My Cooking Adventures at MIT

April 17, 2017

- By Irina Rasskazova - It's about 5:40 on a sunny Friday, and I should have been at Sidney Pacific Dorm about ten minutes ago. However, I'm still waiting on the porch for an Uber to get there with a large strap-y bag full of lunch boxes. The biggest one is filled with 25 medallion-shaped zucchini fritters, the flat one contains 25 pieces of cured salmon, the tallest one is filled with yogurt sauce, while the glass box has salsa verde in it. All of these treasures are there for the MIT Cooking Competition, the first contest of such nature that I'm taking part in.

I really love cooking, and especially baking, but only for myself, my family members and the closest friends, cause usually preparing meals for other people makes me more stressed that I'd want to be. When you feed other people (not even mentioning participating in the competition) you take the greatest amount of responsibility on yourself, and it grows in correspondence with what they've already heard about your cooking skills. Nevertheless, this time, I decided to take the risk, believe in myself, and just go for it.

This year the Competition is taking place for the second time, and co-hosted by MIT Spouse and Partners Connect (MS&PC) and MIT Postdoctoral Association (PDA). The task is to make a savoury snack, and according to the rules you are not allowed to reheat it or cool it down on the spot. Moreover, the dish should be eaten without utensils. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not used to be a dinner host, so finger food, which is typic for such kind of parties, is not my specialty. Hence, it took me a good five days to finally decide what I'm going to cook - Zucchini Fritters was my choice!

Why Fritters? Cause everybody likes fried stuff, right? Why zucchini? Because I personally adore zucchini since my childhood, and if you fry veggies – it can go for a healthy dish! I used to cook a lot of variants of pancakes for weekend breakfast when I was at university, and zucchini pancakes were among them. Usually, I would not look up any particular recipe, just go with my intuition to determine such things as whether the dough it sticky enough, does it hold the shape well, does the pancake has enough crispiness or fluffiness to it. I decided to keep this technique and just go with the flow for my competition recipe.

This “carpe diem” technique as I call it, resulted in 5 recipe try-outs before the competition, which means our household was a little bit sick of zucchini by the time of the contest. Well, that's the type of sacrifice you do for perfecting the recipe. I tried to pan-fry them, I tried to just fry them, I was adding different herbs and various cheese types. Finally, I was set with fried zucchini a la Mediterranean with Greek feta and fresh parsley, scallions, and mint as flavour accents. Then, for the topping (cause everything is better with the topping, of course) I chose home-cured salmon with dill. Then, to bring everything together I developed a yogurt-based sauce with hint of garlic and lemon. And last but not least, my cherry on a cake was a drop of salsa verde that I put on the top of my salmon.

So now I'm about to put all of these ingredients together again, only not as a stress-free try-out, but as my competition dish in front of the judges. My car has finally arrived, and after a short ride, I'm entering the Sydney Pacific and heading to the contest hall following the signs “Cooking Competition”. After registering, I'm proceeding to the showcase table where almost all of the dishes are set already. Everything looks delicious: there is an Iranian snack, Kuku sabzi, made with spinach and nuts, quail egg appetizer that looks like little mushrooms, there is samosa with spicy sauces, there are some french-inspired dishes such as Fig & Duck mini-muffins and little tattletales with caramelized onions, there is bacon-wrapped dates, sourdough bread and dough balls with a spiced cheese, there are sushi and Kushlkatsu, Japanese deep-fried skewers with meat & veggies, there are little grilled eggplant rolls with ricotta.

After I set my dish on the table, everything seemed to have happened really fast, almost as in a dream. Presenting my dish to the audience first, then explaining it to the judges and nervously waiting for the expression on their faces after taking a bite, then trying all of the other participants' dishes to determine the “Contestants' choice award”, getting compliments from other people on my dish, and then hearing my name when the Gran Prix of the Cooking Competition was announced. With such great competitors, I'm really honored and proud to receive the first prize. I'm also grateful to the organizers, MS&PC and MIT PDA, for bringing this beautiful, fun, and delicious event to the community.

I'm also really happy that I got out of my comfort zone and participated in this competition, because it allowed me to take my cooking adventure to the next level. One of my prizes was a gift certificate to Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, and very soon I'm going take their class to learn some recipes from, most probably, the most refined cuisine of the world – la cuisine française. Although I adore Mediterranean and it brought me the first place in the contest, I decided it's time to learn something new :)