Cast Iron Cook Off


Cast iron is a wonderful composition for cookware because of its even heat distribution and ease of cleaning. It is, however, very heavy so has been superseded in most kitchens by materials that also distribute heat well but are easier to handle.  Use of cast iron in the United States tends to be found most often throughout rural areas and West Virginia is proud of belonging to that culinary club.

The Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia is an organization formed to help promote  the regional cuisine of Appalachia through marketing of gastronomic tourism.  It also encourages improving the distribution of local foods to local markets, enhancing the nutritional quality and economic vitality of the region. One of the Collaborative’s major fundraisers was held this past weekend: the 7th annual Cast Iron Cook-Off at the world class Greenbrier resort located in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia (more on the Greenbrier on another blog post soon).

I wrote a few weeks ago about participating in a practice session at the wonderful Cafe Cimino in Sutton. While making an effort to maintain some discretion, I tried to share some of the fun of being behind the scenes in what has become a popular Food Network tv event: the cooking competition. Now it is time to share more.

The purpose of the competition was to use classic West Virginia foods, items that have been easily found and enjoyed here in the Appalachian mountains for over 200 years, but to present them in new ways that reflect modern tastes and efforts for healthy cooking. The goal was to use as much local produce and protein products as possible, extending out to the entire Appalachian region as needed, and beyond only if necessary.

Chef Tim Urbanic’s competition menu reflected his ongoing effort to use regional foods in his inn’s kitchen. He and the other chefs had some difficulty which would have been eliminated had the competition taken place during the growing season.  In addition, some local providers who had indicated availability of an item were not able to meet his request and substitutions had to be obtained.However, the success of the competition was so huge that the announcements at the awards dinner Saturday night included statements such as “The dishes prepared for this competition have improved significantly beyond prior years, ” and specifically for the Throwdown Competition between three past Grand Winners, the judges announced that they had enjoyed “ten of the best bites of dishes that they had every tasted in their lives.”  It will be a high bar to exceed next year!Team Cimino’s menu was The appetizer: Chef Tim and his son Chef Eli have been making polenta forever; it is part of Tim’s Italian heritage.  But all did not go as planned….the burner provided by the Collaborative did not heat well and it took forever for the water to boil and the polenta to cook.  With ten minutes left before all cooking must end and plating start, Chef Tim took over stirring the pot and the mixture complied with his touch. Served with a sunny-side quail’s egg (Hillary learned in the practice session how tough the inner membrane is and brought an exacto knife to help slit it) and rosemary-smoked grapes (the aroma wafting through the huge  competition hall turned a lot a heads) brought an overheard comment of “an interesting presentation” from the judges.  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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The salad: Fresh local greens are becoming available in the winter as innovative farmers are starting to use a low-to-the-ground plastic roofed “winter tunnel” aka  greenhouse that permits fresh salad greens.   Tossed with toasted local hickory nuts, and embellished with apple slices,  the salad was then enhanced with a wonderful goat cheese dressing. (I am so happy to have the recipe now!)

The Entree: Pork has been a relatively easy animal for farmers to raise in West Virginia’s hilly terrain so Chef Tim focused on using a tenderloin as well as locally prepared chorizo sausage. One side dish was a special coup as it is relatively impossible to obtain this time of year. Ramps grow throughout the  Appalachian Mountain range and are a wild member of the onion family with a flavor of garlic. (Ramp festivals are held in several places throughout the mountain range and care is taken not to over-harvest a crop in order to permit regeneration for following years.)  Chef Tim was able to procur some ramps that had been frozen when freshly picked and after cooking and snipping, they were mixed with freshly made spaetzle, another European influence in the region.  The second side dish was simply prepared with carrots, typical orange as well as white and purple, gently simmered and then honey glazed.

Finally, the dessert: Using local butternuts (a type of white walnut) we made a delicious  zabaglione base with brown sugar, eggs and cream for an amazing ice cream topped off with whipped cream. So, now that you might feel a bit peckish I’ll try to distract you with how the teamwork progressed.

Team Cimino had the advantage of meeting prior to the competition. Only a few other teams worked together before. The competition’s grand winners, the local Mountwest culinary school here in Huntington, actually practiced their dishes for 10 days. We only met the one time but it worked very well. Some teams did not meet until the Friday evening ceremony when we received our chef coats.

Over several glasses of wine, cheese and antipasto, Chef Tim had introduced the concepts of the competition and then the menu. We adjourned to the inn’s kitchen where he asked us what we wanted to do. And that is where the magic happened with our team.

It seems that each person gravitated to assignments of comfort. Graham’s knife skills are competent; therefore he ended up preparing vegetables.

I like to prepare desserts so I worked with Brenda and Chef Eli making the ice cream as well as the salad dressing. Then I started shooting photos and the rest of the team labored on.

Big Tim and Brent took responsibility for the meat preparation as well as cooking the ramps. Brent snipped them to size.

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Mary set up the People’s Choice display and also toasted the nuts for the salad.


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Hillary was the quail egg expert and Jerry was the spaetzel expert.

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Everyone worked steadily permitting Chef Tim to step in only when needed and just basically supervising.

This permitted him time to be interviewed by one of the people providing commentary throughout the hour we were cooking.

We all deferred to Chef Tim and Chef Eli for the plating and they were the ones to make the presentation to the judges. 

It was a lot of fun. The wonderful part was we won a prize, but I need to interject here that every team actually won recognition in some aspect of the judging. We each received a medal, a small cast iron skillet, about 4 inches in diameter. We won for Best Representation of Applachian Cuisine which Chef Tim proudly assured us was the goal of the competition.

We were cheered on by spectators, so if you like to cook, try to join a local cooking competition. If you like to eat, go watch in person!!  The aromas will enhance your appetite!

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10 Responses to Cast Iron Cook Off

  1. Pierotucci says:

    Ramps, very interesting never heard of them before. I love the idea of regional cooking and the next time I do some travelling the States I will have to look into some of these food festivals.

  2. Graham says:

    I have seen ramps in June in a farmers market in Ottawa, ON, Canada but as far as I know, are not cultivated anywhere and usually have restricted limits so to prevent overharvesting.

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  4. boukewines says:

    I enjoyed reading this and seeing where the food was sourced. Looks like a lot of fun!

  5. It was a blast. If you read back in the blog a couple of week you can see we got together to practice. I started to divulge the menu at that time but the ramps in particular were going to be an unusual ingredient this time of year so I needed to revise. I’d love to do it again.

  6. paulrwaibel says:

    I lived in WV from 1972 until 1977. It is a unique place. Jackie Kennedy said that she never met a West Virginian that she did not like. I wish I could try that butternut brown sugar ice cream. That really looks good.

  7. The ice cream was one of the things I helped prepare. Email me at customtripplanning@gmail.com and I will send you the recipe!

  8. As Liz Lemon likes to say, I want to go to there! Looks wonderful. Are you also in West Virginia? We got to enjoy the Irish pub in Lewisburg WV recently and just had the best time!! jrg

  9. Yes, I’m in Huntington. I will begin to travel the state visiting farms and markets and restaurants that use lcoal foods to post blogs on the Farm2u.com website as soon as the growing season starts….another month or so!!! Can’t wait. I will check out that pub!

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