cooksmart-judges

Marriott International Cooksmart Culinary Challenge

What is it they say at the beginning of an Iron Chef competition? “So now America, with an open heart and an empty stomach, I say unto you in the words of my uncle: ‘Allez cuisine!'”  The phrase calls the chefs to the culinary battle.  And what a battle it was at the Marriott International Cooksmart Culinary Challenge.

I felt like a distinguished Food Network judge (along side Eric Williams and Tricia Chaves), sitting atop an elevated stage, ready to sample the hard work of up and coming sous chefs from Marriott properties all around the region.

I thought I’d be walking in to a generic corporate ballroom modestly put together to accommodate the competition.  But I grossly underestimated the production value of this event!  There was staging, and lighting and music, a live video feed of the action on large screens (thanks to Rock the House), and a real Iron Chef America Judge, Mario Rizzotti.

Eight talented and up and coming Marriott chefs advanced from hotel-level cook-offs, to compete here.  These are hourly associates and supervising chefs, at the top of their game.  They were tasked with a pretty daunting challenge: make something delicious, in 45 minutes, incorporating four mystery ingredients.  Those were lamb liver, monk fish, pickled green tomatoes and coffee.  I don’t know about you, but those don’t sound like an appealing group of ingredients to me.

When the clock started, the judges were encouraged to walk around the room, not only to chat up the chefs about what they were making, but also to take notes on how they kept their stations.  In previous competitions I’ve judged, we been tasked with ranking them from 1-5 or 1-10 in categories like taste, texture, presentation, etc.  But in this competition the scoring was far more intense, and including things like mise en place and sanitation.

And as if the pressure wasn’t intense enough, Mario was walking around the room interviewing the chefs as they were working.  But everybody seemed to handle the pressure like champs.  When the clock wound down, the chefs presented their dishes on stage and explained how they incorporated all these seemingly incompatible ingredients.

Most admitted they’d never worked with liver before and struggled with the cook on it.  But some used it wisely and flavored things like gravy, sauce or couscous with the sometimes off-putting protein.

When the scores were tallied, it was a unanimous decision to crown Courtney Nielsen, of the Renaissance Hotel in Columbus, as the victor.  She cleverly made a spin on dirty rice with the liver, made coffee and used it for the liquid, pan seared the monk fish and whipped up a pickled veg salad.  To me, it was the most harmonious off all the entries.

As the winner, she’ll be sent to Marriott HQ and test kitchen in Washington D.C. where she’ll get to rub elbows with corporate chefs and VIPs.  The brass behind this event say it was created to recognize their young talent and support sous chefs and cooks who do a lot of the heavy lifting in the kitchens of their properties, and while it’s only regional for now, they expect this Farm to Fork Culinary Challenge to be a national event come next year.

cooksmart-winner

What an honor it was to serve on this panel (get my first….and second-eighth tastes of lamb liver!) and help support talented, creative people like these chefs.  They rose to the challenge.  Days later, I still can’t imagine what I would have done with a mystery basket like the one they were presented with.  What would you have made?

sausage-fest-jen

Slovenian Sausage Festival

It doesn’t get any more “Cleveland” than this.  A Slovenian Sausage Festival, put on by the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame & Museum, at SNPJ Farm in Kirtland.  Being invited to participate in this event means a lot to me…I’m half Slovenian.  My grandmother would argue…the good half.  And when your mother’s maiden name is Tomsic, you don’t turn down an opportunity to listen to polka music while crowning the next King of Klobasa.

It’s the biggest event of its kind in the nation, and with the largest Slovenian population outside of Slovenia, you can see (and smell, and hear) why Cleveland is the natural host for such a party. 

Polka and sausage fans were invited to dance their calories away to the music of more than fifty accordionists and musicians brought in to perform. Guests got to taste sausages from several makers and then pick their favorites. There was definitely some lobbyin going on. 

