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If only ... I could have been a contender

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Oh, man! I could have been a contender! Why didn't I enter the contest?

Karen Bernards of McMinnville entered - and won -the $50,000 grand prize in the 17th annual Sutters Home Build-A-Better Burger National Recipe Contest and Cook-off. Her winning entry? Sweet Hot Thai Burgers, which call for crushing Thai-flavored Kettle potato chips into ground beef and then topping the grilled patties with a salad of cilantro, basil, English cucumbers, sprouts and red bell peppers.

Well done, Karen - the sandwich recipe sounds mouthwatering, fresh and deserving of the award. Rats - why didn't I enter?

There was something about the winner being from our corner of the country and the simple originality of the recipe - not to mention the $50,000 purse! - that made me sit up and take notice. I could win cooking contests - and I bet some of you could, too.

Entering cooking and recipe contests can be a lucrative hobby. Bernard's prize of $50,000 is on the high end, but some contests pay even more. The Pillsbury Bake-Off with a history of close to 50 years boasts a grand prize of $100,000, as does the National Chicken Cook-off. Many contests have prizes in the $100 to $1,000 range, or feature kitchen equipment, food or trips as prizes.

There are literally thousands of contests to enter, featuring every ingredient or course you can imagine. There are Web sites for clubs you can join that afford you an insider's scoop on new contests and tips of winning strategies. Some clubs are free; some share their information for a price.

A quick peek at a couple cooking contest Web sites revealed that the adage 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try again' applies to contest entries. Don't get discouraged if an entry isn't deemed a winner, just keep entering. To paraphrase another old adage, you really can't win if you don't enter.

One pearl of wisdom I plucked from cooking contest veterans was to start in local contests where your chances of winning are greater, due to less competition. A few runner up finishes, or better yet wins, will give you valuable experience and bolster your confidence.

Read food magazines to keep abreast of current food trends.

Improve your food presentation skills. Making the food look as good as it tastes are efforts not lost on contest judges. You want the finished dish to look like it took four hours to make, when it really only took 30 minutes.

Think about the foods you like to eat; how can you make them more unique or better tasting? It is often an ordinary ingredient that gets the tastebuds tingling. Remember Ber-nard's use of the potato chips?

Follow contest rules to the letter.

Understand what the contest sponsors want.

Think you have a dish that is ready for competition? I bet you do!

We just happen to have two local contests coming up in the next few weeks for you to cut your teeth on, as the saying goes.

The second annual Lake Oswego Harvest Fest Pumpkin cooking contests, Oct. 31 at Millennium Plaza Park. Entrants must prepare a dish using pumpkin as a main ingredient for judging by Oregon's Tough Mother Gert Boyle. Entries must be brought to the judging area at the park by 4:45 p.m. to be included. No entry fee, but participants are encouraged to bring canned food for Oregon Food Bank. Your prize: A grand experience and bragging rights for the next year.

The Lake Oswego Review/West Linn Tidings' second annual Best Kept Secrets of the Holiday Kitchen. This contest will open in early November with entries accepted in the categories of your favorite holiday hors d'oeuvres or desserts. More details will follow in this column soon. Winning recipes will be printed in the Review and Tidings early in December.

Karen Bernard's award winning recipe for Sweet-Hot Thai Burgers is a simple combination of foods common to the average pantry. I hope this illustration of creating the sublime out of the ordinary will inspire you to enter our local contests.

Bon Appetit! Eat Locally!

Sweet-Hot Thai Burgers

Makes 6 burgers

Cilantro mayonnaise

1 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon lime juice

¼ cup chopped cilantro

Thai salad

¼ cup fresh lime juice

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon Colavita Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons bottled Thai sweet chili sauce

1 tablespoon peeled and grated fresh ginger

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

¼ cup chopped fresh basil

1 English cucumber, cut into matchsticks

1 red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks

1 ½ cups fresh bean sprouts

Patties

2 pounds freshly ground chuck

2 teaspoons kosher salt

¾ cup bottled Thai sweet chili sauce

4 green onions, sliced

1 cup Spicy Thai Kettle Chips, placed in a bag and smashed slightly

2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil, for brushing on the grill rack

6 good quality potato hamburger buns split

Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill with a cover, or preheat a gas grill to medium-high.

To make the mayonnaise, whisk the mayonnaise, lime juice and cilantro in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

To make the salad, whisk the lime juice, garlic, olive oil, salt, sweet chili sauce, ginger, cilantro and basil in a small bowl. Combine the cucumber, red pepper, and bean sprouts in a large bowl. Toss with the dressing to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

To make the patties, combine the chuck, salt, sweet chili sauce, green onions and chip pieces in a large bowl, handling as little as possible. Shape into six patties to fit the buns. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

When the grill is ready, brush the grill rack with vegetable oil. Place the patties on the rack, cover, and cook, turning once until done to preference, 5 to 7 minutes on each side for medium. Place the buns, cut side down, on the outer edges of the grill rack to toast lightly during the last two minutes of grilling.

To assemble the burgers, spread a generous amount of the cilantro mayonnaise over the cut sides of the buns. On each bun bottom, place a grilled patty, followed by equal portions of the Thai salad; add the top bun and serve.

Karen Bernards, Winner of the 2007 Sutters Home Build A Better Burger Contest.

Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She may be reached at 503-635-8811 or by e-mailing brandall@lakeoswegore

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