Cooking duelist going global


POSTED: Wednesday, November 11, 2009

As with those who've been blessed with a magical touch, cooking competitor Kristine Snyder makes it all look easy. Winning, that is. Just a whoosh of her wooden spoon, and voila!—a $52,000 prize here, appearance on “;The Today Show”; there; $20,000 first prize here, new oven range there.

As one would surmise by the magnitude of her prizes, Snyder not only wins contests, she wins BIG contests. Since her first triumph in 1998 at a church chili cook-off, Snyder's wins have included multiple victories at the Maui Onion contest, two-time wins at Sutter Home's Build a Better Burger, the now-defunct but once-prestigious National Chicken Cook-Off, the National Beef Cook-Off, Food Network's Ultimate Recipe Showdown and placing as a finalist in the biggest contest of all, the Pillsbury Bake-Off (in which the top winner takes home $1 million).

Now Snyder's winning ways have pushed her beyond our borders. As you read this, she's in Bangkok, hoping to secure her first international victory, in the “;Life Tastes Good”; championship, sponsored by LG Electronics.

The sole representative of the United States, Snyder is facing 14 competitors from countries such as Italy, France, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and India. Contestants will cook for judges who include chefs Cat Cora and Alain Passard.

Yet for all that, Snyder remains sunnily down to earth as she dispels the notion that the victories roll in automatically.

“;I try to get into all the big ones, but there are years that I win nothing,”; she says. “;Thousands of people are doing this, so you're counting on someone to read your recipe and think it's good.”;

This must be an up year. Snyder's entry to the Bangkok contest was contingent upon a victory in New York City at LG and Bon Appetit magazine's “;Taste of Something Better”; American competition. Her winning recipe was Soy-Glazed Mahi Mahi with Cilantro Butter Shrimp.

She's adapting that dish a bit for the Bangkok cook-off, replacing the butter with macadamia nut oil and pesto sauce.

Snyder believes one of the secrets to her success is “;the flavors of Hawaii: ginger, garlic, shoyu, sesame oil, Portuguese sausage,”; she rattles off. “;I think our food is best because the flavors are intense but they're still a light, not heavy, flavor.”;

ALTHOUGH Snyder cooks up a lot of enthusiasm from judges, she still holds a day job as a harpist. And it is the nature of her profession that lends more insight into her astounding success in the contest kitchen.

“;I learned the discipline of practice,”; she says. “;In any kind of contest, that's one of the keys of success. I do work very hard at it.”;

That training, combined with the influence of a perfectionist mother who baked every day, instilled in Snyder the drive to “;do the very best I can.”;

As such, during contest time the amateur cook sometimes whips up as many as three dishes for dinner. Depending on how you look at it, her husband, Dan, is lucky ... or not.

“;We've been eating a lot of mahi lately. Some of it is weird stuff,”; she admits with a chuckle. “;But he lets me know under no uncertain terms if something isn't right. He's a very good taster.”;

A band of good friends also serve as guinea pigs, and she says “;some of my best (recipe) corrections have come from their feedback.”;

Snyder's motto, “;be prepared,”; had her in a bit of a tizzy this time around, as her requests for contest details were stymied by language differences.

“;I know less than I have in any other contest, and the U.S. office keeps telling me to have a good time,”; she says, laughing. “;But I want to win!”;

The concerns seem endless: “;Timing is an issue. ... You have to know your timing, but it's hard if you don't know about your ingredients. Will the shrimp be peeled or not? That can take a lot of extra time.”;

Equipment is another vital factor, but Snyder can't bring her old reliables to Bangkok, where the voltage is incompatible with U.S. appliances. Then there's the challenge of transporting her own ingredients.

“;I've had to figure out how to keep the Portuguese sausage cold for 21 hours,”; she says.

Relying on dry ice and the good will of flight attendants, she thinks she's got it covered.

“;We're flying business class—can you believe it?—so I figure if I'm in business class, they'll keep my sausage in the refrigerator.”;

No matter where a contest happens, though, Snyder isn't one to succumb to overconfidence.

“;On the day of the contest, I literally get sick, and I ask myself, 'Why did I do this?' But once we get into the cooking aspect, that's when the practice pays off. You do what you gotta do.”;

In the end, Snyder admits that even the challenges add to the charm of competition.

“;It makes it fun and exciting, and the rewards are worth it,”; she says.

“;If you like to cook and you have experience with recipes, I highly recommend (competing). I've been flown all over the United States, to San Francisco, Texas, Los Angeles, New York, D.C.—and everything's paid for. It's a fabulous adventure!”;



Courtesy Kristine Snyder

3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1/4 cup minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
4 5-ounce mahimahi fillets, 3/4- to 1 inch thick
3 ounces spicy Hawaiian Portuguese sausage (preferably Purity Brand), thinly sliced and quartered
3/4 cup clam juice
1/4 cup low-salt chicken broth
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Thai sweet chili sauce
3/4 cup (packed) fresh cilantro
3-1/2 tablespoons macadamia nut oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces
8 large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tail on
3 cups chopped watercress
12 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

Combine soy sauce, sesame oil, 2 tablespoons of the ginger, 1 tablespoon of the garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of the red pepper flakes in 1-gallon sealable plastic bag. Add fish and sausage to marinade, turning to coat. Refrigerate 1/2 hour.

Combine clam juice, broth, vinegar and chili sauce in small saucepan. Boil over medium-high heat until reduced to 1/2 cup, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

In food processor, puree cilantro, macadamia nut oil, remaining 2 tablespoons ginger, remaining 2 teaspoons garlic, lime juice, zest, salt and remaining 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Reserve 2 tablespoons for shrimp and set remainder aside.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Remove fish and sausage from marinade, scraping off excess, and place on parchment-lined baking pan (sausage should be in a single layer on pan). Bake 7 to 9 minutes or until just cooked through.

Meanwhile, to finish sauce, reheat broth mixture over medium heat and stir in cilantro pesto. Gradually stir in butter and season to taste with salt. Melt reserved cilantro pesto in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat and saute shrimp until opaque, about 1-1/2 minutes per side.

To serve, divide watercress onto 4 warmed plates and top with fish. Drizzle sauce over fish and top with shrimp. Garnish with each plate with 3 tomatoes. Serves four.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (not including salt to taste): 450 calories, 28 g total fat, 6 g saturated fat, 125 mg cholesterol, 1500 mg sodium, 11 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 4 g sugar, 40 g protein