Thursday, August 2, 2012

Great Garlic Cook-Off at the Gilroy Garlic Festival: Creamy Bacon Mushroom and Spinach Accordion Ravioli

Gilroy Garlic Festival

Long before I began writing this blog I became involved in cooking contests.  After writing contest recipes for a couple of years I amassed such a collection that I felt the need to share them, and to make a very long story short, this blog was born. 

Even though contests always involve other competitors I really don’t look upon myself as competing against them.  I always feel like I am competing against myself in a contest to do my very best.  Sometimes my recipes come out on top, and sometimes they don’t.  In the past 8 years since I’ve been contesting I have won and lost both big and small contests, but through this process I have learned that win or lose, there is always a new challenge around the corner.

This last weekend I was invited to participate in the Gilroy Garlic Festival Cook-Off in gorgeous Gilroy, California.  This was my second time at this contest, the first one being in 2009.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Gilroy it is located in one of the most fertile areas in America, the Santa Clara Valley which is smack dab in the middle of this beautiful state.
Blooming artichokes in a field outside of Castroville, California

Since we had plans in LA after the competition, we decided to rent a car there and make the long yet scenic round trip.  Once we left the city the landscape started to change drastically.  For miles and miles of our trip both sides of the road were lined with mostly unidentified crops.  Every now and again some were marked with signs letting the curious passersby know what is being grown. 


These signs mostly identified almonds and strawberries, but there were also miles upon miles of vines heavily laden with beautiful white grapes which needed no introduction. It is no wonder that California is renowned for its wonderful food and drink; they have a never ending supply of the most beautiful ingredients that I have seen anywhere.

About four hours out of LA the highway we drove suddenly became littered with tomatoes that somehow made an early escape from the heavily loaded trucks that carried them.  It broke my heart to see so many beautiful ripe red tomatoes rotting in the sun.  Oh the potential salsa, tomato sauce and bruschetta that these juicy little beauties will never see.  We even joked about pulling over and scooping them up, but quickly decided that consuming road kill of any kind, even vegan, just wasn’t our style.

At about the six hour mark we began to smell the familiar scent of garlic which lingers heavily in the air during this time of year in Gilroy.  The first time we visited here, I was amazed that the scent of the freshly cut garlic was so strong in the area and how it reminded me of baking garlic bread.    It was good to be back. 

On Saturday morning we got up early after a lovely contestant dinner the night before.  We arrived at the festival’s cooking pavilion and unloaded our pots and pans that we had all painstakingly schlepped from home.  I had done my grocery shopping the night before and stored it in the hotel refrigerator only to have the more delicate of ingredients freeze and turn black in spots.  It was at this point that I realized that it isn’t a proper cook off experience without a crisis or two and just made do with what I had.

The cooking itself was a real pleasure.  At Gilroy each contestant is given their own assistant known as a chaperone who is at your disposal before and during the cook-off.   This year my chaperone was Frank who took great care of me from making sure there was pleasant conversation during the dinner to politely fending off camera crews during crucial cooking times. 

After two hours we turned in our dishes one at a time to the table of five who were waiting to judge each recipe.  My dish was for Creamy Bacon Mushroom and Spinach Accordion Ravioli which is a fancy way of saying individual folded lasagnas. 


Another version of my Accordion Ravioli with Italian Sausage
I love this little dish and have made it several times in preparation of entering it into this contest, but the judges seemed to think it was a little heavy on this hot summer day.  Fair enough.  Thinking that a beautiful trip was the only prize I was taking from this competition, I cleaned my area and packed my stuff so I could join my daughter waiting in the audience and enjoy the antics of the MC, Dan Green who is an area news anchor and all around really funny guy.

An hour or so later after the other seven finalists had turned in their dishes for judging, we were all assembled on stage along with the garlic queen and her court for the awarding of prizes.  Dan announced that third place belonged to Renee Pokorny and her Garlic Lamb Meatballs in Indian Spiced Sauce over Coconut Garlic Infused Rice.  I didn’t get to try one of these but they looked amazing.
Renee Pokorny

Second place went to of all people . . . me!  I was totally confused after the judge’s comments thinking that I didn’t stand a chance in hell of taking home a prize.  The garlic queen shoved a plaque in my hand and someone (a garlic princess I’m almost sure) plopped a garlic crown on my head and the “paparazzi” took over snapping my photo and calling my name.

