Great Garlic Cook-off finalists revealed

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With past champions touting concoctions such as Stacked Steak Napoleon on Garlic Paper with Asparagus, Radicchio, Shiitakes and Stilton; Warm Weather Watermelon Crabmeat Kissed South Seas Soup; or Spicy Garlic Butter Cookies with Garlic Goat Cheese and Honey; the Great Garlic Festival Recipe Contest and Cook-Off is no stranger to edgy ingredient mash-ups.

Keeping in line with the recurring trend of conjuring eclectic dishes heralded by pizzazz-studded titles, the 2012 finalists do not disappoint.

“That’s probably the most fun part of it – seeing how creative and unique these people are with their food,” speculated Recipe Committee Chairwoman Deanna Franklin, who received around 200 submissions this year. “Things that you wouldn’t even think about putting together.”

After a weekend in Carmel spent whipping up approximately 25 selected recipes inside a commercial kitchen belonging to Wendy Brodie – festival judge of nine years and food consultant with Art of Food TV – a group of six Garlic Festival Association committee members minced things down to a pool of eight foodie finalists.

With three returning contestants throwing their spatulas in the ring, la crème de la crème of this year’s garlicky gauntlet is packed with girl power (no men made the final cut), plus the added intrigue of brand-new, first-time competitors – something Franklin notes “is really exciting.”

Finalist Laureen Pittman from Riverside, Calif., thinks so too. After attempting to make the cook-off’s top eight for the last five years, she’s living proof that the axiom, “try, try again” is a sound motto. 

“I have been trying to get into the festival for years,” said Pittman, who navigated the 2011 festival in a wheelchair after undergoing knee surgery. “I’m so excited.”

In addition to preparing and presenting their dishes to a panel of six judges in a two-hour time frame, criteria mandates original recipes must include a minimum of six cloves of fresh garlic or three teaspoons of chopped or minced garlic. The savory spectacle fires up Saturday, July 28 on the main stage inside the festival at Christmas Hill Park.

This year, the top cluster of culinary creations hail from all corners of the U.S. – from Crispy Pork Belly with Caramelized Onion, Fig Agrodolce and Creamy Polenta out of Riverside; to Triple Garlic Mini Cheesecakes from Montreal, Quebec. 

Triple Garlic Mini Cheesecakes?

Garlic ice cream better watch its back.

“I had this idea for this recipe of how to do a garlic dessert, and it turned out pretty good, and people liked it,” said Canadian finalist Janice Benthin. 

So she entered for the first time – and made the cut.

Benthin, who has lived in Canada all her life, is now taking her first ever trip to California to compete onstage in front of hundreds of people. Not a bad way to kick off your inaugural visit to the Golden State. 

“I was really surprised and deeply shocked… what a thrill,” said Benthin, who initially heard about the festival through the Food Network channel. 

Some of the finalist’s dishes draw inspiration from the mainstays of global ethnicities, including the “Greek Fisherman’s Dream” derived of Savory Garlic Pistachio Baklava with Balsamic Reduction and Sea Scallops; Roasted Garlic Tamales with Bacon Garlic Jam; or Garlic Lamb Meatballs in Indian Spiced Sauce over Coconut Garlic Infused Rice.

For Virginia finalist Jennifer Beckman (who created the tamale recipe), the Garlic Festival isn’t her first rodeo when it comes to cooking competitions. In 2011, the self described “food contest hobbyist” took first place in Sutter Home Winery’s Build a Better Burger Contest, held in Napa Valley. She also nabbed top honors last year during the National Cornbread Festival Cook-Off in Tennessee.  

“It’s pretty cool hobby, getting to travel and eat,” she mused. “Isn’t that what everyone wants to do?”

A couple entries channel the down-home deliciousness of class comfort food, like Creamy Bacon Mushroom and Spinach Accordion Ravioli; and “For The Love of Garlic” Chicken-Potato Hash on a Trio of Sauces. Others have names to rival the long-winded monikers sported by members of the British royal family, like the Golden Garlic Chicken Broccoli Rabe Lasagna Cups with Fiery Roasted Jalapeno Alfredo Sauce and Red Chili Oil.

