"Being a judge being judged is a most interesting thing," says HUD administrative judge Jean Cooper after entering her eighth cooking contest this year. But one aspect of her new hobby still "mystifies" this compulsive cook.
"I know the judging process," she says, but "it's hard for me to figure out why the judges select a certain dish." Of the five or so recipes she will enter in any given contest "invariably the winner is not the one that I pre-selected in my mind."
At a guess, says Cooper, she suspects that a recipe's sophistication and its audience appeal are two criteria that most likely have an impact on selection. "That's perfectly legitimate. Somebody can make an absolutely brilliant defense before me in court , but it might not be what I am looking for because I have to apply a certain law."
Cooper, however, is on a roll. Out of the eight recipe contests she has entered since June 1981, she's already come up a winner four times, and two competitions are yet to be decided. Most recently she won third place in the Campbell Soup Company's "Fine Kettle of Zoup" contest with a borscht recipe which has been handed down through her family for generations. The prize: $100 for herself and another $100 for Children's Hospital.
Her hobby, which she says has turned her into a cooking "maniac," has also won her a $300 grill (from Taylor California Cellars' outdoor barbecuing contest) and a $100 gift certificate, an apron, a cooking course at L'Academie de Cuisine and a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine (for being a finalist in Hecht's "Just Desserts" contest).
Cooper also has discovered that perseverance pays off. A salad recipe entered in a Bertolli olive oil contest only won her a 20-cents-off coupon as a consolation prize, but she turned that also-ran into a winner when she entered The Washington Star's recipe cookoff last spring. The second time around she won three volumes of Time Life's "The Good Cook" series. "So you never know who is going to choose what," she says.
It's rare that she enters a contest for the prize, says Cooper. "A pretty plaque or letter of commendation is just as appreciated as a large, expensive prize." Some competitions she enters for the challenge, others because of her admiration for particular judges--like James Beard, who selected her as a winner in the barbecue contest. "We owed more in taxes on that thing then we've ever paid for a grill," she says, pointing to the $300 "monstrosity" on her Falls Church back porch. "But I call it the James Beard Memorial Grill and couldn't give it up."
Recently, though, Cooper did enter one contest strictly for the prize--a round-trip ticket to Paris with a week's worth of lessons at the LaVarenne cooking school. Eleven of her recipes went to the nationwide contest sponsored by Leroux/Dupont. Her favorite inventions: a strawberry beignet sitting in a pool of cre me de cassis sabayon; a variation of a New Orleans bread pudding made with apricots instead of raisins, flavored with apricot brandy and topped with a sauce also made from apricot brandy; and a flaming grilled montrachet che vre (goat cheese) flavored with an herb liqueur.
"The thing I like about the contests--particularly when you don't have to use specific ingredients--is that I really get the brain muscles flexing in terms of new combinations or different presentations. I write down ideas all the time; some are awful, some are nice surprises." The surprises are sampled a second time by her husband, Bert Concklin, and the clients he occasionally entertains as a vice president of a planning research corporation.
"You can submit as many recipes as you want, until your hands and stamp supply give out," she says, referring to her contest-winning techniques. The only competition in which she entered a single recipe was Campbell's "Zoup" contest--and that was only because she didn't know enough about the eight other categories in the contest.
The first step in developing recipes is working them out on paper. Then she tests--measuring and omitting those ingredients that don't appeal to her. Retesting rarely occurs more than once because of the expense. The losers get tossed out, she says, including among them a filet of pork loin with orange, banana, avocado, apricot brandy and cream she recently invented for the liqueur contest. The brandy and cream caramelized in the process, she reports, resulting in an inedible mess.
Cooper's cooking career has gone hand-in-hand with her law career, both beginning at age 22, with her first year in law school at Tulane University in New Orleans. Her first shopping excursion, she relates, took five hours, and was then only aborted when a fellow student with a keen eye observed her putting things into the cart just to take them out again an aisle later. "I didn't know what to do with anything," she recalls with a laugh. " I told him 'I have no idea what I'm doing. I don't know how to cook and I don't know what to buy.' I was on the edge of tears."
The friend helped her find the canned diet foods and dried soups she would subsist on for that first year of law school. "I couldn't feed myself," she says, explaining that as a child she was not allowed underfoot in her mother's kitchen.
