Monday, September 25, 2006

Brooklyn Beet Off 2006

1st Annual Brooklyn “Beet” Off:

September 2006

Location: Kitchen Stadium Brooklyn

The Ingredient:

The Rules:

Use of Goat Cheese is Strictly Forbidden,

Arugula and Candied Walnuts are Highly Discouraged.

Wine must be a Chilled Red.

Iron Chef Amuse-Bouche: Cristina

Iron Chef Entrée: Michelli

Iron Chef Main: Greg

Iron Chef Dessert: Ian



Pan Seared Garam Masala Dusted Sea Scallops

Served in a Roasted Cipolini Cup

Red Beet, Bitter Orange, Cipolini and Pepita Chutney

Garnished with Beet Green-Chive Puree, Honeyed-Beet Puree and Toasted Coconut

Medici Ermete Reggiano Solo Tenuta Quercioli 2005


Beets Three Ways

La Poussie Sancerre 2003

Vodka Flambéed Golden Beet Soup

Roasted Golden Beets, Roasted Golden Tomatoes and Yellow Peppers

Candy Cane Beet Ravioli

With Salt Cod Ricotta and Garnished with Fresh Pea Shoots

Raw Yellow Pepper Pesto

Caprese Salad of Smoked Mozzerella, Tomatillos, Roasted Beets

And Sautéed Beet Greens in a Mustard-Lemon Vinaigrette


Red Beet Ricotta Lasagna with Fresh Egg Noodles

Garlic-Onion Bechamel, Greyere and Parmesan

Tuscan Bread with a Grape Must and Pumpkin Pesto

Salad of Wild Field Greens, Heirloom Tomatoes and Aged Balsamic Vinegar

Cantine Federiciane Monteleone Peninsola Sorrentina Gragnano 2005


Curried Farmers-Cheese Cheese Log

In a Sweet Beet Chip Cradle

Salted-Caramel and Roasted Golden Beet Ice Cream

And Red Beet Sorbet

Drizzled with White Truffle Honey

Les Clos De Paulilles Banyuls Rimage 2003


It was late in the afternoon and between the rain and endlessly subways delays, the cause of which came in a barely discernable announcement over the din of crackling loudspeakers and subway station acoustics, my trip to the Grand Army Farmers Market and to my favorite fish monger, Fish Tales in Cobble Hill, ended up taking ten times longer than expected. I jumped on the subway home, but I knew by my second transfer and making the trains within seconds of each other, that my luck would soon run out. And it did, at 59th Street when suddenly and without warning, the train was being put out of commission and there would be no more subways running on that line for the foreseeable future. Accepting my lot in life living on the worst possible subway line in New York City, rather than wait for a train that my never come, I hopped off and hoofed it the remaining 16 blocks to my house, weighed down with bags of scallops, beets, wine and various other ingredients. In three hours, three friends, all fellow professional cooks, would be arriving for our 1st Annual Brooklyn Beet Off, and I hadn’t even begun cooking. Iron Chef “Beets”, we’d been talking about it for weeks with the enthusiasm of five year olds at Christmas time. So many ideas, so many things we could do, and of course the double-entendres flowed like cheap beer at a college tailgate...

I’d walked through the farmers market, a basket of perfect cipolini onions called to me, for what, I wasn’t sure but I’d find some way of incorporating them into tonight’s dish. Back at home I carved them into little cipolini cups and began roasting them off in the oven while I prepared the chutney, beet green puree, beet puree and other little garnishes. Beet tops, a fresh and healthy plumage in green and red, made for a festive centerpiece jammed into an antique Ball Mason jar; with cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, peppercorns and chili’s working their way into the final display. I set the table, worked my way through my prep list and tried not to think too much about what everyone else might be doing (lest I starting get nervous about it).

At 7o’clock the doorbell rang. I felt as if Morimoto himself was waiting, I hurriedly rushed to greet my friends. Like a troupe of Cheshire Cats, they pranced through my door with their tales in the air, grinning from ear to ear. Each one of us knew we had stretched our imaginations and had something great up our sleeve. Michelli set to unpacking quart containers on to the speed rack. Ian was put to task on the laptop picking out this evenings soundtrack and Greg had the ever important task of making room in the refrigerator for the wine and assisting me with concocting some sort of martini. Throwing together seemingly random ingredients we created an espresso-coconut martini with a cardamom-sugar rim. Several toasts and a round of fresh pomegranate martini’s later and we were sufficiently lubricated set to begin.

