Life

Drew Magary Is Here To Judge Our Attempts At Vegetarian Cooking

Drew Magary is the fun type of renaissance man. A guy who’s down to try just about anything, tackle any thought, wrestle with wide-ranging ideas, and distill it down for our reading pleasure. The best part is he does it all without ever getting to that “I have enough expertise to be insufferable about this”-level. His writing makes you feel like you’re chatting with the smartest guy at the party, but also someone who’s just sort of fumbling through life like the rest of us.

Nowhere is this quite so much fun as when Drew covers food. His kitchen experimentation, condiment raves, and giddy firebombings of excessive rich people snacks in fancy tins are the stuff of internet-writing legend. Even when he’s woefully wrong (good mayo on a BLT is delicious), he’s funny as hell — writing with such affable authority that you hate to disagree. Plus the man is a “motherfucking Chopped champion.”

It’s a shock we haven’t had him judge our cooking battles sooner.

Though the quarantine has been generally shitty for just about everyone, Drew has made some huge moves during the lockdown. First, he published his third novel, Point B (A Teleportation Love Story) — which GQ called “easily the funniest thing we’ve read this year.” Then, last week, he was a central character in one of the biggest media stories of the summer — when he and 18 of the 20 staffers who left Deadspin after new ownership issued a “stick to sports” mandate, announced the launch of Defector Media. The company will be owned by its writers and free to cover whatever the hell they want, with a podcast launching in August and a subsciption-based site coming in September.

Though Drew is in the thick of Defector rollout and an avowed meat-eater, he was nice enough to judge our first vegetarian contest. Read his brutal takedowns of our dishes then add your own in the comments. It’s been a rough few months, god knows we could use something funny. — Steve Bramucci

PAST 5 RESULTS (see full results here):

Thanksgiving Showdown Rematch w/Chef Isaac Toups: 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Christmas Movie Showdown: 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Oscar Movie Showdown w/Binging With Babish: 1) Steve 2) Vince 3) Zach
Meatball Showdown with Chef Tyler Anderson: 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Diner Food Showdown with George Motz: 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve

CURRENT SCORE:

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. All votes are counted equally. As it stands, the score is:

ZACH: 45
VINCE: 44
STEVE: 36

ZACH’S FALAFEL w/ ALL THE FIXIN’S

Zach Johnston

I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I can get a stellar falafel — made by some Lebanese dudes — for €2.50, or $2.90, one short block from my home. It’s fried to order and is completely customizable based on their sauces and fillings. So for me, making this recipe from scratch has more to do with creating a love letter to those Lebanese guys than it does with the utility of cooking.

I don’t need to cook this dish but I love it so much that I’m going to anyway.

Just to be clear, this is an exact replica of that Lebanese recipe. So if you think something’s off from how you get it in America… take it up with Lebanon?

Pita

Zach Johnston

A good falafel starts with a good pita. This is also pretty unnecessary for me to make as there are tons of great Middle Eastern bakeries all around me. Still, it’s a fun exercise in adding a notch to my bread game. And all told, making pita was easier than I anticipated.

I used this recipe from the NYTimes.

  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 35 grams whole-wheat flour (1/4 cup), preferably freshly milled
  • 310 grams unbleached all-purpose flour (2 1/2 cups)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
Zach Johnston

First, I made the sponge with whole wheat flour, sugar, water, and yeast in the mixing bowl. I let that activate for about 15 minutes before adding everything else except the oil. I put the dough attachment on my mixer and let that do its thing for about eight minutes until I had a nice ball of dough.

Zach Johnston

I took the dough out and oiled the bowl and formed a nice ball and returned it to the bowl to rise.

Zach Johnston

Once risen, I rolled the dough out into a long log and made ten balls on a floured surface. I covered those with a kitchen towel and let rest for another 20 or minutes.

Zach Johnston

I then got a skillet ready on medium-high heat and started “baking” my bread. Basically, I used a rolling pin to roll out five or six-inch disks that were about 1/4 inch thick.

Zach Johnston

They didn’t quite puff as much as I thought they would, but they did puff, which means I could open them up and stuff falafel stuff in there.

Zach Johnston

Accompaniments

Zach Johnston

There’s a lot that goes into a classic falafel and I usually order mine with “everything.” So that means I needed to make some sauces and pickles.

