i love it when people you know pull off something so skilled and talented it’s like they just tore off their shirts and revealed their superhero status to the masses. my friends alejandro and jess put on iron chef: battle citrus last weekend as a follow up to the bacon smackdown, and both proved themselves to be seriously excellent, creative, inventive chefs. not only did they come up with delicious, beautifully presented dishes, but the whole shebang had to be…get this…sodium-free. yup. no salt. not only no added salt, but they had to stick to low-sodium foods, which means no cheese. or bacon. or dairy products other than heavy cream. and so many other things. for most chefs, that’s like asking them to cook with one hand tied behind their back and blindfolded in a sauna while being poked by a room full of agitated monkeys. in a word (or two), fucking hard.
both jess and alejandro have been cooking salt-free for some time now so they at least had a good repertoire of low-sodium foods and tricks to help with the battle, but it was still quite a feat (read jess’s awesome just-started blog for recipes, more info on the sodium-free lifestyle, and what will surely be a fantastic post on battle citrus from inside the action. i’m merely reporting from the sidelines). they both rose to the challenge beautifully, as you’ll see once we break into this insane food porn photo album right now.
to welcome you to the battle citrus showcase showdown, this is what we saw when we first walked into the kitchen:
citrus fruit of all kinds of every conceivable size and color balanced on every available space in the kitchen, the sweet, tangy, and savory smells mixing throughout the room. luckily, it’s the perfect season for california citrus and alejandro and jess had picked up an incredible variety of citrus fruits to use throughout the dishes as (to name just a fraction) seasoning, garnish, butter flavoring, sauce ingredient, soup base, ice cream flavor, and even multiple kinds of bowls. such ingenuity.
okay, ready for some serious citrus smackdown action? despite my WWF style narration, the whole event had a fantastic spirit of co-opetition (word coinage thanks to ringside attendee, nirav) and could be more aptly described as a friendly price-is-right-style showcase showdown (probably because the two competitiors share not only a kitchen but a bedroom as well). so let’s get ready to RUMBLE….
at the first bell, alejandro came out swinging, starting off with a steaming hot, luscious manila clam soup made from half coconut milk and half orange juice. check it:
mmm…how beautiful is that broth? the orange juice perfectly cut through the intense creaminess of the coconut milk to give some acidity and round out the flavor. to add even more complexity, he seasoned with lemon, lemongrass, fennel, star anise, jalapeno, and then garnished with fried garlic, lemon zest, and green onion.
oof. well played, jandro, you serious overachiever. way to start off with a bang. however, jess countered with a strong opening move of her own, a crazy gourmet duo of beet and citrus sashimi. but wait…out of nowhere, a left hook straight to jandro’s jaw: sake lemonade. IN A HOLLOWED KEY LIME CUP. daaaamn, girl. and yes, the sashimi duo was equally inspired. part one: dark red beets soaked in grapefruit, topped by thinly sliced grapefruit wedges, topped with red snapper sashimi and lemon. part two: an ahi tuna tartare with lime juice and ponzu (lemony-limey japanese sauce), served with roasted golden beet chips for some crunchy scooping action:
wow. this girl has a way with presentation. after a brutally fought first round, both contestants retreated to their corners to dish up course two. alejandro led first with a devastatingly strong first maneuver – a pan-seared sea bass with lime butter, topped by two thin blanched asparagus spears and drizzled with an olive oil lime garlic puree.
ohh sooooooo good. he perfectly pan fried the sea bass to show off both crispy skin and buttery moist and flaky flesh, while the contrastingly pungent garlicky sauce was perfect for dipping. i would have licked the plate, except i had to save room for jess’s dish (and two more courses). not to be out-classed, she doled out orange fennel risotto, partitioned for your eating pleasure in your very own cupcake liner. so cute!
the risotto was flavored with tangelo, lemon, marscarpone cheese, and oyster mushroom, then topped with a layer of breadcrumbs. YUM. sweet from the tangelo, tangy from the lemon, creamy from the marscarpone, and savory umami from the mushrooms, the risotto was a unique and surprising combination of flavors and textures.