I was the first up with an amuse-bouche. Amuse-bouches are fun because the possibilities are endless and it can be a little bite of just about anything, as long as it’s pretty and flavorful. An amuse make people feel doted upon and taken care of because it’s a surprise, something they weren’t expecting. And, because it’s just a simple bite, it’s a great opportunity to play up expensive ingredients – in my case, day boat scallops.

I sprinkled the scallops in garam masala, a blend of cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, black pepper and nutmeg and then pan seared them. For the chutney, I caramelized cipolini’s, deglazed the pan with fresh orange juice and added orange zest, bitter orange marmalade, sugar, currants, pepita’s and spices. I did my best Kandinsky on the plate in beet puree and pureed beet tops, a roasted cipolini cup with two scallops topped with the beet chutney and garnished with toasted coconut, pepitas and long chives. Against black ceramic plates, the colors were bold and bright and made for a nice presentation. I only hoped that they would be as tasty in the mouth – and I think they were…

Prepared to be impressed, I watched as Michelli plated her masterpiece of Beets Three Ways. Roasted golden beets, roasted yellow peppers and roasted yellow tomatoes pureed into a bright golden soup and ladled into antique art-deco champagne glasses was lush and rich – the roasted vegetables giving it dimension and texture; thinly sliced candy cane beets fashioned into ravioli wrappers with an ethereal bacalla-ricotta filling and a raw yellow pepper pesto was fresh and vibrant in both presentation and flavor; beet “caprese” salad with smoked mozzarella and tomatillos all made for a sublime creation, beautifully presented and a delight to eat. Her pairing with an ‘03 La Poussie Sancerre was perfection.

Still basking in the glory of Italy’s World Cup win and in celebration of an up coming trip, Greg went strictly Italian with his creation, not only with his use of the Italian colors on his plate – but with his delicate pasta and bright, farmers market greens and heirloom tomato salad. Layering fresh egg noodles with a beet and ricotta mixture gave the lasagna a bright and festive look, the béchamel was light and well balanced, not heavy and laden as can often be the case, so the beets shined through and the sweetness was a nice counterpoint to the sauce. His use of Gruyere was a masterful act in that it added depth and dimension and played off of the more subtle flavors. Of course, Gruyere is a French cheese – but it’s said that Catherine di Midici’s cooks taught the French everything they know about food, so one way or another it can all be traced back to Italian.

The piece de resistance came in the form of dessert. None of us having a clue what the other was doing, we could only have imagined what this course would be like… The salted-caramel and roasted golden beet ice-cream with truffled honey was rich and intoxication, thick and creamy almost like a gelato, the contrast of salty and sweet played a game with our pallets and immediately making addicts of us all. The salt pushed and the sugar pulled and when the creamy-rich-salty-sweet became too much, a bite of the red beet sorbet proved to be the perfect pallet cleanser. Accompanying this heavenly creation was a curried farmers-cheese cheese log piped into a sweet-crispy beet chip – again a play on flavors and textures – and our taste buds loved it.

By the end of it all we were drunk on laughter, lively conversation and lots and lots of wine. And as my kindergarten teacher would say, “we’re all winners”.

For the next Brooklyn Iron Chef: Chestnuts paired with wines from the Mediterranean. Stay tuned…

Friday, September 01, 2006

Up for interpretation...

I had just begun working an internship at a restaurant in Paris. It was the first professional kitchen I had ever worked in and to say that I was a little naive to the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen could be the greatest misnomer of the 21st century. I walked into the kitchen timid and soft spoken (oh yes, there once was a time where I was actually timid and soft spoken. Thank god I got over that!); nervous but excited about cooking in a foreign country; and with delusions of grandeur built up by too many friends saying, “oh you’re such a great cook; you should really be a chef”, and actually believing them, along with foolishly romantic ideas about what working for the French would actually be like. Add to my complete and utter delusional state, the hubristic notion that since I’d already had a successful profession as a software developer on Wall St., I’d somehow have instant respect in the bowels of a French kitchen. The proverbial ass kicking that ensued (for many years to follow) was humbling, to say the least…

My first day in the kitchen I was a complete rube; every five seconds driving the chef crazy with, “chef, where are the bain maries”, “chef, where are the sheet trays”, “chef, where are the bandaids?”. Within hours of stepping into the kitchen she said to me, “Look before you ask, Cristina. Look, look!” and with that, sent me packing to the basement with two crates of tomatoes for coring and quartering, and a stern warning, “don’t get blood on anything!”. For the next four months, my home was that basement. My vegetable peeler and pairing knife, an extension of my hand as my main task every day was to peel cases of white asparagus and quarter cases of tomatoes. “In New York you have Mexicans, in Paris we have Americans” I was informed by the kitchen staff.

