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Duck-off at Jimmy’s No. 43 to benefit Food Systems Network NYC

One of my favorite food events to attend every year just for the sheer creativity of the entries, and because I’m a big fan of duck, is the Food Systems Network NYC’s Duck-Off.  Competing cooks are supplied the duck, and then can make what ever concoction their imagination inspires them to do to showcase this product (see 2011 and 2012 entries).  This year, Hudson Valley Duck Farm supplied the duck.  Participants could request to receive duck breasts, duck legs or entire ducks to create their dishes.  It was my pleasure to have a more active role in this year’s gathering, when Jimmy Carbone, owner of the host location Jimmy’s No. 43, asked me to judge the event.

Gathering at Jimmy’s No. 43

With my internal reserves of duck fat on the wane after having evaluated the Cassoulet Cookoff back in January, I gladly agreed to spend my Sunday afternoon munching on duck-inspired creations.  I joined Matt Igoe, Proprietor of Hudson Valley Duck Farm, Nancy Matsumoto, Food Writer & Editor, and Jonathan Forester, Food and Beverage Writer & Consultant, in figuring out whom among these talented and innovative cooks would take home the winning prizes.  The decision was not an easy one, and we deliberated quite a bit before the final slate was confirmed.  The key factor was which dish showcased the duck the best, or had the most “duckiness,” if you will, as well as other, balanced flavor components.  Here’s some of my thoughts on the dishes that were served at this competition.

Duck Burrito Pie

A previous competitor (and past People’s Choice winner), Adrian went the comfort food route with his entry.  Richly flavored with lots of layers of taste and texture and just a kick of heat, this was a dish of which I could curl up on the couch and devour a whole trayful.  I would like to have seen more duck in it, as I felt like the meat was a bit lost amongst the other ingredients, but this was definitely a tasty offering, if not as far out there as his Chocolate Donuts with Fois Gras Frosting and Duck Bacon from last year.

Roasted Duck Breasts in the Style of Porchetta

Her inspiration for this dish, Marina explained, was Sarah Jenkins‘ porchetta recipe.  I’m a huge fan of Porchetta‘s rich, fatty, meaty, herbacious sandwiches, which are the perfect treat to pick up while perusing the city’s markets, but I didn’t quite get that here when I tried Marina’s entry.  For me, the duck breast was over-cooked (probably due to carryover cooking and having to keep it warm for serving to the guests), and the slice I had was too thick and unwieldy, with a blob of fat and chewy skin.  I heard from another guest that he felt that the spice mixture that she used (fennel, anise seed?) overwhelmed the duck.  Other folks really enjoyed it, however, and she went home with the Second Place People’s Choice Award for the event.

John Bondurant

Dumpling “Blood” a l’Orange

By way of full disclosure, John is a culinary school classmate of mine.  Jimmy had mentioned to me that he still had a few spots open for judges, and, as I knew that John had showcased duck for our recently-due menu project, I suggested to him that he consider entering this competition.  He did a riff on a wanton/soup dumpling combined with the French classic Duck à l’Orange.  This dish had a bit of everything: chewy dough, sharp peppery greens, meaty center, citrusy sauce, and pop of salt to finish it.  I thought it was a great, composed bite, although, as with a few entries, I really wished for more duck at the heart of it.  John won the tastebuds of the guests, however, proving that sometimes the officials and the attendees are looking for different things, and took home the First Place People’s Choice Awards.

Duck Duo Taco with Cherry & Caramelized Onion Salsa

Returning to compete after the Cassoulet Cookoff, Patricia created a dish that had lots going on in it.  The cheese-duck meat combination was not a favorite with everyone, and some felt that the nutty earthiness of the parmesan overshadowed the duck.  For me, this was probably the moistest of the pulled-duck recipes, which was lovely, although I’m still not completely on board with the pairing with dairy.  I also felt that the cherry and caramelized onion salsa, which I was so looking forward to tasting as Patricia spooned it on my plate, got lost a bit somewhat.

Duck, Duck, Cheese!

Another Duck+Cheese entry was Cathy Erway’s version of mac-n-cheese with duck, thyme, scallions, and a garnish of crispy duck skin.  This was a terrific-tasting pasta dish, but the duck seemed like the outsider trying to get in to join the noodles and dairy party without much success.  It didn’t quite work for me, although I’m now curious to see, with two dishes trying to combine these flavors, if duck and cheese is the culinary “new black.”

