V’s yummy pork belly
A few years back, my darling wife S and I took part in a home cooking challenge with 3 other couples. The theme was boys versus girls, which meant that all of the men were on one team and our wives/partners on another. On two different nights, each team planned and prepared a full menu, which was served to all participants, plus an additional couple, our judges. We had invited two foodie friends to sit in on the two dinners and decide who did a better job, the boys or the girls. That year, the girls won, reportedly by just one point. Of course, it didn’t help the guys that one member of our team cheated, purchasing several kinds of bread from a well-known hotel, trying then to pass the assorted selection off as homemade. One of the girls, though, smelled a rat–she was actually a regular at the main restaurant at that hotel and recognized the buns, especially the seaweed bread, immediately. Said wife grilled the poor boy mercilessly, asking questions he clearly couldn’t answer, like, “So, how long exactly did you have to proof the dough for this roll?” I’ve since asked the judges and they did admit that there were some point deductions for the bread. Which means we should have actually won. Well, that’s how I see it at least. S sees it rather differently.
We’ve been planning to re-initiate the challenge ever since. We finally got ourselves organized and over two Sundays in October this year, the grudge match was on! The teams were changed a bit. Of the competing couples, one has since left Singapore and the other, well, let’s just say, we didn’t want to lose because of the bread again. They were replaced by the judges from the first contest and our business partner and her fiance. We had no problems, as you might guess, arm-twisting another couple to judge this year’s contest. What was a trial, however, was coordinating everyone’s schedules. Finally–and only because of a few cancelled business trips–we were able to lock in dates.
On the boys team, we had me, a paunchy short Chinese, wannabe Jeffrey Steingarten; J, a British ex-hotelier with impeccable manners; B, an Italian restaurateur and fantastic cook; and G, ex-judge, gourmand but very amateur cook. On the girls team was S, super-meticulous Singaporean domestic goddess; K, a super-competitive and meticulous Japanese ex-hotelier; V, ex-judge and fabulous home chef; and L, the greediest girl in the group but the most inexperienced in the kitchen. Each team, essentially, had one potential weak link. In order to properly plan our menu, us guys deemed it necessary to meet privately over several rounds of drinks. By the end of the night, while much had been said, the only thing that was decided was G’s dish, a truffled porcini risotto with pan-seared foie gras.
As an additional hurdle, S and K had decided that the dishes we all had to cook had to be inspired by our partners, i.e. we had to cook dishes we thought our respective spouses would love (as opposed to cooking our own favourite dishes). Each member of each team was also required to produce one dish entirely on his or her own. In addition, it was agreed that we would limit ourselves to shopping at Huber’s Butchery (best butcher in Singapore), whatever was in our respective pantries and existing wine collections, plus $300 for other ingredients.
L’s onsen tamago with tofu
The ladies went first. They decided to go with a Japanese themed menu: white peach saketinis upon arrival; nanbanzuke, salmon marinated in Japanese vinaigrette with shredded carrot and onion (by K); onsen tamago with “handsome boy” tofu, ginger and spring onions (by L); sweetcorn potage with nori, sesame and a parmesan twist (also L); Japanese style simmered pork belly brushed with a sweet ginger glaze and served with a Morimoto style eggplant parmesan (by V); banana cake with frozen yogurt, chocolate dirt, and almond tuile (by S); and a round of petit fours, flourless chocolate cake (K), peanut butter & jelly cookies (V), chocolate truffles (L), and citrus donuts (S).
They did a wonderful job. The only complaints (from the peanut gallery, a.k.a. the boys) was that several times all four girls disappeared into the kitchen, leaving the men and our judges, S&M, alone for long intervals.
A few weeks later, it was our turn. We decided to go with a more European, almost Italian, menu: peas, ham and tomatoes (by me); chicken liver parfait with homemade brioche (also by me); pasta with artichokes, black cod and bottarga (by B); truffled porcini risotto with pan-seared foie gras (by G); caciucco alla Livornese, Tuscan seafood soup with a bread base (by J); chicken cacciatore (by me); apple galette with honey ice cream (by J); and roasted figs with a spiced mascarpone cream (by B). We also paired every course with a wine and offered a lovely elderflower liqueur-Champagne-soda cocktail pre-dinner.
