Grilling the great steak

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Ignacio rancher Patti Buck is a member of Cowbelles, a nationally recognized clan of “agtivists” – a social, educational group of women who promote beef through cooking demonstrations, being in parades and doing other activities where they can promote ranching and agriculture. Buck raises Black Angus cattle on her ranch southeast of Ignacio.

By Karen Brucoli Anesi
Special to the Herald

Patti Buck’s pampering of beef from pasture to plate is paying off.

The La Plata County cattle rancher is tasting more than a mere 15 minutes of fame. Her spontaneous recipe for an affordable, health-conscious beef entree landed her and her husband and ranching partner, Wayne Buck, an all-expenses-paid VIP trip to Napa Valley, Calif., to compete as a finalist in the 2011 Beringer Great Steak Challenge.

The world premiere of the 2011 Great Steak Challenge was filmed in October and aired locally at 7 p.m. Tuesday on the Cooking Channel.

Although Buck did not walk away with the $25,000 prize, her impressive dash out of the gate was gratifying enough that the first-time competitor caught the cooking contest bug. She has entered nearly a dozen more online recipe contests since she got word in June that she was a semi-finalist.

“I said ‘Holy cow! I had better grill this, try this recipe and see if it’s OK,’” Buck said.

Although she had never been a contestant, Buck worked at the National Beef Cook-Off for the last 12 years as a member of various professional associations and state and national cattlewomen organizations.

As a worker, she was ineligible to enter that particular contest, but in April 2011, while relaxing at the computer, Buck stumbled on information about the Beringer-sponsored annual event.

“Hey, here’s a grilling contest. I’ll throw in a recipe,” Buck recalled thinking as she filled in her name, address and an untested recipe she created off the top of her head.

Buck’s Mangonnay Steak entry was spontaneous yet thoughtful. She combined nutritious ingredients that are readily available with colorful flavor contrasts that would look good on the plate.

“I love watercress; it’s got a tart, spicy bite. We used to pull it right out of the stream,” she said.

Buck recalled cleaning up trash on U.S. Highway 160 and happening upon some wild watercress sprouting in a nearby natural spring. Ever since, she’s enjoyed pairing the nutrition-packed green with other favorite flavors.

For the Great Steak Challenge, which required competitors to submit an original beef steak recipe and side dish prepared on a standard outdoor grill, the presentation of her vision included a tropical mango to provide a colorful contrast on the bed of watercress. Mango chutney also is a key ingredient in Buck’s sweet, yet hot and spicy, marinade.

“I thought about cilantro and adding some dried lavender. Lavender is a huge spice in wine country,” Buck said.

The contest rules also required Buck to pair her recipe with a Beringer wine. Chardonnay was an unlikely addition to a beef marinade, Buck thought, but it would work.

“There are no rules when it comes to wine. Pair what you like. That’s what they say,” she said.

Buck’s strategy went beyond what might look and taste good on the plate. She considered how her entry could be maketed to benefit contest sponsor Beringer Vineyards.

“They usually print up the recipes and pair them with the wines, so that’s how I came up with the name Mangonnay – a combination of mango and Chardonnay,” Buck said.

Buck is no rookie at the grill. While other culinary artists dabble in a palate of the nation’s latest food trends, Buck’s medium is strictly beef. She works her canvas with the passion of a master.

In response to beef critics who use triple bypass surgery as a reason to skip red meat, Buck points to the BOLD diet (Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet), which is based on research that shows that lean cuts of beef, eaten in moderation, may actually help lower total and LDL or “bad” cholesterol.

“When I learned I was a semi-finalist, I went to the Colorado Beef Council. If I have five minutes on camera, I want some good talking points,” Buck said.

Buck learned her recipe had made the first cut in June, in a letter that arrived with a portable video camera. She had a week to film a three-minute video about her recipe and why she deserved to advance to the finals. She posed herself in front of “the girls” (her herd of cattle), and answered the judges’ questions.

“They want to make sure you aren’t a three-eyed cyclops,” she said.

Buck said she heard from Beringer in September. She was named one of 10 finalists from thousands of entries and earned a three-day trip to the final competition that included five-star chef dinners with wine pairings served under the oak trees at the Beringer vineyard. Food Network star Paula Deen’s sons, Jamie and Bobby Deen, hosted the event.

“It was perfect. Harvest time, 75 degrees. Oh my God, this is like paradise,” Buck said of the VIP treatment she received.

As for the contest itself, filmed in front of a live audience, Buck said she wasn’t nervous. She finished grilling in ample time, but would have liked to let her entree rest five additional minutes before carving. Still, she is satisfied with her performance.

The judges asked why she chose to use a top sirloin.

“You can use any of the 29 lean cuts of beef for this recipe. I picked a top sirloin for its mass appeal. Not everyone can afford a filet,” she said.

Despite being the only cook who was not a regular on the contest circuit, she was accepted among all the contestants, who got along well with each other.

“They (the show’s producers) create drama when there’s no drama. I just hope I don’t look like a jerk on TV,” Buck said, laughing.

kbrucolianesi@durangoherald.com

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