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Judges Table – Saratoga Farmers Market

October 8, 2012

Even on a cold and rainy day people came out to watch the Fifth Annual Iron Chef Challenge at the Saratoga Springs farmers market. I saw some old familiar faces including Mr. Sunshine (not that I’m calling him old) and Bobby Carlton, although I didn’t get a chance to talk much with either of them.

I even met a woman who actually makes the donuts at Saratoga Apple. And while she is well versed in how variable the product can be depending on who is manning the donut making operation, she was completely perplexed at the dominant flavor of nutmeg we found on the the recent tour.

Were my presence not required elsewhere that afternoon, I would have followed her to the orchard for what she promised would be the best cider donuts I’ve ever had. Damn responsibilities.

Speaking of responsibilities, I was not at the farmers market for fun and games. There was serious work to be done. Two-time champion Max London was cooking three dishes to defend his title against John Ireland of Panza’s. Someone needed to taste all that food and decide whose cuisine reigned supreme.

I need to thank DocSconz yet again for recommending me to participate in this role. I was joined at judges table by Ashley Dingeman of Saratoga Food Fanatic and Arielle Landsberg of Slow Food Saratoga.

So here’s how it worked. Each chef had an hour to prepare three dishes. One was a meat dish, the other a vegan dish, and the third was up to them. It needs to be said that I don’t think I could do this. I cook slow. Most things I make take hours. And even simple dinners of one main dish and a rustic salad take the better part of sixty minutes.

But then again, I have plenty of distractions.

The chefs were allowed to bring a few things from their restaurants, buy a few things from the market that morning, and were given four mystery ingredients that had to be used. These were a rack of lamb from Elihu farms, Gar-La-La garlic spread, kale and fennel.

I was surprised to see both chefs cut the lamb off the bone, but I was told by chef Mark Graham who was there observing that given the time constraints he would do that too in order to cook the meat quicker. But it was still sad to watch all those tasty bones and trimmings go in the trash.

You know how I don’t like running pictures on the blog, right? Well I’ve decided to do something horribly annoying based on how much people loved pictures of that egg and cheese sandwich from All Good Bakers last week.

I’m putting the pictures up on Facebook.

If you click here you can see the three dishes presented by Max London. He went first. The knockout dish was really the first one. The vegan flatbread was delicious and colorful. The vegetables had great caramelization, and were cooked to the point of being tender but still retaining a bit of tooth.

On his second dish, the crust on the lamb was amazing. Lamb is tricky, and I would say that his was a shade over where I’d like it from an internal temperature standpoint, but that wasn’t what brought the dish down. While the seasoning on the lamb was fantastic, the rest of the dish was unfortunately underseasoned. and the gnocchi he brought from the restaurant didn’t add much.

Originally he conceived of his presentation as breakfast, lunch and dinner. But chef Max asked if we wanted the crepe to be breakfast or dessert, and I said dessert. It’s a good thing too, because it was lacking the savory character that I’d want in a sweet breakfast crepe. As a dessert, it was lovely because it wasn’t overly sweet. The fruit and creme fraiche had good acidity and a light drizzle of honey added a little bit of sweetness. However, the dish was a bit heavy handed and the delicacy I look for in a crepe was lacking. Also, I was more than a little surprised to see strawberries in October.

If you click here you can see the three dishes presented by John Ireland. His first dish was a very simple and well composed vegan salad. One of the judges thought this was the best dish of the day. The thin grilled strip of eggplant almost is reminiscent of an anchovy. But it’s those hauntingly beautiful translucent strips of radish that emblazoned themselves in my memory. And it was delicious, fresh and light with clean flavors and a quiet confidence.

Lamb may have been the hero of the second dish, but it was the bacon fish-sauce jam that stole the show. That and the well cooked brussels and tender kale that were great for collecting some of the simple pan sauce from the lamb.

Chef John’s final course was by far the most unusual and daring of the day. When I saw that he brought pumpernickel crumbs from his restaurant pantry I had no idea where they would go. But they added a great crunchy element to this dish that was a work of contrast in textures and flavors. Crumbled goat cheese with sliced plums, shredded butternut squash and toasted pumpernickel crumbs isn’t something that sounds like it would work, but it was surprising and delightful.

In the end, chef John Ireland won it by a nose. But The Saratoga Idiots said it best, “Today’s real winners were the judges – they got to eat everything.” And while it’s more stressful than you would imagine to have a crowd of people huddled around you watching while you eat, I think I’m inclined to agree with The Idiots.

It was a great day, and I was thrilled to participate. Congratulations to chef John Ireland. He did a great job. And thank you to the organizers of the event who kept everything on track even when it started to rain. I hope this is the beginning of a long relationship with the Saratoga market, and that I’ll get to be in this position again next year.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    October 8, 2012 10:59 am

    It’s a shame that Panza’s 28 Tables–where Chef Ireland was cooking–had to close.

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