly boiling them, sauté the pierogies in butter.  Plate those little bastards when they start to crisp up and top them with the wine reduction.

Thoughts:  Having never made pierogies before, I declared victory in my mind the moment I plated them without rupturing a single one.  The flavor of the filling was generally well-received, but I felt that the raspberry was a little overpowering, and wished I had cut the quantity of that ingredient in half.  The wine reduction was delicious, but very sweet, and I feel that less fruit in the pierogies would have helped them to better compliment it.

Course 3 – Yam Fritters

IMG_1168

-Yams, cubed, boiled, and mashed
-Flour
-Egg
-Honey
-Ginger, minced
-Vegetable oil
-Vanilla ice cream
-Cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar

After vigorously mashing the yams with the minced ginger, add the egg and flour until you have achieved a slightly watery dough.  Mix in the brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg to taste.  In a pot, dutch oven, or deep fryer, heat oil to 325 degrees.  Spoon the dough into the oil and fry, turning periodically, until the surface is evenly browned.  Sprinkle with honey and cinnamon, and serve with a small scoop of ice cream.

Thoughts:  Ah yes.  This dish.  So the plan was to make yam funnel cakes.  I poured a little too much batter which was a little too thick into a pastry bag with an aperture that was a little too small.  There was a moment when it was gushing out of the top and I had to eat it before it fell into the oil.  It was all for naught, however, because once I got that under control, I squeezed it with too much force and the tip of the pastry bag, propelled by pressurized yam dough, fired off into the very hot oil.  Viola, yam fritters!  They were still very tasty.  A few people mentioned they liked the gooey interior and might not have enjoyed the thinner funnel cakes as much.  I don’t know. Those points would likely have transferred to presentation anyway, so we’ll call it a wash.

Final Score

Rob:  246

Jay:  248

rob

Rob’s Final Thoughts: This was an interesting battle for a few reasons.  Bloodshed was one of them. The extremely tight finish, complete with Minnesota-style recounts was another (Jay won by two measly points out of a possible 300).  A third reason was the new scoring rules in which ‘use of ingredient’ now had its own category. It was the deciding factor in this battle.

Personally, I can’t complain. Potato was probably the worst ingredient I personally could have drawn (that or chick peas) especially given my preference for cooking seafood. On the other hand, I didn’t fuck anything up like I did in the grape war. In fact, I fared much better with this, my worst ingredient than I had with grapes, one of my best. I made three respectable dishes that I would eat happily if served. They came out about as well as I could expect given my level of experience with each dish – or better probably. But Jay upped his game and made three dishes that as a whole were slightly more impressive. I got beat fair and square. And that new judging category that fucked me over in this battle? It is an absolute must in any future battle wherein I am a contestant. Making a good dish with potato somewhere in it is easy. Making a good dish that features the potato as its star ingredient is hard. That difficulty should be rewarded. Nonetheless, I’m glad that the potato is no longer a secret ingredient option.

A few things are becoming clear after a second battle though. One is that I am truly hopeful that someone besides me and Jay will step up and compete. Another is that Jay and I have not competed against each other for the last time. Vengeance will be mine. Yet another is that Jay must now have a nakiri (Japanese vegetable knife) for his life to feel complete.  I have learned that my knife skills were not quite what I imagined them to be. Finally, it has become clear that the format of pick an ingredient, devise a menu, go shopping, and cook – all on the same day starting at about 1 PM or so – necessarily involves some waiting on the part of judges and various eaters of food. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the rush and chaos of the day is part of the culinary warfare experience. It is no secret that the inspiration for WPCWL comes from that great fount of ideas, cable TV. Well, Iron Chef contestants agree on their ingredients in advance, work in an enormous kitchen, and have a team of helpers; on Top Chef the contestants typically have only one dish to prepare. But we have multiple complex courses prepared in the spatial equivalent of Emeril Lagasse’s hot tub. The rush and confinement and frenzied brainstorming so far has at least in part defined our battles. Is it worth picking an ingredient earlier and getting prep work out of the way so as not to leave our judges sitting around for so long? I’m not sure. Any opinions from those who were there?

jayJay’s Final Thoughts: Nowhere in the rules which have not yet been officially codified does it say these dishes need to be healthy.  I fried everything and I’m not going to apologize.  Seeing as how we added a category for judging based on how well we used the ingredient, my general strategy for the night was to keep it simple.  I like cooking with potatoes, but there is a fine line between enhancing them and overwhelming them and I tried hard to stay on the good side of that particular dichotomy.  It is a well known fact that potatoes love hot oil, so I just ran with it.  Perhaps the potatoes found themselves in somewhat familiar circumstances, but I like to think I included a supporting cast of flavors that enhanced them in new ways.  Shining a new light seemed to be a better tactic with potatoes rather than trying to re-invent the wheel.

