In the weeks leading up to the competition, I tried everything I could think of: filet mignon, seared scallops nested in an artichoke with hollandaise sauce, potato scale encrusted halibut, carrot and rutabaga encrusted pork chops, lobster tail in a golden beet sauce, king crab legs, whole herbed chickens. It is impossible to prepare for a cooking competition when the ingredients that will be made available to you are kept secret, but it didn’t stop me from trying. On a grad students salary it is difficult to justify eating this way, but since it was for the sake of research and furthering my career as a chef, I considered it a business expense. I shudder to think of what our blood cholesterol looked like during that week, but every delicious, buttery, mouth watering bite was worth it.
Christina assisted by sitting at the counter opposite the kitchen, whittling carrot flowers. It was a technique we had picked up a few days earlier from a chef at a Thai restaurant. We had stopped in for a bowl of soup and a brainstorming session.
“We need to focus on practicing with the presentation.” I said, just as the young waitress set the two giant bowls of lemongrass soup down in front of us. I picked up one of the floating carrot flowers with my large metal spoon and looked at Christina.
“Excuse me miss?” Christina called after the waitress as she turned to walk away.
She turned back. “Yes?”
“Do you know how these carrot flowers are made?”
“Oh, aren’t they cute? I can go get the chef to come out here and show you how to make them.”
“That would be great, thank you!”
Christina and I looked excitedly at each other as the woman went into the kitchen; in a few moments, an older woman exited. Without saying a word, she stopped in front of our table, retrieved a carrot and a knife from her apron pocket, and began to produce little flowers right before our eyes.
We turned our heads this way and that, leaning in close and sitting up tall, trying to study every angle of the process. Within moments, the carrot was gone, and on the table sat an orange bouquet. The woman nodded her head, with a slight smile, and returned to the kitchen. Christina slipped one of the flowers into her pocket. She began practicing as soon as we got home.
Christina was the only person I would allow to help me in the competition, but she also has no cooking experience. I tried working with a professional assistant for a night, but that ended in disaster. I was too bossy with him, and he resented me thoroughly within our first 5 minutes together.
“Just put the nuts in the bag and hit them with a hammer.” I yelled, shoveling pine nuts into a Ziploc. I can only imagine what Christina must have thought from the other room.
“Are you serious? With a hammer? Why can’t we bring proper equipment?” He whined. “Just trust me, and stop questioning me” I barked. It is no wonder that I was labeled “bossy” by a local magazine writer that was covering the event.
In the end, the secret ingredient was squash. I made a butternut squash ravioli with a coconut golden beet reduction, while Christina whittled a beautiful garden until her fingers were bright orange. I would have made these quinoa balls had I not made them in the earlier qualifying competition. They are delicious stuffed with chicken and herbs, squash and tellagio, or sweet potatoes and cabbage. I am sure they would be good with mushrooms, Swiss chard and herbs as well. If nothing else I can only hope that I will one day be remembered as the inventor of the quinoa ball, and not just the bossy chef that crushes nuts with a hammer.
Toasted Quinoa balls
In a saucepan, heat 1 Tbsp olive oil and 1 tsp salt. Add 1 1/2 cups rinsed quinoa. Toast the quinoa until a nutty aroma is released, then add about 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, half covered, until the water is gone (about 15 min). In a separate pan, heat 1/2 Tbsp olive oil and add
1 tsp salt
1 diced yellow onion
1 large sweet potato
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 small head green cabbage
1 Tbsp butter
cook until the sweet potato is soft, and the cabbage is sweet. Cover and let sit with the heat off while you prepare the salad. When the quinoa is finished cooking, remove lid from the sweet potato and cabbage mixture. Have ready 1 small block of Havarti cheese. Allow the quinoa to cool a bit (maybe put it into a large mixing bowl and stir it around so that the air can help it cook. Add 1 1/2 Tbsp corn starch and 1 tsp salt. Form the quinoa into a flat thin patty in your hand. Place a lump of cheese and some of the sweet potato mixture in the center, and bring the rest of the quinoa around it so that you have an encapsulated ball. Make as many as you can, then heat 1 Tbsp of sesame oil and 2 Tbsp olive oil in a frying pan and pan fry , turning each ball so that they get toasted on all sides. Alternatively, brush the balls with sesame oil and bake in a 400 degree oven until brown (I usually pan fry, but I imagine this would work as well).
1/2 head romaine lettuce, chopped
6 mini sweet peppers, cored, halved, and sliced thin
1 large cucumber, peeled and chopped
Avocado and red onion dressing
in a small food processor, blend together:
1 small avocado
1 Tbsp lime juice
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp water
1 tsp brown sugar
1/4 red onion
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
Christina’s vote: “Lovely balls”