6 Secrets to Win Cooking Competitions

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Short of “Free puppies,” few things guarantee that I’ll open an email faster than the promise of tacos. The email was an invite to bring my best to a competition in April. My relationship with cooking competitions is strained. I love the opportunity to win gadgetry and appliances that I have flagged on my TBD wedding registry, but I hate losing.

My first foray into the world of competitive cooking was a few years ago for a sausage battle royale. One of my best dishes at the time was arrabbiata sauce with hot Italian sausage. I made 3-4 batches of sauce, boiled 4 pounds of mezzi rigatoni, loaded up catering trays and headed to the city. I met some other bloggers/home cooks and presented my dish to three judges. They asked a few questions and shared that it was really good. “I have a shot!” I thought. Cooking for friends and family never gives you an objective perspective like a cooking competition. Unless your friends are in the business, they’ll likely tell you the food is good. Whether they go back for seconds is your best indicator of how good something truly is.

Emboldened by the positive remarks from the judges, I thought I had a chance to take home one of the many glamorous prizes. Names were called. Mine was not. Sullenly, I took the remaining sheet pan of good, but not good enough arrabbiata to my trunk.

I hung up my apron and swore off competitions.

A few years later, I received an email for a bacon takedown. They supplied the bacon. You did the rest. Again, the glamorous prizes were stacked high, taunting me. OK. I’ll do it. But just for fun. I opted for a new creation and made an elote-inspired dip/soup. Again, the people praised it. Many came back several times to get more. My former boss came with her husband, so I knew I should have two votes. Maybe. I promised myself I wouldn’t set any expectations to win. Getting the validation and trying something new were the motives, not winning.

Plus, free bacon is right up there with free puppies as an incentive.

All the competitors were called on stage for the dramatic award presentation. Winning names were announced.

And this time, my name was also not announced. BUT, I didn’t have any leftovers to pack up with my tears. Everything my girlfriend and I made was consumed, which made clean up incredibly easy.

And this time, my name was also not announced. BUT, I didn’t have any leftovers to pack up with my tears. Everything my girlfriend and I made was consumed, which made clean up incredibly easy.

I sulked all the way home.

Always a bridesmaid. Will my dream kitchen registry ever be fulfilled?!

With spring comes another opportunity to win (or cry in my car for 45 minutes). This time the competition is for tacos. I’ve strategized and come with a stellar taco. But will it be good enough? Is it different? Will the judges and people like it? Can it rival a traditional pork taco?

As part of my game plan, I’ve come up with 6 tips on:

How to Win a Cooking Competition

(from a guy who has never won)

  1. Mobilize your friends. Lots of these competitions are dependent on a crowd vote. If you get a bunch of your friends to attend, you boost you shot of winning.
  2. Stand out. What makes your dish any different from the others? At the sausage fest, people who made their own sausage were awarded ahead of people who made a dish with store-bought. Whatever the ingredient/theme is, how can you elevate it beyond the normal expectation?
  3. Differentiate your table. I’ve yet to do this and I have seen other competitors with matching outfits or a theme. It can be gimmicky and I hope good food trumps a theme. But there’s nothing to lose helping people distinguish you from the other entrants.
  4. Lower your expectations. These are meant to be fun. I tell myself this every time. Have some side goals like meeting the competitors or sponsors.
  5. Prepare a speech. You want to be prepared. Whether your speech is an acceptance speech worthy of the Oscars or just telling people who come to your table what you made, be ready to sell your creation. If possible, work in puppies or bacon.
  6. Raise the stakes. This will be my third attempt. I don’t want to be the Susan Lucci of cooking competitions. If I don’t win, I will forego eating tacos for an entire month. If you follow me on Instagram, you know how frequently I eat Mexican food.

If you’re in the Chicago area on April 19, come see if my tacos have what it takes to be the best. My stomach and pride depend on it.

Up your breakfast game | eggs and bacon

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It’s hard to beat the convenience of cereal in the morning, or for any meal. But what do you do when you’ve run out your beloved box ‘o carbs?

I usually make eggs. Quick. Quasi healthy and I usually have a few in the fridge.

It beats skipping breakfast or panic ordering at a donut shop.

Who ate two eggs and is ready for the weekend?

Homemade Pizza Recipe that Will Change Your Life

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Name one of your friends that doesn’t love pizza.

Exactly.

If there is pizza, it will be eaten. Full disclosure: years ago I was told I’m sensitive to lactose. Not full-on intolerant, but I should proceed with caution before taking down the entire cheese wheel. That hasn’t stopped me from ingesting the Italian precursor to tostadas.

There was a dearth of holiday plans for NYE this year. So, my girlfriend and I invited friends to her casa for some drinks and dinner before going out. Grappling over what to make to feed our friends, we landed on homemade pizzas since we thought it would be the easiest and least time consuming.

The below pizzas–I don’t like calling them pies–were made off the dough recipe in Bon Appetit’s October issue. Their homemade pizza recipe and sauce is also a winner with anchovies as the secret flavor punch.

Life-Changing Pizza Dough from Bon Appetit

  • 1 envelope active dry yeast (about 2¼ tsp.)
  • 2 tablespoons plus ½ cup olive oil, plus more for bowl
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for surface

I have long avoided making legit, homemade dough mostly because when I want pizza I can’t wait 4 hours or definitely not 24 hours for dough to rise. Having made this dough twice in the past 5 days, I can vouch that it is doable to make your own pizza and stop relying on delivery or a frozen pizza.