Garlic Paste

Zach Johnston

Garlic paste is a crucial component. It’s also surprisingly easy to make and will last a few days in the fridge.

  • 6 bulbs of garlic
  • 1/4 cup of olive oil
  • Salt
Zach Johnston

First, I get an oven preheated to around 350F. I then chop off the tops of six whole bulbs of garlic, salt them, drizzle with olive oil, and pop in the oven until your whole kitchen smells like heaven (maybe 20 minutes).

Zach Johnston

I take them out of the oven and let them cool. I then use a toothpick to pull all the cloves out and into a food processor. I pulse the roasted garlic with the oil and a good pinch of salt. Once it’s a paste, it’s ready. I put that in a small container and place in the fridge to rest.

Chili Paste

Zach Johnston

This is basically the garlic paste but made on the stovetop and with chilis.

  • 5 ounces red chilis
  • 1/4 olive oil
  • Salt
Zach Johnston

I roughly chop the chilis while a skillet heats up on medium heat. I add a splash of olive oil and the chilis and let them cook until they’re browned and very soft, maybe 30 minutes.

I then add the chilis to a food processor with the olive oil and a big pinch of salt and process until its a smooth paste. Next, I put that in a small container and place in the fridge to rest.

Tahini Paste

Zach Johnston

This is pretty straightforward. Slowly add freshly squeezed lemon juice to tahini. Add it too fast and it’ll clump. Trust me, I learned this the hard way and had to start over.

Pickled Raddish

Zach Johnston

This is the ultimate x-factor to any falafel. It adds crunch, depth, and a slight heat.

  • 1 white radish
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/8 cup salt
  • 1 slice of beet
Zach Johnston

Peel and slice the radish into 1/4-inch sticks with one beet stick. In a small pot, warm the rest of the ingredient until salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Just bring it to a boil and remove it from the heat. Pour over the radish in the jar. Put on the lid and store in the fridge for at least 24 hours before use.

The Rest

Zach Johnston

I’m also using:

  • Tomato
  • Cucumber
  • Iceberg
  • Fresh Mint
  • Fresh Cilantro

Falafel

Zach Johnston

This is the star of the show and it does take overnight to make it right. First and foremost, do not use canned chickpeas. They’re too soft and will make for mushy falafel that will not hold together when fried. Consider yourself warned.

  • 500-grams dried chickpeas
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, stems removed
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, stems removed
  • 1/4 cup fresh dill, stems removed
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 6 cloves of fresh garlic
  • 2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • Vegetable Oil
Zach Johnston

The first step is to soak the chickpeas overnight. I add the chickpeas to a bowl and cover with water. I then stir in the baking soda, which will help add a smooth texture to the chickpeas.

Zach Johnston

I rinse the chickpeas and load them into a food processor. I then do a rough chop on an onion, the herbs, and pull out the garlic cloves from this beautiful bulb of fresh garlic.

Zach Johnston

I add everything (except the oil obviously) into the food processor.

Zach Johnston

Then I pulse the ingredients about 20 times. I then scrape down the sides and pulse again about 20 times.

Zach Johnston

You’ll know it’s done when it looks like this. There should be a very slight graininess to the falafel but it should also hold together and be uniform.

Zach Johnston

I put the falafel mix into a bowl and cover in plastic wrap. I let that set in the fridge for at least an hour to really come together flavor-wise. Don’t skip resting your falafel mix!

Zach Johnston

Now’s the time to fry. I’m using a wok filled about halfway with vegetable oil. I have nifty falafel form that I picked up in Tel Aviv a few years back that makes perfectly sized falafel balls. There’s a mechanism that you hold down while your form the ball, then you release the handle and the ball slides out.

Zach Johnston

Once the oil hits 350F, it’s ready to fry. I add in maybe six balls at a time. They take about three minutes to brown on one side and then I flip them to brown on the other side. Since I’m working in batches, I place the fried balls on a wire rack to rest while I continue frying.

Zach Johnston

I end up with about 22 or 23 falafel balls. I test one and they’re goddamn perfect. They’re full of herbal goodness, spice, and textural on point with plenty of crunch, and nice and soft inside.

Serve

Zach Johnston

Let’s build a falafel! I gently pull apart a pita so that it’s a pocket. I add in a smear of garlic paste and chili paste directly onto the bread.

Zach Johnston

I load in three falafel balls and press down, cracking them open. This is a crucial step that adds texture to the whole sandwich experience while also assuring the pita isn’t too wide to fit in your gaping maw.

