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24, 24, 24: Farmers’ Market Iron Chef: Battle in the Kitchen

Sun Sep 21, 2008

FM Montage

Farmers’ Market Iron Chef: Battle in the Kitchen

With just 20 minutes remaining in Battle Apple I knew I was toast. I hadn’t made my apple vinaigrette, the batter for my apple fritters or heated my fry oil. Across fthe kitchen island stood my fellow food blogger and Foodbuzz Iron Chef challenger, Foodwoolf’s Brooke Burton, looking as relaxed as if she’d just come back from a beach vacation. And worst of all? The sweet-tangy smell of apples, caramelized sugar and cinnamon was making me hungry.

The competition seemed simple. Choose an ingredient at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market to plan a 3-course meal around. Each blogger-chef would have two hours to prepare their food, which would be judged on taste, plating and originality by a panel of food savvy professionals. But less than 24 hours before we were to take up our knives, we suddenly found ourselves without a battlefield, for the second time.

Chef’s Kitchens, a cool commercial kitchen co-op located in West Los Angeles was originally going to be our Kitchen Stadium. That is until we found out we needed food handlers’ licenses and liability insurance. Our second Kitchen Stadium was to be a friends’ home, that is until the über-pregnant hostess realized that we’d be taking over her kitchen for the better part of a day. Suddenly scrambling for a location the day before the event, Brooke and I called every connection we had in the food world to try and track down a kitchen large enough for two people to cook in. Bon Appetit’s test kitchen? No chance. Sur La Table’s cooking class kitchen? Not with a day’s notice. A restaurant that doesn’t do lunch service on Saturday? Are you kidding! If it weren’t for the graciousness of Pizzeria Mozza server Pilar Arias the whole thing would have fallen apart.

The Secret Ingredient
Some of the farmers were still setting up their stalls when Brooke and I arrived at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning. The sparkling blue sky shimmered like the nearby ocean, making the colors of the produce pop. Butternut squashes looked more peachy, herbs more green. But nothing looked more beautiful, or more quintessentially fall-like, than the varied shades of green and red and yellow apples from Cirone Farms. Mike Cirone dry farms approximately 30 acres of orchards in See Canyon, near San Louis Obispo, growing popular varieties like Red Delicious, Gala and Fuji, and heirloom apples like Spitzenberg, Muutsu, Red Stripe, Bellweather and Newton Pippon. Tasting through the apples, which ranged from super-tart and firm to sweet and softer, we knew we’d found our ingredient, our secret ingredient. Battle Apple was on.

The Heat of Battle
Years ago, when I still thought I was going to make my living as a poet, I wanted to publish a literary journal called Celoso with my friend Chris. Celoso is the Spanish word for “jealous” and we wanted publish poetry that made us jealous we hadn’t written it, poetry that would make us work harder. The spirit of Celoso is what makes Iron Chef such a joy to watch. It showcases talented chefs taking on their culinary idols, sometimes even their mentors, not necessarily to prove they’re better chefs, but to push themselves creatively.

Celoso carries over to my food writing and, ultimately, to my friendship and writing partnership with fellow blogger Foodwoolf (aka Brooke Burton). So it seemed appropriate to lock knives in an Iron Chef-style competition, not to see who was a better cook, but as a way to push us to cook better, to be more creative and to craft a better story.

Dicing, slicing and sautéing, we threw ourselves into Battle Apple like professionals. Pilar’s kitchen island was buried under an orchard’s worth of apples, peeled skins strewn about like fallen leaves, bowls crashing like bolts of thunder.

My menu:

Fennel Apple Salad with Apple Vinaigrette
Apple Risotto with Grilled Pork Tenderloin and Apple Salsa
Apple Fritters with Homemade Ricotta and Almond Honey

 

Time management and only having two burners (we were sharing the stove) were going to be my biggest challenges. My strategy was to immediately get the pork tenderloin into a brine, then to start the ricotta, which takes about 20 minutes to make. But I spent most of my first hour peeling and cutting apples. Once I started the risotto time started to slip away from me. While it was cooking I couldn’t do much else. With all that stirring, stirring, stirring I felt like a witch over her cauldron.

All the while, I was watching Brooke cook. As she peeled and pureed I started to wonder if my dishes were complex enough. Were the apples going to stand out as well in my dishes as they would in hers. Could grilled pork tenderloin really complete with the oily richness of seared duck breast. Then our chairman announced I had 20 minutes remaining and all concern over Brooke’s cooking vanished. I felt doomed. I dumped all of the ingredients for my fritter batter into a bowl and started whisking while reading the directions for the first time. Oops. I was supposed to whip the egg whites and fold them into the batter, which should have been resting for an hour; that would explain why it looked like playdough.

I tried to save the batter and quickly race to make my dressing, heat the oil and plate all my dishes, but I had to call for backup. In the end, I went over my time (I believe Brooke did too). Luckily Alton Brown was nowhere in sight.

My best dish was, hands down, the pork and risotto (recipe tomorrow). Using Muutso, Red Stripe, Newton Pippin and Spitzenberg apples, the dish had wonderfully varied textures and balance, plus a kiss of spice from the apple salsa. The risotto was creamy and delicious and the pork was cooked perfectly on the grill. I do believe one of our judges gave it a perfect 10, for taste. But the fritters cost me. They weren’t crisp or particularly flavorful.

So “Whose Cuisine Reigned Supreme?” Foodwoolf won Battle Apple by three points: 68-65.

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10 Responses to “24, 24, 24: Farmers’ Market Iron Chef: Battle in the Kitchen”

 
  1. Katie Brucker Says:

    Well, I know one very happy (and very full!) judge who thinks that you maintained your perfect grace while preparing your dishes. Cheers to you for a wonderful job…and thanks for letting me be a part of it. 🙂

  2. Christie@fig&cherry Says:

    I am so impressed you made homemade ricotta in such a hectic situation. Well done!

    Congrats on making it through, your menu sounds delicious.

  3. kat Says:

    what fun! the kitchen looks a bit like mayhem in your pics

  4. Laurie Says:

    Congrats on the challenge.. how fun!! I think it was such a good idea.. I hope you all do something like this again! 🙂

  5. Food Woolf Says:

    Leah,
    your cooking was amazing and, if there was judging on the iron chef BLOGGING challenge, you would get a perfect score. Your words are original, tasty and laid out perfectly!

    Thank you for being such a great friend and inspiration!

    xoxox,
    Brooke

  6. Giff from Constables Larder Says:

    Well I’m glad that you two found a kitchen to use! This battle is very timely as we head into fall, I’ve now got an abundance of apples to work with!

  7. maybelles mom (feeding maybelle) Says:

    wonderful post. I am glad to have found your blog; i enjoy your writing. and congrats for making it through 24,24,24.

  8. Doug DuCap Says:

    Wow, you two really pushed past some massive last minute adversity (the last minute loss of your planned kitchen space)!

    To top it all off by making homemade ricotta goes well beyond the call of duty…yum!

  9. White On Rice Couple Says:

    Bravo to the both of you!!!! What a marvelous day and you two are the perfect duo to battle it out! If you can still come out of it as friends, then you both have an amazing writing future together! (This is something my Mom’s Chinese fortune teller would say).

    Leah, I say you request a re-match and come over to our place for the re-battle!

  10. Leah Greenstein Says:

    What? And let Brooke kick my butt again? Just kidding, name the date and the ingredient and I’m sure I can convince Brooke to come cook in your awesome kitchen!

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