You can probably tell by the fact that I have a food blog that I really like food. What you might not know is Chris and I are surrounded by friends and family that love food as much if not more than we do.
Recently, Chris and I were honored to be asked to judge a cooking competition a group of friends host. The premise consists of three couples (Sarah and Chris Swanson, Abe Kant and Erin Stark and Rob and Amanda Nite) cooking three courses a piece – nine plates total – all centered around a theme. For example the last competition was all about incorporating citrus.
This event was a bit different. All the past meals were in the evening and had a food item theme. This time the theme was brunch. The chefs were tasked with creating a savory, eggs benedict and a sweet course. Usually the chefs do the judging. But after much harassment by me, they caved and allowed us to be involved. In total there were three judges – me, Chris and John Villareal. John is another fantastic cook you will be reading about in future posts. He is a first-rate smoker (and by that I am referring to meat).
So last Saturday morning at 11 a.m. armed with pencils, a grading sheet and a BIG appetite we got started.
The Savory Course Showdown
A little after 11:30 the games began. First up was team Swanson. They served us a buckwheat blini with homemade creme fraiche topped with caviar – oh and a shot of vodka. I should probably mention there was a lot of liquid bribing going on. The Kant-Stark team made us pre-brunch apricot juice (fresh-squeezed) and champagne cocktails. Back to the Swanson dish. It was fantastic! I will be honest I was very skeptical at first. I am not much of a caviar fan. But I simply loved the combination. Everything worked well together and the vodka shot finish was surprisingly appropriate. I really enjoy it when I find a dish that surprises me. And this one did.
Next up was Team Nite’s creation. This dish consisted of a homemade crepe lined with eggs, caramelized onions and mushrooms and brie and then a thick, yummy chunk of lobster is rolled up in there. And it’s topped with a chive sprig and a champagne shallot sauce – seriously??? I thought there were laws against such yumminess. But no one got arrested so I guess I was wrong.
Up last was Abe and Erin’s savory dish. It was superb. Their dish was a scallion latke, topped with bbq duck and homemade hoisin sauce. While it was not super brunchy the flavors were AWESOME!!!! I really enjoyed Abe and Erin’s creativity in this process. As you will see in the next dish they are a team that pushes the envelope. Sometimes with hits and other times misses. This dish was a hit. All of the judges raved about this one.
Eggs Benedict Course: AKA the Heart Clogger
First up for the Eggs Benedict category was the Nite’s. Once again they hit a home run. Rob’s creation started with a homemade lemon zest, dill biscuit atop a pan-fried and flour-dredged beef tenderloin topped with a poached egg and hollandaise sauce. This was probably my favorite dish along with the lobster crepe. The tenderloin was so flavorful and tender.
What do you get when you cross homemade challah bread dipped in an orange zest french toast batter topped with maple syrup, refried beans, sugar-cured ham, muenster cheese, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce? Give up? It’s Abe and Erin’s Eggs Benedict Course. This dish while exceedingly creative definitely did some warring on the taste buds. I did not know whether I was in love with the orange zest or if it was overpowering. Did I like the beans or were they unnecessary? It was a lot to take in. But once again I really love how Abe and Erin are not afraid to just try something. I have so much admiration for how they approach their dishes. And even though this one was a bit much for me, it was still a million times better than most dishes I get at fancy restaurants. And this dish did win most creative and I definitely agree.
Last, but not least was the Swanson’s Spanish Eggs Benedict. The foundation was a homemade dense and yummy English muffin, with saffron butter and jamon serrano topped with a poached egg and pimenton hollandaise.
This dish to me epitomized the Swanson’s simple, continental cuisine that they seemed to be going for in their menu. They were almost the counterpoint to Abe and Erin’s unrestrained experimenting. The Swanson’s seemed to have such a zen, practiced approach. While the Nite’s I would characterize as classic American with a twist. Their menu was filled with traditional, solid fare executed with just a touch of edginess. All the team’s end results were phenomenal. I just found it significant that the team meals carried with them such personality.
The Sweet Side
The grand finale was the sweet course. To start us off we had Abe and Erin who prepared a nice, light salad with fresh baby greens, lobster, avocado, grapefruit drizzled with a grapefruit vinegar, chive and shallot dressing. I loved this salad. Especially after the heaviness we encountered in the first two courses. Unfortunately I docked them a couple of points just because it was not very brunch-y (yes, we had to judge on brunchiness as well as taste and appearance). But they made up for this in taste. Second up was the Nite’s who plated up danishes filled with a lemon and ricotta mixture, topped with raspberry coulis and garnished with mint and raspberries. I thought this was yummy. It was simple, yet tasty.
The Swanson’s finished the event up with a trio of zeppole, essentially Italian donuts. The trio consisted of espresso glazed, apricot filled and raspberry filled. Topped with powdered sugar and plated on chocolate shavings this was an awesome dessert. The zeppole were very similar in texture to beignets but a bit more dense. And the fillings were not overpowering, just perfect.
So after feasting for four and a half hours (yes, you read me right) we got down to the scoring. Really, all you need to know is Chris and I won for best dressed… Just kidding, kind of. So here are the results:
- The Nite’s won for best overall (judge’s decision)
- Erin and Abe won best overall (chef’s decision)
- The Swanson’s Egg’s Benedict recipe was the meal voted best overall by points
- The Nite’s also won best overall brunch based on the points
- And the most creative dish was awarded to Abe and Erin for their Egg’s Benedict