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Article updated: 11/18/2011 9:45 AM

Food editor declares cooking challenge a success

By Deborah Pankey

I had two goals when we set about planning the Cook of the Week Challenge. One, find the best home cook in Herald City. Two, inspire cooks everywhere to look in their pantries and refrigerators and think outside the box.

It's how many cooks across the suburbs, myself included, approach dinner each night. We walk in the door after work, after volunteering at the resale shop or shuttling kids to practice and rummage through the cupboards wondering what's for dinner.

In a real pinch we fall back on trusted standbys like penne pasta, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts. This contest aimed to push cooks to look behind those familiar cans and jars to where they might use dried figs left over from a holiday recipe, lemon curd from a gourmet gift basket and a bag of brown rice. The contest asked cooks to give ingredients they might not otherwise consider compatible -- rolled oats and goat cheese, parsnips and root beer, pumpkin seeds and salmon -- a chance to work together on the plate.

While it might have seemed like it at times, the weekly challenge ingredients weren't pulled out of a hat. A lot of thought went into grouping the ingredients, which included many items provided by sponsors and other local food manufacturers. For each round I had in mind what I might do with the given ingredients so when contestants started sending in their recipes I was humbled by the creativity and the consideration each cook gave the ingredients.

During the weekly challenges, contestants had about one week to toy with the ingredients and come up with a recipe. When it came to the live cook-off, the four finalists had about two hours to think about the ingredients and one hour to execute that plan ... in front of a crowd ... on an unfamiliar cooktop ... with limited space and equipement.

They did not come to the contest with the recipes you see printed here. Instead, recipe watchers followed each cook, tracking their prep and technique to come up recipes that can be replicated at home. You will be impressed when you see, and hopefully try in your own kitchen, their recipes.

Just for kicks, we asked the sponsors and chef judges what they'd do with the weekly secret ingredients. Some of them responded with recipes and those also appear in these pages. Spying tuna in my cupboard the other evening, I challenged myself to develop a recipe that uses tuna in a pouch, Old Havana Foods Sofrito (available at Sunset Foods), mango and refrigerated biscuits, one of the Round 1 challenges. We ate my creation for dinner Sunday night; my son, even after realizing tuna was tucked into the turn-overs, asked for seconds.

Take a peek in your pantry. I challenge you not to find dinner.

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