Zach Johnston

I then load in a pinch of mint and cilantro, the pickled radish, cucumber, tomato, and lettuce. Finally, I drizzle with the tahini sauce. Done.

Zach Johnston

Look at that photo. That’s the percent bite. I ended up eating these three days in a row, they were that good. I love falafel and this version was shockingly good with great textural layers, rich spiciness and earthiness, and a beautiful pickle crunch and funk.

Drew on Zach’s Dish:

“Making this recipe from scratch is more a love letter to those Lebanese guys than it is a utility of cooking.” Bitch if you loved those guys so much you’d just pay them for their shit instead. Every goddamn artistic theft in this world is whitewashed as an homage. And you made your own pita. Even with all the restaurants out there closed, you still found a way to gentrify something! You may as well be an honorary Joe Rogan podcast guest.

That said, the pita looks f*cking great. It’s nice because it reminds me of making bread from scratch during early quarantine, only this time I don’t actually have to make it. I am very much happy to be back to other people making bread FOR me.

You also went all out in making the fixins, including using Fresno chiles, which are like shallots in that they make everything taste like a professional made it. I was ready to fight you when you said making the garlic paste was “easy,” because that’s always a lie when Bon Appetit shitbags say it. But it did look kinda easy to make, not that I ever will.

As for the falafels, I have tried to make my own and they were the worst shit I’ve ever made, so again I salute you going balls out to make them, even eschewing canned chickpeas like a true fancy pants. They look like mini muffins thanks to your “nifty falafel form that I picked up in Tel Aviv a few years back.” God, what a precious sentence.

Sandwich looks fucking great. I’d want more tahini sauce on it though. I would never be motivated enough to make this myself. Can you send me one?

Steve on Zach’s Dish:

You ready for some serious lede burying? Zach slid the fact that this is a two-day project into paragraph 238 of his opus. Is that where we’re at with this contest now? It’s a two-day thing? Maybe we should extend it further. Next month we’re all going to hunt our own proteins, separate wheat from the chaff to make bread, and age cheese in our basements.

At what point are you failing rather than succeeding if it takes you two days to make a sandwich that costs $2 on every corner in Berlin?

Oh, who am I kidding? I love this hipster shit and I specifically love this hipster shit. Your sandwich sounds delicious even with the spongy, dryish looking falafel, and I’d probably risk pandemic era flying for one of those pitas. But what about the spirit of invention? If we’re all just creating loyal recipes that we could get quicker and cheaper someplace else, then what’s the point? And yes, I caught how you inoculated yourself from critique by saying “take it up with Lebanon” but if that’s the party line then it changes the nature of what we’re doing here. Who wins when my perfectly loyal carbonara goes against your perfectly loyal caico e pepe and Vince’s perfectly loyal bolognese?

The cheffing falls out and it becomes who can follow the recipe best. A worthy challenge, but not quite so much fun.

Obviously this looks delicious. If you’re cooking for two days and the dish doesn’t look incredible there’s a problem. Also, please send me the chili paste so I can drink it. But I’ll trust your own admission that you made no tweaks on the original and just buy one the next time I’m in Berlin from the Lebanese guys.

Vince on Zach’s Dish:

I commend you for the garlic paste, but the way you did it seems like an unnecessary amount of work. Why dry roast, then pull each clove individually (with a toothpick!!)? Why not just skin them all at once and bake the cloves in some oil? Way easier. Also, are those some giant radish variety we don’t have here or are they turnips? Anyway, I’m obviously grasping at straws here because you clearly spent an insane amount of time recreating a faithful falafel dish, down to the point that you MADE THE DAMN FALAFELS FROM WHOLE CHICKPEAS. Christ, man, work less. Those Fresno chilis also look incredible and I’m not just saying that because I’m from Fresno.

Anyway, since we’re picking nits here: I prefer the more pancake-shaped falafel to the round ones you made. More fried surface area on there, and they fit in a sandwich easier. Also, cilantro instead of curly parsley?? Granted I’m no Lebanese whisperer but that seems off. Your fresh-made pitas look incredible, but if I’m being honest I’d rather have this whole thing in a lavosh wrap, like a burrito. That always made more structural sense to me than trying to squeeze it into a half-moon thingy. Likewise, I always go toum instead of tahini sauce but I realize tahini with falafel is tradish. Which brings me to my biggest point: no red onions? Did you get possessed by the ghost of Scott Conant here? How dare you?

