|A few of the Green Team in Grandmom's kitchen|
I didn’t know what Iron Chef was when Suzanne Etgen invited me to be part of an Iron Chef competition she was organizing. But, as our son, Matt always says: When cooks compete, everybody wins.” So I figured that regardless of how it turns out, I can’t lose! I know Suzanne’s a terrific cook, who focuses on fresh, organic and locally sourced ingredients – the dinner at her and Rob’s wedding supper was created from virtually all local sources -- and I knew that at least several of those coming were likewise great cooks.
Suzanne had concocted this Iron Chef thing as part of what she describes as her yearlong 40th birthday celebration. (Some people go to Europe; Suz creates a cook-in). She and Rob live in a family compound built in the 1950’s by Suz’s grandfather, which made it easier to requisition several different kitchens from her relatives several of whom were also participants.
|Anne stirring the cheesy pars lied grits|
She had divided the 21 or so cooks into three teams. Initially, we gathered at the lodge where we set out the ingredients that had been assigned each of us to bring (for me it was fresh tomatoes, fresh herbs and a pint of sour cream). Most of what we had to choose from was farm market produce -- scallions, corn, sweet and hot peppers peaches. Theresa Mycek, manager/grower of Colchester Farm CSA brought watermelons and Jenny Lind melons, potatoes, multicolored sweet peppers, and about a peck of tomatillos. Others had been assigned things like coconut milk, half and half, cream cheese, bread, baking chocolate and olive oil. The three protein offerings that Suz provided were organic chicken, local pork and about four pounds of rockfish that Rob, an avid fisherman and head of The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, had caught the day before. The mystery ingredient, which according to Iron Chef rules must be somehow incorporated into all three courses -- hors d’oeuvre, main course and dessert -- was beets.
|Sherry making beet chips|
Teams took turns choosing ingredients based on what they imagined they might make with what was available. There was a time limit --3 hours to get to our respective kitchens, make the meals and return to the compound with what we had made for judging.
I ended up in Suz’s Grandmom’s kitchen with seven other people, four ranging in age from 15 to 23 or so, including one cousin’s 19-year-old boyfriend, and three other women my age only one of whom I knew going in. Planning a three-course meal with a bunch of strangers is, to say the least, a challenge. Add to that a time limit, unfamiliar equipment and beets in everything, and you’ve got a recipe for mayhem. But everyone was enthusiastic and had ideas. Annie curtailed what coud have been marathon planning with a practical quesiton: Who’s good at dessert? Which separated some of the bakers among us out immediately. That left Hors d’oeuvre and main course. The younger team members, who I later learned aren’t really cooks (although I think Carter, our only man, was something of a ringer), took charge of the hors d’oeuvre. They made grilled corn salsa (Carter grilled the corn) along with chopped Jenny Lind melon, serrano peppers, a scallion and, of course, beets. Fabulous. They spooned it into the hollowed-out Jenny Lind rinds since there were points for presentation. Sherry, the mother of a contestant on another team, found a recipe for beet chips – potato-chip-thin beet slices fried crisp and sprinkled with sea salt –on her iPhone. I’m convinced they would have been the piece de resistance had the day been less humid. As it was, the chips wilted en route to the judging, sadly. Anne did grits with Parmesan, chicken bullion and chopped fresh parsley, while I made broiled lemon rockfish with beet relish (chopped beets simmered with a dash of brown sugar, balsamic vinegar and a finely-diced half of serrano), and then sautéed tomatoes, peppers and onions with Cuban basil to dress the fish. The dessert makers came through with chocolate beet cake with beet-pink icing. Delicious.
|Grilled corn and fruit salsa and beet chips|
When we got back to the lodge, we discovered that the other teams had made a fabulous array of things, including roast chicken with sautéed beets and lemons, curried pork with vegetables (including beets of course), and beet bruschetta (we had planned to make bruschetta, but the other team grabbed the loaf of bread before we could get to it. Alexa had made the beet cake recipe -- like moist carrot cake but with beets and cream cheese icing --that she had done with the children one year during Kids’ Cooking Camp at Colchester Farm. Again, delicious.
Suzanne had worked her head off, acting as a runner for a few extra ingredients like sea salt, balsamic vinegar and various pans not available in one kitchen or another, then brought everyone together at 5:45 to display and plate up the respective dishes for the panel of five judges. Wine was opened (actually it had been opened earlier, some contestants insist they, like Julia Child, create better with a little lubrication).
|Plated meals waiting for judging|
Judging, comments and inspections of other teams’ offerings ensured.
Our team didn’t win. But we didn’t lose either. We had shared an intense, laughter-filled afternoon with a bunch of fun people creating meals out of the season’s fresh organic local offerings and walked away with inspiration for what’s right now coming out of the gardens and off the farm stands. When cooks compete, everybody wins.
|L-R. Judges, black team (winners) and Suzanne in pink|