Every American kid knows the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb." One Vail chef imagines the kid's tale a little differently. The rhyme inspired his lamb entry for Taste of Vail's Lamb Cook-Off, happening today in Vail Village. "We're making Bloody Mary Had a Little Lamb," he said.That means the intricate dish has all the flavors of a bloody mary cocktail, but deconstructed.First the chef, who will remain unnamed (more on that in a second), broke down the lamb legs into eight-inch long, silver dollar wide pieces of lamb, wrapped them in foil and flash fried them. Next they were braised for four-and-a-half hours in the restaurant's house bloody mary mix. The whimsical lamb dish will be served with "all the acoutrements of a bloody mary on the plate -a nice salad with braised hearts of celery and pickled ramps with a celery seed vinagrette and some horseradish crackers on top."Earlier this week, he spun sugar using Hangar One chipotle vodka to make "snow," essentially vodka cotton candy."You know, after 'her fleece was white as snow,'" he said. So back to why all the chefs and restaurants in this story are anonymous. Today's lamb cook-off is a competition, and a blind one at that. Though we considered naming all the chefs and running a spoiler alert warning the judges not to read this story until after they'd filled themselves with more lamb than one ought to, we decided not to. Alas, we don't trust the judges not to peek. After all, we wouldn't be able to help ourselves. So you'll have to go this afternoon's event to figure out who made what.
Back to the story: Restaurants in Vail and beyond have been prepping for Taste of Vail for days, and especially for the lamb cook-off. The event is quite popular, with participants and attendees alike: Among the chefs because it's a competition and most of the chefs we've ever met are pretty dang competitive, and for attendees because it's the most accessible Taste of Vail event, since it takes place outside, on the streets of Vail Village and is affordably priced, with food samples from each restaurant going for $4.Last year's winner of the lamb competition was Restaurant Kelly Liken for its slow cooked Colorado leg of lamb. The lamb was served on a risotto cake with grilled ramps, braised nettles and Parmesan-infused lamb jus. The team from Kelly Liken will be back to defend its title this year, along with 2011 People's Choice winner Atwater on Gore Creek. One new Vail executive chef, who started at his Vail restaurant in October, will be taking part in his first competition today. The restaurant will serve up a Moroccan lamb roll for the competition, with homemade pita bread, mint and basil slaw with black garlic vinaigrette. A fresh pea aus jus will be served alongside."The guys and I got together in the kitchen and were working on a derivative of a Moroccan lamb meatball we do," he said. "I'm from the South, so we ended up with a slaw on top, a Mediteranean slaw with basil and mint in it ... and we wanted to spice it up, so it's got some jalapenos in it."Down the road, the executive chef at a restaurant located inside a local lodge, is serving up barbecue lamb with smokey yam butter and ramp chimichurri. What is all this talk about ramps? A ramp, for all you non-foodie geeks, is a perennial wild onion with a strong garlic-like odor and a pronounced onion flavor that comes up during the spring. It's also an ingredient that often shows up at the Taste of Vail since, well, it's early spring and ramps are rampant.
One non-Vail, Italian restaurant is participating in the lamb off, as its affectionately called, for the "first time in awhile," said the restaurant's general manager. The chefs began preparing for the event on Tuesday, when they dunked the leg of lamb in a orange rosemary garlic marinade, for a nice long bath that will last until this morning, when the chefs roast the lamb, which will be served atop a Parmesan risotto crisp. Over at another new Vail restaurant participating in the lamb off for the first time, the chef de cuisine and the other kitchen magicians will be busy making yuzu avocado puree and red onion mint salsa this morning, to serve atop lamb anticucho tacos. "Anticucho is a Peruvian sauce," he said. "It's a vinegar-based sauce, with cumin, oregano and Peruvian red chile paste."The bite-sized tacos will be served in wonton wrappers, so they'll be "easy to carry and pick up and eat. They're really good; they'll be delicious," he continued. Not all of the food at today's event will include lamb, though. Juniper restaurant in Edwards, a longtime Taste of Vail participant, is bringing dessert to the event, to satisfy attendees with a sweet tooth. Since Juniper isn't making a lamb dish, and therefore isn't part of the competition, we'll name the restaurant and the chef. Pastry Chef Charles Borshinsky is making four separate, bite-sized desserts, which all complement each other, said restaurant owner Doug Abel. "There will be a basil-scented chocolate pate, a mint jelly, a raspberry-flavored thyme jelly and pineapple rosemary crisps," Abel said. "With one of the best pastry chefs around, I like to show Charles off."And we, for one, will appreciate a lamb-less bite of food. High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or firstname.lastname@example.org.