Eats: No knockoff, this crock-off rocks!

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The rules are simple:

One entry per family

Each entry MUST be cooked in a crockpot.

You cannot vote for your own entry.

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This year, each entry had to include at least one of these four ingredients:

— Mint

— Kahlua

— Buffalo meat

— Shiitake mushrooms

The challenge could stump a professional chef, but not the “chefs” at the Annual Leslie Crock-Off!

For four years running, eight families have gotten together once a year and alleviated the winter doldrums by competing against each other in what has become their favorite cooking event. Loosely based on the “Next Iron Chef” series, a reality show on the Food Network in which chefs compete against each other, hosts Rit and Tara Leslie of Lewiston came up with the idea a few years ago, inviting friends to compete. The common denominator between them is their children all go to St. Dominic Academy — and a few of the parents have known each other since attending grade school together.

This year, newcomers Scott and Pam Emery of Turner — who both showed up looking very professional (perhaps to throw off their competitors?) in crisp, black aprons — were added into the mix.

Winning the Crock-Off is a very serious endeavor. Besides earning bragging rights and a prize, first-place winners get their names engraved on the official and “highly coveted” Leslie Crock-Off plaque (complete with a silver spoon medal).

Crock-Off competitor Amy Poulin of Lisbon Falls said, “It’s really fun to see what people come up with!” She informed me recipes are so highly guarded that if a participant were to inconveniently bump into a fellow competitor at the grocery store, they’d probably feel compelled to scoot down another aisle in order to hide the secret ingredients in their cart.

The yearly event starts at 6 p.m. at the Leslies’ home, with families bringing in their crockpots, numbered and tagged with an ingredient list, but unidentified by name. With a shout of “May the best chef win!”the taste-testing begins at 7 p.m. All eight families get a vote in what they consider the best creation, taking into account taste, creativity and originality. Winners beware: A lot of “smack talk” gets thrown down before the tasting, Poulin said — some of which is bound to land on competitors’ Facebook pages as the tension builds.

Ballots were distributed at 7:55 p.m. I was honored to be asked to cast my own secret ballot, although I was pretty much certain it would have to end in a seven-way tie. The four main dishes and three desserts were excellent concoctions, and it was fun to try to make out the ingredients used.

Poulin pointed out that no one in the group is a professional chef, nor do any of them work in the food industry — although I found it hard to believe once I began sampling. The professions of the Crock-Off competitors include nurse, recruiter, attorney, architect, teacher and banker.

Amid much fanfare and drum rolls, Rit Leslie announced that winners were separated by just a few points each. Third-place bragging rights were shared by Amy and husband John Poulin for their Bison Taco Chili and Phil and Amy McLean of Lewiston for their Bison Meat Balls with Mint Stew. A gluten-free dish, I thought the meatballs were fabulous, and I liked the bright freshness of carrots and baby spinach along with the general flavoring of the gravy. McLean was happy to share the recipe with readers.

Other excellent contest entries included the Kahlua cake made by Jim and Julie Fortin of Lewiston, and a drunken mushroom-bison chili, topped with a minted sour cream, made by the Emerys. Pam Emery said she had decided in ”test runs” to make her chili with bison stew meat, but when all she could find at Hannaford was ground bison, she had to switch up the recipe last-minute to ground bison.

Second-place accolades — which won a bottle of wine and a jar of Noni’s Pepper Jelly — were awarded to Paul and Leslie Gastonguay of Lewiston. It was said by a fellow cook that Paul, a tennis coach at Bates College, “takes this very seriously.” Gastonguay actually drove to Waterford this year to buy fresh bison right off the farm for his Osso Buco (leg of bison), which he simmered in a tomato-based broth until it was falling off the bones. Served with rice, he garnished it with a fresh-mint pesto on the side.

This year’s winning entry was submitted by Deana and Kregg Kane of Lewiston, a heavenly cake concoction of chocolate, Kahlua, mint and ice cream (no bison and no shiitake mushrooms here!). Deana also shared the crockpot cake recipe with readers. It is sure to fulfil any chocolate cravings you might have. And the best part? You can set it up in the morning before you head off to work and it will be warm, gooey and quite beautiful come dinner time.

I’m not sure how much Kregg had to do with creating this winning recipe, but he was quick to melodramatically wipe tears of joy from his eyes with a big white handkerchief and start singing Queen’s “We are the Champions” when they went up to receive the silver spoon and a $50 gift certificate to Mother India.

Last year’s ingredients included either beer, chocolate, bacon or peanut butter. Still fresh on everyone’s taste buds was the Bacon Cheesecake submitted by Mark and Sandra Lee of Lewiston, who came in first and unseated the Gastonguays after a two-year run. I personally thought they had a great contender this year with their Challah Bread Pudding, topped with a pretty, green, homemade Hint of Mint Gelato, chocolate Kahlua sauce and a dollop of Kahlua whipped cream.

It’s too early to find out about next year’s ingredient list. “We usually start talking about it during the summer,” said Tara Leslie, who with her husband run the competition and award ceremony but don’t compete themselves. As hosts, she and Rit will probably announce the ingredients at the end of the year. “We live in Maine,” she said. “What else is there to do in February?”

Amy McLean’s Bison Meat Balls with Mint Stew

Meatballs:

1.5 pounds ground bison

1/2 small onion, finely minced

1/2 package shitake mushrooms, finely chopped

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup Marsala cooking wine

1/2 cup oatmeal (whole oats)

1/2 teaspoon cumin

2 eggs

1/2 package fresh mint, finely chopped, approx. 1/2 cup

Stew ingredients:

1 package organic baby spinach

1 cup frozen peas

3 carrots, diced

Gravy:

Enough water to cover meatballs, about 3 cups

1 cup Marsala wine

3 tablespoons ”Better than Bouillon Organic and Gluten Free” beef bouillon (found in the gluten-free section of most stores )

3 to 5 tablespoons cornstarch

Mix all meat ball ingredients and form into balls. (I used the the Pampered Chef medium cookie scoop.) Brown in olive oil in a skillet. Put in crockpot with bouillon and enough water to almost cover. Simmer for two hours on high, or four hours on low. Add baby spinach, 1 cup frozen peas and chopped carrots. Add water to cover vegetables, and cook for an additional hour on high, then add 1/2 to 1 cup Marsala wine. Thicken with cornstarch, about 3 tablespoons, but you can add more to desired thickness. Add more bouillon, if desired, to taste. Serve with cooked rice.

Deana Kane’s Dark Chocolate-Mint and Kahlua Crockpot Cake

Cake:

1 package “Devil’s Food” cake mix

1 package, large, instant chocolate pudding mix

4 eggs

1 pint sour cream

3/4 cup oil

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup Kahlua

6 ounces Lindt “Intense Mint” dark chocolate (about 2 large bars), broken into chips

Glaze:

1/2 cup confectioners sugar

Kahlua, 1 tablespoon at a time (about 3 tablespoons total)

1/4 cup mint chocolate chips, melted

Directions:

Cake: In large bowl, mix eggs, sour cream, oil, water and Kahlua. Add cake and pudding mix and beat on medium for 2 minutes. Lightly spray crockpot with non-stick spray. Layer about 3/4 of batter into crockpot; layer in Lindt chocolate chips and then top with remainder of batter. Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours.

Glaze: Whisk together confectioners sugar and Kahlua (1 tablespoon at a time until glaze is consistent and smooth). Brush glaze over hot, cooked cake. Drizzle melted mint chips over glazed cake. Serve hot with vanilla ice cream.

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