What a phenomenal Saturday morning it was yesterday. It was such an honor to be asked to judge the Ready Set Go…Cook (friendly) competition at the University District Farmers Market, an annual affair that pits two Seattle chefs against each other using their pick of items from market vendors. My cohorts on the judging panel were Joe Gruber, Executive Director of the University District Food Bank and Joane McIntyre from Rents Due Ranch, a longtime market vendor. We were introduced by Mayor Greg Nickels who had moments earlier been part of a ceremony celebrating the city’s purchase of the University Heights building and property, under a banner that touted “celebrating community and supporting local farmers.” It’s a phenomenal step forward in helping ensure that at least one of our city’s neighborhood farmers markets has a permanent home to count on for years to come.
One proviso for the cook-off was that each dish–serving four–should come in at or below a $10 cost. An new this year was the added challenge to integrate pantry items provided by the nearby University District Food Bank, in an effort to show shoppers how well you can eat without having to bust your budget on expensive gourmet products.
The two contenders yesterday were Rachel Yang, chef/co-owner of Joule restaurant in Wallingford and Juli Guillemette, a just-recently-departed sous chef at BOKA downtown (she’s headed off on a road trip adventure back to Vermont where her family has a dairy farm–best wishes for that Juli!). Here’s how each provisioned their kitchens for the cook-off, best as I could note.
Rachel’s market products included fennel, small Asian eggplants, zucchini and yellow squash, hazelnuts, eggs, zucchini blossoms, purslane, honey, goat yogurt and (coolest product of all) zucchini stalks, which included crunchy stalks, tender tendrils and leaves. From the Food Bank pantry she used vinegar, cider, rice, mandarin oranges, and …. Spam!!
Juli’s choices from the market stalls included purslane, Walla Walla sweet onions, green beans, tomatoes, peaches, cucumbers, garlic, oregano, basil, and chicken livers. And from the Food Bank pantry she opted for flour, vinegar, tuna, oil, and maybe one or two other items I missed.
Oh, and each chef was allowed to bring a secret ingredient.
Juli presented her dishes first. She noted a love for meat and fruit combinations, pairing the chicken livers with peaches. The peach halves were lightly sugared and caramelized cut-side down in a cast iron pan (she’d have grilled them if that had been an option). Then cut in pieces, the peaches were partnered with chopped basil and sautéed Walla Walla sweets toaccompany the crispy pan-fried chicken livers. Her secret ingredient went to use here as a simple sauce: exquisite aged balsamic vinegar. I’m not, unfortunately, a fan of meat-meets-fruit, but do really like chicken livers. And I appreciated the creativity of this combination, particularly given the more savory basil and onion elements.
The second dish Juli served was a twist on salade niçoise, with the tuna, tomatoes, blanched green beans, cucumber and purslane, topped with a vinaigrette that included minced garlic and fresh oregano. What’s not to love, great fresh bright flavors, quite summery, and nice to show how much you can dress up an inexpensive can of tuna.
Rachel followed with her first of two dishes. The halved baby eggplant and pieces of fennel bulb had been marinated (honey-soy) and cooked in a grill pan, served with a salad of purslane and mandarin oranges, a sauce of yogurt and honey with chopped fennel fronds alongside. Delicious.
For me, the star dish of the day was Rachel’s second, a zucchini congee. Congee is, as Rachel simply put it, a rice porridge, typically savory. She noted that giving the time constraints of the competition, cooking the rice congee-style was a quicker option. The long grain rice soaked in cold water for maybe 20 minutes, then she whirled it in the blender with water for a bit, tossed it all in a saucepan to cook. Later she added grated zucchini, sliced zucchini stalks and zucchini leaves. For a finishing touch, she sautéed diced yellow squash and Spam to spoon over.
Rachel put her secret ingredient–soy sauce–to unique use, curing egg yolks from the beginning of the competition (about 1 hour before serving). A cured raw egg yolk was then added to the center of each bowl just before serving, which then oozed deliciously into the congee as you eat it. The last of many flourishes in this dish was a small piece of lightly fried zucchini blossom on top, a lovely crisp contrast to the silky rich texture of the dish. Wow.
Both chefs did such a great job, really got into the spirit of the challenge and into the pleasure of sharing their favorite ingredients and techniques with the crowd. But Rachel prevailed to take away the coveted blue ribbon first prize for this year’s Ready Set, Go…Cook!