To the short list of life's certainties, I would like to add these: At high noon on the Fourth of July, at the corner of Whitland and Carden avenues in West Nashville, the heat index will hit 105 degrees. At that moment, I will eat at least one bite of black bean and corn salad, and one bite of a red-white-and-blue sheet cake. In the nine years that I have served as Chief Judgean unelected and thus far uncontested positionof the Whitland Avenue Fourth of July Parade Great American Picnic Food and Great American Dessert Contest, there has always been at least one of each of these summer perennials entered in the competition.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Some have been quite tasty, but I have to confess, none has ever been pinned with the blue or red ribbon. Hosts of this annual celebrationof American independence, family, friends, music, oratory and pageantrycontribute hot dogs, buns and beverages; everyone else is requested to bring either a dessert or a picnic dish. All are laid out on long tables set side by side under a big tent, through which the hundreds of attendees pass to pile their plates with cole slaw, baked beans, squash casserole, sliced tomatoes, three-bean salad, cobbler, cupcakes and cookies.
A few dozen ambitious amateur chefs concoct more creative dishes, which they submit to a panel of judges, who scrutinize, dip and taste. Then, in a highly secretive fashion, the judges award the coveted ribbons. In spite of the effects the blistering heat has on the appetite, I am always delighted to have the opportunity to sample the talents of some very gifted cooks who merge fresh produce of the season, traditional regional recipes and contemporary twists into harmonious dishes of summer goodness.
My thanks and eternal gratitude to this year's panel of food professionals and sweat partners: Danny Solomon of The City Paper, Dana Franklin Kopp of The Rage, Bill Ditenhafer of Nashville Lifestyles, Carrington Nelson Fox of Nfocus and Nicki Pendleton Wood, the undisputed queen of international cuisine.
In the Great American Dessert category, the winners are: Nancy Lipsitz, White Chocolate Brownies, Honorable Mention; Phyllis Reichman, Pralines, Red Ribbon; and Lorraine Brown, Blueberry Pie, Blue Ribbon.
In the Great American Picnic Food Category: Mary Stevens, Watermelon Salsa, Honorable Mention; Jake Block, Noodle Salad with Cucumber and Mango, Red Ribbon; and Kim Fennell, New South Cucumber Tea Sandwiches, Blue Ribbon.
Fennell, with the assistance of a few friends, made up the sandwich recipe that morning, using ingredients she loves and homemade sourdough rolls from Howell Produce (at the Farmers Market, and at stands at the corner of Hillsboro Road and Sharondale Lane, and across from the Green Hills Post Office). Block, who took second place last year for his sweet potato salad, admits to cribbing and altering a recipe from Bon Appetit magazine.
New South Cucumber Tea Sandwiches
3/4 cup shredded Gorgonzala cheese
1/3 cup toasted chopped walnuts
1/3 cup chopped dates
2 tbs. mayo
1 tbs. honey mustard
Salt & pepper
Mix first five ingredients. Slice rolls in half, and spread cheese mixture on bottom half. Layer a slice of cucumber, a small slice of tomato and the top half of the roll. Place a basil leaf on top and pierce with toothpick. Refrigerate, then serve at a Southern picnic.
Noodle Salad with Mango and Cucumber
2/3 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp. salt
3 finely minced garlic cloves
1 finely minced red jalapeño pepper (seeded)
3 tbs. fresh lime juice
1 tbs. oriental sesame oil
1 1/2 tsp. lime zest
8 ounces Japanese udon noodles
1 large peeled English seedless cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and sliced thinly
1 large ripe mango, halved, peeled and pitted, then sliced thinly
3/4 cup chopped fresh basil
3/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts (if desired)
Dissolve sugar and salt into the vinegar, warming in a small saucepan for a minute or so on medium heat. Stir in garlic and jalapeño while still warm. Let the mixture cool, and then mix in the lime juice, sesame oil and lime zest.
Cook the noodles in large pot of boiling salted water for about 8-10 minutes. Don't overcookthe noodles should still have some bite when finished. Rinse thoroughly under cold water and then drain well in a colander for several minutes. Transfer noodles to a large bowl. Add dressing and toss to coat. Add cucumber, mango, basil and mint to noodles and toss again.
Cool in the refrigerator for an hour or two. Give the salad one last toss before serving, then transfer to the serving dish, and sprinkle the top with chopped peanuts.