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By Lisa Gutierrez

3/16/2009 (6 years ago)

McClatchy Newspapers (

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - World of cooking contests churns out prize-winning recipes every year World of cooking contests churns out trendy, fast-paced, no-nonsense recipes.


By Lisa Gutierrez

McClatchy Newspapers (

3/16/2009 (6 years ago)

Published in Home & Food

KANSAS CITY, Mo. _ Olga Esquivel-Holman finds herself in a bit of a dry spell right now.

Oh, to go back to 2006.

That's the year a chicken-chorizo "burger" she concocted earned her a fancy $5,000 grill in a cooking contest and she won $10,000 from Southern Living magazine for her Shrimp Bruschetta With Guacamole recipe.

The 51-year-old empty-nester mom in Wichita, Kan., is a regular competitor in recipe contests and cook-offs. When I called, she was creating a recipe for a Betty Crocker cookie contest.

She tried to go Latin last year in the same contest, adding spicy chocolate to a peanut butter cookie mix, but it didn't work. "I've entered this a couple of times trying to win and haven't done it yet," she says.

That's how it goes in the world of competitive cooking, where amateur cooks vie for cash and gifts from thousands of recipe and cook-off contests.

You can play without leaving home by submitting a recipe online. Or, you could find yourself in a cook-off kitchen in suburban New York City making your dinner/appetizer/dessert for a panel of judges.

You could win anything from lunch money to a mortgage payment, cookbooks, board games, pots, pans, mixers and more.

And if lightning strikes, you could win the Holy Grail of competitive cooking: the $1 million Pillsbury Bake-Off. Some cooks enter hundreds of recipes just to qualify for that event, held every other year.

It's not always about the food anymore, either. Some cooks are entering food photography contests and video contests where they have to demonstrate the preparation of the dish, just like a Food Network host.

Cooks have won contests with everything from Caribbean stews to upside-down cakes made with Vidalia onions. Tom "If You Can Read You Can Cook" Turgeon's one shot at cooking infamy came in 2002 when his girlfriend convinced him to enter a baking contest sponsored by the Kansas Wheat Commission.

The Kansas City, Mo., man, who works in commercial real estate, created a Spicy Party Bread with jalapenos, horseradish Cheddar cheese and "drunken onions" _ vermouth-soaked onions stuffed with red peppers.

He won honorable mention and his recipe is still featured on the commission's Web site,


Contests attract competitors of all ilk, amateurs all because most contests are off-limits to anyone who makes money from cooking.

But, for whatever reason, competitive cooking _ we're not including chili and barbecue cook-offs, a whole other world _ is primarily a woman's sport. And some are downright hardcore competitors.

They spend hours online, hunting down contests, researching existing recipes and then, like scientists in the lab, conjuring new ones in their kitchens, taking copious notes.

Now how much salt did I put in there?

The contest world now has its own celebrities who get their 15 minutes of fame on the Food Network, which has introduced a new generation to competitive cooking.

Competitive cooks use their families, friends and co-workers as guinea pigs, like the summer Esquivel-Holman fed her family countless hamburgers as she searched for a recipe for Sutter Home's Build a Better Burger contest, or BBB, one of the contest world's grand slam events.

Still, she says she doesn't enter as many contests as some. "There's a gal in California who enters multiple recipes a week," she says. "I've got maybe 20, 25 I've entered since 2005.

"I really look for a contest that either has a really cool prize, like a trip for two to Italy, or has something that I like to cook. If it's, like, how to cook vegetarian, I really wouldn't do that."


Many recipes never make the cut for one simple reason: Someone didn't read the rules carefully.

Were there certain products you had to use, but didn't?

Did you have to be specific about the size of pan you used, but weren't?

Were you supposed to submit the recipe on a certain-sized paper, but didn't?

You lose.

"They're usually pretty simple rules, but you have to have them or else people would be scribbling something down on the back of a napkin and sending it in," says Jeffrey Starr, culinary director for the Build a Better Burger contest and one of its judges.

"Unfortunately, two or three simple rules eliminate half of the people who send recipes in because people just can't follow simple rules."

In the burger contest, recipes that don't follow the rules never make it to the judges. Contest regulars _ the so-called "contester" _ do well because they know how to follow rules, says Starr, who is also executive chef for Sutter Home Winery in California's Napa Valley.

