If it’s 100 degrees in the shade, it must be the Fourth of July in Nashville. And if it’s the Fourth of July in Nashville, and it’s high noon, you can bet your Yankee Doodle Dandy that I will be inside the food tent at the Whitland Avenue Fourth of July Parade with my posse of judges, pens and notepads in hand, dipping our spoons into the fruitsor the vegetablesof the labors of the aspiring chefs who enter their dishes in this heated annual competition.
Most of the hundreds of Nashvillians who attend this all-American, red-white-and-blue block party on the west side of town just bring a dish or a box or a Tupperware container of food for the general potluck that supplements the grilled hot dogs. But there are some folk who like to submit their culinary skills to professional scrutiny, with the goal of taking home a ribbon. We judges are always happy to take home the bottle of nice wine that is our reward for pondering just what is the surprise of the Vegetable Surprise, as rivers of sweat run down our backs and legs and into our shoes.
I would like to thank my esteemed panel of taste-testers, and taste-setters: Bob Bernstein, owner of Bongo Java and Fido; Danny Solomon, lifestyles editor and restaurant critic for The City Paper; Jim Myers, gourmet, food journalist and writer with Gannett; Irma Paz, co-owner of Las Paletas; John Stephenson, chef, Fido; and Kathleen Stephenson, pastry chef for Martha’s at the Plantation.
Foods and judges were divided into two competitive categories, Dessert or Picnic Dish, and one subcategory“I’m not eating that.” Blue and red ribbons were awarded in each category, with honorable mentions going to the third-place finisher. Picnic-dish judges unanimously declaredas they do every yearthat most amateur cooks are afraid of salt. Dessert judges weighed in with one word: cobbler. We all agreed that this July 4 was the second-hottest ever, next to last year’s scorching affair.
This summer does seem to be going faster than any I can remember, but there are plenty of picnics left before Labor Day to try one of these winning recipes yourself.
Great American dessert dish
Ninety-year-old Ruth Walker, a resident of Whitland Avenue since 1962 and a perennial parade attendee, took home the blue ribbon with her fresh Georgia peach cobbler. She says the cobbler can actually be made with any fruit. Her daughter Pat Pile, from whom the recipe originated, agrees. Pat also recalls that she won the blue ribbon for dessert a couple of years ago with this very same recipe, using Tennessee blackberries. It was good enough then and good enough again to get the nod for Best of Show.
Fresh Georgia Peach Cobbler
Grease the bottom of a square or round pan. Peel and slice about five or six peaches and place in bottom of the pan. Pour about 1/3 cup water and 1/4 cup sugar over the fruit. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Mix 1 cup self-rising flour (or add 1 tsp. baking powder to regular flour) and 1 cup sugar in a bowl, add one egg and cut until crumbly. Pour over fruit. Melt 1/3 cup butter and drizzle over top. Cook 30 to 45 minutes in 375-degree oven. Serve warm. Under no circumstances should the dish be covered, or the crust will get soggy and you will never win the blue ribbon.
Kim Fennell, broker/partner with Main Street Real Estate, earned the red ribbon for her Southern summer-licious peach blackberry cobbler pie. She recently completed a major renovation of her home, a process that left her without a kitchen for nearly a year. Her new stove was delivered on July 3, and she initiated it the next morning with this dish, created from a recipe from her mother and Gourmet magazine.
Peach Blackberry Cobbler Pie
3 cups sliced fresh peaches
2 half-pint baskets fresh blackberries
4 Tbs. quick-cooking tapioca
1 cup sugar
2 deep-dish ready-made pie shells
3/4 cup + 2 Tbs. all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. grated lemon peel
3 Tbs. chilled butter
6 Tbs. heavy cream
Brown Sugar Topping:
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 stick butter (soft)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix fruit, tapioca and sugar. Add to piecrusts and place in oven for 45 to 55 minutes. Meanwhile, mix dry ingredients for biscuit topping, then add lemon peel and butter. Using fingers, rub butter into mixture until it resembles cornmeal. Add cream; stir until clumps form. With floured hands, gather into ball and then pat out on floured surface. Press into a large circle. Cut into strips.
Mix flour, brown sugar and soft butter. Rub until topping mix begins to clump.
Place biscuit strips onto hot pie. Top with brown sugar. Bake until the top is golden. Serve with fresh whipped cream or ice cream.
Not your typical picnic food
In the picnic food category, the winner was not what one might expect to find at a Nashville picnicmore likely, it would be encountered at a dinner in China, which is where the dish originates. According to toxicologist Ruth Chen, Kung Pao chicken is named for a high-ranking Chinese official, Ting Kung Pao, who fled to Szechuan as a political refugee 300 years ago when the Manchurians took over China. It became popular in many provincesHunan, Kweichow and, apparently, Whitland Avenuewhere natives dote on hot and spicy foods.
Kung Pao Chicken
1 large, whole boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 tsp. cornstarch
salt to taste
1 Tbs. black bean sauce ♦
2 Tbs. hoisin sauce ♦
1 Tbs. chili paste with garlic, or Szechuan paste ♦
2 Tbs. soy sauce
1 Tbs. dry sherry or shao hsing wine ♦
1 Tbs. rice wine vinegar ♦
1 Tbs. sesame oil ♦
4 garlic cloves, peeled and flattened, but not chopped
2 Tbs. peanut, vegetable or corn oil
1 cup dry roasted, unsalted peanuts
(♦available in Asian markets or the Asian food section of the grocery)
Cut chicken into cubes, combine with egg, cornstarch and salt, refrigerate 30 minutes. Combine bean sauce, hoisin sauce, chili paste, soy sauce, sherry, vinegar and sesame oil. Set aside. Heat oil in wok or skillet with garlic, and remove garlic when cloves turn brown. Add chicken and stir in hot pan about 45 seconds, then add mixed sauce and cook one minute more, stirring. Add peanuts and stir quickly until chicken is done.
My personal favorite in this year’s contest was the sweet potato salad, for its utter simplicity, vibrant colors and unexpected but well-balanced flavors. It was submitted by radiologist Jake Block, who lives in the neighborhood with wife Melanie. He admits that he stole the recipe, but can’t remember from whom. I would use fresh rosemary if available.
Sweet Potato Salad
Serves 10-12 as a side dish
4 to 5 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed into 1-inch pieces
1-2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbs. dried rosemary leaves
1 big bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
6-8 green onions finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/3 cup good balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. (Use a convection oven if available.) Toss sweet potato cubes in olive oil and rosemary to lightly coat pieces; use as little olive oil as possible. Spread onto a non-stick jelly roll pan and cook in oven for 15 minutes, turning pieces with spatula once halfway through cooking time (after about seven or eight minutes). At end of cooking, the corners of some pieces should be quite brown. Empty cooked sweet potatoes into large bowl, and toss gently with chopped cilantro and green onion. Grind black pepper to taste. Refrigerate up to one day. Prior to serving, drizzle heavily with balsamic vinegar.