Fire in the Triangle: Battle Johnston County Ham and Elderberry
Posted August 14, 2013
Updated August 15, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — With a spot in the Fire in the Triangle finals on the line, it all came down to pork.
Doesn't that seem fitting? It is North Carolina after all!
This battle was a little different, however, as we were allowed to go inside the kitchen to see what the chefs were up to. We were even there during the secret ingredient reveal!
Before finding out the secret ingredients for the evening, chefs Chad McIntyre of Market Restaurant and Scott James of Midtown Grille were calm but eager to find out the ingredient and get to work.
The chefs have been keeping an eye on the secret ingredients used and the dishes served the previous night.
"You know you will have a lot of the night before's secret ingredient," McIntyre said. In this case, shrimp and Cackalacky Spice Sauce.
James has been tracking the previous year's secret ingredients against this year's and had determined that beef or pork was coming up. He said his team was prepared with several options.
Some of the recipes they had been working on have even popped up as specials at Midtown Grille, he said.
After the secret ingredient reveal, James' team got right to work.
McIntyre's team approached it a little differently. First, McIntyre wanted to taste the ham. The team then had a planning session.
Market souse chef Scott Jankovictz brought up an Elderberry sauce with fish. Another protein mentioned during the meeting was duck.
Dessert also sounded intriguing with white chocolate mousse and "candied bacon jam" mentioned.
Midtown was playing it much closer to the vest. James wasn't giving away too much about his potential menu, noting that he wanted to wait to unveil any details of his dishes until 3:30 p.m. when menus are due.
"I think every chef here hopes they get pork. I mean, we are in North Carolina," James said. "The challenge is using it in creative ways."
The elderberry was a different story. They have been compared to a sour blackberry. But with many people not really knowing what they were supposed to taste like, it was hard to imagine how they would be used in each dish.
"Once we looked up the ingredients in the elderberry juice, then we figured out what would work from there," James said.
Host Jimmy Crippen said the chefs faced a tough battle marrying the salty flavors from the ham with the bitter elderberries.
The chefs were tasked with using both ingredients in each dish. They each got 10 pounds of Johnston County Magalitsa bacon, about 28 pounds of Whole Boneless Proscuitto Ham and about 14 pounds of Mangalitsa ham shoulder to work with. They were given Elderberry cordial and juice.
As it got closer to 7 p.m., the pork smell was radiating through the kitchen at the battleground 1705 Prime.
To help quench the thirst of those hungry diners, White Street Brewing Company brought two of their beers: their Kolsch-Style Ale for those who like a crisp beer with hints of fruit, and their Scottish Ale for patrons who prefer a malty spice in their glass. Juice Wine Purveyors had great wine pairing suggestions as well.
When the secret ingredients were announced, there were cheers.
"Bacon!, " diner Brek Smith yelled. "Elderberry! That's awesome."
Smith said her party had been talking about the potential secret ingredients for days. They were obviously pleased with the selection.
Here's a rundown of each course, reviews and results. In each round and overall, diners (the Joes) and local media foodies (the Pros) grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity and other factors. All scores are out of a possible 30 points.
Course 1: Sweet Corn and Johnston County Proscuitto Style Ham Chow Chow, Butter Poached NC Flounder, Elderberry Glaze (Market) (Score: 15.76)
The chow chow was fresh and the ham really popped in it, but the glaze ended up getting the most attention at my table.
Brek Smith wanted more. "They could have made that a dipping sauce," she said.
Angus Barn executive chef Walter Royal, a professional judge for the night, found the fish to be a bit "mealy" but described the chow chow as "delightful."
Course 2: Bacon Elderberry BBQ Roasted Cheshire Pork Belly, Charred Shiitakes, Five Spice Whipped Peanuts, Johnston County Ham Onion Jam (Midtown) (Score: 23.83)
There is always one course that people keep talking about - even during dessert. This was that course.
"This is in a whole different category than the first course," professional judge Jill Warren Lucas, a freelance food critic for The Independent Weekly, said. "It was such a counterpoint to the first. It almost wasn't even fair."
Lucas, along with many other diners, were scraping their plates at the end to get every last ounce of the onion jam.
Diner Mary Choe (@MaryEats) was a fan.
"I just ate pork belly topped with prosciutto. Clearly I've died and gone to heaven," Choe tweeted.
"Whoever made that probably won," said professional judge for the evening Weathervane's Ryan Payne, the 2012 Final Fire champion.
Course 3: Ginger Elderberry Cordial Marinated Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast, Curried Johnston County Ham Polenta Cake, Proscuitto Style Ham Jus, Elderberry Bacon Glaze (Market) (Score: 15.14)
"They murdered the duck," Royal said.
Many diners agreed with him.
"I keep eating it, hoping it will get better but it just doesn't," Smith said.
The duck was overcooked and the polenta was dried out.
Market sous chef Scott Jankovictz said the duck was made a little too early and then taken out too soon, causing it to dry out. Working with ingredients that have the potential to dry out is a risk, he said, and in this case, their risk didn't pay off.
Jankovictz said he wanted to redo the dish, but didn't have time.
Some diners enjoyed it, giving kudos to the glaze.
"It was no course two, but it was good," diner Tara Kupselaitis said.
Course 4: Johnston County Country Ham and Cheshire Pork Shoulder Bolognese, Mangalitsa Bacon Gnocchi, Elderberry Red Wine Chevre Crema, Poached Egg (Midtown) (Score: 17.45)
James said he wanted to use the elderberry in unique ways. In this case, it found its way into the bolognese.
"The poached egg complemented it well and it was not as heavy as I thought it was going to be," diner Kyle Stark said.
Kevin Schmonsees liked it, but wasn't tasting too much of either secret ingredient.
Overall, diners enjoyed this dish but were still hung up on course two.
Course 5: Elderberry Posset Ice Cream and White Chocolate Mousse, Vanilla Tuille, Candied Mangalitsa Bacon Jam (Market) (Score: 21.57)
The bacon jam was on the menu from the beginning. The tuille, a cookie, was light and had a great crunch.
One of the standout elements of this dish wasn't even in the title. A small garnish of lime sugar grabbed their attention right away.
The candied bacon jam was also a hit with many diners.
Royal described the dish as "outstanding."
Course 6: Crispy Johnston Country Ham, Pecan and Sweet Potato Cinnabon with Mascarpone Icing, White Street Scotish Ale and Elderberry Ice Cream (Midtown) (Score: 18.94)
As the clock neared 7 p.m., the Midtown team were prepping these to go into the oven. They wanted to wait until the last possible moment so the buns would be warm.
The buns were warm, causing the ice cream to melt a little.
"It was a race against the clock," diner Jad Bean said about eating the eating.
The ice cream was one of the most talked about elements here, with many diners loving it.
The Cinnabon had mixed reviews, but many said they enjoyed it and the bacon on top.
Royal felt the pastry was just "missing something."
Ham was the clear star of the night with the elderberry taking a backseat in many dishes.
Table three said it best: "Elderberry was always the bridesmaid and never the bride."
In the end, James bested McIntyre, earning a spot in the finals against fellow North Hills chef Dean Thompson of Flights.
McIntyre and his team were pleased with how far they got this year in the competition and look forward to another shot at the red jacket next year.
The final Fire in the Triangle is Monday night.