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Getting ready to record our tasting notes
Photography by Jessica Darmanin
I have never seen an episode of Recipe to Riches, the Food Network Canada show now in its second season. But I really like the premise: Thousands of Canadians cook up their best home recipes to compete in seven different categories (think savoury snacks, cookies and squares and entrees). In each of the seven episodes, one winner is chosen from the three finalists in each of those seven categories. At the end of the season, that leaves seven winners, all of whom take home $25,000 and have their recipe turned into a President’s Choice product that’s sold in grocery stores across the country.
Tonight (Dec. 12 at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT) the country gets to vote on which of these seven dishes they think is the best. The final winner stands to win $250,000–the largest cash prize in Canadian reality show history.
I hosted a dinner party with all seven dishes so that we could judge the PC products for ourselves. Four Maclean’s staff memebers ranked each product from the best (7) to the worst (1). On the show, “recipes are judged based on taste, presentation, originality, the story behind the recipe and its suitability to become a mass produced grocery store product.” Our judging criteria? Taste, and taste alone, although it was hard for our science writer not to comment on the appearance of the food and our art director to ignore the packaging of the products. The three panelists I chose have never judged food professionally. They are lay people, much like the consumers to whom these products are presumably marketed. I advised them to consider whether or not they would be enthusiastic about recommending each dish to a friend to buy.
- See the dinner party photos here, or scroll to the bottom
Kate Lunau, Assistant Editor
Writes about a myriad of things for the magazine, but mostly health and science-related ones; cover stories this past year include one on the Higgs Boson particle, inside NASA with Chris Hadfield and “The Broken Generation”. Favourite packaged and frozen foods include Jamaican patties, Dr. Oetker’s funghi pizza, Pillsbury Grands (cinnamon rolls), frozen dumplings (pork & chive) from Mother’s Dumplings, perogies, Hungry Mans, Joe Louis, Star Trek wafffles.
Jessica Darmanin, Associate Photo Editor
Takes a lot of photos to illustrate the magazine, plus does a ton of photo research when she’s not out taking pictures; Loves grocery shopping at No Frills. The only vegetarian on the panel, but tried everything. Favourite frozen foods include “seafood medley” and spinach.
Stephen Gregory, Art Director
You know the cover of the magazine every week? This guy makes that, plus he oversees the design of every other page. Very new to frozen foods, but has discovered the world of endless possibilities that is Dr. Oetker’s frozen pizza. Also, ate Campbell’s tomato soup in his youth.
Jessica Allen, Assistant Web Editor
Writes arts and culture stories and the “Eat It Up” food blog. Worked in restaurants for 10 years before coming to Maclean’s. Favourite packaged and frozen foods include too many to list. (But Dr. Oetker makes an appearance at least one night a week at my place.)
THE SEVEN CATEGORY WINNERS (in the order that we tasted them):
1. Montreal Deli Style Dip, by Cathy Ferguson of Gloucester, Ont. (Condiments and Dips) The PR promise: Made with corned beef, wine sauerkraut, dill pickles, Gruyère and mozzarella cheeses and caraway seeds.
- Nice colour, I like the pickle and the meat isn’t so noticeable–a plus for a vegetarian. (Darmanin)
- All I taste is the pickle and the wine sauerkraut. I taste no cheese or meat. (Allen)
- It sounds like a wound when you stir it up. It tastes like Big Mac special sauce. Gross pink-orange colour. Hard to tell there’s even meat in there. Has Cathy ever been to Montreal? (Lunau)
- Where’s Cathy from again? It’s a really Germanic combination of ingredients that speaks of a complete lack of familiarity with Montreal. Too heavy a consistency for anything but the strongest of crackers. More of a spread, really. (Gregory)
Verdict: If I brought this home, I wouldn’t feel comfortable serving it to anybody.
2. Mini Cheesy Bees Nests, by Jason Keary of Nerepis, N.B. (Cakes, Puddings and Pies)
The PR promise: These totally tasty tarts push the limits of awesomeness–crisp phyllo pastry cups with rich cream cheese and honey filling, topped with a mixed berry coulis and sprinkled with mozzarella cheese.
- Best thing for a sweet tooth. Love the sweetness of the jam. Great size. (Darmanin)
- Oh god I want to cry because these taste like those Pillsbury things with jam inside that I loved as a child. (Allen)
- Too sweet! I hate the texture but the pastry is okay. And it looks disgusting, not like on the package. It came out of the package smooshed and sickitating. (Lunau)
- So sweet! (Gregory)
Verdict: Although Darmanin liked the size and “the back and forth between crisp to jam,” Lunau was horrified by the appearance of the cups, even the morning after our dinner. And I assumed, on account of the mozzarella, that this one was an appetizer, which it is not. It’s a dessert. This one may have divided the Maclean’s panel the most.
3. Chipotle Chili Slams, by Stephen Childs of Victoria, B.C. (Savoury Snacks)
The PR promise: Golden wheat and cornmeal pastry surrounding a deliciously hearty vegetarian bean chili filling. The perfect after-school or on-the-go snack, ready to heat and eat in a hurry.
