Catch of the fest

Joann Donangleo from Salinas won first place at the Great Garlic

– What started as a creative way to prepare an abundance of
salmon and halibut from a trip to Alaska turned into a Garlic
Festival Cook-off victory.
GILROY – What started as a creative way to prepare an abundance of salmon and halibut from a trip to Alaska turned into a Garlic Festival Cook-off victory.

Joann Donangleo of Salinas received her cook-off crown, a wreath of garlic, while her husband and two sons beamed up at her from the front-row bleachers.

“It’s great she won something that she loves to do,” said her son Mark, 13.

Her dish, grilled candied-garlic salmon on crispy rice noodles and baby Asian greens, wowed judge and Stinking Rose Restaurant chef Andrea Froncillo, who is usually not a fan of salmon.

“She made me eat something I usually don’t,” said Froncillo, who joked that he took one bite out of politeness and then couldn’t put his fork down. “She deserves to win.”

Donangleo beat out seven other finalists Saturday to claim the $1,000 first prize.

“I watched the Food Network and told my husband one day ‘I could do that,’ ” a surprised Donangleo said.

Fellow Northern Californian Ana Gachero, of Oakland, finished second with her grilled garlic shrimp over coconut rice with mango cucumber salad and guava dressing recipe. She won $750 and a rousing round of applause for her colorful dish.

While neither woman had ever entered a cooking competition, third-place winner Rosemary Johnson of Irondale, Ala., enters as many cooking contests as she can. She’ll take home $500 and fond memories of the Garlic Festival.

“I am just thrilled to be here,” Johnson said as she prepared her summer garden pie with chipotle cream.

Wearing a train engineer’s cap to show her hometown pride, she compared Irondale’s Whistle Stop Festival to the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

“We’re known as the railroad capital,” she said. “Our folks would never attempt this.”

Only 10,000 people attend the Irondale fest, she said, whereas, about 125,000 visit Gilroy’s garlic party each year.

Competition was stiff for the Great Garlic Cook-off, one of the nation’s premier cooking contests. More than 200 recipes were submitted.

The criteria for the contest were simple: at least six cloves of garlic and a recipe that serves six. A committee narrowed the selection to more than a dozen recipes that met the qualifications. Dee Carroll, nutritionist and cookbook author, prepared each dish in her kitchen. From there, Carroll chose the eight finalists and two alternates.

Carroll looked for dishes with creativity and variety that people could easily prepare in their own homes.

At the final contest, there were six celebrity judges – Carroll; Froncillo; Robert Mancuso, executive chef for the Sardine Factory Restaurant in Monterey; Evelyn Miliate, head chef of the Bel Air market in Gold River; Sara Schneider, senior food editor for Sunset Magazine; and Jay Minzer, chef at Abigael’s on Broadway in New York City.

The judges also looked at food presentation. Froncillo said the Food Network’s presence at the festival may have influenced the contestants’ increasingly detailed presentations of their dishes.

“We’re trying to be clever here,” said Leona Pearce, of Carmichael, as she dotted the tray where she would place her garlic good crab cakes with seashells purchased at the dollar store.

Pearce’s creativity didn’t stop there. She had to borrow a knife from the hotel and a can opener at the cook-off, as well as measure some ingredients by hand because she forgot her measuring tools.

“I’m putting in one cup of bread crumbs,” she said laughing to the TV cameras. “I hope I’m putting in one cup of bread crumbs.”

Pearce competed in the cook-off 16 years ago when it was still held in the Gilroy High School kitchen. Then, there were no cameras, she said.

“This is big time.”

Unlike Pearce, Elaine Sweet, of Dallas, Texas, came organized.

“I got everything laid out last weekend,” said the cook-off veteran, who competed last year when Beth Royals of Richmond, Va., won. “If you’re not very well organized, you can get frazzled.”

She hoped her finnochio tuna with crispy vegetables and Gilroy garlic vinaigrette would be a winner this time around, especially with such a fancy name.

“Finnochio is the Italian word for fennel,” she said. “I thought that sounded better than fennel.”

Overall, judges remarked on how calm the contestants appeared as they prepared their dishes within the two-hour time limit.

“It seems pretty homey,” Froncillo said. “The way they’re doing it. They look pretty calm and relaxed.”

Donangleo said she was much more relaxed on the cook-off stage than when she was being interviewed on television the previous day. She was relieved to be cooking, but at the very end, she feared she had botched her recipe.

“I’d thought I’d over dressed the salad,” she said. “I’m not a big dressing fan.”

Schneider said Donangleo’s dish stood out to the judges, and the decision wasn’t too difficult.

“Just by reading the descriptions, I knew it was going to be very, very tough,” Schneider said. “The difference came in the execution of them.”

Ginger Mareno, of Rancho Palos Verdes, entered her stuffed garlic shrimp with garlic cream sauce, and Karen Nicholes McVarish, of Davis, prepared her garlic chicken and fruit ragout.

“(There’s) a serious amount of garlic,” Nicholes McVarish said of her recipe which used one-fourth cup garlic. “The challenge is to use that much and make it special.”

The only male competitor, George Medina, of Huntington Beach, prepared his chicken florentine risotto with garlic parmesan cream with Christopher Ranch minced garlic.

Judges urged the other competitors to try again next year.

But, when asked if she would enter another cooking contest, Donangleo said with a chuckle, “I don’t know, my stomach. I don’t know if I could handle this.”