Tuesday, June 24, 2014

April's Eatin'

I'm down in Florida visiting my best friend. Before I came down, she told me that she wanted to take me on a food tour. Amazingly enough, I've never been on one so of course I was game. She sent me a link to MiamiCulinaryTours.com and out of the 3 or 4 options, we both agreed that the Little Havana Food Tour was the one. We both love Caribbean cuisine and judging from the tour's description, we were going to learn just as much about Cuban and Cuban-American culture then we were about the food. So $56 later, (minus $10 w/ the offer code TWITTER) we were all set for a day of food and fun. 

Throughout the entire 2.5 hr tour, I photographed everything. The food and anything else I thought was interesting. The pictures are below and all I can do is hope that they captured this amazing experience! 

We met our tour guide on Calle Ocho (8th Street) in a contemporary art gallery (one of many in Little Havanna now). We checked out the amazing art and then we were taken to our first stop: El Pub. After we walked past the little window (for coffee to-go) and a huge food counter (for the regulars) we were escorted to a long table in the dining room. Above us, the World Cup was playing and then little shots of Cuban coffee were put before us. Our tour guide said this was the perfect introduction to Cuban Culture. Then came the food! 

First course was Empanadas filled with ground beef and onions. Our guide made a point to tell us that they are handmade from scratch and even though empanadas are really from Argentina (I kind of want to confirm this) they are very popular on Calle Ocho and in Cuban cooking. These were quite tasty! 

After the empanadas, out came our 2nd dish. She said the name a few times and I wish I had written it down, though let's be honest, I probably would've butchered it anyway. But I do know they were Tostones or green plantains filled with chicken. The chicken was cooked in spices with a little tomato and onion. It was quite different but delicious. After eating these I wish I had Guy Fiere privileges because I wanted to go into the kitchen to learn how to get the plantains to form into these little cups. Quite the mystery. 

After El Pub we walked a few doors down to another authentic Cuban restaurant for one of the most famous Cuban dishes: The Cuban Sandwich. I've eaten this sandwich a few times but never like this. On the tour we got "The Midnight Sandwich" which was the Cuban but with a sweeter bread. See just like any other Cuban Sandwich this one had roasted pork, ham, cheese, pickles and mustard. But we were told that this version was created for the cigar makers who would get off work at midnight. They would be hungry and looking for something filling but with some sweetness since it was dessert time. Well a chef created the Sammy you see below and it became so popular that people started asking for it this way; the "midnight" way. I wasn't expecting to like it but it was quite good. The bread reminded me of potato bread and it somehow worked with the other ingredients. 

After eating ALOT, it was the perfect time to take a break from food and explore the other cool things Little Havanna had to offer. The first was a real cigar factory. 

This gentleman Pedro Bello Sr. gets to sit outside of his well known cigar store because he is the holder of the Crystal Leaf Award; the most prestigious in the cigar industry. Mr. Bello is treated as a tourist attraction while his son and grandson continue to hand roll cigars inside. 

Not sure if this is his son or grandson but man he was hot. (I'm a sucker for a nice smile)

After the cigar shop, we walked through Domino Park which was set up for the elders in the neighborhood to play...you guessed it! Dominoes! And chess. The integrity of the park is upheld by a few rules that include: no gambling, no drinking, no weapons, just to name a few. So hustlers were not welcome, just men and women who truly enjoyed the game. 

Now, we were told, it was time for dessert! Our guide took us to a traditional Cuban bakery for a delicious sweet pastry (didn't get the name of this one either) filled with a Guava jelly. She told us this pastry is usually eaten for breakfast, amazingly enough, and the even more popular version has cheese mixed in with the filling. I would love to try that kind but this...it was perfection! 

We left the bakery and ended up in a fruit stand/juice bar. We were given a juice pressed from Cuban Sugar Cane to wash down our pastry. It's pictured below. I was surprised to find it sweet but not too sweet and therefore quite refreshing! 

The fruits available came from Cuba and other parts of the Caribean and South America. A couple folks on the tour purchased some and a few even got  coconut water to go.

Last but not least we ended up in Azucar Ice Cream Shop (azucaricecream.com) for one more round of dessert. This stop on the tour was a bit different from the others. The shop hadn't been open for decades, there was adequate seating and credit cards were accepted. However, this shop is on Calle Ocho because a Cuban-American woman named Suzy Batlle opened it after working in business for years to honor her Abuelita (or Grandmother). Her Grandmother had a passion for creating ice cream flavors with Cuban influence and Suzy wanted to share this deliciousness with the masses. Bless her! 

The flavor I ended up with was Cafe con Leche which, interestingly enough, was topped with Oreos. One word: phenomenal! 

But before settling on that flavor we were told that we could try as many as we wanted and I swear I tried all that were available (about 24 each day) or close to it. Though as you can see from the flavor list, she has created TONS of unique combinations that places this shop far above the average. 

All in all, my first food tour exceeded my expectations. I was inspired in so many ways and it only made me want to do more. I'm hoping to continue this "April's Eatin'" portion of my blog with more food tour and restaurant experiences because any good cook has to get out there and eat! 

Friday, June 13, 2014

My First Cooking Competition


It's been ages since my last post, and I do have some recipes on the way, but I thought I'd take to my blog to share my experience participating in my first cooking competition.  This post is long, but it's the whole story! From start to finish. The good, the bad, and the tasty!

When I saw the email calling for cooks and chefs to compete in the Eat for Charity Event in DC, hosted by the American India Foundation, I knew I had to apply.  They basically were looking for someone just like me: amateur chef with a signature dish who wants to see how good their food really is.