Everyday after lunch service the crew would wash down the kitchen from floor to ceiling and then take two or three hours off before returning for dinner service. I, on the other hand, would stay and prep vegetables for ratatouille, cut and toast hundreds upon hundreds of croutons, slice buckets of onions, blend gallons of tapanade and then go home before dinner service began. One day the chef had asked me to bake off some bread. I was excited; I was actually allowed to touch the stove! And in a moment of bumbling stupidity, I asked her how long I should bake it for. She looked at me perplexed and screamed, “Until it’s done, Cristina. Until it’s done!”.

But that was long ago…

An invaluable part of cooking is not just following weights and measures, temperatures and cooking times, but knowing how something should look, taste, smell and feel. There are many variables in cooking (which increase 10-fold cooking on a yacht). Humidity affects moisture content when you’re making bread dough; every oven is calibrated differently (which is why it’s important to have a thermometer in your oven); different pans handle differently and so forth. It’s important to know how to interpret a recipe and how to adjust it. But once you understand how to look at food, how to see beyond a recipe, envision what the final product should be and make the adjustments to get it there (rather than complain that the recipe said something would take eight minutes to cook and it actually took ten), that is when you are really cooking…

In my final week in Paris, I finally made a friend. Her name was Angelique, she was a writer and had a small apartment overlooking the Pere Lachaise cemetery; which I thought was infinitely cool since my pubescent heart-throb and rebel roll model, Jim Morrison, was buried there (of course, at the time, my naivety also included a complete lack of appreciation for the great Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Moliere – all of whom are also buried at Pere Lachaise). We planned a small dinner party one night at her apartment and I was to cook the entrée, salmon with a buerre blanc sauce and ratatouille; a recipe from culinary school that I was certain would impress my new French friend. We bought baguettes and sausage to nibble on before dinner and she and her sister made dessert. As I studiously followed my recipe for buerre blanc; adding the specified amount of peppercorns, herbs, shallots and wine and carefully weighing the butter, Angelique roared ahead with her cake making sans recipe. Fearlessly scooping flour with a coffee cup, cracking eggs into a bowl without counting them, scooping sugar with a soup spoon, adding pinches of spices and chopped fruit, she made a cake of unsurpassed perfection and I though to myself, “holy sh*t, what am I doing with this stupid recipe?”.

Of course, there is plenty to learn from a recipe; balance, complexity, layering flavors, new techniques, different cooking methods, etc. But cooking is a tactile craft and requires the use of all of your senses; seeing, smelling, touching, tasting. And recipes are merely guidelines; one should never be afraid to experiment, interpret and tweak.

And with that, here is my recipe for the day:

Crepes in orange-buttered rum sauce:
(make the sauce first, as it can reduce while you are working out your crepe batter)

Orange Butter and Rum Sauce

1 cup butter, cut into small pieces
2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cups sugar
2 ½ tablespoons dark rum
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 ½ teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg

In a small sauce pan, combine orange juice, sugar and nutmeg. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half. Add rum and orange zest and return to a simmer for five minutes. Set flame to lowest setting and whisk in butter, piece by piece, until incorporated. Do not allow it to boil as this will “break” the sauce (i.e. the butter fat and solids will separate and the sauce will look oily).

Pour a small amount of sauce into a small sauté pan. Add the (already cooked) crepe and swirl it around. Fold the crepe in half and then in a loose triangle. Using a spatula, gently lift it out of the pan and place it on the plate. Drizzle with a little more sauce (if needed), sprinkle with orange zest and toasted coconut…

Sweet Crepes:

A mound of flour (about 1 ½ cups)
3 eggs
A spoonful of sugar
Pinch of salt
Milk, enough to make the batter not to thick and not too thin.
Butter (for cooking)

Whisk the eggs, sugar, salt and flour together adding milk slowly and fully incorporating into batter. Batter should be coat a spoon, slightly thick, but not too thick. Taste it, does it need more salt or sugar? Add some if necessary. Pass batter through a sieve. Heat a non-stick pan and rub it down with a buttered paper towel. Pour in a small amount of crepe batter and turn pan to evenly spread. If crepe is too thick, add a little more milk to the batter. Crepe should be thin and lacy. When crepe is browned on one side, carefully lift it with a spatula (I find it easier to use my fingers, but I’m also a sadist) and flip it over. Cook until evenly browned on second side. Spread cooked crepes out on a sheet pan or plate, don’t pile them up as they will steam and stick together. Complete with the buttered rum sauce…

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