In a move that might have unnerved a less confident chef, David Arbuckle of Prime Plus restaurant left his kitchen in the hands of 10 amateur cooks Wednesday afternoon.
A takeover it was not. The 10 culinarians -- finalists in Prime Plus' "Beat the Chef" competition -- had been invited to the restaurant to recreate recipes they had entered in response to the chef's request for a dish that best typified the spirit of New American cuisine.
The incentive was strong: The first-prize award included dinner for six at Prime Plus, and an opportunity for the winner to have the recipe incorporated into the restaurant's menu.
"We forgot to tell you, whoever wins replaces you," joked owner Mark Lipowsky with the chef, seated in the dining room along with a panel of five other judges.
Originally, 83 recipes were submitted to the restaurant, according to Lipowsky, who along with Arbuckle narrowed the field of contenders down to a score. Among the submissions that failed to meet their definition of New American cuisine were a recipe for hard-cooked egg served on lettuce and ice cream accompanied by a commercially made liqueur. (The latter, noted an amused Arbuckle, had been sent by a local hotel chef, whom he declined to identify for fear of embarrassing him.)
Organized almost like a beauty contest, the finished dishes and their creators were first paraded before the judges, who were instructed to rank the entries in terms of presentation, creativity and taste. The visual inspection was followed by the actual serving of the dishes, beginning with crab and papaya salad with chive dressing and ending -- an hour and several loosened belt notches later -- with a sublime seafood mousse accompanied by a jalapenåo-spiked tomato sauce.
In between, the cooks' interpretations of New American cuisine ran all over the culinary map. Desserts, particularly those showcasing chocolate, were well represented in the form of chocolate-caramel mousse with pecans, white chocolate mousse served in gingersnap tulip cups, and a dark-and-white chocolate mousse pie (the last two the efforts of a husband-and-wife team). Regional ingredients were highlighted in a dish of venison topped with Smithfield ham, North Carolina pecans and a sauce of red wine. One of the more eclectic dishes was a still life fashioned from tempura-fried grouper, grilled polenta and a side of mixed peppers, pine nuts and diced tomatoes, all set against a background of mixed greens. It was a delight of a design, and, as it turned out, the work of an architect.
In the end, though, it was Brenda Day's recipe for corn crab cakes and jalapenåo tartar sauce that captured the most attention from the judges. "I did it as a lark," said the grand-prize winner, who admitted to having made the recipe only twice before.
If it sums up the best of New American cuisine -- fresh ingredients, creatively combined -- the winning recipe also satisfies the busy cook's demands for efficient use of time: the crab cakes feature easy-to-find ingredients and, according to Day, are great as leftovers, reheated in the microwave.
Express Lane list: mayonnaise, corn, bell peppers, red onion, dry mustard, red pepper, bread crumbs, crab, jalapenåo chiles, cilantro (optional) BRENDA DAY'S CORN CRAB CAKES WITH JALAPENO TARTAR SAUCE (4 servings, 2 crab cakes per serving)
FOR THE CRAB CAKES:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 beaten egg
1/3 cup cooked corn kernels
1/2 cup diced sweet bell peppers (preferably a mix of colors)
2 tablespoons diced red onion
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper
3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs, preferably from french bread
1 pound lump crab meat
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon oil
FOR THE JALAPENO TARTAR SAUCE:
2 cups mayonnaise
3 tablespoons chopped red onion
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped (optional)
3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
2 tablespoons seeded and chopped jalapenåo chilies
To make the crab cakes, blend mayonnaise and egg in a large bowl. Mix in corn kernels, bell peppers, onion, mustard, and black and red pepper. Stir in bread crumbs and fold in crab meat. Shape mixture into 8 patties, using about 1/4 cup per patty.
Melt butter with oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add crab cakes in batches and cook, 2 to 3 minutes or until light golden brown. Serve with jalapenåo tartar sauce.
To make the tartar sauce, combine mayonnaise, red onion, cilantro (if using), mustard and chilies in a food processor or blender. Mix well, cover and refrigerate until needed.