Who took the challenge?

Posted: Thursday, December 23, 2004

Ernesta Ballard's 'Hot Sesame Vegkabobs'

Former Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Ernesta Ballard returns for her third consecutive Food Challenge with an invention fueled by desperation. Now working in Federal Way, Wash., at the time of her entry she found herself living in temporary, and spartan, housing. No utensils and no cookbook. Four forks, four knives, one frying pan and nothing to chop or blend. "I could boil, fry and broil," she said. "By necessity, I devised a recipe that could be prepared in such circumstances." Fortunately, she had hot chili sesame oil and was able to stitch together a versatile sauce, adding honey and tomato paste. Her Vegkabobs give due to seaweed's egalitarian versatility. "Frankly, I was a little intimidated by the seaweed," she said. "Most people know (it) only as the wrapping for sushi. It holds up well under broiler heat and absorbs the barbecue sauce nicely." Ballard folded kiwi into a salsa with orange and lime juice. "I'm not proud of that; salsa is a cheat," she said. "But it did taste good with the orange juice."

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Sharon Briggs' 'Clams, Fennel and Mashed Potatoes'

Ms. Briggs created her latest recipe, a spin-off of the family favorite "Mussels, Leeks and Mashed Potatoes," while spending the Thanksgiving holiday with her husband, Tom, at their Prince of Wales home. Her main dilemma was the curious, impetuous kiwi - which she eventually peeled, pureed and wound into a butter. Her early attempts included mayonnaise, which smothered the green goblin. "It was a struggle," she admitted, "trying to incorporate the kiwi and not completely lose the flavor or overpower something it already had." But it worked out nicely thanks to Briggs' 11th-hour decision to use Pernod, an anise-based liqueur that brought out the fennel and enhanced the flavor of the kiwi. "If I were going to do this whole thing over, I would make a pumpkin bread," Briggs said. "It would lend itself to everything. You could use seed rather than fresh anise. You could use the kiwi as fresh fruit chunks in the batter. And with the Furikake, you could either cut it directly into the batter or sprinkle it on top."

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Suzanne Mullen's 'Empire Soup'

Suzanne Mullen has cooked since she was 10, run a small catering business and crewed (as a cook) on sailboats through the South Pacific, Europe and the Bahamas. Her "Empire Soup," a logical extension of squash-based soups she's cooked in the past, turned out to be a brilliant first course to a dinner of leg of lamb, steamed asparagus and roasted winter vegetables. Finding a way to add seaweed was the main problem. Mullen eventually sprinkled it on top. "I have some Nori that I use for sushi, but it's a little too fishy," Mullen said. "So I have some of this (Nori Kumi Furikake sprinkle); it's got a lot of sesame and a little bit of sugar. That's what I wanted." The soup itself benefits from the sweet anise of fresh fennel, and the slight, sharp citrus of the kiwi.

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Dixie and Bob Weiss' 'Chicken Stir-Fry'

Always imaginative, Dixie Weiss returns with a simple spin on a chicken stir-fry that her husband, Bob, cooked up for an Empire Food page many years ago. (The article also included a recipe from the late Bishop Michael H. Kenny.) "For years after the Empire article appeared, people would peer into our grocery cart wanting to know what my husband was planning on cooking," Weiss said. "Some would loudly announce, 'The gourmet cook is buying frozen TV dinners!" Like her husband, Weiss used kiwi. But she eschewed canned mandarin orange slices in favor of a cup of julienned pumpkin, fennel and celery.

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