I started this blog four years ago to help me get out of my comfort zone in the kitchen, and to inspire others to do the same. From trying out new ingredients for the first time, to testing strange cooking techniques, to doing vegetarian cooking demonstrations, to traveling to distant places just to see what is going on in other food communities, I have stepped out of my comfort zone in a lot of ways, with mixed results. In four years, I have learned a lot about cooking and eating, and I have further developed my food philosophy as well. I do not reflect often, so although I have grown in a lot of ways since June 2010, I still see myself as a newbie, learning as much as I can, from people with more experience and different perspectives than me.
My initial reaction when I was asked earlier this year to participate in the Richmond Vegetarian Festival Food Fight was, “who, me?!” The Food Fight is an Iron Chef style cooking competition, in which three competitors must prepare three vegan dishes in one hour, using only the limited pantry ingredients and equipment available at each of their stations. The dishes must feature a secret ingredient, which is revealed seconds before the clock starts.
The invitation came in a tweet, and my immediate response upon receiving the Twitter notification on my phone was to look over both shoulders and wonder if there is another Vegology out there for whom this invitation is meant. I ignored the message, assuming it had been broadcast to a long list of people who would jump on the opportunity.
When the organizers (from Citizen, one of my favorite lunch spots in RVA) followed up with me, I realized the first message had not been an error. I was still in hand therapy and could barely cook for myself at the time. What I could do in the kitchen and at work, I was really slow at. The competition was about a month away and I figured it would give me a good goal for therapy to get my hands and wrists mostly functional by the end of June.
So I recruited a partner, my delightful and talented friend Brittany from Eating Bird Food (read her wonderful post about the competition here), and I agreed to do it. We do not cook fancy or complicated food and we do not spend hours perfecting our plating techniques or our knife skills, so we expected to come in dead last. We were determined to make food that tasted good and to have a ton of fun doing it. And that is almost exactly what happened.
The secret ingredient was fennel, one that we had not anticipated at all. After a quick strategy session, we started grabbing ingredients from the pantry, chopping, blending, and roasting (in a toaster oven!). Our first dish was raw spiralized summer squash “noodles” in a fennel and basil pesto sauce, with pan roasted red peppers and a sprig of fennel on top. We had a lot of fun putting this together, and twirling the squash “pasta” into little nests on each plate.
We worked really well together, and just focused on the cooking while we worked. I tuned out the audience, the host who narrated and entertained during the whole thing, and all of the comments from the judges and other competitors. There were definitely a few times that Karri Peifer, the host, put the microphone in my face and I had not even realized she was in our kitchen or had asked me a question until that black bulb was right in front of my mouth. I doubt that any of my answers were very impressive – sorry Karri!
Our focus paid off when our vegan ground beef, or “nut meat” came out perfectly. Our second dish was a nut meat lettuce wrap taco with a fresh corn and fennel salad on top. The spicy “meat” was countered by the sweet fresh corn, and I thought it tasted pretty good. The judges said they couldn’t detect the fennel, which we had included in the “meat” as well as the corn salad, but our proportions must have been off, or the strong flavors of other ingredients drowned out the fennel flavor.
Our final dish, which was described by one judge as “homey” was a Nourish Bowl with jasmine rice, black beans, roasted sweet potato and fennel, and pan roasted red peppers, finished with a peanut sauce and Thai basil garnish. All three dishes were ones that any home cook could easily throw together. I’m not sure if “homey” was meant as a compliment or not, but I took from it that we cooked our food, which was exactly what we had set out to do!
Each duo was given a score out of 240 total possible points, and dishes were evaluated on taste, presentation, innovation/uniqueness, and use of the secret ingredient. Our team (Team VegBird) came in second place, and the host announced that we were within two points of the winners! The winning team was Kate Koyiades and Mackenzie Monday from 821 Café. Yes, that’s right, two points away (out of 240) from professional chefs. What?! We were very pleased with the results.
We celebrated with a beer from Ardent Craft Ales, a new brewery that is located in Scott’s Addition, right down the street from the festival. I would be lying if I said that was it. Then we took the party over to Hardywood for another beer and some tacos from the Boka Tako Truck.
Riding high after our second place finish, I packed my car the next day for a road trip to Asheville, NC for the grand opening of my sister’s ballroom dance studio, Rococo Ballroom. We spent a week putting the finishing touches on the studio space and getting the word out for the grand opening and ribbon cutting.
I spent my days handing out flyers, hanging posters around town, writing press releases, shopping for décor, and cleaning impossibly large windows and mirrors. I squeezed in three classes at Asheville Yoga Center (so wonderful), and at night I ate a ton of the best vegetarian food Asheville has to offer. To see all of our great eats, check out the #vegologyeatsasheville hashtag on Instagram.
After the great experience I had branching out at the Vegan Food Fight, I did not hesitate to say yes when I was asked to do all of the food for the Rococo Ballroom grand opening party the following Saturday. I prepared food all day in my sister Meghan’s kitchen, packed it into containers within a giant cooler, plated when I got to the studio, and then replenished from the same cooler throughout the party. My “catering kitchen” on-site was a gigantic cooler with a pack of gloves, a cutting board and knife, and a few bags of ice, all located on a sidewalk outside the back door of the studio. The kitchen got soaked during a sudden downpour halfway through the party. I adapted. The food turned out pretty great!
The appetizers included caprese salad bites, which were basically tomato, mozzarella, and basil, skewered and marinated in a balsamic viniagrette, and cucumber cups filled with jalapeno cilantro hummus, topped with chili powder and pimentos.
We also enjoyed watermelon, feta and mint bruschetta, which was a nice summery treat.
Dessert (not pictured) was a tower of mini cupcakes in gold foil wrappers to match the regal décor of the studio. We also had a cheese tray and plenty of wine, which I wrapped in custom Rococo Ballroom labels just for the party. The selection included Waltz White (Pepperwood Pinot Grigio), Rumba Red (Castle Rock Pinot Noir), and Bolero Bubbly (Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Rose Cava).
After pulling off a week of helping to open a business, bookended by a vegan Iron Chef competition and my first catering gig, I needed a glass of Bolero Bubbly wine to relax!
In retrospect, the marathon week was a great way to celebrate Vegology’s fourth birthday. It definitely boosted my confidence and pushed me to ask myself the question, “what’s next?” proving once again that it’s sometimes a very good thing to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try something you’ve never done before. It could turn out great or it could turn out to be a disaster learning experience, and either way at least you can say you did it!