"They're very careful about it," he says. "They write their recipe, double and triple check it and give it to a friend to check."

Esquivel-Holman, a finalist in the burger contest three years ago, says the smallest mistakes trip people up, like submitting recipes on cards instead of the required paper.

When she started entering contests she learned how to write a standard recipe, because that's another rule: Ingredients must be listed in the order in which they are used.

"If you say 'butter your bun,' you better have butter listed first in the ingredients," she says.

Recipes that successfully run the rules gauntlet then have to catch the judges' eyes. "It should look like something you want to eat and look like something you haven't seen before," Starr says.

For instance, in their contest, "we've seen many, many variations of blue cheese and bacon burgers. I love a good blue cheese and bacon burger, but I've seen it," Starr says. "When I see a recipe like that, I give it another look if there's something else going on. But if not, I'm going to take a pass."

Judges also look for use of new and trendy ingredients, the ones just hitting the restaurant scene. A couple of years ago that ingredient was garam masala, an Indian spice blend. They saw lots of burger recipes with it.

"The contesters, they're staying on top of trends," he says. "I guarantee you the contesters spend a lot of time on the computer, Googling."


Lindsay Weiss of Overland Park, Kan., has made a quick name for herself in contest circles. In 2007 her recipe for Roasted Banana Ice Cream With Warm Peanut Butter Sauce won $100,000 in the Southern Living Cook-Off.

That was her big year: honorable mention in the Mix it Up with Betty contest, (her Double Chocolate Cappuccino Cups); finalist in a Cooking Light contest (Ginger Shrimp Pot Stickers with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce); and the big Southern Living win.

Her most recent award-winning Roasted Banana Bars With Browned Butter Pecan Frosting were featured in the January/February edition of Cooking Light.

Entering contests gets her competitive juices flowing. She got into contests the same way many people do, lusting after the Pillsbury win. (It's called the Big One.)

"I saw the Bake-Off televised on the Food Network a few years ago. The gal who won was a lot like me, obviously a better cook, a young mom from Texas," Weiss says. "She liked a lot of the same things I do. I thought, 'She's not a professional. Neither of us are professionals.'

"I feel like, I'm 33, when you get to this age, I'm married and have kids, there's nothing any more to compete in. I used to do sports and competitive drama. This was a fun way to combine a little bit of my competitive edge with lots of creativity."

She used Google to find contests and came across the clearinghouse known as, the Web site for Cooking Contest Central. It's a portal to the contest universe, where, for $25 a year, you can find all the contests and their deadlines, tips and forums where members trade kitchen secrets. Women spend hours there.

"You can either start small so you can get some good $50 wins under your belt and gain some confidence, or you can go big. And I thought, gosh, if I'm going to go for it, I'm going to go big," says the mother of two, a part-time management consultant and freelance writer.

Her first time out she entered the Betty Crocker contest because it carried a $5,000 grand prize. She didn't win the $5,000, but did receive a giant basket of Betty Crocker products. That's all it took.

She was hooked.

"You have to cook dinner anyway, why not try to come up with a million-dollar dish?" Weiss says.

Creating a contest recipe, though, is no Sunday dinner affair. It helps, Weiss says, that she's "always been a right-brain person."

She's also an avid reader of food blogs that chronicle the successful and not-so successful kitchen capers of cooks across the country. It's there that she might find an existing recipe to inspire her.

"I never want to take someone's recipe," Weiss says. "I might start with the way they wrote it, but you always want to add your own spin. If they added vanilla, maybe you add almond. You take it as a base and work it to become your own.

Contests take great pains to make sure that winning recipes are not rip-offs of existing ones.

"It's always a little nerve-wracking. Even though you've come up with something on your own, there's always the chance that someone else has something close."

In the end, she says, winning a contest depends a lot on luck.

"There are a million good recipes out there," Weiss says. "I think you create what you love, and if it brings you some bank, it's wonderful."



Pillsbury Bake-Off: Entries for the 2010 contest are due April 20. Grand prize: $1 million.

Cooking Light Ultimate Reader Recipe Contest: Ends May 25. Twelve finalists compete in an on-site cook-off. Grand prize: $20,000.