Duck Pastrami with Sunchokes & Aji Dulce Pepper Jam

The First Place Prize by the judges went to Micah Mowrey and Andrew Gumpel of Gramercy Tavern.  They also picked up the Third Place People’s Choice Award for the event.  For me, this was the best bite I had all day.  The pastrami was lightly smoked, keeping the hearty duck flavor at the forefront.  The pickled vegetables and aji dulce pepper jam only heightened the taste of the meat, contrasting with the smokiness, with the duck-fat fried sunchoke chip working in even more duck tones into the dish.  I was sad to see that they were cleaned out of these when I went back after the results were announced, but I consoled myself by snacking on more of those decadent sunchoke chips.

Pulled Duck Sliders

Emily incorporated duck components into almost every aspect of this dish, she told me.  Duck fat even went into the light, airy biscuits, and melted duck fat was stirred into the mayonnaise.  I enjoyed the soft meat contrasting with the crunchy slaw all nestled in a pillowy biscuit.  My serving maybe could have used a bit more of the mayonnaise to give it extra pop of flavor.

Cured Duck Breast with Caraway Cabbage

For me, this dish had a little bit of everything.  The cured duck breast showcased the tender meat.  The lightly-cured caraway cabbage still had a some bite and tang, and the crisp of fried duck skin just pushed it over to salty-smoky-meaty wonderfulness.  I could have eaten several of these.

Duck Confit Tart

As the winner of both the Judges’ and People’s Choice Awards at this year’s Cassoulet Cookoff, I was definitely looking forward to seeing what Laura Luciano would be bringing to the Duck-off.  Her Duck Confit Tart was awarded the Third Place Prize by the judges.  The buttery crust held a layer of succulent duck confit combined with the  mild sweetness of caramelized pears, fennel, and onion, and confit of garlic.  This was a delicate-yet-rich composed dish.

Confit of Cumin & Coriander Duck Legs

Inspired by the flavors of India, Jamie created a dish that combined spice notes from that country along with mung beans, a pappadum cracker, and pomegranate seeds, giving it taste and texture contrasts.  Scooping up a bit of everything on the cracker, I was able to be transported to a more exotic environment than the Lower East Side.  I just wish that maybe the whole dish was served in a cup made of the pappadum so that every bite could have been that complete.  Jamie took home the Second Place Prize from the judges.

Micah Mowrey and Andrew Gumpel of Gramercy Tavern – First Prize Judge’s Choice and Third Place People’s Choice winners

Congratulations to all the participants and the winners for contributing to such a delicious event.  In the end, it was the most successful Duck-off ever, raising $2,150.00 to support the educational and advocacy programming of Food Systems Network NYC.  Thank you to Jimmy Carbone of Jimmy’s No. 43 for inviting me to take part in deciding the winners.

John Bondurant – First Place People’s Choice winner

After being asked to judge a few of these events, I have to emphasize that it is never easy to select the top three candidates at any of them.  As always, it amazes me to see the phenomenal plates that everyone creates and the wonderful flavors that the participants think to combine – and that sometimes just completely come together in one magical bite.  Here’s a complete list of the winners, although, at an event like this one, there really are no losers, only full bellies and happy hearts.  See you next year!

Judge’s Choice

  1. 1st Place, Judge’s Choice – Gramercy Tavern (Micah Mowrey and Andrew Gumpel), Duck Pastrami with Sunchokes & Aji Dulce Pepper Jam

  2. 2nd Place, Judge’s Choice – Jamie Saurman, Confit of Cumin & Coriander Duck Legs

  3. 3rd Place, Judge’s Choice – Laura Luciano, Duck Confit Tart

People’s Choice

  1. 1st Place, People’s Choice – John Bondurant, Dumpling “Blood” a l’Orange

  2. 2nd Place, People’s Choice – Marina Berger, Roasted Duck in the Style of Porchetta

  3. 3rd Place, People’s Choice – Gramercy Tavern (Micah Mowrey and Andrew Gumpel), Duck Pastrami with Sunchokes & Aji Dulce Pepper Jam

Buon appetito!

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