One of the highlights of my career was being asked to be a pie judge at the State Fair. So I felt like I had some street cred when the ChildCareGroup asked me to be a judge for their first annual Battle of the Cooks.
The ChildCareGroup traces its roots to the first settlement house in Texas. For those who don’t know, settlement houses were turn-of-the-19th-century reform institutions that provided services for low-paid laborers. In Dallas, that meant a free kindergarten and training school at the corner of what’s now Cedar Springs and McKinney Avenue for the children of underpaid women working in the booming cotton business.
One hundred and twenty years later — today is their official anniversary! — CCG is still working to help families attain self-sufficiency, providing free early childhood education for little ones, training and job opportunities for grown ones, and health and well-being programs for the whole family. Part of that assistance includes two daily meals and one snack for the 538 infants and toddlers enrolled in the nonprofit’s eight Head Start and Early Head Start childhood centers located in East, South, and West Dallas; Oak Cliff; Garland; and Corsicana. (During COVID school closures, CCG continued to provide the meals via drive-thru pickup.)
CCG’s cooks work hard to make sure the meals and snacks are nutritious and delicious, knowing that the food they prepare might be the only food the children receive. A couple of weeks ago, their creativity was put to the test in CCG’s first ever Battle of the Cooks. Based on my own memories of cafeteria fare, my expectations were low. Boy, was I surprised.
The dishes below represent my favorites of the mains, sides, and desserts prepared by the cooks: Kershetta Dears, Gwen Black, Varkesha Leffall, and Lucy Gorrostieta. If I could do it over, I would have taken some Tupperware and brought it all home with me. Instead, they gave me a parting gift of a box of fresh produce, containing many of the ingredients used in their dishes. I used it to make and freeze some delicious soups: carrot and red pepper, celery-leek soup with potato and parsley, and creamy leek soup.
The lesson learned was clear: eating your veggies can be a beautiful thing. Especially if they’re followed by a peach and mango cobbler.
Honey-Shrimp Deviled Eggs
Gwen Black’s version of the quintessential Southern amuse bouche is sophisticated enough for a bridal brunch and yet approachable enough for a kid to grab and eat on the go. It surprised all of the judges into rapturous silence. If we didn’t have another course to go, we would have eaten the entire plateful. Pro tip: if your filling feels a bit runny, let it chill a bit before filling the egg halves.
3 tablespoons light mayonnaise
½ teaspoon yellow mustard
2 tablespoons pickle relish
12 medium frozen shrimp (31-40 count), thawed, peeled, and deveined (tails on or off is your call)
½ teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
½ teaspoon paprika, plus more for garnish
½ teaspoon honey
Kosher salt, to taste
Parsley, for garnish
- Place eggs in a pot and cover with water. Place pot over heat, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil. Let water boil for 5 minutes, then turn burner off. Let pot sit for 5 more minutes. Rinse eggs in cold water and peel.
- Cut the hard-boiled eggs in half lengthwise. Remove yolks and place in a medium bowl.
- Smash the egg yolks, mayonnaise, mustard, and pickle relish with the back of a fork until fairly smooth.
- Cook the shrimp in a pan for 5 or 6 minutes, until pink and just cooked through. Toss with Old Bay Seasoning, paprika, and honey. Season with salt to taste.
- Fill egg white halves with the mashed egg mixture. Place one shrimp on top of each egg. Garnish with a parsley leaf and light sprinkle of paprika. Chill until ready to serve.
Swiss Chard and Leek Salad With Lemon Vinaigrette
Swiss chard is one vegetable that I am generally hesitant to buy because I don’t know how to cook it well. Leeks I like, but I equate them with soup. Which is why I was so charmed by Varkesha Leffall’s salad, which uses both greens in their raw–and delicious–form.
1 bunch of Swiss chard leaves
1 leek stalk
1 pound of cherry tomatoes, halved
¾ cup olive oil
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
Juice from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs (rosemary and thyme work great)
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Remove the stalks from the Swiss chard. Roll the leaves together and cut into half-inch strips. Place in a large bowl.
