Thursday, November 19, 2009
There are things I do at 3,500 feet up in the mountains that would never even enter my mind at sea level. Last Sunday at 5 PM I showed up at our local restaurant - Descanso Junction - ready to kick ass. I had entered myself into my first-ever cooking contest and I was determined to walk away with first prize.
I had my world famous Elvis Pizza ready to go. How could I possibly lose? I walked in the door, laden with my pizza gear. "I'm ready for you," I told the owner Tammy. "Are you ready for me?"
I set up in a spot in the kitchen in back. First order of business - pizza stone in the oven. A pizza stone looks like a manhole cover and weighs about the same. Out of my backpack and into the oven it went. The stone would need at least a half hour to absorb the oven heat. Second order of business - caramelize my onions. I had thin-sliced wedges of onions ready to go. Olive oil into a frying pan, then the onions.
I got them going, then dashed over to my corner of the kitchen to get set up. Onto the counter went my covered pizza dough (which I had made and brought to a rise back home), my pulled pork (from a six pound pork butt I had slow-roasted two days before), my barbecue sauce, Ranch dressing, shredded cabbage, a wooden pizza peel, it goes on and on ...
I flew back to the cooking range just in time to prevent my onions from turning into Cajun ashes. By this time, the other contestants were setting up. They had brought things in pots that only needed warming up. And here I was with my Manhattan Pizza Project that demanded precision timing. Rookie mistake. I should have entered my world famous cassoulet.
But no, think big, think pizza. Things in pots - that's for wimps. This is my Elvis Pizza, after all, inspired by the King of Rock 'n Roll.
"I thought that would have been peanut butter and banana," one of the contestants joked.
"That was my first version," I responded, almost with a straight face. Then I got smart. A barbecue pizza. Stand outdoors at Graceland and inhale and you'll see what I mean. Okay, I've never been near Graceland or Memphis, but I assume I'm striking a chord with every music lover who recalls hearing "Hound Dog" for the first time and comes to the realization that the world will never be the same.
Back in my corner of the kitchen, I sprinkled flour on the metal counter top and plopped on my pizza dough and rolled it out according to exact NASA specifications. My sauce and toppings and implements were right where I needed them to be. Then back over to the range for my onions. Sweet as candy. Into a dish they went and back over to my corner of the kitchen. Final assembly would come later.
The appetizer portion of the contest got underway. I took a seat with the other contestants out front. I think it was a soup that led off the contest. But not just any soup. This was family soup. Soup that the Crusaders had brought back from the Holy Land, soup that had traveled on the Mayflower, that had tamed the West.
Oh, crap! I thought, as the contestants reeled off their recipe narratives to the five judges at the table. I had come prepared with a crisp two-sentence delivery (or one long sentence with commas and conjunctions) and here they were expecting 500 pages of John Galt from "Atlas Shrugged."
The appetizer portion of the contest wrapped up, and the first contestant from the entree portion showed up with his wimpy pot. Time to go back and get crackin'. I was in the number four spot. Plenty of time, no rush.
Tammy poked her head in the kitchen. One of the contestants was a no-show, she informed me. I would be going on at number three.
Rule number one in any cooking contest: Only show up with things in pots, the wimpier the better.
"No problem," I shot back, lying through my teeth. My dough had been lying on the counter too long and I perceived the ugly possibility of a crust build-up. No time to worry about that, as I grabbed my box of corn meal and dusted my pizza peel. Then I moved the dough to the peel, crimped the edges, and started applying my sauce and my pulled pork and caramelized onions.
Thyme! Where's my fresh thyme? No time! I sprinted to the oven with my creation, opened the oven door, and slid my pizza onto the stone. The pizza took off on the stone like a vehicle on glare ice. A small portion of the pizza was drooping off the stone. I stuck my bare hands into a 500 degree oven and managed to pull the pizza back, but now it was no longer circular in shape.
A rustic pizza, I would call it, if worse came to worst. Here I was dealing with a strange oven, hoping like hell the dough wouldn't come out burnt on the outside and raw on the inside.
"How are things going?" Tammy asked. "Right on schedule," I replied in an unbelievably calm and reassuring voice. A good cook can handle any contingency. More than a year before, I had failed a driver's test when my brain went into panic mode and I nearly failed my second time out for the same reason. Now here I was, cool as a cucumber (and there just happened to be a cucumber in the kitchen for comparison). No matter how this contest turned out, I had already passed with flying colors.
Now I had my plating station set up. Onto five plates went shredded cabbage. I inspected my pizza. It was now or never. I slid in my peel and extracted my creation without incident. Then I set the peel with my pizza on the counter. I had found my thyme and began applying it. JoAnn, who works as a waitress at the place (and who had entered her jalapenos wrapped in bacon in the appetizer portion of the contest) walked through and exclaimed how gorgeous it looked. Another contestant said the same thing, then another.
My confidence was returning. Now the final touch, Ranch dressing. It wasn't coming out of the bottle like it was supposed to. I stuck in two fingers and began applying the goop by flicking it with my fingers, a la Jackson Pollock. That was the intention, for the Ranch dressing to create a Jackson Pollock drip painting effect.
"It looks beautiful," Tammy enthused. She suggested I take it out to the judges unsliced on the peel, then I could take it back to the kitchen for slicing and plating.
"Ready?" I asked.
All set, she replied.
Out I went with my pizza. I angled up the peel, edge down on the counter, for the judges' viewing pleasure.
During the appetizer portion of the contest, I had sort of assembled my Crusaders-Mayflower-John Galt narrative in my head, but I hadn't had any time to practice it.
"So this is what it must be like being on the 'Iron Chef,'" I opened. Pregnant pause. "Hi, I'm Bobby Flay."
Thank heaven everyone was laughing.
"Are any of you judges Yankees fans?" I asked, pointing to the Red Sox cap I was wearing. One of the judges raised his hand. I jokingly flipped my cap around, then flipped it back.
Then I opened with my original crisp two-sentence (or one long sentence) spiel: "This is my Elvis Pizza, inspired by the King of Rock 'n Roll, drawing from two great cooking traditions - Italian for its pizza and southern for its barbecue, re-conceptualized in Southern California, home of reinvention."
"Think of pizza as an open-face sandwich," I continued. "Anything goes."
Nodding heads. A good sign.
"I came up with my first version about four years ago in New Jersey," I adlibbed. "We had company coming unexpectedly for dinner and I rounded up whatever was in the fridge." Left-over pizza dough, barbecue sauce, a single pork chop, some onions, Ranch dressing.
"My wife liked it so much," I went on to say, "that she divorced me."
That had them rolling in the aisles. For the record my former wife is a very wonderful person. Anyway, here I was in southern California, where I refined my original inspiration, much to the delight of my new neighbors. I then explained how the meat on this particular pizza came from a slow-roasted pork butt, with enough left-overs for pulled pork sandwiches for the next five months.
"Bon appetite," I concluded. Next thing, I had the slices on plates with my shredded cabbage (which is traditional with pulled pork sandwiches). Plus more morsels for the other contestants in the audience.
"Fantastic presentation," people kept telling me. Elvis would be proud. Of course, I knew before I turned up that the other contestants would be bringing their A-game to the event. Anyone who loves cooking at home has at least one dish that is worthy of a spot on the Food Network. We got the best of the best tonight. It was my time to applaud the winner, not take a bow.
Would I do it again? Yes, definitely. With a pizza? What, are you crazy?
Wait, the winner from the dessert portion of the contest is talking to me. A pizza with Cuban pork, she suggests. Yes! Cuban pork. Maybe we can team up. Maybe we can ...