There’s never a dull moment during an Iron Chef battle at Central Texas College.
And Battle Fennel on Thursday didn’t disappoint.
In the newly remodeled culinary arts facility, I debated the finer points of this year’s showcase ingredient — an herb often used in Mediterranean cuisine — with my fellow judges while we waited to taste the first dish.
If I’d been cooking Thursday, I would have been in trouble. Fennel is not something I regularly use. With it’s almost sweet, licorice-like taste, it works well in desserts but also has the ability to add spicy notes to savory dishes.
Yet the other judges — Chef Matt Cranfill of The Mark, Chef Kelly Angell of the Inn on the Creek in Salado and Herald business editor Mason W. Canales — and I all knew the 20 students cooking would be up for the challenge.
Once the secret ingredient was unveiled, culinary students raced around the kitchens, grabbing ingredients and cooking as quickly as possible to prepare an appetizer, entree with two sides and a dessert during a battle for kitchen supremacy.
Modeled after the Food Network show, Iron Chef tests students’ culinary skills and their ability to think on their feet to prepare — without recipes — dishes featuring a secret ingredient.
Thirty minutes into the competition the fennel-inspired appetizers arrived. Favorites in the first round included a quesadilla with a homemade flour tortilla stuffed with mozzarella and ricotta cheese and a fennel-infused tzatziki sauce for dipping and a cheese and fennel stuffed jalapeno.
Entrees arrived about 30 minutes later, highlighted by mahi-mahi flambed with rum and served with roasted fennel and red potatoes and asparagus. I’m not a big seafood eater, but I’d order this dish again. I also enjoyed a pan-seared tilapia served with greens and orzo with fennel and fresh tomatoes.
Dessert topped the meal with creative dishes that highlighted fennel without overpowering it, including a fennel brittle that impressed judges for its creativity. My favorite was served by the winning team — a chocolate truffle with fennel ganache paired with puff pastry and a fennel custard and a kiwi garnish.
In four years of judging events, Thursday’s dishes were by far the best I’ve tasted. While I don’t know how many points separated first place from fifth — it tasted like a close battle.
And any time I eat fennel in the future, I’ll remember these students and the winning dishes all five teams prepared.
Contact M. Clare Haefner at email@example.com or (254) 501-7551.