Never mind the mess, I’m cooking outside my comfort zone!

While drying my dishes the other day, I was reminded of the fact that we are always told by others that we should do things outside of our comfort zone. They say that we should take on new challenges and opportunities because you never know where these new experiences will take you. Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t a bit risky to stick your neck out and try something different. However, to quote the wise words of Canadian former professional ice hockey champion Wayne Gretzky aka ‘The Great One’, ‘You always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’. But if I ever need any further encouragement to step outside my comfort zone, I only have to look at two prized tea towels.

Tea towel number one is a much-loved gift from one of my sons because it depicts several images of the same woman fiercely wrestling a crocodile. It looks like she has the upper hand and is winning because blazoned across the tea towel is the caption, ‘Do one thing every day that scares your family’. Now I may be wrong but I think it is unlikely that my son’s gift is his subtle way of encouraging me to take up a dangerous new hobby. Therefore, I can only think that the sentiment that one should always try to do something truly challenging must be genuine.  

Tea towel number two couldn’t be more different and has the much tamer illustration of the Thermapen Cooking Temperature Guide. This is not just any old tea towel you can use for drying and mopping up. It is also a practical tool. Imagine if you will, a brightly coloured tea towel covered with pictures of animals, egg dishes and casseroles displayed alongside their minimum cooking temperatures. Are you roasting a stuffed turkey but unsure if it’s cooked enough? Relax! Just check the tea towel to find out that the thickest portion should be 74°C.

Unlike the first tea towel, I didn’t receive the second as a handy gift. I had to step firmly out of my comfort zone to earn it. I was in unchartered territory recently when I competed as a Finalist in the Keen Home Cook category of the Teflon Diamond Standards Awards National Finals 2020. Spoiler alert: I didn’t win, although that doesn’t mean I came home empty handed.

The competition to be crowned Keen Home Cook actually started some months ago when I had to come up with some recipes. To enter and have a chance at being selected for the National Final, I had to submit my ‘signature’ main and dessert course recipes that demonstrated my skills and creativity. ‘Signature’ recipes? It sounds like my ‘go-to’ meals. But such a competition wouldn’t rate my recipe for speedy pasta or for any of my unique creations made from whatever was leftover in the fridge. I would need to create some more appropriate ‘signature’ recipes…

After making my family test out far too many different versions of contenders for my ‘signature’ dishes, I finally submitted my recipes: Seared scallops with gin and horseradish cream, Winter greens with roasted beetroot, and Parsnip mash with roasted garlic followed by a Pear and mascarpone tartlet with thyme, and Zabaglione cream. Now all I had to do was wait.   

Months went by until one day in late November I received a congratulatory email to say that I had made the National Final. The Finalists were cordially invited to compete in a cook-off of their dishes at Waitrose Cookery School on 23 January. The winner would be selected by a team of esteemed judges chaired by celebrity chef, Lesley Waters. I was over the moon but soon enough, my family life, work and Christmas chaos took over. As January was still a long way away I put the competition to the back of my mind until the New Year. Which meant that I didn’t fully appreciate the finer details of the event until just days before the competition. Details such as the strict 90 minutes time limit allotted to prepare both dishes which I knew was far less than what I needed. That was when the reality of how difficult the competition was going to be, finally hit me.

The night before the National Final cook-off I decided to have a final test run of the recipes and prepare everything as fast as I could. I tried cutting corners, skipping steps and cooking double-speed to save time. However, I made lumpy mash and runny horseradish cream, shattered my tartlet shells and was 30 minutes over the time limit. I had hoped that this would have given me more confidence but it had been a disaster. I then thought I should double check the final details of the competition day, itself, and made the mistake of noticing the email addresses of some of the other finalists in the non-GDPR compliant email. They included a former quarter finalist of Britain’s Best Home Cook, a MasterChef contender, the winner of the South West Chef of the Year and someone who currently runs their own pop-up food van. And these were only the names that I had recognised. I was doomed…  

The morning of the competition, I felt deflated. I would never finish cooking in time and was totally out of my league. But my daughter was having none of this and she shared her athletics analogy with me. To quote, ‘If you’re going to look up their Power of 10 then you might as well not get to the start line. It is what it is.’ Sage advice, indeed. To translate, if you are going to do this cook-off thing, forget about who the competition is because nobody knows what is going to happen on the day.

With that in mind, I arrived at the Waitrose Cookery School with my husband in tow. After getting kitted out in some sparkling chef whites, checkered trousers and a matching hat, I joined the other 8 finalists who were beginning to set up. The room, full of adjoining mini-kitchens looked straight out of an episode of the Great British Bake Off. I took my bearings and decided that my strategy would be to keep calm and cook like lightening…And cook more things at the same time…And breathe. After all, I would only be cooking some nice food, not negotiating Brexit trade deals.

Before I knew it, we were all gathered around to listen to Lesley Waters welcome us and to go through the order of the day. We had 90 minutes to create two servings of our main course and dessert recipes which would be presented to the judges and the photographers. During this time, the panel of judges would circulate the room making notes and speak to us while we prepared our dishes. Lastly, we were told to clean up our areas as we cooked.

