I am always, always, always cooking. For family, friends, co-workers, teachers….About a year ago, I decided that if I was going to be cooking anyway, I might as well kick it up a notch, have some fun, and maybe even win some prizes by entering some of my recipes in cooking contests. In September, I got an email from Aetna announcing their Healthy Food Fight recipe contest. I had just returned from summer vacation, where I had created a simple, fabulous, and very healthy recipe for shrimp tacos with mango-avocado salsa, so I sent it in. Admittedly, I did not read all of the contest details, so when I got an email a few weeks later telling me I had made it past the first round and was invited to create my recipe live, I was a little dazed. I had never had to cook under the watchful eyes of judges, so this was quite something. That’s when I went back and read the contest detail more thoroughly. And then read them again. I found out that if I won the live local cookoff, then I would have to go to Los Angeles for the final round–a live cookoff that would require me to cook a healthy Thanksgiving meal in a few hours, against 9 other contestants, and under the watchful judging eye of “Iron Chef” Bobby Flay. Healthy. Thanksgiving. Ninety minutes. Bobby Flay…You only live once, right?
So I accepted the invite to cook in the regional event, which was held October 3rd at the Grand Hyatt Riverwalk. The celebrity judge was Sunny Anderson, from Food Network’s “Cooking For Real” (she is also a graduate of Madison High School, and a former KJ97 DJ). I thought I would get nervous, but it never happened. That was literally the most fun I have ever had (no, my life hasn’t been boring, I just LOVE to cook, and to educate people on cooking matters. It really brought out the “ham” in me. I had 90 minutes to create my Baja Shrimp Tacos, and then I left. Really thought that was that, and had no expectation that it would go any further. Four days later, an email arrived stating that I won the regional event, and I was invited to Los Angeles for the finals. I didn’t believe it at first. I read the email three or four times…It was addressed to me. It said I won. It had an affidavit attached for me to fill out. I WON?! I WON?! WHAT? Needless to say, a bunch of shrieking followed. I chased my husband into the doughnut shop to show him the email on my cell phone. Called my mom. Called my employees. Shrieked some more.
November 17-21 found us in Los Angeles. The contest covered my husband, but we also took my boys, Reagan and Max, plus my mom, dad, and mother-in-law. Figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so we made a vacation out of it. The hotel that the contestants stayed in was amazing. The Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood—very chic, very modern. Popular with musicians and such. (Usher was chatting on his cell phone poolside when Max was swimming)
The cookoff was actually held on November 18th, and was filmed at Raleigh Studios. We got to walk a red carpet, we got custom embroidered chefs jackets, and we had to cook. A healthy Thanksgiving dinner. In 90 minutes. For Bobby Flay. No pressure there!
I prepared Turkey Saltimboca, thin cutlets of turkey rolled around a filling of sautéed pears and mushrooms, and fresh baby spinach, then sautéed in olive oil and deglazed in lemon juice and white wine. And, since my southern family would disown me if I produced a Thanksgiving meal that didn’t include cornbread stuffing, I made a polenta that tasted like cornbread dressing—celery, onion, sage, and grilled until toasty. This was all served in a gravy made of vegetables, wine and broth—all of the body of traditional gravy, but no fat or carbohydrates. Finished the plate off with thinly sliced butternut squash that was brushed with maple syrup, and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper, and then roasted hot and fast. Sublime.
The judges included executives from Culinary Institutes of America, and of course, Bobby Flay. He was nice, cordial, and so dapper. He took a picture with Max holding the Boerne Star (our local newspaper). The contestants were all really nice ladies with some incredible credentials. Several have been on various Food Network shows, some were executive chefs, and a few owned their own gourmet food companies. Julie Biederman Hession won the Grand Prize—a new suite of kitchen appliances worth $10,000. But in the end, we were all winners, and the experience was not to be forgotten.
Bottom line: BOBBY FLAY ATE FOOD I COOKED. Weird. Surreal. So fun.
I met some really great ladies at the event…
Julie Biederman Hession: www.peanutbutterandjulie.com
Camilla Saulsbury: www.camillacooks.com