LEONARDTOWN -- It was a nation-wide cooking contest, the 16th annual National Oyster Cook-Off. But at times it seemed like family rivalry.
On hand for Saturday's cooking contest at the St. Mary's County Fairgrounds in southern Maryland were members of the DeSantis family of East Windsor, N.J., and the Hyson clan of Glen Burnie. By the time all the chopping and stirring had stopped, members of the DeSantis and Hyson kitchen crews had walked away with prizes.
Alex DeSantis Sr. won the contest's top prize of $1,000 for his White Oyster Chili. DeSantis, who recently retired from a physics lab at Princeton University where he specialized in "fusion," came up with this dish that married or "fused" the flavors of oysters with limes, jalapeno peppers and onher Tex-Mex ingredients. He defeated a field of challengers, among them his daughter, Miranda, who merited honorable mention for her recipe of oysters, zucchini and Gorgonzola cheese.
The elder DeSantis said the prize-winning oyster chili is a version of a chicken-based concoction he developed at home, trying it out on the discerning palates of his family members and friends. Over the years, his daughter, his wife, Shirley, and sons, Tony and Alex, have won trips and prizes in national cooking contests. Entering recipes in these contests is a family hobby, DeSantis said.
A few of his testers were reluctant to eat oysters, DeSantis said, and preferred the chicken version of his chili. But folks who were on friendly terms with the bivalve, encouraged him to stick with the oysters, he said.
Maryland's Hyson clan dominated the outdoor cookery section of the oyster contest. Marty Hyson won the $300 first place in the category bygrilling oysters and serving them with a white wine and garlic sauce. His mother, Judy LaBarre, finished third in the category with a dish of grilled Parmesan oysters.
Monday I phoned Hyson in Columbia where he works for GTS Duratec, a computer personnel placement service. He said his mom still loves him, even though he had bested her in the competition. Hyson said this was the fifth time he had won a prize in the cook-off. "Everybody in our family sends in a recipe," he said, adding that his stepfather, Pat LaBarre, had been a contest prize winner in previous years. Despite all these cooks in the clan, the competition has remained friendly, he said.
Other winners in this year's contest were Kenneth R. Ward of Hulmeville, Pa., who won first place in the main dish category with oysters in a red pepper sauce; Robert W. Reed of Wilmington, Del., who won first in hors d'oeuvres with Grand Marnier oysters remoulade; and Elizabeth A. Andrews of Richmond, Va., whose pumpkin and oyster soup was picked by members of the cook-off audience as the People's Choice.
The cooking competition shares the spotlight of the two-day oyster festival with the National Oyster Shucking Contest. This year Scott Stiles of San Antonio, Texas, opened oysters faster than Clementine Macon of Urbanna, Va., and was declared the nation's fastest shucker. After figuring in penalties for torn meat and shattered shell, Stiles opened 24 oysters in just over 6 seconds per oyster.
A booklet listing recipes and a copy of cooking contest rules can be obtained by writing Oyster Cook-Off, P.O. Box 653 D.E.C.D, Leonardtown 20650. The recipe booklet costs $4. Sponsors of the event include the Rotary Club of St. Mary's, the Maryland Department of Agriculture Seafood Marketing Program, and the St Mary's County Department of Economic and Community Development.
The judges of this cook-off were William Taylor "The Great American Dinner Designer" of Hollywood, Md.; Anne MacKenzie food columnist of the Aegis, Bel Air; Tracy Sahler, food editor of the Daily Times, in Salisbury; Phyllis Richman, food critic of the Washington Post, and me.
Here is the winning recipe:
White oyster chili
Serves 8 to 10
1 cup fresh parsley
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 jalapeno peppers, cut up
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
2/3 teaspoon grated lime peel
2/3 cup olive oil
1 1/2 pints Maryland oysters, drained saving liquor
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups corn kernels
1 4-ounce can green chilies, undrained
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons lime juice
4-6 drops hot sauce
2 cups chicken broth
4 cups drained white kidney or cannellini beans
1 cup crushed tortilla chips
2/3 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese.
Prepare topping. Put parsley, cilantro, pine nuts, Parmesan, and 3 cloves minced garlic in food processor, mix with metal blade for 10 seconds until chopped. Add jalapeno, lime juice, lime peel, mix another 10-15 seconds until blended. With machine running, add 2/3 cup olive oil through feed tube, until well-blended. Set aside. (Topping can be made day in advance and refrigerated. Bring back to room temperature before using.)
In large saucepan, heat olive oil, add onion, minced garlic and stir-fry 2-3 minutes until softened. Stir in corn and cook 2 to 3 minutes more, add chilies, cumin, hot sauce, lime juice, and mix well.
Add chicken broth, 1/2 cup oyster liquor and all the beans, bring to a boil. Lower heat, simmer 10 minutes. (If mixture is too thick, add 1/2 cup oyster liquor). Add oysters and cook at a high simmer, but do not boil. Cook until edges of oysters begin to curl.
Place about 1 tablespoon each of tortilla chips and shredded Monterery Jack cheese in each chili bowl. Ladle hot chili over chips and cheese. Spoon topping on each serving.