Iron Chef at Sea

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Last week at this time I was basking on the deck of our cruise ship, getting my dark roast on, taking the first of several daily naps, in between a steady procession of foo-foo drinks.

This morning, I got my car stuck in my driveway. Twice. After 40 minutes with a shovel and a long board to loosen the snow packed underneath, I made it to the office.

My thoughts went back to the cruise, and the delicious boredom that marks a successful vacation. With long stretches of lying in the sunshine, it was all I could do to stay busy, with crossword puzzles and reading simple books. There was one exception where I actually “did something:” I participated in the ship’s “Iron Chef at Sea” competition.

If you’ve seen the TV show, the format is essentially a timed cook-off between chefs utilizing themed ingredients. Sometimes these are a bit disconnected. Contestants have to harmonize these ingredients with other permitted foods, and compete on the basis of presentation, creativity, and taste as determined by a panel of judges.

Our version of “Iron Chef at Sea” included a preliminary round, where the themed ingredients were first prepared for the competition, and the winning team got to participate in the cook-off. I was chosen for this preliminary. I did this by buttering up the ship’s head chef beforehand by complimenting him on his cuisine (which was excellent) and pointing out where I would be sitting. Sure enough, when hands were raised in the crowded auditorium, he chose me to be part of his team.

I was paired with someone I shall call “Becky.” I will not provide any further identifying details because she is still probably shaking with rage that I blew her chance for glory (she refused to high five me at the end of the competition). Becky approached the ingredient table with serious mien.

As noted, we were the chef’s team. We competed against two other audience members who were chosen for the cruise director’s team. Permitted brief introductions to describe our culinary background, I made a crack about roast lamb and managed a “Go Blue!” which was hailed by a sizeable chunk of the audience. Becky ticked off her considerable cooking experience. I thought we had a shot.

Our task was to prepare the ingredients that would be used for the cook-off portion of the challenge: make a meringue, peel potatoes, squeeze orange juice, and pluck rosemary leaves off a stem. Becky told me she was great at meringue, so while she handled that and the orange juice, I set to work on the rosemary and potatoes. Simple, right?

Well when you’re on stage, with the chef and cruise director razzing you and cracking jokes, and the audience shouting (mostly Becky’s husband, denouncing my potato peeling abilities), and you have a worthless potato peeler that seemed only to work when the chef was showing me how to use it, it’s not that easy.

Yes, I failed at peeling potatoes.

I made short work of the rosemary and got that out of the way. The peeler was miniature, barely bigger than a Crackerjack prize. Where was my magical peeler, given to me and my sisters by my Thea Maria on some random occasion that has served my household for decades? I couldn’t get this one to work for me to save my life. The chef kept showing me, skinning half a potato in a second, while I in turn haplessly butchered the poor things. In the meantime, Becky had extracted the orange juice, expertly separated the eggs, and was whipping up a fine meringue. “Switch!” her husband exhorted. Finally we got the idea. I took over the meringue and Becky peeled potatoes (not much better than me, but we got it done).

The chef told me the meringue was stiff enough, and I squeezed out some more orange juice. The cruise director’s team was claiming they were finished, but we were done first. I juggled three potatoes in happy celebration.

Then the two team captains set about evaluating our work. The cruise director mocked our potatoes and all the skin we had left; the chef derided the other team’s rosemary-picking and juice volume. It came down to the meringue. One member of the other team turned hers upside down; it stayed put. Perfect. I turned ours upside down. It held … then quivered and slid to the floor, as I helplessly ducked my head out of the way.

The winning team went on to separate and compete against each other (accompanied by the ship’s assistant chefs) for the actual cook-off, using the ingredients we had prepared — plus fish or beef, and cheddar cheese — which they had to use to create two dishes within twelve minutes. Becky and I slunk off to our seats to watch the cook-off, but not before she refused my high five and slitted her eyes at me as I meekly explained the chef assured me our meringue was good enough. She was unmoved.

We did get to keep our “Iron Chef at Sea” aprons as consolation prizes. Had they offered me the potato peeler, I would have haughtily refused.

Since then I’ve been fantasizing about what I would have made had I advanced to the cook-off. I envisioned making a meringue-potato shell flecked with cheese and rosemary, topped with fish in a sweet-hot orange-garlic marinade. But it took me a week to think that up, not twelve minutes; and apparently I’m not even capable of peeling potatoes or making a proper meringue.

Go Blue, and when the roast lamb is ready, I’ll call you for dinner. Just don’t bring Becky.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at nroumel@yahoo.com.  His blog is http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.
 

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