Well that was me all right, and even though I knew that my Shrimp & Grits (pictured right) were definitely considered my "signature dish" and had to be my competition dish, I thought hmmmm "Shouldn't I make popcorn?" I mean, in case some of you don't know, I have a Gourmet Caramel Popcorn Business that needs to be promoted and I was not sure Mama Popcorn Queen would approve of this.

But then I quickly remembered why I chose to go into business with my Mom.  Even though she's tough and wants me focused only on Popcorn Queens, she still knows me better than anyone and she knew that I had to do this.  "Go ahead and apply," she said, "Just try to figure out some way to promote the biz."  And that was that.  I filled out the application and on May 15th I was sent an email saying I'd been selected as a contestant.  At that moment, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I just knew that I had been chosen and I wanted to win.

As we got closer to the competition (taking place on June 7th) more and more details about the event were shared and I got more and more nervous.  Here were the most nerve racking ones:

  • No cooking allowed on site. No hot plates, no refrigeration.
  • Each contestant had to prepare 150 small plates for 150 people.  Yikes!
  • You had to present your dish to 3 judges, 2 of which are well known chefs in the DC area, the other the owner of a Gourmet Food Market in Dupont Circle (There's your popcorn connection Mom!)

As much as these tid bits of information scared the crap out of me, I decided to embrace them as challenges that real food competitors face.  As I came up with my budget, shopped for 150 people, and planned how I was going to make a dish like Shrimp & Grits OFF SITE, I remembered all the episodes of Top Chef I'd watched where curve balls were thrown at the "cheftestants." I told myself, you always wanted to do this April!  Step. It. Up. 

Two days before the event, I did my shopping at BJ's and my Mom found a great deal on Shrimp at Sysco (6 lb boxes at $8.50 a lb).  I was so excited about this deal, I forgot to ask her if the shrimp were cleaned.  I guess I assumed that they would be the "easy peel," deveined shrimp that clearly I've been spoiled with.  So the day before as I was doing my planning, I figured 1 hour would be enough time for peeling shrimp. -- BIG Mistake.  And I guess my subconscious picked up on this because the night before the competition, I had a horrible dream that everything went wrong.  I wont bore you with the details but I will say that when I woke up, I was so glad I woke up.

Right after my nightmare, I texted my Mom and told her about it.  She gave me the best reply:  "That's just the devil.  You're going to do great," she said. "Just don't go there expecting to win, go expecting to do your best."

It was exactly what I needed to hear, mainly the last part, which I repeated constantly in my head all day.  Especially when my friend Erica and I get to the kitchen, only to discover that the shrimp are not cleaned.  12 lbs of Shrimp that have to be peeled AND deveined.  I put Erica on it while I prepped other things but as we approached the 90 minute mark on the shrimp (remember I'd factored an hour) I had to jump in there and help.  And can I just say, as a side note, deveining shrimp is hands down the most tedious and disgusting job in cooking. #thatisall

Once we got the shrimp done, we were clearly behind schedule but I worked hard to get back on track.  Things were looking up until the point where it was time to cook my grits.  I was cooking them for 150 people and therefore had to use a huge pot.  The one I chose was tall as opposed to wide and what happened was, the grits on the bottom cooked so quickly and lumped together while the ones on top were still "raw."

As I was scraping these large lumps of grits off of the bottom of the pot, I literally thought I was going to cry.  It was 10 minutes past the time we were set to leave and I was feeling like I had to start the grits all over! Then, God stepped in.  Right when I was on the verge of a break down, the owners of Ravioli Revolution came into the kitchen.  (I guess I forgot to mention that Popcorn Queens rents a commercial kitchen that is shared with other food entrepreneurs) The guys came in and were instantly curious about what I was making, since it wasn't popcorn.  I told them but confessed that the grits were a disaster and it was looking like I wasn't going to make it.

"April!" one of them said to me "Grits are just like polenta, you have to whisk em! You can't be stirring the grits!"  He was right.  Any other time I've made grits, I've had a whisk but not this time.  "I don't have a whisk big enough for this pot! I don't know what to do!"  Then he said the magic words: "I have a big whisk in my station.  You're welcome to use it as long as you put it back."

My friend Erica runs over to grab the whisk, she comes back and it was like the clouds parted and the sun shone again! THIS WHISK was exactly what I needed (and just fyi I couldn't even find the whisk they gave me online, this one doesn't do it justice but will give you an idea).  I pulled the trash can over, dumped the big lumps into it and whisked my butt off until the grits were as close to perfection that I could get them.  Erica and I quickly loaded up the car.  We were about 20 minutes late but we were on our way.

We arrived at the venue Mad Momos (pretty cool place) and it was a race to get set up and begin serving.  As I was unpacking, people saw the shrimp and a crowd began to gather right away; good sign! Once I was ready, Erica and I had an assembly line going and started serving our plates.  I got amazing feedback on the dish and after several hours of what felt like hell, I finally started to have fun.  I realized, while serving, that even though cooking is hard work, I really love to do it because I love the joy food brings people and the conversations that come from it.

A guest and his plate. I did 150 of these!

When I had a spare moment, I went around and tasted some of my competitiors dishes.  I got a little worried, but I remembered what my mom said and I knew I had done my best work.  And really, so had everyone else so I knew there was a chance that I wouldn't win, but my friends and brother were there to vote for me and I even had quite a few strangers tell me they voted for my dish for fan favorite! yay!

My sous chef Erica and I toasting it up at the end.
All the compliments and kind words really felt great but at the end of the day, I didn't win and yes I was disappointed but I learned so much.  I learned that I can cook for large crowds. I learned that I do have what it takes to compete.  And I learned that you have to have support to be successful in cooking (and in anything really).  I don't know what I would have done without my friend Erica, my Mom, my Ravioli Revolution Superheros and of course my friends and family that came out to support me.

Overall, I didn't get a win but I'd definitely be selling myself short if I said my first cooking competition wasn't a success!