Build a Better Burger Contest: Opens April 1. Finalists will compete in a cook-off. Grand prize: $50,000.

National Chicken Cooking Contest: Held every two years. Deadline for this year's contest has passed; next contest in 2011. Grand prize: $50,000.



Here's advice from contestants and judges on how to improve your chances of winning a recipe or cook-off contest:

Read the rules carefully. Many recipes never see the light of day because the cook didn't follow the rules to the letter.

Research previous winning recipes. This will give you an idea of what the judges like. Do they want gourmet burgers or backyard patties? Do they want recipes with five ingredients or fewer or something more complicated?

Join a cooking contest Web site. They list every contest out there, keep you posted on approaching entry deadlines and connect you with other serious "contesters."

Avoid contests based on votes. Some contesters avoid them because these are more popularity contests and they don't want to be bothered with rounding up votes.

Be original. It's OK to start with an existing recipe, but if you don't make at least three significant changes to it, it's not considered "original" by many contest standards. Start with a family recipe or maybe something you've tasted in a restaurant.

Practice, practice, practice. This is especially true for cook-off competitors. You don't want to get flustered in front of the TV cameras.


Olga Esquivel-Holman of Wichita, Kan., was a 2005 finalist in the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger contest with this recipe featuring several commercial brand-name ingredients, including a Sutter Home wine.


Makes 6 burgers

Pistachio Pesto:

1 ½ cups roasted and salted shelled pistachios (see note)

1 garlic clove

½shallot (about the size of 1 tablespoon)

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon capers

½ cup fresh basil leaves

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

¼ cup Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil


2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 garlic cloves, pressed or finely chopped

¼ cup Sutter Home Pinot Noir

2 teaspoons Chef Paul Prudhomme's Meat Magic Seasoning Blend

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup chopped pistachios (from above)

2 pounds ground lamb

½ cup Boursin or other soft garlic herb cheese

Vegetable oil, for brushing the grill rack

6 ciabatta rolls, split

6 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 California Hass avocados, peeled, seeded and sliced into wedges

Place the pistachios in a food processor and pulse until chopped finely; be careful not to grind the nuts into a paste. Remove 1 cup and set aside for the patties. Add the garlic clove and shallot to the food processor while it is running to chop finely. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, and then add the mustard, capers, basil and lime juice and process well. While running, add the oil and process until well mixed. Set the pesto aside.

Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill with a cover, or preheat a gas grill to medium high.

To make the patties, combine the mustard, garlic, Pinot Noir, seasoning blend, salt and the reserved chopped pistachios in a large bowl and stir to mix. Add the lamb and gently combine with the other ingredients. Divide the mixture into 12 equal portions and form into thin patties. Divide the cheese among 6 of the patties and press gently into the center. Place the remaining patties on top, press and seal the edges to totally enclose the cheese filling, forming 6 patties.

Brush the grill rack with oil. Place the patties on the rack and cook until cooked through, 6 to 9 minutes on each side. For best results, cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the patties registers 160 degrees.

While the patties are cooking, toast the rolls, cut side down, lightly on the grill.

To assemble the burgers, spread the pistachio pesto on the cut sides of the roll bottoms and spread the mayonnaise on the cut sides of the roll tops. Place the patties on the roll bottoms, add the avocado, and add the bun tops.

Note: If using unsalted pistachios, add salt to the pesto and more to the meat mixture to compensate.

Per burger: 1,084 calories (74 percent from fat), 90 grams total fat (25 grams saturated), 175 milligrams cholesterol, 33 grams carbohydrates, 40 grams protein, 941 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.



Makes 12 appetizer servings

1 (16-ounce) French bread baguette

Pam Olive Oil No-Stick Cooking Spray

2 large avocados

2 teaspoon fresh lime juice

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon McCormick Gourmet Collection Ground Cumin

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 tablespoon diced shallot

¼ cup medium salsa

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¾ cup freshly grated Manchego cheese

Garnish: fresh cilantro sprigs

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

If frozen, thaw shrimp according to package directions. Peel shrimp, and, if desired, devein. Set aside.

Cut bread diagonally into 12 (½-inch-thick) slices, discarding ends. Coat both sides with cooking spray, and place on a baking sheet.

Bake at 375 degrees 5 to 6 minutes or until edges are crisp. Reserve baguette slices on pan.