Prizes were awarded by People’s Choice and the juried Best of Fest.  And here’s an honor: the winning sausage-maker becomes the official supplier to the three-day Thanksgiving Polka Weekend at the Cleveland Downtown Marriott Hotel.  Who needs the “Sausage King of Chicago,” Ferris Buhler.  We’ve got our own king!

sausage-party

For my role, I served on a jury with other distinguished judges, like the Lady Butchers from Saucisson, a Slovenian diplomat and fellow food writer, Debbie Snook, of Cleveland.com. So as not to be pursuaded by preconceived notions or family favorites, the tasting was blind. Truth be told, we did discuss the make up of the five contenders a bit.

It was interesting to taste it and examine the texture, color, seasoning and overall tastes, instead of just devouring them pretty quickly like I’ve been doing most of my half-Slovenian life.

In the end, to my delight, my long time family favorite, Azmans (of Euclid) was crowned the judges’ favorite. So glad to see these fine butchers and old world artisans rewarded.

It was a real treat to return to the retreat location enjoyed nearly every weekend by my grandparents and my mother, as a child. And I was tickled to watch my two year old eagerly finish her first Slovenian sausage, like she was born to, and see my girls enchanted by the magic of button box music like I used to as a little girl. Anybody who is old school Cleveland, or old world American, can certainly relate.  And, dig in.

taste-of-the-browns-logo-2

Taste of the Browns

The bar has been raised for the stadium, ball park and arena fan food experience, especially in Cleveland.  Local sports fans are also big foodies.  They are coming to the game expecting a win, and a belly full of top notch local food.  Taste of the Browns gives them a generous helping of what they’re after, with a side of social good.

For nearly 20 years, Taste of the Browns has been helping to tackle hunger in Northeast Ohio.  The event is the major annual fundraiser for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.  The region’s biggest hunger buster was able to serve up 896,000 meals in six counties with the funds raised at last year’s event, which was nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

The event returns to First Energy Stadium on Sept 19th, where the Browns are bringing some big players to the table.  The team and the region’s most notable chefs have got a culinary play book you’ll want to be eating from.

Michael Symon (B Spot Burgers, Lola Bistro, Lolita, Mabel’s BBQ)

Jim Blevins (Butcher and the Brewer)

Dan Deagan (Deagan’s Kitchen and Bar and Humble Wine Bar)

Michael Thompson and Odell Boone (Pickwick & Frolic)

Eric Williams (Momocho and El Carnicero); and more

In all, more than 25 local restaurants and purveyors will participate.  Want a full list of who’s going to be there? Click here.
rocco-and-joe-thomas
Honorary event co-chairs are Cleveland Browns Tight End Gary Barnidge, former Browns Linebacker and current Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Judge, Dick Ambrose, and Chef Rocco Whalen of Fahrenheit, and Rosie and Rocco’s.

Taste of the Browns guests will get to mingle with current and former players and bid on a variety of auction items, which include dinner with a player, and special autographed items.  And you know, I love a good wine pull!!

taste-of-the-browns-joe-haden

The event will be held in the Club Lounge at FirstEnergy Stadium. Tickets are still available for $175 ($75.00 of which is tax-deductible) or you can also get VIP tickets are available for $250 ($150 of which is tax-deductible).  That will get you access to the VIP Lounge and include exclusive tastings, as well as access to Cleveland Browns celebrities.

Every dollar raised for the Food Bank helps them provide FOUR MEALS to those in need.  I’ll see you there!  For more information or to order tickets, call (216) 738-2046 or visit
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lobster empanadas

Chefs Unbridled

We are all often asked to support good and worthy causes.  But some are just more compelling than others.  The Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center falls into that category.  Can you name another non-profit that helps with such a variety of people?  The organization, which uses therapy horses, assists everything from PTSD and ADHD patients, to riders dealing with blindness, down syndrome, multiple sclerosis and neurological disorders.

Chefs Unbridled at Chagrin Valley Hunt Club is Fieldstone Farm’s primary benefit to raise money for the Ridership Program. Serving more than 1,000 students each year, Fieldstone Farm is one of the largest centers of its kind in the country.  And I’ve got nine reasons you should join me on September 17th.

The food.  It’s about the food, people.  The event highlights an array of talented and influential Cleveland chefs who are ready to “bring it” for this cause.

