December 16, 2018

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Opinion

Fowl fare

Holidays gone to the birds at Red River College's turkey-cooking competition

SUPPLIED</p><p>Judges Shelley and Barclay Uruski taste one of 16 turkey dishes at Red River College’s Iron Chef Turkey competition Thursday.</p>

SUPPLIED

Judges Shelley and Barclay Uruski taste one of 16 turkey dishes at Red River College’s Iron Chef Turkey competition Thursday.

You may find this surprising, but I am not one of those exceedingly festive people with tons of holiday traditions.

No, I pretty much just do the same old things year after year after year.

One of the things I have enjoyed doing every year for the past eight years is racing downtown to stuff my chubby little face as a member of the crackerjack judging panel for Red River College’s Iron Chef Turkey competition.

This is the annual holiday-season food fight, wherein eight of the college’s top student chefs are given three hours to whip up an appetizer and a main course featuring whole turkeys they have whacked into delicious bite-sized tidbits.

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You may find this surprising, but I am not one of those exceedingly festive people with tons of holiday traditions.

No, I pretty much just do the same old things year after year after year.

Student chef Leane Galang, 20, displays her appetizer and main course after winning the Iron Chef Turkey crown at Red River College’s culinary school. (Supplied)</p></p>

Student chef Leane Galang, 20, displays her appetizer and main course after winning the Iron Chef Turkey crown at Red River College’s culinary school. (Supplied)

One of the things I have enjoyed doing every year for the past eight years is racing downtown to stuff my chubby little face as a member of the crackerjack judging panel for Red River College’s Iron Chef Turkey competition.

This is the annual holiday-season food fight, wherein eight of the college’s top student chefs are given three hours to whip up an appetizer and a main course featuring whole turkeys they have whacked into delicious bite-sized tidbits.

The big twist this year was the student chefs were required to incorporate one of Granny’s Poultry’s three new turkey sausages — Cranberry Chipotle, Apple Honey and Mediterranean — into their appetizers. This explains why, on our fancy scoresheets, we judges had to award points for "sausage utilization."

"We’re trying to get people to use turkey outside the holiday season," explained organizer Jason Wortzman, a trained chef and director of marketing and product development for Granny’s. "Sausage is not just for breakfast; it can be used in so many different ways. It’s quick and convenient to cook and very healthy, too."

So there I was Thursday morning, about an hour after rolling out of bed, standing in the state-of-the-art kitchens of the college’s Paterson GlobalFoods Institute culinary school on Main Street, literally stuffing myself with enough mouth-watering turkey dishes to sink a reasonably large battleship.

Feasting alongside me were the other members of the judging panel, including my buddy Jason; turkey producers Barclay and Shelley Uruski, who have a 20,000-bird flock near Arborg; Abbigail Guse, marketing co-ordinator for the Manitoba Turkey Producers; and Wendy Harrisko, marketing manager for Granny’s.

What fowl fare did we judges gobble down with gusto? Well, this year’s feast included apple-honey turkey sausage meatballs on a roasted golden beet; Mediterranean turkey sausage sliders with goat cheese and red pepper chutney; Mediterranean turkey sausage cabbage wraps in a carrot purée; cranberry-chipotle sausage turkey empanadas with Spanish salad; a dark turkey ballantine in sour cherry sauce with cauliflower purée and potato fondant; apple and fennel-stuffed turkey thighs in cranberry gastrique with pea and kale purée; turkey breast duxelle with parsley-spinach gnocchi; turkey thighs in lemon-thyme cream sauce with roasted kale and bacon; and turkey breast roulade with polenta, to name just a handful.

It turns out that none of us judges had found time to eat breakfast, so when the dishes were brought out steaming from the test kitchen, we would frown at them in a professional manner, then fling ourselves onto the food like starving wolverines.

Traditionally, in between bites, we make thoughtful judging remarks, such as: "Yum!" And: "Mmmmm!" But this year, the judging was more intense than normal because none of us could agree on the front-runners, which led to some interesting exchanges.

For example, judge Shelley and her beloved husband, Barclay, had a difficult time agreeing on the merits of a kale and bacon side dish.

"Did you taste the kale? Did you even taste the kale?" Shelley demanded of Barclay.

Smiling at me, Barclay retorted: "But there was bacon in it! What more do you want?"

So, yes, there were a few intense moments, but as we shovelled 16 different turkey dishes down our gullets, we judges agreed on one thing — these culinary whiz kids really know their way around a drumstick.

"Every year we come here, I have just been amazed at what these young people cook for us," said judge Barclay, who is also chairman of the board at Granny’s Poultry. "I’m blown away. This is our next generation of young chefs."

My pal chef Jason, who is famously hard to please, chimed in: "They took on some pretty difficult techniques and styles. Some worked really well and others didn’t turn out how they’d hoped. In the end, we got some great dishes... It was great to see how they transformed the turkey sausage into something very different, something you’d be delighted to see on a plate in a fine-dining restaurant."

This year’s Iron Chef Turkey crown and $1,000 top prize went to 20-year-old student chef Leane Galang for her appetizer of Asian dumplings with apple-honey turkey sausage and soy-honey glaze and tomato jam, and her entrée of roasted turkey breast with rosemary, thyme and garlic in a sour cherry jus with charred bok choy, carrot purée and roasted mushroom.

Here’s how judge Shelley described the winner’s entry: "When I took a bite of that, it felt like Christmas in my mouth. It really did!"

"It was really fun. I’m really happy," a beaming Galang chirped after taking the title.

"I did not expect it at all. Presentation-wise, others were better, I think. I had the seasoning right, but I thought my turkey was dry.

"I came here for practice. But it (the prize) will help pay off my student loans. I’m very happy."

What, you might ask, is her secret to cooking the perfect turkey? "Stay positive and go in with a plan," is what she told me. "Always try to stay positive, even though you are doubting yourself."

Speaking for the judges, we had a wonderful time. Speaking for myself, I can’t wait to come back and eat my weight in turkey at next year’s contest. Because you can’t underestimate the importance of traditions.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
Columnist

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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