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Jan 13, 2012 01:11 PM

I'll be taking part in an Iron Chef-style competition tomorrow. Any recommendations?

3 to 4 appetizers. 1 secret ingredient. 1 hour to complete.
The secret ingredient will most likely be a protein.
We can bring a few un-cooked ingredients.
I'm a former sous chef, my competition was also one. We each get a sous chef during that hour.

Any great tips?

I think the vessel or container will be important, ie: sliced daikon instead of a tortilla (which I'm bringing), baked parmesan crisps, belgian endive, etc. Any ideas?


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  1. What fun! Can only leave you with advice from Bender, from Futurama:

    Hiroki: And now, Chairman Koji will present the theme ingredient to be used in every dish today.

    Bender: (quietly) If it's chicken, chicken à la king; if it's fish, fish à la king; if it's turkey, fish à la king.

    [Koji pulls a sheet off the ingredient.]

    Koji: Soylent Greuu!

    1. Boston lettuce, bacon, mushrooms, spring roll wrappers, or puff pastry?

      1. @Duchess... Not much help, but definitely funny :)

        @Terrie, spring rolls take a while and with 40 guests that'll be very ambitious. All the other ingredients sound great and hoping the host will have them.
        My sous chef is a charcuterie specialist/cheesemonger + GM and gelato artist at Humphry Slocombe, the most kick ass gelateria here in the bay area.

        1. I responded way too late to be of any help. But I'd very much like to know how it went.

          4 Replies
            1. re: LaLa

              The secret ingredient was ground beef. We won based on 4 criteria: originality, presentation, preparation techniques and taste.
              Our competition was tough and I loved what they brought to the table, but as I can't go into detail around their dishes, here is a breakdown of our four appetizers.

              1. Potato gratin
              Mandolin-shaved russet potato gratin with a aji panca andean chile, finely diced bacon and sliced onions sautee. I layered and packed down the shaved potato slices in a rectangular pan and proceeded by adding the stuffing in the middle, topping it off with more shaved potatoes and finally adding some cream on top.
              I think my opponent may have used up the cream, which could throw me off, so Instead I whisked up some milk, chicken broth and sour cream to thicken it up. Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Improvisation is crucial. Chives as garnish.
              * I shaved the potatoes so they could cook faster, which actually did take some minutes off the regular cooking time while providing a really fine texture with each bite.

              2. Stuffed conchiglioni
              Sauteed the beef with garlic, onions, red pepper, black mint (huacatay) sauce and crushed hazelnuts. As the ricotta was gone at this point, I took some feta, chopped parsley, grated parmesan and mixed it up in a bowl with the precooked beef.
              I stuffed the shells and finished it off with a tarragon, parsley and pine nuts pesto as I was plating. I sprinkled some finely chopped bell red pepers for color contrast and to hint on one of the ingredients.

              The two dishes created by my sous-chef included:
              3. Portabello Flatbread
              As we didn't have time to create our own dough, instead she laid out a tortilla, placed cheese in between to bind and topped it with a second tortilla. This allowed us to slice into it without destroying the "flatbread".
              She topped it with a mix of sauteed portobello mushroom, bacon and some ground beef for added flavor. She finished it off with some tzatziki and pickle juice to add bite. I think she may have diced some pickles into it too which added an extra bit of acidity to balance the cool yogurt.

              4. Letttuce-wrapped meat balls
              She rolled up a nice mixture of beef, egg, blue cheese and diced boiled egg before placing the meat balls in the oven.
              She served then in an iceberg lettuce wrapper and topped with a chimichurri sauce.

              Some general tips:

              - Choose the right companion
              I can't stress enough how important this is. Don't think you'll work better with your partner, girl/boyfriend just because they can cook. If he/she is solid around the kitchen, then more power to you. Find someone that can add ideas and help design the menu. My sous-chef, Emily, is calm and collected, she is also a cheesemonger and ice cream maker for a living. Emily can cook really well, but most importantly she masters dairy. This goes a long way.

              - Be thematic and give yourself an edge
              We all took on a character and as I chose to be an Argentinian gaucho, we wanted to make sure that any dish that came out had some element of Latin American flare, except maybe for the flatbread. Some consistency across your dishes does not go unnoticed.
              Lastly, if you are an expert on any particular cuisine, use that towards your advantage. Be focused, but also ready to add twists and unique accents that will help you to come on top. I was trained as an Italian sous-chef and have a solid understanding of French and Peruvian cuisine so I used that as leverage. If you love to BBQ, then have at it, but also show range in the process...

