Battle Coffee in Kitchen Stadium – Boston Boy Really Knows His Beans

Coffee, arguably the world’s most popular beverage, hit a new high in popularity when it was the featured “secret ingedient” on Food Network’s Iron Chef America. If you thought coffee was just for drinking, Battle Coffee was set to open your eyes. For those who aren’t familiar with the show, each week a talented chef challenges one of the show’s stable of Iron Chefs in a one hour kitchen battle that turns cooking into a competitive sport. The chefs, along with a team of sous chefs, are given a ‘secret ingredient’ which must be featured in every single dish they prepare for the panel of three judges. The week of April 11, that secret ingredient is the royal bean itself – coffee.

I had a particular interest in Battle Coffee, beyond the fact that the secret ingredient may just be my favorite comestible in the entire world. The challenger chef for the battle was a local boy, well-known Boston chef Ken Oringer, of Clio, Toro and KO Prime. He chose to battle Southern Belle chef Kat Cora, always one of my favorite chefs to watch. The show begins each week with the introduction of the challenger and choice of chef to battle, followed by the announcement of the ‘secret ingredient’ – and a race to grab as many forms of that ingredient as possible. One of the greatest moments of the show was watching the two chefs snatch up huge bags of roasted coffee beans and race for their kitchen areas.

Until Battle Coffee, I’d mostly heard of coffee as an ingredient in beverages and desserts. One hour of watching Oringer and Cora work with the versatile bean has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Coffee infusions, coffee beans in a smoker, coffee beans with vegetables, cracked coffee beans as a dusting on ice cream – my mind was totally boggled. The two recipes that made the biggest impression on me were both main dishes: Cat Cora’s Coffee-smoked scallops and Oringer’s venison confit with coffee infused oil.

Some of the best lines about coffee came from the judges as they were watching the preparations. As coffee beans were being dumped into oil, stirred into consomme, spread among hickory chips for smoking and simmered with vegetables, Ted Allen observed, “Do you think someone might actually serve a cup of coffee? Wouldn’t that be a daring thing to do?” Judge Art Smith echoed Allen’s sentiments, commenting that “I do hope someone will serve the perfect cup of coffee tonight.” (For the record, no one did.)

Judge Alexandra Guarnaschelli won my heart when she told Mark, “I’ll be the only advocate of good old gas station coffee. There’s something marvelous and muddy about it.” As much as I love good coffee, I always love to find a fellow coffee heretic, who believes that coffee is always good, even when it’s bad.

The lack of a single cup of coffee was not the only surprise of Battle Coffee, at least not for me. One of the biggest surprises for me was the fact that, in a kitchen stocked with state of the art cooking equipment, the only coffee grinders in site were standard issue bladed coffee grinders that looked like twins to the $19.95 Braun coffee grinder that I picked up at Target. No one’s ever heard of a burr grinder?

So if no one made a cup of coffee, what did these two celebrity gourmet chefs do with all those nuggets of brown and black gold? Here’s the short list of what Cat Cora and Ken Oringer paired with their coffee beans:
celery root, figs, pig’s feet, hickory chips, lobster, fennel, robiola chees, truffles, banans, bacon (yes, bacon! Ted Allen was ecstatic), venison, squab, pannecotta and mascarpone cheese

With that varied list of ingredients, you can imagine that the dishes served to the judges were creative and unusual – and they certainly were. The feast presented to the judges for tasting included: coffee infused salt-dough baked squab, coffee-rubbed bacon, coffee-roasted bananas on toast rounds, coffee pannecotta, coffee ice cream, coffee consomme, coffee cotton candy, ume with coffee-butter poached lobster, mascarpone mousse with coffee quenelles, coffee smoked scallops, venison coffee confit, coffee-braised figs, black coffee and truffle fondue and geode of coffee.

In the end, Ken Oringer took the challenge handily from Cat Cora, the Iron Chef. He showed a masterful use of the flavors of coffee, carefully choosing just the right variety and roast to complement the flavors of his other ingredients. It was even evident in his descriptions of his dishes. While Cora just used ‘coffee’, Oringer described the roasts and the varieties of beans that he chose and his reasons for choosing those specific coffees. Ted Allen described his venison confit as “pure velvet” and the judges were totally wowed by his coffee geodes – a high tech trick created with liquid nitrogen.

The best part of all this for me? Well, as I said at the outset, Ken Oringer is a local boy, and three of his recipes will be featured on the menus of restaurants near me. My only quandary now is which of the dishes I most want to sample… coffee confit of venison, anyone?