You might say a fennel bulb changed my life.

Eight months ago, my niece Debbie talked me into entering Cooking Light magazine’s Ultimate Reader Recipe Cook-Off Contest. The lure was a $20,000 cash prize plus a trip to New York City for a VIP photo shoot and a feature in the magazine’s December issue.

Her timing was ideal. A few days earlier, I’d created a quick salmon dinner set in motion by a lone fennel bulb that had been rolling around my vegetable bin for days. I shaved it paper thin, tossed it with warmed fruit juices, grapefruit and tangerine sections, avocado slices and a fistful of herbs, and laid it out on two plates before topping each with a grilled salmon filet. Voilá, a healthy dinner in 30 minutes.

I have always improvised in the kitchen— to me recipes are vague guides since my attention span for following long, complicated instructions is limited. But this time I named my creation— Citrus ’n Salmon— typed my recipe into the computerized contest entry form, clicked the ‘send’ button and promptly forgot about it.

One month later, when I heard the voice-mail message, I thought at first it was just a telemarketing gimmick similar to those offering a “free” cruise if I’d buy life insurance or sit through an estate planning seminar. But I quickly realized the caller knew too much. “Out of 2,000 entries the Citrus ’n Salmon recipe you submitted was selected as one of seven finalists in the Cooking Light Cook-Off….”  The call was backed up by an e-mail containing legal papers to sign. It was legit.     
As a national finalist, my name and recipe appeared on Cooking Light’s website alongside my competitors’. While the winner would be decided mainly by the magazine’s executive chef, readers were asked to vote for their favorite recipe and the voting results would count for 30 percent of the final decision.

You might have thought I was running for president. I badgered everyone I’d known since kindergarten to vote for me. No one escaped—not even my dentist. I envisioned winning as my entrée to fame and fortune and I ate up every minute. Soon I’d be making Citrus ’n Salmon for Matt and Meredith on the “Today” show. ‘Sure, Martha, I’d love to do your show.’  Oprah would come calling after I published my first cookbook. The world would be my oyster.       

Becoming a Cooking Light finalist was easy. Too easy. It lured me into thinking that winning a national food contest is a piece of triple-layer fudge cake. I ignored the fact that several of my competitors were pros otherwise known as “contesters” to those in the food biz. Another finalist, Camilla Saulsbury, had authored 10 cookbooks. Her previous contest winnings totaled $250,000, including the $100,000 National Chicken Cook-Off! The rules did not prohibit professional chefs or cookbook authors from entering. I felt like a sous chef in a kitchen full of Wolfgang Pucks.   

While waiting for the winner to be announced, I binged. Feeding my insatiable hunger was a feast of more than 100 culinary competitions listed on contestcook.com/recipecontests. I entered my Mango Mania Casserole in a Vegetarian Times magazine contest, Antipasto Pizza for some pizza dough company whose name I can’t remember, Almond Bruschetta for an Almond Council Cook-Off and an Avocado and Crab and Pistachio “alternative” burger peppered with ginger for the Build a Better Burger Contest. (We ate versions of that for three consecutive nights till I perfected the recipe.) 

Each time I submit a new recipe, I am certain I have the winning enchilada. No longer do I munch a morsel of food without scrutinizing each bite in search of a new combination of flavors. Cilantro Chocolate Brownies, anyone? My husband longs for grilled steak and mashed potatoes. Those days are over, at least for now. Tonight it’s Grilled Tilapia Tacos with Kiwi-Cumin Salsa. In the past year, I’ve entered about seven or eight contests but I don’t think of myself as a “contester” just yet. I need to win a contest— any contest— before I’ll consider myself part of that club. While some competitions offer thousands of dollars in prize money or fabulous trips (the winner of the Miss Meringue contest gets a jaunt to Paris for two, and $100,000 goes to Sutter Home’s Build a Better Burger winner), for now I’d be content with any win, even a mere Nordicware Burger Bites grill pan that goes to the winner of Recipe4living: The Juiciest Burger contest.

