Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fire in the Triad Quarterfinals: Battle Pork

The FOURTH and FINAL Fire in the Triad QUARTERFINAL dinner took place last Wednesday between Chef John Milner of Milner's in Winston-Salem and Chef Kristina Fuller of The Bistro in Greensboro. Not only was this match-up highly anticipated by ME, I didn't think any secret ingredient could top the previous night's. Lots at stake here: Will the only lady chef (or Chefette) standing in the competition win? Will Winston-Salem be knocked out of the running? Only time and the secret ingredient would tell.

We were shown a clip of "Trading Places" to give us a clue as to what we were about to enjoy:



The Secret Ingredient...

Heritage Farms Premium Pork Belly and Pork Loin

According to the website, Heritage Farms Premium Pork is served and sold at fine dining establishments and retailers all across the state of North Carolina.
"Heritage pigs are specialty breeds that haven’t been tainted by the gigantic pork industry. Heritage breeds are fattier, tastier, better marbled and just all around good. In the 30′s there were 15 breeds of pig that were raised, 6 of those breeds are now extinct. Creating a market for these breeds ensures that they won’t be lost. Support heritage breeds of pig and any other livestock. You’ll be happy with your choice."
And speaking of happiness, my belly was about to be happy with the selections of pork we were offered for each course.


Course 1
Braised Pork Belly, Carrot-Shiitake-Fennel Spring Roll over a Bok Choy Slaw and a Sweet and Spicy Thai Chili Sauce

This course set off the night. A few diners at my table had never had pork belly before and didn't know what it was. I crunched and munched on my roll while giving a rudimentary explanation of pork belly. I always explain it as "Bacon Plus". It's the actual underside belly of a pig that has skin, bacon and side meat attached. It's my belief that we don't hear about or eat much of it in the South because we like our bacon and we like our barbecue--the two don't need to meet. But I like to meet my meat.

One bite of this spring roll, and my table was hooked.
The roll was crispy and the belly inside was juicy, tender and flavorful. The slaw was cool, crunchy and there was just enough Thai chili sauce to accompany everything. The sauce was more spicy than sweet, but I loved it just the same.

Course 2
Heritage Farm Pork Belly, Seared Sea Scallop, Asparagus Puree, Lemon-Fennel Salad, Pork Belly Emulsion


Whoa, buddy. Stop the presses. The pork belly and the sea scallop both shared top marquee billing in this dish. The scallop tasted as if it had just been plucked from the sea. Briny, soft, beautiful and delicious, it tasted as if love was injected into it. It wasn't seared hard, but I appreciated that with the braised pork belly and emulsion.

When the last course came out, people must have started to realize that pork belly = bacon because the room got loud, lively, and in a fashion that I'm sure was similar to Battle Bacon, whooping and hollering could be heard all around. 


Course 3
Graham Cracker-Crusted Pork Rib Loin over a Hash of Sweet Potatoes, Yukons, Apples, and Golden Raisins, topped with a Chipotle-Blueberry BBQ

Photo courtesy: Competition Dining
A nice, frenched, beautiful cut of meat was presented to us and all I could think to say was,"Look at this big ol' pork chop"... And that's what it was.
I ate my sweet potato hash and apples (the fruit of my loin!) first, before getting to the chop. Well prepared and seasoned, it accompanied the bbq sauce well. The loin had an off flavor that I did not enjoy. I couldn't and still can't place it, but it was like the unpleasant aftertaste of commercial pork. After swirling each piece in the chipotle-blueberry bbq sauce (which I want to bottle and carry with me in my purse everywhere I go), it wasn't so bad, but once the sauce was gone, I didn't want the pork any longer.

Course 4
Ancho-Chili Rubbed Pork Rib Roast, Carolina Bleu Cheese-Sweet Potato Pavé, Braised Pistachio Nuts, Blueberries, and Pork Jus

Photo courtesy: Competition Dining

If I thought the last course's loin was big, it had NOTHING on this one. It was truly a behemoth-sized piece of meat. Standing 2 or 2.5 inches thick, I looked around for Fred Flintstone because that is the only character I know who would be able to finish it.
The ancho chili rub on the outside of the pork was delicious. I cut off each side and ate that with my blueberries and jus. The texture of the loin suggested that it had been brined. It was soft and fork-tender, but I preferred the texture and grain of the last course's pork. The best part of this dish: the potato pavé and there wasn't nearly enough of it. It was a tease. My potion was barely the size of a silver dollar and I held onto it for as long as I could. No one can complain when thin slices of potato are layered with cheese, butter and cream. No one.

Course 5
Duo of Coconut Curry Ice Cream with a Chili-Bacon Brittle, Pork Belly Dumpling topped with a Maple-Blood Orange Reduction 

Photo courtesy: Competition Dining
At this point of the night, I started to speculate whose dishes were whose. Each chef was true to his/her style of cuisine and it was no longer a secret. 

This course was good; I'd definitely order it if it were offered on a dessert menu. The pork belly dumpling was my favorite: full of delicious pork and dipped into the maple-blood orange reduction, it matched well with the bacon brittle and I kept alternating bites until it was all gone. If those were the only two things on the plate, I would have been okay with that. The coconut curry ice cream was just okay. It had subtle flavor and didn't burst like the other items.  The texture was creamy and uniform throughout. Most of the ice creams we've had during the competition have ice shards and/or are melted.

Course 6
Pork Belly Brown Sugar Sweet Biscuit, Ginger-Apple Butter, Apple Cracklin' and Charred Jalapeno Ice Cream


Tied with course #4 for highest scoring dish of the night according to the professional judges, this was the best ham biscuit I've ever had for a dessert. That's right: Ham biscuit. Dessert.

If you know anything about me, you know how much I love bread. My favorite bread: biscuits. When I get old and lose all of my faculties, I'll still remember how to make biscuits.

Jesus is a biscuit, let him sop you up. Sorry, I'm a fan of Ru Paul's Drag Race.
I couldn't sop up much with this biscuit because it was a little dry (due to the brown sugar, I'm sure. Sugar added to biscuit dough makes it a shortbread) but it was okay because there was ham in there. Ham. Pork Belly, whatever--remember, pork belly is bacon plus and this plus was clearly the back part closest to the ham. So after I ate my biscuit with abandon (and licked my fingers in public), I looked down to see the ice cream.
The spice of the jalapeno paired with the cracklins... mmm mmm mmm. Battle Pork came full circle and was realized at this point. I wasn't sure how diners or judges voted, but it was clear which chef made which dishes. 

The night's judges:

David Bailey, contributing editor of O.Henry Magazine
Jim Early, founder of the North Carolina Barbecue Society


The winner of Battle Pork: Chef John Milner of Milner's in Winston-Salem!

To see a breakdown of courses and scoring, please visit Competition Dining.

See John's post-victory video below.


Winston-Salem is still in the running of Competition Dining's Fire in the Triad winner (Thank goodness!). Chef John will meet up with Chef Michael of Undercurrent in Greensboro on September 19 for the semifinals. May the best chef win!



Milner's crew.(r to l) John and his brother, Buddy with Sous Chef Phil Reed


Chef Fuller & crew: It's okay chef, you're still badass in my book (and on my blog, too)

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