I was fortunate this week to be a judge at A Taste of Elegance, a recipe contest sponsored by the Tennessee Pork Producers. The contest is held in conjunction with the their yearly convention at the Doubletree Hotel.
This was my second time to judge. It should have been my third, but I was ill last year, which in retrospect was probably fortuitous because Emily Sharp from Murfreesboro’s own Five Senses Restaurant won first place.
If I had been there it may have seemed a little like “home cooking;” my absence exonerated me. I enjoy cooking and eating good food, but it doesn’t have to be “gourmet” form. It just has to taste good.
I enjoy a hot dog from a stand on a New York street corner as much as a yummy taco salad from Carmen’s Mexican Taqueria, located on on Northfield Boulevard near Walgreens.
On my bucket list is to dine at Per Se in New York City; maybe we’ll have a prixe fixe lunch there if we win the lottery.
The 2012 pork competition was outstanding. It always has been, but this year’s dishes went to yet another level. Every single offering rated four or more stars.
The judges were myself, Steve Haislip, morning anchor from News Channel 5, and Lynne Tolley, a great-grand niece of Jack Daniels who also runs Mrs. Mary Bobo’s Boarding House restaurant in Lynchburg.
We arrived at 4:30 p.m. armed with name tags, scorecards, pens and empty tummies.
Steve Haislip is a charmer (as is Tolley) and when our initial taste was seared pork tenderloin with braised pork cheek from Opry Backstage Grill, a new Gaylord-owned restaurant across the street from Opryland Hotel, we knew we were in trouble.
The pork cheek was accompanied by thinly sliced potatoes, turnips and beets and bacon and shallot beure rouge.
The task ahead of us was so lofty it was impossible to pick out only three winners.
Nine different chefs participated in the cookoff, including our own Emily Sharp from Five Senses, who served up Caribbean flavors, and Aaron Thompson from The Blue Porch Restaurant and Catering in Readyville.
There were three chefs from Opryland, two from Loew’s Vanderbilt Plaza, and one each from Chef’s Market and Take Away in Gallatin, Manchester Coffee County Conference Center and Miel Restaurant in Nashville.
Of particular note were four trends:
1. Pork belly, which is richer than rich but in each case it was used as a “teaser” in very small amounts.
2. Cooking “sous vide,” which means putting pork tenderloins in vacuum sealed bags and cooking them in boiling water for more than an hour. Later, they are seared in a hot pan.
3. We enjoyed a poached egg as a “sauce.” 4. Dicing fruit and vegetables in tiny perfectly square 1/4-inch cubes is also popular.
I’ve never seen pork belly for sale in a store, so doubt I’ll be trying it – not to mention that I don’t need all that fat. And I tried once, without success, to employ one of those food vacuum systems.
It’s an idea great in theory but impractical in reality.
I could never get the bags totally sealed.
So, I don’t think I’ll be attempting the “sous vide” method either, although it was highlighted in this week’s dining section of The New York Times.
I’ll leave that up to the big boys and girls.
Nor am I very good at poaching eggs.
By the time a poached egg makes it to my table, it’s too undercooked and lukewarm for me, and while that’s very “continental,” I have even seen Paula Deen putting them on some of her dishes lately.
I’ll leave that to the professionals too.
The bottom line is that we have some very masterful chefs in our area.
First place winner was Jason Carty from Opryland Backstage Grill, who served the seared pork tenderloin to which I alluded to earlier.
Second place went to J. David Maxwell, representing Miel Restaurant in Nashville.
He served a crisp pork belly and bacon wrapped pork tenderloin with julienned brussel sprout “cole slaw” that was to die for and third place went to Derek Fulton from Chef’s Market & Take Away in Gallatin. He served a pork tapas trio – the highlight of which was bacon and rum vanilla ice cream in a prosciutto bowl with chocolate, bacon and praline habanera sauce.
Also of note were the wines served by Bean's Creek Winery in Manchester.
Bill and Dorothy Fry supplied wines for the evening and sent the judges home with a Bears Creek Chardonel 2009, a dry white table wine, and a Rosy Cheek semisweet table wine, which I can’t wait to try. You can be sure I’ll be buying them from now on.
I feel fortunate to live in a place where we have the accommodations to host such events and even luckier to have been asked to judge.
I especially want to thank coordinator Phyllis Ferguson from the Pork Producers and commend Tammy Algood who always sets up these challenges with such finesse and grace.
Thanks to all you producers who provide these products for us – not just for contests, but for every day – and thanks to all who participated.
I’m already drooling thinking about next year – if I get asked!
‘Til next week.
Correction: The author originally referred to Bean's Creek Winery incorrectly. The Post regrets this error.