When you’ve been judging garlic-inspired creations for as long as judges Jay Minzer and Evelyn Miliate – who tasted their 100th dish during the Great Garlic Cook-off Saturday – they know the contest sees its years of “lows” and “peaks.”
This year was definitely a peak.
“I really struggled between my No. 1 and No. 2 choices,” said Minzer, highlighting the neck-and-neck call between a pork dish and lasagna dish.
In the end, the entrée starring pork belly – a trendy protein Bon Appétit magazine calls “the meat of the moment” – left a winning aftertaste.
“Once they start eating, they’re not gonna be able to stop,” champion-to-be Laureen Pittman of Riverside, told the audience as judges dove fork-first into her “bacon on steroids.”
Following five previous attempts to land inside the Cook-off’s coveted top eight slots, the first-time finalist and winner of a $1,000 cash prize is savoring the payoff that comes with persistence: Her Crispy Pork Belly with Caramelized Onion, Fig Agrodolce and Creamy Polenta proved to be a plate of porcine nirvana that lived up to the hype.
With its syrupy fig reduction and fluffy polenta so soft it makes you want to stick your hands in it, judge Majid Bahriny showered praises on the “very balanced dish that looks simple, but is very difficult to get together in a short amount of time.”
In the hubbub of the aftermath, New York’s Minzer who is a personal chef to the stars, said Pittman “really deserved to win. She nailed it.”
“Her name’s not Laureen anymore,” Minzer told the audience. “It’s ‘pork belly girl’ now. (Pittman) did a great job.”
Minzer described the No. 1 dish as a “fresh, pork roast version of pulled pork with crispy skin.”
Drool over that.
Apropos for what Pittman called “the year of comfort food,” the 2012 Garlic Festival’s Cook-off stage was permeated Saturday with appetite-teasing aromas. Contestants whipped up intriguing components that included garlic pistachio baklava, bacon garlic jam, jalapeno Alfredo sauce and creamy bacon mushrooms.
“Wendy, it looks like you have several comfort food-type recipes that made it into the finals this year,” mused Master of Ceremonies Dan Green, directing his observation to judge Wendy Brodie. “Were you feeling particularly needy?”
In the background on stage right, first-time competitor Janice Benthin from Montreal, Quebec was quietly and calmly focusing on her survival strategy.
“My brother told me not to set fire to myself, and not to pass out,” said Benthin. “After that, it’s a piece of cake.”
A piece of cheesecake, that is.
The first-time Cook-off participant and Canadian finalist said the outcome was “wretched” when she tried to bake a normal-sized cheesecake. So she shrunk the playing field and entered her Triple Garlic Mini Cheesecakes in the contest.
“They’re so small, all the tricky usual cheesecake things don’t happen to you,” said Benthin, who playfully referred to her cute desserts as “my babies.”
For the most part, the morning sailed by without any technical glitches – save for the little snafu that happened inside contestant Veronica Callaghan’s hotel room at Forrest Park Inn on Leavesley Road.
“It was slowly turning black as it thawed,” recalled Callaghan, on the unnerving realization that her too-cold mini fridge transformed one of her crucial cooking components – broccoli rabe – into an ingredient icicle. “I had to run to Safeway at 7:15 this morning, but there was a Starbucks there, so it’s all good.”
An ornery mini-fridge wouldn’t be Callaghan’s first surprise of the day.
The second-time competitor from Glastonbury, Conn., was “thrilled” to find out her Golden Garlic Chicken-Broccoli Rabe Lasagna Cups, which came drizzled in Fiery Roasted Jalapeno Alfredo Sauce and Red Chili Oil, nabbed the second place cash prize of $750.
Raking in accolades for what judge Wendy Brodie called “eye appeal,” the morsels are something of a miniature pot pie/quiche hybrid.
“Sometimes you get sick of the regular Italian version, so you gotta mix it up a little,” said Callaghan.
Her strategy of packing all the deliciousness of lasagna into a palm-sized, pastry-like edible shell proved appealing beyond presentation. Most judges cleaned the delectable novelty from their plates; a testament to judge Minzer’s praises. The lasagna had “flavors that really popped,” he noted.
After giving Pittman a tight run for her money, Callaghan said she plans on entering three years down the road when she’s eligible to compete again.
“I’m very excited,” she said, beaming from beneath a crown of garlic and dried flowers. “I can’t complain.”
