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Pantry Raid

Yes, folks, it's finally time to unveil the winners of the first-ever Bite Me World HQ "I Wanna Be a Pantry Cook" recipe contest. Are you excited? I know I am.

My faithful staff and I sorted through literally tens of entries before finding these few that so perfectly typify the art and craft of the pantry cook's bizarre trade. As stipulated by the strict rules of the contest, each entrant was working from a limited stock of ingredients (details available in the July 3 Bite Me at www.westword.com) to craft dishes meant to act as appetizers, entree specials or desserts for a working kitchen operating under serious time constraints -- with nothing too complex, nothing too labor-intensive and nothing that can't be made with leftovers and ingredients begged, borrowed or stolen from other parts of the kitchen when the chef isn't looking.

And now, without further ado, the recipes:

L'antipasto: Lemon risotto. I must confess that this recipe is mine, with an inspirational assist from Ian Kleinmanof Indigo (250 Josephine Street).

What you need: unclarified chicken stock (in a three-to-one ratio with rice), unsalted butter, shallots (chopped rough), arborio rice, dry white wine, lemon (juice and peel), shredded parsley, oil.

How to do it: Simmer stock in a heavy saucepan. Melt butter in a second heavy saucepan. On medium heat, sauté shallots in the butter until tender; add rice and stir; add wine and stir until evaporated; add two good squeezes of lemon juice and stir; add one-third of the stock and stir until absorbed, then the rest of the stock a splash at a time until it's all absorbed. (You didn't forget to stir, did you?) When stock is gone and rice is tender, add another gob of butter, the shredded parsley, more lemon juice to taste, some lemon zest and maybe a little salt. Voilà -- you're done, and your chef loves you.

Soup course: Cream of broccoli. Two winners come courtesy of Peter Russell, president of Opera Colorado. "I included the cream of broccoli soup because it is my first choice if the broccoli has gone beyond slightly limp to borderline skeevy," Peter writes. "I resisted the urge to include an especially tired recipe for chicken divan casserole in an attempt to prove to myself that I am not turning into my mother." Thanks for your restraint, Peter.

What you need (for a six-cup yield -- multiply by twenty for restaurant service): chicken stock (5 cups), unsalted butter, onion (coarsely chopped), 2 cloves garlic (sliced, not diced -- a man after my own heart), fresh nutmeg, dry white wine (1 1/2 cups), broccoli (trimmed, peeled, florets separated), heavy cream (1/2 cup), salt and pepper.

How to do it: Over medium heat, in a heavy soup pot, heat a little stock and a gob of butter. Add onion, garlic, nutmeg, and cook, covered, until onion is soft but not browned. Add the rest of the stock, the wine, the broccoli, and crank the heat until everything boils; reduce heat and simmer until broccoli is soft but still bright green. Purée the soup in a blender until smooth. Pour soup back into soup pot; add heavy cream, salt and pepper to taste; serve garnished with crème fraîche, snipped chives and croutons. (Personally, I would have softened the broccoli in simmering stock first, then shocked it in an ice bath to make sure it retained all of its color -- but that's just me.)

Salad course: Steamed broccoli with black-olive/balsamic dressing.When the broccoli "is just in need of perking up with strong- flavored ingredients that could camouflage the fact that in its unadorned state, it would be less than pristine," Peter Russell suggests, "I'd steam it and serve it with this black-olive dressing."

What you need: broccoli (trimmed, florets removed), balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, garlic -- minced this time -- and shallots done the same way, crushed red pepper flakes (a pantry cook's best friend), oil, Kalamata olives (pitted and chopped), salt.

How to do it: Steam broccoli, covered, over boiling water until soft but still green. (Again, in a pantry-cook situation I'd shock this broccoli as well, because it's going to be sitting around for a while before service.) Whisk vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, shallot, pepper flakes and salt together in a large bowl. Whisk the crap out of them, then add the oil -- last and slowly -- in a steady stream. For service, re-whisk dressing, adding olives this time; toss with broccoli and serve warm or room temp.

First course: Chicken and dumplings Provençal. This one's from baker and former prep/pantry cook Roxanne Rieske, a recipe "off the top of my head" harking back to her "mystery basket" days.

What you need for basic dumplings: 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. salt, a bit of minced parsley, 1/4 cup buttermilk, 1/2 to 3/4 cup heavy cream (enough to get the batter to the right consistency).

How to do it: Mix dry ingredients together, add wet ingredients until a drop batter is formed. Cover with plastic wrap and keep cold.

