Restaurants Crudessence, Laika and Faberge: Victorious at Iron Chef 2013
Crudessence, Laika and Faberge may have won the official prizes at this year's Santropol Roulant Iron Chef competition, but Midnight Poutine has its own criteria for the vegetable-heavy cooking comp. From maple and ground cherry-sauced eggplant to macadamia-coated fried green tomatoes, vegetable tartares and "compost slush", chefs from the six participating teams brought their best to McGill's impressive urban garden. Here's what happened:
The Official Prizes:
Grand Prize: Crudessence (based on taste, appearance, creativity, lack of waste, and best use of the garden veg)
Best Team Spirit: Laika
Best Fundraising: Faberge
Yay and all, but here are the rest of the prizes that, as the judge representing MP at the comp, I feel should have been handed out:
Best Use of (a) Weed: A garden full of fruits and vegetables and Crudessence has to go harvest lamb's quarters (a weed, but a forager's bread and butter) for their weird green smoothie thing. Locavore hubris? Harvesting was too easy so they had to go forage? Making the green smoothie
To it they added (as though the smoothie wouldn't be bitter enough on its own) boiled celeriac. The judges one by one wrinkled their noses at the concoction, but boy did we feel healthy. See justification below for why they won the grand prize anyway.
Biggest Balls: Nope, I'm not talking veggie meatballs. Having cajones merits a prize here at MP. And this one goes to Laika (dish shown above) because they were so above bring a secret ingredient, preferring instead to make do with what was on offer. What did they bring? "Love," said Jean-Francois, Pascal, and Xavier.
Creative Rule Interpretation: Rumi
The rules stated that each team make food for one person. Rumi did a three-course meal, with an appetizer of stuffed pattypan squash and sweet, tender beets drowned in olive oil, then a salad of lettuce, green apple, silky eggplant and pomegranate vinaigrette, followed by a main of brown rice, sesame oil(?), more pomegranate sauce that disappeared in the starch, a confit tomato and some wilted greens. It was actually a proper meal to feed a starving student, and not a stingy, frown-inducing, Montreal Fashion Week-style small plate.
Salad unveiled: Underneath the lettuce were amazing vegetables including eggplant confit
Best use of Eggplant: Those luxurious, slow-cooked pieces of eggplant in the salad made me forget about the lackluster (but pretty) rice main from Rumi for a sec. You could live on that eggplant. Next year: big bowl of confit eggplant = victory.
What They Made
Foodie Collective: The Montreal-based cooking collective that likes to gently throw things down (we at Midnight Poutine like that) went the classic Italian route. Every team had access to cream, flour, apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, apples, garlic, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and eggs.
But most stuck with vegetables from the urban garden (everything from zucchini, fennel, peppers, kale, lettuces, choys, eggplant, cucumber and celeriac to sorrel, parsley, lemon balm, epazote, thyme, oregano, sage and edible flowers, plus their one special ingredient brought from home. Three reps from the collective -- Catherine, Amanda, and Kim -- brought their own pasta but took advantage of the cheese on hand to coat their celeriac and Swiss chard-stuffed ravioli. Deep-frying ravioli
Fabergé: Audrey, Damian and Devon brought a little bit of southern style to the plate with a variation on fried green tomatoes. They were inspired by the garden's green tomatillos (they look like ground cherries, covered in a papery outer layer, but have green skins and taste like a mild tomato. That is, until they're grilled, at which time they turn into sweet and sour, charred deliciousness) to make a valiant effort to coat them in egg and macadamia nuts and fry them in oil. But the coating didn't feel like sticking. Fortunately the spicy aioli they brought from home (made with chilies from the restaurant's own garden) rocked thanks to a sweet start and an addictive hit of heat at the end.
Best photo by Allison Slattery Photography
The onion confit was also mmm-worthy. Unfortunately, the high-on-bell-peppers gazpacho wasn't, and the whole dish didn't work together, especially the whole macadamia nuts in the little accompanying after-though-style salad. Next year, bouillabaisse-gazpacho with the aioli sinking into the liquid on a crusty piece of bread? Or why not an egg dish, like the brunches you do so well? Just because it's based on vegetables, doesn't mean there's no place for meat or eggs.
La Panthere Verte: Eggplant rolls stuffed with fennel-jalapeno confit and topped with a crazy sweet maple-ground cherry sauce, plus a shredded carrot and celeriac salad (why does everyone think celeriac is delicious?), and quinoa tabouli. Their secret ingredient: a balsamic-olive oil combo, because the apple cider vinegar on had just didn't cut it. Some of the judges liked the simplicity of the tabouli, but it needed salt and lemon. (None of the teams realized sorrel, a green that was abundant in the herb garden, tastes like lemon.) and you couldn't taste either the fennel or jalapeno in the eggplant rolls. Pretty, but no kick.
Three vegetable tartares, constructed by amazing knife skills and good use of shaping molds. From left to right, a fennel, garlic, chive tartar wrapped in zucchini (it was no one's fault the fennel didn't taste like anything) that was all crunch and no standout flavour; a carrot and celeriac tartare; and a beet and carrot tartar that, if there had been three of them, could have taken the competition, thanks to the addictive, salty deep-fried beet and celeriac chips on top.
Laika's chopping skills, by Allison Slattery Photography
Miss Vickie's has nothing on these.
Rumi: Discussed above, but the eggplant and pomegranate vinaigrette (brought from the restaurant) deserve a second mention.
Crudessence: That smoothie-thing made with "everything you'd throw in the compost," said Crudessence co-owner, David Coté, was kind of gross. He and chef Stephanie Audet brought their trusty Vitamix and blended up lambs quarters and cooked celeriac. Then there was the kale-wrapped (or some other really tough green) on a bed of Pad Thai sauce (their secret ingredient). The sauce was awesome but had nothing to do with the wrap.
If only rice paper wrappers grew on trees...
Fortunately they also made a macadamia nut tian layered with purple basil and tomato that was much more like the nut-heavy, soul-satisfying dishes they make at their raw restaurant. It was sweet from the nuts (and maybe some honey), nicely bitter from the basil, and acidic (finally! Full flavour!) from the tomatoes. Fennel cream around it and chives were pretty, but, again, it didn't taste like fennel. It did, however, taste like yum, with enough salt and bite, which no other dish could say except Laika's least conservative, though physically far right tartar with those perfect beet and celeriac chips. All the judges agreed on Crudessence as the best dish, because, despite the funky green smoothie, they made a gorgeously plated dish, half of which tasted awesome, used every part of the vegetable they could and didn't over-harvest or cook too much in the first place, and incorporated the vegetables the best into their own culinary style (raw-ish smoothies, wraps, and nut-based, creamy but cream-free delicacies).
But a coup de coeur to all the competitors for running through the garden with scissors, delving into the world of really fresh food not from a distributor, and creating some visually stunning and creative dishes. Next time, maybe add some locally grown hardy kiwi to the green compost smoothie to mask the lamb's quarters. Sadly, nothing can make celeriac better, except, apparently, a ton of oil and salt. Hmm...lamb's quarters chips (like kale, but cheaper)?
Photo credits: Allison Slattery Photogrpahy for all the good ones (top, "Chefs from (left to right) Faberge, Crudessence, Laika, Rumi and Panthere Verte on a garden tour", "Making the Green Smoothie", La Panthere Verte presenting their dish and "Laika's chopping skills".
All the less good ones are mine...