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Island cook competes in New York City

"Frances Maxwell is a smiling, gently-spoken woman with the flavor of Atlanta, Georgia, in her voice. That soft, Southern quality has translated well to the quiet Honeymoon Lake community north of Freeland, where just last July she fell in love with the land and the people, built a small cottage, and relocated to the island for her retirement years.But Maxwell is anything but retired or retiring. She has involved herself in the South Whidbey Friendship Force (It was started in Atlanta, you know) and is energetically recruiting members to its ranks.She plays bridge, belongs to the Greenbank Garden Club and the Bayview Senior Center, loves to garden and is a consummate cook. It's the cooking that has brought Maxwell a not insignificant measure of fame.Just after moving here, she saw a notice in the KCTS-9 magazine about a cooking contest, and sent for an entry form.It was like filling out a grant application, she laughed. They wanted my philosophy of cooking, and even a picture. The contestants would be asked to cook a meal for two people in 21/2 hours, spending only $35 on the ingredients.Maxwell submitted all the required items along with a menu, and was chosen as one of 12 competitors in the Northwest area cookoff at Edmonds Community College. There she prepared her meal, which has overtones of her Georgia heritage combined with the Northwest affinity for fresh local ingredients: a thick cut pork chop pan seared and then roasted; brandy-marinated, deep fried yams; kiwi chutney; broccoli; and a pear tart in a coconut crust.The judges tasted, and liked, and Maxwell won one of three regional spots in the Master Chefs of USA Amateur Culinary Olympics held in New York City in February.It was something, she said upon returning to her island home. Such a production!Maxwell remembers her day at Metropolis Studios, cooking in front of judges and cameras, with a still fresh delight.I enjoyed it very, very much, she said. The competition hadn't been held before in the United States, she said, and program host himself was British. There were three kitchens for 27 cooks from around the country. They had the same 2 1/2 hours to prepare a meal, this time a three-course menu for four, with a budget of $75.We had to present three menus, Maxwell said. The cooks prepared the first of the three and served it at a large, high round table, where the judges came to sample dinner. And honey, she said, they didn't taste, they ATE!Maxwell's first menu offering was an enhanced version of her winning entry at the local competition: Roasted carrot and beet soup garnished with sour cream and chives (The half of a very small beet turns it a beautiful red); pork tenderloin marinated in Jack Daniels, soy sauce and brown sugar (It has to be cooked just right, not overdone. Then you make a gravy from the marinade and it's just wonderful); waffle cut yams soaked in maple syrup and brandy, then dipped in beer batter and deep fried; broccoli florets quickly blanched and served with lemon juice (a green thing, instead of a salad). She included the kiwi chutney and the coconut crust pear tart.And although the judges were pleased, she didn't advance to the second level, where she would have prepared a menu consisting of a wild mushroom and potato flan; a horseradish and seed-mustard crusted salmon; roasted new potatoes; asparagus with lemon butter; and a ginger lime tart glazed with lime marmalade. I made it half-way, she said. And I got an all-expense-paid trip to New York, and a visit with my daughter, who came up from Georgia and watched the show from the television studio 'green room.' It was quite an experience.Maxwell also came home with gifts that included a selection of Vermont cheddar cheeses, an Italian cookbook, a subscription to Bon Appetit and a gift certificate from Williams-Sonoma.I used part of it to buy a $49 bottle of balsamic vinegar! she said.Now back in her South Whidbey home, Maxwell continues to create new dishes and experiment with combinations and flavors. I like to look around at what's in the kitchen, and what's fresh and on sale, she said. Planning an hors d'oeuvre for a Greenbank Garden Club meeting, she decided on a roasted red pepper sauce for steamed artichokes. But it could also be red potato skins, or roasted mushrooms.She encourages innovation in the kitchen. Don't hold yourself to recipes, she urged. And as far as technique and presentation, Maxwell says, I eat with my eyes. It has to have a good color, be fresh, and it's best if it's in season.Maxwell remains committed to her involvement in the Friendship Force, about which she waxes passionate: A world of friendship is a world of peace, she said. She herself recently hosted a German gentleman who was a vegetarian. The TV program, called Master Chefs, will be aired on KCTS Channel 9 in August; relatives have already seen it in other parts of the country. She is also considering mini-cooking classes in her home, where she can share her joy in food and in cooking, and spend even more time in her kitchen.I love my kitchen, she said. I love it here."

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