Courier Staff Writer
In Europe, appetizers can be as simple as a few high-quality olives on a plate. But when an Iowan goes there for a competition, creativity counts.
Kellie Vetter of Fairfield is studying cooking at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa. Her creative appetizer looks like a mushroom.
The cap is a cheese she shapes and bakes. When you lift the cap, there’s a creamy and extra-thick alfredo sauce. The stem is a thin, hollowed-out parsnip, which is stuffed with the homemade Spanish-style chicken sausage she dreamed up. Along the bottom of the “mushroom” is green moss.
“The moss is actually a traditional Spanish green sauce made with peas, parsley, garlic and wine ... That’s cooked down and mixed with [a starch] that turns the whole thing to a powder,” Vetter said Thursday.
When she sent photos and a description to the audition committee in Spain, they contacted her to request more photos and more explanation.
“That’s when I knew they were interested,” said her instructor, Chef Gordon Rader. “She had them hooked.”
There are only 15 slots available in the international “tapas” competition. Judges received more than 90 applications to compete. Vetter was selected and will represent Ottumwa this November when she, the chef and a chaperone fly to Spain.
Like a lot of “complex” foods, “tapas” started out pretty plain, almost humble. Generous Spanish bartenders would cover (or “top”) a patron’s wine with a piece of bread, perhaps adding a slice of flavorful local ham.
Other bars would try to make something even nicer, perhaps a sliced Spanish potato omelet. As competition heated up, tapas became their own course, with bars becoming famous for one plate or another. Some American towns now have establishments devoted to the small-plate foods.
Patrons order one as an appetizer, or a couple with cocktails or even several to make a meal. There’s now a foodie version of a “pub crawl,” ordering one specialty in every tapas bar on the street.
“I like food. I love challenges,” said Vetter. “And Chef encourages us when it comes to ‘playing with our food,’ so I chased it.”
She researched the flavors popular in the region they are going to, and incorporated those spices into her dish.
“That flavor profile, she nailed it,” said Rader.
As a single mom, she said, this was one of the few ways she saw to travel abroad. It’s something she really wanted to do.
“My kids think this is great,” she said, “although my little one thinks he should get to go, too. But really, they’re proud of me.”
She’ll spend a little over a week traveling with two days devoted to the competition. The other days will focus on food, too.
“There are a lot of educational opportunities: wineries, cheese making, wonderful restaurants. There’s a professional competition (after ours) that we’ll get to watch, too.”
In the meantime, Vetter is practicing. And still making adjustments. She was originally going to use a piece of bark as a plate. Thursday, she said she’s developing an edible “bark” as the base.
And in case they don’t have the perfect plates over there, she’s packing her own. In fact, she told the chef, she’s packing 10 in case of breakage.
“I like the way she thinks,” said Rader.