It is a long way from participating in the Pillsbury Bake-off to competing across from the ladies' bathrooms at the 102-year-old Rochester Public Market. But that's what I did on Saturday ... and I'm hard pressed to say which was more stressful.
The contest: an "Iron Chef"-type format in which ingredients are not known in advance, and contestants have 30 minutes to prepare a dish from them. The prize: various items valued at $750 and a chance to compete as part of a team in Slice, Dice and Spice NY. My biggest fear: in a fit of hysteria, I would put nothing on the plate at the end of my allotted time.
My fears were grounded in the fact that I am a "recipe" cook. I rarely just throw stuff together. Even when I create a recipe for a cooking contest, I combine the techniques and flavors from a few different recipes. I start my process by writing a recipe on paper, and then I tinker -- and it usually takes a whole lot of tinkering before most of my creations are contest ready. So why did I do this particular contest? Well, I have spent a fair amount of time armchair quarterbacking shows like "Iron Chef America" and "Top Chef." I wanted to see how I'd do if I was in the action.
I plan to do a separate post about the Public Market, but it's like markets in any other city -- there's a huge assortment of produce, flowers, and other assorted items. I was warned in advance that about 35 thousand people were expected to be there that day, and parking would be a problem. As a result, I grabbed a $2 parking spot a few blocks away from the market, and hoofed it the rest of the way. I got to the market almost an hour in advance of my scheduled cooking time of 1:50 p.m. (I was told to be there at 1:35 to look at the ingredients and decide what to make.)
I scoped out where the contest would be held, and spotted it between the market office building and the rest rooms. I had been told they wanted the contestants to stay away from the contest area until it was close to their time to cook, so I wandered around the public market for awhile.
I haven't been there for a good 15 years for a couple of reasons: one, my Porter Farms CSA keeps me pretty well stocked with veggies throughout the summer and fall, and two, because I hate crowds. And man, the market was jammed. I found the combination of the crowd, the yelling vendors, and the sheer number of items to choose from to be overwhelming. I managed to buy two pounds of strawberries ($2 each) and wandered back to the contest area. When I got there, trying not to catch a glance at the ingredients, I found Michael Warren Thomas, who was running the contest, and he told me to come back in an hour. Groan .... if there had been an area to sit and read read the morning paper, that would have been just fine. But seating at the public market is a precious commodity, limited to a few crowded picnic tables around some of the food vendors. And it's not in a yuppy part of town where I could escape to a coffee shop. So it was back to wandering through the crowds. This time I bought some lettuce (50 cents each), garlic cloves (5 for $1 - a great score, until I saw that they were from China), a basil and a sage plant ($1 each), some cinnamon coated nuts, some garlic chives and a big artichoke. I also ate a couple of yummy empanadas. By 2:30 p.m., I noticed that some of the vendors were starting to pack it up for the day.
When I returned to the contest area, they still weren't ready for me and didn't want me hanging around. I mentioned to a nice man (Jim) that I was concerned that the area would be deserted when I was walking back to my car. He gave me a parking pass, so I walked to my car and moved it to a spot close to the cooking area.
After all of this, I was beat. Plus, I had band practice that night and wanted to get in some time on my guitar to prepare for it. I completely understand that a first-time contest isn't going to run like clockwork, so I wasn't miffed about that, but at that point I was ready to head for home.
But after a few minutes, Michael gave me an ok to look at the ingredients I had to work with (I had been told ahead of time that I didn't need to use them all):
3 mustards -- one smelled very beer-y, one like a Dijon, and one with horseradish
Salt & pepper
Pasta, shaped like orzo
Tomatoes (I was dismayed at this out-of-season ingredient)
Mixed baby greens
A square flat bread, like for pressed sandwiches
Every time I thought of something to do with the ingredients, I'd arrive at a mental road block. No meat/poultry. No vinegar for a vinaigrette. No fruit for a sauce for French Toast. No sugar for caramelizing the onions.