If I’m eating a falafel sandwich my breath better smell like absolute shit afterwards, the onions are non-negotiable.

VINCE’S FRIED GREEN TOMATO POBOY

Vince Mancini

Making a vegetarian dish is a challenge close to my heart because although I love making big hunks of meat for these things, I pretty much always eat vegetarian before dinner (maybe it’s half-assed, whatever, it’s something). My go-to vegetarian lunch meal is actually what Zach made, a falafel sandwich. I always go for those veg meals that don’t make you miss meat. I thought long and hard about what vegetarian food I crave as much as falafel and I hit on it: fried green tomatoes.

Fried green tomatoes are an automatic order for me.

The question then became, how do you turn FGT into an entree? Easy, a po’boy. A fried shrimp (or oyster, or catfish, or crab cake) po’boy is another automatic order for me. I crave it for the same reason I crave falafel or a fried chicken sandwich — it’s fried stuff in a sandwich. Which adapts well to vegetarian because even in meat versions it’s not really the meat I’m craving; it’s the crunch, fresh veg, and sauce.

The Bread

Vince Mancini

Gotta have a nice soft hoagie roll for a po’boy, there’s no way around that. It’s the biggest component. Luckily, like everyone else in this quarantine, I’ve been dabbling in some bread baking. I used the recipe in America’s Test Kitchen’s Bread Illustrated book, which I highly recommend, and didn’t it change much.

  • 2.75 cups flour (recipe says bread flour, I used Italian 00 flour because that’s what I had)
  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • .5 tablespoon salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1.5 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1 egg
  • 2 teaspoons sugar

Flour, yeast, salt whisked together in the mixer bowl; water, oil, egg, sugar whisked together in a measuring cup. Start the dough hook, pour the liquid in slow, and keep it going for 8 minutes until it’s all combined and the sides of the bowl look clean. Knead the dough into a nice ball and let rest in an oiled bowl at room temperature for about two hours.

Roll them into little logs, let them rest covered for another hour. Slit down the middle, bake at 350 for 30 minutes.

Vince Mancini

They turned out spectacular, with a crunchy outer shell and a light, airy, soft interior. I’m so ashamed of not making my own sandwich rolls in past challenges after this. These would’ve made a particularly good cheesesteak or Italian beef.

Vince Mancini

The Remoulade

Vince Mancini

Can’t have fried green tomatoes, or really fried anything, without some kind of sauce. Remoulade is traditional on crab cakes and I’ve had it on shrimp or oyster po’boys and it seemed to fit the bill here. I used a recipe from my New York Times cookbook, altered only slightly. Ingredients, clockwise from left:

  • White wine vinegar
  • Ketchup
  • Minced garlic (fresh garlic from the in-laws’ garden, it’s amazing)
  • Smoked paprika
  • Egg yolk
  • Hot dijon mustard
  • Minced celery
  • Chopped green onions
  • Calabrian chile peppers
  • 1 cup grapeseed oil (not pictured)
  • Salt (not pictured)

The Calabrian peppers were my addition. Basically, you put the vinegar, egg yolk, and mustard into a metal bowl, whisk like a bastard, and slowly add the oil. Seriously, my shoulder is still sore. I can’t imagine doing it like this every day. Probably I should’ve used the whisk attachment on my mixer, but I’m an idiot. Once it’s all combined and emulsified, add the other ingredients.

It’s basically like a fancy spicy hybrid of thousand island and aioli. It’s good as hell.

The Tomatoes

Vince Mancini

I have some green tomatoes growing in my garden but they’re not quite big enough for sandwiches yet (Update from the future: I overwatered them and they got root rot. Gardening is hard). I did the next best thing and just bought some firm green heirloom tomatoes from the store. They’re sure purty.

For the Dredge:

Vince Mancini

One egg. Pinch salt. Generous amount of Louisiana hot sauce.

Vince Mancini

The breading. Half yellow cornmeal, half flour, a hunk of grated parmesan. Generously seasoned with Slap Ya Mama.

Vince Mancini

I bought a cast iron fry pan and now it’s all I ever use to fry things. I used peanut oil, nice and hot. Hotter than I would for chicken or something that needed to cook on the interior. The goal here was to get it hard and crunchy on the outside right away, to lock in the moisture of the tomato and cook it fast enough that it wouldn’t get greasy.

