Judging the Flavor of Golden Basket Competition
I must admit: guinea fowl didn't sound good to me.
Along with five other judges, I was seated under a canopy at the Boalsburg Farmer Market eating my favorite meal of the year: market-inspired main courses, desserts and side dishes prepared by local chefs competing for the annual Boalsburg Farmers Market "Golden Basket Award."
Part of Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture "Local Foods Week," the event challenges local chefs to prepare main dishes and sides from ingredients produced by Boalsburg Farmers Market vendors.
Perhaps it was the heat, or the simple fact that I had never eaten it before, but when Kirsch McMaster, a la cart sous chef at the Nittany Lion Inn, presented "Guinea Fowl Two Ways," I didn't have high expectations.
It was delicious. Juicier and more flavorful than chicken, the brown meat was cooked to perfection.
For 20 hours, in fact. Using one of his favorite cooking toys, a SoudVide circulator, McMaster prepared vacuumed sealed bags of legs and thighs marinating in their own fat, then slow baked them in a temperature-controlled water bath.
For his second take on guinea fowl, he made roulades of breast meat, spinach from Clan Stewart Farm, smoked Berkshire ham and raisins.
He drizzled Sweet Heat Currant Awesome sauce over both preparations, and served them on top of cheese grits and alongside Jade Family Farm baby leeks poached in apple cider from Good Intent Cider, one of my favorite new vendors at the market.
The dish earned McMaster first prize in the competition, an honor he believed was both within and beyond his grasp. "There was no plan on losing," he joked, "but you always second guess yourself: Are my flavors right? Did I cook it long enough? And then you get around these other really good cooks, and it's like who is he?"
The answer: A talented cook who, prior to taking his current post in the kitchen at the Inn two years, managed a jewelry store for five years. Before that he worked in chain restaurants like Fridays and Texas Roadhouse. "I never went to culinary school," he says. "I'm self taught."
McMaster likes to play in the kitchen, and isn't afraid to take chances. When he visited the farmers market last week to order his ingredients for the competition, he chatted with Bill Callahan from Cow-A-Hen Farm in Mifflinburg. "Bill challenged me to do something with guinea fowl because no one else would touch it," he said, explaining that the meat is typically tough.
Guinea fowl is a new product for Cow-A-Hen. According to Pat Callahan, who owns Cow-A-Hen with her husband Bill, the couple decided to start selling it after eating it at a neighbor's house. "We haven't eaten chicken since," she says. She recommends pairing the bird with market string beans, new potatoes and shallots.
The Nittany Lion Inn team didn't take the easy way out with dessert, either. McMaster and the Inn's pastry chef made crepes of Byler Dairy goat milk ricotta with a blueberry coulis made from Way berries and wine from Bee Kind Winery. "That was kind of cool because I don't think people would think to make ricotta out of goat milk."
As judges, we were only expected to taste the dishes. But this was one plate I nearly licked clean.
While McMaster took first place, there were plenty of other standouts, including the Deconstructed Peach Cobbler (Best Use of a Fruit or Vegetable) with local maple syrup from Craig Hamilton at the Village at Penn State; the apple beet salad and pickled baby zucchini (Best Vegetable Based Sides) from Zach Lorber at Penn State Altoona; and the "Bulldog Burger" made with Hungarian Wax Peppers and Stone Meadow Farm Jalapeno Jack cheese (Best Main Course) from Sean Kelly at Kelly's Steak and Seafood.
We also lobbied for an honorary mention for "Best Use of a Fried Ravioli" after tasting Chef Harrison Schailey's Fasta & Ravioli Co.-inspired dessert, which he rolled in cinnamon sugar and finished with local peaches.
I'm looking forward to creating some of these dishes in my own kitchen — after a week of eating nothing but cucumbers.