Since the greens looked to be the best fresh ingredient, my strategy was a salad, even though I would have liked to have had some vinegar to use. I'd use the greens and asparagus and maybe boil an egg for a garnish. I would brush the flat bread with some herb-infused oil and throw it on the grill and cut it up to to make croutons. Maybe accompany it with a cheesy toast type thing.
The two techniques that I thought would set me apart would be used in my vinaigrette. I thought that if I roasted the tomatoes on the grill, I'd bring out what little flavor they had, and I could puree them and could use that as the acid in my vinaigrette. I would also roast garlic in olive oil on the stove and use the garlic and the garlicky oil in the vinaigrette. I'd also add some herbs and maybe some wine or honey to the vinaigrette.
I peeled a bulb of garlic and put it in olive oil on the stove, planning to roast it until it was soft and brown.
I put the tomatoes on the grill. I also put asparagus in the in boiling water (they had water boiling on the stove) for a few minutes until it was crisp-tender and put it on ice to stop the cooking.
I checked on my tomatoes and nothing was happening. Those firm red balls were as hard and red as they were when I put them on the heat. Michael was as helpful could be but the heat didn't seem to be working right. It was pretty breezy where we were so maybe the wind was either diluting the heat or moving it around.
At this point I was about 15 minutes into the competition and I decided that the salad wasn't going to happen. So I was left with some blanched asparagus, some garlicky oil (it was clear it wasn't going to fully roast in the time I had left), and the original ingredients. I decided to switch to making a panini.
I thought I'd try to caramelize some onions (not really possible in 10 minutes) and put them on the heat to saute.
I pureed some of the roasted garlic with some thyme and spread it on the bread. I topped it with fresh mozzarella, the asparagus (halved lengthwise), and sliced tomato that I had seasoned with salt and pepper.
In a last-ditch effort to imitate the flavor of caramelized onions, I squirted some honey on the onions on the stove. I tasted. Bleeeccchh. Those went in the trash.
More mozzarella went on top. (Why didn't I use the other cheeses? I just wasn't sure how they'd work against the garlic.) I melted some butter with the oil that had been used to roast garlic and spread it on the bread (no pastry brush, used a plastic tasting spoon to spread it around). I grilled it using the pot that had been used to boil water to press on it like a panini.
At this point my 30 minutes were about up. It went fast. Michael told me that since I had trouble with my heat, I could have a little more time. At this point, I should have done a bare-bones salad to go with my panini, using wine in place of vinegar in a vinaigrette. But at this point I wanted this to be over with. So all I served was the panini. No garnish or anything.
I cut it in half, and then Michael told me to cut those pieces in half again so that he and I could taste it. As I did, some onlookers came by and asked if they could taste, so I cut my piece up and gave it to them (which probably was a no-no by New York's ridiculously stringent health department regulations). So I committed the biggest sin you can make on Top Chef -- I DIDN'T TASTE IT! I have utterly no idea what it tasted like. I was given a chance to explain the dish to one of the judges (market vendors) and I was so embarrassed by what I turned in that I didn't put any energy into explaining it.
In the end, I don't think I choked so much as gave up. I was tired and the crazy cooking conditions got the best of me. As I drove away, I thought about all the great egg dishes I could have made. But with the crazy heat? I don't know how that would have gone either.
Unsurprisingly, my fancy pants grilled cheese didn't get me the win. But I actually received a cool consolation prize -- two tickets to Slice, Dice and Spice NY! I had wanted to go, but the $50 price tag held me back. It's tonight. I'm taking my friend, Karen, who competed in the Pillsbury Bake-off contest (and won her category) in 2006. We can armchair quarterback the teams competing in the finals -- probably just as much fun as competing. Plus they'll have food and wine to sample (since wine makes me break out in hives --boo-hoo --Karen can describe the wines to me).
In the end, I'm glad I gave it a go. If I had a chance to do it again, would I? Heck, yeah. But I'd bring a fold-up chair and a good book and find a quiet corner of the market while I was waiting.