Thursday, October 16, 2008

October 10, 2008: The annual lab culinary competition

Though my workplace does indeed have an annual culinary competition, you may not remember me writing about it last year. That's because I didn't - I was in Queensland, visiting friends and relatives and not cooking much at all. By all accounts the competition was at least as incredible as the one I was present for two years ago.

The premise is this: once a year, to coincide with the birthday of a certain lovely lady and long-standing lab member, everyone retreats to their home kitchen and brings out something special to share for lunch. Rather than more food, Lady Jane brings some or all of her sons and they eat, judge, and give out prizes for whatever catches their eye. And what a bunch of eye-catching contenders! Take a look...

These cute cream cheese-and-asparagus crackers came in salmon and cherry tomato varieties. I think I put away four of the veg ones!

Hummus and pita chips arrived with our non-cooking business manager, thanks to her super-cooking Lebanese mum.

Home made dolmades - I missed out on trying these, they were very popular!

Dainty cucumber sandwiches.

The first of very few non-vegetarian entries - beef and coriander pancakes prepped by lab leader Mark. He's a highly competitive fellow who's won multiple awards in the past. This year he was awarded the "Wins too many awards so here's the last one" prize.

These little bites won the Best Masking of Meat award. That tapenade's chock-full of anchovies!

These were much more veg-friendly - salty cheese and herb fritters topped with tomato jam. One of my favourites of the day.

There was a preponderance of balls in the savoury category. (A couple of us joked that this was a rarity, with females making up 85% of the lab.) I, for one, brought some soy bombs and Chinese-style barbeque sauce. And, carried away with all the new food, I didn't photograph them. Oh well - you know what they look like!

Next up were these mystery spheres with sweet chilli sauce. It's more likely than not that they included chicken, as well as corn and water chestnuts.

The spinach balls came with home made tomato sauce and handy toothpicks.

Tuna and potato croquettes - these received good reviews, though obviously I can't confirm them myself.

This is kachumbari - a fresh, tangy salsa-like dish from the cook's home country, Kenya.

This carrot salad won the Taste of Spring award.

Here's a herby salad of beetroot, lentils, walnuts and labne and a walnut bread. They were both created by one of my co-cooks at Stu's bread-baking bonanza, and this bread earned an award for most belonging to a cooking magazine.

She was also responsible for this gorgeous buttermilk and maple cluster. I'm a sucker for a bit of geometry!

These rustic loaves came from a visiting participant, and she won the Home Baking award for her efforts.

Nope, this isn't more meat - these are Liz O'Brien's non-sausage sausage rolls, enhanced with home-grown veges and tomato chutney. They were crowned the best faux-meat creation of the day.

Cheese and spinach pastry triangles. They were great, but actually won an award on the basis of arriving very, very late.

This dish warrants some explanation. During a past culinary competition, this particular cook (a marine biologist by day) won a prize of dried algae, Durvillaea antarctica to be precise. In a most enterprising gesture, she resolved to prepare and serve said algae as her entry this year! Apparently it's used in Chilean cuisine, and she went to some effort to obtain a translation of the Spanish-language recipe for Cochayuyo Chilote. It's a casserole of sorts, including potatoes, eggs and cheese. This was surely the most hard-won award of the day.

Phew - we've made it through all the savoury entries. Perhaps you'd like a drink before we proceed to dessert?

Can I offer you...

... some raspberry and orange punch?

If you're after something stronger, there's sangria served in an aquarium. It won the "Eases the Friday arvo pain" award, as well as the grand culinary competition prize.

These home-made fortune cookies came with hilarious home-made fortunes. They won the Good News award, since the judge's cookie assured him "It's benign". The other news wasn't quite so good, with one eater being warned "The greatest danger to you may be your own stupidity" and another, "That wasn't chicken".

These pavlovas utilised the canned jackfruit that their creator won last year. Boy, were they sweet!

The gluten-free ginger biscuits won the Child-Labour award in honour of the 3-year-old that co-baked them.

A luscious lemon yoghurt cake.

A lemon meringue pie, winner of the Light and Puffy prize. It had some excellent pastry going on, too.

This one labelled itself!

This is the biggest bowl of gulab jamun I've ever seen! They won the Culinary Enigma award, because most people weren't even sure whether they were savoury or sweet until they tried one. Once tried, they won many many fans.

The best (and only) liquifying of a solid food - doughnut soup! I had seen this before on Hungry in Hogtown, but tasting it was another experience entirely - like drinking Dunkin' Donuts, cheap coffee'n'all.

The classic choc-chip cookie.

The more novel smartie cookie.

This chocolate cake won the inaugural Gluten-Free Envy Award. Sadly it's not flourless, thus disappointing the newest, gluten-free judge.

And finally, my sweet entry. Here are a few choc-ginger icecream sandwiches that I photographed earlier! They are made from two dependable recipes I've prepared many times - Martha Stewart's chocolate and ginger biscuits (no longer rolled in extra sugar) and the vanilla component of this raspberry ripple icecream. Getting them together and in to the lab was a minor logistical challenge, and I had to keep them cold and hold off from presenting them to the group until most people were ready for dessert. Though they didn't win a prize, I think it was worth the effort. They were delicious!

There are many days in the year that I'm reminded of what a lovely group of people I work with. But I think their enthusiasm, humour, creativity and generosity is never more obvious than at the annual culinary competition!


  1. Hope the sangria in the fish tank was algae-free :)

    Looks like a delightful place to work.

  2. You're just trying to make us cry, aren't you?

    There's a reason why there's no Iron Chef Czech Republic.

  3. I am jealous! I especially love the fish tank sangria! And the breads look awesome too. What an excellent workplace tradition.

  4. Yeah this is a pretty great tradition...

    I'm pretty happy to have the non-sausage rolls recipe (i didn't know it was already on your blog!) so i am definitely bookmarking that one.

    Just so much good food!

  5. Wow, what a wonderful tradition. I have a feeling that if we tried to do something similar at my workplace, we'd end up with a vast array of alcoholic liquids and no actual food at all!

  6. what an impressive array - I bet you didn't need dinner after that!

  7. The same thought crossed my mind, AOF - but those marine biologists know what they're doing.... right?

    Not at all, Nadiah! I'm actually compiling a cookbook of everyone's recipes, and can email it your way when it's done. Even if you can't source Durvillaea antarctica, I'm sure you'll be able to rustle up the ingredients for cheese fritters or gulab jamun. :-)

    Lisa, apparently the original activity for Jane's birthday was a golf day... I'm glad I arrived in time for the new tradition!

    Hey Stoo! It was great to see you (and, let's be honest, your food) again. :-)

    Haha, Hayley! I'm sure there are a few workplaces like that. Unusually, we seem to be blessed with a core of long-term employees who are keen cooks.

    Johanna, you're right - I didn't need dinner. Yet I did manage to fit in a few leftover gulab jamun that I took home with me. :-D

  8. What a great day. All that food and those fun awards.

    If I had attended, it definitely would have been a sweet entry with alcohol in it.

    That Sangria definitely deserved top prize. Anyone who brings in an acquarium should win.

  9. A sweet, alcoholic entry from you would have been most welcome and fitting, Thanh! I've always enjoyed your creations when I've had the good fortune of trying them. :-)