What you need for the rest: chicken (cut into bite-sized pieces), herbes de Provence, salt and pepper, chicken stock, white wine (preferably a chablis-style Chardonnay), diced broccoli florets brought back to life in cold water ('atta girl...), garlic and shallots (minced), quartered green olives (Roxanne is very picky), oil, butter, heavy cream.

How to do it: Heat 1 tbs. olive oil and 1 tbs. butter in a saucepan. Throw in shallots and garlic and sweat until the fumes hit you in the eyes. Add herbs, chicken, stock and wine, bring to a bare simmer; poach the chicken until it's no longer pink; season with salt and pepper. Add broccoli and olives. Taste for seasoning. "This is where I would hold it for service," Roxanne explains. "The dumplings take barely three minutes to cook. Ladle enough for one serving into an eight-inch saute pan. Spoon the dumplings (three's a good number) on top. Cover and poach the dumplings. Pour into warmed bowl. Done. A nice touch would be to enrich the broth with a little bit of heavy cream."

And for another good trick (which I learned as a banquet chef, working a line that operated in a constant state of shortage and panic), use Roxanne's chicken recipe, but replace the stock with Italian dressing, leave out the broccoli, and cook everything together on a sheet pan in a blasting-hot (500 degrees plus) oven just until the liquid starts to bubble. Take the resulting "banquet chicken" and serve it around or over the lemon risotto. I've seen twenty sheet pans of chicken -- enough for 250 people -- cooked this way in under ten minutes, and yeah, it's cheating, but it's also tasty.

Alternate first course: Spiced buttermilk pan-fried chicken with Southern Comfort-shallot jus over toasted-garlic grit cake. Geez, can you guess that this one's from a real chef? Michael Long, head chef at Opus (2757 West Main Street, Littleton), came up with this, and it merits a special mention because making this "recipe" gives the poor, lowly pantry cook a nice opportunity to get shnozzled on SoCo while working. The details, as presented by Long:

"For chix and sauce: Reduce SoCo, shallots, white wine, fresh thyme, peppercorns in pan. Add chix stock. Reduce rapido. Strain, then monte au beurre. Soak chix in buttermilk. Make spiced flour blend with a.p. flour, paprika, dry mustard, cayenne, celery salt, or just use Old Bay and flour. Dredge chix, fry until golden and just done. Hold warm. For polenta/grit cake: Toast whole garlic cloves in oil until soft. Add cream and simmer. Thicken with cornmeal (or grits if in dry stock), cook eight minutes then finish with butter. Add chopped fresh chives, then wish you had some cheese to finish it up right."

Make sense to you? It does to me. In announcing this recipe contest, I wrote an ode to the pantry-cook life -- and subsequently took a lot of crap from people who said that good chefs do all their own cooking, that all restaurants cook everything from recipes and that all recipes have amounts and specificdirections included.

Bull.

Good chefs do a lot of their own cooking, but in a big house, you could be talking about serving two, three, maybe four hundred plates a night. No single guy is going to be doing all of that on his own, which is why (many) kitchens are run on the French brigade system where everyone has a specific job, and one of those jobs is prep-and-pantry. And most restaurant kitchens do notcook from recipes. While some do -- hotel kitchens especially -- and others may have a book full of house recipes sitting up in a corner in the chef's office, it's only taken down when some new guy comes on board who needs to learn the basics, and then it's almost always lost, only to be found two years later wedged between the Hobart mixer and the wall. If there are recipes used at all, they look exactly like Long's, with no mention of amounts (because any cook worth his Wusthofs knows that you add salt until the dish is salty enough and add cream until it's creamy enough -- duh) and only a passing note on cooking times (because a thing is cooked until the thing is done -- double duh). To me, Long's "recipe" is clear, concise, to the point and totally un-fuck-up-able. Plus, it would probably fit on one side of a cocktail napkin, which is where most chefs end up writing down most of their ideas, anyway.

Main course: Bastilla rolls.This fine submission comes from Gabriel Aragon, who was so excited by the contest that he sent me a half-dozen different ideas, right away. This dish is by far the most audacious of the bunch: Anyone who could look at the list of ingredients and see bastilla can have a job as my pantry cook any day.

What you need: chicken thigh meat, chicken stock, oil, toasted almonds (a bit of a stretch from the ingredients list, but a sneaky cook could probably steal some from the bakers), salt and pepper, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, ground cloves, garlic (minced), onions (diced), lemon juice, sugar, confectioner's sugar (again, stolen from the bakers), Calrose rice (steamed until soft).

