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As Anastasia Locke, Aidan Curranor, and Edwin Pierce filed into the wardroom and galley, they were greeted with an amusing sight. Mars Fulcrum and Kevin Andrews were dressed in identical starched white chef uniforms, complete with cylindrical hats. Their captain was outfitted in his full military dress uniform, including the half-cape across his shoulder usually reserved only for the most formal occasions.
"My good spectators and judges," Peter Mackenzie greeted them. "I welcome you to the Galley Arena. Today, our two culinary combatants will meet in a competition for the title of the Iron Chef of our good ship, the Pallas Athena. I would like to make it clear, first of all, that in no way is Mrs. Fulcrum's job on the line, here - I think we can all attest to the fact that she is more than fit to continue as the cook for the Pallas Athena." In response, enthusiastic nods and murmurs of assent from the rest of the crew. "Of course, a victory for Mr. Andrews may mean we see an occasional meal from him anyway. In any case, no matter who the official victor of this competition is, I think we'll all win as far as the meals on our ship go."
"And now, at one minute to seventeen hundred hours, it is time to begin. I see you have chosen your kitchen sections. Lieutenant junior grade Margaret Fulcrum, are you ready to begin?"
"Yes, sir, I am," she replied confidently.
"Very well," the captain said. "Commander Kevin Andrews, are you ready to begin?"
"Yes, sir," he answered, with as impressive a voice as he could muster.
"Excellent. Lt. Fulcrum. Cmdr. Andrews. Tonight's secret ingredient is... shrimp! Let the-"
"Sir, um..." Mars interrupted. "We don't actually have any shrimp."
"...Oh." Captain Mackenzie looked crestfallen. "Well, then.... I'll be back in a minute." He strode over to the galley's massive refrigerator and hauled the door open. Poking around for a little while, he pulled out a large package and returned to his position between the two competitors. "Very well. Tonight's secret ingredient is... soy protein! Let the competition for the title of Iron Chef Pallas Athena begin!" A loud, tonal crashing noise sounded, startling everyone in the room except for Aidan Curranor, who stood grinning with a large platter which he had invoked as a gong.
Kevin Andrews looked at his captain incredulously. "...Soy protein."
Peter nodded, grinning. "Best get to it, Kevin! Mars is already busy at work!" And indeed she was, setting up her wok with a little oil in it to heat, and grabbing a big chunk of soy protein and dumping it into a mixing bowl with several herbs and spices, as well as some powdered bouillon. He nodded, and grabbed a chunk of the large, soft mass of soy protein, laying it out on a cutting board to knead some ingredients of his own into it.
Soon, the kitchen was a blur of activity. Both chefs were forming wads of soy protein into a variety of different shapes and flavors. Mars Fulcrum went for the stir-fry option immediately, adding a selection of frozen vegetables and a sauce made of soy sauce, oil, and garlic - and a dash of sugar for a sweet twist to the flavor - to the spiced, chicken-flavored soy chunks that were stir-frying in her wok. Kevin had taken the meatball tack, flavoring a large wad of protein with sage and beef bouillon, and was preparing a spicy-sweet sauce to cook them in. He'd also grabbed some sheets of pasta, and was folding more flavored protein into them in an attempt to make some sort of dumplings.
Margaret, in the meanwhile, had rushed to the refrigerator and retrieved several bottles, pouring them into a blender along with a wad of protein. She set that to blending and returned her attention to the stir-fry, stirring it vigorously and tossing the contents into the air a few times. A taste of the sauce, and she tuned the ingredients a little more with dashes from a selection of spices. Satisfied with her main dish's progress, she grabbed another hunk of protein, flattening it with a rolling pin. After she emptied the protein slurry from the blender into a jug and stuck it in the freezer, she washed the blender out and filled it with vegetables and a few interesting spices. After blending that mix together gently and adding some bread crumbs, she strained it and formed the mixture into chunks, which she wrapped in the flattened soy protein and began frying. The judges were amused to see both competitors taking a different approach to the same idea of dumplings.
Kevin, stealing furtive glances at Margaret's progress, was hard at work on his main course. He'd once again mixed the protein with a selection of spices and flavors, and was forming them into patties. He coated the patties with an egg-based mixture, then breaded them and began frying them. With the patties frying, he prepared some frozen vegetables for flash-steaming, as a side to his main dish.
