Some people are born with sense of line and color, some with a sense of music, some with a sense of taste. Under the right circumstances, they become painters, composers, chefs. For some the path is swift, for others, it zigzags. Tina Hoban's path to culinary success hasn't been direct, but it's been sure-footed.
She came out of the pasty program at Seattle Central Community College and apprenticed under Sue McCown at the W Hotel's Earth + Ocean restaurant. Then she and her husband, Ed, moved to St. Paul, Minn., for several years before returning to Washington, where they now have a seven-acre homsetead (beef, pork, goats, sheep, chickens, eggs) near Bellingham. Ed's a contractor, and Tina started a custom-baking business called Scratch Desserts that keeps her busy. And with her daughters now in school (Lilly is 7, Caitlin's 5), Tina Hoban is getting creative again.
You see, when Lilly was a baby, Hoban entered her first recipe contest, for Florida Natural Orange Juice, sending in a recipe for chocolate bread pudding with a creamy, buttery orange sauce. She nailed it, winning the $10,000 first prize. But not just luck. This year, she's entered two more competitions. She was a finalist in a Tillamook Mac-n-Cheese competition, and, just this week, one of Washington's two finalists in the 2011 Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest.
Crosscut wrote about the first edition of the event last year, held at the Kathy Casey Food Studios in Ballard. Again, 2,000 entries were winnowed to five by an independent food consultant, Nancy Piho. This year, two finalists were selected by the tasting panel (in addition to Casey, Seattle culinarians Jamie Piha, and Cynthia Nims). There was a big emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, echoing the "Fresh Chicken" theme of the sponsor's advertising campaign.
The national finals are in Napa next month; Hoban and Rebecca Spence of Vancouver will compete against finalists from Oregon and California. Both Hoban and Spence each have already won $1,000 for winning the finalist spots.
So what did Hoban come up with? A mouthful: Chicken with cherry tapenade over creamy pancetta polenta. You make the tapenade by blending dried Washington cherries, Kalamata olives, and capers, then stuffing the result inside chicken breasts. The polenta is seasoned with chopped pancetta and goat cheese. Fresh rosemary provides nice aromatics.
It was by far the tastiest of the entries, to my palate, probably because Hoban wasn't afraid to use flavorful seasonings (olives, capers, pancetta, goat cheese). Some cooks have an instinctive sense of what's needed, especially when it comes to salt. Though the fashion of the finnicky and ill-informed these days is "low salt," the result all too often is so bland as to be inedible. Hoban's not afraid.