"I was somehow unable to figure out that if I was able to read I was able to feed myself," she says. "These ladies gave me a cookbook the "River Roads" Junior League Cookbook , saying, 'Jean, you need this.' All of a sudden the lights went on, and I said 'Ah, ha! Of course.' " It was only a matter of months before New Orleans Creole cooking became a part of her expanding repertoire. "The interest came as I bought the books," she says, admitting that cookbook collecting has fueled her growing interest in food. "All that from a very grubby copy of 'River Roads.' "
While she still buys cookbooks wherever she goes, Cooper devotes much of her time to devising a cookbook of her own--a bound, hand-printed collection she began years ago as a gift for her daughter-in-law (now in her third year of law school). The 100-page book with over 125 recipes is about to be renamed "Book I," as Cooper's collections are again beginning to spill over the sides of the large, clear plastic trash bag in which she stores the recipes and various tables of contents she toys with at the kitchen table when she's not cooking. Like the first book, the second volume also will be filled with menu suggestions as well as cooking tips.
Cooper still spends five hours shopping, "but it's no longer out of confusion." A trip to the market is now a pleasure centered around the fresh vegetable and fruit counter. Daily meals are usually low-calorie and quick, she says. In a given two-week period, chicken grilled with oregano and lemon juice will show up once, then a fish fillet will be served in a similiar sauce a week later.
If she isn't home cooking dinner every night, it generally means that Cooper is traveling; as a circuit-riding judge, she is frequently on the road--sometimes once a month, sometimes for months at a time.
"One of the big features of traveling around is that I get to sample food wherever I go," says the 36-year-old judge. "There's good food in all of the obvious places, such as New Orleans. But would you believe Detroit is a good food city? Seattle restaurants are dealing with a new style of cooking sauces for the local seafood." Fresh fish, she said, is appearing everywhere, even in the Midwest where it was once likely to be frozen. Southerners, however, are still sticking to home-style cooking. That, she says, "is more enjoyable for nostalgia than for any new ideas.
"And I love the new ideas," she adds. The first thing she'll do when visiting a new town is go to a bookstore and "scout" for local cookbooks. "I love the cookbooks put out by organizations and churches. If you're looking for American cooking, disappearing and otherwise, I think you'll find it in those local cookbooks--the good and the bad. For every appalling Jell-O-based salad, there is something very unique and different in those books.
"I use my books as a research library. I use them all and then go to the stove and do it," she says, adding that she is from the school of "taste and dump or sprinkle, or whatever. I read cookbooks and mysteries and consider them both equally exciting."
Entering the recipe contests, she says, may be her way of getting back into the competition she knew and enjoyed as a trial lawyer, which she describes as "the thrill of the battle in the courtroom and then the result." She explains, "As much as I love judging, in some ways I do miss the advocacy and combat of being on the other side of the bench. Maybe I've just sublimated the whole thing.
"If tomorrow someone told me I could never do anything in law again, I would not have to think 30 seconds to know what field I would go into. Who knows--maybe I'd write the book for which I write outlines all the time." WINTER BORSCHT (8 servings)
This third-place winner in the Campbell Soup Company's "A Fine Kettle of Zoup" contest is a Cooper family hand-me-down. 28-ounce can whole tomatoes 1 tablespoon cooking oil 1 large onion, thinly sliced 1 clove garlic, minced 2 14 1/2-ounce cans chicken broth 16-ounce can beets, julienne cut 2 cups shredded cabbage (red or green or both) 1 cup shredded beet tops or kale 1/4 cup red wine vinegar 3 teaspoons sugar 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 3 tablespoons minced fresh dill Sour cream and chopped scallions for garnish
Drain tomatoes, reserving juice. Seed tomatoes and chop. In dutch oven or soup kettle saute' onion slices and garlic in oil over medium heat, stirring, until onion is transparent. Add chicken broth and remaining ingredients, except garnish, remembering to include reserved tomato juice and juice from beets. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes. The soup may be frozen at this point or served hot. Pass sour cream and chopped scallions to garnish each bowl. PASTA PRIMAVERA DOLCE (6 servings)
