Susan Bazan clearly remembers the first dish she created in the kitchen as a pre-teen: spaghetti pie.
"My father pretended to like it," she recalled, laughing. "My mother just gave me free rein in the kitchen ... she didn't cook with me, she just let me go."
Bazan, a Sequim resident who has won awards in several cooking contests, has come a long way since her pasta pie days.
"When I retired, I decided I was going to do recipes," she said of quitting work four years ago. Bazan stuck to her plan and estimates she enters about 20 cooking-related contests per year.
"You know if you enter 20 (contests), you're lucky if you win one," Bazan said. "This year I was lucky enough to win five."
Bazan said she belongs to an online cooking contest club, Cooking Contest Central, which she said alerts members about upcoming competitions and posts winning recipes.
"(Most contests) have a lot of rules," Bazan said. "For some, you can only have 10 ingredients, for others you have to have the meal from stove to table in 10 minutes. You usually have to use a product (from the sponsor's brand)."
Bazan said her husband, Eddy, is her "official taste tester," but she occasionally asks neighbors and family members to test out her dishes.
"I look for someone who is honest," she explained as Eddy sampled her newest dessert creation, which she plans to enter in a Betty Crocker baking contest.
"It could be a little more tart," Eddy advises. "And it would taste better warm."
Bazan tastes a bit herself and nods in agreement.
Even when not entering a contest, Bazan said she tries about three different recipes per week, just for fun. Sometimes, she said, she tries out a new recipe and puts it on file, and when she spots a contest that the recipe could be entered in, she seizes the chance.
The method has worked - one of her first entries resulted in a trip to Florida as a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. She also was a runner-up in the Family Circle magazine 2007 recipe contest, and won a set of cookware as a prize.
The latest contest Bazan has entered is the Bush's Beans and Allrecipes.com vegetable cooking contest. Recently, she found out that her South of the Border Chicken Tortilla Bean Casserole is one of five finalists. The winner will be decided by public vote, and although Bazan said she usually doesn't enter public voting contests, she particularly liked the prize: a trip to New York City and a private cooking lesson with famed television cook Rachael Ray.
"You always have to think of a catchy name for the recipe," said Bazan, who estimated it takes about an hour to type up the recipe, make sure it follows all rules and think of a clever name.
She added that winning often can be the luck of the draw, as food often follows trends.
"There are fads in cooking just like in clothes," she said. "When I entered the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the trend was mangos, so I added a mango salsa with my entry. Now the trend is Italian or Mexican foods. People also want quick, easy recipes more now."
Even though she has a pile of awards to attest to her skills in the kitchen, Bazan insisted she is not any more of an exceptional cook than many other people she knows.
"I don't consider myself to be a great cook," she said. "But I send (the recipes) in. I think a lot of people would be surprised to see what they'd win if they sent in their recipes."
To look at Bazan's recipe or to vote for it by Feb. 15, visit www.vegetablewithmore.com.
Susan Bazan's South of the Border
Chicken Tortilla Bean Casserole
Easy one-dish meal good enough for company
6 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (4 ounces each), cut into bite-size pieces; 1 large onion, chopped, 7 garlic cloves, minced; 3 tablespoons canola oil; 1 can (16 ounces) Bush's red kidney beans, rinsed and drained; 1 can (15 ounces) Bush's pinto beans, rinsed and drained; 1 can (15 ounces) Bush's black beans, rinsed and drained; 1 can (41/2 ounces) chopped green chilies; 1 can (15 ounces) diced tomatoes; 1 can (15 ounces) whole kernel corn, drained;_1 envelope taco seasoning;_11/2 teaspoons cumin; 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon; 1 teaspoon seasoned salt; 1/2 teaspoon pepper;
1 cup sour cream; 1 package (10 ounces) corn tortillas torn into pieces; 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded Mexican cheese blend; 1 can (21/4 ounces) sliced ripe olives
In a large skillet, saut� the chicken, onion and garlic in oil until meat juices run clear and onion is tender. Drain. Remove from the heat. Stir in the beans, green chilies, tomatoes, corn, taco seasoning, cumin, cinnamon, seasoned salt, pepper, sour cream and tortillas. Transfer to a greased 13-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with cheese and olives. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Uncover and bake for 15-20 minutes or until heated through and cheese is melted. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.
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