Yesterday was a really awesome day. I competed as a semifinalist in a microwave cooking competition sponsored by LG Electronics and TVN, our local news station. Even though I don’t use the microwave to cook, only to heat things up, I registered as soon as I saw the La Prensa posting based on the grand prize: an all-expense paid trip to Chile! Immediately I searched online for an appropriate recipe and found one for shrimp risotto with asparagus. Never mind that I had never prepared this dish before; it sounded tasty, healthy and relatively easy to make.
Unfortunately, my morning got off to a rough start. When I arrive at the Holiday Inn in Clayton, I quickly realize I had forgotten the cup-thingy I would use to plate my risotto. I call home and Naya, Dad’s assistant — today mine was well — brings it to me. When she drops it off, she keenly runs through a checklist of items. Damn. I forgot the asparagus, too! Off and back when she goes, delivering my veggies before the competition begins and saving my day. Thank goodness for support.
We draw numbers to determine the contestant order and I’m 4 out of 13. After practicing at home a few times, I think the 90-minute time limit will be ample. I finish my dish and leave the overheated kitchen with lots of perspiration and only one minute to spare. My timing is actually quite good compared to a number of other contestants who take longer and loose points. I present my risotto to the judges, one of them being the totally cute, smiley chef on TVN’s morning talk show, and introduce myself. An effervescent host facilitates all of the mini-interviews; she mispronounces my last name, *Gay* instead of “Guy* so I correct her. “De donde es ese nombre?” she asks. “De mi padre,” I reply smartly and everyone chuckles. Really I was just try to avoid having to say, “I think it’s Irish” in Spanish.
By some miracle, my risotto gains me a spot as a finalist. Excellent! Five of us are then challenged to compete in an Iron Chef of Panama type cook-off. We are given “un ingrediente principal” and a bunch of other stuff to use in creating a dish of our choice. After a bit of anticipation and bubbling energy in the kitchen, we learn our mystery meat is chicken breast. Now, keep in mind that I’m not a chef and have never taken a cooking class. While the contest is for amateur cooks and not professionals, I am competing against a number of culinary students who have probably cooked chicken breast 100 ways — they know how to stuff if, bake it, fry it, coat it, smack it up, flip it and rub it down.
I, on the other hand, don’t tend to cook full chicken breasts. Due to my own insecurity and the 60-minute time limit, I decide to divide and conquer. My plan is to grill the chicken, shred it, add it to a delicious tomato-based sauce and then layer it with tortillas and cheese. Before we begin, I tell the judges I’m going to make *Tortilla con Polly y Chorizo con Pico de Gallo.” Halfway into the round, I receive a creative insight and decide to call my dish *Mexican Lasagna.*
When I’m done I feel pretty good about my entry. My dish isn’t as fancy as that of *Julio Childs* on the other side of the counter who expertly wraps his stuffed breast with string. But at least I have a better experience than the woman next to me who cuts her hand with her own super-sharp knife. I give myself an 8 out of 10 for finishing on-time, using all 3 features of the appliance – the microwave, oven and grill – and doing a decent job with my presentation. A like to joke that I’m a black Martha Stewart. Considering they’ve decided to weigh appearance as much as taste, this is a good thing.
I dart out of the kitchen again with my dish and enter the auditorium where the 3 judges and an audience of supporting family members wait for each dish to appear for presentation. Mom is there along with our super-awesome neighbors, Don and Gloria Innes. Gloria loves to cook so after tasting my practice risotto the night before, she thought it would be fun to come watch. I’m grateful she and Don are there.
I present my Mexican Lasagna and the first comment from one judge begins with, “Well, I need to tell you what I honestly think.” Uh oh. I’m prepared for some type of Simon Cowell put-down but am pleasantly surprised when he actually helps me. Based on the tortillas I used, which are not flat Mexican corn tortillas, but fatter, smaller, denser Panamanian tortillas, he renames my dish *Panamanian Lasagna.* Brilliant, except now I’m embarrassed that I didn’t come up with that myself. Cute Smiley Judge, however, gives me unequivocal props for my dish. TWICE he mentions that it’s better than any Italian lasagna he’s tasted. Not too shabby.
After all 5 of us present our dish we wait while the judges deliberate. In the theater, excitement builds as they award 8 LG Smartphones to those who did not advance. On the counter are a number of smaller microwaves and one larger one, the Solar Asadoar, the type we used today. I’m already thrilled that I advanced to the final round, but then I get even more excited when I’m not the fourth, third or second runner-up. Another contestant and I are called to the stage. In American Idol fashion, we hold hands while Effervescent Host starts and stops, starts and stops in announcing the winner.
I am the first runner-up.
Of course, I’m a little bummed I didn’t win the trip to Chile, but honestly, I didn’t expect to make it this far. I win my very own Solar Asadora, priced at $410, and realize I have some real cooking skillz. Mom tells me she’s proud of me, which is always nice to hear, and the Inneses congratulate me as well. I return home and fix some of my leftover Panamanian Lasagna for Ali, Mom, Dad and myself. It’s really quite good.
Here is the recipe:
Chicken breast, Chorizo, Parmesan cheese, Panamanian tortillas, Peppers, Tomatoes, Tomato paste, Chicken bullion, Onion, Garlic, Olive Oil, Lemon juice, Cilantro, Salt, Pepper
Cook and shred chicken breast. Not sure how much — maybe about half a pound.
Chop 1/2 of an onion and add to olive oil. Cook in microwave for 2 minutes. Add as much chorizo as you’d like, about 1 C of chopped peppers (green, red, yellow — whatever you’ve got) stir and microwave for 2 minutes.
Get creative and make some type of tomato sauce. Mix tomato paste, water, olive oil, bullion, garlic, salt and pepper. Play with fresh tomatoes and try to stew them in water in the microwave. Realize it kind of works. Remove the skin, chop tomatoes and add to tomato sauce.
Add shredded chicken and stir.
Grill tortillas for about 5 minutes. Move tortillas to a small oven-proof pan or dish. Add half of chicken/tomato sauce mixture, then a layer of parmesan cheese, then another layer of each.
Bake at 200 C for 10 minutes.
Taste tortillas and find them a bit soggy. Scrap that idea and go to Plan B. Toast tortillas in a pan on the stove. Feel much better about these than the others.
Remember that you’re also supposed to make a sauce! Quickly mix fresh tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice, chopped cilantro, salt and pepper. Taste. Give yourself a thumbs up.
Place 2 tortillas on a dish side by side. Layer some of the tasty chicken mixture on top of each tortilla. Sprinkle with parmesan and grill for like 1 minute.
Serve in warm dish and enjoy.