You might recall that this time last year I wrote about my trip to the Gilroy Garlic Festival and the Great Garlic Cook-Off. You remember, the one where I was mistakenly awarded 2nd place and the garlic crown that goes with it, only to have it quickly revoked in front of hundreds of people. Yep, that one. Well, believe it or not, I entered again this year in hopes of going back and bringing that 2nd place prize home.
Not only do I love Gilroy’s location in the central part of California, but this cook-off, although not the biggest in the country, is quite prestigious in the contesting world because it is all about the food. No voting or or social media elements involved whatsoever. Just great food with garlic, and as everyone knows, great food always contains garlic. So when I was invited to compete for my third time, I couldn’t have been happier.
As with every contest I have been involved in, I always feel like I have it in the bag until I get a glimpse at the competition. After looking over the other recipe names, I thought this year had some especially inventive and delicious sounding dishes with some pretty impressive competitors behind them. I honestly figured I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning anything, but what the heck. I decided to go anyway and enjoy a weekend in a beautiful part of the country, eat some wonderful food and maybe have a cocktail or two with friends.
This year I competed with a recipe that I called Carnival-style Fish Sticks with Lemony Jalapeno Mayonnaise and Spicy Apple Kohlrabi Slaw. In a nutshell it was cubes of super fresh halibut on the end of a wooden stick, deep fried in a light and crispy tempura batter, complemented by a creamy dipping sauce and a fresh coleslaw side.
The inspiration for the fish part of my dish came partially from a fish corn dog appetizer that I was served some months ago at a cooking school opening here in Denver, and partially from America’s love of food on a stick. It seems like everyone is putting something on a stick these days, be it cake, pie or meatballs, everyone loves eating a “pop” of some sort. Up to this time I had avoided this trend, but I thought that this really captured Gilroy’s festival spirit this time of year.
The number one rule of this cook-off is that all recipes must incorporate 6 cloves of garlic. Last year, even though I did use the required amount of garlic, it lost a great deal of its flavor during the cooking process, which cost me points with the judges. Remembering that problem, I decided to really showcase the garlic this year and not cook it at all which presented me with another problem, I needed to add the remaining garlic to a dish with flavors that were strong enough to hold their own. Enter the spicy coleslaw.
OK, everyone knows about coleslaw, so I figured I needed to make mine really different and exciting for this competition. In addition to the usual cabbage, for my slaw I added lots of crispy sweet apple, minced onion and some pleasant, slightly radish/cabbage/turnip tasting kohlrabi.
This isn’t the prettiest kohlrabi bulb I’ve ever seen, but you get the idea.
After playing around with a couple of flavor combinations, I decided to dress my slaw with a honey mustard type dressing. To kick up the flavor of my dressing I then added the remaining 5 cloves of crushed garlic and a tablespoon of grated fresh horseradish. It tastes kind of like a sweet and sour coleslaw with the volume turned all the way up. I loved it.
Spicy Apple Kohlrabi Slaw
OK, so there’s my inspiration and recipe development process. Now I had to come up with an eye catching name and clever presentation for my dish. I always like to give my recipes a descriptive yet clever name that will catch the eye of the judges during the initial round. I like for my titles to give them just a little information about the dish, but not too much so they want to take a closer look at what’s going on. Since any given contest could have hundreds, if not thousands of entries, something needs to help your recipe stand out to make that first cut. Your recipe will never have a second chance to make a first impression.
Never underestimate the power of presentation at cook-offs. Some cook-offs only allow for you to present on a plain white plate, but if you have the option, doll it up. Gilroy encourages you to be creative with your presentation. This year I chose to play on my theme and served mine the way I thought it might be served in a festival setting starting with a large brown cardboard “boat” as my base. I then lined that with a newspaper looking printed tissue that I bought from a local fish and chip shop. I then used smaller individual containers inside to hold my fish sticks, slaw and mayo. I later heard from one of the judges that this pushed my dish over the top.
Well, if you haven’t guessed by now, I didn’t win second this year as I had hoped, I won first. Like I said before, I didn’t think I had a chance against the other contestants, so when that first place crown was placed on my head I was more than surprised. And the best part of all? Well, in addition to the $5,000 dollar prize of course, the best part is that I got to keep that crown this year.
Even though it had a pretty rough trip home, my garlic crown has pride of place on my wall.
Interested in entering next year? The call for entries will take place sometime in September so it isn’t too early to start thinking about your recipe. To get an idea of the types of recipes they are looking for, click here to see some of the winning recipes from the past and read more about this festival.
Carnival Style “Fish Sticks” and Lemony Jalapeno Mayo with Spicy Apple Kohlrabi Slaw
Spicy Apple Kohlrabi Apple Slaw:1/4 of a small head of green cabbage (about 12 ounces), shredded1/6 of a small head of purple cabbage (about 8 ounces), shredded1 medium size bulb of kohlrabi, peeled and julienne sliced2 large apples, peeled and julienne sliced1/4 of a small purple onion, finely diced
Slaw Dressing:1 tablespoon grated fresh horseradish5 cloves of garlic, grated3 tablespoons stoneground mustard3 tablespoons vegetable or light olive oil3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar3 tablespoons honey1 – 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Place the cabbages, kohlrabi, apples and onion in a large bowl and toss well; set aside.For the dressing, place all of the ingredients in a small jar with a tight fitting lid and shake well. Pour over the cabbage mixture and toss again. Cover and refrigerate while the fish is prepared.
*If making this recipe more than an hour or so ahead, leave out the horseradish until right before serving as it gets stronger as it sits.
Lemony Jalapeno Mayonnaise:1 cup mayonnaise1 clove garlic, grated1 large jalapeno, finely diced (remove half or all of the seeds and membranes for a milder flavor)3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Carnival Style Fish Sticks:1 – 1/2 pounds meaty white fish (such as halibut or cod)1 cup all-purpose flour1 teaspoon sugar1 teaspoon kosher salt1 egg, beaten1 cup ice water2 tablespoons vegetable oil12 wooden craft sticks or wooden skewersSalt (optional)
Place fish on paper towels and gently press out all the moisture, making sure it is very dry; set aside.
Heat a deep fryer or deep frying pan filled with enough oil that it comes up at least 2” at the sides, to very hot.
While oil is heating, place flour, sugar, salt, egg ice water and vegetable oil in a bowl and mix well to combine. Transfer to a tall, skinny container (such as a quart mason jar); set aside.
Cut the fish into 12 – 2 x 3” cubes (the thicker the better for cooking). If using a wooden stick like I did, make a small pilot hole in the top middle of the fish with a small paring knife. The pilot hole should be much smaller than the stick so that it fits tightly. Push the stick or skewer in the middle of each piece of fish, stopping about an inch from the end. Holding the end of the stick, dip each piece of fish into the batter in a swirling motion, completely covering the top of the fish and just a bit of the stick. Gently shake the excess batter from the fish before putting it directly into the hot oil. Very carefully hold the stick just a moment to seal the batter so the fish sticks won’t stick together. Drop fish sticks into the oil and cook until they are a golden brown being careful not to over cook. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt if desired.