Rob’s dishes were all stellar, in my opinion.  I scoffed mentally at his first for being too conventional in theory, but it was so damn tasty I just can’t argue with it.  As others pointed out — and I agree — his pierogies were made with better dough and had a more pleasing consistency than mine did.  I feel that his dessert was more inventive than mine.  I suspect he would have defeated me in that round if I hadn’t served the judges ice cream after our cooking had raised the temperature in parts of the house to 91 degrees.

I give Rob a lot of credit for carrying on at any pace with that thumb wound, but it takes the true gritt to just wrap that shit up, throw on a rubber glove, and keep fighting the British — err, cooking — as he did.  Maybe we should introduce a blood loss award, although I hope I’m not there if anyone ever manages to overcome Rob’s achievement in that field.

Lessons learned:  It is good that we reduced the number of courses to three.  Four, while manageable, is only barely so and it would have been a serious ordeal this time around.  I think we should also standardize the scoring method.  Some of the judges graded each course while others gave an overall score.  I recommend requesting course-by-course grades from all judges in the future.  Not only would that alleviate some of the confusion we had tabulating the results, but it is likely the best way to get consistent and fair scoring.  I would also be more than happy to share those details here.

While it is tempting to perform a silly celebratory dance, it was just too close to gloat about.  Given the amount of points in the final score and the vagaries of recording them from one judge to another, this victory was really just too narrow.  I’m looking forward to our next bout, but not until Rob has two working thumbs.

Down and Out in Waynesburg, PA

Posted in General Commentary on June 4, 2009 by cowboyardee

The shop n save closed their meat and fish counter. For good. And this sent me into a bitter hate spiral. ‘Why?’ you might ask. Perhaps you’ve seen a shop n save meat and fish counter – slabs of beef available in only the least imaginative cuts and clearly not dry-aged (‘ooooh, sirloin! And… is that fillet?!’), maybe some baby back ribs available on the very special and seasonal occasions when the store bothers to both order some and put them up on display, fillets of tilapia frozen and thawed as though they were flown in from west Africa rather than driven over from Harrisburg (*sooper foodie note* you may soon be able to catch your own tilapia at the mouth of your nearest open sewage dump). Not exactly a shining culinary Mecca, the Shop n Save meat and fish counter.

So why should I care? Because I live in Waynesburg, PA, a bizarre little town near the southern PA/WV border with a population under 5,000 (all white, about 50/50 mix of retirees and bands of roving orphaned boys, very Dickensian in their disregard of age discrepancies within their feral packs). My options for food and dining: the offending Shop N Save, the worst Giant Eagle I have yet been in (I have been to the one in Greenfield – yeah, holy shit, right?), an Aldi’s that let me down on every promise that its presence implied (I vowed after my first visit never to go back), a myriad of fast food options all facing each other along the town’s main ‘business district’ in some kind of tense burger-themed standoff, and a lone diner that serves gloriously Okay breakfast food during the 20 hours a week that it is open. Alternative options? The farmer’s market has been closed since last summer. My own garden is waiting for me to move the 6 tons of dirt needed to dig it. I’ve seen more tires floating in the nearby streams than fish. Waynesburg’s Chinatown section? As soon as I figure out where Waynesburg’s lone Asian resident lives, I’ll make sure to do some B&E and raid his pantry. ‘Why not just buy your groceries during your regular trips to Pittsburgh?’ I can hear some of you thinking. Because… fuck you, dear readers.

But back to the matter at hand. The Shop N Save meat counter. Why did I care? Because sometimes that counter would sell genuinely fresh trout. Wondrously unputrefied fresh salmon. Large, affordable dry-packed sea scallops that never once poisoned me. Hangar steak. Even bluefish once (a quick glance at a calendar reveals that this could not have been my birthday, but it sure felt like it). And best of all, the fellow working the counter KNEW STUFF about what he was selling! He could make recommendations. He hooked me up with 10 lb of turkey carcass on the cheap so I could make stock and ersatz demi-glace. If no one else was around, he would bitch to me that the store’s insistence on buying preformatted meat never let him take a knife to anything anymore (old Tim was a humble painter, and the Shop n Save corporation jacked his brush). I would go to the Shop N Save on principle, even when I only needed milk, just because I knew somewhere in that gray market, someone who cared about food was fighting the good fight. And then they closed him down. I vowed never to go to Shop n Save again.