But I do have scruples. No matter the prize, I refused to enter Spam Cook of the Year or the Kraft Cheez Whiz Challenge. I couldn’t live with myself if I’d won either of those.
I recently created Power Pudding for the Legendary Lentil Cook-Off sponsored by the Dry Pea & Lentil Council in Pullman, Wash. I pureed one cup of cooked lentils with chocolate yogurt, a ripe banana and lots of cocoa to create a delicious and decadent dessert. I was certain my recipe would snag the $1,000 top prize because it cleverly disguised healthy lentils in a sumptuous pudding. What mom wouldn’t love to give this nutritious powerhouse to a finicky child?  If I didn’t fetch the top prize, I’d surely win the $100 “I Hate Lentils” award.

Unfortunately, the judges didn’t agree. While I thought disguising lentils was a plus, I learned that tasting the ‘essence of lentils’ is something the judges actually wanted! Winners were traditional choices such as Lentil Chili Dip, Caribbean Sloppy Lentil Sliders, Lentil Tartlets and a Ham and Lentil Soup with Kielbasa. Disappointed, I moved on to the next contest.     

“You were on the short list,” said Janet Winters, owner of Winters Advertising and Public Relations, which ran a pineapple recipe contest, for which I entered Rainbow Salad. My colorful creation combines chopped red, green and orange peppers, sliced scallions, a can of corn, a can of black beans and lots of pineapple chunks seasoned with olive oil, pineapple juice, a fistful of fresh parsley, salt and pepper. After raving about my recipe, however, she shot me down.

“A delicious Sesame Ginger Salmon with Pineapple Relish won,” she gushed. “We had over 400 entries from college students, professional chefs, homemakers— even from a gal who has her own Web cooking show. It was a difficult decision,” she added, no doubt to assuage my bruised ego. While the prize was only a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne, I realized that my contest-mania wasn’t about the prize. I craved winning any food fight.   

Alas, a week later, the news from Cooking Light magazine gave me heartburn. My Citrus ’n Salmon recipe did not win. Goodbye, $20,000. Ta-ta, New York City photo shoot and magazine fame. I lost to Grilled Portobello Mushroom Eggplant Parmigiano Rounds. Call it a case of sour grapes, but I was shocked that recipe won. While I’m sure it is delicious— you can’t go wrong stacking a grilled mushroom, eggplant, tomato sauce and cheese— I thought a few of the other contenders were more creative. But what do I know? I was told that this recipe won the online consumer vote by a landslide.         

I am still licking my wounds but I am undeterred. I have more fish to fry. Right now I’m working on a recipe for the Cuisinart Culinary Cook-Off Video, mingling spices in a way that might terrify an alchemist. I’m concocting a new fusion cuisine certain to become the next culinary rage— Middle Eastern meets Italian. It’s a baked pasta dish that blends oregano and coriander. Rachael Ray, eat your heart out.

Power Pudding
1 cup lentils, cooked and drained
3 4-ounce containers of Yoplait Chocolate Mousse-style yogurt (or other chocolate-flavored yogurt)
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
3 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 ripe banana, peeled and sliced
½ cup chopped pecans
Heat water and melt sugar. Set aside to cool. Place cooked, drained lentils in a food processor and process until smooth.

Add yogurt, cocoa, banana and cooled sugar water to lentils. Continue to process until smooth. Divide among 6 martini glasses and top with chopped pecans. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Serves 6.

Citrus ‘n Salmon
2 4-ounce salmon filets with skin on
2 ½ teaspoons Perfect Pinch Lemon Herb Seasoning (one of the contest’s sponsors)
1 large fennel bulb
1 cup tangerine segments
1 cup grapefruit segments
1/2 cup tangerine juice
½ cup grapefruit juice
1 ripe avocado, peeled and sliced

Preheat grill. Top salmon filets with 1 teaspoon Perfect Pinch Lemon Herb Seasoning and grill, skin-side down for about 8-10 minutes. While salmon is grilling, shave fennel bulb paper thin. Place fennel in a skillet with fruit juices. Add remaining Perfect Pinch seasonings and cook over low heat for about 5 minutes. Add tangerine and grapefruit segments. Keep on heat just long enough to warm the citrus. Place a bed of fennel on each dinner plate. Surround fennel with tangerine and grapefruit segments and avocado slices. Top fennel with a salmon filet and pour cooked juices from the pan over each filet. Serves 2.

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