whew. two down and two to go. clearly both these contestants were in it to win it and both came charging out the box for course three. alejandro made a seriously agressive offensive move with a perfectly pan-fried duck atop a thin slice of candied orange, surrounded by small slivers of garlic and rosemary new potatoes, a sprig of watercress, and served with a sauce from – get this – pomegranate, chocolate, habanero, and grapefruit. WTF!?! who do you think you are, dude, thomas keller? it was nearly a show-stopper. we’ll start with view one:
although the flash gives a somewhat frightening gleam to the dish, check out the deeply blueish-purple of the new potatoes, the intensity of the candied orange color, and the bright freshness of the watercress. to make the candied orange, jandro had to go through a huge process that i can’t even remember except that it impressed me to no end. however, to really appreciate the duck, you have to get in there for the close-up:
look at the perfectly pink meatiness of the duck breast, which melded with the candied sweetness of the orange in my mouth – each bite incorporated so many different flavors. i’m totally in awe of his meat-cooking prowess (it’s not easy to achieve that ideal duck texture) and his creativity with the combination of ingredients in the sauce. after serving, it was totally silent, everyone chewing and ruminating in awe, until everyone started talking at once, the main consensus being: insanely good.
for a lesser opponent, the duck might have been the knockout punch, but jess surely wasn’t going down without a fight. she came roaring back into the game with a blood orange pulled pork in a blood orange barbecue sauce, heaped on top of lime cornbread next to a scoop of lemon yogurt-lime juice-red cabbage-jicama cole slaw. this spoonful artfully showcases all the delicious bits and pieces of this excellent dish:
this photo makes me want to eat an entire pork butt right now. so.ridiculously.delicious. this down home comfort food dish didn’t immediately have the gourmet wow of alejandro’s entree, but upon discussion and further reflection, the innovation and resourcefulness of jess’s dish became clear. yes, the classic combination of pulled pork, corn bread, and cole slaw is obviously going to be good. but then you think…all those components have an extreme reliance on the use of salt. remember, there’s no salt in any of these ingredients! pulled pork is usually a saltfest of tasty porkiness, and jess made it fantastic and sodium-free by marinating it in blue moon beer, (which is flavored with orange!). jess, you’re a fucking genius. the use of lemon yogurt added that perfect cool and creamy counterpoint to the cole slaw without the use of mayonnaise and still keeping it citrusy. and homemade lime cornbread? wow dude. just wow.
as if a level of cooking nirvana hadn’t been reached already, the two now-legendary-in-our-minds chefs brought forth the pièce-de-resistances – the citrus dessert course. alejandro made his own grapefruit granita sorbet, lightly drizzled with a simple syrup made from candied oranges and orange peel and lime:
mmmmm. cold, clean, refreshing, icily delicious. i am always floored by people making their own ice cream, and all i know is that this dish involved a lot of grapefruit pulp, egg whites, simple syrup, an ice cream maker, and a benevolent little elf with a sweet tooth who lives in the north pole and runs a sorbet factory, happily churning out frozen treats and delivering them via polar bear sled to good little boys and girls around the world.
i love this joyful little elf chugging away making icy cold tastiness, but his operation is small potatoes to the gleefully insane and excitably jolly french fairy responsible for jess’s dessert creation – an orange-chocolate mousse spooned into and chilled inside a hollowed-out blood orange half, garnished with a tiny slice of kumquat and topped with a freshly whipped, just-out of the oven, orange chocolate meringue. this fairy whizzes around her parisian kitchen in a shower of sparks, tossing fairy dust into croissants and magically whipping bowls of cream and infusing chocolate deliciousness into the world. who else would be responsible for such perfection?
i’m usually not a huge fan or meringues – i find the texture too crisp the way it shatters in my mouth – and these were chewy and delicious, sort of a cross between a meringue and a cookie. a merookie, if you will. in case you’re not jealous enough of all this good food, get a load of these:
overall, it was a spectacular neck-and-neck battle citrus, with both contestants displaying a more-than-solid skill set, tenacious determination, and impressive creativity. however, despite the congenial atmosphere and general feelings of love and excitement in the room, someone must be crowned ULTIMATE WINNER OF BATTLE CITRUS:
what are they going to win, rod?
well bob, this week’s showcase features a vacuum cleaner, a jukebox, your very own dinette set, and a ride in a hot air balloon!!!
just kidding,the winner doesn’t get a showcase, just dinner at the restaurant of their choice, bragging rights, and of course, ultimate glory. and the title goes to…..
congratulations to both participants, it was a truly spectacular meal. i would have paid to eat any of these dishes in a restaurant (and it should probably be stated that neither of the contestants are professional chefs, just superhumanly talented people). to top off the whole evening, a happy equation of sustainability: eight courses + eight eaters = three bags of compost and zero bags of trash. woohoo! thanks SF for composting, thanks jess and jandro for being such stellar cooks, thanks nirav, annie, kwame, cristina, and tim for providing excellent company. well done, friends, well done.