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View From Judges Table: Harvest

October 10, 2016

Ever wonder what it’s like to judge a food competition? I think the 2009 All Over Albany Tournament of Pizza was the first time I officially became a food judge. But since then I’ve been lucky to serve as a judge at a number of food festivals and charitable events. And it’s always a lot of fun.

But it’s also a lot harder than it looks. Not only because you are asked to sometimes eat a large quantity of not-that-great food. Judging culinary contests is tricky because it can be hard to weigh the tradeoffs of nonparallel strengths and weaknesses.

For example, if one pizza has great crust, weak toppings, and a solid sauce, and the other has great sauce, a weak crust and solid toppings, which is the better of the two?*

Apparently, I’m running a bit of a backlog, and this week is extra busy thanks to Yom Kippur on Wednesday. So today I’m going to play catch up by bringing you the tales of last week’s Harvest Evening Celebration at Revolution Hall in Troy.

This was the third year that I came out in support of The Food Pantries for the Capital District. It’s important to call attention to the food insecurity throughout the area, and attempt to destigmatize this resource for those who reach out for help when in need. It’s great to know that The Food Pantries are there for people who are struggling.

The Harvest Evening Celebration is unique in that chefs are tasked with using a food pantry item in a simple but delicious way.

I had high hopes that Kizzy Williams of Allie B’s Cozy Kitchen would knock this out of the park. Much like the cuisine of my people, Eastern European Jews, soul food has its roots in turning inexpensive ingredients into delicious things to eat.

For the first time ever, the Harvest Evening Celebration was judged blindly. So I can’t be accused of playing favorites. In the past, the judges would walk around from table to table and ask about the recipe and how simple it might be for home cooks to recreate the dish. However, this year, dishes were brought to a secluded judges table and we had no access to the chefs.

The judges were Steve Barnes, Donna Purnomo, Anna Kim, and William Harris. I’ve judged with Steve & William before. Anna I know from Yelp. But this was my first time meeting the matriarch of the Purnomo clan. I had a great time with all of them.

Together we agreed that three dishes really stood above the rest, and those turned out to be from Whole Foods Market Albany, The Point Restaurant, and yes, Allie B’s Cozy Kitchen. Everyone had their own favorite for different reasons.

Maybe the culinary team from Whole Foods Albany was reading the FLB when I was reminiscing about the great peanut stew from Harvest Evening two years ago, made by the Honest Weight Food Co-op. Or maybe it’s just that great minds think alike. Anyhow, Whole Foods made a meat-enriched take on these African flavors of peanut and spice. It was tasty stuff and creative enough to earn them the “Best use of a Food Pantry” award for its utilization of peanut butter.

Then there was the Thai turkey chili. It was delicious, to be sure. Personally, I was less crazy about the coconut jalapeno cornbread that came with it. But one thing was clear, this dish required a few ingredients that might not be so easy to pick up at a mass market grocery. Still, it was delicious enough on its own for the judges to award the “Best Taste” prize to Jennifer Hewes of The Point Restaurant.

My personal favorite was problematic to some attendees who steadfastly insisted that shepherd’s pie must be made with lamb. And those critics aren’t wrong. However, regardless of what you called this dish, it was delicious. And yes, it was made by Kizzy Williams of Allie B’s Cozy Kitchen. You want to hear simple?

1 bag mixed vegetables
3 pounds ground beef
1 pack taco seasoning
1 jar of taco sauce
1 bag of shredded cheese
6 servings of instant mashed potatoes

The meat is browned, and combined with the spice blend. The vegetables are cooked. The instant mash are prepared. Then everything is layered and baked until the top layer of potatoes are crispy.

It sounds inauspicious. I get it. And in the wrong hands, I’m sure it could be a disaster. But take a look at this scoop.

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Not only did this get the “Simplest Recipe” award from the judges, it also was the people’s choice award. And it always fills me with hope when the people’s choice lines up with my favorite. That happened recently with the wings from 20 North at the Schenectady Wing Walk, and it may have happened at Yesterday’s Chowder Fest in Troy too. But that’s another story.


* Answer: the one with the great crust, obviously.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2016 10:02 am

    Call it Cottage Pie. Because that’s what is. Pedantry averted.

  2. Karin permalink
    October 10, 2016 10:22 am

    I second Dave’s suggestion. Ground beef is “cottage pie.” Ground lamb is “shepherd’s pie.” The taco seasonings are totally “off piste,” but no doubt very tasty! And much easier than chopping mushrooms, onions, carrots, celery and garlic. Not all that arduous, but for someone coming home to hungry children after a grinding day, perhaps just too much fuss.

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