The BEET Off
As you recently read, we attended our Close Of Service Conference last week. While many interesting, helpful and pleasant actives occurred, the most anticipated event since our arrival in Ukraine occurred at the conference. It was none other than the 1st Annual Peace Corps Ukraine Beet Off - Cooking Challenge.
This was an “Iron Chef” like cooking challenge where every dish was required to have beets in them. The idea came about when I and another of the other cooking men our group were reminiscing about life in professional kitchens. Other volunteers from our respective training groups began to debate who was the better cook. Girlfriends and wives even got into it. So after some playful boasting and banter we decided to do the Beet Off, Beet Challenge. That was over a year ago.
The past year saw the rules modified, more contestants added, less competition introduced and a lot of talk and repartee. At one point the menu was nearly 15 dishes to be made only by the primary two contestants. Realizing the whole thing was becoming too big and losing its jovial aspect; we cut the number dishes, prepared recipes and asked for specific ingredients. The final count saw 12 dishes prepared primarily by 5 people with an additional 5 or 6 helping out. I myself only prepared three, one of the dishes I wanted to make, someone asked to do it and in the spirit of team work I handed it over.
The best part of the affair was the final weeks leading up to it. The Peace Corps staff got involved; they were very excited as nothing like it had ever been done before by a PC group. The double-entendre was a bit lost in translation, but that just made it cuter to hear. The staff even bought the ingredients to make the dishes. (Though we did supply a little pure Vinnitsia beet juice as well. Also, a can of artichokes was found for one dish giving it secret weapon status.) It was becoming a much anticipated occasion and no one every got tired of saying it or coming up with different marketing pitches.
The day of the Great Beet Off came and the primary cooks (Chef Povars) descended on stadium kitchen. Okay, we were given three hours to work in the hotel kitchen with the local Ukrainian staff looking on. Beets were grated, beet juice was dripped, poured and spattered, vegetables diced and the cheese was cut. Cakes went into the oven, while rice and pasta boiled. Some PCVs ran to the store for more butter while others stirred and grated some more vegetables. The kitchen staff was fascinated watching a bunch of Americans take over their kitchen and use some many beets in so many new ways. The fact that the room was filled mostly with men and the two lead cooks were men was also shocking to them as well. We even washed our own dishes!
As 18:00 (6:00pm) neared we set up the food in the hotel lobby. It was a colorfully rosy bounty, spread before our fellow PCVs and the PC Staff. Colors ranging from the soft pink of the deviled eggs, the marbled red, pink and white of the ice cream to the deep organ red of the beet cheese stacks. Everyone was given five votes (except the two lead cooks) and allowed to vote for their favorite dishes, one vote per dish or all five for one and other combinations.
After sampling, some went back for more of what they liked while others tried to save room for the real dinner soon to follow. The Ukrainians were fascinated and charmed that we came up with so many new ways to use the most ubiquitous food in Ukraine. The lowly beet was once only famous for borsch, yet on this night it rivaled the revered Ukrainian wild mushrooms.
In the end every dish was enjoyed and the voting was fairly even. The top four finishers were all within a few votes of each other. It was mentioned by several people that the ice cream would have gotten more votes if it had come out earlier. It might have finished first, but it probably tasted better after all the savory food anyway. Everyone had fun so the enjoyment and the food itself were the contest prizes.
The Menu and Top 6 Places:
1. Beet Stuffed Mushrooms with Cheese and Artichokes
2. Beet Chocolate Cake with Beet Butter Cream
3. Beet Ice Cream
4. Beet Risotto
5. Beet Gnocchi
6. Beet Brushetta
Beet and Cheese Stacks
Beet Deviled Eggs
There were some leftovers; we gave them to the kitchen staff who had watched us with such fascination and giggles. They seemed very appreciative. This was food they could bring home along with the ingredients we did not completely use. Even in our hour of fun and games, we were doing our job as Volunteers by showing off a little of American culture and providing a little extra for some deserving people.
The 1st Annual Peace Corps Ukraine Beet Off Cooking Challenge was a roaring success and I think all of Group 28 would like to hear that this new tradition carries on. I know for sure the PC staff would like to participate again. My suggestion for the next one would be to use Ukrainian wild mushrooms!