Friday, October 21, 2011

Something fishy at the 1st annual Great Greely Fish Cake Throwdown

I could not have been more honoured when I was asked to judge the first ever "Great Greely Fish Cake Throwdown" first held on October 16th, 2011. Greely is a rural community in the southern part of our Canada's capitol.  My Uncle Don and Aunt Cathey, were the hosts of this event and I came as the judge from Montréal. My qualifications? If you've read my blog, you've seen them. Wait, I did grow up on the east coast of Canada where there are fish cakes a plenty, or just an abundance of fish in general so that must count for something.

Gillian and I arrived at 2:30 in the afternoon just as the first of the chefs and their partners/sous-chefs started trickling in. One by one we started meeting all the guests attending this exciting event. Jokes of bribery ensued as I was introduced as one of the three judges and I was promptly ushered out of the kitchen as ingredients started coming out of bags.
They look like cookies. Fishy cookies.
 Around 5:00 the other two judges arrived and we were all sent away to our judges' area which was actually the newly constructed bar in the basement. We were off without a word of complaint and got to know each other over a glass of wine while we waited for the first fish cake to arrive. Our head judge, Wayne, was a Chili cook-off multi-champion and Carol Ann was a worldly woman who had just spent some time in Maine readying her palate with seafood.

As we were perusing out judging sheets my uncle came downstairs briefly to ask us as the judges for the first ever throwdown to take note of any changes that we feel would be necessary for future years. Shortly after that, Gillian the volunteer runner, came downstairs bearing the first of seven delicious and wildly varied fish cakes.

Cake #1 - Salmon-Pickerell
For weeks I had been anticipating this event and wondering exactly how serious I should be taking it because it's really a great excuse for a bunch of friends to get together and be merry. However, once the plate was placed in front of us, Wayne picked it up and breathed in the aroma of the fishcake. At that point, I knew it was game time.

This fish cake's name did not say enough about itself.  It was packed with red onion, capers and fresh dill (perhaps?) packed inside the two types of fish. It was then rolled in bread crumbs and fried up, creating a delicious crust around the outside. It was served with a 1000 island-like sauce.  I thoroughly enjoyed this cake because of it's resemblance to one of my many favourite breakfast foods, smoked salmon with red onions and capers (with a bagel and cream cheese). The shape of the cake strayed from the traditional patty shape, although it made it easier to chop off a piece with one's fork and eat.

These fish cakes were made by a gentleman named Moose, and he is pictured below preparing his fish cakes. He actually ended up having to leave before the judging was completed due to a new grand child coming on the verge of entering the world. A special day for many reasons, indeed.

Moose prepares for the Fish Cake Slapdown.
Cake #2 - Cajun Fishcake

 The name of this fish cake instantly piqued all of the judges' curiosities as we wondered what exactly made this one Cajun. It became clear once the smell of the various spices tickled our noses and upon tasting, we all received a little punch of Cajun spice. The binding for the cake was a sweet potato purée and the fish was contained within. It was fried to perfection which made it crispy on the outside and the sweet potato on the inside was oh so tender and moist. It was later revealed that the fish was catfish and that there was also pieces of scallops. I knew there was something in there that wasn't explicitly fish.
Ragin' Cajun!

 It should be mentioned that after the official judging, all the people attending the contest including some guests who neither judged nor cooked, sat down to dinner. Everyone was given a ballot to vote for their favourite as a "People's Choice Award" and this one took the cake. Congratulations Romayne! (Note: I will not pardon the pun in the previous sentence, as so many people are inclined to do.)

Cake #3 - Fishcake
Simple, yet delicious.
The judges managed to pick out the smoked salmon in this fish cake despite its mysterious name and was served with a lovely tarragon and chive dressing that really helped to balance the smoky flavour. We later learned that it also contained smoked trout but we did really notice how the smoky flavour lingered as a nice aftertaste to the cake. The cake looked to have been rolled in some Panko crumbs which added an extra layer of yummy crunchiness that was greatly enjoyed. Rob, the creator of Fishcake was under the assumption that the presentation should solely focus on the fish cake itself. The simplicity of the plate certainly reminded me of eating my mom's fish cakes. Just a pile of fish cakes on a plate...and my ketchup bottle... It certainly won points for being traditional and bringing me a sense of nostalgia.

