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May 28, 2007

Iron Chef X - Mushroom

Amanda Magnano
Hard to believe we've done ten of these things.

I should probably start out with a little background information. A couple of commenters have asked what this Iron Chef Chicago thing is all about, bringing to my attention the fact that I've never explained it. The truth is probably a lot less exciting than you might imagine, but it's a source of great pride, nonetheless. Iron Chef Chicago, established December 2000, is simply a series of dinner parties inspired by the show. We're certainly not the only folks to do a home version of Iron Chef, though I like to think the level of competition and the quality of the grub is significantly higher than most. It's nothing public -- all friends and friends of friends -- but we've had a few pros take up the challenge. I earned my Iron Chef title by winning the inaugural challenge, and have cooked for all nine events since.

Amanda Magnano
Though Iron Chef Chicago is inspired by the show, it isn't a strict copy. We wanted to honor the concept while making the format practical for a dinner party. We don't have massive stocked pantries, we don't have huge professional kitchens, and eating food that was cooked two hours ago just sucks, so we made some adjustments. The ingredient is revealed a week ahead of time, giving the chefs time to plan, shop and negotiate range and oven time. Prep starts around noon the day of the event, and first plate is around 6:00. The Iron Chef and challenger then alternate, serving the judges (12-14 of them) a course every 20 minutes or so, and the judges debate and score each dish individually. The average score of the five (or six) dishes is the chef's score at the end of the evening. If you're talking about strict competition, the system definitely has its flaws, but I think we've struck a good balance that makes it a good competition for the chefs, but a fun event for the judges.

Amanda Magnano
I love it. I LOVE it. I love the challenge. I love the competition. I love the friends and the camaraderie. I love the scale and the frenzy and the pomp and circumstance. And I love the fact that over ten events, Iron Chef Chicago has stretched me creatively and taught me to produce under fire to the tune of 54 original dishes and 627 individual plates. I suffer under no illusions. I'm no pro. I'm a wannabe who cooks at home because I wasn't willing to make the kind of life sacrifices that professional chefs make. Every time I sit on the sofa the day after an Iron Chef, unable to move, I remind myself that there are people who do this every day. But the scale, pressure and creativity-inducing restrictions of doing an event like this have taught me far more about cooking than I ever could have learned from doing traditional dinner parties. And it's the most fun I've ever had with friends. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, that bit of navel-gazing aside, this past Saturday marked our tenth event, and it was a great one. My good friend and challenger from the inaugural competition finally came out of his self-imposed retirement to challenge once again, and we returned to the original event's site as well. And if the nostalgia factor weren't enough, faithful sous Kirsten and I managed to up our record to 8-2 despite losing two primary ingredients to unexpected spoilage at the last moment. Hopefully I'll get some recipes worked out over the next couple of weeks, but in the interim, here are some photos and descriptions of our dishes. Images of this Iron Chef are courtesy of my sister, Amanda Magnano, on whose behalf I'll make the excuse that her camera was malfunctioning all evening.

Curried Shiitake Stir-Fry with Rabbit, Foie Gras and Jicama
We toyed with making our first a pair of amuses, but decided to stick with just the stronger of the two. Originally conceived as a pair of mushroom / foie gras concoctions, one cold and sweet and the other hot and spicy (the first was to be a chilled foie and morel terrine with a grape granita), this was the latter of the two. I wanted a potent, unconventional start, so we paired the shiitakes with a milder meat, the foie for richness, the jicama for texture, and a very simple sauce of soy, curry and a touch of honey. I wasn't as thrilled with the execution as I was with the concept -- I committed the cardinal sin of throwing more meat in the wok than our home range could really handle properly -- but the crowd seemed to love it.

Mushrooms en Papillote with Ginger-Sake Butter and Hawaiian Sweet Potatoes
There are always some judges who are underwhelmed, but out of principle I try to make a practice of including one dish that treats the theme very, very simply and brings out its natural flavor as much as possible. In this case, I thought the ginger-sake butter treatment that I gave to some sweet potatoes a few months back would be brilliant with mushrooms as the star. So we tracked down a horde of mushroom varieties and made it something of a mélange with sweet potato as a supporting flavor. We included shiitake, oyster, hen of the woods, royal trumpet, crimini, enoki, white clamshell, beech and morel mushrooms, then went with a milder Hawaiian sweet potato so as not to overshadow the 'shrooms, and cooked them en papillote to lock in as much mushroomy goodness as possible. It didn't score as well as I thought it would. I didn't hear the comments, so I can only presume it was the typical "not enough going on" that I often get with this type of dish, but no matter. I thought it turned out great.

Mushroom and Crab Ravioli with Uni Cream
Great timing on this one. Just as I'm playing with uni and discovering that it's a great foil for mushrooms, along comes mushroom as the theme ingredient. We used two mushrooms, oysters and white clamshells, that have very distinct seafood flavors for the filling and added a little crab to boot. I then made a slightly modified version of my earlier uni cream, and gave the final product a little parsley and Parmigiano Reggiano. Though good, I was somewhat disappointed with the execution on this one. Ravioli 101, I was distracted by other goings-on and forgot to flip them as they were drying, so we had some inconsistent texture issues with the pasta. That, and the cream was too thick. But still, a good dish. Lowest-scoring of the night -- I blame myself for the flawed execution and a missed opportunity to make people absolutely adore uni -- but still respectable. This one dropped us a ways behind the challenger and put the pressure on the final two dishes.