Stunned, stumbling about in a daze like the wounded animal I was, I found myself crawling back to the grim little meat counter at the Waynesburg Giant Eagle. My options were few, but I did eye up some skin-on fillets of salmon, labeled only as ‘salmon.’ I asked the lady working the counter whether the salmon was fresh or frozen. She didn’t know.

So I asked if I could smell the salmon. This seemed perfectly reasonable to me. But apparently in Waynesburg, PA, asking to smell a piece of fish that one may or may not purchase is tantamount to asking to smell the finger of the salesclerk behind the counter. It was gently implied that I should have done more sweet-talking before making such a bold request. I vowed never to go to the Giant Eagle again.

My pantry is starting to get dusty. Fortunately, recent illness has robbed me of my appetite, but I know that I will be hungry again soon. I fear that I will have to crumble on at least one of my vows soon. And while reflecting upon the cold rage this knowledge produces in me, I come to another unpleasant conclusion. Perhaps I need to watch out, lest I become too embittered. I am starting to resemble any of Clint Eastwood’s latter day roles, and as I’ve already pointed out, there are no young Asian neighbors to bring me back from the brink of nihilism.

So instead of continuing with my bitchfest, I’ve decided to pull a 180 and instead count my blessings. I will sing the praises of those ingredients that are cheap, delicious, and readily available even in a place like Waynesburg.

Bacon:

I have read that lobster was once so common and cheap in the American northeast that prison inmates had to file complaints demanding that they not be served lobster more than a couple times a week. This of course made me nostalgic for a golden era that I never personally lived (most golden eras are like that, right?) Oh, to be incarcerated in Maine’s yesteryear. But this got me thinking – if bacon were to someday sell at a lobster-premium price, would not future generations mourn our own golden era? Bacon is available in (generally) good form at nearly every diner in America. The shittiest of grocery stores are well stocked with it. I can afford to casually begin a stew or braise with it, adding smokiness and savor. I can wrap anything or everything I cook in it, for in the fractured and cliquish world of ingredients, bacon has no enemies. My mother gives it to her cats as treats. The pig is a magical animal, and bacon may just be its greatest gift.

Beef Chuck:

Americans are tenderness snobs. Wait. I write that as though I’ve been to other places- choked down some gristle in Lebanon, gnawed on shark cartilage in New Zealand, ate glass and bullet casings in Somalia, compared and contrasted with my home country’s tastes. Let me revise. Most Americans care waaay more about tenderness than I do. And beyond that, most Americans know very little about methods of preparation to use less tender cuts and foodstuffs to their fullest. Hence the popularity (and high price) of fillet mignon, a cut so generally lacking in flavor that any half decent steak house feels compelled to make a sauce for it to swim in. Chuck is perhaps the most versatile and widely available of lesser beef cuts. I myself am a huge fan of both braising and smoking. Hate all that chewy connective tissue? After a good braise, that tissue is magically absent, transformed into gelatin that enhances both flavor and feel of the meat. But put aside the obvious treatments of tough meat. Have you ever tried taking a chewier piece and cutting it into batonnets (think moderately thick French fries)? Get a pan or a wok good and proper hot (vegetable oil should smoke on it), open a window, and stir fry that sumbitch. For god’s sake, don’t cook it past medium rare. That chewiness you hated so much in your steak is now enhancing the texture of your stir fry. And all you had to do was cut it differently. You suckers can keep paying top dollar for your sirloin and your fillet and your ribeye (okay, I buy ribeye any time I can afford it). Chuck is where it’s at.

Strawberries:

Am I the only one who has noticed that the strawberries carried by most grocers have been getting better and better? Growing up, I remember eating bland, stiff, underripe strawberries and wondering how the starburst flavor I loved most could come from such a pitiful little fruit. I cannot explain where the change comes from. Perhaps strawberries were just worse in Philadelphia and I didn’t notice the difference in the western part of the state until I had been here for years and my wife began buying them regularly. Perhaps, heinous corporate-farm practices have resulted in widely available mutant berries, larger and sweeter than the honest berries I once knew. Perhaps I am only fooling myself, as I have since learned a bit about buying produce in season and I am simply no longer eating the unripe specimens of my childhood. I have no idea whether they are jacked up with some mixture of pesticides, evil, and alien hormones. I don’t really care. Finally strawberries that make my shredded wheat look like the sorry excuse for a background player it truly is.

