Iron Chef Challenge # 2

RULES/PLAYERS: (See previous entry)


  • Striped Bass
  • Stone Fruit (plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots)
  • Poussin (a small fowl)
  • Nuts (any kind)
  • Eggplant


  • Appetizer: Thai-style coconut soup with Poussin, eggplant, and scallions garnished with fried basil leaves
  • Entree: Grilled stripe bass topped with macerated red plums and port wine reduction sauce served over Israeli couscous in a mint-pistachio pesto sauce 


When we were given the ingredients my partner and I scratched our heads for a minute… what a strange combination of foods right?  After running through many possibilities we were both excited about our final menu.  The appetizer was my partner’s vision and the entree was mine.  Both were beautifully plated and got great reviews from students and the chef.  The grilled striped bass was actually quite a healthy dish in the end.  It was not low in fat (there was a generous amount of mint-pistachio pesto on the couscous) but it was healthy fat since I used extra virgin olive oil and the fish provides omega 3 fatty acids.  I loved how all of the flavors went together.  Logically mint goes with stone fruit… and from there it followed that I would make a mint pesto.  The delicate flavors of mint, couscous, and stone fruits were the perfect compliment to the flaky, white striped bass.  Plus the colors were beautiful on a plate… deep red plums, white fish with crispy brown grilled marks, bright green pesto and burgundy port reduction.  Matt and I enjoyed the leftovers for dinner that night and there were clean plates all around.  I’m actually liking this “market basket” challenge.  We all thought the chef was crazy when she said we would.

Next is our final practical exam!  The rules will be a little different from above.  We will work alone, having two hours to produce one plated entree.  There will only be one mystery ingredient and it will be a protein.  Wish me luck!


The rules:

  1. You must use all 5 ingredients given at least once (among two dishes).
  2. Additional food items allowed are those in the “pantry”.  The only special requests that can be made are for kitchen equipment.
  3. Create an appetizer and an entree.
  4. Write your appetizer and entree on the board before you begin cooking.
  5. Have your appetizer plated and on the front table two hours after the challenge begins.
  6. Have your entree plated and on the front table 20 minutes after the appetizer.

The players:

A class of 14 students must draw numbers from a hat to determine partners.

The Mystery Foods Revealed:

  • Scallops
  • Tomatoes
  • Corn
  • Asparagus
  • Bacon

The Results:

Here is what we made:

Appetizer: Quinoa Salad with Roasted Corn, Tomatoes, Nicoise Olives and Herbs in a Lemon Vinaigrette

Entree:Seared Scallops served over Grilled Asparagus wrapped in Bacon with Balsamic Reduction and Citrus Reduction sauces.

Me and my teammate did great!  We were inspired my the seasonal ingredients and developed a menu we were both excited about.  Quinoa is a new, chic, whole grain that is easily transformed into a refreshing summer salad.  Our entree was liked by many of our classmates… specifically the duo of sauces.  The balsamic sauce was a deep maroon color and the citrus reduction a bright yellow-orange.  I brushed them on the plate in two long strokes (with a pastry brush), side-by side and at a diagonal across the plate.  On top of the sauces, angled the opposite way (to make a cross) I plated the asparagus wrapped in bacon.  On top of the asparagus I laid the seared scallops.  The plated looked colorful, the food looked appetizing, and you could dip a bite of your food in either one, or both, of the sauces on the plate.

I admit to being intimidated by this challenge at first, but in the end is was about showcasing our creative talent.  We even impressed each other with our dishes.  Looks like we may have actually learned something along the way.  The time limit was more than enough and the whole class finished on time (plus or minus 5 minutes).  I also found that instead of the ingredients limiting me and my partner… they actually helped us and drove the menu.  This made the menu planning go by more quickly.  I brought home the remainder of the quinoa salad and Matt and I enjoyed it with a few meals over the weekend.

Now today we have another one of these challenges with new foods and new partners… hopefully it will go just as smoothly.

