Gourmet chefs in the central Kenai Peninsula, whether practicing, rusty or aspiring, had an opportunity to test their originality and culinary skills this month in the first Kenai River Cook-off.
The cooking contest was organized by Mike and Michelle Beals, owners of the Timber Wolf Lodge in Soldotna, to celebrate the opening of their new fine dining restaurant, The Cabin, which begins service June 1.
"We wanted to do a community project that people could get involved in," Mike Beals said.
Beals figured there must be many great cooks with fantastic recipes on the peninsula, he said, and this would be an opportunity to share them.
The recipe contest drew more than 110 entries from area cooks in three categories -- appetizers, main course and dessert. Five finalists were selected in each category and asked to prepare their dish for a taste testing held Saturday. Winners were selected after the taste test by a panel of judges from the community.
"Talk about people who are excited," Beals said. "I've heard from people who said they can't wait for next year to enter more categories. We were overwhelmed with the enthusiasm of people getting involved. It was so difficult to break it down to five (finalists)."
The winning main course recipe won $250, the winning appetizer won $150 and the winning dessert won $100. The three winning dishes and the names of their creators will appear on the menu of The Cabin. The five finalists in each category will receive a prize donated from area merchants.
This is Tundra Crunch, one of the five finalists in the dessert category.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
The finalist recipes ranged in styles and ingredients from dips to quiche. Several dishes had an Alaska theme, like Baked Dijon Salmon and Tundra Crunch. Others represented styles from around the globe, including Oriental Country Style Ribs and Tortilla Pinwheels.
Dishes were judged on taste, creativity, stories behind the dish, variety, presentation and how easy it was to eat.
Dennis LaRoche of Sterling entered an Alaska Stripe Shrimp Etoufee, which was the winning main course dish. LaRoche likes experimenting with seafood recipes and trying out cajun-style recipes, he said. His wife pushed him to enter the contest.
"I cooked (the dish) about a week before the contest, and I really liked it and thought I'd throw that one in there and see if they like it too," LaRoche said.
He used to cook in resorts for a living and took some cooking classes in college, he said, though now he just cooks at home for pleasure.
"I do enjoy cooking for people -- guests and friends and family," he said. "I like sharing it with people."
Karen Cowan took top honors in the appetizer category with a Jalapeno Halibut Dip. Judi Piepgras won in the dessert category with a Chocolate Orange Moose.
Here are appetizer finalists Tortilla Pinwheels, Jalapeno Halibut Dip, the winning appetizer, and Ceviche.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Other finalists were Audrey Standerfer, Catherine Perry, Delphia Nelson, Rebecca Bishop, Katie MacLeod, Mickey Sopko-wiak, Bill Schweitzer, Kim Anderson, Angela Woolley, Sandy Tufto and Margo Curry.
All the recipes entered in the contest will appear in the Kenai River Cookbook, which the Beals will publish and distribute throughout the peninsula.
Proceeds from the cookbook will fund the creation of a Soldotna Youth Center and a Kenai River Watch, Beals said.
The Kenai River Watch will be a volunteer-run guard program for the river styled after neighborhood watch programs. According to Beals, volunteers would wear vests, carry cell phones and patrol the river. They could answer questions, report problems or violations and their presence could remind fishers, recreationists and others not to abuse the river.
"We felt like the Kenai Peninsula had been very nice to us, and we wanted to do something to give back to the river and community," Beals said.
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