Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Iron Chef-style competition showed off urban agriculture

MONTREAL - On paper, there were three awards handed out at an Iron Chef-style competition organized by Santropol Roulant last Thursday evening as a fundraiser for its urban agriculture program: one for best dish, one for team spirit and one for most money raised. But judging by comments by members of all six teams and from the enthusiasm and interest shown by the 150 or so spectators, nearly everyone came away from the community event a winner of sorts.

I was one of four judges at the community organization’s third annual Iron Chef Cook-Off, with Mariève Savaria, a Montreal blogger ( who holds a dietetics degree and teaches cooking classes, engineer and science writer Dominique Forget, and Daniel Pinard, who for many years hosted television programs on food-related topics.

The event is a fundraiser for Santropol Roulant’s ( urban agriculture program; participating restaurants, who had to raise at least $500 to be involved, were Fabergé, Holder, La Khaïma, Rumi and Sala Rosa; in addition, there was a community team, made up of Gabriel Couture, Cai Rintoul and Grace Bulmer.

The challenge for each team was to prepare a dish featuring vegetables fresh from the earth, a dish that reflected their culinary sensibilities and their creativity, and a dish created and executed in under an hour. The event was held at Santropol Roulant’s Edible Campus Garden, located on McGill University’s lower campus. The garden is brimming this time of year with produce — from green beans to silver thyme, celery to dinosaur kale.

Each team had 60 minutes to harvest enough of that produce to prepare a dish intended to serve one, although all the participants prepared portions large enough to serve at least three. They were to use as much as possible of what they harvested, with points lost for waste, and they were judged on such factors as taste, presentation and creativity: several chefs said they drew inspiration from their walk around the garden.

Each team worked at an outdoor station equipped with only basic materials: a two single-burner propane-powered hot plate, a pot and a frying pan, a couple of knives, a spatula, a wooden spoon, a mixing bowl and oil, salt and pepper. No more.

The weather was fine and the mood mellow as the spectators sipped beer, munched on freshly boiled corn on the cob, listened to live music and looked on as the cooks worked intently. Each team was entitled to bring along a single special ingredient: The Holder team chose preserved lemons, for instance, and Ken Buckland of Sala Rosa brought saffron. The Rumi team used pomegranate paste and the Équipe communautaire brought buttery tartlets.

Once the hour had elapsed, each team presented its dish to the judges, describing its components and how it had come together.

The Rumi team produced a vegetable-based dish that included eggplant, celery and Swiss chard fried in a wok and a shepherd’s salad featuring a vinaigrette incorporating the pomegranate paste. The vegetables were served over basmati rice.

The Holder team created a dish chef dubbed by Simon Laplante and cook Dominique Cloutier a vegetable cannelloni: It featured vegetables wrapped in leaves of Swiss chard and leek; the roll was lined in quinoa, which had been cooked in water boiled with preserved lemon peel to flavour it and it was garnished with discs of fried eggplant, some strips of crispy slivered eggplant peel — talk about minimizing waste — and a salsa featuring the preserved lemon and the chard stems.

Équipe communautaire prepared a lively ratatouille enriched with caramelized vegetables and bocconcini cheese, which they “won” — participants were able to win extra ingredients by answering skill-testing questions or submitting to a game of Truth or Dare — and served over the buttery tartlets they had brought.

The Fabergé team prepared eggs Benedict — the restaurant, known for its breakfasts and brunches, had chosen eggs as its special ingredient — and served it over sliced eggplant “breaded” with quinoa and fried; the plate was garnished with nasturtiums and radishes from the garden.

Attigh Ould of La Khaïma prepared a spicy purée featuring eggplant, onions and other vegetables and flavoured with a dried green vegetable in powder form he called morenga: he described the vegetable, which he said was grown by his father in his native Mauritania, as high in protein and vitamins.

Sala Rosa chef Ken Buckland, working alone, prepared a tian of steamed vegetables served with a ragout of leeks, turnips and saffron. He showed ingenuity in fashioning a steamer from a fork, a spatula and an inverted mixing bowl; a small plastic bowl served as a mould for the tian: he lined it with leaves of Swiss chard before adding other vegetables, then steamed it.

The judges tasted the dishes carefully, then headed to a quiet part of the garden area to complete their deliberations — as the spectators finished off the plates.

At the end of the evening, three prizes were awarded: one for the most money raised went to Holder, the award for team spirit went to Rumi, add the award for the best dish went to the community team.

But the others had enjoyed themselves as well. “This was amazing; so much fun,” Buckland of Sala Rosa said as he presented his dish to judges.

“It’s the spirit of the event that’s important,” he said later to Iron Chef Cook-Off organizers Armel Nevo, kitchen manager at Santropol Roulant, and to Noémi Desbiens Riendau, community-life co-ordinator of Santropol Roulant’s urban agriculture program.

twitter: @susanschwartz

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