The arrival of fall marks a return to home cooking, and the season of amateur cooking competitions. Not Eating Out in New York blogger Cathy Erway, a pedigreed loser, winner, host and judge of many a Brooklyn cook-off (and a baker at our first annual pig roast), spills some tips on how to outdo your neighbor at the next one.
Feed the Masses
Cook more than plenty. You may end up taking home leftovers, but if you run out of your grub you may seem stingy, and no crowd likes the idea of exclusivity at what they think is a free-for-all.
Know Your Judges
If you’ve got a red-blooded, meat-headed bully of a judge on the panel, you might be wise to forget the mushroom cap beignets and try your best to trick him/her into thinking your seitan is pulled pork. If it’s an audience-judged event, or if you have no idea who the judges are, know that some ingredients are just polarizing. Beets, eggplant, Brussels sprouts and dill are all love-it-or-hate-it foodstuffs, and therefore should be avoided.
Show a Little Showmanship
It’s not a mail-in recipe contest, so why not take advantage of the in-person arena? No rules prohibit costumed entries, and a little live garnish action can go a long way. My friend Phil entered the Great Hot Dog Cookoff this past summer bearing this five-foot-tall, hand-painted sign. (Sadly, he didn’t win, but I chalk this up to his breaking Rule #1: not making enough.)
Play the Name Game
A good way of fooling people into thinking you made a really clever, creative dish is to give it a really clever, creative name. Especially if you’re in Williamsburg, where people generally don’t eat too much of the food, but rather walk around making snide comments on how it all looks. “Three-Cheese Lasagna” won’t melt any hearts, but “My Lasagna, It Has Three Cheeses” might. Think of timely, or setting-appropriate names like “There Will Be Chili,” a cook-off contender last winter.
Be Community Oriented
You’re cooking for neighbors, with neighbors, so go to your favorite Greenmarket stand, a friend of a friend’s specialty store, or local meat supplier, and then make it a not-so-secret ingredient. You’ll win more brownie points that way than if you buy all your ingredients from FreshDirect.
Bear in Mind Mouthfeel
People are pretty predictable in terms of what they want out of texture; they usually prefer super-thick stews and sauces, super-flaky pastries, and super-crusty on the outside, moist on the inside casseroles. Yet I can’t tell you how many contestants seem to forget that texture is almost always a factor in judging any food. Wateriness will kill even the most delicious dish.
Go All the Way
There is nothing sadder than bringing something boring to a cook-off. Unless you’re going for an award like “Most Classic,” give your entry a twist or a sweet/savory somersault. The worst that can happen is that it’ll taste disgusting (e.g. my “Potato Chips Au Gratin” at the Brooklyn Kitchen’s Bodega Challenge). But at least you’ll be a loser and not a lame-ass (oh, the distinction!).