Sunday, July 09, 2006


One of my dreams came true on Saturday! I was asked to judge an Iron Chef-like competition! My former college sweety (and his brother) faced off against his roommate (and his roommate's sister). Pretty high stakes, when you think of the juxtaposition of shit-talking/bragging rights to domestic/familial proximity.

As one of five judges, we had to come up with the "secret" ingredient by noon; the dishes were to be ready by 7pm. I was angling for Leek, Shallot, or Watercress, but then another judge suggested Artichoke, which I heartily endorsed. However, Artichokes were out of season, so a last-minute decision was made, and we finally agreed on Pancetta. That's right: fancy bacon. This was gonna be good!

Actually: "This" turned out to be GREAT!

I was the last judge to arrive at the Park Slope rooftop where the competition took place. I made the unfortunate decision to wear a summer sundress with VERY little stretch; this would be a source of extreme late-night discomfort post-eating, as my eventual pot-bellied bloat had no place to go. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's not skip the good (I mean GREAT) part!

Dishes were to be judged on a scale of 1-5, 5 being best. We were judging based on three categories: Presentation, Originality, and Deliciousness. Awesome, right?!

FCS's roommate presented first. He and his sister prepared three dishes; the first was a ricotta crepe with shitake mushrooms and pancetta, sauced with a mild cream and dotted with peas. The other judges flipped their lids over it, but I thought it crossed the line of subtlety into being just plain bland. And as far as presentation, it was a pale yellow monochrome with a vague touch of green that reminded me of hospital food. I gave it a 3 for looks, a 3 for taste, and a 4 for originality. Roommate's next dish was something I christened Brown Mound, as that is almost exactly what it looked like. It was basically a Russian Doll of a dish: a giant ground beef meatball housed a layer of spinach, then a ribbon of pancetta, which circled a hard-boiled egg in the center. The Brown Mound lived on a delicious bed of sweet lentil and apple relish, and I was bowled over by this dish's textures and taste. It was really FUN to eat! And DELICIOUS! But kind of UGLY! I gave it a 4 for looks, though, because it's hard to make ground beef look pretty. I gave it a 5 for taste, and a 5 for originality. I also made sure all the other judge's Brown Mounds were eaten, because apparently I was the only judge interested in finishing her portions, thereby giving herself some major dyspepsia later on. What can I say? I'm 90 years old. But with the hunger of a teenager.

Roommate's final dish made me cry with joy. It was pretty much the most genius dish I've ever had the pleasure of being served. It was a DESSERT. A DESSERT MADE WITH PANCETTA! Maple ice-cream, sitting on a homemade waffle, warmed by maple syrup, and dotted with chewy, salty, pancetta "sprinkles". "This tastes like Vermont!" I said, before awarding it 5's across the board. I really enjoyed my Iron Chef judgely duties, in that I made many incomrehensible statements about the food throughout the night. Case in point: when I tasted Brown Mound I said it "felt like I was floating on a Brown Cloud but the Cloud was a Mound not a Cloud." I'm glad nobody booted me off the roof.

Then it was FCS and his brother's turn. I was secretly rooting for them (hey, I had SEX with one of them), but my bias was unecessary; their dishes really were unbelievably great! First of all, they presented FOUR, not THREE dishes, and the judges and I almost unilaterally loved each one. The first dish was a bright tomato tart with a buttery crust, salty pancetta, and bright, sweet tomatoes. I appreciated that, visually, the tart was beautiful; the brothers even took the time to garnish with microgreens for added color and texture. I gave the dish a 4 for taste (because it was a bit too salty), a 3 for originality (because a tomato bacon tart really isn't THAT original), and a 5 for presentation, because it looked mighty nice.

Their next dish was a black sea bass with a pancetta, corn, lima bean, peas, onion, and fresh herbs succotash. This dish made my mind exlode! I LOVE fish and I LOVED the succotash and the fish was moist and flavorful and the pancetta was such a peripheral ingredient which I thought was a bold, successful move. And it was beautiful to look at: bright, colorful, and completely appetizing, which is why I gave it a 5 for looks, a 4 for taste (because it didn't make me cry), and a 5 for originality. The other judges were NOT as into the fish as I was. Which meant I got to eat all their leftovers. Which I did. Which turned my pretty dress into a prison out from which my torso kept attempting to expand.

After that was a dish that would make a rabbi weep but made me rejoice: rounds of tender pork tenderloin stuffed with ribbons of pancetta, served over a peach coulis (sort of like an applesauce) flavored with TEQUILA and CAYENNE. So basically, the pork was sweetened by the fruit, which in turn was slammed by the heat of the tequila and cayenne. It was a literally goddamned genius dish. I ended up eating extra peach sauce straight out of a bowl on account of how much I loved it and also on account of how it was basically baby food for alcoholics. It blew my mind apart. 5's across the board.

And their last dish was also DESSERT! They took chewy pancetta, coated it in dark chocolate, and let it cool. This they served with vanilla ice-cream, over a sliver of mango, a bit of mint for garnish, and a sweet red strawberry. Again with the bacon and ice-cream. You'd think it wouldn't work, but it does. Big time. My only problem with this dish is that the chocolate-bacon "truffle" looked almost exactly like a turd. So I called the dish Turd Ice-Cream, and gave it a 3 for looks, a 5 for taste, and a 5 for originality.

We tallied the scores, dividing each team's totals by their number of dishes to make it fair, and then announced the winner: FCS and his brother won the day, but by a very small margin. But honestly, that night, didn't everyone win? I know my mouth did, even if my stomach paid the price. I was so happy, so grateful, and so impressed, that I made the most drunken compliment I've ever made, which was to announce that "You should all be so proud of yourselves! Everything was so delicious! This is really 3 star dining!" "Don't you mean 4 stars?" another judge asked me. "Oh. Yes! Right," I said, having trouble breathing as my dress played a fine game of boa-constricter across my midsection.

I was delighted. It was delightful. I want to do this kind of thing ALL THE TIME! Only with more discipline. And less words.


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