A Bowl of Compliments

As you all know, I'm often asked to judge various cooking contests, and I never tire of the role. I love tasting and viewing how home cooks express themselves in the kitchen. Even better is seeing the "aha moment" after a simple suggestion is made to make their dish a little bit better, or to make the prep that much more efficient.

My latest judging caper was the Feds-Get-Fit Healthy Recipe contest. This is one of the many events orchestrated by the Office of Personnel Management and other federal agency leaders to encourage federal employees to live healthy lifestyles. I reviewed over 500 entries from all over the country with the other two judges; Robin Webb, cookbook author and nutritionist, and Daryl Haley, WHUR radio personality and sports coach. We selected a few from each state, and the ones that were selected from the DC area were asked to cook their dishes for us. I was definitely looking forward to that.

For whatever reason, I'm always hungry when I do these things. The recipes that were full of lowfat-this, lowfat-that, packaged-this and packaged-that were knocked off instantly. I'm not opposed to cutting back on the salt, sugar and fat, but if you try to take it all out and replace it with artificial ingredients, it's not going to be yummy. Plus, you're not going to be inspired to eat this way for any length of time. Not to mention the fact that processed foods are more expensive. I'm saying all this as a way to encourage you to leave in some of the natural fat and/or use a reduced amount of butter and oil.

Now, let's talk about salt. I'm going to preface this by saying I'm not a nutritionist or a food scientist. I understand the challenges surrounding salt and its health consequences. Here's my take on the subject. When you're starting with processed food, you're already behind the eight ball with sugar and salt. Processed food is filled with sugar and salt. When you start with fresh ingredients, you should look at a bowl of salt as "a bowl of compliments.” If you don't use it, you ain't go'n get no compliments. Yes, that's right, a double negative. Now, too many compliments will add up to an insult. Has anyone ever over-complimented you? Did anyone ever tell you too many times that you looked good? After the third time, you start to wonder what you looked like before, right? Anyway, we need to learn how to use salt. Salt needs to be added to the food as you add in the various ingredients during the cooking process (or directly on the raw meat/protein before searing it). At this point, the salt is going into the fiber of the food. If you wait to add the salt at the end of cooking, or even worse, at the table, it will sit on top of the food. This is when over-salting happens. You'll keep adding more and more salt, only to taste salt and not the enhanced flavor of the ingredient itself. The exception to the rule is finishing salt, which is used after slicing meat/proteins. This is when you use your specialty salts. I use a course kosher salt to cook with, fine sea salt as a table salt and for baking, and lots of different course specialty salts for finishing. (As a quick aside...what's up with not salting oatmeal while it's cooking? We salt potatoes, and pasta, and rice...)

Ok, back to the recipe challenge. There were five finalists presenting their dishes, and I have to say they were all very tasty:

Melissa A. Knoll (Roasted Tomato Curry Coconut Soup with Shrimp and Peas)
Marcie Ann Stone (Crantastic Choco Chews)
Alexandra Ritchie (Caliente Fruit Ceviche Salsa and Spicy Pita Chips)
Sapna Savannah Lulla (Indian Turkey Kebabs)
Tobey Zimber (Quinoa Sunshine Salad.)

When we arrived, we realized that all the finalists were women, but that was not intentional. We judged solely by the recipes. The Roasted Tomato Curry Soup was a compilation of several soups Melissa had made in the past, and it was unanimously chosen as the winner. We were all impressed by the house-made roasted tomatoes which gave the soup incredible flavor and texture. Also, the basic ingredients of this soup may be used with a variety of spices, so that was a plus.

I thought the Crantastic Choco Chews were a good example of how to cut back on certain ingredients while keeping the yummy. They were made with whole wheat flour, oatmeal, apple sauce, sugar, butter, dark chocolate chips, dried cranberries and blackstrap molasses. We all agreed that this was a great cookie to take on a bike ride or walk—hearty, filling, healthy and tasty.

The Fruit Ceviche was refreshing and a perfect summer appetizer or topping for grilled fish or poultry. It required a lot of chopping, but Alexandra had this nifty contraption she picked up at a drugstore of all places.

Sapna's Indian Turkey Kebabs were a remake of her mom's authentic Indian kebabs and the flavors really popped. She served them with a cilantro chutney and lime-marinated vidalia onions that were truly the perfect complements. My suggestions for her were to not over-mix the ground turkey (it gets mushy really quickly), and to give color to the kebabs by searing them after baking. I always say there's flavor in the brown.

Last but not least was the Quinoa Sunshine Salad. I was happy to see quinoa in a recipe because it has so much nutritional value (including protein). I don’t know why, but the majority of folks tend to shy away from it. It happened to be raining while we were judging the contest, but Tobey brought her own sunshine in with her salad and her flowers.

Congratulations to all the finalist and everyone else who is making the leap to change their lifestyle. I’m confident this approach is much more sustainable than dieting and fad workouts. Regardless of what you do, remember to do it with love.

Until next time...Cook with love!


Carla Hall was a finalist on Top Chef: Season 5 and runs Alchemy Caterers in Washington, D.C.



- Carla's Corner: Judging the Perfect Burger
See all of Carla’s posts here

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