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But despite the promise of this week's installment being "ladies' night" -- ultra-imposing defending champ Cat Cora versus New York's chef laureate of Mexican cuisine, Julieta Ballesteros -- and despite the usual fanfare from Brown and the chairman (beamed in via satellite), we have to say we were a little let down by the surprise guest.
Ricotta? Really? The Body Snatcher of cheeses -- creamy white stuff that's usually so bland it takes on the personality of any other ingredient it touches? We suppose it could've been worse -- they've been tacky and chosen eggs or milk or something, you know, "womanly" -- but it wasn't a great start to the face-off.
But oh, did we have a lot to learn about ricotta. From goat to smoked cow's milk, from whipped curds to hard bricks, Iron Chef had every last variety of the stuff. And while we couldn't be there to sample their salty, savory or sweet qualities, this time the judges weren't shy in describing every last bite -- that is, except for when the food was so good, they were speechless.
Honestly, right off the bat this pairing seemed like a mismatch. Ballesteros and company whipped up impressively rustic south-of-the-border fare -- wrapping a tamale here, loading fistfuls of cilantro into the blender there. But over on the defending champ's side, some serious chemistry was going down.
Cora -- whose already sharp features harden to an almost metallic sheen when she's in battle, making her look more than a little like the evil lady robot in the third Terminator movie -- presided over her team like the head of Nasa ground control. With pressure like this, you can't help but crack. Just ask her celeb sous-chef Richard Blais, he of Top Chef Season 4: Amidst measuring out sodium alginate for little ricotta globules and applying liquid nitrogen to Mexican chocolate, he could be forgiven for not putting the lid on a blender before hitting "puree," right?
In the face of all this technology, Ballesteros' Mexican fare with a French flair couldn't hold a candle. While her dishes -- butternut squash soup with ricotta croutons, halibut on a tamale with pesto, and a delectable-looking tres leches dessert -- were hearty and plated with delicacy, Cora's seemed light years ahead. Starting off with a mozzarella-encased ricotta truffle (with real truffles inside), on through to her ricotta sponge cake, studded with mint and the aforementioned chocolate chunks, the judges were in awe. Choruses of "I've never had anything like this!" and "It's like blowing my mind!" and "It's like eating a cloud!" could be heard, that is, in-between their extended periods of munching.
Cora's high-tech culinary explosions were the clear winner; even still, we'd love to see Ballesteros' work in another context. Why she couldn't have battled Bobby Flay is beyond us -- they both seem to traffic in the same sort of spicy, earthy flavors. Whatever the reason, here's hoping she gets a broader audience for her recipes.