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AV Press: The children will love it!


By: Julie Drake

PALMDALE - The Domestic Divas' creamy, cheesy chicken potato casserole earned the top prize and a spot on a future menu in Palmdale School District's inaugural Chopped cook-off event modeled after the Food Network program.

The competition pitted four teams of six kitchen managers - The Domestic Divas, Chopettes, Gourmet Gals and Well-Seasoned - against each other and the clock to prepare a kid-friendly chicken dish that met the student taste profile and looked good on the plate using ingredients available through the district's suppliers.

The Domestic Divas team featured Anna Meza of Tumbleweed Elementary School, Jackie Lawrence of Mesquite Elementary School, Tina Wiebe of Chaparral Elementary School, Nanette Smith of Desert Willow Intermediate School, Beverly Laughlin of Shadow Hills Intermediate School, and Terry Richardson of Tamarisk Elementary School.

The culinary experts prepared and cooked their meals in Palmdale Learning Plaza's kitchen before presenting them to a table of six judges including district Superintendent Raul Maldonado.

Each team had to come up with its own recipe. The meals were prepared in a half-pan to feed at least 25 people.

"Really, the whole thing is based on a team-building activity for my managers and also a chance to work on their culinary skills," said Todd Cherland, director of Child Nutrition for the school district.

Chicken served as the main ingredient, but teams also used rice, pasta, fresh vegetables, potatoes and spices. They had 30 minutes to plan their dish and two hours to complete and plate their food.

After they presented a plate of food to each of the six judges, a team member announced the name of the dish, described it and explained the thought process that went into its creation.

Then the teams waited and watched as the judges sampled their creations. Judges evaluated the food based on plating, taste and student taste profiles.

The judges sampled the Domestic Divas' cheesy chicken potato dish last.

They praised the dish's cheesiness, seasoning, creaminess, presentation, texture and flavor.

"The flavor profile was excellent; it reminds me of an enchilada casserole, it had that type of flavor profile for me," said Johna Avila, assistant director of Child Nutrition for the district.

Avila added the dish had a perfect balance of cheesiness and creaminess.

"Everything was just the right amount of portion in here. The vegetables to chicken to potatoes to cheese. Everything seemed like the perfect balance. I really enjoyed this," Avila said.

Linda Oliphant, also assistant director of Child Nutrition for the district, agreed.

"It just had really good flavor," Oliphant said.

Judge George Passantino lifted his almost empty plate.

"You know, actions speak louder than words," Passantino said.

"The creaminess of it and the bright orange cheese is like a fish lure for kids," he said.

"We have a lot of stuff with rice and pasta so we wanted to go with the potatoes. Potatoes and cheese and chicken was the basis for everybody, then we added in spinach and cilantro and stuff like that for more vegetables," Lawrence said.

The team also considered how to make a simple recipe that could be prepared for about 1,000 kids at a time.

Second-place team Chopettes, composed of Diane Malan of Los Amigos School, Debra Ward of Desert Rose Elementary School, Rocio Nelson of Site 18, Crystal Byram of Quail Valley Elementary School, Katie Troncoso of Palm Tree Elementary and Valerie Economu of Golden Poppy Elementary, created a layered shepherd's pie with chicken strips, scalloped potatoes, and fresh broccoli, carrots, onions, celery and green and red peppers in a sauce with cheese.

"There's components," Malan said. "There's so much protein, so much vegetables, so much sodium and so on so you have to take all those components into consideration in developing a recipe."

Ward said they put their heart into the recipe.

"It absolutely is team building. We're all from different schools; we've never worked as a group together before. Absolutely, they've been wonderful," Ward said.

"It was a wonderful exercise," Economu said, adding they wanted to push the fresh vegetables.

Cimarron Elementary kitchen manager Cathy Traugott of the Gourmet Gals said the competition was a blast.

The Gourmet Gals created a rainbow chicken dish with vegetables including cilantro, onion, spinach and red bell peppers.

"It's a lot of fun. I get to work with different managers to create a recipe that we get to choose and hopefully we win, so it will be on our next menu cycle," Traugott said.

The competition also provided time for the kitchen managers to share tips about things such as food preparation.

"We have the same ingredients; it's just a different way of putting them together," she said.

Students ought to see the Domestic Divas' dish on the menu sometime around Thanksgiving.

All four meals impressed the judges so much they might all end up on a future menu.

"We guaranteed first place. It's entirely possible that they might all end up on there," Cherland said.


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