While researching recipes for Hecht's "Just Desserts" contest, Cooper discovered that the Italians serve sweet as well as savory sauces on their pasta. As a result, she developed the following orange pasta with its Grand Marnier-cream cheese-sour cream topping. "It was my favorite entry," she says, adding that she made it "just in case they were looking for far-out." As well, she often serves the same orange pasta with a savory sauce. Orange Pasta: 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed 1 large egg yolk, room temperature 6-ounce can frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed Sweet Sauce: 6 ounces cream cheese 4 tablespoons sour cream 4 tablespoons orange juice 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier 2 1/2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar 2 cups strawberries, hulled and cut in quarters 3 kiwi fruits, peeled and cut in semi-circular slices 2 large navel oranges, peeled, sectioned and sections cut in thirds 4 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar for sprinkling on top Savory Sauce: 1/2 pint heavy cream 2 tablespoons soft butter 2 tablespoons pesto Course ground pepper to taste 1 avocado, cubed 1/4 cup black olives, sliced 3 tablespoons grated fresh parmesan Smoked salmon, walnut pieces or slightly steamed asparagus (optional)
Put all pasta ingredients in a food processor. Process with metal blade until dough forms a ball. If dough is very sticky, add up to 1/2 cup more flour. Divide dough into 4 balls. Flour them and keep covered until ready to use. Knead dough by hand or in a pasta machine until smooth and elastic, dusting liberally with flour. Roll out using machine or roll by hand, as thin as possible (no more than 1/8-inch thick). Keep flouring dough to prevent sticking. Cut by machine, using 1/4-inch fettuccine cutter, or cut by hand into 1/4-inch ribbons. Cut ribbons into shorter lengths. Cook or freeze pasta or let it dry about 20 minutes before cooking. Drop in a pot of boiling water and cook about 20 to 30 seconds after water returns to a boil. Drain. Rinse with cold water and drain again.
To make sweet sauce, blend cream cheese, sour cream, orange juice, Grand Marnier and confectioners' sugar in a food processor until smooth. Combine this mixture with the fruit. Pour over lukewarm pasta and toss gently. Sprinkle each portion with toasted almonds and confectioners' sugar.
To make savory sauce heat cream, butter, pesto and pepper just to boiling point. Toss avocado and black olives with pasta. Add cream sauce and parmesan and toss. Serve immediately. If desired, add salmon, walnut pieces or slightly steamed asparagus. SHRIMP CREOLE (6 to 8 servings)
Cooper, who used to give cooking lectures on the subject, says she has a special fondness for Creole dishes. "This is the one I became 'famous' for as a cooking teacher," she writes in the cookbook she assembled for her daughter-in-law. "It is smooth, rich and so delicious! If you master a dark roux, you can do anything. Just be sure you don't scorch it or you must begin again." 3 tablespoons oil 3 tablespoons flour 2 large onions, chopped coarsely 4 ribs celery, sliced 1/4-inch thick 2 large green peppers, cut in 1-inch dice 6-ounce can tomato paste 1 clove garlic, minced 1/4 teaspoon thyme 1 teaspoon pepper 1 bay leaf Salt to taste 1 1/2 cups chicken broth (more if sauce needs thinning) 2 to 2 2/3 pounds raw shrimp ( 1/3 pound raw shrimp per person)
In a large skillet cook flour and oil together over medium to low heat, stirring constantly, until it turns a rich, dark brown--this is called a brown roux ("rue") and takes 30 minutes or more. Stir onions in roux until they turn glossy. Add celery and peppers and continue to stir for 2 minutes. Add tomato paste, garlic and seasonings and 1 1/2 cups chicken broth to the pan, stirring well. Cover and bring to a simmer. Turn heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time and adding additional broth as needed. Add shrimp and coat well with sauce. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, or until shrimp are done. Serve over rice with salad, hot french bread and wine. SUGAR-GRILLED SALMON (4 servings)
This winner in the "Great American Wine Cookout Contest" was judged by James Beard, among others. Wine didn't have to be used in the recipe, only served with it, Cooper explains. She entered five recipes in all, but the sponsors never told her which dish won. The following, she decided, was the recipe that put a $300 grill on her back porch. 4 1 1/4-inch salmon steaks or 1 1/2 pounds salmon fillet 1/2 cup dark brown sugar 2 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tablespoons dry sherry 4 tablespoons butter, melted
Place salmon in a disposable aluminum foil baking-barbecue pan. If using fillet, place skin side down in pan. Combine all remaining ingredients into a bowl. Stir until sugar dissolves. Pour over salmon. Let sit for 15 minutes.