Her second place victory came after an announcement error made by Master of Ceremonies Dan Green, who accidentally announced Castle Rock, Colo., competitor Karen Harris as the second-place winner. The error was realized and corrected immediately by Green, who apologized with profuse sincerity after mixing up the names.
“I thought he was kidding at first,” chuckled Harris, a second-time finalist who dreamed up a Creamy Bacon Mushroom and Spinach Accordion Ravioli. “My heart goes out to him. It’s OK. People make mistakes.”
Harris, who clearly harbored no hard feelings about the announcement hiccup, thought her chances of winning were slim in light of mixed reviews from the panel of five judges.
“When he said ‘second place,’ I thought, ‘What the hell?’” she laughed.
While Harris won’t be going home with a crown and plaque, she said the comedic snafu of winning – but not really – is kind of a reward in itself.
“I’m a food blogger, so getting to tell this story is almost like a gift to me,” smiled Harris, who won “Committee’s Choice” when she competed in the 2009 Cook-off. “It’s a thrill to be here. I’ve already won a trip to one of my favorite places in the world.”
As for the other top competitor emerging in the cook-off, the force was with Renee Pokorny. Literally.
“They’re light saber earrings,” said the finalist from Ventura, CA turning her head to show off Star Wars-inspired jewelry.
The self-described “third place queen” defended her title for a third time, nabbing $500 for her Garlic Lamb Meatballs in Indian Spiced Sauce over Coconut Garlic Infused Rice. The veteran cook-off competitor was also a finalist in 2004 and 2008.
“I have a folder on my computer, and when I come across ideas, I just plunk things in there,” she said. “I’m just going to keep coming back until they stop inviting me.”
Pokorny was glowing in the aftermath of not just her victory, but Pittman’s as well. The two are good friends.
Winding down from the ensuing flurry of on-camera interviews and congratulatory hugs, Pittman put a hand on her chest and glanced around the stadium.
“I wish that he was around,” she said of her late father, a telephone pole lineman by trade and experimental chef by hobby, who instilled in his daughter a love of cooking. “I miss him very much.”
Pittman agreed her father would be very proud.
With the stress of the cook-off behind her, Pitman said she was looking forward to sipping a glass of wine and having a chance to peruse the festival without being confined to a wheelchair. Pittman underwent knee surgery last year.
“I’m amazed that I won,” she said. “I’m still stunned.”
“And our winner is….”
“Are you SURE?”
Master of Ceremonies Dan Green, being interrupted by a joking member of the audience before announcing the Cook-Off champion. Moments prior, Green had accidentally announced the wrong second place winner.
“I’m putting her in my suitcase. I’m digging having a sous-chef. It’s what I’m gonna ask for for Christmas.”
Finalist Tresa Hargrove, showing some love to her Cook-Off chaperone Del McGil.
“Can I get one that’s gluten free, please?”
Judge Jay Minzer, joking around with finalist Tresa Hargrove while trying her Chicken-Potato Hash on a Trio of Sauces.
“It’s like bacon on steroids.”
Cook-Off champion Laureen Pittman, describing her Crispy Pork Belly with Caramelized Onion.
“My brother told me not to set fire to myself, and not to pass out. After that, it’s a piece of cake.”
Finalist Janice Benthin, who set herself apart by submitting an unusual dessert: Triple Garlic Mini Cheesecakes.
“Wendy, it looks like you have several comfort food-type recipes that made it into the finals this year. Were you feeling particularly needy?”
Master of Ceremonies Dan Green, joking around with Cook-Off Judge Wendy Brodie.
“Fabulous and most appropriate.”
Cook-Off Judge Wendy Brodie, on finalist Jennifer Beckman’s decision to pair her Roasted Garlic Tamales and Bacon Garlic Jam with a glass of Shock Top beer, instead of wine.
“It’s just uncomfortable to talk about lard.”
Cook-Off finalist Jennifer Beckman, joking around about her secret ingredient for great tamales.
“You almost block them out. And then all of a sudden you realize there’s a camera in your face.”
Judge Jay Minzer, on having hundreds of people watch him as he eats onstage during the Great Garlic Cook-Off.
“Three for three with three…I’m destined.”
Finalist Renee Pokorny, on winning third place a total of three times: In 2004, 2008 and 2012.