This dough does take a full day to develop its flavors, BUT it only takes about 15 minutes to make. The rest of the time it sits in the fridge. In that time, you could clear your freezer of frozen pizzas bought in moments of weakness. You can also make a double batch of dough and freeze one for a later date.

Tips

  • Use a Kitchen Aid if you have one. It makes this insanely easy.
  • Make a double batch.
  • Be sure to oil the bowl and coat the entire ball of dough before refrigeration (flip it over once the bottom is coated).
  • Get creative.
  • My pizzas only took about 15 minutes instead of the recommended 20-30. So, watch them closely.

Once the dough is done with its day spa in the cooler, you need to get it back to room temperature before trying to stretch it onto a pan. This took at least 30-45 minutes for my double batch of dough. From then on it’s up to you to twirl your mustache and top it with your favorite veggies and meats. I learned one thing when asking for input before topping: a lot of people hate mushrooms.

We made three homemade pizzas on NYE with variations on the below toppings:

  • Onions
  • Red bell pepper
  • Italian Sausage
  • Pepperoni
  • Hot Capicola
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Fresh basil

Endless possibilities await.

What are your favorite toppings?

Friendsgiving: There Will Be Rumple Minze

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Eating turkey gumbo is a life-changing experience.

Celebrating Thanksgiving with your closest, hungriest and most thirsty friends is almost as good as gumbo. Fresh off our successful dinner parties this summer, Leann and I invited our friends to share delicious food and cocktails on Friday.

I decided to make gumbo, one of my favorite dishes, and STUFFIN MUFFINS. Leann would fire up the oven to create some delicious sweets. The rest would sort itself out.

Contrary to the previous day’s timing issues, everything aligned for Friendsgiving and I didn’t forget a single thing at my house. Be warned, if you intend to make gumbo, it takes a solid 2 hours of constant stirring and attention. There are no shortcuts. It takes time, but is immensely worth it. Follow the recipe above the next time you’re wondering how to re-purpose all those leftovers.

Chorizo and Poblano Stuffin Muffins

Continue reading Friendsgiving: There Will Be Rumple Minze

Thanksgiving Feast and Pie Essentials

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Timing is key for Thanksgiving. Alas, my internal ticker was woefully wrong this year. I brined the bird over night and used Alton Brown’s method of roasting: 500 degrees for the first 30 minutes, then 350 for another 90-120 minutes. The bird went into the dry sauna at 11AM and was done at 1PM.

Know what wasn’t done? Everything else.

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I had just begun peeling and chopping potatoes. The broccoli casserole was prepped and ready to go into the oven. That left the Stuffin Muffins and gravy.

Tenting foil over the bird, I started darting around the kitchen, chopping veggies, heating up skillets, making a roux, warming milk and butter, sweating more than the turkey.

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I don’t often plan when in the kitchen, believing that I can figure it out as I go. Thanksgiving isn’t one of those meals you can wing. In the end everything was executed well, if not in a precise finishing order. Thanksgiving 2014 proved to be a warm-up for the following night’s first Friendsgiving featuring Turkey Gumbo and a new variation on the crowd-pleasing Stuffin Muffins sensation.

The night ended with the traditional Pecan Pie, easily the greatest dessert and cause of diabetes.

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Adamus Dinner | Chicago Food Bloggers

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Going to experience a tasting menu at a restaurant is a food-lover’s dream, especially if your idea of fine dining is ordering guacamole at Chipotle. What’s an even more unique experience is dining with fellow food lovers. No longer are you the weird one who is photographing your food before consumption.

Adamus (10 S. Wabash) is in Chicago’s loop and is housed inside the Silversmith Hotel. They invited Chicago Food Bloggers to sample their fall offerings. Joining area food bloggers was akin to being one of the judges on Top Chef.

Arugula and goat cheese? You have my attention.

The restaurant features a round bar near the street and several booths along the rectangular dining space. The lines were clean and the booths looked inviting for those looking to enjoy not being in their hotel room. Our long table dissected the space in between the booths on the perimeter.

The Liquor

Continue reading Adamus Dinner | Chicago Food Bloggers

Best Breakfast Pizza | Recipe

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We’ve all done it. No shame. We’ve eaten leftover pizza for breakfast. While this dish takes a bit more work than foraging in your fridge, you’ll be rewarded with a sensational and fresh breakfast.

Turn on your oven to 350 degrees.

To start, I made my own hash browns after frying up some bacon. You could also use frozen hash browns to cut down the prep time. To make your own, shred 3 potatoes. I recently purchased a KitchenAid Mandoline. That helps speed up the job. I found it tough to use the mandoline with the potatoes. It worked great on softer veggies, but struggled against firm potatoes.

Once the hash browns were cooked–about 15 minutes–I removed them from the pan and added onions and green pepper. Saute those for a few minutes and remove to a bowl. Then I whipped 4 eggs with a touch of water.

Return the taters to the skillet and add the eggs.

Return the veggies and bacon. Add tomatoes. Sprinkle in your favorite cheese. I had sliced american that I put on top.

Put the skillet in the oven for 8-10 minutes. Slice it up and enjoy.

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