How to do it: In a heavy pan, sauté onions and garlic in oil until translucent; add thigh meat (and a little stock, Gabriel -- otherwise everything will burn), salt and pepper, dry spices, sugar and almonds; sauté together. De-glaze pan with lemon juice. Add chicken stock, and let simmer over medium-low heat; reduce, stirring occasionally, until chicken separates and everything is a pie-filling consistency. Let it cool. Meanwhile, spread cooked rice over parchment paper to a 1/4-inch thickness. Cover entire length of paper, 3/4 width, and place a line of the (now cooled) bastilla filling over the rice. Roll rice around filling, separating parchment as you go. When roll is complete, roll a layer of fresh parchment paper around the entire log. Cut into slices about an inch thick. For service, heat slices (with parchment) in oven until warmed through. Remove parchment, plate, and sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon.

Dessert, version one: Kheer. Local artist Ginny Abblett's Middle Eastern rice pudding is a dead cinch.

What you need: basmati or jasmine rice (boiled with two parts water to one part rice), grated cardamom, cream, sugar, unsalted butter, saffron threads (no doubt stolen from the chef's secret stash).

How to do it: After the rice has been cooked dry, add cream (4 cups for every cup of uncooked rice), some butter, then let simmer while you do something else (like maybe make that bastilla), stirring whenever you get the chance. When volume is reduced by one-third, add sugar, cardamom and saffron. Simmer for about fifteen minutes, then transfer to small dishes and cool rapidly. For service, top with crème fraîche (and I would suggest a little nutmeg or cinnamon, too).

Dessert, version two.This offering is again from Gabriel, and since I couldn't read the dish's name on the fax, I'm going to call it "A great way to get rid of that extra case of lemons the chef accidentally ordered."

What you need: lemons, buttermilk, limoncello liqueur, cream, sugar, fresh mint leaves.

How to do it: When the chef isn't looking, take those lemons and split them in half lengthwise. Shave a little peel from the bottom so they'll sit stably on their backs. Remove pulp, cover lemon shells with plastic wrap and freeze. In a mixing bowl, combine lemon zest, juice squeezed from all that pulp, cream and buttermilk (at a two-to-one ratio), and limoncello. Add sugar (one-to-one with cream) and stir until dissolved. Cover, and stick it in the freezer. When stiff, run it through the food processor. Pulse until it forms stiff peaks. Spoon into frozen lemon shells and hold in freezer until service. Garnish with lemon zest and fresh mint leaves.

And that's it: Eight good dishes made from nothing more than the stock left sitting around in your average restaurant pantry at ten in the morning when the chef is screaming for lunch specials and the noble pantry cooks are called to the fore. Thanks to everyone who sent in entries, and you winners are in for a treat that I have yet to determine. Now, from all of us here at the Bite Me HQ test kitchen, good night, and don't forget to tip your servers....

Leftovers: It's been a tough few weeks for restaurants in Denver. We recently lost the southeast outpost of Tacos Jaliscos, on Leetsdale at Forest Street, but the original location is still up and running at 4309 West 38th Avenue. And the phone at Decisions (1201 East Colfax Avenue) has been disconnected -- a pretty good sign that things have gone south. More telling is this note on the Decisions Web site: "We would like to thank all of our customers for their patronage. It was a pleasure to have you at the restaurant and we appreciate all of the support you have given all of us. We had a great time while it lasted, but now it's time for Michael and the rest of the staff to move on to new adventures. Thank you all!"

Another note, this one hung on the front door of the Beehive(609 Corona Street), is less forthcoming. It says the hive is closed while the staff and owners take their annual summer vacation -- when in actuality, they're on permanent vacation. Yup, the Beehive has closed for good. But the ownership group from Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street) has been negotiating to pick up that nice little spot just off Sixth Avenue. "I'm not going to lie to you," chef Bryan Moscatello says. "We've been talking to them. If we do indeed wind up with that space, it will be us. It'll be Adega; I'll be writing the menus and stuff, but it'll still be a casual, neighborhood kind of place."

And while things look good for that deal to go through, Adega's owners already have other irons in the fire. Beyond the LoDo restaurant that started it all (which has won more awards in its first year of business than they can probably find space for on the walls), there's also an as-yet-unnamed restaurant that will be going into the new Marriott property being built in Cherry Creek. So how will the chef handle it all? "My role, especially with Adega, is that I'll be at Adega a lot. I'll be at the Marriott a lot. But I know I can't be everywhere at once," Moscatello says. "So we've been hiring people and grooming them here."

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