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Reader Key Ingredient Cook-Off Features Dishes With Malört, Durian, Celery, Millet & Dried Shrimp

By Amy Cavanaugh in Food on May 4, 2013 9:00PM

Last night we headed to the Bridgeport Art Center for the Chicago Reader's Key Ingredient Cook-Off, which was inspired by the paper's series that challenges chefs to use an ingredient in a dish. The cook-off selected five of the ingredients from past challenges—celery, millet, dried shrimp, durian, and Jeppson's Malört—and assigned 26 different chefs one of those ingredients.

While we didn't manage to sample all the dishes, it was a lot of fun to see how chefs rose to the challenge to create some really tasty recipes. Paula Haney from Hoosier Mama Pie Company made a Korean-inspired chawanmushi with dried shrimp, popcorn, and kimchi, while Hopleaf's Ben Sheagren made Asian millet crisps that resembled spicy, savory Rice Krispie treats. Floriole's Sandra Holl served refreshing celery soda floats, and Dale Levitski from Frog N Snail made a beautiful millet cake with strawberries, rhubarb, and foie gras that deserves a spot on the restaurant's spring menu. And props to Blackbird chef David Posey for going vegan and making a millet soup with wild leeks, almonds, cucumber, and grilled lime.

Of course, we see millet, dried shrimp, and celery on menus regularly, so we were most interested to see how chefs handled durian and Jeppson's Malört. NoMI's Ryan LaRoche said that he hadn't ever had fresh durian before, and he used the notoriously smelly Asian fruit in a crème brûlée that was balanced with coconut lime crème. Jared Wentworth from Longman & Eagle made a savory durian panna cotta accented with pickled rhubarb and anise hyssop, while Browntrout's Sean Sanders added the fruit to a Parker House roll.

Malört seems to naturally work in cake, as SmallBar's Justin White made caramelized upside down Malört and rhubarb cake with grapefruit, fennel, and Malört cream, and Perennial Virant's Paul Virant made an autumnal Malört cake topped with Au Bon Canard foie gras. Mark Steuer from The Bedford and Carriage House also went the liver route, as he topped cornbread with creamy chicken liver mousse, Malört gelee, and Malört salt. Three Aces' Matt Troost easily had the best dish name—his "Malört Face" featured pig face braised in the bitter liqueur and was served with fennel salad, Malört mustard, and Malört-ramp vinaigrette.

And extra points go to Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice, who managed to use all five of the ingredients in a cheesy dish that was just what we needed after having several Scofflaw cocktails: durian epoisses with dried shrimp and Malört rind, celery grape salad, and millet bread.