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Calling All Cooks

Southern Living's annual recipe contest is part competition and part national survey.

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Somehow, it makes sense that when a magazine celebrating "the heart of Southern culture" has a recipe contest, the winning entry would be for Sweet Potato Cinnamon Rolls. What says "South" like the sweet potato?

What might surprise you is that last year's winner, Maureen Tischue, is from that cradle of Dixie culture known as Kent, Washington.

Geography has nothing to do with the Southern Living Cook-Off. This year, there isn't even a Southern-focused category, which means you could win without frying a thing or busting out a single pecan. Heck, in 2004, the Grand Prize winner was some healthy, wholesome thing called Grilled Shrimp Orange and Watermelon Salad With Peppered Peanuts in a Zesty Citrus Dressing.

In fact, there are only three rules in the contest: Recipes have to be original; they have to be postmarked by June 6, 2007; and they have to use at least one cook-off sponsor's product.

After that, says Scott Jones, Southern Living's executive food editor, what you get is a referendum on what folks are cooking at home.

"Each year we are amazed to see the quality of entries that come in from across the country," Jones says. "The competition really provides some interesting insight into what food trends are emerging and what people are creating in their own kitchens."

And what are the recent trends?

"We're seeing a lot of different ethnic flavors," Jones says. Examples from last year include Shrimp Bruschetta with Guacamole, Cuban Pork Flautas With Mojo Mayo Dip, and Mexi-Texi Bistec Pedazos on Roasted Corn and Garlic Chipotle-Cilantro Mashers.

"This is a chance for us to see some trends, and we'll often turn that into stories and recipes that we run in the magazine," Jones says.

And, should anyone forget exactly which magazine this is, a finalist from last year was, brace yourself, Bacon-Wrapped Fried Chicken With White Barbecue Sauce — although that one came from a cook Minnesota.

Another trend appears to be increased use of coffee. The 2005 Grand Prize winner, for example, was Chocolate-Coffee Cheesecake with Mocha Sauce.

Sometimes, Jones says, you get something you'd never expect. Last year's winner in the Super-Quick Family Favorites category was Spicy Braised Pork Ribs with Peach Gravy and Green Rice — and the gravy included powdered peach Jell-O. (Jell-O was a sponsor.)

"We thought it was odd," Jones says, "but it added an incredible flavor and richness to the recipe."

Every year, about 50,000 entries come pouring in, and Jones says the staff goes into "all hands on deck" mode to pare that down to 100 recipes, which are referred to the magazine's test kitchen. This, Jones says, is where entrants' writing skills come into play, because the kitchen follows the recipe exactly.

"Even if we know your intent, we can't change a thing," Jones says. "If you accidentally say tablespoon instead of teaspoon, that's how we'll make it."

From there, three finalists in each category are flown to Birmingham for the cook-off, at which point actual cooking skills come into play.

"That's the intangible," Jones says. "You have to be able to re-create this. We give you more time than you need, but you are cooking in a competitive situation. That's one reason we encourage people to cook their recipe over and over and ask their friends to cook it to make sure it's written down properly."

Category winners get $10,000 for the charity of their choice, but the Grand Prize winner gets $100,000 to take home. This year's categories are Your Best Recipe, Quick Weeknight Favorites, Sweet Endings, Good For You, and Party Starters.

There's no fee to enter the contest — well, other than the hours spent in the kitchen and perhaps some weight gain in the process. For more information on the Southern Living Cook-Off, go to southernlivingcookoff.com.

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