The hour allocated for cooking was nearly over as Margaret prepared her last dish. Wrapping wads of heavily spiced soy protein around skewers, she fried them briefly before covering them in a deeply flavorful creamy sauce, in an approximation of a satay dish. Kevin, having finished up his main dish with a layer of tomato sauce and shredded cheese - now melting under the warm glow of his oven - and racking his brain for inspiration for a dessert dish, had settled on mixing some flour and water into a chunk of soy protein for a more doughy texture, and wrapping balls of ice cream in a thin layer of the soy-protein dough to make a variation on mochi ice cream. Quickly sticking them into the freezer, he sighed in relief as Peter announced the time: two minutes remaining.
The rest of Kevin's task was easy. He removed the soy balls from the simmering sauce atop his stove, skewering each of them and laying them out on a plate as a communal appetizers. The dumplings were accompanied by a dip of soy sauce and garlic, with a bit of corn starch as a thickener, and that too was laid out on a single plate. Margaret was also working leisurely and confidently, dumping the rice from her rice cooker into a large bowl, preparing an oddly similar sauce for her own dumplings (with a different sampling of spices), and setting her soy satay out onto a plate. She and Kevin both stood at ease when Captain Mackenzie announced that the hour was over, and cringed in near unison as Aidan whacked his platter-as-gong once again.
"An impressive showing for both of you," Peter Mackenzie said. "Are you confident that you will be victorious?" Both of them nodded, smiling. "Very well, then," he said, licking his lips. "Let the judging begin."
"We'll do an alternating tasting, unless either of you have a particular objection or a theme you were trying to carry through or something?" Both competitors shook their heads. "Very well. Kevin, I consider you the challenger, so you have the first dish. Present it!"
Kevin set his plate of dumplings down on the table. "I present for your consideration soy-pork dumplings. They're wrapped in sheets of pasta - I think they used to be lasagna before I reworked them for the dumplings. The pork is gently spiced with pepper and oregano, and the sauce is spicy and sweet." He smiled as his fellow crew members - and his competitor - tried his plate of dumplings. A chorus of contented sounds signalled success on his first dish.
Anastasia spoke up. "These are quite good! The spice in the soy meat brings to mind a pork taste without any pork flavor itself being involved, and it matches the sauce quite well."
"Thank you," he replied. As the crew finished his dumplings, he cleared the platter from the table, making room for Margaret's dish.
She presented her platter with her first appetizer. "I present to you soy-chicken satay. You can call it 'soy-tay' if you like, but I choose not to go down that path. This is of course based on the cuisine of southeastern Asia, on Earth. The sauce starts off sweet, but has a strong kick to it in the aftertaste." She waited as the crew tasted her appetizer - each of them nibbling thoughtfully from a soy-meat covered skewer.
"Mmm," Aidan said. "You're right about that sauce! It was quite sweet, and- ah. Aha. There's that spice. Heh heh heh... ow." He reached for his glass of water and gulped thirstily.
Captain Mackenzie laughed. "I rather like a bit of the old ultra-spicy, myself. Well done."
"Thank you," she said, suppressing a laugh at Aidan's fiery misfortune. She cleared her plate from the table as Kevin brought his next dish.
"Next, I present soy-beef meatballs in brown-sugar barbecue sauce." Kevin laid down a platter of meatballs, skewered on toothpicks. "What can I say? They're barbecue meatballs. They're good. I hope you enjoy them."
The meatballs were met with agreement from nearly the entire crew. "My aunt used to make something like this," Aidan said. "Every time the whole family got together - couple times a year, usually - she'd make a big pot of these. You've captured that taste pretty well."
"Thanks," Kevin replied. Grinning, he removed the plate, and Margaret brought out her own dumplings.
"These are a different sort of dumplings than you had before. They're vegetable-filled, and the soy-protein is actually used here as the outer shell of the dumplings. The sauce has a mix of spices - sage, oregano, thyme, and a bit of cumin - and is really where the personality of this appetizer lies."
The crew devoured the appetizer. Edwin Pierce spoke up for the first time. "The vegetable filling here is a little bit bland, but the sauce really does spice that up. It's like a cake and its frosting - the frosting is nothing without the cake, but the cake itself isn't really that interesting on its own. They work well together, though."
"Thanks!" she replied. Another plate swap ensued, and Kevin presented the crew with his main course.
"Soy-chicken parmesan with steamed vegetables," he announced, serving the rest of the officers. They ate thoughtfully for a while, and Captain Mackenzie was the first to finish.
"This was a pretty good dish," he said, "but to be honest, it strikes me as a little bland after the appetizers. It's a little more normal and every-day. All the same, it tastes quite good." Most of the crew nodded in agreement.
"Alright," Kevin said. "Thank you." Another dish swap, and two bowls sat on the table: one with the stir-fry, and the other piled high with steamed rice.
