TV personality Sissy Biggers, left, chats with LG Electronics “Taste of Something Better” finalist Spokane resident Paula Mannino about her recipe as celebrity chef judge Tim Love gives it a thumbs-up in the LG Kitchen at the “Taste of Beverly Hills” food and wine festival.
TV personality Sissy Biggers, left, chats with LG Electronics “Taste of Something Better” finalist Spokane resident Paula Mannino about her recipe as celebrity chef judge Tim Love gives it a thumbs-up in the LG Kitchen at the “Taste of Beverly Hills” food and wine festival.

Taste of cook-off victory has Spokane woman hooked

Paula Mannino is hooked.

The Spokane woman, who teaches Italian cooking classes at her home, says she’s thinking of becoming a cooking-contest junkie after a recent win in the second annual LG Electronics “Taste of Something Better” competition.

Mannino was the second runner-up in the cook-off, held Sept. 5 at the “Taste of Beverly Hills” wine and food festival.

“I was on vacation when I got it across my e-mail and I decided on a fluke just to throw a recipe in,” she says.

Contest judges chose Mannino’s recipe for an updated chicken cacciatore with polenta along with two others from about 400 entries. The three finalists competed in a cook-off at the festival, presented by Food and Wine magazine, for the title of “Top Amateur Chef.”

The finalists whipped together their creations for a star-studded panel of judges including Ted Allen, host of the Food Network’s “Chopped”; Tim Love, the season two winner of “Iron Chef America”; “Top Chef” winner Michael Voltaggio; and “Top Chef Masters” fan favorite Ludo Lefebvre.

Lifestyle expert Sissy Biggers, who has been featured on the Food Network’s “Ready, Set, and Cook!” as well as ABC’s “Extreme Makeover,” was the emcee.

The judges awarded Brett Youmans of Reading, Pa., top prize for his orange scented lamb skewers atop watercress and roasted fig salad with baked goat cheese crisps. Youmans will compete later this month in LG’s global competition in Seoul, South Korea.

Mannino’s recipe was a modern, lighter version of traditional chicken cacciatore, a dish from central Italy where her mother’s family roots can be found.

“It was a beautiful dish,” she says. “I’m very proud of it.”

Two setbacks slowed her down: She cut her knuckle grating cheese and the tuiles she used to garnish the plate did not get crisp enough because she didn’t have a cooling rack.

“When you’re competing every little tiny thing makes a big difference,” Mannino says.

In addition to the trip to Beverly Hills, she won an LG double wall oven for her efforts. The competition was filmed and will be broadcast on CNN in October.

Mannino says she learned so much she’s planning to enter the contest again next year and start entering other competitions.

For the chicken:

1 large chicken, about 5 pounds, cut into 8 pieces

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

3 slices lean bacon, about 2 ounces, cut into small pieces

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup dry white wine

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes

2 roasted red peppers, sliced into strips

1 tablespoon rosemary, chopped

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ teaspoon dried thyme

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the polenta:

1 3/4 cups polenta (also known as cornmeal or corn grits)

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 bay leaf, crumbled

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 clove garlic minced

Dash freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Pat the chicken dry and season on all sides with salt and pepper.

Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring, until softened and beginning to render fat, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are softened and starting to color, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Working in batches, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook, turning often, until browned on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a large covered casserole.

Pour off the fat from the skillet. Pour the wine into the skillet, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil, stirring to pick up any browned bits on the bottom.

Add the tomatoes (with juices), peppers, rosemary, oregano and thyme. Add the bacon and onion mixture and bring to a boil, then pour over the chicken.

Transfer to the preheated oven and cook until the chicken is tender and the sauce is slightly thickened, 40 to 45 minutes. Check the level of liquid as the chicken cooks; there should be enough liquid to barely cover the chicken. Add water if necessary.

To make the polenta, bring 6 cups water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the salt, bay leaf and olive oil. Reduce the heat to medium and very slowly start adding the polenta, using small handfuls at a time, taking several minutes to add the entire amount.

Simmer gently, stirring very frequently. (Pay attention to the edges of the pan as you stir; this is where it will stick and scorch first.) As it thickens, 20 to 30 minutes, you may want to change to a large, wide wooden spoon or paddle to make it easier to stir. Be careful not to burn yourself; the polenta has a tendency to act like an erupting volcano as it is cooking.

When the polenta is very thick and smooth, remove from the heat and stir in the butter, cheese, garlic and pepper.

Remove the bay leaf and pour the polenta out onto a large platter, top with chicken pieces and spoon over sauce.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

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