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Boulder Farmers' Market, week ten: Escoffier School of Culinary Arts cooking contest

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There's a cooking contest at the Boulder Farmers' Market today. A week earlier, Elizabeth Marsden and Cacy Britton had bested several other students in a competition at Boulder's Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, and they are now facing off against each other at one of the market stalls, surrounded by curious Saturday shoppers.

Earlier in the morning, each was given $50 to spend at the market for ingredients, along with a half hour to shop; they were also each provided with one lemon, oil, butter, salt and pepper, and each was given the assistance of one of the school's professional chefs. Now they're chopping like fury, manipulating saute pans on table-top burners, stirring and pouring, all under the watchful eye of the school's executive chef, Graham Mitchell. The two contestants have an hour and a quarter to create four plates for the four people who'll be judging. See also: - Boulder Farmers' Market, week nine: Fior Di Latte keeps things cool - With Plowshares Community Farm, Eva Teague is in hog heaven - Best Farmers' Market 2012: Boulder Farmers' Market

Prizes will come from the American Culinary Federation: a trophy for one of them, special chefs' jackets for both and gift certificates from Williams-Sonoma -- $100 for the winner, $50 for the runner up.

Elizabeth has bought salmon, Cacy ground lamb. She is using young onions, radishes, pea shoots and a variety of mushrooms; he is busy sauteeing onions and tomatoes diced small. Both have asparagus on their menus. Between them, they have shopped at Wild Alaska Salmon, Triple M Bar Ranch, the Black Cat Farm, 2 Rs, Miller Farms, Red Wagon, Hazel Dell Mushrooms, Wisdom Poultry (for eggs), Far Out Gardens, Pappardelle's Pasta, Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese and Munro Farms. Containers of prepared ingredients stand on the tables in a tidy mise en place. Elizabeth ties bundles of asparagus with strips of onion top. Cacy discusses the bottle of Muscat Blanc he bought from Bookcliff Vineyards with his sous chef. Won't it be too sweet? the sous chef wonders. Cacy hopes not; he says the wine seller assured him it was dry and light.

The contestants work with quiet concentration, even though observers are now pressing in on every side. One reaches over to use the Purell. Toward the very end of the contest when Cacy, fighting the clock and already a few minutes over his time, is plating, another watcher starts asking him detailed questions about his preparation. Sweating, he tries to answer. These intrusive encounters are nothing, Chef Graham tells me quietly. A couple of weeks ago, someone actually snatched a morsel of food from a cutting board as an Escoffier chef was chopping, contaminating the board and risking her own fingers.

Elizabeth's dish is finally plated. She has made sauteed mushrooms with a square of salmon laid on the top, skin-side up. A bundle of sauteed asparagus nestles at one side and a row of thin-sliced radish lines the other. Cacy is still working. His pasta is a touch too al dente. I'm worrying that the salmon will get cold -- and also that Cacy will lose a point. But then his dish is prepped and ready and the judges move in with their forks. It's astonishing how differently two trained chefs can think and work when they're presented with the same array of ingredients. Elizabeth's plate is light and spring-like, the pink of the salmon contrasting with the earthier mushroom colors and the vibrant green asparagus. Cacy has gone for a deeper and more unctuous set of flavors. He cooked the sauteed vegetables down to serve as a sauce for his thick-cut strips of pasta, and deglazed with the wine. On top, he placed a ground lamb patty, and on top of that a poached egg: Break the egg yolk and there's a bright gold sauce for your plate. Then he added a touch of herbed chevre.

As the judges compare notes, I ask Elizabeth and Cacy about their professional goals and how they came to the kitchen. Keep reading to learn the winner of the contest.

Cacy has completed the Escoffier school's professional program and is about to start a pastry intensive. He hopes someday to open a bakery. Elizabeth imagines a farm-to-table restaurant at some point in the future. "But I'm only twenty-one," she adds. "So it's still wide open."

As for why they decided to attend culinary school, Cacy explains that he'd barely tasted vegetables growing up: His family subsisted primarily on meat and potatoes. But "I did love watching my mom and grandma cook," he says, "and I wanted to experience more variety. Now I love vegetables and things like brussel sprouts that a lot of people hate."

Elizabeth, the daughter of a nutritionist, was used to home-cooked, from-scratch meals as a child, and has been cooking "since I can remember. I always wanted to go to culinary school." She hastens to add that her mother was no fanatic: "She eats cheesecake and ice cream almost every day," she says laughing. "As for me, my favorite food is foie gras."

She and Cacy glance at each other, then look across to where the judges are still conferring. "I wonder what they're saying," she says quietly.

It's time for comments and judgment. Elizabeth's salmon skin might be better if it were crispy, the judges agree, but the fish itself is perfectly cooked. And Cacy added perhaps a touch too much richness by using both chevre and the egg. Still, says one of the judges, "this lamb burger is the best I've ever tasted." Everyone agrees that both students have done a fantastic job, but when the numbers are added up, the winner is Elizabeth.

As the contestants are congratulated, and congratulate each other, a few onlookers hover enviously over the picked-at plates. A morsel or two gets grabbed and sampled. "This has made me so hungry," says one onlooker. "I need my lunch." The crowd melts slowly and reluctantly away.