Chicken livers:

I sense I may have an uphill battle to fight here. Fine. It’s liver. Deal with it. You know what foie gras costs? About $50/pound. You know what chicken liver costs? A buck fitty. Cook it in enough butter and you won’t know the difference.

Canned tomatoes:

Think back to the last time you bought tomatoes in February. Remember how they looked red, like real tomatoes? How when you cut into them they felt (for the most part) like real tomatoes? And when you finally tasted them… you still hadn’t tasted them. Wouldn’t it be nice, you thought then, if someone took delicious ripe tomatoes and somehow preserved them, so that I might enjoy them throughout the year? I could then use them when my dish called for tomatoes instead of merely for red. Wouldn’t it be nice if this magical ‘anytime’ tomato was cheap and readily available at even my shitty neighborhood Giant Eagle?

Sriracha:

Sriracha simply blows away every other hot sauce I’ve tasted. It goes well on or in practically everthing. With its big bright flavors, it reminds you that peppers are a tasty and vibrant vegetable, not merely a vehicle for capsaicin. And by some freak accident of globalism, it is now available freaking EVERYWHERE. Waynesburg has shelves full of it.

Citrus fruits:

By magic intrinsic to the fruit itself, citrus maintains its ripeness gloriously well off the tree. And as opposed to, say peaches, adequately ripe citrus fruit is not a hindrance to shipping. Its not grown locally. I don’t give a fuck. You like fresh-tasting food? You want your food to taste fresh also? Or perhaps you just like oranges? Hate scurvy?

Corn:

Lets bring it home. Despite all my bitching, there are benefits to living in western PA, even Waynesburg. Yeah, our seafood may suck, but I’ve heard that I should have access to artisanal German charcuterie, though I’ve yet to find it. There may be sheep and goats nearby, though I’ve yet to find them. But here is my personal favorite – in season, we have some damn fine corn. It’s sweet. It’s yellow. It tastes like corn, only more so. Brings a tear to my eye.

On the other hand, If I ever find out that corn in, say, NY or Florida or Nevada is just as good as ours during the summer months, I’m gonna have some pretty nasty shit to say about the Commonwealth.

Next Entry – What I Know About Knives

Chicken and Tofu Skewers

Posted in Cooking on April 21, 2009 by Jay

Gotta love this kind of party.  Less time cooking and serving, more time participating in the revelry.  Although the mess generated by said drunken debauchery remains pretty constant, it’s nice that dinner only involves a few sticks.  Saturday morning, Jim and I picked up chicken from Wholey’s, tofu from Lotus, and a selection of skewer-friendly vegetables from Stan’s.  The chicken and tofu (lightly fried to keep it together) were then marinated in sauces I’d prepared the previous afternoon.

Cubanelle Orange BBQCubanelle Orange Barbecue

Apple Cider Vinegar
Molasses
Tomato Sauce
Cubanelle Peppers
Orange (juice and zest)
Onion
Garlic

Blended ingredients.  Added salt and pepper to taste.  I foolishly added too much tomato paste to thicken it up.  Later on it did that all on it’s own and the end result was a little gooey and tasted too much like tomato and not enough like a BBQ sauce.  It was the first such sauce I’ve tried to make, however.

Too sweet, but not a bad idea.  The clear third place in my lineup

Mango Masala

Mango Masala

Mango
Olive Oil
Apple Cider Vinegar
Chili Peppers
Onion
Garlic
Cinnamon
Garam Masala
Curry Powder

I could have used coconut milk and made a more traditional curry instead of this, which was more like a dressing.  However, I have no idea how well a coconut milk base will work as a marinade.  Must investigate.

Generally a success.  Some liked it more than the Habanero.

Habanero PineappleHabanero Pineapple

Pineapple (fruit and juice)
Habanero Peppers
Cilantro
Olive oil
Apple Cider Vinegar
Garlic
Onion
Masochism

This was my personal favorite.  It had been some time since I last cooked with habaneros, and I feared I might go overboard.  Fortunately, it didn’t go down like that.  The sauce was certainly spicy, but not overwhelming, and the sweetness of the pineapple complemented the peppers nicely.

At one point, people were eating this alone on tortilla chips.

We supplemented the skewers with grilled zucchini slices, lemonade, home brewed oatmeal stout, and the old standby, Yeungling Lager.  I’d like to do more with the habanero sauce.  Maybe throw in some diced tomatoes and make a proper salsa out of it.  Hell, I’d bathe in it if that didn’t sound horrifically painful.