After nine years spent stepping up to the delicious task of helping whittle down the finalists, Chef Wendy Brodie’s palate is acculturated to the trends, challenges and delights of judging what is undoubtedly America’s premiere garlic cooking competition.

She calls attention to the meticulous diligence of Garlic Festival Association committee members, who are charged with re-creating a couple recipes each during the finalist selection process in early June.

“The care and integrity that goes into the making of these recipes is so thoughtful,” she noted. “I’m just always impressed with that.”

While contestants are encouraged to limit their number of submissions to three at most, Brodie says there are always, without fail, a few people who send a handful. The most this year was seven recipes from one person.

Multiple entries per contestant thicken the plot for judges, Brodie explains. For obvious reasons, the same contestant can’t be running around on stage while attempting to fix more than one dish.

Other times, cook-off hopefuls will send in superb-sounding submissions, but with one obscure ingredient that is seemingly impossible to dig up.

To this, Brodie suggests that “if you can’t get it easily in California after visiting about 10 different stores, than maybe you need to reconsider the recipe,” she chuckled.

Brodie also notices how people also have a tendency to observe the winning touches of former cook-off champions – then base their gourmet formulas on “what has caught our attention the past couple of years,” she mused. “But that’s not forward thinking.”

As for popular recurring dishes in 2012, Brodie says sliders are a hot-ticket item. While some of those entries came very close to making the top tier of recipes this year, none of the sandwiches resembling mini Sloppy Joes slid into the final cut.

The most rewarding perk of sifting through original garlic recipes submitted from all over the country?

Since professional chefs, bakers and cooks often draw from similar fundamentals and basic training, Brodie relishes the magic of heirloom recipes that have a tendency to wander off-the-beaten-path.

“When you’re dealing with people that aren’t necessarily tied to industry training, you’ll get a lot of home versions,” she reflected. “Which is so special, because their way of making something is handed down from generation to generation, or it’s a combination of things from families from different backgrounds. So it’s very creative – and for those who are in the industry, we get a lot of great ideas from that.”

The Great Garlic Cook-Off amateur cooking competition will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 28 in the Festival’s expanded Cook-Off Theater in Christmas Hill Park. The 2012 Great Garlic Cook-Off Champion will receive $1,000 and a ceremonial crown of garlic. Second prize is $750 and third prize is $500. The entire festival runs from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 27, 28 and 29. Admission is $17 for adults, $8 for seniors ages 60 and older and $8 for children ages 6-12. Discounts are available when tickets are purchased ahead of time online. Children younger than 6 will be admitted free. Parking is also free. For more information, visit gilroygarlicfestival.com or call 842-1625.

Susan Mason (Milton, WA): “Greek Fisherman’s Dream,” Savory Garlic Pistachio Baklava with Balsamic Reduction and Sea Scallops. 
Karen Harris (Castle Rock, CO): Creamy Bacon Mushroom and Spinach Accordion Ravioli 
Tresa Hargrove (Lawton, OK): “For The Love of Garlic” Chicken-Potato Hash on a Trio of Sauces 
Veronica Callaghan (Glastonbury, CT): Golden Garlic Chicken-Broccoli Rabe Lasagna Cups with Fiery Roasted Jalapeno Alfredo Sauce and Red Chili Oil
Jennifer Beckman (Falls Church, VA) Roasted Garlic Tamales with Bacon Garlic Jam
Renee Pokorny (Ventura, CA) Garlic Lamb Meatballs in Indian Spiced Sauce over Coconut Garlic Infused Rice
Laureen Pittman (Riverside, CA): Crispy Pork Belly with Caramelized Onion and Fig Agrodolce and Creamy Polenta
Janice Benthin (Montreal, QC, Canada): Triple Garlic Mini Cheesecakes
– Majid Bahriny, owns four Mama Mia’s Restaurants
– Jay Minzer, personal chef to the stars
– Evelyn Miliate, executive chef for Raleys Bel Air Nob Hill Foods
– Luca Rutigliano, head chef for CordeValle Resort
– Wendy Brodie, food consultant with Art of Food TV

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