I love the slow cooker. It’s so Americana. The crock pot even has a Facebook page with over 3,000 fans. This kitchen appliance represents freedom cooking: combine ingredients in the pot, plug it in, put the lid on and check back in a few hours for a tasty meal. But it’s deceptively simple. How do you tweak flavor and texture in a dish that sits for hours unattended, cooking in its independent glory? Recently, an array of crock pot enthusiasts sought to answer that question at the annual Crock Pot Championship, held at Kahekili Beach Park in West Maui.
This year I jumped in with both feet and entered my own dish into the seriously competitive field. The contest, in its fourth year, features a panel of volunteer judges; this year it was Ashleigh Hutchison, Jimmy Clark, MauiTime’s own Tommy Russo (no bias there), Dusty “Mouth” Byrum and Jo Badgley. These fortunate taste testers sampled 17 dishes over the span of a few hours. Emceeing the event was Maui entertainer and slight-of-hand man Brenton Keith. The contestants weren’t necessarily chefs, just dedicated slow-cookers ready to have some (competitive) fun. The prize? The right to hold the trophy for the next 365 days, plus a brand spanking new crock pot. And, of course, bragging rights. (The winner must also pound a beer out of the trophy, but more on that later.)
There were just two categories to enter: “overall” and vegetarian. Judges rated dishes on a 1 to 5 point system in six flavor categories: sweet, spicy, savory, “bomb factor,” “white trash factor” and lastly, local and fresh ingredients. I was right at home competing with chefs dubbed “Foxy” and “Sticks” boasting dishes with names like “Almost Better Than Sex,” and “Wild Wife Stew.” Sadly, I didn’t come prepared with a saucy nickname, and the carnitas I made had no innuendo attached.
In addition to being a competition, the cook-off is a popular tasting event. A lot of folks show up to graze the crock pots; it’s a good thing, because nobody wants to take home a bunch of wet leftovers at the end of the day at the beach park. While you prep your servings for the judges, cook-off partygoers come around to sample. The secondary (and unspoken) competition among the chefs is to get all your food served as quickly as possible so you don’t have to man your pot.
The cook-off is also a bring-your-own-pairing situation; I noted a lot of beer and large red cups with mysterious beverages going around, plus a few flasks getting tipped here and there. Personally I think the tasters should be bringing fine beverages for the cooks, but I’ll take that up with the rules committee. (Fellow competitor Aydin Say did make me an amazing gin and tonic that deserves note, from a bottle of craft-distilled Dogfish Head Jin made at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Rehoboth, Delaware.)
I encountered some technical difficulties due to the wind. I’d counted on firing up my portable grill and heating corn tortillas, but the gusts were so strong, my flame wouldn’t stay lit. In fact, you couldn’t put down a plate of food or a cup 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 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’m 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 featured; I’ve never attempted any sweet concoctions in my crock pot. Chris Mahon, reigning 2009 champ, came in with an organic tofu shepherd’s 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.
But in the end, Rudi King came with the winning entry; his crab curry was balanced, held texture and featured fresh vegetables and a fat chunk of fresh king crab in every serving. The vegetarian category was won by Joel Navarro, with his Honu Brownies, and he scored a vegetarian cookbook for his efforts.
I honestly don’t know how the judges got through the 17 tastings in one piece, but I’m sure it was all worthwhile as they watched King slam a Pabst out of the top of the trophy, which was not as easy as it sounds.