Team America

>> Thursday 26 July 2012

American Menu:
Cajun Gazpacho
Summer Sausage Gumbo, with Collard Greens, Cornbread and Rice
“Twinkies” with Cherry Dipping Sauce

It was a great honour to be invited to participate in this year’s Nom Nom Nom, kindly hosted by The Cookery School in Little Portland Street; the proceeds of which went towards Action Against Hunger. This was our first foodie competition, and well, with one half of us being American and both naturally highly competitive, we sought to create a menu that would surprise the judges. 

We had only met three weeks prior to D-day, and had never cooked together. In normal circumstances that could be met with some obvious trepidation but we became fast friends over a mutual love of white wine and several glasses of it later, we formalised our American menu.  This turned out to be quite a difficult exercise. To create a menu that avoided clichéd American foods like burgers, oversized pizzas and hot-dogs meant we had to look further into what true American cuisine was and to do that, we had to think regionally.

At the risk of vastly oversimplifying the huge varieties of cuisine available on the other side of the pond, the West Coast, where Linds is from, has a tendency to incorporate Asian flavours and fuse them with fresh, seasonal and local produce. They also love seafood and are known for some of the freshest in the continental United States. The East Coast is much more into classical cooking, has less of an inclination for fusion cooking and a great deal of their native cuisine is very much centred on shellfish. It also has an emphasis on ‘one-pot’ cooking (clam chowder anyone?).  Scandinavian immigrants hugely influenced Midwestern cuisine and a lot of the food revolves around heavy stews and comfort food, which is fair enough because it is bloody cold there.  And then there’s the Deep South.  A place shrouded in mystery and romanticism, we chose to focus there because much of their cuisine is all their own and as it turns out, has a lot more to it than just fried chicken.

We whittled our ideas down to Cajun food in the end; a cuisine which came to America via the French-speaking Acadian people, descendants of 17th century colonists. The Acadians came to Louisiana after being deported from Canada by the British.  A great portion of Southern cooking has roots in many different cultures - Spanish, Italian, French, Native American and Portuguese - and in that typically American way, the melting pot of cuisines from the region amalgamated to create new and exciting flavours.

Avoiding the rain outside Waitrose (not)
We got to the Cookery School and were greeted with yummy porridge with rhubarb compote, some amazing cheese scones and tea and coffee, which was a wonderful way to start the day. After a warm and welcoming introduction from Rosalind, we headed on to Marylebone for quite a pleasant but rainy shop at the farmers market and quick stops at the Ginger Pig and Waitrose; we returned to The Cookery School with our spoils and got started.  Linds was responsible for the gazpacho and the Twinkies; Bex took on cooking gumbo, collard greens and cornbread.

Gazpacho is a blend of tomatoes, cucumber, garlic and peppers and if you’re not a purist, this basic grouping can be used as a tableau for additional flavours. It was a great opportunity to use the donated Magimix, which was a dream to work with. It blended the ingredients beautifully and with little noise (a huge bonus!).  Linds adapted a recipe for a traditional Cajun rubbing spice mix, which was then added to the vegetables. It gave the gazpacho a little heat and a slightly smoky taste. Served with drizzled with olive oil and garnished chopped chives, it was intended as a fresh and bright start to our menu. 

Suggesting a gumbo to cook for the main was easy, but finding the perfect recipe was another thing and after a lot of research Bex found the perfect one-pot solution from two different sources. She tried the Summer Sausage Gumbo at home eight times, and by pot number seven she had friends, neighbours and her boyfriend running for the hills - they were fed up being the Nom Nom Nom guinea pigs!  The collared greens recipe called for smoked turkey wings and Bex could probably have smoked chicken wings but with just two and a half hours in which to cook the whole meal she decided against it. The gumbo on the day turned out pretty delish though, so we were pleased in the end! Bex opted for a sweet and sour greens recipe, which used organic spring greens, demerara sugar, chicken stock and fresh red chilli.  The cornbread, Bex has to admit, she just couldn't get right.  She adjusted the recipe, swapped creamed corn for sweetcorn, added sugar, removed sugar, used varying grades of cornmeal - fine to coarse and increased and reduced cooking time but she still couldn't get it perfect. It would be too soggy, too dry or a combination of both - the crust was always excellent though!  On the day Bex got Lindsay to make the cornbread and she did a better job than all the attempts than she ever imagined.  Maybe, Bex was just trying far too hard.  How could cornbread beat her when it's really not that scientific? If she ever go to New Orleans or the Deep South she is going to befriend a local, get their generations-old cornbread recipe and nail that Son!

Finally, for pudding, we chose to have a little fun and instead of going for more traditional pie (“American as Apple Pie”), we opted to do our own version of that Great American Delicacy, the Twinkie.  The real Hostess Twinkie is kind of tubular sponge cake filled with a marshmallow & egg white cream. Linds decided to do her own interpretation so as to avoid the Twinkie’s normal characteristics: overly sweet cake and rather sickly marshmallow cream. It took her eight tries in the lead up to the cook-off, and countless attempts at making the Twinkie moulds out of a spice jar and aluminium foil, but in the end, the Twinkies turned out rather delish; a light sponge, filled with mascarpone whipped cream and served with slightly sweet/sour cherry dipping sauce on the side.

The entire experience was fantastic, we loved Nom Nom Nom 2012 and it was great being in a team with each other. We wouldn’t have been able to do what we needed to do without the incredible back of house staff supplied by the Cookery School and overseen by the amazing Marcella.  We also particularly enjoyed stealing cheeky glances at what others were making. The team from Singapore were in our line of sight most of the day and their food looked and tasted wonderful (and not surprisingly they took 2nd place!).  There was pleasant competition (at least on our parts) and a real sense of camaraderie with the other teams.  The judges were gracious and seemed be genuinely happy to give up some of their precious time to taste our amateur cooking. 

After lunch, a few refreshing Aspall ciders and a great quiz, Ros announced the winners and what do you know Team America took 4th Place! Though not Magimixes or Cloches, we happily walked away with Masterchef cookbooks for our prize. In addition, Charlotte from The Cookery School compiled some amazing goodie bags, all filled with items supplied by the incredibly generous sponsors: electric scales from Salter, beautiful Shipton Mill three-malt sunflour and brown flour, organic flour from Allinson, saffron from Brindisa, black garlic, chocolates from Amedei, yummy bacon flavoured crisps from Burts, Unearthed bratwurst sausages and a rather sturdy non-stick wok, which is constantly on our draining boards at home! All in all, we returned home laden with fantastic foodie treats and thoroughly exhausted, but contented with our performance.

And… Nom Nom Nom 2012 isn’t over yet! There is still time to vote for the People’s Choice for menus and there are still great prizes to be won too, so go be sure to vote (for us obviously!) and get yourselves some raffle tickets too, which go to a great cause.  

Linds Harrison (Blonde vs Bland) and Bex Williams (Hold the Anchovies Please)

Thanks to Annie Mole and Monica Shaw for providing some additional photos


Anonymous,  13 August 2012 at 23:51  

I loved that gazpacho. Will you post a recipe anywhere?

Blonde vs Bland 17 August 2012 at 16:34  

I'll email it to you! DM me on twitter :) x

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