Eating the Holidays at The Holiday Food Experiment

Editor's note: Here's a look at the latest "Food Experiment," convivial cookoffs lead by Nick Suarez and Theo Peck. Get inspired for your own holiday cooking!

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Pork Rilletes, a savory contestant at The Holiday Food Experiment. [Photographs: Reese Muntean]

Many belts were unbuckled at last weekend's Holiday Food Experiment, another jam-packed cook-off by Nick Suarez and Theo Peck, where attendees always leave well fed.

How is "holiday food" defined? That was the question left to be interpreted by over twenty amateur contestants. The resulting dishes represented an equal split between sweet and savory bites.

The savory options included punny dishes such as "Rudolph's Last Ride," a venison stew over corn spoon bread topped with cranberry compote and the nostalgic "Mrs. Yelavich's Chicken Liver," contenstant Eric Zawacki's rendition of his grandmother's chicken liver dish, complete with photos of his grandma displayed on the table. My personal favorite was Erin Erinson's "God Jul Goat Kjottkaker," which were goat balls with dilled brunost cream, aquavit-mashed roots, lingonberry jam, and gingered rye farmbread crumble. (Erinson won runner-up in the Audience Award).

The sweet entrants featured everything from macaroons to cakes to cheesecake balls. Jennifer Lee's mint brownie bombs with almond milk mochi was aptly titled "Milk and Cookies." Roopa Marcello snagged a judge's award with her Frosty's Flipped Fruitcake (a comeback for the oft-ridiculed holiday dessert), a brandied candied fruit compote layered between gingerbread five-spice cake, topped with bourbon brown sugar buttercream and maple-candied pecans.

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Suarez and Peck both insisted that this experiment was "the best yet." When I pointed out that they have said that at the past two experiments I have attended (taco and brunch), Suarez insisted, "It's true, though! They just keep getting better and better."

Much of the food was pretty ambitious, like the "Bacon and Black Truffle Greenbean Casse roll" that included greenbeans and caramelized onion in an herb cream sauce on a three mushroom roll topped with crispy bacon and grated black truffle.

Or the food from the first place Audience Award winners, a group of guys who call themselves Righteous Burn, with their "True South," a hand-cut Yukon Gold baked potato chip with a bourbon and maple syrup roasted butternut squash puree, topped with ten-hour, slow-roasted pernil and a pickled jalapeno. They said that their Southern holiday theme "came from the US (squash) and Colombia (pernil), where two of us are from." They have placed four times at these cook-offs, an impressive trend considering that their day jobs are far from culinary.

The Food Experiments have gained in popularity since Suarez and Peck's first in June of 2009, and at the Holiday Food Experiment, the duo announced that they will be taking their cook-offs on the road, for the National Experiment Tour, in 2011, sponsored by the Brooklyn Brewery.

Like each of the Experiments, light-hearted fun and camaraderie keep the competition from becoming mean-spirited. The attendees are hardly food snobs: young and hip, they were happy snacking while they drank their complimentary Brooklyn Brewery lager and jamming to the DJed music. The result is a relaxed environment where the innovative and delicious food can be enjoyed in it's natural environment: holiday cheer!

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Chefs take a break from handing out their dish to enjoy the festive day.