Friday, February 6, 2009

Iron Man, Iron Woman, Iron Chef?

PSA: All photos in this post courtesy of Christina's photostream - Flickr didn't have a way for me to link direct, so I had to download them and re-post. There has to be a better way!! Go there anyway - her captions are way better than mine.

Every year I have the opportunity to participate in a highly entertaining hybrid of game and cooking competition: IRON CHEF. No, not the amusing Japanese import from the food channel, but instead... Oh, it's hard to describe.

My friend Christina
has these friends Mike and Patti,
Mike n Patti
who like food, cooking, and making up games. I'm not sure in what order. Every year Mike and Patti host a series of cooking contests, each with a theme, and often intertwined with other amusements such as scavenger hunts. You tend to have to solve riddles to acquire your ingredients. I have attended at least one of these most years - ask me sometime about the one with the James Bond theme where we spatchcocked a chicken.

This year the theme (as you can guess by Mike and Patti's glamorous attire) was Gone with the Wind, and the food-theme was Southern Cooking. Our mission was clear: each team was to concoct at least two dishes, one Southern side dish and one barbecue sauce (to go on the ten pounds of pulled pork Patti had spent the afternoon roasting). Patti provided a couple of recipes and a kitchenful of ingredients:
- we could use pretty much anything we could locate in her cupboards, which is maybe too generous an offer! - and we contributed our own inspiration. As far as BBQ sauce goes, she had a commercial sauce people could use as a base and then doctor up, or they could be a little nuts and try to make one from scratch.

Christina and I formed one team, though she was more urgently needed as a photographer/journalist than a cook. She helped, though! There were three other groups cooking; this particular Iron Chef weekend was not as heavily attended as some others I have been to, but that's really not such a bad thing seeing as how we had one stove, one oven, etc. to share between us. Group 1 (Thom and Andra)
cooked up a yummy pan of cornbread
and some VERY tasty hushpuppies;
Team 2 (a gentleman known as Strobbe) produced a dish of collard greens
Team 3 (who was on team 3? It got a little blurry there) cooked up some cheezy grits
and I decided to try doing something with the sweet potatoes.

Not having a recipe to hand, I began winging it wildly. First off, these were true sweet potatoes rather than the yams that I was more familiar with. There was some maple syrup in the cupboard: Aha! Maple-glazed sweet potatoes it is! Because we were under a time constraint, I microwaved the sweet potatoes until they were about 3/4 done, and then peeled them so I could slice them and put them in a casserole dish. It soon became obvious to me that I had done this in the wrong order! I added a side dish of parboiled fingertip to the menu, but I got them in their dish in the end.

At this point it occurred to me: we need more flavor than just the maple syrup. What about making them tangier? I mixed some dry mustard in with the syrup and brushed it on, cranked some salt over the dish, then put the potatoes in the oven for as long as they'd let me leave them in there (people were getting hungry by this point! I think they had about half an hour; they could have used a little more but it was OK.)
Sweet Potatoes
Meanwhile, there was the sauce to contend with. Somehow, I didn't feel like messing around with the pre-made sauce. What if I tried to make something from scratch? Even if it didn't work, at least I'd tried.

I am trying to remember just what I did for the sauce, though it is somewhat unclear. I remember chopping an onion
Chopping Spree
and sauteeing it in butter until it was translucent and golden, which always takes me a lot more time than the cookbooks say (ten minutes, my eye), then chopping in a couple of the tomatoes Patti had so generously supplied us with. I remember adding a dollop of molasses and cooking the sauce down, adding water when necessary to keep it from scorching. I remember that Team 1 was frying bacon because they needed bacon fat for the cornbread skillet, and I asked for the leftovers and used a tablespoon or so of the bacon fat, and then crumbled in the bacon because it seemed like a good idea at the time. I remember tasting it and deciding it was way too sweet, then adding two slugs of raspberry vinegar and one of plain white vinegar over the next half hour or so till it seemed tangy enough. I remember right at the end discovering some Liquid Smoke in the fridge and shaking in a few drops.

It came out good!

After the cooking came the eating. We laid out all the dishes on the dining room table, complete with tags bearing hopefully-humorous names (ours were "Fiddle Dee Dee B Q" and "Sweet and Sassy Maple-Mustard Sweet Potatoes".) The array of sauces was set out
and the gorging began. Everybody's food was very good indeed (except that I didn't get a taste of the greens) and some of the sauces were very interesting, especially the "Strobbe-Q" sauce which contained a heavy dose of root beer! This is in the finest traditions of the strain of southern cooking that relies on Co-cola (the soda in the wasp-waisted bottle) as a ham baste and chocolate cake ingredient. It was all yummy!

After the food it was time for the nap. But no, Mike and Patti weren't that merciful - we were comatose with food and we were required to exercise our brains. It was time for the Trivia Contest!
Gone-With-The-Wind trivia questions were presented
Trivia 2
and contestants with the most trivia points were awarded the most tokens representing votes on the food. The results, though not a landslide, were clear:
Results 1
Results 2
Christina and I had won both categories!

Now I HAVE to go back next year, if only to defend my title!

One more thing I must mention: Mike and Patti share their house with two white cats who are almost the prettiest cats I know, and who are amazingly friendly! They dive-bomb people's feet, and if they can get people to pet them, well...