Last weekend I was invited to participate in an Iron Chef cooking competition. It was a beautifully planned and detailed event and was executed flawlessly, much like the actual TV show, which the host and hostess of the party watch regularly. (I’ve actually never seen one complete Iron Chef show, believe it or not! Or Top Chef! What a shameless Shef I am 😉
The splendid kitchen was large enough to accommodate many cooks, a dream kitchen for many including myself! Signs posting the rules were framed, namecards were designed for the teams, and the secret ingredient was draped under a spotlight of its own, until it was time for it to be unveiled. The hosts immaculately laid out beautiful platters of fresh produce on the market table, perfectly aligned spice jars, and rows and rows of condiments and miscellaneous pantry ingredients.
Two teams of four cooks participated in the contest. I was on the team “The Saucy Patels” whose members all had an obvious passion for cooking, and moreover, an ambition to WIN! After a recap of the rules and a few bites to eat, the secret ingredient was revealed: 3 varieties of shrimp. Each team was to prepare a main course for six people using all the types of shrimp. We were given 30 minutes of planning time, and then the one hour cooking competition began. We collaborated effortlessly on a main course, discussing how to put the dish together, and everyone on our team took part in the planning process.
Our first thought was to find flavors to match the secret ingredient. Several of us leaned to the use of coconut with shrimp. We played around with possible lime, cilantro, mango and papaya. We decided to have a tall, mounded, stacking, layered look to our dish and we agreed on some kind of starchy base, like noodles. Then we wanted a crunchy layer followed by a coco-nutty, gingery saucy shrimp, and topped with something sweet like mangoes. Alas, after we started we ran into ingredient problems!
- No noodles ( I was thinking soba noodles or even udon, but the pantry only had semolina pasta….so our base layer changed to basmati rice).
- No Asian condiments like fish sauce or oyster sauce. So during the last 15 minutes of cooking, we ended up finding a jar of an Indian pickle in the pantry (hilarious)! These Indian pickles, sometimes called chutneys, have saved me more than once.
- The mangos were unripe and we weren’t looking for that characteristic sour mango taste. The flesh of the papaya was mediocre too—so we changed to pineapple, which we caramelized in raw brown sugar and butter.
Our final dish was a Thai and Indian inspired dish consisting of a saffron basmati rice pilaf cake studded with sautéed golden raisins, topped with toasted buttery cashews and then further with shrimp in coconut and basil curry. A spoonful of the caramelized pineapple and a sprinkling of minced cilantro finished off the plating.
We tasted each phase of the dish throughout the hour, but time was up before we tasted the final plating! The judges had score cards and tasted our team’s dish and the opposing team’s dish. Their dish was a beautiful plate of Cajun-rubbed grilled shrimp over pine-nut couscous and grilled zucchini as well as Indonesian-style grilled shrimp, accompanied by two brightly hued dipping sauces served in beautiful glasses: an Egyptian dipping sauce and a delicious fiery Indonesian dipping sauce.
The overall winner was the opposing team and the scores were a few points apart. After much analysis of the scoring (not by me, but some of my teammates!), we found out some of the score went to taste which our dish won, and some of the score was attributed to creativity and presentation both of which they won. All in all, both meals were delicious, and cooking together was plain and simple FUN! I was surprised how well we all worked under pressure and in an unknown kitchen space. (Many times, I was looking for bowls, spoons, pots, lids, etc…and I didn’t know where to look but our gracious host and several others were available every second of the competition). I can’t wait ’til Round 2! Look for the recipe right here in a couple of days!