  • Demetrios Atheneos of Bold Food and Drink (Cleveland)

  • Jim Blevins of Butcher and the Brewer (Cleveland)

  • Chad Bolar of Pesto’s Pizza & Wine Bar (Chandler, Arizona) – Private Guest Chef

  • Adam Bostwick of Graffiti: A Social Kitchen (Cleveland)

  • Chris Hodgson and Scott Kuhn of Driftwood Restaurant Group

  • Jimmy Linhart and Pablo César Montiel of Lemon Falls Café (Chagrin Falls)

  • John Owens of Market Rocky River & Wine Bar Rocky River (Rocky River/Cleveland)

  • Ian Thompson of Cedar Creek Grille (Beachwood)

  • Eric Williams of Momocho (Cleveland)

    Your ticket to Chefs Unbridled gets you a seasonal tasting dinner at the Chagrin Valley Hunt Club Polo Field.  But this isn’t your traditional “small bites” type event.  Chef Hodgson tells me the portions will be about 7 oz.  So you WON’T go hungry. Guests will enjoy cocktails, the tasting menu, and tasty treats from a food truck and the cupcake truck. Yes.  There will be a cupcake truck.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Chefs Unbridled - Kuhn Hodgson - Credit Creed Woodka PhotographyWant specifics?  I got ’em.  Chef Williams says he’s making Grilled Chicken Tinga Tacos with Yucatan slaw and chipotle tomatillo salsa.  Chef Blevins is going big, planning a whole Braised lamb, hand pulled naan bread to order, tzatziki sauce, oven cured tomatoes, and arugula.  Chef Atheneos is bringing Braised Pork Belly w/ ancho chile jam to the table.  And for a “choose your own adventure” option, Chef Bostwick is preparing a 72 hour “pastrami” style short rib with a ton of different breads, pickles, sauces, mustards, all made in house!

     

mini empandas

Chef Hodgson is perfecting some lobster empanadas.  He showed me a couple of examples of the dough, size and filling he was working on. Wanna see how he makes these?  I got you. To check out our video of his demo, click here.

  • New additions for the 2016 event include private vintner getaway packages (for 2 people) in Sonoma or Napa Valley, as well as an exclusive Kentucky Bourbon Trail getaway experience (for 2 or 4 people) and a wine pull raffle.  You can score a really valuable bottle of wine for a song with a feature like that.

     

    You can also indulge in a horse drawn carriage ride throughout the historic district of the village and a bourbon tasting with Tom’s Foolery.  Um…sign me up!

Students who work with the Fieldstone horses make progress in overcoming barriers and achieve goals such as independence, self-esteem, strength, and socialization.  So, I hope to see you at Chef’s Unbridled, on September 17th.  Click here for tickets.  They are $140 a piece and include a tax-deductible donation to Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center.

 

Jen at the Garlic Festival

Cleveland Garlic Festival

Pass the breath mints.  It’s time to consume garlic with reckless abandon.  The Cleveland Garlic Festival is the annual fundraiser for the North Union Farmers Market. The two day event allows the market to operate weekly throughout the year in Greater Cleveland.  I’ve gone for years.  But this was the first year I got to participate!

garlic fest raw

The funds generated help them administer and expand their educational and charitable market programs, which include Food Stamp enhanced purchases/EBT-SNAP, Music at the Market, Chef at the Market and the Mighty Locavores K-2 educational programming in Cleveland Municipal School District.

As you make your way around Shaker Square, which hosted the festival, you could sample countless varieties of the vampire repellent.  Purple, elephant, you name it.  Plus local producers had samples of the other products they make from it.

Even more popular were the stands that incorporated garlic, like garlic fries, garlic pickles, garlic burgers, even ice cream and cotton candy.

garlic fest chef demo

Throughout the weekend, there was also a series of demos, and competitions, the Top Chef Garlic Grill Off.  Local chefs were asked to bring their A game and feature various combinations, highlighting garlic.  I was asked to judge the pasture raised pork and garlic round.  Don’t mind if I do?!

Everyman chef, Mike Downing, of Garage Cookin’ presented his “tacanini,” or a cross between a taco and a Panini.  The smoked pork had just enough subtle garlic and smoke flavor to it, and it was very tender.  Loved the touch with the pickle, too.

Table 45 Chef Matthew Anderson gave us a dynamite pulled pork slider using pork butt, garlic used three different ways, a carrot slaw and a killer aioli.  Can you tell I liked that one?

garlic fest winning dish

Chef Cameron Krahel, from Canal Tavern of Zoar, took the classic pork and beans to a new level, and even found a way to incorporate garlic in to the peach garnish…a great surprise.  The vinegar-based barbecue sauce that he provided on the side was a better choice compared to a heavier, ketchup/tomato based one.  And the beans were cooked to perfection.

pork tenderloin

Finally, Chris DiLisi, from Willeyville in the East Bank of the Flats, plated up the prettiest dish of the competition, using pork belly and tenderloin, among other ingredients.  It not only packed the boldest garlic punch of all the dishes, but it also displayed many difficult culinary techniques.

The surprise bonus to those watching the competition? There were samples (full sized ones!) of all of the “contestants” provided to the audience in the demo tent. Admission to the festival was only $9, plus a whole meal’s worth of taste tests.What a deal!

We were asked to judge the dishes in five categories (flavor, texture, appearance, creativity and use of garlic). In the end, the scores were quite close, but my fellow judges (Tricia Chaves of Fresh Water Cleveland and ptaom.com, and Michael Feigenbaum of Lucy’s Sweet Surrender) and I chose Chef Krahel as the winner.  The small town chef was genuinely surprised to nab the win, but he deserved it.

garlic fest winner

What a great way to spend a sunny Sunday.  And I have 3 more cooking competitions on my calendar coming up the fall.  Not a bad line up ahead for me!  Think I could make a living with gigs like this??  I’m working on it!

 

 

 

beard house chefs

Cleveland Chefs take New York

If chefs are the new rock stars, then cooking at the James Beard House in New York City is like headlining at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s a pretty big deal. And who better to rock the house at the famed Big Apple dining room, then a group of chefs from the rock and roll capital of America?  After all, the inspiration for the invitation to JBH was the celebrated Cleveland dining experience, Dinner in the Dark, which is described by its founders as an “open mic jam session for chefs.”

Eight talented local chefs, traveled to New York to eat their way through the city and cook the meal of their lives.  I think they’re still in a food coma, and still inspired by their collective experience.  Brian Okin (of Cork & Cleaver and Graffiti Social Kitchens and Dinner in the Dark), Adam Bostwick (of Cork & Cleaver and Graffiti Social Kitchens), Karen Small (of Flying Fig), Anthony Scolaro (111 Bistro), Jim Blevins (Butcher and The Brewer) Britt-Marie Culey (of Coquette Patisserie) Jeff Jarrett (of Dinner in the Dark) and Chris Kafcsak (of Deagan’s Kitchen) all joined forces last week to prepare a meal for 70 people.  But it wasn’t just any meal.  This one means more than most for this group.

James Beard was a cookbook author, teacher and mentor to countless American chefs.  
His old brown stone was transformed and memorialized and now serves as a restaurant where chefs are invited to cook. Profits from the dinners hosted at the house all go to fund the James Beard Foundation which gives scholarships to young cooking professionals.
“It’s very humbling to be given the opportunity to cook there. With the amount of names that have cooked in that kitchen to be able to cook there and walk in those footsteps is truly inspiring,” said Chef Scolaro.
“After leaving I felt inspired to continue to cook great food and work harder to do it,” he said.
cooking at beard house
Members of the group say getting the opportunity  to cook there validates Cleveland as a culinary player, and destination.  They worked to keep the menu as Ohio focused as possible. Everybody brought their own product, giving them a chance to highlight their favorite producers and ingredients.
“Honey rock melon was the first think that came to my mind.  The fruit is so good in taste, texture, and smell.  I remembered them from days at the Northern Ohio Food Terminal with my family.  I also wanted to showcase items that people are not familiar with in Ohio like, farm raised salmon.  Most people do not even know Ohio is producing some farm raised fish,” said Chef Kafcsak.
rock melon
Menu:
Hors d’Oeuvre
  • Cured Salmon with Honey Rock Melon, Feta Vinaigrette, and Crispy Salmon Skin
  • Frybread with Chicken Sausage, Pesto, Chiles, and Parmesan
  • Fried Ohio Pigs’ Tails with Sweet Corn Johnnycakes, Spicy Ohio Honey, Watermelon Rind Mostarda, and Micro-Radishes
  • Ohio Squash, Zucchini, Eggplant, and Heirloom Tomato Ratatouille with Pepper Jam Gelée and Rosemary–Thyme Tuile 

Dinner:

  • Ohio Artisanal Goat Cheese Study > Fried Goat Cheese; Orange–Goat Cheese Truffle; and Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Del Regno Ohio Honey, Garlic Scape Salsa Verde, and Accompaniments 
  • Cleveland Cabbage Roll with New Creation Farm Heritage Pork, Pork Liver, Beef Shoulder, Smoked Tomato Water, Basil, and Baby Heirloom Tomatoes 
  • Best of Cleveland Harvest Salad > Harris Road Farm Heirloom Tomato Tartare with Bacon, Salt-and-Vinegar Beluga Lentils, Roasted Ramp Aïoli, Spicy Carrot Oil, Red Ribbon Sorrel, and Pickled Cucamelon 
  • Pan-Seared Wild Scallops with Local Corn–Andouille Spoonbread, Stone Fruit–Green Chile Jam, and Local Zebra Tomato, Watercress, and Cucumber Summer Salata  
  • Braised Ohio Beef Short Rib with Sweetbread–Foie Gras Torchon, Crispy Potatoes, Dandelion Tabbouleh, and Ground Cherry Mostarda 
  • Cleveland Cornucopia > Corn Meringue with Sweet Pea Mousse, Pickled Cape Gooseberries, and Peach Pâté de Fruit
local corn sausage spoonbread

Local corn andouille spoonbread. Photo and Styling: Yewande Komolafe

The group had only great things to say about the company they kept, calories they consumed without thinking twice, relationships they built, and inspiration they got out of the experience.
“Some of the best meals I had in my life were on this trip. Not just because of the great restaurants and food they offered, but because of the company of us all. We would go to restaurants and literally order one of everything on the menu,” said Dinner in the Dark Founder, Brian Okin.
There were even a couple Dinner in the Dark regulars who traveled to NYC to support them and join in on their eating excursions. One person in particular has never missed a Dinner in the Dark since its inception 6 years ago.
“We passed the food around and ate off the same plates. It was if we were a tight European family having our regular dinner together. Some people didn’t know each other before the trip, some knew each other very well. There was no rush to eat and go, we went to the restaurant and we left when we were good and ready,” Okin said.
chefs in NYC
The chefs tell me many of their 70 diners at the Beard House say the meal exceeded their expectations.  The diners saw an Ohio themed menu and may have expected to be more rustic or down home, but what they ate was refined and elegant and representative of what Ohio and Cleveland have to offer.
“After leaving, I want to keep focusing on what I am doing and it added fuel to the fire of my drive to cook.  It was a great experience,” said Kafcsak.

The next Dinner in the Dark is September 12th and it’s already sold out.  And no doubt, this experience has helped with regional and national exposure….not to mention how it’s  cemented some life long friendship formed at dinner tables far from home.

Click here for Chef Karen Small’s recipe for the local corn andouille spoonbread she made for this dinner.

The photos in this post are courtesy the Facebook pages of the chefs involved in the Dinner in the Dark night at the James Beard House. 

 

pesto with shrimp on a plate

Working Mom Gourmet: Weeknight Dinner Solutions

Now that the school supplies are purchased and orientations under our belts, it’s time to settle into to this school year’s weekday routine. And for most people that means juggling carpools, sports practices and games, piano lessons and lots of homework. Oh yeah, you gotta squeeze in dinner somewhere too.

Resist the urge to hit the drive thru, order take out or give in to expensive pre-made or frozen dinners. We almost never do any of those things in my house and I am a pretty busy gal. My friends are convinced I’m a vampire because of all I manage to get accomplished.

A couple of followers have asked for my suggestions for easy weeknight meals with little prep or cook time.  Happy to share!

pesto.jpg

Presto, pesto!  Make a batch now, while the basil is abundant and fresh. Freeze it in ice cube trays or small containers for use when you need it.

Pasta is the obvious pairing with pesto. Choose a quick cooking pasta like angel hair to get dinner on the table faster.  Add the pesto to cooked pasta with olive oil, and toss, and you’re in business.

Grill some chicken ahead of time, or add in some quick cooking shrimp for a protein add-in for the pasta. For a creamy option, add a tablespoon or cream cheese or goat cheese to the pesto mixture. So delish!   If you’re over (or off) pasta, pesto is GREAT on zucchini noodles. Or you can also spread it or chicken, fish or shrimp too, for an herbaceous baked protein.

See below for my go-to basil pesto recipe (I use almonds instead of pine nuts because those are too expensive, plus I always have this super food around). I also like to mix it up and use walnuts for a variety, and I often make parsley, mint or cilantro pesto which is incredible on fish.

For a dinner that’s super kid friendly and fun for both them and adults, try my walking turkey Frito pie. (see previous post, A Portable Picnic, for this recipe)  You can always chop your veggies and cook the rice for build-your-own stir fry bowls the night before. 

Or mix up fresh pizza dough in the morning or the night before (so cheap to make and uses so few ingredients). The dough will be perfect by dinner time.  I use Leanne Brown’s recipe from her book, Good and Cheap.  Getting the kids involved in topping their own pizza always ensures they’re more likely to eat it!  It’s not rocket science, but it is science.  It’s proven!!  Crank up your oven to 500 and that ‘za will be ready in 10 minutes.

pizza

Cut down on cook time for family-friendly favorites like meatloaf, tuna noodle and broccoli, cheese and rice casseroles, pot pie or baked mac n cheese, by portioning them out into ramekins, or cupcake tins. Adults can control their portions better and cook time is cut in half! My kids always get a kick out of eating things “just their size” too.

For tonight’s dinner, I sneaked in some finely chopped zucchini and kale into mini meatloaves for a helping of greens that my children (and husband) won’t even know they are eating. Pillsbury has a really easy crescent roll mini pot pie recipe that I like, too.

Another favorite among my kids is carrot soup. It’s colorful, sweet and savory. Plus it keeps well so you can make all, or portions of it, ahead of time. I usually make it on the stove top with lots of fresh shaved ginger. But I had a bunch of HUGE carrots and some red/yellow peppers from the farmers market so I decided to roast them!  (recipe follows)

If you’re a fan of Mexican food, make baked taquitos.  I like to mix up shredded leftover chicken, cheese, rice and/or beans, and any veggies I have hanging around.  Put a spoonful of the mixture in a tortilla and roll them up tightly.  Place them in a baking pan seam side down and bake at 350 until they’re just barely browned. It’ll take no time at all!  You can dip them in salsa, guac or sour cream. Great way to use leftovers and not repeat taco night!

I always feel better when we have dinner together, especially one that I made myself.  And when it doesn’t take me all night, I’m happy.  We all know, when mama’s happy….

Roasted Carrot and Pepper Soup:

3 large carrots, peeled
1/4 of a red onion
1/2 a red or yellow pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled
3-4 sprigs of thyme
Olive oil
Salt/pepper
1 1/2 c. vegetable or chicken stock
Heavy cream or half and half (optional)

Cut the veggies into similar sized pieces, about one inch chunks so they will roar evenly.
Line a baking sheet with foil and preheat oven to 400*.
Drizzle veggies, and garlic in olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss to coat. Spread evenly on the baking sheet and roast for 30 min.

This can be done ahead of time. And if you double the portion, use the half roasted veggies for a side dish today, use the rest for soup tomorrow!

Place the roasted veggies in a blender with 1 1/2 c. broth (chicle or vegetable). Blend until smooth.

Put the soup in a sauce pot and cook a little longer to thicken. Add salt and pepper if needed. Add a tablespoon of heavy cream or half and half of you want a more creamy consistency.

Basil Pesto:

1/2 c. Pine nuts (pignoli) or almonds
2 c. Loosely packed fresh basil
1 Clove of garlic
1/3 c Parmesan cheese (or Romano)
Juice from half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste (careful with the salt as the cheese is salty already)
1/2 c. Of olive oil

Add the nuts to the food processor first. Blend until they are crumbs.
Add everything else but the oil. Turn on the processor and slowly pour in the olive oil. Taste and adjust (you add more of anything you like to find the perfect balance)