Food Festivals

Chef vs. Chef 2016 Week 11: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Vegan Empanada

Chef vs. Chef is a 16-week competition at Max's Harvest hosted by chef Eric Baker that pits local chefs against one another, cooking up surprise ingredients for a panel of judges — and our tasting pleasure.

This week, Jessie Steele of CWS Bar + Kitchen returned to battle Kevin Darr of City Cellar.

As the competition nears the finish line, Baker keeps changing things up. This time, he made meatless ingredients the stars of the show, much to guest judge Shaina Wizov’s delight. Wizov, who writes the blog “Take a Bite Out of Boca,” is a loyal Chef vs. Chef supporter and pescatarian (although she gets props for trying lamb’s brains last week). Her judging compatriots were Andy Villabona, Southeast Regional Manager of Culinary Events for Share Our Strength (a national nonprofit organization working to end childhood hunger in the U.S.); and chef Seth Evan Kirschbaum—the panel’s vegan authority—previously of vegetarian mainstays Sublime in Fort Lauderdale and Darbster in West Palm Beach. 
The vegan secret ingredients were all donated by local outfit Sunshine Provisions:

Organic white miso, made predominantly from fermented rice with a small amount of soybean, is mild and slightly sweet.

Doughnut peaches are named for their round, flat shape and dimple in the center. Their sweetness comes from the “honey gene,” a dominant gene found in all Chinese peach varieties.

Vegan cheese (mozzarella and cheddar), locally produced by Atlas Deli in Hollywood, is minimally processed. “Some vegan cheeses are just as processed as government cheese,” said Baker.

Darr wasted no time starting the battle off with a sweet cocktail made with doughnut peaches, pomegranate liqueur, sparkling rosé, and fresh mint. “This beats any peach Bellini I’ve ever had,” said Villabona.
Steele’s first dish was a miss—miso soup with zucchini noodles (he called them “zoodles”), tofu, cilantro, dried shiitake, and lime. “Very basic and flat,” said Villabona.

Darr’s next offering was a composed salad of shaved hearts of palm, sea beans, and cucumber, tossed in a white miso, carrot, and ginger dressing, was flavorful and balanced. “I could go for another,” said Wizov.

“Unfortunately, a fish swam next to the sea beans, therefore making it not vegan,” Baker joked.
Steele followed up with miso-marinated Portobello mushroom slices on a bed of sautéed swiss chard with red onion, lemon zest, and pistachio. “There’s a floral hint behind the mushroom and it has a nice acidity,” said Villabona. “I thought the mushroom needed more acidity, but the chard picked it up,” said Kirschbaum.

Immediately after the plates were cleared, Darr brought out a seitan Pad Thai made with tamarind, miso paste (not an ingredient in classic Pad Thai), lime juice, raw sugar, and cashews. “I would have liked some Thai basil and coconut sugar in there,” said Kirschbaum. “We don’t have a friggin’ Asian Market back there [in the pantry at Max’s Harvest], Seth,” said Baker.
Steele went for a palate cleansing chilled soup as his next (third) course. The velvety doughnut peach soup was brightened with lime juice, and garnished with fresh basil, mint, cashew cream and extra virgin olive oil. It was sublime, and the flavor profile could have worked as a dessert, too. “I would have liked it as a rice pudding,” said Baker.

Darr’s vegan empanada was filled with seitan, vegan cheese, aromatics and spices. Aji Amarillo aioli (emulsified with tofu) accompanied the lightly fried empanada. To have made empanada dough without lard was quite a feat, but perfectly executed. Flaky on the outside and moist on the inside, it was a damn good empanada. “It’s phenomenal in all aspects,” said Wizov.
Steele's fourth and fifth back-to-back dishes came next. Zucchini rollatini stuffed with vegan cheese, cashew cream, lemon, and fresh basil was quickly forgotten on the heels of Darr's empanada, but his bruschetta with vegan cheese fonduta, seared maitake mushrooms, and summer black truffles was outstanding. 

Throughout the night, Darr proved that he has a way with dough. A handmade raviolo with royal trumpet mushrooms and vegan ricotta, was a study in texture. The pasta was just thin enough to hold the filling, and cooked perfectly. 

Desserts followed, Steele presenting grilled doughnut peaches with cashew cream and peach-Bourbon sauce, and Darr serving up individual peach crostatas in a mini cast iron pans, dolloped with coconut cream.

Both chefs, when faced with cooking an entirely vegan menu, came through with some surprising dishes. Meat was not missed by anyone on Wednesday night. Darr's creations, however, especially that amazing empanada, gave him the win.

Stay tuned for next week, when Kemar Griffiths of the Rusty Hook Tavern faces off with Clayton Carnes of Cholo Soy Cocina.

Chef vs. Chef takes place at Max's Harvest in Delray Beach at 10 p.m. every Wednesday through September. The 16-week event series is open to the public for a $5 donation, which benefits the Milagro Center, a Delray Beach-based nonprofit that works to enrich children’s lives through the cultural arts and academic support. Your admission gets you one glass of wine, beer, or cocktail and a seat for the culinary action.

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Claudia Dawson