Vince Mancini

They came out beautifully crispy. I put them on paper towels to dry and finished with some flake salt (yes, I ate a few).

Sandwich Time

Vince Mancini

For the construction, I did (from bottom to top) bread, remoulade, shredded butter lettuce, sweet onions sliced on the mandolin, more remoulade, bread.

Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini

Guys… I know you have no choice but to take my word for it, but I swear to you: this was incredible. The soft fluffy bread, the crispy lettuce, the hint of sharp onion, and the crunchy outside/tart inside tomato with spicy, creamy sauce… it was magical. That cornmeal breading does something to me. It tastes fresh and crunchy but also decadent. If you have six hours or so of free time (most of which you’ll spend just waiting for things to rise or bake) you owe it to yourself to make this sandwich. It’s rare that I’ve been so thoroughly satisfied with something I’ve made.

Drew on Vince’s Dish:

LOL you made a po’boy. Cajun Twitter is gonna be like GUMBO GUMBO GUMBO THAT AIN’T A PROPER PO’BOY LIKE MY MAWMAW MAKES; HERS WOULD MAKE Y’ALL SNAP Y’ALLS’ RAT TAILS THEY WOULD!

Oh wow, you also made your own bread. Do you guys always do this much legwork? I feel like you should be able to cheat and buy ready-made bread. Maybe order some Chinese food on the side. Your sub rolls look good but not as good as Zach’s pita.

But lemme get to the important point which is that you made a remoulade that does NOT have store-bought mayo in it. I fucking hate mayo, so the second I saw the word “remoulade,” my asshole clenched. But you must love me because you found a recipe that demands you make the mayo-ey part from scratch. I’ll allow it. Barely.

“I have some green tomatoes growing in my garden.” Jesus Christ, do you all live in the New York Times Style section? The tomatoes look great. Looks like the crust could slip off easy but whoever wanted a CLEAN sandwich? I bet the peanut oil is key. I tried to make homemade Chick-Fil-A at home once and my sons bitched at me for not using peanut oil. Seems vital. I’m torn between this and the falafel now. Falafel can get dry as balls. Fried green tomatoes present no such danger.

Zach on Vince’s Dish:

I gotta respect that bread game. I also respect the sauce game. But that fry game is off, Mancini, and you know it!

Look, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with your sandwich overall. I will eat this with you one day, I know it. But you know you’d roll your eyes (or at least be a little disappointed) if you were served a crusted fried anything that was all cracked and crumbling before you tucked in. Look into your soul, Vince. See the truth.

I mean… I also get it. Tomatoes are little water balloons at the end of the day. So, the liquid has to go somewhere. That’s why you usually freeze these things before you fry to help trap that water (and pre-salt like a mother-fucker to draw a lot out).

Anyway, this vacation time in the Alps must have me in a good mood because I really just want to eat your sammie and stop talking about it.

Steve on Vince’s Dish:

I’ve always said that you’re the smartest at the actual gamesmanship of this contest. While I’m spending weeks dreaming up a unique vegan dish and Zach is dedicating two days for a sandwich he can get for $2, you’re making a dish that still uses cheese and fried stuff (known harbingers of success in this contest) and serving it on fresh bread.

Old Mancini, he’s playing chess while the rest of us play checkers.

I love fried green tomatoes. I love luscious sauces. I love fresh bread that some not-me person labored over. So, hey, this is a real sweet spot for me. But it also looks not quite savory enough. The sauce and the breading are savory-adjacent but that breading is falling to the wayside before you even take a bite, so giving it credit for balancing all the bright, fresh flavors seems dubious.

Basically, I want something earthy and rich to offset all this fresh garden stuff. Some sort of Cajun stewed vegetable or just some of that slow-roasted garlic paste you make for other dishes. I guess that’s the whole point of the tomato — to act as the protein — but fried green tomatoes still mostly taste like breaded raw tomatoes. I’m not fully buying them as the lone cooked element of this sandwich.

