Though apples are generally most associated with the fall, the time of harvest and going back to school, in the Prairies, their cellar longevity means they are one of the few fruits we can consider “seasonal” throughout our long winter. As a result, the BC Tree Fruits Association wants to bring apples top of mind at this time of year, and has declared February to be Apple Month.
To help celebrate this, Sobeys worked with a number of local institutions to help spread the word, which included a donation of 1500 apples to Prince Charles School to ensure students would have access to healthy snacks. Sobeys also partnered with the culinary school at NAIT for an Iron Chef-style challenge that invited students to contribute their most creative uses for the fruit basket staple. On the line: $1,000 in prizes.
A total of thirteen students in their first and second year of studies submitted recipes to NAIT Instructors for consideration, and out of that, eight students were chosen to compete. On February 11, 2012, students were given one hour each to prepare their dish which would be judged by a panel of food writers. I was lucky enough to be asked to join this panel, alongside Liane Faulder and Valerie Lugonja.
With Liane and Valerie
Prior to the tastings, we were allowed to interact with the students while they were creating their signature dishes. We were told that they were permitted to prepare some things ahead of time, such as sausage or pastry dough, but that most of the cooking would be done that day.
Paulina Klassen focused on her rugelash
Surprisingly, nearly all of the students had chosen to make savoury dishes, smashing my preconceived notion that we would be sampling a variety of pies and crisps.
Pan finishes up her soup vessels
Christina Schell tosses some brussels sprouts
Of course, I should have given the students more credit than that – after talking to a few of them, it was clear that the versatility of the apple was what drew most of them to the competition.
Ren Ping Pui works on his cheesecake filling
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to watch most of the students finish and plate their dishes, as we had to begin the judging process. Rapid-fire, we would be tasting eight dishes in forty minutes – the three of us were definitely up to the challenge!
Ashley Broad starts to plate her dishes
We were provided with a score sheet that would enable us to award each dish with up to 20 points: up to 10 points for taste, 5 points for presentation and 5 points for creativity. Valerie commented that other categories could have been added – such as awarding points for their verbal presentations – for some students, their ability to clearly articulate their cooking philosophy and inspiration provided a better background and context for the dish.
First up was Ashley Broad, who prepared a roast duck and apple tart. I appreciated the combination of the two flavours, which worked really well together. The pastry itself was a little too firm for my preference, but the apples were cooked really well.
Roast duck and apple tart
Second was Pan Pan, who happens to be Miles Quon’s wife. She presented a charming curried apple soup (served inside a cored granny smith!) alongside a grilled apple salad. The soup itself was a bit on the sweet side, but had a nice smouldering back heat. I found the salad to be overwhelmed by the prosciutto, but Valerie really adored the vinaigrette it had been tossed with.
Curried apple soup with grilled apple salad
Christina Schell’s apple stuffed pork tenderloin with an apple parsnip mash was a plate with many components. All of us really enjoyed the apple balsamic puree, but found the pork to have been overcooked. We also thought the dish could have used more focus on the apple and less on extraneous ingredients.
Apple stuffed pork tenderloin
Next up was a pork in apples with herbed chevre, cremini mushrooms and apple and peach puree from Chloe Lomas. Out of all of the students, Chloe was the most eloquent in terms of verbalizing how she was able to translate her vision onto the plate (she had wanted to represent an apple in nature, so replicated the “soil” using mushrooms). Her creation was incredibly layered, in terms of both flavours and textures.
Pork in apples with herbed chevre, mushrooms and apple and peach puree
Terry McNeil presented apple sausage with apple slaw, cheese crisps and cranberry apple compote. Terry had made the sausage herself (having arrived at Culinary Arts through the meat cutting program), but we found it to be a bit dry, and in need of more fat. That said, the slaw was quite refreshing, and I loved the crumbled cheese crisps on top.
Apple sausage with apple slaw
With the only pure dessert of the competition, Ren Ping Pui’s crispy pancetta cheesecake filling with apple compote, apple crumble, apple sorbet and berry kissel sauce was a welcome taste. Calvados (apple brandy) had been cleverly incorporated throughout the dish – in the sorbet, the filling and the compote, but it wasn’t evident, taste-wise. Without a doubt, the cheesecake filling was heavenly, whipped to a mousse-like consistency, though Liane and Valerie found that the pancetta overpowered the delicate flavour. Ren’s plate was the instructor’s favourite, because of the intricate technique that had been used.
Crispy pancetta cheesecake filling with apple compote, apple crumble, apple sorbet and berry kissel sauce
Krystle Duquette flexed her skills with molecular gastronomy by making apple caviar to serve with her glazed apple and frisee salad. Apple juice, maple syrup and agar were dissolved then dripped into freezing cold canola oil, to produce delicate pearls. They didn’t work as well as she had hoped, but it wasn’t the main component of her plate. Her cinnamon heart-candied apple absolutely popped (definitely appropriate for the forthcoming Valentine’s Day), and we loved the crisp frisee salad, brightened with a vinaigrette made with cider vinegar and honey.
Glazed apple and frisee salad
Last but not least was Paulina Klassen’s savoury apple rugelash. The pastry was amazing, buttery and melt-in-your-mouth, with a richness from bacon fat that had been added to the dough. The sweet, caramelized apples and an underlying layer of jam paired with the rugelash perfectly, though the addition of candied bacon didn’t hurt either.
Savoury apple rugelash
In the end, though our scores didn’t match, our ranking of the dishes was consistent. We awarded first prize to Paulina’s rugelash, second to Krystle’s glazed apple and frisee salad, and third to Pan’s curried apple soup and grilled apple salad. The winning recipes will likely be printed in a Sobeys publication in the future, such as the fall issue of Compliments.
Thank you again to Sobeys for the invitation to be a part of this competition! It was the richest breakfast that I’ve had in some time, and the most enjoyable, too. Best of luck to all of the students in their studies – their creativity and energy was inspirational and contagious. Long live the apple!
You can see the rest of the photo set here.