Grillin

Here’s Rob enjoying his all-meat skewer.Rob

Imperial Rye Pale Ale

Posted in Brewing on April 3, 2009 by Jay

At the end of May, my family is holding a reunion.  To commemorate the occasion, I told them I’d be brewing a special reunion ale, as beer making has recently become a hobby for us.  Upon hearing this, my dad decided to throw down the gauntlet and brew one as well.  Other than pride, no stakes have been determined yet, but this is the Western Pennsylvanian Culinary Warfare League.  What is more important than pride?

My friends and I have brewed several times since we first got into it last year.  In our IPA, the hops got lost somewhere, but it still tasted okay, like a light ale with honey.  Our second beer was a porter with an entire pound of double strength coffee beans added.  This one was a major success, some of the beginner’s missteps were certainly covered up by the excellent choice of ingredients.  For winter, we brewed a nut brown ale with raisins and cinnamon and a chocolate mint porter.  The former was likely the best beer we’ve made thus far while the latter was, well, a learning experience.  Don’t use powdered chocolate.  However, it improved significantly after conditioning for a few months.  I have an oatmeal stout in bottles now, and I expect it will be tasty when I open the first one in a couple of weeks.

For the reunion, I decided to brew an ale with lots of rye and hops, something inspired by Terrapin’s Rye Pale Ale and Bear Republic’s Hop Rod Rye.  I like a beer that isn’t afraid of the sharper notes of hops and rye, and I feel that those two are excellent examples of the style.  I may add bourbon to it, but I want to wait and see how it tastes after fermentation.

ingredientsIngredients:
•Ironmaster Imperial Pale Ale malt syrup
•1/2 lb. (roughly) flaked rye
•1/2 lb. (roughly) Victory malted barley
•1 oz. Cascade Hops (pellets)
• Malt Extract

Tools:
•Large stock pot
•Brewing pail with airlock
•Disinfecting solution
•Large spoon
•Cheesecloth
•String
•Rolling pin
•Goggles (for science!)

First, I used a rolling pin on the grain, just enough to split the husks on the seeds.  Since my cheesecloth wasn’t going to be ablegrain to contain the whole deal at once, I wrapped them separately.  I filled my stock pot with cold water and turned the heat on.  The grain packets were clasped with the string, and I left the ends long enough to easily retrieve them from the pot when they were finished.

I steeped the grain bags in the heating water like tea, and removed them just as the water in the pot began to boil.  Holding them above the pot, I poured a small amount of cold water through them to make sure I had extracted as much as possible.

The malt syrup and extract were added next to the boiling concoction.  Before I started, I placed the syrup can in some hot water because that stuff is very viscous and hard to get out even at room temperature.  I don’t recall exactly how much malt extract I used in this beer because I measured it out months ago when I brewed the Stout, but it should create a beer with an alcohol content around 7 or 8 percent, I think.

At this point, the boiling liquid began to develop a very thick and frothy buildup on its surface.  I was careful to keep stirring with my spoon, as it can boil over during this phase.  Not only would that be a shameful waste of beer ingredients, effort, and time, but a mess more horrific than the aftermath of the Grape War.  With the doors and windows open to mitigate the pungent odor, I let it boil hopsfor a good while.

For the final ten minutes of boiling, I added the hops.  Although I didn’t pony up for the whole hop buds, I decided to get pellets of the good stuff.  Cascade hops.  I recently went to Oh Yeah! which is an ice cream and waffles joint in Shadyside that boasts an insane array of toppings.  I had cookie dough ice cream with hops on it.  This is how much I love hops.  I would have put some in much earlier, but the syrup contains the hops needed for the baseline bitterness.  I would have put more in at the end, but my family doesn’t like the flavor as much as I do.

Adding these hops at the end will let them stand out a bit, and they’ll be more present in the nose.  Hopefully, the rye will dominate the body.  The nice thing about beer is that as long as you do it right, you’ll probably have something drinkable.  It may not be exactly what you’d planned, though.

After the hops had boiled for about ten minutes, I removed the pot from the heat and allowed it to cool.  I also removed the yeast from its packet and primed it in a little warm water.  When the pot had cooled sufficiently, I poured it into the sterilized brewing pail, filled it with water, added the yeast, and sealed it shut.  I intend to rack it to the secondary vessel in about five days, and then let it ferment for about a month total.

Future brewing projects on the docket include a smoked ale with chili peppers and a belgian style white with citrus.  Stay tuned.