              - Be original
              Don't make bar food. With that said, if you are going to for lack of better ideas, add some finesse to your dishes. A syracha aioli, reduced balsamic vinegar finish, truffle oil in your preparation or as a finishing touch will heighten your creations - just to name a few from countless options.

              - Be ready to throw out your ideas
              As we were allowed to bring some key (non-cooked/non-prepared) ingredients we thought maybe we could make some alfajores by boiling a can of condensed milk for 45 minutes to create a dulce de leche in the event that pork was the key ingredient. You know, use some pork or bacon oil in the mixture... Obviously we chose not to go with it given that beef was the culprit.
              Also, don't ever plan for five dishes in case one of them doesn't work out, unless the fifth is super easy and fast. Even if you come out with three, you should still pat yourself on the back.

              - Sharpen up your skills
              This is not to bring items with you as part of your arsenal.
              I made an egg-based double-folded pansotti pasta the same morning to see how long it'd take me to mix, roll by hand, stuff, cook, create sauce and serve. As I let the dough stand for 30 minutes in room temp, all in all it took me 1 hour and 15 minutes from scratch to plating time. I tossed that idea away unless you are planning to do a semolina and water pasta, but bear in mind that you'll need a pasta extruder, which your host might have or that you might have bring with you.
              Read up on quick iron-chef specific techniques such as rice, polenta or couscous microwaved recipes. This will save you a ton of time.

              - Think pan sauce
              I read up and watched videos on numerous sauces just to refresh my memory. Think crowd pleasers that won't take you much time. Here is a selection of the ones I re-familiarized myself with: bernaise, hollandaise, beurre blanc, brown butter, white pasta sauce, pesto, saltinboca style, pepper cream, wine reductions, zabaione, chimichurri, Peruvian blended sauces (as I'm Peruvian), asian pan sauces, etc.

              - Respect the serving vessel
              The choice of vessel is key towards variety and originality points. Think bite size and a cross-section of ideas. While you may reuse (like chopping extra herbs, onion, garlic) to use across various dishes, you should really try to stay away from reusing the same vessel amongst your various creations. In other words, each dish should have its own personality.

              - Plan ahead
              My friend and I sat down for a drink to strategize and to share recipe ideas a week in advance, but were ready to throw it all out at a moment's notice.
              We chose the gratin variation as one of the dishes we would create as it is so versatile with most proteins. As the host let us familiarize ourselves with his equipment and pantry ahead of time, we were able to come up with alternatives on the spot.

              - Get organized
              This goes without saying, but make sure you know where every gadget is in the kitchen. Also organize your mise en place before you begin.
              Before starting the competition, we preheated the grill and griddle, boiled water and should've warmed up some pans in the oven.
              You should have a lighter in your pocket in case you flambée any sauce. We also had bandaids and finger protectors in case we sliced ourselves.

              - Bring Gadgets
              My competition brought a fryer, which was a brilliant move on his part.
              I brought my recently sharpened knife and any extra items our host might not have. Think of gadgets that he/she will have, but may be taken right away. These include potato peelers, graters, cutting boards, tasting spoons, tongs, rags, etc.
              If you see an ice cream machine in the kitchen, step away. Unless you are a master at it, I wouldn't think twice about it. This is too time consuming and if your host picks a protein you are pretty much screwed.
              A torch as a presentation tool could really come handy if you own one.

              - Always season and taste
              Make sure to season well and always keep tasting. Salt the water if you are making pasta, salt your mix, add a finishing salt if needed. It may sound silly, but you'd be surprised how easy it is to forget to keep a nice salt consistency and to taste your food along the way. Same goes with pepper, among others.

              - Have fun
              This is most important part. As much as you are challenging yourself and as nervous as you may naturally be ahead of time, it is all about having fun. The hour will go by in two shakes of a dog's tail.
              Plan only so much ahead, be creative, push yourself, and have fun with your partner and by mingling with the crowd with a well-deserved glass of wine once you come down from your high.

              Best of luck.

              1. re: gypseemoth

                I'm sitting with my mouth agape. What beautiful dishes you prepared. Thank you SO much for outlining your experience in such a detailed and informative way. It IS very helpful for anyone participating in a competition like that.

                1. re: gypseemoth

                  Sounds like amazing food from a fun little weekend competition . Congrats!

            2. It is my pleasure. I highly recommend doing this if you get the chance.