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Abuzz in the Garden
Have I mentioned that a food critic's job is a difficult and demanding one, all work and no play? If I did, I was lying through my teeth. Recently, I spent a pleasant Saturday at Teas Nursery's 155th anniversary celebration, as one of the judges in their "Garden Cook-off."

So there I was, buzzing like a bee from bloom to blossom, sampling concoctions from local chefs that elaborated on Teas's garden theme: dewy fresh vegetables, herbs and, yes, edible flowers. "This is the greatest job, isn't it?" whispered Ted Powers, food editor of the Jewish Herald-Voice and one of my fellow arbiters. "Get out of my way, Ted," I hissed. "I want more of that pasta."

Chef Jimmy Mitchell of the Rainbow Lodge had whipped up cunning little sugar cookies flecked with bright bits of edible pansies and marigolds to accompany his main dish of fried squash blossoms stuffed with gorgonzola, ricotta and goat cheeses. Chef/owner Janet Carter-Wilson of the Edloe Street Deli eyed his pale-yellow blooms enviously: Her purveyor of squash blossoms had let her down at the last minute; Mitchell plucked his from his own back yard. But Carter-Wilson rallied to the challenge with an herbed, creamy pasta Provence: The odor of sauteeing garlic wafted on the breeze, drawing hordes of hungry gardeners.

Ronit Goldberg, daughter of owners Tikva and Sy Goldberg, represented Cafe Beignet at the party. She brought classic, plump beignets -- of course! -- and dainty herbed crepes, but cheerfully admitted she'd had no inkling what the event was about until she got there. Apparently Robert Pfister, the 28-year-old Austrian (former) executive chef at Cafe Beignet, left abruptly two weeks ago, taking with him pastry chef Grant York and the cook-off press kit. Goldberg was good-humored about the whole thing, though, perhaps because they managed to replace Pfister almost immediately with the valuable Valerie Roveria, formerly with the former Moose Cafe.

The pretty weather and even prettier food put us all in a good mood, so it was with remarkably little discord that our panel of jurists awarded first prize -- a handsome plaque -- to chef Doug Pollard of Frankie B. Mandola's restaurant, and jolly red runner-up ribbons to everyone else. Pollard's winning entree was a seriously large slab-o-salmon roulade, rubbed with a Dijon herb mixture and jellyrolled around spinach and roasted red bell peppers, but I really fell for his "wild mix" salad that included chili-powdered walnuts, matchsticks of sweet potatoes and edible flowers tossed with a brown ale vinaigrette. (No oil! No fat! Really tasty!)

Just sign me: Quasi-celebrity cook-off judge for hire. Will work for food. Call anytime.

-- Margaret L. Briggs

 
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