We rushed back to our stations as the cook-off began. With the sound of clanging pots and pans and gas stoves being lit, the entire room began to frantically cook. I chopped and I diced while I heated and stirred and slowly started to get into a rhythm. I had every burner on the go as I peeled, mashed and boiled and it felt like I was cooking in a sort of calm trance. I ignored my recipes that I had laid out in front of me and just used the ingredients as I had remembered. But soon out of the corner of my eye I saw the judges edging closer towards me with their clipboards ready.

I quickly scanned my kitchen area and saw I had already created an enormous mess that was threatening to spill over into my neighbour’s adjoining mini-kitchen. I swiftly shoved my dirty dishes into the sink just before the judges arrived. As in the GBBO, they made small talk and asked about our dishes but luckily, I didn’t get any Paul Hollywood-esque loaded questions. As the judges moved on towards my neighbour, I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between our two kitchens as hers was the antithesis of mine. It was spotless, her sink was empty and she even had clean dishes drying. I looked at her completely astonished and she told me that although she thought that she was very organised, Mary Berry didn’t agree…MARY BERRY?! THE Mary Berry – Queen of Cakes?!! She has worked with GBBO MARY BERRY?!

Other than thinking of all the worst swears at once I could only carry on as the competition half-way point was then announced. Don’t look at the Power of 10, I thought as I quickly put the final touches to my main course and plated them up. I carefully carried them over to be judged and raced back again to get started on the dessert.  

One down, one to go. After shoving some more dirty dishes into the crammed sink, I noticed that my neighbour’s kitchen was still impeccably organised and the countertop was practically gleaming. Time was not on my side so I kept my head down and started to prepare my dessert in the only tiny area of free space left. This time I had one hand cooking three pans on the hob while the other hand was whipping and stirring on the side. My brain went into overload as I attempted to cook everything simultaneously without mixing up the different ingredients.

Just as I had finished the final preparations they announced that there were only 5 minutes remaining. All I had to do was to assemble the tartlets and plate them up. But first, I would have to remove the pastry bases from their metal shells without breaking them. Less than 24hrs earlier this operation had gone catastrophically wrong. It was the moment of truth. I positioned myself strategically in front of the tartlets. Like a surgeon, I began the intricate procedure of delicately prising each pastry case out of their individual shell. Slowly and gently I eased each tartlet free with my shaky hands and slid them safely onto their plates. I could feel my husband’s eyes trained on me from across the room but I didn’t even have time to give him a thumbs up. With seconds to go, I quickly filled and assembled the tartlets and with a final wipe of the plate, carried them over to be presented. Phew!!!    

I was utterly exhausted but also incredibly relieved to have finished just in time. I slowly returned to my mini-kitchen again but by this point it looked more like a disaster area. The sink was overflowing with dirty dishes and utensils spilling out and they were surrounded by even more dirty pots and pans piled precariously on top of one another. It was like something out of a Roald Dahl book. I averted my eyes away from my neighbour’s spotless show kitchen and turned to look at the rest of Finalists. I smiled as I met eyes with the only person left who was still plating up her dessert. We instantly recognised that we had much in common with each other as her kitchen area was in absolute shambles and at least as chaotic as mine. But before I could turn back again to face my own incredible mess, all the Finalists were summoned to a larger demonstration kitchen. My messy friend and I were forced to abandon every last of our dirty dishes behind us as we left to go see Lesley Waters flex her culinary muscles.  

Lesley Waters did not disappoint as she seamlessly produced a long line of beautiful dishes. We sat mesmerised as she made everything look simple but elegant and combined some unusual flavours into something very moreish. Whether it was vodka, dill and mustard dressing to dress smoked salmon or salt and pepper roasted pears to add to a cheeseboard it was like watching a master at work. Better yet, we got to taste all her efforts and it was delicious. But as the last crumbs were devoured, we knew what was coming: the competition result.

As mentioned earlier, it will come as no surprise to know that I was not crowned the Teflon Diamond Standards Award 2020 winner of Keen Home Cook. However, I was awarded…Highly Commended! Together with another Finalist, we were both runners up to the big prize! And the 2020 winner was not, as I had expected, awarded to my tidy kitchen neighbour. The National Final winner was in fact awarded to my messy friend.

What a fantastic day! I had started it full of nerves but with the sole aim of cooking as fast as humanly possible whilst not getting psyched out by the competition. But not only had I won an award and been given a cookbook by the Lesley Waters, I had received a goody bag. As you may have guessed, among the great things I found inside it was the aforementioned tea towel. Which now proudly hangs in my kitchen and reminds me to this day, that you never know what can happen if you step outside your comfort zone. As ‘The Great One’ says, Only one thing is ever guaranteed, that is that you will definitely not achieve the goal if you don’t take the shot. And as in ice hockey is in life. It may be difficult, nerve-racking and even very messy at times but you are decidedly better off putting yourself out there then never trying at all.

Now for the recipe. Since the competition recipes are the polar opposites of quick fixes and one-pots I thought I would make something inspired by Lesley Waters’ cooking. Try this recipe for Salt and pepper bannock bread with pears for a tasty scone-like bread that can be eaten alongside a salad, soup, a ploughman’s lunch or just on its own as a snack.

Celebrating the award of ‘Highly Commended‘ with a new cookbook and a glass of bubbly

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