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View From Judges Table: Chowder

October 13, 2016

Wow. It’s Thursday already. It’s amazing how quickly a week flies by when it contains two holidays. Of course, yesterday was Yom Kippur, which meant I spent the day fasting. Just Monday I was writing about the important work done by The Food Pantries of the Capital District. Let me tell you, spending a day without food makes that work seem even more urgent.

Even after a large break-fast meal of carbs, fat, and caffeine, the lingering effects of effectively just skipping two meals is palpable. And that was with an energy conserving nap in the middle of the day.

So please, check out what they are doing, and think about what you can do to help.

Today, I’m still playing catch up with relatively recent stories. I never did get to tell you what it was like behind the scenes at Troy Chowder Fest this year. In the past I had heard stories from my food blogging friends about the perils of this event. Fortunately, I did not experience any of the ills as my friends did in year’s past. And I think that may be largely attributed to one thing.

Reuben chowder. You know, corned beef and sauerkraut. Those two amazing slow foods that go brilliantly on a sandwich with the acidity of the fermented cabbage cutting the meltingly tender beef fat. Well, apparently when you put them together in a soup, it all kind of falls apart.

Luckily this year was Reuben chowder free.

In Troy’s Chowder Fest competitors are judged on two things: taste and originality. And they are equally weighted. So you have a lot of places that are swinging for the fences to try and make the most original “chowder” they can muster.

And that can leave you with the question, well, what is a chowder anyway? Or, as we suspected, chefs think of some interesting idea, and then try to chowder it up. I think that’s the only way to account for the volume of corn we saw in many delicious soups which probably would have been better without all that corn.

The winners can be found on the Troy Chowder Fest facebook page here.

Let’s start with this. The judging for Chowder Fest was blind. We were sequestered in the Troy BID conference room with numbered judging sheets, samples were brought in from all the participants, and they were given to us in relatively quick succession. I’m not sure how the order was chosen.

The “vegetarian” category only had three entries, and really only one of them was notable. And it was beyond notable. It was kind of badass. Because it was red. But not red from tomatoes. It was red from beets, and maybe some chard. It was well seasoned, and actually quite tasty. Fox and I were musing aloud about who could have made this. And my hunch was Rachel Mabb at The Ruck. Because I know that while she does all kinds of delicious meaty things, she’s also busting out killer vegetarian fare too.

Was it original? You bet! And tasty as heck. That’s why this vegetarian chowder came in not just in the top of its category, but in the top three as well. Oh yeah, and it totally came from The Ruck.

I’m actually surprised that Bountiful Bread didn’t come up as People’s Choice. This entry from Albany really brought its A-game to the event. Competing in the seafood chowder category, they went for a brothy chowder packed with seafood, including a whole blackened shrimp garnish. But there were mussels and crawfish in the broth in addition to a lot of well-cooked and well-seasoned vegetables.

We tasted a bunch of seafood chowders where the seafood was hard to see. But this one was in it to win it. I think that also showed in the booth design, for which Bountiful Bread won another prize. And the chowder was good enough to put in second place overall.

Plus, the shop also made these cheddar cupcakes with an old bay crème fraîche icing. These were topped with a deep fried bay leaf. Holy cow. I was dying to try one, but after judging 16 chowders, I couldn’t put more food in my mouth.

Actually, that last part is a lie. I bumped into long time Tour de Ice Cream participant Chantelle and she convinced me to have my very first scoop from The Dutch Udder. She says it didn’t require too much convincing. But she knows her ice cream, so I respect her opinion on such matters.

As it turned out the crowd favorite was McGreivey’s Restaurant, with its buffalo chicken chowder. This may have been a case where the people visiting the booth ended up getting a better version of this dish than the judges. Fried buffalo chicken bits were being made all afternoon from a portable deep fryer. So they were invariably hot and crunchy at the tent.

The judges got something that had been sitting around for too long, and a lot of that fried goodness was gone. So it goes.

But as far as we were concerned, the apex of taste and originality came from Parti Events & Banquet Hall. Never heard of it? Either had I. But Brad Stevens from B-Rads is a big part of it, and the chowder that won was made by Brad. What was it?

Well, how’s this for original. Pea, bacon, and shrimp chowder. Yeah. It sounds weird. And it was a remarkable color of green. But it worked. It really worked. The thick cut bacon was cut into pea sized cubes, tender sweet peas popped when you bit into them, and the earthy, sweet taste of the main vegetable went beautifully with the sweet taste of the shrimp.

Now I was told by the woman tabulating the scores there was a razor thin margin between the first and second place finishers, so it was definitely the originality of this that put Brad and Parti Events over the top.

Congrats to everyone who cooked up tons and tons of chowder for this event. And those who had the fortitude to wait in lines all day to get some of this goodness in your mouth should be congratulated too.

In the end, we tasted 16 chowders. Only one buffalo chicken. No reuben chowders. And really only two that I thought were actually bad.

A bunch suffered from being underseasoned. There were a few with great broth, but where the deliciousness of the base was drowned out by either too many potatoes or too much corn. One had a thick roux that separated into an oily mess. Some needed to be thicker. Others needed to be thinner. Some could have used a finer chop on the veg. Others had veg that had been chopped into oblivion.

It was fascinating to see and taste all these chowders side by side. I’d totally judge this again in the future. And for those who are interested in coming out next year, my advice is to come early. Like super duper early. Well before it starts. Because the lines are long, but the longest might be the ticket line. The smart chowder heads are the ones who try to be first in line.

Now, if judging sounds like fun to you… you are all welcome to join me this Saturday. We’re judging apple cider donuts. And it’s open to everyone who wants to do it. You just need to pay for your donuts and provide your own transportation. But all the details are here. Hope you can make it.

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