Crab Cakes

Tonight, in preparation for my market basket day tomorrow in class, I decided to dive into a recipe…. without a recipe.  Crab cakes to be exact.  I love them!  Who doesn’t?  They used to be my number one most favorite thing to order at a restaurant.  And I never make them at home.  I know the idea behind making fish cakes – shredded fish, egg, some sort of bread crumb, seasoning, a source of moisture, and chopped veggies for texture and additional flavor.   Of course we have learned the technique in class and made a few variations.  Now after dining on my crispy, delicious crab cakes served over mixed greens tossed with a lime vinaigrette, I’m wondering why I don’t make them more often??  Success!!!  The consistency, flavors, spice and tastes all worked very well.  I have posted the recipe in the recipe section (which I actually wrote down, something I rarely do while experimenting).

A few tricks to keep in mind with making crab cakes or any other sort of fish cake include:

  1. Purchase good quality crab meat!
  2. Finely chop and pre-cook any onions, peppers, or other vegetables you will be adding to the crab cakes.
  3. Remember the larger the cake – the longer the cook time!  I keep mine about 1/2-3/4 inch thick and 2 & 1/2 inches in diameter (or smaller if you are in a hurry).
  4. If your crab cakes are not easily forming into patties – add some flour to the mixture, a teaspoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached.  But do not overdo it!
  5. To get that nice, crisp, brown crust you must coat the crab cakes in bread crumbs (I like panko) right before frying, use enough vegetable oil to cover the entire surface of the pan at 1/4 inch depth, and preheat the pan and oil over med-high heat.
  6. Remember they cook quick, about 1-2 minutes per side.  If they are turning black before then turn down the heat of your pan!
  7. Drain on paper toweling after removal from the pan.

Viola!  You have a crunchy, crispy, crab cake!  Not so hard right?  Don’t forget that even more important is the taste… I make a mini crab cake and fry it up as a “test” then adjust seasoning as needed.  Hey maybe the mystery protein tomorrow will be crab…

Crab Cake Recipe

We are have finished with pastry and baking – finally!  Now we are back to preparing foods that I can call dinner.  Matt is happy about that too.  We just finished five classes focused on current famous chefs.  Each day we focused on one chef and learned about their background, theory, techniques, and famous recipes.  We broke into groups, 5 each, and prepared a three course menu of recipes written by the chef (or his colleagues).  The chefs were Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, David Keller, Ming Tsai, and Rick Bayless.  Of all – I think we most thoroughly enjoyed Ming Tsai’s dishes.  They were delicious!  The reason may have been because of all the chefs, he was the most involved with writing the recipes for the lesson.

It was really interesting to see how different they dishes looked one day to the next, depending on the chef.  Surprisingly, I found the recipes no more complex than what we anything else we prepare in class.  All of the cooking technique demos by our instructors and knife skill drillshave paid off.  There was nothing within these gourmet chef recipes that our class couldn’t handle.  To top it off – all of the recipes came out tasting great!  Our class has become among chef instructors for preparing really good food.  So that explains why our plates are cleaned so quickly?

The next three classes coming up are called “market basket”.  This means that our chef instructor selects three seasonal ingredients, one being a protein, that we have have to utilize in class.  We draw names to be put in pairs and then have three hours to prepare one appetizer and one entree using all three ingredients.  Of course we have an adequately stocked “pantry” that we can also use to make our dishes.  Sounds kind of like the school’s own version of Iron Chef America right?  Well it is… except we get a little more time and there is no judge’s table (though our chef instructor will grade us).  I am a bit nervous about this whole thing, I’m not gonna lie.  But at the same time, it is the chance to really show what you’ve got.  Should be very interesting…

Busy Busy

I have been very very busy lately to say the least.  School is nearing its end, I have six weeks left, and therefore I am busy making arrangements for my internship.  At the same time I have two other jobs to occupy my time.  One of these jobs maybe ending at the beginning of July and I hope to get back on a more regular schedule of posting.