STEVE’S “HOMAGE TO VINCE AND ZACH” VEGAN POLENTA WITH GARLIC CONFIT, SOUS VIDE VEG, AND TOASTED MORELS

There is zero case to be made that I need to make this contest any more complicated for myself than it already is. I’m sitting in a distant 3rd place and getting distant-er by the month. But “vegetarian food” stumped me. Because so much of this contest is trying to achieve the highest form of something — mac & cheese or winter stew or whatever. And the highest form of strictly vegetarian food is obvious:

1. Cheese pizza.

That’s the best vegetarian food, hands fucking down. Here’s the rest of the top 100:

2. Cheesy fries.
3. Grilled cheese.
4. Veggie nachos.
5. Cacio e pepé.
6. Pasta with parm and basil.
7. Pasta with browned butter and asiago.
8-100. Niney-three different pasta varieties with snowdrifts of hard Italian cheese grated on top.

I eat vegetarian probably five-six nights per week if you’re willing to look past bone broth. But I eat cheeseless zero nights per week. Every fully vegan meal I’ve had in 2020 was at Envision Festival where the vendors were required to be vegan. I lost seven pounds in a week.

Anyyyyyyyway, I decided — after weeks of waffling and seriously considering just making a cheese pizza, snipping a whole head of basil over the top, and walking away with this thing — to go fully vegan. I also wanted to honor my compatriots, because my lagging on this month’s contest has been genuinely inexcusable.

So here goes:

Steve Bramucci

I started with some really nice dried peppers from the Mexican grocer to shout out Vince’s Central Valley connection. Normally, I’d hydrate these in broth, but my plan was to use them with the device that has so often led to my downfall at the hands of Zach and Vince: The Sous Vide!

Finally, after years of competing, I found a purpose for the sous vide that actually had the chance to make my dish better. Not because I needed some vegetables cooked, but because I wanted to be a little more refined in how I used them. I wanted them to affect one another’s flavors but not blend together. More importantly, I was going for a bit of a “Three Sisters” Indigenous food thing — shout out Zach! — and was planning to use these huge butterbeans which I wanted to keep intact and sort of elegant looking.

Steve Bramucci

Here’s what went into the sous vide at 200-degrees for two hours:

  • Butter beans (also called lima beans).
  • Yellow onions.
  • Parsely stems.
  • Garlic cloves.
  • California peppers.
  • New Mexico peppers.
  • Pasilla peppers.
  • Oregano.
  • Thyme.
  • Japanese white mushrooms.
  • 2tbs olive oil.
  • 2 dashes MSG.
Steve Bramucci

What came out was this little melange of deliciousness. I’ve zoomed in here to show the structural integrity of my beautiful beans and also because a bunch of veggies dumped onto a plate to cool isn’t that tasty looking.

Steve Bramucci

So the beans were to honor Zach, next came the polenta — a shout to Vince and my shared Italian heritage. I did realize a problem here: I make polenta with a lot of broth. Doing it with water wasn’t as flavorful. About midway through, I stopped adding water and started adding the veggie broth you get at Whole Foods. The downside is that stuff is very carrot-y and therefore sweet, so I tried to balance it out with some salt and cracked pepper.

Steve Bramucci

I also added some of the juices from my sous vide bag and some garlic that I’d done confit — cooking it in an olive oil bath in the oven at 190 for four hours.

Steve Bramucci

That gave me the savory/ sweet/ rich polenta flavor I was looking for. Then it was a matter of stirring. The stirring and constant attention is literally the only difference I can see between polenta and “quick grits” — with the former taking at least an hour to make and the latter taking as few as ten minutes.

In Northern Italy, where my family is from, it’s a point of pride to slam your polenta pot face down on a white dish cloth draped over a round wooden cutting board and then walk away, as if to say “Basta! This is perfect and I don’t need to attend to it.” With a true artist, like my aunt Benjamina, the polenta will then ease outward to the very edges of the round board but not a millimeter beyond. Then you cut the polenta into slices with a wooden knife and cover it with blood sausage, etc.

I did a similar thing but used a ring mold. I also toasted the bottom over the burner just to give a little crisp crunch — making a “polenta cake” of sorts. I did this by feel and turned it off about two minutes in, when my kitchen started to smell like popcorn.

Steve Bramucci

I piled on the beans in a super sophisticated, upmarket way. They were soft but held their shape and tasted incredibly “meaty.” I added some of the onions too.