WPCWL Battle I: The Grape War

Posted in Battles on March 12, 2009 by Jay

Contestants:  Rob and Jay

Venue:  Bowery Way, Lawrenceville

Secret Ingredient:  Grapes

Judges: Mark and Paul

Rob’s Menu

Course 1 – Marinated grape salad with scallops and sashimi tuna

Serves 2
Ingredients (roughly):
2 radishes, sliced thin
½ cup shaved or julienne-cut fennel
¼  cup diced red onion
Small handful of radish greens

8 sea scallops (depending on size of scallops), fresh, dry packed
1-2 tbsp Butter for pan

2 oz sashimi grade yellowfin tuna

Handful of fresh mint, minced
Juice of 1 lime
1/3 cup of good olive oil
2 tbsp of apple cider vinegar
About 8 large grapes, cut in half and seeded

Marinate grapes in oil, lime juice, vinegar, mint, and a pinch of salt and black pepper for at least 40 minutes. Heat butter in pan over medium high heat. Rinse and thoroughly dry scallops with a paper towel. Season scallops with salt and pepper. When the butter begins to brown, saute the scallops, still medium high, turning once. Arrange the salad ingredients on two plates with marinated grapes.  Top with scallops. With a sharp knife,=2 0cut the tuna thin, sprinkle with salt, and use to garnish. Dress with the marinade.

Cook’s thoughts: This was a good dish and it came out well. I daresay, it kicked ass in the first round. It’s also quite easy to make, as long as you know how not to fuck up your scallops.

Course 2 – Swordfish amandine with asparagus and red wine grape sauce

Serves 2
Ingredients
2 cups Red wine
2 cups of black grapes, seedless
1 Chipotle pepper
Juice from ½ lemon

¼ cup sliced almonds
12 oz fresh swordfish steak
Vegetable oil for pan

Asparagus, woody parts of stalk removed

Put the grapes and chipotle in the food processor and pulse for a few seconds.  In a wide pan, simmer the grape mixture in the red wine until liquid is reduced by half. Strain through a fine strainer and season to taste. Add lemon juice. Keep warm. In another pan, saute asparagus in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.  In yet another pan, toast the almonds in oil over medium heat until light brown, stirring frequently. Remove from pan to a bowl lined with a paper towel and add salt to taste.  Turn heat under now-empty almond pan to med-high. Add more oil if needed. Season swordfish with salt and pepper. Just before oil begins to smoke, add swordfish to pan. Cook turning once, until just barely cooked through. To plate, slice fish thin. Arrange a bed of asparagus and place fish on top. Cover with almonds and then add sauce.

Cook’s thoughts: This dish was not especially well thought out. For starters, most fish would have been better than swordfish here. For another, the sauce would probably have been better left unstrained and modified as sort of a grape slaw or chutney. That said, as poorly thought out as this dish was, it was executed even worse.  The dish wasn’t salted properly, the fish was poorly and unevenly cooked (and also had sort of a weird flavor for fresh swordfish), and the sauce never thickened up and was just limp purple liquid, too sweet, not enough body or acidity or bite. I had some moments of real, intense shame watching other people politely try to force this down when I myself had thrown away most of my portion. It was gross. If you do make this dish (not really advised), make it better than I did. This course easily went to Jay.
On the other hand, I don’t know how I managed a tie overall after serving this crap. If I were Jay, I don’t know how I’d feel about that. Just saying is all.

Course 3 – Braised pork with fried potatoes and raisin-macadamia nut sauce

Serves many
Braising liquid
1 ¼ quart chicken stock, low sodium
2 cups grape juice (sparkling cuz that’s what I had)
1 tbsp good dried thyme
1 tsp cumin
1 tbsp paprika
6 cloves garlic, minced

1 pork shoulder
Oil for pan

Added to pork at end
¼ cup Cilantro, minced
½ cup raisins, roughly chopped
1-2 lemons
More cumin paprika and thyme
1 ½ cup porcino mushrooms, small and uncut
1-2 tbsp butter to saute mushrooms

Potatoes
Several cups of veg oil for deep frying
2-3 large potatoes, grated and drained

Sauce
1 c Macadamia nuts
½ cup raisins
½ tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 275. Salt the pork shoulder. Sear over high heat until browned on all sides. In a large pot, combine the first grouping of ingredients.  Add the pork shoulder and braise in the oven for 2 ½ hours.  In a smaller pot, heat a few inches of oil to 300 deg.  Add grated potatoes in batches and fry until golden brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels. Salt before serving. In a separate skillet, toast macadamia nuts and raisins over high heat, stirring constantly, until the raisins puff up and the macadamia nuts just begin to brown, about 1-2 minutes. Remove to a blender. Once the pork is done, add enough braising liquid from the pork to cover the nuts and raisins in the blender. Add juice of ½ lemon. Puree the mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with cinnamon. Strain puree through fine strainer, pushing down on solids to extract all liquid. Sauté porcino mushrooms in butter until soft. Break up the pork (it should fall apart with little effort) and add raisins, cilantro, mushroo ms, juice of 1 lemon, cumin, paprika, thyme, black pepper, and salt to taste.  Put on bed of potatoes and then cover with sauce. Serve with ultra thin slice of lemon on top, intact but with rind removed, just to show them who’s their daddy.