Also, if Wednesday is the hump day, was this cake the hump cake?

Cake #4 - A little bit Spanish

At this point it would seem the cooks were just trying to mess with our heads. What could be only slightly Spanish about this dish? To be honest, I never found out. When this fish cake was placed in front of the judges, the three of us let loose a few "Ooo"s and "Ahh"s because it was absolutely stunning. Even putting the presentation aside, the cake that was presented to us was nice and thick as well as perfectly round. The cake was moist and had a great texture to it. The taste was best described as complex, with many subtle flavours dancing slightly different routines from one another. The sauce was made from sorrel and was a flavour I had never experienced before. The three of us sat there tasting the sauce on its own for a few minutes puzzling over what it could have been. I must admit that that sauce and that cake together taught my uneducated palate a lesson that it is still mulling over...
This fish cake was made by Wayne's wife, Debbie.

Cake #5 - Crabsolutely Fabulous Crab Cakes with Orange Pesto Sauce

This cake won best name in terms of description and being an awesome name. We judges heard the name before actually looking at the plate but once we did, we could not help but allow those "Ooh"s and "Aah"s to spill forth again! The plate had such a beautiful, vibrant colour.

The flowers and orange were a lovely splash of colour.
The idea of an orange pesto sauce was completely new to me. It was also the first crab cake that we had encountered that evening and it certainly made for a delicious change of pace. I cannot get enough of crab, as it made for such a tender cake that goes down so good. The idea of a citrus/acidic sauce was very appealing because the Vietnamese tend to eat their shellfish with fresh squeezed lemon/lime juice and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. It touched my food heart, whatever that may be.

Cake #6 - Thai Chili Crab Cakes with Green Mango Salsa

I had a strange feeling that there would be a Thai fish cake of some kind. The scent of red chili tickled our noses as we passed around the plate. This was a delicious and moist crab cake which was complimented perfectly by its sweet and spicy salsa.
Also a beautiful presentation.
I even ventured a squeeze of lemon juice from the decorative lemons, once again with the whole crab + lemon combo. I later discovered (after the judging) by accident (before the winner was announced) that my Uncle Don made this crab cake.

Cake #7 - Thai Dipping Fish Cakes

The final cake that came down was the most traditional of of the cakes because, as far as I could tell, it clearly contained pieces of potato. Was it cod that was used? My palate isn't at that level yet, so your guess is as good as mine. In any case, the texture and the look of it seemed more traditional to me than any of the other cakes.
Spicy sauce.
The large step away from the traditional was in the Thai Chili Dipping sauce which all the judges agreed was a very delicious and just the right amount of spicy and sweet.  Cheers to Rodney for winning the unofficial 'best sauce' award.

The Verdict

This judging thing is hard work.

After the final fish cakes, we re-visited a few cakes to make sure we were making the right decision. We took our job very seriously. Coincidentally, the three of us had the same top three cakes so we added up the scores and determined the winner of the first ever Great Greely Fishcake Throw Down. As the title of this post suggests, there was something fishy that occurred that was not related to the meat inside all the cakes.

The fish cake feast took place once the judges returned upstairs. Other attendees had brought delicious sides (salads, rice, clam chowder! Yum.) and ballots were passed around so that everyone could vote for their favourite which was the Cajun fish cake. After everyone had sat down, Don made the announcement that it was time for the judges to give the crowd the verdict. He introduced each of the three judges, making this feel incredibly official...

Wayne, then proceeded to announce the second and third place which turned out to be a tie for second between Crabsolutely Fabulous and A Little Bit Spanish. Finally, with a few comments about the winning fish cake, he announced that the first place spot goes to the Thai Chili Crab Cakes. When Wayne realized that it was Uncle Don that had won, he attempted to recall the judges to check the scoring again. Their little cooking feud aside, people agreed it was a tad fishy that the host win the first time.

Oh, did I mention the trophy?
Judging food competitions is something I could really get used to. This specific one was so special, because the group of people involved just loved food so much and the atmosphere was centered around having a good time and enjoying food. Everyone was talking about the fish cakes and I had a great time chatting and learning about food. However, the bar and standards have been set and I'm looking forward to judging (or maybe even throwing down) at the 2nd Great Greely Fishcake Throw Down!