When I was asked by the lovely Tammara Soma of Sustain Ontario to be a judge at this weekend’s cleverly-named So You Think You(th) Can Cook contest, I did not hesitate in answering yes.
First, it was an excuse to check out the piglets, sheep and goats at the Royal Winter Fair where this was all happening. Second, the contest is the second in what promises to become a popular annual event hosted and put on by the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council: a fledgling organization of savvy young people dedicated to evaluating and influencing sustainable food policy, acting as a forum to discuss food issues and supporting programs that address local food needs.
When the cooking began, in the midst of the fair’s hubbub, so did the fun.
Working in a mini-kitchen set up on a raised stage with rows of seats in front, the three contestants – all aged 15 to 16 and selected from many others keen to pit their whisks at this lively contest – were in the spotlight. The recipes chosen had to fit these criteria: To include at least 3 food groups from Canada’s Food Guide; to cost less than $20 for enough to serve 4 judges; tools were limited to a skillet/saucepan and a hot plate; preparation time no more than 20 minutes.
First contestant Steven Vick is from rural Ontario – a place called Scotland. His preparation of Potato Blini with Salmon Tartare and Truffle Vinaigrette was skillful, enthusiastic and done with humour. The result was delicious, all the clean, fresh flavours working well with the others. It was a stylish, elegant creation worthy of a professional chef.
Steffy Singh, from Thistletown Collegiate, is beautiful, poised and obviously a natural in the kitchen. Her dish: Ravioli Stuffed with Vegetables in Pesto and Mushroom Sauce. She had pre-made her ravioli but cooked them while deftly putting together a rich sauce using mushrooms, their juice and whipping cream. Her last-minute presentation used quickly steamed asparagus, the only slip in her creation as they are not currently in season locally.
This shy, charming young man is a pro in the kitchen who has a passion, combined with technical skills, that is unbelievable for his age. Making risotto is not easy, involving the ladling and stirring of hot stock into the rice mixture at carefully chosen intervals. Lucas understands that the key to good food is combining interesting and compatible tastes and textures. When his dish arrived at the judging table, it was also a vision of loveliness – the vibrant purple of beets contrasting with the mellow orange of cooked, julienned carrots. The combo of creamy sauce, toothsome rice grains and crispy carrot chips was a taste sensation.
What amazing talent these three young budding chefs all have. It was difficult and painful choosing a winner but the inspiring couple of hours spent watching them cook up a storm left me feeling that they are all people with a rosy future in restaurant kitchens. Also, that a love of food and cooking is alive and well.
Here’s Lucas’s winning recipe. I reckon it serves 4 to 6. He added some chopped pickled beets to the risotto near the end “for extra flavour” and garnished it with tiny nasturtium flowers – a lovely touch.
Beet and Carrot Risotto
3 large beets, quartered and sliced thinly (reserve one for juicing)
1 medium onion, finely diced
4 medium carrots, halved and sliced thinly (reserve two for juicing)
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
Beet greens from the 3 beets, sliced thinly
½ cup white wine
2 to 3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup arborio rice
3 to 3 ½ cups chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tbsp freshly grated Parmigianno Regianno
2 to 3 tbsp sliced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 to 3 carrots, sliced thinly with a mandolin or vegetable peeler
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
Salt to taste
For the Risotto:
In a juicer, juice two carrots and one large beet; set juice aside.
In small saucepan, bring chicken stock to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. In large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat; add beets, onion, carrot and salt to taste. Increase heat to high and sweat for 5 minutes, add garlic and beet greens, then deglaze with white wine. Once completely reduced, add rice and toast for 2 minutes stirring constantly to prevent sticking, adding more olive oil if necessary. Add chicken stock, one ladle at a time, stirring frequently. Once stock is absorbed, add one more ladle of stock. Repeat until rice is almost tender, about 8 minutes. Once almost tender, add carrot and beet juice; cook 2 minutes longer or until rice is al dente. Season with extra salt and black pepper, if necessary. Serve immediately.
For Carrot Chips (these will be made in advance):
Heat oil in a pot over medium-low heat. Add carrot; fry 2 to3 minutes or until oil stops bubbling and carrots are golden brown and crispy. Lightly season with salt.
To plate: Place a few large spoonfuls of risotto on plate; top with Parmiggiano Regianno and parsley, then a small pile of carrot chips. Serve Immediately.