- Rinse the leek and slice the white part into thin circles. Add to the chard along with the sliced cherry tomatoes.
- To make the vinaigrette: whisk all ingredients together.
- Toss the greens with vinaigrette to taste (you’ll have extra).
Sheet Pan Rosemary and Thyme Chicken With Blackened Quinoa
Varkesha Leffall had me at blackened quinoa. OK, so it turns out that it’s not blackened per se, but the fact that it’s baked in a sheet pan along with all the other ingredients means that you do end up with some delightfully crispy bits.
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon paprika
3 tomatoes, diced
2 cups red, yellow, and purple fingerling potatoes
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup lime juice
2 cloves garlic, smashed
3 sprigs fresh rosemary, plus more for garnish
3 sprigs fresh thyme, plus more for garnish
1 cup of tri-color quinoa, rinsed
1 cup vegetable broth
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cover a baking pan with aluminum foil and coat with cooking spray.
- Season chicken breasts with white pepper and paprika and place in the pan.
- Remove rosemary and thyme leaves from stems and roughly chop. Place in a medium bowl, and add tomatoes, potatoes, olive oil, lime juice, garlic, rosemary, and thyme. Toss vegetables to coat and pour over the chicken in the pan.
- Sprinkle quinoa over chicken and add vegetable broth. Cover pan tightly with foil and bake for 40 to 50 minutes.
Mexican Chicken Spaghetti
Lucy Gorrostieta says this dish is a staple in her own house, and it’s easy to see why. Pre-cook a couple of boneless, skinless chicken breasts or take the meat off a rotisserie bird, and you’ll find it couldn’t be easier to have a fiesta in a bowl any night of the week.
16 ounces whole wheat spaghetti
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup diced onions
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 cups diced tomatoes
2 cups frozen corn
2 tablespoons chicken base (or bouillon cubes)
3 cups cooked chicken, diced
3–4 cups chicken broth
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add raw noodles, breaking if necessary to fit in the pan, and brown lightly.
- Add onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Cook for two minutes.
- Add frozen corn, chicken base or bouillon cubes, and chicken. Pour in chicken broth, adding enough to cover the noodles. Bring broth to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes or until pasta is cooked through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Custard Pie With Whipped Cream Cheese Topping
Is it a buttermilk pie? Is it a custard pudding? Is it a frosted blondie? Kershetta Dears’ sweet treat defies definition. All we know is it tastes like the best of what grandma used to make, and we’re happiest eating it with our hands.
1½ cups of sugar
1 stick of butter, melted
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup of condensed milk
1 store-bought pie crust, thawed
Whipped Cream Cheese Topping:
1 pint heavy cream
8 ounces cream cheese
1 cup powdered sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, melted butter, vanilla, and condensed milk. Whisk until smooth.
- Press softened pie crust into an 8-by-8-inch baking dish. Pour custard filling into the baking dish. Bake for 45 minutes or until the top is browned and the center is solid. Remove pie from oven and let cool 10-15 minutes to set.
- Beat the cream cheese, powdered sugar, vanilla, and salt together until smooth. With the beater on medium-high speed, slowly add heavy cream, pouring it down the sides of the bowl. Continue to beat until you have stiff peaks. Chill until ready to use.
- Once pie has cooled, cut into slices and top with a dollop of the whipped cream cheese topping.
Peach and Mango Cobbler
I don’t know if the incredible decadence of Varkesha Leffall’s dessert came from the addition of sweet mango or sweetened condensed milk, but this is the only way I’m ever going to make it from here on out.
2 cups fresh peaches, cut into slices
2 cups fresh mango, diced
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup of sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon lime juice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
2 teaspoons butter, melted
¼ cup water
2 ready-made pie crusts
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- In a bowl, combine peaches, mango, brown sugar, ¼ cup sugar, vanilla, and honey. Stir in lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, melted butter, and water.
- Line baking dish with pie crust. Blind bake crust for 5 minutes. Pour fruit mixture on top of crust, then top with strips of remaining pie crust. Combine cinnamon and remaining ¼ cup sugar, and sprinkle on top. Bake for 40 minutes.