Gaynell Lawson is a banker by day and a competitive cooker by night.
The longtime CBBC senior executive vice president has turned her time in the kitchen into winning entries in at least three national contests. This week, she brought home second place in the 2009 National Cornbread Cook-off.
Lawson’s recipe was Black Olive Cornbread Wedges with Chorizo Tomato Gravy. The contest, held in South Pittsburg, Tenn., near Chattanooga, is sponsored by Lodge Cast Iron and Martha White.
Lawson, 59, has been on the winner’s podium with her cooking several times, including a first place finish in the cornbread contest in 2003.
“A few years ago, I was the Tennessee winner in the National Poultry Council Cook-off, a national contest. We flew to Dallas for that. I didn’t win out there,” she said.
The year she won the National Cornbread Cook-off, “there was a $4,000 cash prize plus a professional kitchen range,” she said.
Lawson hasn’t done much cooking competitively since that win until she decided to enter this year.
“I don’t know how many entries they had. They generally have over 1,000, and they narrow it down to 20 based just on the written recipes. Then they cook those 20 and rate various aspects of them and get it down to 10,” she said. “Those 10 contestants are the ones who go to the festival and cook.”
On the day of competition, there are two heats with five contestants cooking each round.
“You’re feeling both the temperature heat and the competitive heat,” Lawson said. “It was outside in a tent and was extremely hot. Five of us were cooking at one time with five gas ranges going under the tent,” she said.
The contestants had 90 minutes to complete their dishes, while television and still photographers were working around them. Add into the mix spectators who were coming down out of the bleachers situated in front of the open tents, and things got hectic for the cooks.
“Some people will walk up and say ‘I’m from Maryville, and I’m from so and so.’ They want to chit chat,” Lawson said.
After that group of five finished, they cleaned up and the second group cooked, she said.
All the winners in the contest had non-traditional cornbread recipes. First place winner was Buffalo Chicken Cornbread with Blue Cheese Salad by Sonya Goergen of Moorhead, Minn.
“People like the buffalo chicken/buffalo wings taste and I thought the freshness of a salad would be appealing,” Lawson said. “I looked at her dish after she finished, and it was attractive as well, which is important for the presentation score.
“You have to cook a main dish that includes cornbread. That is the reason you see some unusual dishes,” she said.
The dishes also have to be cooked in Lodge cast iron cook wear and with Martha White products. Lawson got her recipe after learning about Chorizo, a Mexican pork sausage, during a trip out West this past year.
“When I became familiar with Chorizo, I started thinking. We make sausage gravy, so I thought it would be good to take the Mexican sausage, make a gravy and add tomatoes and serve it over cornbread,” she said. “Then I decided I would use a wedge pan so each piece would be a finished product.”
Lawson said she cooks four or five days a week in the evenings. “I like to cook. I like to read cookbooks, and I’m always thinking of new things,” she said. “It’s very easy for me to imagine or think up a new recipe. It’s just something I can do.”
Lawson said she taught herself how to cook. “I’ve never taken classes. I wanted to but haven’t. I learned simply by reading and doing,” Lawson said.
Lawson, who won $1,000 for placing second and also collected $500 in traveling money for the competition, is ready to try other contests. “I’m getting to be known for cornbread. I want to do something different, and I’m looking at a contest for a different food.”
Lawson and her husband, Dan, are Maryville natives. They have three daughters who all live in this area: Jennifer Moore, Julia Lawson and Mindy Stooksbury. They have one grandson, Ian.
Recipes can be found at www.nationalcornbread.com. The 2009 recipes were not yet posted but expect to be soon.
Here is Gaynell’s winning recipe:
Black Olive Cornbread Wedges with Chorizo Tomato Gravy
1 large egg
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 (6.5 oz.) pkg. Martha White® Yellow Cornbread Mix
2 tablespoon melted butter
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels, thawed
1 (2.25 oz.) can sliced black olives, drained
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup diced onion
2 links (about 6 oz.) Mexican chorizo sausage, casings removed
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons Martha White® All-Purpose Flour
2 cups milk
1 cup diced tomatoes, fresh or canned and drained
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Chopped green onion, diced avocado, crumbled tortilla chips, chopped tomatoes and/or sliced fresh limes
Heat oven to 400° F. Spray 9-inch Lodge cast iron wedge pan generously with no-stick cooking spray.
Place in oven 6 to 7 minutes or until hot. Beat egg in large bowl. Add buttermilk, cornbread mix, 2 tablespoons melted butter, corn and olives. Mix thoroughly.
Pour evenly into wedges in hot pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven and keep warm.
Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter in 10-inch Lodge cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes. Crumble chorizo in skillet. Cook 4 to 5 minutes, or until brown. Remove mixture to small bowl. Set aside. Wipe out skillet with paper towel.
Return skillet to medium heat. Melt 3 tablespoons butter. Add flour. Whisk until mixture is golden. Add milk, tomatoes and paprika. Whisk about 3 minutes, or until thickened. Add chorizo mixture to gravy.
To serve, place a wedge of cornbread on each plate, topped with 1/2 cup of chorizo tomato gravy. Garnish as desired.
* Cornbread may be baked in 10-inch Lodge cast iron skillet sprayed with no-stick cooking spray. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Cut into wedges.