I love the slow cooker. It is so Americana cooking. The crock pot has a facebook page with over ten thousand fans. This kitchen appliance is freedom cooking: combine ingredients in the pot, plug in, put the lid on and check back in a few hours for a tasty meal. It is almost too simple. How do you tweak flavor and texture in a dish that sits for hours unattended cooking in its independent glory? We put that challenge to the test once a year here on Maui, at the annual Crockpot Championship, held at Kahekili Beach Park in west Maui.
This year I jumped in with both feet and entered my own crockpot dish in to the hugely competitive ring of crockpot cooks. This contest, in its fourth year, has a panel of volunteer judges, this year it was Ashleigh Hutchison, Jimmy Clark, Tommy Russo, Dusty “mouth” Byrum, and Jo Badgley. These fortunate judges would be sampling 17 crock pot dishes througout a few hours on this fine sunday afternoon. Emceeing the event was none other than Maui entertainer and slight of hand man, Brenton Keith. The contestants were not necessarily chefs, just slow cooker fans ready to have some fun. We were competing for the title of crock pot master and the honor of holding the annual trophy for the next 365 days, plus a brand spanking new crock pot. The winner must also pound a beer out of the trophy, but more on that later.
There were just two categories to enter, over all, and vegetarian. Judges were rating dishes based on taste. we were judged on a 1 to 5 point system on six flavor profiles of the dish: sweet, spicy, savory, bomb factor, white trash factor and lastly local and fresh ingredients. I was right at home competing with chefs named “foxy” and “sticks” and dishes named “almost better than sex”, and “wild wife stew” although I did not come prepared with my alter name, and the carnitas I made had no inuendo attached.
In addition to being a competition the cook off is a tasting event. A lot of folks show up to graze the crockpots, thankfully, because the last thing you want is to take home a bunch of crockpot leftovers at the end of the day from the beach park. While you prep your servings for the judges, cook off party goers come around to sample a taste. The secondary and unspoken competion among the chefs is to try to get all your food served as quick as possible so you don’t have to man your crock pot.
At the cook off its a bring your own pairing situation. I was noting a lot of beer and large red cups with mysterious beverages going around. A few flasks getting tipped here and there. Personally I think the tasters should be bringing fine beverages for the cooks, but I will take that up with the rules committee. However, fellow crock pot chef, Aydin Say, came made me the best gin and tonic that deserves note. With a bottle of craft distilled gin, Dogfish Head Jin is made at the Dogfish Head brewery (facebook page here)in Rehoboth, Delaware. The brewery is known for their unusual combinations like using raisins or maple syrup in their beer, and craft beers named Midas Touch or Bitches Brew, but they also distill small batches of gin, vodkas, and rum that also follow their off-centered philosophy. Gin already has a strong aromatic flavor, but these guys nailed it with botanicals of pineapple mint, juniper berries, green peppercorns, and rosemary. The resulting gin and tonic on the rocks was fragrant, crisp, balanced and took the edge off of the competition in no time.
I encountered some technical difficulties due to the wind. There were plenty of plugs for the crock pots but I had counted on firing up my portable grill and heating corn tortillas. The wind was so strong, my gas grill wouldn’t stay lit. In fact you couldn’t put down a plate of food or a cup with water without it blowing off the table. Luckily I had pre-warmed flour tortillas which upped the white trash factor on my taco carnitas, but ruined the judges “tasting” portions. When it was your turn to present to the judges table, you had to pow wow on the mike with Brenton and give the the crowd the low down on your dish. Brenton Keith became convinced I was playing a mustard trick on him when I brought a taste of my jalepeno sour creme to his stage for good measure, I am not sure what he usually does with a mustard bottle, but it doesn’t involve food apparently.
I was surprised at how many dessert dishes were at the cook off, I had never attempted any sweet design in my crock pot. Chris Mahon, reigning 2009 cook off champion came in with an organic tofu shepherds pie. Brian Noordman’s spicy meatball had an amazing tomato honey aioli that was a knockout. Katie Beauchamp’s gluten free lasagne was delicious, I want that recipe. Aydin Say’s blackberry barbecue sauce served on ribs should be bottled and sold here. But in the end, Rudi King came with the winning entry, his Crab Curry was balanced, it held texture, it had fresh vegetables in it, and it slammed a fat chunk of fresh King crab in every serving. King’s style in the kitchen is unpredictable, he is willing to take risks. The crab curry featured a coconut base with tomato paste, zuccini, onion, sweet potato and chick peas, with two kinds of crab meat, lump and King Crab he hand shelled. The vegetarian entry was won by Joel Navarro with his Honu Brownies, they won over the “almost better than sex” and the sweet jane apple delight desserts. Navarro scored a vegetarian cookbook. I don’t know how the judges got through the 17 tastings in one peice, but I am sure their efforts were worthwhile as they saw the winner slam a Pabst out of the top of the trophy, which was not as easy as it sounds.