Steve Bramucci

After the beans and onions, I added some of the tender, sweet garlic, and then toasted two morel mushrooms and some of the Japanese mushrooms in my garlic olive oil. I topped everything with 50-year-old aceto balsamico — which is one of the greatest cultural products on this planet and reflect my culture’s generational commitment to shit tasting good. I also added a dusting of roasted cashews because I always want cheese and cashew cheese is the closest I’ve tasted to the real stuff. So it felt logical.

Steve Bramucci

Finally, I added a smattering of homegrown basil. Just for something bright. And because this dish ended up feeling pretty Italian.

Steve Bramucci

Was it better than cheese pizza? Fuccccccccck no.

But damn was it tasty. You had a mix of flavors and textures and umami and acid (the balsamic) and so much earthiness that you didn’t miss the meat. It felt hearty and deeply warming but not so heavy that it seemed likely to add to my “quarantine 15.”

When I started at Uproxx they used to tease me that I overused the word “nuance.” Well, this is definitely the most nuanced dish I’ve made in this contest and, well, it probably had to be to try to stand up to the bludgeon of fried foods and gluten my competitors clubbed me with.

Can’t I just take this month on the strength of finally using the sous vide alone?

Drew on Steve’s Dish:

“I eat vegetarian probably five-six nights per week if you’re willing to look past bone broth.” LOL now that’s a sentence. Do you burn off all that bone broth on your Peloton? Anyway, I tweet about food a lot and have had sous vide bros in my mentions being all horny for sous vide. As ever, I’m more than happy to watch someone else use it instead. I just wish you had thrown a ribeye into your bag, too. Or would that have produced too much bone broth? And why only two morel mushrooms? I want 9,000 of those in my shit. I know they cost $12 apiece but surely Uproxx would let you expense a bushel.

I make polenta from some bag and Steve is right that the difference between polenta and grits isn’t that far if you’re cutting corners. But Steve didn’t and his polenta looks like true restaurant-quality shit. My biggest problem is that [Chopped judge voice] I wish there were more of it. Doesn’t feel like a main course to me. I want that as a side with a whole crown rack of lamb or something.

I say that knowing that polenta is richer than eating straight tallow, but still. Make me more.

Vince on Steve’s Dish:

Come on, man, we all know you’re not allowed to call your own food “sophisticated and upmarket.” It’s like giving yourself your own tough guy nickname. “Yeah, my name’s Seth but my friends call me Pythondick the Demon Slayer.” Stop it, Seth, no one calls you that.

Anyway, I call this dish “rough draft,” because it feels like a rough draft. You even admit that you were kind of just muddling through on that polenta (my family always did polenta like yours but then Bill Buford came and destroyed my entire notion of polenta and now I don’t know what to think). Not that a lot about this dish doesn’t sound like it would work. Butter beans, mushrooms, polenta… I think you almost had something there, except you decided to cook your beans with dried Mexican chiles for some reason (dried, untoasted and unhydrated Mexican chiles, I might add). It’s just that there are a bunch of false starts, unnecessary steps, and ingredients of dubious importance, which is also probably true of your lovemaking. I know this is wild, but you ever considered condensing your thoughts?

I’m sure this would taste just fine. Those morels do look especially beautiful. I think the biggest problem is that everything in it kind of has that same squishy chewy texture. This thing desperately needs some crunch, and those crumbled cashews at the very end are like trying to put out a brush fire with a shot glass. This dish looks fine as a side, but no way I’m ordering chili bean polenta surprise as a main course.

Zach on Steve’s Dish:

I dig the cut of your jib, Bramucci. This dish looks really … nice. I had to re-read through this twice to find something I could pick at like a scab I’ve been dying to pick at for a month and really can’t fault method or delivery.

I guess my biggest comment is that it’s just that … nice. I think this is the sort of dish that’d be ordered family style (not by me), I’d eat my spoonful, enjoy it, and move on. That’s probably the softest criticism I’ve ever given you but I can’t really think of anything else. It’s, yeah, nice. Not, “Nice, BRAH” (high-fives all around) amazing though.

Also, you had me at corn and mushrooms. You know my weaknesses. You can keep the butterbeans though.

Drew’s Verdict:

Do I rank these now? Is that how this works?

1. Vince
2. Zach
3. Steve

Steve wins on presentation. Zach gets creativity. But Vince’s looks the tastiest, even with demon aioli making a cameo. I’m already angry I put Vince at #1 because I know Vince the best of you three and he deserves no kindness of any sort. He a bitch. Now subscribe to Defector or I’ll punch all of you in the face.

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