Keep reading for the finalists' recipes. Pan Seared Salmon with Mixed Mushrooms, Pea Shoot Salad with Radishes and Lemon Asparagus Bundles By Elizabeth Marsden

For Salmon: 4 8 oz salmon filets Salt & pepper, to taste Olive oil for searing

Preheat cast iron skillet over med high heat. When hot, add oil. Sear salmon 3 minutes per side. Top with mixed mushrooms.

Mixed Mushrooms: 1 # mushrooms (Cremini, Shiitake, Cinnamon) 1 tsp lemon juice 2 tbsp butter

Melt butter over medium high heat, sauté mushrooms until their liquid evaporates and they begin to brown. Add lemon juice. Serve on salmon.

Pea Shoot Salad: ¼ # Pea Shoots 3 radishes, thinly sliced Vinaigrette: 1 Tbsp lemon juice 3 Tbsp olive oil 1 tsp Dijon mustard Salt and pepper, to taste A pinch of sugar

Combine all vinaigrette ingredients in a bowl, whisk vigorously to emulsify. Toss enough vinaigrette with pea shoots to coat. Serve with salmon and garnish with radishes.

Lemon Asparagus Bundles 2 bundles asparagus, trimmed 2 Tbsp butter ½ Tbsp lemon juice 4 green onions Salt & pepper, to taste

Blanch asparagus and green onions in boiling salted water for about 30 seconds, then shock in an ice bath. Wrap asparagus in four bundles with the green onion tops. Heat butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add asparagus bundles and cook until heated through. Add the lemon juice and season. Serve with salmon.

Lamb Patty with Pappardelle and Poached Farm Fresh Egg with Farmer's Market Wine Sauce By Cacy Britton

Boulder's Farmers' Market Items 1 pound of ground lamb 1 pound of fettuccine (we used pappardelle, which is a very wide noodle; a thinner one might be preferred) 2 or 3 spring onions 1 garlic bulb 2 large tomatoes 6 farm-fresh eggs Bunch fresh oregano 15 asparagus 1 Bottle Bookcliff Vineyards Muscat Blanc or dry white wine I log of Haystack Mountain Herbes de Provence Chevre

Items not at Farmers' Market Oil 1 Lemon Salt and pepper

Mix ground lamb with some finely diced onions and garlic, but reserve some of the vegetables for sauce. Zest lemon and add to lamb mixture along with salt and pepper to taste. Also add some of the fresh oregano and mix thoroughly. Test a small amount in a heated skillet to check for flavor and seasoning. If flavor is to liking, make 4 to 6 separate patties. You can also add some of the spring onion tops to the mixture to use up the entire vegetable.

Score tomato on bottom by making an x shape and cut out the top (stem end) of the tomato itself. Compost tops. Drop into boiling salted water for a couple of seconds to loosen the skin. Transfer tomatoes from boiling water to an ice bath to cool and then peel, seed and chop tomatoes. Reserve.

For the asparagus, peel the very bottom of asparagus if large and woody, align tops so that they are all even and chop off about 2 to 2 1/2 inches of the tops. With remaining asparagus stems, cut on the bias and drop into the boiling water that you used for tomatoes. Cook a couple seconds and then add the long tops, cook a few more seconds, then pull out and blanch all of the asparagus.

When ready, heat enough oil in saute pan to prevent lamb patty from sticking. When the oil is hot, slowly add patties, and sear in all the flavor. Flip when they have a nice seared side. Cook to approximately rare to medium rare. To keep the patties warm, put them in a warm oven or set aside and reheat close to service time.

Start two pots of water, one for eggs and one to cook the pasta. Salt both, and add the lemon juice to the egg pot to help coagulate the albumen or the whites of the eggs.

To create the sauce, remove patties from pan and add a little oil if there is not enough fat left from lamb. Add some garlic and onions and gently sauté for a couple of minutes. When ready, add the small pieces of asparagus stem and cook a little bit, then add the tomato concasse (chopped tomatoes) to the pan. Cook to heat all the ingredients. Deglaze the pan with the dry white wine, i.e. Bookcliff Vineyards Muscat Blanc. Reduce down to a good sauce consistency (if you want you can add some butter or cream here to add richness).

Cook the pasta to al dente, or desired doneness--a couple of minutes if fresh (depending on size) or around 10 if dried.

While the pasta cooks, crack the eggs, and slowly drop them one at a time into gently simmering water to poach them.

When the pasta has finished cooking, drain and toss into the wine sauce, and coat evenly.

Plating: To plate the dish you can reheat the 2 inch asparagus spears in boiling water or sautee gently with salt and pepper. Place them diagonally on the plate. Then, using tongs, swirl the pasta onto the center of the plate. Crumble some of the chevre cheese onto the plate to add creaminess. Top pasta with a poached egg. Finally add the reheated lamb patty to the plate, opposite the asparagus but leaning up against the pasta itself. Finally, spoon some of the sauteed vegetables and sauce onto the lamb patty and also onto the pasta. Sprinkle with fresh chopped oregano.

Servings: 4 hearty portions, 6 if you really want to share.

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