I had a blast coming up with my dishes. The first course was actually a tomato water jelly, over which I had sprinkled some pata negra powder, over which I then spooned some pea foam. The idea was to create a very modern execution of one of S’s favourite flavour combinations. The chicken liver parfait was actually super easy to make. The brioche, on the other hand, was more trying. I’ve never been much of a baker. In the end, though, thanks to the very clear and detailed recipe in Baking Illustrated, I actually produced a pretty presentable loaf of bread.
For the chicken, I wanted to create a much lighter version of the traditional cacciatore. I made a quenelle with a combination of breast and thigh meat, cream and parmesan. The quenelles were poached and then held in the fridge until ready for use. I then made the cacciatore sauce (which is made with a mirepoix of veggies, stock and a heck of a lot of mushrooms), adding some tomato paste for colour and taste. I reduced the stock a bit beyond the norm and strained it. Right before service, I heated up the quenelles in the sauce while also sauteeing some mushrooms. Each plated portion consisted of one small quenelle, a palm sized portion of mushrooms, the cacciatore sauce, and a garnish of some fresh parsley.
Part of what made the evening really special was that G, easily the least experienced chef amongst all eight competitors, pulled off his dish pretty flawlessly. For weeks, his wife had been teasing him, trying to make him nervous about producing a gourmet dish for the competition. In the end, though, he was a champ. He and I had gone over the fundamentals of making a risotto the day prior to the event. I had sourced some fabulous veal stock from Huber’s Butchery for him, as well as some great dried Porcini. The following day, B walked him through pan-frying foie gras, making him practice and taste several before giving him the thumbs up to fly solo. But he did it, and did it marvelously. His dish was the equal of any fine-dining restaurant’s in town.
At the end of the second dinner, our judges S&M compared their notes, tabulated their scores, and announced that, at least for now, the boys had emerged victorious. The women were exceedingly gracious but I’m sure they’re already planning their dishes for a rematch.
Peas, ham and tomatoes
makes many portions
16 momotaro tomatoes
5 thin slices of pata negra
300g good quality frozen peas
1 tablespoon butter
For the tomato water jelly:
Chop up all the tomatoes. If you can, dice them in a food processor or give them a quick whiz in a blender. Place the tomotoes in a cheesecloth and tie them up into a bag. Suspend the bag over a bowl or pot and place in your fridge overnight. You want the clear tomato water to drip out into the bowl. Don’t squeeze the bag or the liquid will get cloudy and less visually appealing. You should end up with between 500ml to 1 litre depending on how ripe the tomatoes were.
Decide how firm or soft you want your jelly. For a soft jelly, you can use a ratio of 1litre of liquid to 6-7 leaves of gelatine. For a harder jelly (one you can cut into cubes), the ratio is 1 litre of liquid to 20gm gelatine plus 10gm agar.
I wanted a scoopable, smooth jelly and used 5 leaves with about 800ml of tomato water. Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water for a few minutes until soft. At the same time, heat up your tomato water. Carefully lift out the gelatine leaves, try and ring out excess water, and place in the warm liquid. Whisk to dissolve. Then pour the tomato liquid into glasses, bowls, teacups or whatever you want to use to serve this dish in. I used glass teacups from Mariage Freres, filling them just less than halfway. Pop into your fridge to cool and set.
For the Pata Negra powder:
Preheat your oven to 120 degrees Celsius. Lay the ham slices on a silpat or non-stick baking sheet. Pop into the oven for around 2 hours. You want all the fat to have been rendered off and the meat to be a tad crisp. Take out, pat off excess oil with paper towel. Then chop up the meat into as fine a powder as you can manage. Keep aside in a small jar or bowl.
For the pea foam:
Place the peas in a high sided pot. Add just enough stock and skim milk (equal portions) to almost cover the peas. Heat up until the peas are warm and tasty. Then transfer everything to a blender and puree until smooth. Strain the liquid, season to taste, and hold until just before service.
Sprinkle some pata negra powder over each jelly. Heat up a bit of the pea liquid in a separate saucepan. Add the butter. When melted into the pea liquid, pour back into the rest of the pea soup to mix. Add a heaping teaspoon of the lecithin powder. Use a Bamix stick blender with the whipping blade and pulse to create foam. Spoon some of the pea soup and foam over the top of each jelly and serve immediately.