- Tastes more like pizza than a burrito. I do like the cornmeal-like coating, but makes my left hand feel greasy. After-school special material; nostalgic adolescent vibe. (Darminin)
- The name makes me feel like I’m 12 years old. This would pair nicely with Sunny D. Target market: babysitters and preteen skateboarders. Greasy to the touch, but nicest looking of everything we’ve eaten so far. (Lunau)
- Nice! Real texture and nice spice kick. I feel like I’m actually eating something not cobbled together out of random ingredients (yes, I’m looking at you, dip.) (Gregory)
- The filling is like paste. There’s not enough texture going on here. But the cornmeal crust is pleasant. I could use a dipping sauce of sorts. I’m going to the fridge to get a bottle of Franks hot sauce. (Allen)
Verdict: The best savoury sampling, both texturally and flavour-wise, of the night. Still, they left us desiring another level of flavour.
4. Triple “S” Korean Meatballs, by Jackie Koh of Vancouver, B.C. (Hors d’Oeuvres)
The PR promise: This Korean-inspired meatball recipe begins as a simple blend of beef and pork, but the final creation is a deliciously complex combination of flavours–sweet, spicy and savoury. These succulent meatballs are fully cooked, so you can enjoy them in minutes–perfect as an hors d’oeuvre.
- Smells like breakfast sausage on a camping trip, and processed. The only thing I like about these balls are their spice. PS: My hand is still greasy from the slam I had. (Darmanin)
- These smelled so good coming out of the oven but I have to say, what a disappointment. The texture is spongy. This is like a sponge. (Allen)
- Best so far! Meat is dryish, but decent. Spicing is okay. Zero texture. Actually, they taste pre-chewed, or like corporate meatballs. They bleed orange grease when you stab them. My mouth tastes chemically right now. Am I the only one? (Lunau)
- A hint of kimchi? And whatever that hot/sweet red pepper sauce that comes with bibimbap is. But no meat flavour. It’s ground too fine, and, like many of these products, lacks texture. Dislike! (Gregory)
Verdict: So promising out of the oven, but texturally, these were a nightmare. And flavour-wise, it felt like the initial blast of spice fooled you into thinking it was tasty, but after that one note, these balls left us hanging.
5. Butter Chicken Lasagna, by Rick Matharu of Brampton, Ont. (Entrées)
The PR promise: True to its creator’s roots, this extraordinary lasagna is made with tandoori-spiced seasoned chicken in an Indian-inspired sauce made with garam masala, sautéed red onions, green peppers and mushrooms–a deliciously irresistible fusion of fragrant flavours.
- Chicken rubbery. Too sweet (sauce). I want a PC Slam right now. (Darmanin)
- This is all an unholy marriage. Nothing here belongs together. (Allen)
- If PC does one thing right generally, it’s frozen lasagna, but this one? I don’t know. Appearance is better than we’ve seen so far. Sauce is a bit corn starchy/powdery and it has a greasy/chemically aftertaste. It’s making my mouth taste like petroleum. (Lunau)
- This is a very unhappy fusion. (Gregory)
Verdict: I’ve always felt funny about ground turkey and chicken. When I peeled back the pasta to examine the ground chicken, we were all shocked at its purple-tinged colour. Do not make the mistake of dissecting it.
6. Salt-Kissed Dulce de Leche Brownies, by Tracey Rigden of Etobicoke, Ont. (Cookies and Squares)
The PR promise: This delectable brownie has deservedly earned the reputation for being over-the-top delicious! An irresistibly dense brownie layer topped with sweet dulce de leche under indulgently rich chocolate ganache sprinkled with sea salt.
- Stunning. So solid/rich/fun. I’m happy and I can’t wait to have another piece. (Darmanin)
- The ganache texturally is probably my favourite thing here, and the saltiness is great. But it’s pretty rich and heavy. (Lunau)
- This is probably the best first impression so far tonight. (Allen)
- The cake part is not that good but the other layers are delicious. Wish the salt crystals didn’t turn into a salty dew on top. Maybe a defrosting mistake? In the end, too much. (Gregory)
Verdict: Initially, we were all very excited about the brownies. We were unanimous in them being the best thing we’d tried so far. But each of us could only manage a sliver. It’s pretty rich.
The PR promise: Like its creator, this is a real treat. Almonds, cashews, pine nuts and sesame seeds topped with buttery toffee and milk chocolatey buttons, all on a graham cracker crust.
- Fantastic: right amount of sweetness. Nice salt amount and really fun to eat. Great crunch. (Darmanin)
- Nice vanilla salty nut taste! I would actually crave that, but probably nothing else that I’ve tried here. I’m eating thirds of the nut bar. (Lunau)
- This may be the only thing we’ve tried tonight that I would consider purchasing. (Allen)
- The chocolate buttons on top are an unnecessary distraction from the decent toffee flavour and great cruch. Love it. Not cloyingly sweet, like the brownie. (Gregory)
Verdict: Seeing that this was the only dish the four of us polished off, Harquail’s toffee was the clear winner.
In short, “everything tastes mass-produced and cheap, like they only plan on selling it for a couple of months,” said Lunau, a sentiment I think we all shared. I wonder if something was lost once these recipes were mass-produced. I can not–will not, in fact–believe that Laura Calder, one of the show’s four judges, tasted the versions of these dishes that we did and said favourable things about them. I think the sad truth of it all was best summarized by, perhaps surprisingly, our art director: “The problem here,” said Gregory, “is that they’ve taken something personal, a moment of cooking creativity that may say something about the individuals or their lives or just their desire to put some random s–t in a blender and see how it tastes, and applied god-knows-what industrial processes to it and spat out a ground-up, imperishable, never fail (or succeed), too sweet or too salty (or both at once) perverted version of it.”
THE RESULTS! (click on the chart to enlarge it)
AND DON’T FORGET TO TAKE A LOOK AT HOW THE NIGHT ROLLED OUT IN PHOTOS: