Why blog when someone will do it for you?

3 04 2013

Hey there!  Long time no post.  Again.  It’s getting to be a pattern with me, yes?

Ah, well, why stress?  As it turns out, someone else blogged for me today, so no need to blather on here.  Go visit the Port City Foodies blog and read about my opinion.  I mean really, does anyone care what I think?  Don’t answer that.

I will be at the finale of Fire on the Dock tonight as a so-called “pro” judge.  That just means my vote counts for slightly more than the average diner, but not enough to tip the win or loss one direction or another.  So I am just one of 120 voters tonight, and I am looking forward to the tasty creations of the last two competitors standing in this regional battle, Gerry Fong and Clarke Merrell.  Their long day began about 3 hours ago; I wish them both the best!

I did such a good job of maintaining this blog (NOT) that my boss gave me another one to maintain (uh oh).  You can check it out over here where there actually is a recipe that I posted today.  One way or another I will get around to all of this…I swear.

JoshPettySeaBassCroquetteParting Shot, prepared by Chef Josh Petty of Sweet ‘n Savory from Battle Striped Bass at Competition Dining’s Fire on the Dock:

Striped Bass & Pancetta Croquet with Fennel Salad, Oyster Mushrooms, Chiffonade Collard Greens, Tricolor Pepper Sofrito & Lobster Dill Cream

My Opinion:  Creative and well-executed!

Be a “Docker” – The Fire is Lit!

11 02 2013

I love my job.  I didn’t always, but circumstances have led me full circle back to the place I once left because I was very unhappy – and it is completely different than it used to be.  I consider myself very lucky to be able to do something to pay my bills that also brings me fulfillment on a more personal level.  I am all too aware that not everyone has the opportunity to do what they love for a living; I feel blessed.  Other people seem to notice, too, as they comment about how both I and my place of employment seem to be thriving.  It’s a good fit.

I have been privileged to witness another good fit in the person of Jimmy Crippens and the cooking phenomenon that is Competition Dining NC.  Knowing well that it takes a team of people to make a success of any venture, I am sure that Jimmy jimmycrippenswould be quick to tell me that he is far from a one man show; it takes a small army of people to make this fantastic program work.  Yet, when I think about this competition and the dining events thereof that I have enjoyed, I think first of Jimmy.  He is the face of these competitions, the Master of Ceremonies, the champion of the cause who spearheaded the move to make it what it is today; he is the one visible constant over the years of building a local cooking competition into a statewide program.  He seems the perfect person to be the face and voice of this movement; it’s a good fit.  I have to assume he loves his job, too, because this stuff is hard work that invades your consciousness nearly 24 hours a day; he has to be passionate about it or he could not muster the stamina that it requires to make it a success.  By the way, Jimmy has had another job – another life entirely – that he has now decided to put in the rear view mirror to permit him to embrace this program full time.

The competition that Jimmy and countless others have no doubt made sacrifices to usher into its current state is officially known as the “Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series.”  It’s mission is to raise awareness regarding the origin of the food that we consume; to support local and regional growers, manufacturers, and artisans who create our food here in North Carolina; and to showcase the talents of the chefs and restaurateurs who use these products to create the tasty dishes we consume when we dine out.  Along the way, it has also grown to incorporate other matters of interest like kitchen fire safety and small production, affordable wines that pair well with fine foods.   For me, it has been a lesson in the seemingly endless array of fabulous products that are grown or created in North Carolina.  I had no idea we made so much stuff right here in our state!

Last year, I wrote about how the events work from a diner’s perspective.  What I have been thinking about lately is what it is like from the competing chef’s perspective.  While I have not been in the kitchens of this competition, I am acquainted with some who have.  The feedback that I have received makes it clear that this competition is about so much more than just cooking; it is a long, hot, grueling day in the kitchen that starts with the announcement of a secret ingredient mere hours before dinner service.  For a competing chef and her team, it is every bit as much about creativity, leadership, teamwork, comraderie, humility, focus, and determination as it is about cooking.  If anyone thinks that being a good cook alone makes you a shoe-in to win this competition, I can point you to a lot of chefs who will tell you otherwise.  It’s a competition of character and stamina as well as cooking; taking yourself too seriously will not lead to success.

Last year, the kitchens used for the local edition of this program that we know as “Fire on the Dock” were small; the competitors had no choice but to work with and around each other to get their food to the dining tables.  From what I am told, the competitors who worked well together communicated their needs for space and time to each other, budgeted time with certain equipment so that everyone could get their work accomplished, and even helped each other with plating.  The ones that did not play well together did not fare well and, more importantly, didn’t enjoy the experience.

There will be a winner and a loser from each battle – that is a fact.  Some of the margins of loss are by mere single-digit point CompDiningNC2013spreads.  The losers, it could be said, are not really losers; they just weren’t the statistical winners.  It is a very subjective voting process and 70% of the votes are made by “average Joes,” as Jimmy refers to them.  It is important for the chefs to remember the basics when devising their menus: We eat with our eyes first, so plating is important; but the taste and texture are ultimately the deciding factors for 70% of the dining room.  I think most of us understand that pretty plates with several components are more difficult to create.  But only the pro judges – 30% of the vote – are likely to know the skill involved in creating a particular dish.  The chefs are well advised to play to the masses and just not worry about the pro judges like me.

Yes, that’s right.  These kind folks have asked me to serve as a “Pro” judge at the final three events of Fire on the Dock this year.  Clearly, they are using the term “Pro” very loosely.  Yes, I know a good bit about food and cooking, and I teach cooking classes and manage a kitchen store.  But many of these competitors have extensive culinary education and experience that, by comparison, put me firmly into the “amateur” column.  Really, who am I to judge?  Maybe they just love me for my blog.  Well, no matter, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in these great events that celebrate all things food in North Carolina.  I hope the competitors remember to have some fun while they are cooking their hearts out for my dining pleasure.  Make some memories, chefs!

If you happen to be within a reasonable commute of the Wilmington area, I hope you will join us for one of these delicious home-grown dining events and be happily labeled a “Docker” by Jimmy, like me.  I promise good food, great entertainment, and perhaps some Bluewaternew friends while you enjoy the fantastic views of the intracoastal waterway from the top floor of Bluewater.  Make a mini vacation out of it while you are at it; the rooms rates are very reasonable this time of year and a walk on Wrightsville Beach in the relative peace of February or March is priceless.  Maybe you can even have dinner at one of the competitor’s restaurants during your stay.

The brackets have been announced and the cooking starts next week on February 18th; events are filling up fast, so visit the website to make your reservations today before it’s too late!

If you can’t make it to Fire on the Dock, be sure to attend one of the events when this delicious road show comes to your corner of North Carolina.  Find the full schedule at http://www.competitiondining.com; follow them on twitter at @compdiningnc and like them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/CompetitionDining

Fire it up, Wilmington!  See you at “the Dock!”

Battle Pork Shoulder: Swine Not Dessert?

21 04 2012

If you have been following along, you know about the Competition Dining program that is taking place here in our great state of North Carolina.  If you haven’t, then you can read my introduction here.  I attended yet another round of the competition this past week, and I was honored to judge some super tasty eats in Battle Pork Shoulder.  I haven’t attended all of Fire on the Dock events, so I am sure there were many other really fab dishes produced.  But this – this took the cake.

The Pine Valley Market Original

Pork-fat infused sweet potato corn cake with heavenly goat cheese whipped cream, cinnamon sugared pork cracklins, blackberry coulis, and chocolate-dipped cinnamon fat back to be specific.  Oh. My. Gravy.  I thought I had died and gone to dessert heaven.  Really.  It was so damn good, it kicked my beloved buttercream frosted chocolate cake’s ass (heretofore my favorite dessert ever and always).  So I hunted down the makers thereof with the help of the event host – he told the ENTIRE BANQUET ROOM that I wanted that recipe – and I have it.  Thanks for that, Jimmy.

Now the story behind it is still a bit vague – I will be meeting up with the Pine Valley Market folks in a few days to get the whole skinny on it as well as visit their new restaurant, Café Johnnie’s, at the Cameron Art Museum.  But let’s just say it was the happy result of a dicey plan.  All I know right now is that the folks from PVM struggled with what to present as their third dish in the competition and this wasn’t the only dessert they considered – it kind of just happened.  I will get back to you with the details.

When hearing the voting results and learning that this dessert scored highest of all six dishes that evening, I heard one of the PVM team members say something like, “Oh my God – we couldn’t make that thing again if we tried!”  As far as I know they haven’t tried.  But they did give me an approximation of the ingredients so that I could try, and try I have.  I think I’ve got it and I’m calling it “Swine Not? Sweet Potato Corn Cake.”  It’s pretty darn good, so give it a try.  We love our pork here in NC, so pork-infused cake could be the quintessential signature NC dish.

Sadly, this rockin’ fabulous dessert was not enough to garner them the win for the night.  Gerry Fong and his team from Persimmons in New Bern, NC took the round and will compete again on May 2nd against the team from Yo Sake.  My favorite dish from Team Persimmons was Course 4:  Slow Cooked Pork Shoulder “Loin” with mung bean noodles, glazed radish and aged balsamic mission fig coulis.  The pork was cooked to perfection and the fig coulis was the perfect accompaniment.  Plus I’m a sucker for cooked radishes.

This recipe is not quick – there are a lot of parts to it – but each part is easy to make.  It is totally a work of art that must be appreciated by others – so have a dinner party.  Or just invite some folks over for dessert.  The good news is that you can make the bacon, coulis, cake and cracklins a day ahead, cutting the cake and whipping the cream shortly before your guests arrive.

Without further ado, here is that heavenly dessert recipe, ever-so-subtly adapted for the home cook since you don’t have a hog lying around in your kitchen.

The Replicated Cake

Swine Not? Sweet Potato Corn Cake:

3 cups Roasted Sweet Potatoes, about 3 potatoes

3 cups Yellow Corn Meal

1 tablespoon Baking Powder

¼ teaspoon Baking Soda

1 teaspoon ground Cinnamon

2/3 cup Granulated Sugar

½ cup Brown Sugar

½ cup melted Bacon Fat (or salted butter)

1 cup Whole Milk, at room temperature

½ cup Heavy Cream

4 Eggs, at room temperature

Peel and cube the sweet potatoes, then oven-roast at 375oF for 20-25 minutes or until fork tender.  Place in a bowl and lightly whip with a hand mixer or food processor, some lumps remaining.

Mix the corn meal, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon together in a bowl.  In another bowl, combine the sugars and melted bacon fat.  Add the eggs to the sugar mixture and blend with an electric hand mixer, then add the milk and blend for 2 minutes to thoroughly combine.  Fold in the sweet potatoes.  Add the corn meal mixture to the wet mixture a little at a time, beating well to combine.

Generously grease (use bacon fat or butter) a 13” x 9” baking pan.  Pour in the cake batter and smooth the top with a spatula.  Bake at 350oF for about 40 minutes until a tooth pick comes out of the center clean. Cool thoroughly in the pan on a rack.

Cook’s note:  Being paranoid about not getting the cake out of the pan intact, I also lined the pan with a piece of parchment that overhung the pan after greasing, then I greased the parchment as well.  There is no way the cake will stick with these precautions and the parchment “handles” allowed me to lift it right out of the pan.  This technique I owe to Thomas Keller – thank you, kind sir, for the education.









For the Cinnamon Chocolate Bacon & ‘Cracklins’:

12 ounces Thick-Cut Bacon

1/3 cup Granulated Sugar

1 ½ tablespoons ground Cinnamon

4 ounces Bittersweet Chocolate Chips, or coarsely chopped bar chocolate

Chopped Pistachios or other nuts, optional

Preheat the oven to 300oF.  Cut six slices of bacon in half and arrange in a single layer on a lined baking sheet (you can use a Silpat, parchment paper, or foil to line the pan).  Chop the remaining bacon into small pieces and spread them out on a separate baking pan. Mix the sugar and cinnamon together in a small bowl.  When the bacon strips look about half-cooked (15-18 minutes), sprinkle it with 2/3 of the cinnamon sugar and return to the oven.  Bake the bacon strips to crisp; remove the chopped bacon from the oven when it is beginning to crisp and toss with the remaining cinnamon sugar then set aside.  The chopped bacon will stand in for the cracklins.

Drain and cool the bacon strips on paper towels.  Heat the chocolate in a double boiler over medium-low heat, dipping the bacon strips into the melted chocolate.  Place the dipped bacon strips on parchment paper to cool and set up.  If using nuts, sprinkle them onto the chocolate immediately after dipping.  This can be wrapped and refrigerated overnight, but set it out on the counter to come to room temperature before serving.

If you don’t know, cracklins are pork skin that has had the fat mostly rendered from it.  Unless you are having a pig pickin’ you probably don’t have any on hand.  So using the softer bacon is an acceptable substitute.









For the Goat Cheese Whipped Cream:

8 ounces soft Goat Cheese (Chevre), at room temperature

16 ounces cold Heavy Whipping Cream

½ cup Granulated Sugar

Whip the goat cheese and sugar together in a bowl.  Add the whipping cream and beat until very smooth and stiff peaks form.  Transfer to a piping bag if you are laying this on fancy.  Otherwise you can scoop it with a cookie scoop or spoon.  This will keep in the fridge, covered, for several hours.

For the Blackberry Coulis:

6 ounces Blackberries

1 sprig fresh Mint

½ cup Granulated Sugar

¼ cup Water

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer.  When the berries are macerated and the syrup clings to the back of a spoon it is done, about 20 minutes.  Remove the mint sprig.

Now you have two options with the blackberry sauce:  1) Strain the sauce to remove the fruit chunks for a smooth sauce, reserving the fruit for your breakfast toast; or 2) Transfer the sauce to a food processor or blender and pulse for a chunky sauce.  I strained mine, hence the brighter color than the original.  Whichever option you choose, transfer the finished sauce to a bowl or squirt bottle and cool.

Cook’s Note:  You can also substitute blackberry preserves for the coulis; heat the preserves in the microwave for a few seconds to thin it out then garnish the plates accordingly.





To assemble:  Transfer the cake to a cutting board.  Use a biscuit cutter to cutout rounds of cake, or slice the cake into 12 squares, trimming off the outer edges.  Place a piece of cake on each plate.  Top with whipped cream, sprinkle cream with cracklins, garnish plate with coulis, and lean a piece of that chocolate bacon on each piece of cake.

Take a picture and serve!

Serves 12.


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