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Great Chili Cookoff returns to Petaluma


Saturday, May 6, marks the 20th anniversary of the Great Petaluma Chili Cookoff, Salsa and Beer Tasting. I will be running the judging portion of the event, as well as procuring the liquor license so we can all enjoy beer and wine with all the great chili and salsa. Starting at 1 p.m., guests can taste more than 50 chilis and salsa, along with two dozen microbreweries, while enjoying live entertainment in the open-air beer garden.

Teams compete in professional and amateur categories, which include restaurants/caterers, businesses, service organizations and individuals. But don’t be misled by the word “amateur” because it isn’t unusual for an amateur team to take home the Grand Champion trophy.

In fact, the Tree Huggin’ Hippies, who competed in their first chili cookoff 20 years ago at the first Great Petaluma Chili Cookoff competition, have been winning awards ever since, including the state championships, as well as competing in the World Food Championships, which offer a “Gold Ticket” to the winners this event. This will be the Tree Huggin’ Hippies final competition so this will likely be your last chance to try their award winning chili.

Proceeds help fund Cinnabar Theater’s Young Rep program. Visit www.greatchilicookoff.com for more info.

Casa kids know how to cook

Casa Grande took home the Judges’ Award at this year’s Wine Country Chefs of Tomorrow event last week at John Ash & Co., Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa by out shining six other highly talented high school culinary programs. The event raises money for local high school culinary programs, but maybe more importantly, it raises awareness that these programs even exist. I was amazed to learn how many high schools offer these programs but also how large, diverse and in depth these programs are.

The seven teams represented Casa Grande, Maria Carrillo, El Molino, Healdsburg, Piner, Sonoma Valley and Windsor. Each team prepared a minimum of two appetizers, using ingredients from sponsors such as local favorites Petaluma Poultry, Clover Sonoma and Mycopia Gourmet Mushrooms. The People’s Choice award went to Maria Carrillo.

I had the honor of judging this event alongside an esteemed panel of judges and was blown away by what I saw and tasted. Along with fellow judges Steve Garner (co-host with John Ash of KSRO’s The Good Food Hour), Mark Johnston (executive chef for Petaluma Poultry), and Shari Sarabi (chef/owner of Baci Café & Wine Bar), we had to judge each school on everything from presentation to use and knowledge of ingredients.

Although all teams had their strengths, Casa Grande clearly put a lot of time, energy and thought into their entries and really blew the judges away. Their dishes were innovative enough to catch our interest, but still paid homage to their Thai-themed roots.

Each student seemed to know everything about each dish, and they even brought a bee hive display with live bees, from which they harvest honey at their Petaluma campus. I asked about the “Big House Catering” logo on their chefs coats and learned that they actually offer catering for parties up to 300.

Crocodile Short Ribs

Boneless short ribs have never tasted as good as those we had at Crocodile restaurant last Friday evening. We originally planned on only grabbing a couple of appetizers and drinks, but once I heard that their special was boneless short ribs, we stuck it out for dinner.

The ribs were cooked “sous vide,” which is French for “under vacuum,” where the chef vacuum seals the meat with herbs and spices and cooks it for much longer and at lower temperatures than normal. This style of preparation helps cook items more evenly throughout. This means the meat retains its moistness and flavor and avoids being overcooked on the outside.

Crocodile’s short ribs cook for 48 hours and are some of the tenderest and most flavorful I have ever had. In addition, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cheesy potato side, which came as a mash, but almost had the consistency of gnocchi. Paired with a glass of Crocodile’s Zinfandel, this was just about as perfect as a meal can be. I don’t know how long the ribs will be offered as a special, but I recommend getting down to Crocodile as soon as you can so you don’t miss out on any more of their great specials.

We also thoroughly enjoyed the Devils Gulch Ranch (Nicascio) pulled rabbit, served with broad house-made noodles, peas and a few other veggies and herbs. For dessert, we tried Crocodile’s incredible Belgian waffle with macerated strawberries and whipped creme fraiche, and the ever-tasty cookie plate.

We paired the waffle with a glass of 2012 Domaine de tour Vielle Banyuls, which is a French dessert wine produced in similar fashion to the Portugal’s port. This was the first Banyuls I’ve tried, but certainly won’t be the last because it was excellent. The cookie plate paired excellently with a glass of Domaine Durban muscat de beaumes de Venice, which was also delicious.

Cinco de Mayo at Yanni’s

Yanni’s Banh Mi sandwich was a huge hit in April, and gave Francesca and Johnny one of their best days ever. On the final day of the Banh Mi special, they actually ran out of ingredients because so many people were trying to get a taste before this incredible sausage sandwich retires until next April.

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, Yanni’s May sausage sandwich special is the “Zapata,” which they are offering for the first time and which is made from their Chorizo sausage and is served on Sweet Italian Bread with grilled onions, a Southwestern chipotle pesto and a Mexican sour cream sauce.

Le Bistro reinvented

Le Bistro has finally changed hands, evidenced by the application for change of ABC license posted in the front window. I have it on good authority that the new owners will be converting the space into a burger, dog and chili joint. Although Le Bistro will be missed, the new place reminds me of the old Millie’s Chili Bar at the corner of Petaluma Boulevard South and H Street, which was a town favorite for years.

(Contact Houston Porter at houston@avant-larde.com.)