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Judy Spooner Viewpoint: There are unexpected turns in search for perfect Strawberry Fest Top Chef Contest dish

This time of the year, our daughter Margie is submerged in all things strawberry as all local cooks should be doing to get ready for the Top Chef Contest during Cottage Grove Strawberry Fest.

The best part of the contest is at the end when everyone in the audience is invited to taste the best offerings of all ages of Cottage Grove cooks for free. There is a youth division as well as those for teens and adults.

Recipes have to contain strawberries and everything has to be made from scratch. If you are making a strawberry pie, you have to make the crust yourself; same goes for puddings and cakes. That doesn't mean you can't use mixes of various things in your test kitchen.

Families have to eat the failures but you won't have any trouble selling your family desserts containing strawberries.

There have been exceptions when a test recipe goes south, however, and one of them happened last week.

To be a winner in Top Chef, which Margie has achieved, you have to think outside the box, something Margie is very good at. But she's also capable of being so far out of the box that she loses sight of it.

As her assistant chef, I was directed to make a test recipe. I made two round lemon cake layers and used meringue pie pudding and strawberries as the filling, After an hour, the pudding started to be absorbed into the cake.The next morning, the strawberry blob slid off into the garbage without being pushed.

There have been times in making Margie's recipes when she's had to think of something fast or the entry would have to be abandoned. One year, she planned to serve broiled salmon with strawberry salsa, but she burned the salmon. She renamed the dish Blackened Salmon with Strawberry Salsa. The salmon didn't do well but everyone loved the salsa.

One year, Margie made a cake and put it on a "cake board" we bought at a baking supply store. The glue from the board seeped into the cake and made the cake taste awful.

There was another incident I was not aware of until recently.

"You weren't supposed to find out," she told me last week, about the strawberry barbecue sauce.

"But you took first place and it tasted wonderful," I said.

"Well, it didn't look good on the ceiling," she said.

"Ceiling?" I said.

"I was just putting things into the blender, you know, salt, and maybe some extra pepper," Margie said. "Then I turned it on without putting the cover on. I knew I'd have to clean it up before you got home."

I hope you remember to keep the cover on your blender and consider entering the contest. Go to and click on Top Chef Contest for entry forms and information. You can also come to watch and taste, at no charge, at 5 p.m. Friday, June 14, at Kingston Park.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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