Love that fire
Did you ever wonder why the Iron Chef America competitors confidently begin cooking immediately after the secret ingredient is revealed? (Besides your suspicion — or knowledge — that most “reality shows” are staged and choreographed like mad.)
Well, it’s because that secret ingredient is one among several they’re told about far enough in advance to map out their entire menus. The result is dishes that sing, characterized by a near-perfect interplay between ingredients.
North Carolina’s Competition Dining series, on the other hand, is the real thing, using all home-state-made ingredients.
Local restaurant chefs are matched and provided the secret ingredients mere hours before a large crowd of eager foodies — and a few professional judges — assemble to taste and rate their offerings.
When some friends and I recently attended one of the preliminary rounds of “Fire in the Triangle” we were able to sup on the fare of two fine Chapel Hill restaurants without leaving Raleigh.
The secret ingredient? Asheville’s Lusty Monk Mustard.
Yes, mustard. Can you imagine creating three dishes, including dessert, with mustard? Challenging indeed. (The chefs agreed — one of them even said “never again.”)
Unlike Iron Chef America, all the elements of each dish did not meld quite so perfectly (understandably). But many components were fantastic, the wine was flowing, the company was superb and the competition was exciting.
These were the highlights, from my perspective.
One of the prettiest dishes of the evening — and very tasty, too — was the first course created by Jujube’s Chef DeCarolis, pictured below: mustard-poached pork tenderloin with shellfish confiture, a salad of mixed greens and pickled veggies, and mustard polenta croutons.
Despite the fact that I’m not a meat-lover, the description and appearance of one of Chef Rose’s dishes (from Il Palio) made my mouth water: chipotle mustard duo of skirt steak with sunchoke puree and pickled sunchokes and braised veal cheek with porcini risotto and fruit mostarda. Unfortunately, while the skirt steak’s flavor was nice it was far too tough. The veal cheek, however, was so delectable that I was nearly able to forget it was veal (ugh) cheek (ugh). And the porcini risotto — well, how can you go wrong with that combination?
Another of DeCarolis’s dishes was again prettily composed: lentils at the base, a lamb and pork sausage next, then mustard-crusted duck breast topped with cherries. A crunchy yucca tot was served alongside.
The duck-and-cherries was my favorite savory bite of the evening. The duck was rich and tender and perfectly set off by the saucy fruit.
And finally, my very favorite dish, again by DeCarolis: a mustard mascarpone flan with roasted walnuts and port-currant-mustard compote. Flan is one of my all-time favorite desserts, and this version was so very interesting. The bite of the mustard in the background was a nice foil to the so-sweet flan.
The pro judges awarded the most points to DeCarolis, as did I. But once the crowd’s scores were factored in Rose was crowned the winner. He next competes on July 9. The final showdown is scheduled for July 31.
We had so much fun that we couldn’t wait to buy tickets for later rounds. The following day only two dates had availability, and by the time we got our act together a day later than that, the entire event was a sell-out.
Next year we’ll know to book early and often.
On my way to an annual Hot Springs camping trip with friends I stopped for lunch with Erin at White Duck Taco Shop in Asheville, home of non-traditional tacos.
If I lived up there it would be hard not to go at least once a week.
My two tacos couldn’t have been more different, yet I don’t think I could say just one was my favorite. The mushroom potato taco was substantial and earthy, with shiitakes and button mushrooms, feta crumbles and romesco sauce. The Bangkok shrimp taco was piquant and crunchy, and featured crisp shrimp, chili aioli and a sesame glaze.
Now, I love me some traditional Mexican tacos, but the selection isn’t always so great for those of us who aren’t crazy about meat. (Thank god for the fish variety.) White Duck, on the other hand, is this mostly-pescatarian’s taco dream come true.
Trading brownies for cinnamon rolls
ArtiSun Gallery and Marketplace in Hot Springs is a little oasis when you’re roughing it at the campground. Lovely crafts, wine and espresso drinks add a nice touch to the tent experience.
But best of all, the shop features pastries baked by a local goddess to whom Jennifer and I would bow down if we ever met her. For several years we’ve throughly enjoyed liqueur- or chocolate chunk-spiked, dark, dense brownies. Disappointed one year when they’d sold out before we arrived, we even called ahead to request them this time.
But alas! The former brownie-maker has been replaced. 2012’s versions were good, yes, but paled in comparison to the ones we so fondly remembered.
However … THE BEST CINNAMON ROLLS EVER were a fine swap.
I’ve never been crazy about the uber-sweet-frosting-laden mall versions that have overtaken America these days.
These, however, were melt-in-your-mouth mini buns with just the right drizzle of frosting and a hearty amount of cinnamon. The 12 I took back to the campground disappeared in minutes.
I wonder what we’ll fall in love with next year?