"Garlic-ginger soy-chicken stir-fried with mixed vegetables, and steamed rice," she said, presenting the dishes. "I suggest putting the stir-fry on top of the rice, but you can serve it as you wish." The crew served themselves, and began eating.
Tasha remarked almost immediately. "Mmm, Mars, I love the blend of tastes here. It all works so well together... did you mix spices into the soy chicken itself as well?" She nodded. "It turned out quite well!"
"I have to agree," Kevin added. "I'm hoping this becomes a regular staple on the ship." He continued eating his portion.
"Thank you," she said. "I do appreciate it."
When they were finished eating her main course, Kevin went to fetch his dessert, but the Captain stopped him. "I think we could use a few minutes to digest at the moment," he said. "Your desserts are frozen - they'll keep. In the meantime, I'll explain the rubric to our judges." He passed out the paper copies he had made. "For each competitor, each of the four dishes will be rated out of 5 points. A further 5 points will rate the entire meal as a whole. The four scores will be added up, to result in a total score out of 100 for each of them.
"In the traditional battle format of the Iron Chef League, the presentation itself was an important part of the rating. We don't have fancy dishes here, so I think we're not going to pay much attention to that - but visual appeal of the food can certainly be a part of your decision.
"So, I'd recommend you take a couple minutes and fill out the rubrics for the first three dishes right now. Just to pass a little bit more time before the dessert. You can fill out the dessert and overall column after the dessert." He sat down again, and the four judges filled out what they could of the rubrics, while Kevin and Mars waited, just a little nervously, by the kitchen. Finally, after what seemed to them to be an interminable wait, the captain motioned for the next dish.
Kevin retrieved his mochi balls from the freezer and presented them to the judges. "Mochi ice cream, in a variety of flavors. It's ice cream, wrapped in a thin layer of dough. The dough in this case is a simple flour and water mixture combined with the soy protein to give it a doughy consistency. I hope you enjoy them." They each took one, and bit into the little balls.
"Huh, I'd never had these before," Edwin Pierce remarked. "I wouldn't have expected that raw dough around ice cream would be that good, but it really is. I'm rather pleasantly surprised."
"Mmm," Tasha added. "We used to get these as kids all the time on Hyacinth. They were always popular there. Doesn't feel quite the same as an adult, but they're still rather good."
"Thank you," Kevin replied. He grabbed one for himself and nibbled on it as Mars pulled her jug from the freezer, pouring a thick, darkish just-barely-liquid into a set of glasses.
"Protein shakes," she said, setting them out for the crew. "Milk, chocolate, a bit of ice cream, and the soy protein. Tasty, and good for you! And, as far as I'm concerned, a perfect end to a meal." She watched with pride as five smiling faces sucked on the protein shakes.
"You know, it's hard to find a decent milkshake these days," Captain Mackenzie said. "Seems like a lot of them are synthetic somehow. But I can taste the real dairy in these, and it's much appreciated." A couple other officers nodded, still drinking their shakes.
"Thank you, sir," Mars replied happily.
As they finished, Kevin and Mars returned to the kitchen area and finished cleaning up, as the captain and the rest of the crew finished up their rubrics. Finally, the captain collected them all. "I'll have scores for you in a moment. Sit tight..." He took the sheets over to another counter. A few quick calculations, and he returned.
"Alright. I have the results here. It was a close match, friends, and by a score of 82 to 80, our winner is-" He trailed off. "Wait, do I have that right?" he said, grinning.
"Captain!" Tasha said, feigning consternation.
"Okay, okay," Peter conceded. "Our winner is... Lt. Mars Fulcrum!" The entire crew, Kevin included, applauded for her as she bowed.
"Congratulations, Mars, you've earned the title of Iron Chef Pallas Athena. Kevin, you fought well, and your performance was admirable. Your work here today has bestowed honor on both of you." The two competitors shook hands, bowed slightly to each other. "And," Peter added, "it has also bestowed some truly excellent food on all of us."
The captain shuffled through the paper rubrics. "I have some individual statistics here. The highest-scoring dish was the soy-chicken satay, which earned an overall score of 18. The lowest-scoring dish was the soy-chicken parmesan, at a 14. Everything else was in between, but all the dishes scored quite well. You should both be extremely proud of yourselves; well done.
"Oh, and one more thing - scoring each judge's preference individually, you each had two judges prefer you over the other. So, it was indeed an extremely close match." The crew applauded once again, and talked happily about the wondrous meal they had experienced as they made their way back to their stations for their evening ship checks.
Current pace: 47065
Required pace for remaining days: 2547 per day
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