I've heard many times, "Why don't you do a cookbook? Why don't you sell your strudel recipe?" Last year I heard a new one, "Why don't you enter a cooking contest?"
A cooking contest? Why not?
I went online and stumbled upon a state sponsored contest open to pros and amateurs alike. The challenge was to create a healthful, easy-to-prepare dish using a vegetable from one of that year's four categories: leafy greens, beans, corn or broccoli/cabbage/cauliflower. How intriguing. It reminded me of Iron Chef and the secret ingredient.
I got hooked on Iron Chef back in the day when Takeshi Kaga, affectionately known as "The Chairman" presided over Kitchen Stadium. He was chairman of what, no one knows for sure, but who is going to argue with someone who can unhinge his jaw to bite a 4-inch yellow pepper in half? Sorry Ozzy.
I chose cabbage as my vegetable and went to work revamping a stuffed cabbage recipe to reflect the criteria. I shredded, diced and chopped. Add cheese. Everybody likes cheese (low fat of course). How about ground turkey, not beef? I'll add a lighter sauce too. Voila! I had an up to date version of a classic.
Within a month I got the congratulatory letter from the contest committee. I was a finalist. I made it to the Big Time.
Our venue was no Kitchen Stadium, but the Community College furnished all professional equipment available for our use. I spied a chainsaw hopefully there for ice sculpting, not part of the battle equipment. I called dibs on it just in case.
It was time to check out the competition. Each category had four contestants. My group lent a variety of characters to battle against. We had a Stepford Wife complete with pearl necklace, who brought her own cookware, oven mitts and premeasured ingredients. Not a hair out of place. She could have come straight from the Food Network kitchens. To her right, a twenty-something '60's throwback I'll call Hippie Chick. Hippie Chick seemed to be a vegan style vegetarian and reeked of tofu. I think it was tofu.
There was also an obvious contest veteran in the crowd. Seasoned Contestant's rules and welcome packet remained on the counter unopened. She sported khaki shorts, sleeveless top and flip flops. Not dressed to impress. A bloody Band-Aid adorned her right forefinger. She probably sustained a combat wound at the Acme while fighting over the last head of cabbage.
We were introduced to the judges: a food columnist with a regional newspaper, the Chef in attendance at the sponsoring college, a Professor Emeritus from the state agricultural college and a local newspaper reporter.
Chef gave us a quick pointing tour like a flight attendant before takeoff. There are the ovens, there's the walk-in, tools are in these drawers and towels are over there.
Now we were ready to recreate our dishes. We had one hour.
Let the battle begin!
I dug out my ingredients, shredded, chopped and so on. Fifteen minutes later, I recreated my layered cabbage and ground turkey dish. Popped it in an oven and still had 45 minutes to kill. So I people watched.
Hippie Chick grabbed a whisk and bowl and started blending a concoction, I guessed a dressing for some sort of broccoli salad. In the meantime, Stepford Wife snatched the olive oil off Hippie Chick's station. She was spunkier than I thought. Hippie Chick gave her a look like Stepford Wife clubbed the last baby seal. I hoped I wouldn't need to rev the chainsaw to restore order.
Seasoned Contestant took a plastic container from her Coleman cooler and dumped the contents into a casserole dish and tossed it in the microwave. The rules encouraged some preparation beforehand, but the entire dish?
We displayed our completed culinary delights on a table behind our assigned number for photos.
Finished contestants got swooshed out into the hallways where the judges and earlier round combatants gathered. We fended for ourselves while the photographers did their thing.
Wandering the halls left me privy to a little behind the scenes judge's comments. The jolly Professor Emeritus—the only male on the panel—declared to an inquiring contestant from an earlier battle that he'd vote for anything with spinach in it. Really? Anything? How about foie gras covered spinach balls dipped in chocolate? By the gigantic size of him, I'd bet he'd vote for anything with food in it.
Ms Food Critic gazed down her long, pointy nose at us. She hoped that someone in the crowd knew how to use spices. Does salt and pepper count?
Seasoned Contestant busied herself with a Blackberry—not the food kind —thumbs flying away, oblivious to the rest of us foodie nerds.
A few minutes later the paparazzi flagged down the judges. It was time to sample and conclude "whose cuisine reigns supreme!"
I'll admit it did feel good to have butterflies in my stomach about cooking again.
Before long we were rounded up and corralled back into the kitchen to announce the winner.
Which healthful recipe won, you ask? Drum roll please. . . brummmmmmm. . . and the winner is ta da! "Fried Cabbage and Bacon Skillet"! Huh?
Stepford Wife rolled her eyes. Hippie Chick's face froze. I swear I felt my arteries harden at the thought.
Seasoned Veteran waltzed over, collected her $100 check, posed for pictures and said how glad she was she took the day off from work again this year; all before the bacon fat coagulated.
You can be sure that next year my wholesome vegetable entry will include lots of butter and saturated fat. In fact, I think I already have the perfect recipe. I'll enter my Sun-dried Tomato and Cheese Casserole (with bacon of course). Everyone needs to indulge once in a while! Wish me luck!
SUN-DRIED TOMATO, BACON AND CHEESE CASSEROLE
- 3/4 lb thick cut bacon, cubed
- 2 cups macaroni shells, uncooked
- 1/2 cup green onions, diced
- 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, diced
- 3 cups half and half
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
- Fry bacon over medium heat in a medium sized fry pan for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and onions, reduce heat and continue frying until tomatoes and onions are soft and mixture thickens (about 10 minutes). Drain. Set aside.
- Cook shells according to package directions, drain, set aside.
- In a 2-quart sauce pan add butter and flour, cook over low-medium heat until a thick paste forms, (about 3 minutes). Slowly whisk in the half and half a little at a time and continue stirring until dissolved. Bring sauce to a boil, stirring constantly and cook until sauce thickens. Add cheese. Remove from heat, set aside.
- Add bacon mixture and cooked shells together. Stir in sauce. Pour into a 2-quart 8x8 glass baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes until sauce thickens and casserole is heated through.
Cindy Kerschner is a full time cook, part time writer, and occasional rantress.
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