Monday, June 8, 2009

A Cook-off To Be Proud Of

Yesterday, I was privileged to be involved in a very special cook-off at Kendall College. The cook-off was a fundraiser for Share Our Strength, an organization that works to end the invisible threat of child hunger here in the US.

I was there accompanying Spatulatta's newest youth spokespeople, brother-sister team Matt and Alisia. They were pitch hitting for Liv and Belle because the girls had a previous engagement. Belle was graduating from junior high. Graduation trumps cooking any day.

The Cook-off was held in Kendall College's 3 professional kitchens. Eighty kids split up in teams of 2 and were paired with Kendall College students. Each of the 3 kitchens was assigned a secret ingredient, Iron Chef style: carrots, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

Team Tomato, Team Carrot and Team Sweet Potato came up with their own chants and cheers as took their stations and the competition began. Celebrity chefs, Michael Kornick, Paul Kahan, and Erik Williams were on-hand to give teams advice and encouragement.

Left to Right: Chef Michael Kornick of MK Restaurant, Chef Paul Kahan of Blackbird Restaurant, Chef Erik Williams of MK Restaurant.

Alisia and Matt interviewed the young cooks, ranging in age from 8- to 13-years old, about the inspiration for their dishes. The teams had one hour to come up with a recipe, cook it and attractively plate it. Even with the pressure on, cooks and chefs found time to stop and chat with Alisia and Matt. Thanks to the crew at Event Architects, interviews were fed live to the Kendall auditorium where the moms and dads got a chance to experience the kitchen action without feeling the heat.

When time was called, the teams put down their spatulas and laid out the dishes for the judges. Of course beautiful plating was considered, but inventiveness scored high points. Unexpected uses for familiar ingredients abounded. Tomatoes became jam, sweet potatoes became custards and carrots filled quesadillas.

One winner was chosen from each kitchen. After a break, the semi-finalists from Team Carrot, Team Tomato and Team Sweet Potato entered "Kitchen Stadium" for the final round.

Two of the teams were paired with celebrity chefs Michael Kornick and Erik Williams of MK Restaurant. Team Tomato retained there Kendall Student Chef, Brian. He'd seen them to the semi-finals and they were sticking together.

A new secret ingredient was announced - quinoa!

Not many in the audience had heard of the protein-rich, South American grain let alone cooked it. But the chefs and their teams didn't miss a beat.

Tension built in the final minutes. Saut├ęs sizzled and steam bloomed everywhere. Chef Kornick produced an beautiful asparagus flan to accompany his quinoa curry dish.

But the judges had a surprise for us all.

It was the Tomato Team under Kendall's own Chef Brian, who produced the winning dish. A quinoa and kale salad surrounded by perfectly steamed asparagus, brussel sprouts and of course tomatoes.

Go Tomatoes Go!

Many thanks go to the folks at the ConAgra Foundation, who generously sponsored the event and the folks at Whole Foods, who donated the marvelous ingredients.

Visit Cooking: The Exhibition Chefs

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tomatoes' Day in the Sun

I'm taking a chance today. I'm putting in my tomatoes. Usually, I start them from seed in January and grow them on my second floor enclosed porch. The porch has storm windows but it's still pretty chilly out there. My office has not one, but two heat vents so I assume that the former owner might have done something similar, leaving the door between open to keep the porch warm.

But this winter was ruthlessly cold. The cold ground on and on without a break. I flew to California to visit my 81-year old dad instead of washing and bleaching my seed starting trays. I ordered my seeds late and when they arrived in February I had no ambition to do anything with them.

I finally got the seeds started in March and was worried that the plants wouldn't be ready to set out in late May. The seedlings were so slow to start. I'd bring the trays into my office each night and set them right on the heat vents so the soil would warm. During the day there was precious little sun. In past years, that porch has heated up to 90 degrees during the day because it has windows on three sides and low winter sun pours right in.

Rather that being gratified with the promise of new growth, I was demoralized as day after day went by without any sign of green shoots. One tray became spotted with tufts of white mold because I'd left the transparent lid on too long. The other tray just sat there, the blank soil adding to the bleakness created by our economic conditions and the bitter weather.

Then one day there was a tiny green comma in one of the seed tray cells and then later that day another. The commas unfurled to reveal a thin stalk sporting a seedcase still clinging to minuscule leaves. As the days went by more and more tomato seedlings showed up. By late April they were finally ready to move to paper cups. My friend Joy, bless her heart, poked drain holes in each cup and filled them with potting soil while I gently extracted the seedlings from the cells, untangled their roots and set them in their new "digs."

Since then they have been growing steadily and happily despite the fact that we have had one of the coldest wettest springs on record. Once the days got longer the tomatoes decided to put on the speed. In fact, the other day I went in and found my single, gangly beefsteak plant sporting 3 flowers. It was time to make a move.

Over the years, I have tried various ways to get my tomatoes set out early: walls of water, paper bags, plastic sheeting. This year, we would have one day of warm and two days of cold, dropping almost to freezing. So I waited and waited. Usually I put my tomatoes in on Memorial Day weekend but this year the holiday came early and the weather didn't cooperate.

So now, we're a third of the way through June, just 2 weeks from the longest day of the year and my tomatoes are about to be set out. This year I'm going to try putting dry cleaners bags over the tomato cages because we're supposed to have a couple more cool, wet days back to back.

My favorite tomato by far is Sungold, a yellow cherry with a magnificent sweetness. The first year I planted them I never brought a single Sungold tomato into the house. I ate them, warm from the sun, right in the garden.

I going out to plant my tallest spindliest Sungold plant out in the garden right now. I have two other shorties on the porch as back-up, just in case we get a freak snow storm or something. The promise of that sweet and slightly acid flavor is enough to get me out in the garden this morning, out to the bed I've had prepared for weeks. The darkest, richest compose I can every remember coming out of my composer has been tempting me but I have resisted. My seedlings have become too precious to risk being shocked and stunted by the cold.

But the tomato plants and I have waited long enough. Today is the day!