I admit that I am completely addicted to food television; every chef contest from honoring the best to teaching (and laughing at) the worst captures my attention. I watch as chefs and foodies discover and judge the greatest dishes, drinks, food trucks, and hidden dining treasures. Lest you think I am only a competition spectator, a few months back I entered the American Lamb Pro-Am and teamed up with Chef Michael Scelfo of Russell House Tavern to win first prize!
Imagine how excited I was when the The American Lamb Board and BostonChefs.com invited me to be a judge for the Boston “leg” of the Lamb Jam tour. The contest was held February 19, 2012 at The Charles Hotel in Cambridge, MA. Eighteen chefs competed and the judging panel tasted all eighteen dishes comparing factors such as flavor, presentation, and originality. We also sipped some wine, beer, snapped photos, laughed, and argued over mystery spices and the perfect level of salt in a dish. There was a lot of food and it was interesting how some of the judges deconstructed each morsel and others just ate it all.
In the end we pushed through some hot debates and winners were chosen. In addition to the winning dishes which I will detail in a moment there were two stellar bites for me; a lamb and pasta dish and a lamb donut!
Chef Tyson Podolski of Summer Winter Burlington, MA brought a Chiang Mia Braised Lamb with Winter Squash Cavatelli, Mint & Cilantro and their table was decorated with a flat of greens from their on-site greenhouse. The lamb in the dish was tender and well seasoned but the cavatelli was the main attraction. Perfectly cooked with a hint of sweetness and a sauce that was creamy but with light lemony and green notes. I hope this cavatelli will show up on their menu this spring.
The other standout dish for me was the Smoked Bone Marrow Beignet made by Toby Hill of Pain D’Avingnon the charming bakery and bistro on Cape Cod. This donut had a perfect light cake crumb and managed to be both airy and very rich. The beignet was filled with melting soft lamb shank and a blood orange mostarda along with Vermont Shepard cheese. Some of the judges found the orange filling too sweet but I loved the way this dish could almost be called a lamb dessert while remaining balanced and focused on the flavor of the meat.
And now for the winners!
There were several meatball dishes in the competition but Brian Alberg of the Red Lion Inn combined kale with the lamb shoulder to make the most delicate and satisfying little bite. He surrounded it with a swirl of smoked tomato puree and finished the dish with crispy parmesan crustade. By the time this dish came out, served in a cute mini covered cassarole dish, we were well into the tasting. Our judging panel had eaten quite a bit of food. It was all many of us could do not to eat every scrap of this dish rather than just taste (a few could not resist). I am hoping this will be on their menu which by itself would make it well worth a visit to this historic inn.
Each category had a winner as well. Chef Michael Scelfo of Russell House Tavern was the shank category winner with a small bite that nearly exploded with flavor. The braised lamb shank terrine was served on a round of caraway brioche with horseradish and lamb bacon.
The winner of the leg category was Chef Brian Reyelt of Citizen with a lamb leg and bone marrow polpettone with bourbon cherries served in a bone. This dish was fun to eat and generated an amazing amount of buzz for looks alone but the rich and sophisticated taste showed more than just clever packaging.
Chef Matt Jennings of La Laiterie won the loin category with a Korean Lamb Reuben with red miso cured lamb served on a semolina and lamb fat roll. I could have eaten a whole plate of that lamb and the bun was fluffy and filled with flavor.
Finally the people’s choice award went to Chef Cassie Piuma of Oleana for her Lebanese Style Lamb Crepe with harra sauce, crushed walnuts, cucumber, and pomegranate. This was a beautiful dish that blended fresh and exotic flavors folded into a delicate crepe.
The event also featured craft beers from local breweries, wine from J. Lohr vineyars cheese from Cabot, and adorable cartoon-like lamb cookies from Harvard Sweet Boutique. These were so cute I could hardly bring myself to eat one. Luckily they also had delicious caramels to munch on too and yes I ate some even after sampling 18 amazing lamb dishes. Hey, I am always ready to take one for the team-as long as it is tasty!