Place foil pan over hot coals, gas or electric grill. Cook until salmon just begins to flake, brushing with sugar sauce while cooking. If using steaks, turn after 5 minutes; do not turn fillet. Be careful not to overcook the salmon; total cooking time is 10 to 14 minutes, depending on the temperature of the grill. (The salmon steaks can be cooked directly on a well-oiled grill, rather than in a foil pan, but you must use a pan for the fillet.) Remove skin from steaks. Serve with a chardonnay. CREAM OF ARTICHOKE SOUP (4 to 6 servings)
"This is my version of a Creole classic," says Cooper in her handwritten cookbook. "I don't really measure, I just taste as I go. If it needs more 'oomph,' I'll dash in a bit of worcestershire and/or hot pepper sauce (not with a heavy hand, though, because it's a delicate soup)." This has an additional advantage in that it can be served hot or cold. 3 large artichokes 2 14 1/2-ounce cans chicken broth 1 cup table cream Salt to taste 1 avocado, diced (optional) Dash white wine vinegar 1 tablespoon chopped scallion Lemon slices (optional)
Cut tough stem end from bottom of each artichoke. Put chokes in pan, cover halfway with water and steam until tender (about 40 minutes). Remove from pan, turn upside down to cool. Remove leaves and cut out hairy chokes. Dice the bottoms of the artichokes and scrape meat from the leaves.
Put diced artichoke, scraped meat, broth and cream in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Season with salt. (Use more if you plan to serve it cold.) Add vinegar and optional diced avocado. Heat gently and serve immediately, or chill thoroughly if serving cold. Garnish with scallion and optional lemon slices. LEMON MOUSSE IN CHOCOLATE LEAVES (6 servings)
Cooper's winner in the Hecht's "Just Desserts" Contest was this light, lemony mousse in a raspberry pure'e. For chocolate leaves: 3 ounces semisweet chocolate 1 tablespoon butter For Lemon Mousse: 1/2 envelope unflavored gelatin 2 tablespoons cold water 6 tablespoons lemon juice (fresh) 3 eggs, separated, room temperature 2/3 cup sugar 2 teaspoons grated lemon peel 1/2 cup heavy cream, chilled Raspberry puree: 2 cups fresh raspberries (or 2 10-ounce packages frozen raspberries) 3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste Fresh lemon juice (optional)
Melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler until chocolate is liquid and shiny. Add a bit more butter if chocolate does not seem to be spreadable. Coat the bottom sides of large, waxy leaves from your yard by dipping in the chocolate to cover each leaf's underside completely. Set on waxed paper-lined cookie sheet. Chill to set chocolate completely. Gently peel off leaves from chocolate, starting at stem end, using your fingers and a sharp paring knife. Keep chilled until ready to use.
To make the mousse, soften gelatin in cold water. Add lemon juice and stir over hot water until gelatin is dissolved. Cool. Beat egg yolks until light and lemon colored. Slowly add 1/3 cup sugar to yolks while beating. Beat in lemon juice mixture. Refrigerate 10 minutes while preparing egg whites. Beat egg whites until they hold peaks. Gradually beat in 1/3 cup sugar and grated lemon rind until mixture forms a glossy meringue. Fold egg white mixture into lemon-yolk mixture. Refrigerate 10 minutes. Beat cream until it holds peaks. Fold into lemon-egg mixture. Pour into a glass serving bowl or souffle' dish and chill, covered with plastic wrap.
To make raspberry pure'e, put fresh berries or thoroughly drained frozen berries through a food mill or strainer. (Pure'e berries first if you find it easier.) Add 3 tablespoons sugar or to taste, and add lemon juice if desired. Then chill until serving time.
To serve, arrange chocolate leaves decoratively on the mousse. Either pass the raspberry sauce separately, or pour a circle of the sauce on each dessert plate, top with a portion of the lemon mousse and serve with a chocolate leaf on the side.