Every year for four years, Cindy Gershen’s Walnut Creek Wellness Challenge has held the Healthy Mayors cook off at a farmers market somewhere in Contra Costa County. All the County Mayors are invited to get their favorite chef and compete for a really big, heavy cup and the title as winner of the cook off. Cindy always strives for a very healthy bent to the cook off adhering to her organizations’ philosophy of eating better and exercising more. This year’s theme was all about following the USDA healthy school lunch guidelines for kid’s lunches.
When the Mayor of Pleasant Hill asked me to represent the City as the chef to compete in the Mayors Healthy cook off with him a couple days before the event, I thought, sure why not, sounds like fun. When I got to Todos Santos Park where the event was held during the Thursday evening farmers market it was packed. Aside from the market and the cook off, the band was the Journey tribute band, Evolution, and there were a lot of fans there to see them. I thought I was arriving a little early but I was wrong.
Armed with my little butane burner and some pots and pans I gazed around at the chefs and restaurants represented in the cook off with their battery of 8 burner, propane fueled Wolf ranges and gas powered grills and had a fleeting thought that I may possibly be out of my comfort zone. Chocolate quickly came to mind but that thought was quelled by the nausea arising through my core as a tiny flicker of fear flame set in. I pasted a huge smile on my face as I unloaded my van and found our station. John Hanecak, the Mayor of Pleasant Hill, was ready to rock and roll as soon as I told him what to do. We also had our secret weapon, a student from the Serendipity Hospitality and Restaurant Program at Mt. Diablo High School by the name of Nancy.
We quickly moved toward the table with our little “chopped” box full of our ingredients that we were able to use in the competition and my brain went into prep mode. We had ground turkey, quinoa, a lot of veggies including Dino kale and okra, and a lot of fruits. I blindly grabbed any of the “pantry extras” that were offered, vinegar, a lemon, whatever I could get my hands on. Our goal was to fix a nice, tasty lunch for students fitting into the guidelines set forth by our all knowing government. We had an hour and a half to do it. We had okra and kale for the kids. We needed to have a presentation on a little form fitted lunch tray, a nice platter presentation of our dishes and ten plates for the judges to taste and judge us by. We also had to have a good story about our town and what we were doing to enhance the health of the townsfolk in P. Hill.
Quickly I set John and Nancy to chopping staples, peppers, onions..Nancy made a delightful salsa and John was a great chopper. I figured we could sauté the cooked quinoa with okra and garlic and add seasonings. You were allowed to bring your own and I did. One of my secret weapons is Bragg’s amino acids and I doused the quinoa in that. Growing up we always had rice and my Dad was a freak for soy sauce on his rice so it only stands to reason that we all were. Quinoa and Braggs is my new, improved healthy version of that combo. I sautéed the turkey with onions and garlic and a lot of summer squash until it was browned and caramelly luscious and added some to the quinoa and decided at that moment that we were having stuffed peppers. We cut red bells in half and scooped out the seeds and pith and mounded in the turkey mixture and steamed them in a pot on top of our sweet little burner in an ala minute broth of water and herbs and of course, Braggs.
As we were madly chopping and dicing the judges were roaming around. Five were school aged kids and five were food professionals from our communities. I asked the kids if they like kale and got no response. What about raw kale I asked. Again dead stares….mmmm “You all just come back in a few and we will have you not only eating it but loving it” I boldly exclaimed. We chopped the raw kale and tossed it with halved cherries, diced white nectarines and halved cherry tomatoes and tossed it in balsamic vinaigrette. Meanwhile we had our cooked peppers and we topped them with Nancy’s salsa and a quick little drizzle of chimi churri sauce made my way out of parsley, basil and tarragon mixed with a lot of lemon and olive oil and of course, drum roll… Braggs. We were actually done a bit ahead and we scooped melon balls out of an incredibly sweet orange fleshed melon and tossed them with plums and strawberries for a very simple fruit salad. Kids love melon balls but if you have the same melon just sliced, they may not be so inclined. Just saying. I own one, a kid that is and have the insider scoop on that kind of info.
As the judges inched their way down the tables toward ours, tasting and talking while scratching notes as to how well the contestants stuck to the guidelines, our crew, the three of us, were madly plating up their sample plates and basically hoping for the best. I did feel a bit of a responsibility and hoped that we would come out ok. After making their way through each City’s offerings the judges sat in a circle and spoke amongst themselves. Meanwhile the band is screaming about lights going out in the city and the crowd is singing along at full volume. Farmers are trading cash for their goods and energy is sizzling along with the temperatures while we wait for results. My mom and dad were about to leave, enough Journey already, as my sister told them that the announcements were being made about who won. We all got herded up onto the big stage and John and I never expected to place at all so we are working the crowd on the stage setting up meetings and talking shop. All of the sudden the announcer is down to first place and Anna Fisher is telling me that I really need to listen to this, I mean really listen to this. At first I felt admonished for whispering but then a little chill went up my spine at about the same time as we heard them announce Pleasant Hill as the first place winning city. John and I looked at each other in disbelief and just started laughing. What a thrill it was to win that competition. As we exited the stage we had a whole passel of new friends and lunch dates. My mom started crying and my Dad is pumping my hand and John’s and telling us “not bad guys”.
So our claim to fame, we won first prize at the 4th Annual Healthy Mayors cook off and the really big, really heavy cups sits proudly at Pleasant Hill City Hall for the next year until the next cook off and the next winner but until then….We Won!!
Red Bell Peppers Stuffed w/ Quinoa and Ground Turkey w/ fresh salsa and chimi churri sauce
(Recipe from the Mayors cook off 2012)
1 pound ground turkey
4 green onions, sliced
2 summer squash, cubed
½ red bell, diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté garlic, onions and turkey until turkey is browned. Add vegetables and sauté for 10 minutes until semi soft.
3 cups cooked quinoa
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 okra, sliced
½ red bell, diced
1 carrot, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Bragg’s liquid amino acids or salt to taste
Heat a sauté pan and put olive oil in and heat oil. Sauté vegetables for a few minutes and add quinoa. Season w/ Bragg’s or salt
Mix turkey and quinoa mixtures together. Cut off tops and level out bottoms of 8 red bells. Clean out center of seeds and pith. Fill with turkey and quinoa mixture. Place in a deep soup pot and fill up to about one third of the water up the peppers with water. Add 2 sliced green onions and 2 tablespoons Bragg’s amino acids to the water. Simmer about 15 minutes until peppers are soft to touch and filling is heated through. Garnish with salsa and chimi churri sauce. Serves 8 generously.
½ red onion, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
½ jalapeño, chopped
Juice and zest of 1 or 2 lemons
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
Salt to taste
Chimi churri Sauce
1 bunch parsley, rough chop
1 bunch cilantro, rough chop
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 whole lemons, ends cut off and cut into 8th’s
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste
Place all ingredients into blender and puree until liquefied. Season w/ salt and adjust acids to taste.
Makes about 2 cups. Put into squeeze bottle and refrigerate. Will last at least a week in fridge.