Beef Tenderloin with Crispy Porcini-Saffron Risotto and Mushroom Consommé
Pictured here sans consommé, which was added tableside. This was the snake bitten dish. This was the one I knew was going to absolutely rock, and then the wheels came off. Still, a very good dish that I was absolutely happy with, but not what it could have been. First, the veal tenderloins I'd special ordered from a usually excellent butcher and brought home the day before were absolutely rank and brown almost to the core when I unwrapped them at 5:00 PM. After receiving my panicked phone call, the fellow graciously offered to stay past closing until I (or my designated lackey) could get there to trade out the problematic meat, but the veal tenderloins were a specially procured item and not available. In their place, he sent us a stunning beef tenderloin. Not my first choice, but not a bad substitute by any means. Then, I discovered that all of my mussels had kicked the bucket overnight, and that one just about killed me. The mussels were the key. They were to be steamed in the consommé to provide the unusual twist that was going to take the dish from good to awesome. Faithful sous Kirsten ran about town trying to procure more, but to no avail. We went without. Still I can't complain too much. We crusted the beef with very finely ground dried porcinis, and seared and roasted it. The risotto was made with fresh porcini mushrooms and the mushroom consommé, seasoned with a generous amount of saffron and fried crispy on both sides just before serving. We topped the whole shebang with some sautéed morels and ramps, a little hit of fresh lemon zest, and then poured a small amount of mushroom consommé into the bowl at the table. Despite a strong fourth course from the challenger, it scored well enough to pull us almost into a dead heat, effectively turning IC Mushroom into a battle of desserts.

Candy Cap Cheesecake with Chanterelle-Pear Caramel Sauce and Porcini Crisp
Thankfully, we banged out a mean dessert. The scores for the challenger's dessert were so high, I was concerned the judges weren't leaving enough headroom to allow us to pick up ground. But our dessert ended up being the highest scoring dish in the history of Iron Chef, and we took home the win. I'm not sure it deserved that much love, but it was pretty damn tasty. I'd read about candy cap mushrooms prior to ICX, but had never used them. They're bright red wild mushrooms that are very, very mild when fresh, but as they dry they develop an intense maple aroma and flavor, making them ideal for dessert purposes. We decided to give them as simple a stage as possible so as to showcase the flavor of the mushrooms themselves. We made a cheesecake, one quarter chèvre for a little added pungency, the necessary sugar and eggs, and then used nothing but ground candy caps to season it. We then topped it with a light, buttery caramel sauce that utilized chanterelles for their overtones of apricot. We cooked in fresh chanterelles along with the pears, and reduced the soaking liquid from a package of rehydrated dried chanterelles (and pitched the mushrooms themselves... this IS Iron Chef) into the sauce as well. And for a pretty little treat, we topped each with a paper-thin slice of porcini mushroom that had been dried, coated with corn syrup and roasted until crisp. I think the judges expected us to bury the mushrooms in sugar. Instead, we strategically chose a couple of mushrooms that were well-suited to a sweet dish, and let them sing. That this effort wasn't lost on them was very gratifying.

So there it is, Iron Chef Mushroom. With myself, my ladylove and the little guy moving to Baltimore at the end of June (more on this shortly), there may be an unusually long hiatus before the next IC Chicago. But I can't think of a better sendoff than an event like this. Worst-case scenario, if filling the role of Iron Chef while traveling in from Baltimore with family for the next two years is too daunting, maybe I can coax a couple of previous contenders into taking over the show temporarily... and maybe faithful sous Kirsten and I can eat for once :-)


My oh my, Dom. I only wish you produced these photos in 3-D Tasteovision.

Maybe in time for Iron Chef XXVII :-)

Your "Top Chef" entries are what brought me to your blog, but I enjoy reading your personal food commentaries just as much. Maybe even more so because of the joy and passion you have for food. I know the Iron Chef Chicago Mushroom event was ages ago, but boy was this fun to read! How did you learn about the different mushrooms? Where did you find all the different varieties? Asian food stores? Must be one of the many perks of living in Chicago. Are you able to find ingredients as good in Baltimore? (Probably, since the culinary institutes are there.)

You said in your post that you would share recipes. I would LOVE it if you shared some of these recipes. Especially the mushroom cheesecake recipe. I am just beginning to really indulge my love of cooking. One thing I am loving is the use of ingredients in uncommon ways. Like mushrooms in a dessert.

Even if you don't have the recipe or the time to post, I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. It's very fun and educational to read.

Thanks, Maggie, that's very kind :-)

I was familiar with most of the mushrooms I used at the time, but I also ordered some from a couple of suppliers, and I asked them to talk me through their current stock a bit. With the ravioli, for example, I was originally going to use just the oysters, but when the supplier mentioned that she had white clamshells, which have sort of a seafoody flavor, I got some of those as well.

I actually did post a recipe for the cheesecake! It's here:


As for the others, in typical Iron Chef style, they were all ad hoc recipes kind of done on the spot, so I don't have recipes written out (nor notes or measurements, really). But I've tried to make a habit of carefully measuring and taking notes whenever I go back to recreate an Iron Chef dish. When I do, I always post them :-)

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