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 It is, however, very heavy so has been superseded in most kitchens by materials that also distribute heat well but are easier to handle.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.
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.
Mary set up the People’s Choice display and also toasted the nuts for the salad.
Hillary was the quail egg expert and Jerry was the spaetzel expert.
This permitted him time to be interviewed by one of the people providing commentary throughout the hour we were cooking.
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!