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Top Ten Highlights from the 2009 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

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With so much fantastic food and wine, along with so many interesting and entertaining chefs at last week's Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, choosing a handful of highlights was not an easy task. Having said that, here are my top ten most memorable experiences. Included are some links to additional information, as well as recipes I collected and adapted for the American Foods site. Enjoy!

Jose Andres' Spanish Barbecue

Photo (c) John Mitzewich
Spanish chef Jose Andres and Wines from Spain, hosted a wonderful creek-side barbecue featuring an array of delicious tapas, artisan cheeses, Spanish wines, and whole spit-roasted lamb.

The sight of the glistening lamb, slowly turning over glowing coals, next to a babbling brook, was pure bliss. The smoky, succulent meat was used to build a variety of bocadillos (Spanish sandwiches), with romesco sauce, aioli, and an assortment of pickled peppers.

It was a great treat listening to Andres hold court as he handed out chunks of sausage, plates of tapas, and a few well-timed barbs at the other chefs in attendance. For me this was the essence of the Food & Wine Classic experience.

Michael Chiarello's Tomato Water Martini

Photo (c) John Mitzewich
Chef Michael Chiarello and organic gardener Peter Jacobsen hosted a demo called The Farm-To-Fork Connection: Creating A Sustainable World At Your Table. They talked about the little things we can do to foster a more sustainable food system; from choosing which companies we support, to planting herbs, to using and enjoying every part of the food we grow. It was this last point that inspired the beautiful drink pictured here.

In his restaurant, Chiarello had noticed a clear, fragrant liquid would collect on top of the large buckets of chopped tomato. Not wanting to waste, he discovered this tomato water made a wonderfully refreshing "martini." As he spoke, we enjoyed one garnished with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella. It was simply perfect.

Michael Symon's Ultimate Pork Belly BLT

Photo (c) John Mitzewich
Have you ever seen a sandwich so delicious, that you actually have dreams about it? Iron Chef Michael Symon, during a presentation called For the Love of Pork, created a pork belly sandwich that can only be described as transcendent. He showed how to braise the succulent belly, crisp it up in a pan, and serve it with freshly made garlic aioli, topped with homemade pickled green tomatoes. Then, he ate it in front of us.

For a few moments I seriously considered rushing the stage. I figured I could get a few bites down before being overwhelmed by security. Fortunately, common sense prevailed. I'm about to start a batch of the pickled green tomatoes, and in just three short months, I will be living the dream.

As the Night Falls at the Chateau de Grey Goose

Photo (c) John Mitzewich
One cannot live on organic meats and sustainably farmed vegetables alone. While I was primarily at the Food & Wine Classic to cover the all-star line-up of chefs' dizzying array of food, it was a perfectly made cocktail that left me with one of my most enduring memories.

The cocktail, called As the Night Falls, was being served exclusively at Chateau de Grey Goose, Grey Goose's beautiful Aspen lair. I was invited to meet its creator, François Thibault, and taste the intriguingly named concoction.

I'll admit, I'm not a cocktail party guy, but as I watched my drink being muddled and mixed, I was getting oddly excited. It was love at first sip – a delicious combination of L'Orange vodka, grapefruit juice, ginger, and pink peppercorns.

Harold Dieterle's Warm Wing Bean and Wild Boar Salad

Photo (c) John Mitzewich
The 2009 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen began with a Welcome Reception featuring food prepared by four previous winners from Bravo's popular cooking show, Top Chef. Each young star was given their own station from which to showcase one of their signature dishes.

Harold Dieterle, winner of Top Chef season one, did a warm salad of wing beans, wild boar, and young coconut that glowed with bright, vibrant flavor. It hit all the right notes for taste, texture, and temperature, and had I known Harold any better I would have asked for a whole plate.

Christopher Kostow's Roasted Corn Custard

Photo (c) John Mitzewich
One of the most anticipated events at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is the Best New Chefs Dinner, where ten of the country's top culinary stars are brought together to show their signature cuisine.

Overall, the food was very impressive, with each chef showing exactly why they'd been included in this select group, but it was Christopher Kostow's Roasted Corn Custard with Truffles and Popcorn that proved most memorable.

The sweet corn was turned into an impossibly smooth and silky crème, studded with shaved black truffles, and in the center, a chewy puff of popcorn. While some questioned the textual combinations, I loved everything about it. Sweet, earthy, soft, chewy, and feather-light.

All You Need is Love (and Beer)

Photo (c) John Mitzewich
When I heard Tim Love, chef at Lonesome Dove in Fort Worth Texas, was doing whole roasted goat, lamb, and venison for a special luncheon hosted by Stella Artois, I was happy. When I heard that Master Beer Sommelier Marc Stroobandt had flown in from Belgium to personally pair three of his countries finest brews with the cowboy chef's trio of meats, I was ecstatic.

We enjoyed tender lamb tacos, matched perfectly with the legendary Stella Artois; venison sliders topped with a yuzu aioli were lovely with a Leffe Blonde; and Chef Love's smoky goat crepinette was a tour de force paired with the light and fruity Hoegaarden.

For a beer-with-food lover, it just doesn’t get any better. To quote Homer Simpson, "Beer, is there anything it can't do?

Getting a Taste of South Africa

Photo (c) John Mitzewich
The most enlightening event I attended at the Food & Wine Classic was called A Taste of South Africa, and was hosted by cookbook author Marcus Samuelsson and Gail Simmons. I had no idea how diverse the foods of South Africa were – with influences from Portuguese, French, Dutch, Indian, British, German and Chinese cuisines.

As I ate spicy Piri Piri Shrimp, lamb curry, and grilled ostrich, all paired with a delicious selection of indigenous wines. I learned that Gail Simmons' father was South African. It was fun listening to her, Samuelsson, and others discuss their various culinary memories. It's always nice to be exposed to an entirely new cuisine, and I certainly look forward to learning even more.

Root Beer Lamb Ribs and Coleslaw Ice Cream?

Photo (c) John Mitzewich
The Food & Wine Classic prides itself on bringing together a unique blend of cooking talent; proven old pros using classic techniques, and young, cutting-edge, risk-taking up-and-comers. Well, the later was certainly well represented by Top Chef contestant Richard Blais.

In what was probably the most interesting plate I tasted during the Classic weekend, Chef Blais created an imaginative dish of braised lamb with root beer and toasted sesame. As if that wasn't unusual enough, the young chef, using a tank of liquid nitrogen, whipped up a batch of coleslaw ice cream to serve alongside. It was as delicious as it was unexpected.

Quickfire Challenge Starring "Leftover Pizza" Wraps Up Food & Wine Classic

Photo (c) John Mitzewich
The last big event of the Classic was a special Quickfire challenge between Top Chef season 4 winner Stephanie Izard and season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg. Much to the delight of the crowd, they were joined by Ming Tsai and Jacque Pepin, who served as celebrity sous chefs. Not only did they help cook, but they also kept the Top Chefs loose with lots of funny one-liners.

The chefs had 30 minutes to cook breakfast for a panel of judges, and in the end it was the team of Hosea and Jacque that took the prize. I believe it was Izard's audacious offering of "leftover pizza," used as a base for lobster, bacon, and eggs, that was the difference. As a leftover pizza aficionado, I enjoyed her creative combination, but the judges weren't as impressed.
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