Cook’s thoughts-  This dish was good, though not a complete success. For starters, the potatoes were supposed to be in the shape of a basket that held the rest of the dish. As it was, they were a little pedestrian and the presentation was just ugly. Also, I didn’t quite get the seasoning right, though it certainly wasn’t bad. The grape juice didn’t really come through in the braise. Finally, the sauce might have benefited from a little heat. But then again, maybe not.  All that stuff aside, this was still pretty tasty. Unfortunately, on this course Jay made an awesome lamb curry, and so this one had to share the stage, at the very least.  One minor note – I really thought this sauce was pretty delicious and original, deserving of more adulation than it got. On the other hand, I was not physically beaten for the previous course, so it all evens out in a karmic sort of way. I don’t know who took this course, but I suspect it may have been Jay, damn him.

Course 4 – Lollipops and Candy

Serves many

Lollipops
Large red seedless grapes – the best you can find
Lollipop sticks
Sugar
Water
Corn syrup
Cream of tartar powder
Fresh tarragon
0A
Candy
1 stick Butter
½ c Sugar
¼ c corn syrup
Raisins, chopped walnuts, and peanut butter chips for topping

In a pot, heat sugar, water, corn syrup and cream of tartar powder for lollipops. The ratio of corn syrup/water/sugar is 1 /2 /4.  For a cup of sugar, use ¼ tsp cream of tartar. Heat on med high heat uncovered. At the beginning, add tarragon, but remove after the mixture reaches about 240. Also at the beginning, brush any lingering sugar crystals down the inside of the pan with a wet pastry brush. Heat to 300 degrees – hard crack stage. This apparently may take a while. Remove the pan from the heat and dip grapes on the ends of lollipop sticks into the hot sugar mixture. Be careful because the sugar at this point is essentially napalm without the bright flames or human misery. Immediately dunk the lollipops in cold water, then set aside.
Meanwhile, heat the butter, sugar, and corn syrup for the toffee over medium high heat. Again, do the brush thing.  Heat to 300.  At that point, remove from heat and pour into a wide, long, flat pan lined with parchment paper. If you don’t have parchment paper, you can use wax paper and then wish you had parchment paper. On top, add raisins, walnuts, and peanut butter chips. Once the mixture cools, break into pieces and serve along with lollipops.

Cook’s thoughts: This was a disappointing dish, mostly because it was a cool idea that I botched. I could not get the s ugar up to 300 (I was using a very small pan and flames from high heat were escaping around the sides). So essentially I made the stickiest, chewiest lollipops ever. At some point, someone tried to comment but found they could not physically open their mouths, It was actually pretty funny, aside from the shame. The toffee was also marred by too-low cooking temperature and using too much butter for my sugar, which left it greasy and a bit too chewy, Also, wax paper stuck to large portions of the toffee, but hopefully not to anything anyone ate.  At least everything generally tasted good, though not balls-blastingly so. With the errors in execution, this could have been an easy course for Jay to take.  But he decided to aggressively season his rice pudding with cloves (delicious, btw), which was met generally with scorn for reasons beyond me. So probably a toss up.

Jay’s Menu

Course 1 – Grape, chickpea, and cucumber salad in yogurt

-Red seedless grapes
-Chickpeas
-Cucumbers, peeled and chopped
-Plain yogurt
-Fresh mint, minced
-Garlic, chopped
-Lemon juice
-Salt, pepper, paprika

Mix all solid ingredients, add enough yogurt to coat, season to taste, and chill before serving.

Thoughts:  This one was neither particularly inventive nor was it brave.  It was certainly tasty, but I think it could have been a little more balanced.  The sweetness of the cucumbers, yogurt, and grapes overwhelmed the other flavors a little more than I had intended.  In the future, I’d balance the portions of those ingredients a little better.  It was merely adequate and almost certainly forgotten in the shadow of Rob’s towering scallops and sashimi salad, so whatever.

