Iron Chef

Some years ago, my friend A. suggested I host an Iron Chef party.  We were taking suggestions for themes, and among others she offered this one.  I was intrigued.  How would it work?  Who would choose the ingredients?  Who, most importantly, would win?  I must admit to harboring some jealous desire to be the victor, should such an event take place.  I like to cook, and I like to feed people, and I’m a bit of a hostess-who-wants-to-be-the-mostest, so it seemed like a competition in which I would not only excel, but feel extreme competition.

Then school happened and I put it aside for a while.  Long enough, in fact, that A. moved away and years passed.  It was not until last Saturday that this long awaited, long anticipated event actually took place.  Through a public poll, secret ingredients were chosen.  They were revealed in the invitations: the Iron Chef Potluck 2011 would feature potatoes and Parmesan cheese.

Fortunately for me, in need not only of potato and cheese inspiration but also multiple dishes (gotta make sure everyone’s fed and happy!), I had Bittman.  I chose two intriguing potato-based party dishes.

“48. Cut sweet potatoes into wedges; boil until tender.  Drain and toss with olive oil.  Wrap each with a prosciutto slice and a sage leaf, then roast until browned.”

This sounded outrageous.  Outrageous easy, outrageous good.  I used:

2 large sweet potatoes, halved lengthwise and sliced into wedges

2 packages of prosciutto (basically you just need a piece for each potato wedge, so it depends how many wedges you have)

1 package of sage leaves (same thing here)

Olive oil spray

Additional directions are not really needed here – Bittman’s original text tells you exactly what to do.  I boiled the sweet potatoes for 10 minutes or so until they were tender but not falling apart.  When they were completely cool I sprayed them and the baking pan with olive oil spray, pressed a sage leaf against the flesh of the sweet potato wedge, and wrapped it up with prosciutto.

I preheated the oven to 400F and roasted these little packets for almost half an hour.  At this point, the prosciutto was getting crispy and, truth be told, I needed the oven for other items.  The sweet potato spears never got browned, and I suspect the oven temperature was too low.  When you bake French fries the oven has to be up really high, so the next time I make these I will set the temperature at least to 450F.  I suspect only then will the kind of caramelization Bittman hints at take place on the sweet potato.

Regardless of browning, these were good.  The sage packs a punchy flavor, so if you’re not a fan of that sharp autumnal herbiness, skip it or use something less pungent.  The prosciutto-potato pairing was genius.  Salty and crispy paired with mild tender sweetness, all in a two-bite package.  Perfect party food.  I could have stood leaning over the counter with a bowl of these beside me for the whole afternoon.

But no.  The time of the party was approaching.  I had to move on with only a sampling.

“Autumn Rolls: Shred sweet potatoes or carrots and Brussels sprouts or cabbage.  Roll them up with fresh sage or mint and some sprouts in rice paper.  (Add sliced shrimp if you like.)  Make a dipping sauce of soy, garlic, grated or minced ginger and honey.”

I had never thought about serving sweet potatoes raw (though Bittman does suggest this in multiple dishes), but I was drawn to it because it seemed in keeping with the Iron Chef project: in a challenge like this, using the ingredient in every one of its forms seems logical.  If you can boil it, roast it, mash it, bake it, why not shred it up and use it still crunchy?

Regardless, I decided some extra preparation was necessary.  I used the following:

½ large sweet potato, shredded and soaked in cold water for ten minutes to remove starchiness.

½ small head of cabbage, very finely sliced

30-40 mint leaves

1 cup sprouts (I used clover)

Rice paper wrappers

½ cup soy sauce (I used gluten-free)

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

½ inch knob of fresh ginger, grated

2 TB honey or to taste

After soaking the sweet potato in a cold water bath and changing the water once to drain away as much starchiness as possible, I decided the shreds seemed pleasantly crisp without leaving a “raw potato” residue on my tongue.  I tossed them together with the cabbage and about a tablespoon of soy sauce.  I put this with the rest of the ingredients (through rice paper) in an assembly line and executed my rolls.

These are not difficult, once you get the hang of them, but they are time consuming.  It takes me at least half an hour to roll up a batch of these, and I’ve made them many, many times.

Soak a wrapper in warm water until it is very pliable.  This takes 45 seconds or so.  When it is the consistency of wet tissue, spread it on a paper towel or kitchen towel and then flip over and spread again.  This gets excess water off so you don’t have a soggy roll.  At this point I usually put the next one into the water so it’s ready by the time I’m done rolling.   Since I took pictures of almost every step, let’s do this Pioneer Woman style.

Place a few mint leaves all over the wrapper.

Add a tablespoon or two of the sweet potato and cabbage mixture.

Add the sprouts.

Fold in the sides until they overlap across the toppings.

Now fold over the side closest to you and then roll the whole thing into a tiny burrito.

Line them all up like little soldiers and you’re ready to go!  I usually slice them in half on an angle.  I do this for two reasons: 1.) it looks really pretty, and 2.) they aren’t huge and overwhelming looking as finger food.  It’s also nice because it allows your guests to get a peek at what’s inside. 

While I was rolling, I put the sauce ingredients in a very small saucepan and turned the heat on low.  With minimal stirring to be sure the honey wasn’t burning on the bottom, I had a slightly thickened dipping sauce in 10 or 15 minutes.

These were delightfully fresh.  The cabbage and sweet potato gave nice crunch, the sprouts were an interesting, almost tickly feel against your tongue, and the sauce was ridiculously tasty.  Again, with the salty-sweet theme I unconsciously adopted, the honey and the soy sauce played excellently against each other, and it got just thick enough, and with just enough bite from the aromatics I added, that it complemented the fresh rawness of the rolls very well.

Both these offerings were delicious, and despite the competitive gnawing I sometimes feel inside, neither of them took the ultimate prize.  We allowed everyone up to three votes: one for best representative of potatoes, one for best representative of Parmesan cheese, and one for best incorporation of both.  The ultimate honor went to the cheese.

Take a gander:

This is a parmesan crisp topped with a slice of salami, a slice of quince paste, and a twist of caramelized onion.  Talk about salty-sweet!  When I asked the winner for permission to post his dish, he agreed and, delightfully, offered the following specifics:

Parmesan Crisps can be found at: http://projects.washingtonpost.com/recipes/2007/05/09/lacy-parmesan-wafers/
I used only 1 Tsp of cheese because I wanted a smaller diameter crisp. 
topped with smoked salami (1/8in thick slice)
slice of quince paste (1/8in thick)
sauteed onions (~1/2tsp) (one sweet onion, olive oil, pinch of sea salt, 1 tsp sugar, 2 tsp butter) .
serve at room temperature.

Congrats, Iron Chef 2011!

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