Monday, August 18, 2008

Allez Cuisine!

When you are white, over 30, married and spawners, your entertainment options are quite limited. Game night and dinner parties are about the most fun you can have until the kids are off to college. At which point you no longer care about fun anyway.

Not being satisfied with the ordinary, a group of us this weekend decided to combine game night and a dinner party into the married parent equivalent of a Caligulan orgy. That's right, we had our very own Iron Chef. IRON CHEF BACON!



On one side, me, your non-humble correspondent. On the other side, a man named Merlin* (* no, really). In the middle, five judges and a massive pile of cured pork belly. Merlin and I were responsible for at least three dishes. The judges would give up to 10 points for taste, 5 for plating and 5 for originality in the use of the featured ingredient.

We arrived at Kitchen Stadium Burbank at 4:30pm (the time will be relevant later) and I immediately started frying up the three pounds of thick-cut, applewood smoked bacon I had purchased from the butcher. I was going to need every drop of fat that meat pile was going to render off.

Right off the bat, I could tell Merlin was doing things differently. He was using pork belly as opposed to the cured version, bacon. And he had approximately 150 ingredients, including a variety of flavored oils that Whole Foods would envy. I was a house painter and he was putting tempera to canvas.

My prep work - frying three pounds of bacon - was done in about an hour, and even though I was serving first by coin flip, I waited to let Merlin catch up with his prep. And waited. Then I drank a third beer and waited some more. Finally, it was on. More on than when we first showed up. That was merely starter being on.

My first course was BLT Puffs. I made big gougeres and spiked the choux with bacon bits. I sliced the golden puffs in half and and piled them up with a slice of heirloom tomato, butter lettuce, bacon strips and mayonnaise. America doesn't really have a peasant food tradition that smart guy chefs can go upscale with, except maybe soul food, but this was pretty close to a fancified workman's lunch. The raves were plenty and the competition was off to a good start.

Merlin countered with roasted pork belly sliced over a hash of corn and sweet potatoes spiked with chili oil. That was topped with a poached quail egg and greens. I was already way behind in the plating department. I got a few points for actually using plates, but Merlin was preparing for a Food and Wine cover shoot. Flavor wise, I thought his pork belly was fantastic and the hash was delicious, but the BLT Puffs held up and were certainly in possession of more bacon power. Originality was probably a wash, though I would think reinventing the BLT and putting it on bacon bread was more original than putting pork on a pretty pile of vegetables. It is probably best that I wasn't a judge. Also, eagle-eyed readers who can look between the lines have probably picked up on some foreshadowing.

Next, I turned out a Pennsylvania classic, spinach salad with hot bacon dressing, figuring it would be an exotic culinary adventure for the California crowd. Merlin turned out porkcorn, popcorn popped in rendered pork belly fat. He spritzed the popped corn with more pork oil and sundried tomato powder before serving it all in a rolled up paper cone. My poor salad was merely a salad in a bowl with a dressing that was maybe little too sweet. Although the pork corn didn't have a monster bacon or pork belly flavor, I got hogtied in every other aspect of this round.

It's common knowledge that bacon makes everything better. That was practically the entire point of this challenge. Hence, my entree, Bacon Makes Everything Better. I fried chicken in pure bacon fat, made mashed potatoes with bacon bits and then sauteed swiss chard in more bacon fat. Bacon was making every part of this dish better. And saltier. And fattier. I guess that's redundant. I actually had some plating in mind on this pass, so I leaned a piece of chicken on the south slope of Mt. Potatoes and smothered that mess with my mustard cream sauce. And hell yes, I added some bacon to that. The judges ate this one up, with one comment that this could be ordered in a restaurant as well as a request for the sauce recipe.

Merlin responded with a ravioli in vegetable broth. This dish ate up the majority of his day as he made the dough, the filling and the carrot and leek broth. The raviolis were filled with some pork belly, cheese, asparagus and other odds and ends and it was a good damn ravioli. But I think this was my round. It was just a ravioli in broth, so I may have finally gotten a plating edge here. And for originality in the use of ingredient, I unno. You tell me.

Time for last course. Sweet, sweet bacon was going to be turned into sweet bacon and served for dessert in a dish called Breakfast For Dessert. I caramelized bacon in brown sugar and butter and then let it harden on the cutting board into bacon candy. Then I browned up some french toast, topped it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and then liberally sprinkled the dish with bacon candy. On the side, I served mugs with a scoop of coffee ice cream. French toast, bacon and coffee. Breakfast For Dessert.

In my unbelievably biased opinion, this dish was such a home run that it should've been worth six runs. The bacon candy was perfect and if the point of good cookery is contrast, I was in contrast overload. Salty and sweet, hot and cold, crunchy and soft. It's entirely possible that this is the best dish I ever made.

Merlin wrapped it up with a fried plaintain topped with a sweet pork and blue cheese mousse accompanied by a fig. All drizzled with honey. It was okay. The mousse was as imaginative as everything else he did, but it was closer to a sweet appetizer than a full-on dessert. His plate was prettier, of course, but I think my originality was over the top.

Forks were finally down around 11:30. We had cooked for seven hours, plated 28 servings each and I knocked back three beers and three glasses of wine. Everybody was exhausted and full and highly salted. The judges retired to their chambers to tally up the scores while Merlin and I sat and wondered how long it would be before we ate bacon again.

In the end, Merlin nicked me by an average of four points per judge. Basically, one extra point for plating on each course, though I'm sure it worked out differently. And despite my whiny baby routine above where I declared myself the winner of every course, he should've won. Plating and originality were scoring factors and he fried me up like some bacon in those departments. I was focusing on flavor, but my dishes were not tastier than his to a degree that I could pull it out. If they were at all. The boy makes up some nice dishes and I was serving BLTs and salads.

It was two different styles going against each other. My restaurant, Bacon, would be a neighborhood joint with solid food and dishes under $20. Great ingredients, prepared simply with the occasional twist and surprise here and there. You'd go once a month or more and you would like it a lot. "I don't feel like cooking tonight. You wanna just pop over to Bacon?" "Sure."

Merlin's restaurant, Lardon, would be a white linen tablecloth place with twinkling music. Great ingredients, inverted with creative elements you'd never expect. You'd go once a year for a birthday or anniversary and you would like it a lot. "Where are you guys going tonight for your birthday?" "Lardon!" "Oooooooh, wow. He must really love you."

Hey, hey, hey! Calm down! You know I'm going to give you the recipe for Breakfast For Dinner! I always do that kinda stuff for you!

It's right below this.

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