School is going well and this week is our last week of pastry and baking.  In addition to all that I have posted previously we have made croissants, ice cream, sorbet, layered cakes, chocolate ganache, chocolate truffles, tuiles, meringues, creme anglaise, custard, panna cotta, and much more!  The conclusion has been reached that most every bakery dessert is either very high in fat, very high in sugar, or both.  No healthy insight to be given.  If you are on a diet and cannot have just one bite – stay away!

Please check back in July and hopefully I will be able to relay some of my favorite summertime recipes (like burgers, wraps, and salads).


Recently, in pastry and baking, we have been making truffles, chocolate ganache, petit fours, madelines, macaroons, biscotti, caramels, butternut crunch, and much more!  Nothing healthy and all very indulgent.  I think I have been on a sugar high for the past 2 weeks.  The highest fat items we made were certainly the chocolate truffles and ganache.  The lowest fat foods we prepared were biscotti and macaroons.  However, they can both have a considerable amount of sugar.

I am looking forward to cooking real, hearty, and nourishing food again in class.  Fortunately my other job as a recipe tester for a culinary dietitian meets part of that need.  She is writing a cookbook and have been hired to help her test and evaluate all the recipes.  It should be good – the recipes are delicious.  The release date is set for March 2009, and I will let everyone know when that comes out.

Today I leave for a mini vacation in Bermuda.  We are dining out and I am hoping to write a post about the experience this weekend.  Considering it is a British territory I don’t know quite what to expect.  We shall see…

Yeast Breads

This stuff is fun.  I actually enjoyed preparing the yeast breads this week in class.  Likely because most of my favorite baked goods are derived from yeast doughs.  These include the great French baguette, crusty Italian bread, NYC bagels, pizza dough, and the wide variety of artisan loaves.  Yum!

I have tried in the past to make bread.  The final product was hard, dense, and certainly not something I thought was very pleasurable to eat.  It was very nice to have a professional demonstrate the techniques – and give tips along the way.  Seeing the process was important for me.

We made our dough by hand.  One mistake we were told that most people make with yeast doughs is rough handling during the kneading process.  Dough is kneaded to create gluten strands.  The best way to do that is to the stretch and fold the dough.  Use the base of your hands to push the dough away from you with mild force to stretch the dough.  Next fold to dough back toward you and then turn a quarter turn to the right.  Back to the first move of stretching.  This is how we learned.  It took only about 5 minutes to finish kneading a double batch of semolina dough.  The best way does not involve pounding, smacking around, or flipping the dough.  Rough handling is not necessary and not how to create gluten strands efficiently.

How do you know when the dough is done?  Our chef says by touch.  It should feel smooth and soft on the exterior, but still will have firmness to it.  Like a baby’s butt.  Another way to tell is to ball the dough on a work surface and using two fingers gently push into the dough quickly.  The dough should spring back.  This indicates that adequate gluten has formed.

I think this trick to kneading is a very important part of making good dough.  Second to that would be the fermentation.  This is where the yeast creates its by-products that include gas and flavor.  The longer ferment (especially a pre-ferment over night in the fridge) the better the flavor of the final product.  In order for the yeast to do its work, it must be revived from its dormant state.  This takes being stirred into a liquid at about 100-110 degrees F before being added to the dry ingredients.  Best way to tell the proper temperature for your yeast?  Use your finger.  When you stick your finger into the liquid it should feel totally neutral.  Not hotter and not cooler.

I am only an amatuer and have no good recipes to share yet.  It is unfortunate that I have discovered bread making as we embark on warmer weather.  In a tiny NYC aparment with one window, a hot oven in the summertime can be brutal.  When I am brave enough to endure the heat and find a good bread recipe I will certainly share.  I will make one comment about fresh bread right out of the oven – it is heavenly (and worth all the work!).