Just about that time, Dan looked over and announced to everyone that he had made a mistake.  Knowing what a jokester he was I stood there, garlic crown on head and plaque in hand waiting for the punch line.  Well, the only punch line was that I was not in fact the 2nd place winner.  The prize actually went to Veronica Callahan for her Golden Garlic Chicken-Broccoli Rabe Lasagna Cups. 
Veronica Callaghan

Still not sure what was going on, I wondered if it could it be that someone had put ecstasy in the judges’ water and they had awarded me 1st prize?  I suddenly knew how Carrie White must have felt standing on the stage covered in pig’s blood.  Awkward!  Ok, it wasn’t nearly that bad but it sounds good doesn't it?
Laureen Pittman

As 1st place was announced and Laureen Pittman (Crispy Pork Belly with Caramelized Onion and Fig Agrodolce and Creamy Polenta) didn’t sound anything like Karen Harris, I realized that the only person that felt more confused than I was the poor MC who had read off the wrong name.  He couldn’t have apologized more and been nicer to me about the mistake he had made. 

Don’t worry Dan; I later discovered that somehow the super cute set of cutlery that I had brought for my presentation dish and subsequent blog posts had been removed from my tray never to be seen again.  Now that’s something that really bummed me out.

My daughter and I were then swept off the stage by one of the chairpersons for a lunch in the VIP dining area as a consolation prize which would have really been nice if we had been hungry.   It was also a shame that I was too shell-shocked to talk to Don Christopher with Christopher Ranch whose family started this festival and was sitting at the end of my table. 

I would have loved to have told him about how awesome I think his company’s garlic products are and how I have a gorgeous single niece just in case he has an extra son lying around that he wants to marry off.   Sorry Kheili!  Next time, I promise

Sunday morning with all of the excitement behind us, we packed up and headed back to LA and to family and friends who waited for us there.  At the encouragement of several fun, fabulous and slightly “fortified” contesting friends the night before, we decided to take the PCH 1 and enjoy the beauty of the coast, and boy were they ever right. 

Somewhere along the drive it occurred to me that whoever said “The journey is the destination" must have traveled this gorgeous road; so to heck with not winning a prize and to bigger heck with that $8.00 worth of cute cutlery that you my blog readers will never see here on this site.


 

Pacific Coast Highway 1

It is grand sites like Big Sur and the beautiful crashing sapphire waves of the Pacific that make me realize how small we all are and how insignificant that all is.  One thing I know for sure is that we win some, we lose some and we all make mistakes.  Now, on to the next contest!
My plated dish at the festival








Creamy Bacon Mushroom and Spinach Accordion Ravioli

For the Sauce:

8 slices smoked bacon
1 small onion, cut in half and then thinly sliced across
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 – 8 ounce Portobello mushroom, sliced into thirds then thinly sliced across
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup medium dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh basil, plus extra for garnish
2 – 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly milled black pepper

For the Ravioli:

8 No boil lasagna noodles
1 teaspoon salt
10 ounces ricotta cheese
8 ounces shredded Italian blend cheese, divided
1 egg, beaten
1 pinch grated nutmeg
1 pinch white pepper
16 large leaves of spinach, stems removed

For the Sauce:

Place the bacon in a large skillet set over medium high heat.  Cook bacon until it is crispy.  Remove from the pan and set aside to cool.  After it has cooled chop into small pieces and set aside.

In the same skillet with the bacon drippings, sauté the onions over medium heat until they are slightly transparent, approximately 3 – 5 minutes.  Add the butter and mushrooms and sauté for approximately 3 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute before adding the wine, rosemary, thyme and basil. Cook for 1 minute longer before adding the chopped bacon, cream, salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

For the Ravioli:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

White sauce is simmering, but a large stock pot filled with water and 1 teaspoon of salt on to boil.  When the water boils, carefully drop in the noodles water to boil for 5 minutes.

While the noodles are boiling, place the ricotta, shredded cheese, egg, nutmeg and pepper in a medium size bowl, mix well.

Remove the noodles from the water and lay out flat in a single layer on a plastic cutting board or platter.  Working from one of the short ends of the pasta, lay a spinach leaf on the very end, folding it so that it doesn’t hang over the edge of the pasta.  Top the spinach with a tablespoon of the cheese mixture.  Fold the noodle over the top of the cheese; repeat with another layer of spinach and cheese.  Finally fold the end of the pasta over the top of the cheese until you have 2 layers of spinach and cheese and the pasta is folded into thirds.  Repeat with the remaining pasta and cheese.
 
Spray a 9 x 13” baking dish with non-stick cooking spray.  Ladle about 1/2 of a cup of sauce into the bottom of the dish.  Lay the ravioli side by side in the dish, ladle the remaining sauce over the top.  Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. 

Place in the oven and bake uncovered for approximately 15 - 20 minutes or until the pasta is heated through and the top is brown and bubbly. 

Remove from the oven and sprinkle with fresh basil.

Serves 4 for a main dish or 8 for an appetizer

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