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
***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
Mushroom ramen broth
Quick-pickled beech mushrooms
Tempura button mushroom
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
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
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
Chorizo stuffed mushroom
Risotto-cooked mushroom quinoa
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
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.
**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
Infused Olive Oil
For the soup:
-Shiitake mushrooms (dried)
-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
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
Grilled Portobello Puree
Savoy Cabbage Slaw
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
-Dry white wine
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:
-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
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:
-a few whole cloves
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.
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.