Course 2 – Cubanelle peppers stuffed with sweet and spicy pork sausage

-Ground Pork, 30% fat if I recall
-Hot peppers, chopped (jalapeño, anaheim, aji, and poblano)
-Garlic, chopped
-Spanish onion, chopped
-Raisins
-Lime
-Green apple, peeled and chopped
-Pear, peeled and chopped
-Fresh cilantro, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin
-Cubanelle peppers, halved and ribbed
-Cheddar cheese, grated

Brown the meat with the hot peppers, garlic, lime juice, zest, and seasonings.  After browned, drain away excess fat and mix with chopped fruit.  Fill cubanelle halves with sausage mixture and bake on low heat until the peppers begin to soften.  Top with cheddar cheese, melt and serve.

Thoughts:  I felt this meal was well conceived as far as the flavors are concerned, but it could have used some work in the format and presentation departments.  As he ate it, Mark commented that the meat mixture belonged in a sausage casing, and I think he’s right about that.  I lacked the tools and time for that, sadly, because cooking it as a proper sausage would have helped the flavors combine better.  I think if I made it like this again, I would devise some sort of sauce to apply before baking.  The meal was a bit dry and not very cohesive.  I would also make it spicier, but my own tolerance for heat is pretty high and I didn’t want to overwhelm the judges.  I may have over-compensated, however.  It could have had more bite.

Course 3 – Seared lamb with a sweet raisin sauce and roasted red pepper

-Lamb shoulder steak, cubed
-Raisins
-Sweet onion, chopped
-Red pepper, roasted and sliced
-Garlic, chopped
-Pita bread, sliced and toasted
-Olive oil
-Coconut milk
-Red pepper flakes, garam masala, smoked paprika, curry powder, salt, pepper

Sauté onions, garlic, and raisins in olive oil, salt, and garam masala on med-high heat.  The raisins will swell up and the onions will eventually become almost transparent.  Add coconut milk, simmer, and reduce into a thicker sauce.  Toss lamb cubes in red pepper flakes, curry, smoked paprika, salt, and pepper.  Sear on high heat as desired (I went with medium-well).  Place lamb cubes on pita slices, add sauce, and top with roasted red pepper.

Thoughts:  Certainly my strongest dish of the contest.  This round was a real toss-up.  I know Rob’s potato cups failed, but his pork dish was tasty as hell.  We were pretty fatigued at this point, and we had one more dish left to cook, so I admit I sort of wolfed his down and kept on cooking.  The leftovers were great, though.  Not to sound overly proud of myself, but I don’t think I’d change a thing about this one.  I like my meat medium or medium-rare, so I’d cook it that way for my own dinner, but otherwise I am pleased with the result.

Course 4 – Rice pudding with Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee, raisins, and cloves

-Long grain rice, prepared in the usual fashion
-Milk
-Eggs
-Sugar
-Yirgacheffe coffee, brewed normally
-Whole cloves, ground in mortar
-Raisins

Over medium heat, cook rice, milk, sugar, and coffee in a saucepan.  Do not burn the milk, but reduce and thicken the mixture.  You can add more liquid to suit your own goo-to-rice preference in your pudding.  Do this for 15 – 20 minutes.  Add more milk, eggs, raisins, and ground cloves.  Reduce for five more minutes or so.  Serve.

Thoughts:  I liked it, Rob liked it, but the judges thought the cloves were too strong.  It is likely they got ahead of me because I ground them on the spot rather than using dried pre-ground stuff.  I could have topped it with some whipped cream or something to cut the clove a bit, but otherwise I think it worked.  I plan to make this again for myself.

Final Score – TIE

Rob: 37

Jay: 37

Jay’s Final Thoughts: Rob and I approached it differently.  I played it safe technique-wise whereas he took more risks.  If his lollipops or potato baskets had worked, he would have won.  With my strategy, there was little I could have screwed up, but less room for improvement.  In future contests, I plan to be more adventurous in formatting the meals.  I suspect I will need to as Rob would have mopped the floor with me if it hadn’t been for a simple procedural blunder or two.  I look forward to the obligatory grudge match, although I wouldn’t mind judging one or two first.

Rob’s Final Thoughts: We need to do fewer courses (three would be good). I personally need more focus on flavor with less fancy shit. I promise I will win the next one. I mean that. Also, this was way harder than I thought it would be.  This particular match of the Western PA Culinary Warfare League will live in legend and infamy as a battle between two brave warriors who had not yet worked out the logistics of what the fuck they were getting themselves into.  While later duels may feature better food, I doubt the battle of the grape will ever be upstaged in terms of sheer panic and destruction.