Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Secret Ingredient Is...

My every dream came true last week, blans.

The whole Mac Grill team flew to Dallas for a Macaroni Grill Iron Chef competition, led by Chef Antonio and Chef John, head Chefs for Macaroni Grill. I was under the impression that we were going to WATCH the competition. But when I showed up Wednesday morning, I was told to put on an apron - we were going to be cooking!

You can probably imagine how excited I was. Think Sally-Field-accepting-her-Oscar excited.

When we showed up at Central Market (which is far and away the most amazing food store I've ever set foot in, and sadly only in Texas), we got chosen for teams, 3rd-grade kickball style, Team John vs. Team Antonio (I'm proud to say that, unlike 3rd grade kickball, I was chosen first for Team Antonio). We then huddled and decided what to make (well, Antonio decided, and then we all volunteered to make specific items. I immediately offered to man the Fennel Gratin, since I've lately become a bechamel-making enthusiast. I knew I could handle it. While we were shopping, I casually suggested we add leeks to the Gratin, which Antonio thought was a great idea (be still my beating heart!).

I was there, ostensibly, to be coming up with brilliant radio campaign ideas for Macaroni Grill (and I wasn't short on inspiration, to be sure), but admittedly, I got a little carried away. But how many times am I going to be able to cook in the kitchen with an actual, bonafide CHEF??!! I had a million questions for Antonio, all of which he answered patiently.

After we got all our ingredients, we headed back to the kitchen and had till noon to concoct our feast. The kitchen was super-cool, complete with an overhead mirror and live-action TVs. This is all of us:

This is Chef John, of the two head Macaroni Grill chefs, with a few of my colleagues:

And the man on the right here is Chef Antonio (whose team I was on), cooking for an audience of three:

Cindy looks intense!

Everything's in little bowls, just like on TV:

My Creative Director, making a warm tomato bruschetta (which Antonio INSISTS we pronounce "broo-SKETT-ah," just like they say in Rome. I do as Antonio says).

The "Secret Ingredient": heirloom tomatoes.

One of the dishes was fresh pasta, with thyme, Meyer lemon zest, and cracked pepper. Antonio and I made a vegetable sauce for it with fried zucchini and artichokes, roasted heirloom tomatoes, and sauteed peppers.

This is Antonio bruleeing the top of the Cara Cara Orange Crostata with one of those small kitchen blowtorches. I had never actually seen one in real life before, but they're every bit as cool as they look on TV.

We cracked open the wine around 11. Yes, A.M. Just another day at the office...

This photo is so much more impressive when you know that that saute pan weighed no less than 30 pounds, literally. I could barely lift it with both hands.

My main contribution to the meal: a Fennel and Leek Gratin that was to DIE FOR. I'll give you the recipe later in the post.

Our elegant pre-meal snack:

Chef John's team deboned a half a chicken, hammered it out with a kitchen mallet, stuffed it with prosciutto, rolled it up, and baked it in its own skin, with mushrooms and sunchokes. Then he made a sauce out of onions, grapes, and the pan drippings, which was unexpectedly delicious.

Our team made these two Cara Cara Orange Crostatas, and we used that particular type of orange because you can actually eat the rind. It was amazing.

This salad, from Chef John's team, had ricotta salada cheese on top, which, according to John, is the "goat cheese" of 2008--apparently goat cheese is SO last year. But ricotta salata is salted ricotta, which is drier and more firm than its lasagna-filling cousin. It's an incredible cheese. I'd use it inplace of feta, since I find feta to be a bit overpowering in most things.

Behold our feast:

And this is me, taking undue credit:

And now for the Fennel and Leek Gratin recipe, as nearly as I can approximate it:

1/2 stick butter
1/2 c. flour
3/4 pint of whole milk, cold
3 fennel bulbs, fronds removed (save the fronds of one bulb)
2 large leeks
salt and pepper
1 1/2 c. grated parmesan cheese

Cut the fennel bulbs in half, then quarter each half. Boil them in salted water for 6-7 minutes, until they're tender, but not soft. Using just the white and light green parts of the leeks, julienne them, and place the strips in a bowl of cold water (to remove sand particles). In a large saucepan, melt the butter and whisk in the flour, making a roux. Whisk in the milk a little at a time to make a thick bechamel sauce, and heat until it just boils. Remove from the heat and stir in 1/2 c. parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste. In a gratin dish, arrange the fennel pieces in concentric circles until you've used all of them. Sprinkle the leeks on top evenly. Pour the bechamel sauce over the fennel and leeks, and sprinkle the remaining 1 c. parmesan cheese over the top. Bake at 375 (?) for 35-45 minutes. Chop the one reserved fennel frond and use it as a garnish around the edges of the gratin.

Of course, after all our hard work in the kitchen, we got to sit down and enjoy the fruits of both teams' labor - and what delicious fruits they were. The fresh pasta was amazing, and the Gratin - if I do say so myself - was delish. What a great day in the ad business, eh?

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