Peel and coarsely chop avocados, and place in a medium bowl. Add lime juice and next 6 ingredients, and gently combine, being careful to retain small avocado chunks. (Do not mash.) Chill until ready to serve.

Saute chopped garlic in hot olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat 1 minute. Add shrimp, in batches, and cook 2 minutes on each side or just until shrimp turn pink. (Shrimp should be slightly undercooked.)

Remove from pan, and place 2 shrimp on top of each baguette slice on baking sheet. Top each with 1 tablespoon grated Manchego cheese.

Broil 5 inches from heat 1 to 2 minutes or until cheese melts. Remove from oven, and top each with 1 to 2 tablespoons avocado mixture. Garnish, if desired. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 277 calories (45 percent from fat), 14 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 65 milligrams cholesterol, 24 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams protein, 429 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.



Makes 24 bars

For the bars:

2 cups sliced banana (about 3 whole bananas)

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

2 ¼ cups cake flour

¾ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ cup nonfat buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup butter, softened

1 ¼ cups granulated sugar

2 large eggs

Baking spray with flour

For the frosting:

¼ cup butter

2 cups confectioner's sugar

1 (3-ounce) package or 1/3 cup 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ cup chopped pecans, toasted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

For the bars, combine banana, brown sugar and 1 tablespoon butter in an 8-inch square baking dish. Bake banana mixture 35 minutes, stirring once after 17 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees . Sift together cake flour, baking soda and baking powder in a medium bowl. Set aside. Combine cooled banana mixture, buttermilk and vanilla extract in a separate mixing bowl. Set aside. In a large bowl, use electric mixer at medium speed to cream ½ cup butter and granulated sugar until well blended. Add eggs and mix well. Still using electric mixer, add flour mixture to sugar mixture alternating with banana mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stop mixer occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl.

Pour batter into a 9-by-13-inch baking pan coated with baking spray. Bake 20 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into middle of bars comes out clean. Cool completely in pan on a wire rack.

For the frosting, melt ¼ cup butter in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook 4 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from heat and cool slightly. In a medium bowl with an electric mixer, beat browned butter, confectioner's sugar, cream cheese and vanilla until smooth. Spread frosting over cooled bars. Sprinkle pecans on top of icing.

Per bar: 221 calories (35 calories from fat), 9 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 38 milligrams cholesterol, 35 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 120 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Tom Turgeon of Kansas City, Mo., won an honorable mention from the Kansas Wheat Commission in 2002 with this recipe.



Makes 2 loaves or 24 servings

1 1/8 cups water (105-115 degrees )

1 package active dry yeast

3-3 ½ cups bread flour

1 tablespoon wheat gluten

1 ½ teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/3 cup finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons chopped mild red pepper

2 ounces shredded horseradish Cheddar cheese (note)

¼-½ cup jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped (note)

In bowl, add water and yeast; let set 5 minutes. Stir in 2 ½ cups flour, gluten and salt. Mix 2 minutes. Add cayenne pepper, onion, red pepper and cheese; mix well. Gradually add enough of the remaining flour to make soft dough. Knead 8-10 minutes. Place in lightly greased bowl. Cover; let rise until double. Punch down dough; divide in half.

Cover, let rest 10 minutes. For each loaf, roll dough into a 7-by-12-inch rectangle. Sprinkle jalapeno peppers on dough; roll up very tightly. Seal edges and ends of loaf, stretching loaf to about 16 inches. Place loaf diagonally on greased baking sheet. With sharp knife or single-edge razor blade, make four diagonal slashes, ¼ inch deep, on top crust. Cover, let rise until double. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place a pan with boiling water on the lowest oven rack to create steam. Bake loaves 22-25 minutes, or until they are brown and reach an internal temperature of 200 degrees as measured on a thermometer inserted into the center of the bread.


May substitute 2 tablespoons cream style horseradish and 1/3 cup sharp Cheddar cheese.

Wear food-grade plastic gloves when working with jalapeno peppers to avoid burning sensation caused by the peppers.

Per serving: 73 calories (14 percent from fat), 1 gram total fat (1 gram saturated), 2 milligrams cholesterol, 13 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 149 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


© 2009, The Kansas City Star.

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