Have you watched Tom, Padma, and Gail from Bravo’s Top Chef and thought: Do they have the best job in the world or what?
I know I have. So when Cooking Light asked me to fly to the Taste of Atlanta and judge the final rounds of their first Healthy Cook of the Year competition, I packed my knives and went.
Our semi-finalists had already made it through two rounds. Over the summer, Cooking Light Editors reviewed all the 3-minute cooking demos that were submitted and narrowed them down to eight. Next, readers voted for their favorites on cookinglight.com, and narrowed those down to the final four.
The first set of cooks on the stage was Gita Patel and Lindsay Rudolph. Gita prepared her Sweet and Sour Veggie Stir Fry with Indian Spices and Lindsay baked her Cheesy Buffalo Chicken with Seasoned Potato Wedges. The aromas of toasting cumin from Gita’s side of the table woke us all up.
Meanwhile, Lindsay stuffed chicken breasts with a blue cheese and low fat cream cheese, brushed them with Frank’s Hot Sauce and baked them. Lindsay’s dish was a classic guilty-pleasure makeover.
Next, Alia Dalal prepared Afghani-style Squash with Curried Kale and Apples, and Sarah Taylor made Spicy Sweet Potato Salmon Cakes with Warm Mango Chutney. We were blown away by Sarah’s restaurant-style presentation and the balance of heat, spice and sweetness in her dish. Alia’s recipe was equally impressive; inspired by a local restaurant that features Afghani-style home cooking.
At the judges table, I was joined by Chef Marvin Woods, Good Day Atlanta co-anchor Suchita Vadlamani, and a guest judge from the audience. After we rated the individual dishes on a variety of criteria, including flavor, appearance and lightness, the numbers were crunched and finalists were named: Alia and Sarah would face off in the final competition: a lighter mac and cheese.
During the competition, Suchita remarked how unusual it was that three of the four dishes were inspired by Asian flavors. Sarah’s chutney had garam masala and big chunks of mango, Alia used curry, and Gita prepared a classic Indian sweet and sour vegetarian dish.
It may have been just one small pinch of spice for our contestants, but this was a giant leap for healthy home cooks everywhere. On the stage, healthy home cooking history was being made: light cooking was moving from recipe “makeovers” of creamy, cheesy classics to naturally lighter recipes. The winning contestants were using vivid global ingredients that are naturally lower in fat and calories.
There was one big surprise to come. Sarah prepared a Pancetta Crumb-Crusted Creamy Mac & Cheese, while Alia made a Zucchini Mac and Cheese with Roasted Tomatoes and Puffed Amaranth Topping.
Alia gave us all a little cooking lesson to start the competition: she placed the amaranth in a pot, and toasted the grain as if it were a spice, for about 30 seconds over medium heat. The nutty, popcorn smell overtook the crowd. (Remember that next time you’re looking for a crunchy alternative to bread crumbs for a topping.)
Both dishes used flavorful stir-ins. Sarah’s dish included pancetta and chanterelle mushrooms while Alia used roasted tomatoes. But the biggest surprise of all was the ingredient that Alia chose to leave out: she skipped the macaroni!
Alia actually made mac-less mac and cheese for her entry, replacing the pasta with long batons of zucchini. The flavor of the zucchini was mild, just as pasta would be, and a perfect partner for the sauce.
Suchita performed the ultimate mac and cheese test for the Atlanta crowd, who, as she said, “considers macaroni and cheese it’s own food group.” She dug her fork into Alia’s preparation and showed those long strands of cheese that made the crowd as happy as they’d be watching the Braves win on a September afternoon.
We gathered on the stage to announce the Healthy Cook of the Year, and recipient of $10,000 gift of a kitchen makeover and groceries. The winner was: Alia Dalal, with her mac-less mac and cheese.
There were hugs and tears, and I got the distinct sense that there will be a lot of terrific recipes coming out of Alia’s new kitchen.
As for Tom, Padma and Gail? I got a taste of what they get every week, but with a bonus. Judging restaurant chefs is a great gig, but having the opportunity to taste dishes prepared by some of the healthiest home cooks in America is a double privilege.