The Tale of the Country Roads Cookoff (Including Champion Recipe)
A few weeks ago, in an effort to become more involved in my community here in Abingdon and expand my circle of involvement beyond what happens at Barter Theatre, I signed up to compete in the Country Roads Cook-Off, part of the Crooked Road Music Festival.
Now, I normally shy away from competing in public, because as anyone who’s played board games with me knows, I’m an extremely competitive individual and an unattractive side of my personality tends to emerge when confronted with any kind of rivalry or prize. Let’s just say there’s a reason that I’ve caught four wedding bouquets, and it’s not because I really wanted to get married four times.
Endeavoring to put all that aside and just have a relaxed, fun time in the autumn air with fellow amateur chefs, I recruited Miles and our pal Erin (you might remember her from this and this) to be part of my team, which I cleverly named The Red Hots (in honor of the “Red Hot Summer Jam,” and also because I planned to make Cajun food). I procured a gas cook stove from my new friend Sara, and set about deciding upon a recipe.
And then it was announced that there would be a Team Spirit Award at the Cook-Off.
What happened next was classic Marcantel Type-A ridiculousness. Our family motto has always been “If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Overdoing,”and this Team Spirit Award gave me the opportunity to get full-on crazy competitive within the privacy of my own home. As the first order of business, I commissioned Erin to sew all three of us matching aprons, for which I sought out yards of chili pepper fabric.
Next, I consulted my Cajun cookbooks and history books, and put together a science fair project-type board detailing the history of the Cajuns and the influences of Cajun food, complete with gigantic pictures of signature dishes, as well as detailed deportation maps, and a million tiny peppers and hot sauce bottles. Finally, I artfully arranged some cook books, spices, and other accoutrements in front of the display in order to really flesh it out. Let me iterate that I knew that no one else was going to spend even 1/8th as much time on their display as I was spending. That did not deter me in the least.
Miles came home just as I was putting the finishing touches on this bad boy. He rolled his eyes, said “You are a huge nerd,” and gave me a big kiss. He knows resistance is futile.
As to what to cook, clearly Cajun was on the menu. I settled on Jambalaya, since it’s easy to serve and (like all Cajun food) feeds a big crowd. We were instructed to make enough to feed three judges, and dole out 75 bite-sized samples for Cook-Off attendees. Another big advantage to making Jambalaya would be that a lot of the time it takes to make the dish is in the prep work — measuring, slicing, and chopping. All of that could be done ahead of time at home, leaving our team the full 60 minutes of Cook-Off time for assembly and actual cooking.
The final piece of the recipe puzzle was twofold: 1) the featured ingredients had to be local and 2) the recipe had to be an original take or adaptation of a standard dish. In order to figure out how to meet these criteria, I took a trip to our amazing Abingdon Farmer’s Market. I was able to get all of the veggies I needed (except the celery), and even found some locally-made grass-fed andouille pork sausage. Perfection! When I located some local shitake mushrooms, however, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. By adding shitake mushrooms and a few other local twists, like fresh elephant garlic and homemade duck broth, I would be adhering to the adaptation requirement of the competition.
As a final nod to my nerd-dom, I typed up the list of farms from whom I’d purchased ingredients, and added it to both the recipe sheet for the judges, and the presentation board.
The Big Day arrived.
It dawned cold and drizzly, and I had a moment of panic as I realized my excessive presentation materials would not stand up to rain. Luckily, the Cook-Off was held under a tent, so my overachieving was not in vain.
After a trip to the Farmer’s Market for a few ultra-fresh ingredients, Miles and I spent the morning doubling my usual recipe and chopping up a storm. At the appointed time of glory, we met Erin at the large field housing the music festival, and began to set up our station. Of course my gigantic display attracted quite a bit of attention, seeing as none of the other contestants were aware that they’d been invited to an epic visual aids battle in my mind.
The actual cooking at the Cook-Off went really quickly. The jambalaya was easy to assemble, as I’d hoped, but the brown rice took longer to cook than I’d anticipated, and we really cut our time down to the wire. We sautéed the trinity (onion, bell pepper, celery) first, in butter, as the rice cooked in duck broth in the rice cooker. By the way, I think the secret to amazing jambalaya is cooking your rice in broth instead of water. Free advice.
After browning the sausage and sautéing the mushrooms, we added the rest of the ingredients and mixed well. Jambalaya, like all Cajun food, tastes better the longer it sits. Just as the one-hour time limit crept up on us, we got the rice from the rice cooker and mixed everything together.
Since presentation was part of the judging, I’d hollowed out three beautiful green bell peppers to serve in, and also included on the plate a slice of fresh cantaloupe (like Maw-Maw always did, to cleanse the palate), a tiny bottle of Tobasco, and a bright, hot habanero pepper. For a flourish, I made a little design with Sriracha hot chili sauce, even though it’s not strictly Cajun. I thought they looked rather lovely.
Once the judges had been served, it was time to set out the 2-bite samples for the People’s Choice Award. There were probably about 60 folks sampling, so I figured we’d probably be left with a lot of jambalaya. Instead, we had people coming up to ask for third, fourth, and fifth helpings! They were very enthusiastic about the jambalaya, and also the Spice It Up! spice bar I’d set up for additional self-flavoring. It was nice talking to folks, many of whom I recognized from the Farmer’s Market, about where ingredients had come from and what the preparation was like. We had so many repeat samplers with such nice things to say that it felt really good when the People’s Choice Award was announced and we, The Red Hots, were the winners. Next, our hilarious Cook-Off emcees revealed their picks for the Team Spirit Award, and once again The Red Hots were victorious! Alas, we did not take home the triple crown, as the Judges’ Award went to another dish. But hey, 2/3 ain’t bad for my first cooking competition since the single-digit age Girl Scout Cookie Bake-Offs. And I didn’t make an ass out of myself in public, so that goes in the win column, too.
At the end of the day, it’s so nice to live in a place that sponsors and supports these kinds of activities, and to have friends around who are willing to tackle them with you.
Every time something like this Cook-Off happens, Abingdon feels a little more like home.
And, because I know you’re dying for some jambalaya now in this cool weather, I’ll leave you with the Twice-Awarded Recipe.
You can download the judge’s recipe sheet, full of nerdiness and clip art, by clicking below. Or you can just scroll down for the recipe.
Be aware, this feeds A LOT OF PEOPLE. Cut everything in half for a normal family meal.
Hot Andouille and Shitake Jambalaya
- 3 cups duck broth (or chicken, or vegetable broth)
- 3 cups brown rice
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- 1/2 lb shitake mushrooms
- 3 onions, red or white
- 6 stalks celery
- 2 cloves garlic
- 4 green bell peppers
- 2 lbs pork Andouille sausage
- 3.5 cups red kidney beans (two cans)
- 2 cups tomato sauce
- Cajun seasoning to taste (we love Tony Chachere’s best)
- Cook rice in broth, either in a rice cooker or on a stovetop (20-30 minutes) until tender but not mushy.
- Roughly chop mushrooms, onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic, then sauté vegetables in butter until the onion is translucent (5-7 minutes).
- Slice sausage, and add to vegetables. Brown lightly on both sides (Andouille sausage should already be smoked).
- Add tomato sauce and beans to the sauté mixture. If using canned beans, do not drain.
- Season to taste with Cajun seasonings, and simmer until rice is ready.
- Add rice and mix everything together well. The mixture will taste better the longer it sits.
- Serve with a slice of cantaloupe (like Maw-Maw always did) to cleanse the palate! Ça c’est bon!