The 1980’s found me doing a lot of cooking. In 1987 Bonnie and I hosted twenty-four dinner parties – let’s be less formal – friends joined us for dinner twenty-four times. Doing the math that comes out to a lot of cooking, setting the table and washing a lot of dishes just about every other weekend. It was something, and still is something, that I need to do, want to do. Entering a cooking contest wasn’t something that I needed to do, but for whatever reason I did. I must have been feeling pretty damn confident about the dish that I entered. Part of that confidence was born in ignorance. There are most certainly revisions that I’d make to the recipe today. Regardless, the dish was successful.
Yes, I did win an award for a recipe that I submitted to a cooking contest. What contest was this? Was it The Pillsbury Bakeoff or Bon Appetit? James Beard? The Food Network? Something else on a national level? No, Nothing on a national, or regional, level. The contest was held in 1987 and sponsored by the local town paper and Princeton University (why on earth was the university involved?). We’re talking a very local level.
I’m still thrilled that I won the category and I still think that it’s a pretty damn good, and imaginative, dish. So here’s the story of winning that award as told through several of the Dinner Diaries. Many of my friends got to sample the dish – whether they wanted to or not.
Dinner Diary January 13, 1987
Boy, is this a “WHITE” meal or what? WHITE fish, WHITE sauce and WHITE rice. I’d like to think that I was so excited by my new creation that all other considerations fled. However, herein is presented my sole (get it: sole/ flounder) claim that I am worthy to enter the bastions of Chef Greatness. The “Turbans of Flounder Stuffed with Sea Urchin Roe” was in fact created by me and me alone. Obviously, I tried this on Bonnie and myself before foisting it on any friends that I wanted to remain friends. Forget about the white rice and the anchovies versus flounder. Concentrate on the Turbans. Beautiful fillets of flounder, or grey sole, cut lengthwise. The sea urchin roe mixed with the smallest bit of beaten egg. The roe is than nicely spread on the fillet, the fillet is rolled pinwheel fashion and placed on edge on an oiled baking sheet or pan. Pour enough vermouth and clam juice to just cover the bottom of the dish.
Yes, the prize winning dish. The award being a silver chafing dish. A chafing dish that has never been used. A chafing dish that, for a small fee, is available. Door prizes included meals at good restaurants. Something that I’d rather have than a chafing dish.
Dinner Diary January 30, 1987
Cover the dish with foil and, “bake until it’s done” – maybe 10 minutes or so. The vermouth cream sauce is just that. Today I’d do things a little differently. Hey, I’m older – a fair amount older – I supposedly have more wisdom and experience. The roe is so delicate I’d mix it with just the barest hint of egg yolk to hold it together. I’d sprinkle the top of the turban with fresh, largish, buttered bread crumbs and touch it with the broiler for color. Or, instead of the crumbs, a beautiful golden-orange roe to dress the top. A nice white wine cream sauce. All that I want to taste in the fish, the roe and a little sauce.
In taking top billing I beat out some ‘interesting’ dishes: Cinnamon Spice Veal (that sounds like it could work in the right hands – maybe, maybe not. I’ll have to try it my way.), Garden State Turkey Lavish (not as horrible as you might think: turkey and Courvoisier on phyllo with cranberry relish), Poulet En Phyllo Avec Sauce Dijonnaise (I mean really: chicken in phyllo with mustard sauce), Scallops Primavera, Rosemaried Scallops, Marilyn’s Pork Cordon Bleu and on, and on. It was a big year for Phyllo dough.
At one point in time this newspaper had a food critic that, in my opinion, should have found another way to make a living. Her highest praise in her restaurant reviews was, “there was so much food that I was able to take enough home in a doggy bag to make a meal of it the next day.” Her review would also rate the food on how good it was when it was re-warmed the following day. Now, that’s the level of competence and knowledge that you want a food critic operating on. It makes it so easy to choose a restaurant, “Gee honey, do you think that we should go to that restaurant that SHE reviewed, Bust Your Gut?” “Yeah honey, SHE said we could eat for three days on the leftovers!” Ambiance – who cares? Imagination – who cares? Good wines – who cares? Good service – who cares? Finely prepared food – who cares? Just so long as – THERE WAS A LOT OF FOOD! Her reviews would note that a dish had arrived at the table cold, a dish had been inedibley over-salted, the waiter had picked his nose while taking her order, but just so long as there was a huge quantity of food, good or bad it didn’t matter, lots of food and the restaurant got four stars. This particular food critics name doesn’t appear in anything having to do with the contest so, I’ll assume that she wasn’t around at that time. The contest category was actually judged by the executive chef of a very good area restaurant, so I accepted the prize with gratitude and elation.
It was great to win and this prime win was coupled with the fact that I had Bonnie submit a recipe of mine under her name for “Saffroned Seafood Bisque” to the “New Jersey Fishing For Compliments Cookbook”. AND IT WON A PRIZE TOO!!!!! Am I a freakin’ wonderboy or what? Ignore the “or what”. This toothsome creation is not actually a bisque but, a stew. If the New Jersey Fisheries Development Advisory Council and State of New Jersey Department of Agriculture doesn’t know the difference who am I to tell them? The prize for this win? No silver chafing dishes. Just the pure satisfaction of having the recipe published in a cookbook under Bonnie’s name.
Dinner Diary February 14, 1988
Many of our friends have been ‘fortunate’ enough to enjoy the Turbans of Sole with Sea Urchin Roe (kinda’ sings when you say it out loud) at our dinner table. A few of them had expressions of surprise on their faces when I announced what the main course was. I’m certain that the look of surprise was based on their gratitude in being judged worthy to be served such an imaginative dish, an award winning dish. It couldn’t be that not everyone loves sea urchin roe. My brother Kev and his wife Shawn are good sports and always eager to try something new when it comes to food – I’m sure that they loved it. I hope they did.
Dinner Diary May 9, 1987
I swear that I’m getting better at controlling my tendencies to have an excessive amount of dishes on the menu, this is 1987 – it’s now 2010. This menu is a showcase of excess worthy of Caligula. I mean really – “Good Menu”? You could eat for days on the food that I served in one night! Shrimp wrapped in Lox AND prusciutto sounds vaguely interesting. I still like the idea of the asparagus with the pureed pimento (roasted red peppers) lemon sauce. Wild rice does not go with EVERYTHING. Repeat. Wild rice does not go with EVERYTHING. The soufflé wasn’t “chocolaty” enough? How could you even tell with all the food that preceded it? Maybe I should give in and say restraint be damned. I like the sound of that.
Poor Joan and Erwin. Whenever I’ve read this entry I picture them having a very long and unpleasant night ahead of them. Not because the food was bad, but because there was just too much of it.
Long Ago And Far Away