Chefs Challenge 6: The Morel of the Story
By Constance E. Richards
Ah the morel, a beloved fixture of French cooking.
With its wrinkled and pitted conical hat, it could be mistaken for a piece of bark or forest floor refuse. Yet its delicate flavor makes it well worth the hunt (clubs for this particular fungi abound all over the world) and the price. For Bob Bowles, founder of the Asheville Wine and Food Festival, a happenstance encounter with a fellow brandishing a paper bag of morels at a tailgate market brought the secret ingredient for Monday night’s Chefs Challenge clearly into focus: Mushrooms of all sorts.
A lot can go wrong with a mushroom in the hands of an inexperienced chef. In a country manor kitchen an hour outside Paris, I once saw a sauté pan full of the succulent fungi turn into a stodgy, gluey mess when cooked to death with heaps of butter and flour. One must know when to stop.
Thankfully, Chef Jesse Roque of Never Blue Tapas Bar and Grille in Hendersonville and Chef Charlie Hudson of Sunburst Trout Company in Canton ably fought a battle of delicate proportions with a litany of fungi that roll off the tongue like a foreign language of love—enoki, porcini, cremini, shiitake.
The first dish presented was the three cheese and mushroom cheesecake with a pecan crust atop smoked enoki salad with apple cider vinaigrette and a prosciutto crisp by Chef Hudson. Everyone to the left and right of me inhaled this adroitly presented obtuse triangle of better-than-quiche, savory cheesecake placed on a bed of micro greens. The curled, light-as-air prosciutto crisp added a touch of saltiness and depth of flavor that worked in great harmony with the cheesecake, without overpowering the mushroom. This dish, we later found out, received the third highest number of points at 1,719.
Next, the balsamic reduction that accompanied the flatbread with goat cheese, caramelized figs, and garlic-seared mushrooms by Never Blue made its presence known before the rest of the dish—in both aroma and flavor. To taste, it was piquant and well balanced, but seemed to eradicate any mushroom or garlic flavor that should have been present. The flatbread bore a sweetness, and the truffled micro sprout and arugula salad added that telltale peppery and nutty flavor.
Never Blue’s Italian four-cheese polenta fricassee of forest mushrooms and rabbit topped with morel crispies hit perfectly during that part of the meal when richness of flavor is due. The polenta was a creamy cloud, and the rabbit ever so tender and moist. Only the snap peas that provided a gorgeous pop of green should have been cooked longer, as they crunched and had a slightly bitter aftertaste. Diners around me appreciated the creativity.
Cast iron-seared pork tenderloin with mushroom ragout and mushroom grits, pickled fried mushrooms and onions, grilled asparagus with mushroom butter demonstrated a gratifying marriage of flavors that utilized the secret ingredient to its utmost. It earned the top points of the evening, scoring 1,917. The mushroom butter elicited sighs of delight from a neighbor and a request for the recipe from the dining audience when the chefs were introduced later in the evening. It had a hint of tartness that easily foiled the mellower mushrooms. It was well executed, and received high marks for the creative pickled fried morel—such an unusual treatment.
Diners were thrilled with a sweet finale from both teams. These desserts were incredibly well thought out and a panoply of layer-upon-layer tastes from subtle to strong emerged with the secret ingredient. Chef Roque’s dessert trio included a porcini and white chocolate chip cookie that showcased buttery earthiness. Not that you’d necessarily put mushrooms in your own cookies—yet it was perfect in this creation. The accompanying lemon and oyster mushroom beignet and limoncello-vanilla bean syrup was spot-on crispy with a soft interior redolent with the forest. A rich semi-sweet trumpet mushroom and malbec chocolate truffle rounded out this trio. This was the clear dessert winner and took second in overall points with 1,841.
With the next dessert, it mattered little that the portobello and shiitake mushroom ice cream didn’t freeze: It was just as delicious when envisioned as a custard or crème Anglaise, even managing to bring forth a pistachio flavor (although there weren’t any nuts). A moist, morel-kissed shiitake cookie allowed me to smell the sweet forest floor, and was abetted by the slightest sprinkling of salt. A tangerine sauce sat alone on the plate, but gave an elegant balance.
By the scoring, the evening was close, with Chef Hudson beating out Chef Roque with 5,060 points to her 4,892. That’s a 1.7 percent difference.
Challenge 6 Menu
Chef Charlie Hudson
Three cheese and mushroom cheesecake with pecan crust
Smoked enoki salad with apple cider vinaigrette
Cast iron-seared pork tenderloin with mushroom ragout and mushroom grits
Pickled fried mushrooms and onions
Grilled asparagus with mushroom butter
Shiitake and portobello ice cream
Chocolate porcini almond toffee with tangerine sauce
Morel-kissed shiitake sablé
Never Blue Tapas Bar and Grille, Hendersonville
Chef Jesse Roque
Flatbread with goat cheese, caramelized figs, and garlic-seared mushrooms
Truffle-hinted micro sprout and arugula salad with balsamic reduction
Italian four-cheese polenta
Fricassee of forest mushrooms and rabbit topped with morel crispies
Sweet Fungi Trio
Semi-sweet trumpet mushroom and malbec truffle
Lemon and oyster mushroom beignet with limoncello-vanilla bean syrup
Porcini mushroom and white chocolate chip cookie
Chef Hudson and his team advance to the quarterfinal round on May 16 to face Posana Café. For tickets, visit www.ashevillewineandfoodfestival.com.