The First Annual Kitchen Fest

Last week I was home in Texas (ah, Texas!) to visit the fam. My sister, Kate, just got back from a 2-year teaching gig in China, and as it happens, both she and I are really into cooking at the moment. Long before I arrived on site, we had agreed that we might spend basically my entire visit cooking. And it turns out that's what we did.

We sauteed. We pureed. We seeded. We boiled and roasted and baked. We also goofed around. There was some Whitney Houston, and some Journey. Also a cucumber-microphone.

Somewhere around day 2, deep into the pasta-rolling phase, I asked her what I should call this event for my blog.

"I could call it, um, Kitchen Fest '09?" I said.

Kate gasped. "We should have a Kitchen Fest every year!"

I gasped. "That is the best idea ever!"

We fell deep into discussions of exactly what Kitchen Fest entailed and how to commemorate it.

"We could have t-shirts that said Kitchen Fest," Kate said.

"No, aprons!"

"With badges!"

Kate was in favor of having our aprons read "Co-founder" in the event that Kitchen Fest eventually expands to include other participants. But I personally feel that this is against the spirit of Kitchen Fest. While we were negotiating this, Mark happened into the kitchen.

"Are you playing Kitchen Fest?" he asked.

"Playing?!" I said. "We're not playing!" said Kate.

And thus Kitchen Fest was born.

We have every intention of repeating it next summer. Currently on the slate for 2010 is canning, though that's certainly not set in stone. Here's what we made this year:

This recipe was already a big success for me on the home front, and in this wider showing it did not disappoint. Friends and family alike declared it delicious. If you use this recipe, I think it's best to remove a few big spoonfuls of stock before pureeing, so you wind up with a nice, thick texture. Also the cream is, for me, not essential.

We added a bit of wheat flour to the dough, with ok results, I think. We used three fillings: Alton Brown's meatloaf filling, a spinach ricotta filling, and a butternut squash and carmelized onion filling that was my personal favorite.

By the time we were done (and we did this a lot) we thought we had developed a good hand at making the dough reach the right consistency. I feel like I haven't perfected ravioli yet, though... sounds like there's more rolling in my future.

Sorry, I don't have a picture of this one. But let me just tell you that it was phenomenal. It totally overwhelmed the ravioli, but that was ok, because it was just... so... fantastic! It was perhaps a little too spicy; we didn't have chili flake, so we used red pepper instead and cut back on the amount... but perhaps not enough. Red pepper is wonderfully healthy, though, so in the future I may try to just tone it down instead of going over to chili flake.

Chicken Stock

Yes, there's a chicken somewhere in that pot. I feel almost certain of it. This was Kate's recipe, so I don't have a link, but basically it goes like this: Wash a chicken. Chop some veggies. Boil them for a long, long, long, long time.

We let it go five hours, and the flavor was pretty darn wonderful. Afterwards, Kate cut the flesh off the chicken to use for soup, and it too was just delish.

Don't let the title fool you; these are dessert bars, plain and simple. They're like brownies, but with fruit. Yum! Look in the lower right, and you'll see the corner we sacrificed to immediate tasting. I'm looking forward to trying these with strawberries, or maybe blackberries. Although, to be clear, there was nothing wrong with the raspberry filling. It was positively delectable.

And there you have Kitchen Fest '09. I'm willing to declare it a great success, because I had fun with my family and also learned a few things. As for Kitchen Fest 2010, well... does anyone know where I can get some custom aprons?

Good Business and Adequate Salsa

The other day at Borders I was browsing the tables up front and came across this interesting find: America's Most Wanted Recipes.

It's a collection of recipes from popular restaurants, like Chili's, the Olive Garden, and KFC. What a great idea, I thought.

Because it is. An interesting book, one that should appeal to a lot of people--even people outside the normal cookbook market. A good seller.

I flipped through the table of contents and found exactly one recipe I really, really wanted: Chili's salsa. And then I did a thing that I perhaps should not have done:

I copied it down.

Ok, yes, I know this was wrong. But it was literally the only recipe I wanted. And after I went home, I made a discovery. The recipe was very, very marginally different from this recipe, found all over the web:

Chili's Salsa Copycat Recipe

1 14.5 oz. can tomatoes with green chiles
1 14.5 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
4 tsp diced jalepeno
1/4 cup diced onion
3/4 tsp garlic salt
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp sugar

1. Pulse fresh vegetables in food processor.
2. Add everything else and process.

This information cast a new light on America's Most Wanted Recipes. Was it possible that the author didn't actually develop the recipes for the book? That instead he just copied info from the web, tweaked it, collated it into a nice format, and sent it off to be published? I don't actually know how true this is, of course--I only read one recipe--but it seemed possible.

When I encounter something like this, I feel slightly... irked, even ripped off--as though the author were cheating at life. Hey, what gives, I want to say. Why do you get to be in the front of the bookstore?

But then I have to slow down, climb off my high horse, and remember that:

  • Bringing a product to a new market is a valuable service.
By putting together that book, the author brought those recipes to a new demographic, the demographic of people who doesn't search the web for copycat recipes, but might be interested anyway. That's valuable. And if he can earn some money from that, well, he deserves it. But it doesn't really even matter if he deserves it because...
  • The success of others does not impoverish me.
There's no reason in the world for me to feel jealous or annoyed when somebody else thinks of a good way to make money--or publication, or critical acclaim, or any of the other things I sometimes get jealous of. Even if it seems to me that what they're doing doesn't have value, or that their effort was not commensurate with the reward--well, who cares? Why should I begrudge them their success? The bottom line is: I shouldn't. An the end of the day, they're them and I'm me. I can find my own way to success and be happy for them too.
Once I got my head on straight, I took a look at my purloined salsa recipe. It was darn easy; apart from chopping a few meager veggies (which I like), and cleaning my food processor, there was basically nothing to do. I whipped it up and tried it. It was good.

But it wasn't just right.

I let the flavors meld overnight, but it still didn't taste like Chili's to me. So I packed some up in a ramekin and decided to taste test it against the real thing.

For those of you who knew me pre-2002, you're probably thinking, "Hey! What's going on here? Jane hates salsa!" The truth is, Mark's been training me up: first on chili, then salsa, and now we're up to crazy things like chicken wings. So I was excited to see how close I had come to the real thing.

Just from the picture you can see a few differences. Mine is chunkier. Also, they didn't seed their jalepenos, and I did. (like I said, I have a history as a spice wimp. I panicked.) Also, their chunks of pepper are a softer, more mossy green, meaning that they were cooked rather than fresh.

But the real differences were in the taste. Chili's salsa tastes miles more fresh and spicy. After a bite of mine, I can distinctly taste garlic and cumin, whereas the Chili's seasoning was more of a piece with the whole dish. Theirs was also much brighter; I wondered if it might contain some lemon juice. Mark thought it might have hot sauce.

So, the upshot is that we have a laundry list of things to try with the next batch. Roast the peppers. Leave the seeds. Try hot sauce and lemon juice. And Mark's interested in trying some other peppers, not just jalepenos.

I believe I can conquer that salsa. Just give me time...