Monday, February 1, 2016

A New Perspective on Cooking Contests

This is a post from City Girl Country Life, centering around small own life, county fairs and kids in the kitchen. The blog City Girl Country Life is heading into retirement so many of the recipes originally shared there will make an appearance here over the next several months. This story was originally published in July, 2015.


It's county fair season in Iowa again. This year I took a break from entering my own home canned foods and will get to try something completely different- judging. I won't be examining canned foods though. This year I have been invited to judge the Adair County Extension Office's 4H Pride of Iowa Cooking Contest. I'm so excited! I am assigned to the high school age group, and last year these kids made some pretty impressive dishes. Because part of the judging is food safety and the recipe, the kids have to make a poster that features their recipe and directions, and we will be paying close attention to all the steps and cleanliness practices.

The winners! My age group is the top row- L to R- Bailee,
Shelly and Shawna, and Alexis
I've got some pretty great dishes to sample- Meat, Potato and Egg Bake, Deep Dish Tacos, Italian Ribeye Linguine, Cornbread Casserole, South of The Border Casserole, Breakfast Lasagna, Breakfast Roll-ups and Healthy Spaghetti. What a menu! The recipes must include at least one Iowa produced product. The poster each cook makes must demonstrate that they've done their homework about the Iowa product(s) they are using, such as nutritional content. They have an allotted time to prepare their recipe and must demonstrate proper techniques, especially food safety rules. Once their dish is completed (some of the dishes go into the oven after the prep on stage and get tasted after cooking) they are judged on appearance, correct doneness and taste. 

The youngest cook in the competition, Brandon is a 4th
grader who prepared Guinea Grinder Boats. He was
awarded a blue ribbon for his recipe
Besides the award ribbons the contestants can win, they also are eligible for prizes and premiums provided by different producers and businesses, such as the Adair County Pork Producers, A.C. Beef Producers, Midwest Dairy Association, and 3 Bee Honey Farm, among others. 

Contest day arrives and I am excited!!! It's a million degrees outside but I know the 4H building has air conditioning. After a brief orientation fellow judge Karen and I make our way to the staging area and get set up at the judges' table. We have evaluation sheets for scoring the contestants and plenty of tableware for sampling. Karen  will be scoring the junior high and younger kids, grade 4 through 8, and I am judging the high school kids, grades 9 through 12.  A quick glace at the schedule and I can tell we are in for some amazing sampling.

Karen Schultheis also judging the contest. She lives in
Greenfield and is a school teacher
So how are the cooks judged? The judging is two-fold. First we watch the cook as they prepare the recipe they chose. We consider the recipe they chose. What is the level of difficulty? Is it appropriate for the age and skill level of the contestant? What are the Iowa ingredients used? Food preparation skills are watched closely too- did the cook use proper measuring techniques? Did they use appliances correctly and safely? How about food safety- was the cook mindful of cross-contamination and safety issues?

Then we judge the food itself. Does the dish look appetizing? Is it cooked properly and completely? How about the taste? Finally, we judge the cook's poster they made to accompany the recipe, and their knowledge of the ingredients and nutrition aspects. As judges, we get to ask questions and find out how the cook chose the recipe, what changes they made if they adapted it from another source, their cooking experience and practice, and quiz them on their Iowa ingredients.

Hank B. made this poster for his recipe demonstration.

Alexis' Italian Ribeye Linguine is explained in detail
In my group, my winners were Alexis S., a freshman, for her Italian Ribeye Linguine, third place, featuring Iowa dairy products, eggs, and beef ; a duo of Shelly B., sophomore, and Shawna A., junior, for their Healthy Spaghetti which featured spices from Tones, pasta from Barilla, Iowa-grown vegetables, Iowa ground beef and turkey, and corn oil; and the first prize winner was Bailee H., a senior, who created an amazing take on lasagna- Breakfast Lasagna, with Iowa pork (ham), turkey(turkey sausage), eggs, and dairy. 

Why did these three stand out for me? Alexis' dish was delicious and beautiful on the plate. Her steak was cooked perfectly and her sauce was homemade with Romano, Parmesan and Gorgonzola cheeses and thickened with egg yolk. She demonstrated a skill in tempering that egg that a lot of adults can't master. She had really good knife skills, chiffonading baby spinach and using kitchen shears to snip sun dried tomatoes. She plated the dish and drizzled a balsamic glaze over the top and presented a dish worthy of a restaurant. I was truly impressed. 

Shelly and Shawna worked through power outtages
to make their dish. They stayed focused and didn't
let the disruptions get to them.
The duo of Shelly and Shawna had some challenges from the get go. The power went out while they were cooking. This was their first contest but they handled it like pros, never missing a beat and just stayed focused and worked through it. How was the spaghetti? Delicious! They used herbs to bring a lot of flavor to the sauce and added lots of fresh vegetables to add nutrients and flavor, and they did something I really appreciate- they did not overcook the vegetables, leaving a slight hint of crunch and texture. In spite of the power problems the pasta was cooked wonderfully, a perfect al dente. They chose to serve farfalle instead of spaghetti and I liked that- it was easier to eat at the judging table.

Lasagna and breakfast are two words I never thought would go together but Bailee had the creativity to give it a shot and she made it work. Ham, turkey sausage, tender scrambled eggs, creamy Alfredo sauce, veggies, cheese and pasta sounds like a very unlikely combo but it really works! When I asked Bailee about how she came up with this idea she had a great story about working out the details and testing ideas with her mom. I never cooked with my mom and her story made me happy. This dish was truly impressive- the layers held up during serving, the noodles were perfectly cooked and my mind immediately thought this would be perfect for Christmas morning or a brunch celebration. She's got a real hit with this recipe, and that made it, for me, a point or two above the rest.

Brandon concentrates on his recipe
The fair printed a cookbook with all the recipes we judged and I'm going to share them with you! I plan on cooking all the dishes I sampled because they really were very delicious, easy to prepare and all used real food ingredients and not a lot of convenience products. The first recipe is one prepared by Cody M., a freshman. Cody was fun to chat with. He enjoys cooking and like to grow his own food. He told me he fashioned a container herb garden by recycling 2 litre soda bottles and even grew vegetables in these containers. Cody found this recipe online and made a change- the original used bacon, he switched to breakfast sausage links and it works! This reminds me of pigs in a blanket and is a fun take on French toast.

Breakfast Rollups

6 slices fresh white bread
1 package fully cooked sausage links
1 teaspoon butter
1 large egg
2 teaspoons whole milk
pinch of salt
3 Bee Honey
maple syrup

Cut the crusts off the bread, then flatten with a rolling pin. It will become a bit sticky. Combine egg, milk and salt in a dish and whisk to combine. Heat the sausage in the microwave until heated. Place one sausage in the middle of each piece of bread and roll up. Press the seam to seal.

Melt the butter in a skillet. Dip the rollups in the egg mixture to coat. Shake off the excess. Place in hot pan and cook, turning every few minutes until all sides are golden brown. Top with a drizzle of honey and maple syrup.

I really enjoyed this experience. I was a little nervous at the mic announcing my winners at the end of the contest but I did ok. I was so happy to be part of this great competition and hope to come back again. The Adair County Fair is in west central Iowa, in the town of Greenfield. There is no better representation of life in rural Iowa than to visit a county fair. I hope you get to experience this in your lifetime.

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