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Newhall’s own cooking queen

Community: Local finds contest success in her kitchen

Posted: April 10, 2010 4:47 p.m.
Updated: April 11, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Merry Graham of Newhall is a finalist in the current Gorton’s Recipe Renovation contest. Merry Graham of Newhall is a finalist in the current Gorton’s Recipe Renovation contest.
Merry Graham of Newhall is a finalist in the current Gorton’s Recipe Renovation contest.
 Merry Graham  of Newhall feeds a bite of her Gorton’s contest grilled chimichanga recipe to her husband Rick Graham. He is a willing taste tester for his wife’s many original recipe creations. She is a finalist  in the Gorton’s Recipe Renovation contest.  Merry Graham  of Newhall feeds a bite of her Gorton’s contest grilled chimichanga recipe to her husband Rick Graham. He is a willing taste tester for his wife’s many original recipe creations. She is a finalist  in the Gorton’s Recipe Renovation contest.
 Merry Graham  of Newhall feeds a bite of her Gorton’s contest grilled chimichanga recipe to her husband Rick Graham. He is a willing taste tester for his wife’s many original recipe creations. She is a finalist  in the Gorton’s Recipe Renovation contest.
Graham’s chimichangas are topped with non-fat yogurt, cilantro and radish for a flavorful, low-calorie version of traditional sour cream. Graham is one of 31 finalists. The winner receives a $2,500 Pottery Barn gift card. Winners will be determined by online votes. Graham’s chimichangas are topped with non-fat yogurt, cilantro and radish for a flavorful, low-calorie version of traditional sour cream. Graham is one of 31 finalists. The winner receives a $2,500 Pottery Barn gift card. Winners will be determined by online votes.
Graham’s chimichangas are topped with non-fat yogurt, cilantro and radish for a flavorful, low-calorie version of traditional sour cream. Graham is one of 31 finalists. The winner receives a $2,500 Pottery Barn gift card. Winners will be determined by online votes.
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She’s cooked for friends, for family, for charities, for years. Now Merry Graham is cooking to win.

The Newhall resident is a finalist in the Gorton’s Recipe Renovation contest for her festive grilled tilapia chimichanga. The lightened version of the Mexican classic is just one of dozens of original dishes Graham creates monthly, entering up to three recipe contests per week.

It all started with an essay on chocolates for the Green & Black Organic Chocolates contest in late 2008. Graham won the grand prize, a trip to Aspen, Colo., for the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in April 2009, where she mixed and mingled with some of the culinary world’s biggest stars.

“I took classes from Mario (Batali), Ming (Tsai) and Giada De Laurentis. Bobby Flay stood us up because he had to cook for the president, but we let him slide,” Graham said. “Once you come back from something like that, you want to do more.”

Graham, a Redlands native, first caught the cooking bug in college at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, which she attended with her then boyfriend, now-husband Rick Graham. Her father and grandfather were great cooks and Graham wanted to follow in their footsteps, so she opted to take basic and international cooking along with her traditional studies.

“It was the muenster bread that got me. I saw and tasted all that delicious cheese oozing out and it called my name,” Graham said.

Shortly after marrying, Graham became a volunteer at her church, where her primary task was to make commissary food for up to 40 people per day out of donated groceries and produce.

“You took whatever came in. There was lots of eggplant and zucchini. My job was to bring it to life. It was good experience,” Graham said.

The Grahams soon added four children to their family and Graham home-schooled them all. She also kept busy with her church, attending inspirational religious workshops twice a year in Florida, which ultimately led to Graham writing “Scriptures at Your Fingertips: Over 200 Topics and 2000 Verses” in 2006 and “Scriptures at Your Fingertips for Teens” with youngest daughter Tiffany Michelle, a professional poker player and contestant on “The Amazing Race 15,” in 2008.

After the Green & Black win, however, Graham’s focus changed.

“My new passion right now is recipe contests,” she said.  “I didn’t realize how many there were. It’s so fun.”

Finding leads through Google and the Web site contestcook.com, Graham began entering every challenge that piqued her interest.

For mrbaconpants.com, a blog devoted to the savory pork product, it was fruity bacon upside-down cornbread with orange mascarpone cheese recipe, which earned first prize and a bacon-themed gift basket for Graham. For madaboutmushrooms.com, it was a mushroom bacon pear galette recipe that also took the top prize and a huge cedar plank and salmon cookbook for Graham.

“Every contest has its own special guidelines. I love for the rules to be very defined. If I have too much room, I procrastinate or hurry and make mistakes,” Graham said.

Graham doesn’t limit herself strictly to food. She entered and won the Finest Call Cocktail Mixers drink recipe contest in 2009 and won third place competing against professional bartenders for her Tropical Cherry Jewel, which combined pineapple juice, rum, mango puree, prosecco, and sweet and sour mix.

In September, 2009, Graham’s chocolate chile lime shooter captured first place at the Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill dessert contest, which required entries to include some form of chile pepper. The recipe combined ancho chile powder and chocolate with lime yogurt and mascarpone cheese mixed with tequila.

Again, Graham competed against professionals, including chefs and culinary teachers, for a panel of professional food critics, this time emerging victorious. The dessert was featured on the South Coast Plaza restaurant’s Chile Fest menu from Sept. 8-27.

As her reward, Z’Tejas executive chef Daniel Stevens is coming to the Graham house in Newhall today to cook for the family and their friends.

“That’s a great prize,” Graham said with a smile. “I like the cash prizes, too, and the bragging rights. Most of all, I enjoy making recipes I really like. It’s as if I’m an artist with new mediums to work with everyday.”

The Gorton’s contest offers a $2,500 Pottery Barn gift card to the winner, followed by second and third prizes of $1,500 and $1,000.

Winners will be determined by online votes and Graham is one of 31 finalists. She began formulated her recipe by experimenting with seven different types of Gorton’s products before settling on the Tilapia Signature Grilled Fillets.

“I tasted it and thought, ‘I could work with this,’” Graham said. “Tilapia’s a very mild fish and it’s become really popular over the last several years. It’s very similar to red snapper.”

Along with the fish, Graham used whole-wheat tortillas, low-fat black beans, Anaheim chiles, red pepper, mushrooms, fresh spinach, and fresh vegetable and herb garnishes to lighten up the traditionally fat and calorie-laded chimichanga, topping it off with healthy fat-free yogurt.

Her Gorton’s renovation tip was to exchange fried foods for fast-baked foods — Graham’s chimichanga cooks in a 400-degree oven for 22-25 minutes, the crispiness factor added with a light brushing of olive oil before baking.

Graham receives inspiration from her collection of more than 200 cookbooks and cited Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, as a particular favorite. After researching online to make sure she isn’t duplicating an existing recipe, she tests her creations out on family, as well as neighbors, which is just fine with her husband.

“I’ve gotten spoiled after eating Merry’s cooking all these years,” said Rick Graham, owner of The Graham Co., an emergency light service and maintenance business in Valencia. “I pretty much like everything she makes.”

Next up for Graham is entering the Real Women of Philadelphia contest, with a $25,000 prize to winners of four recipe categories (appetizer, main dish, side dish or dessert) that must include at least four ounces of Philadelphia brand cream cheese and take less than an hour from start to finish. Contestants must submit a 10-minute video demonstration, with 16 finalists flown to Savannah to prepare their recipe in person for a panel that includes Food Network celebrity chef, cookbook author and The Lady & Sons restaurant owner Paula Deen. The category winners will also have 10 recipes published in an upcoming Paula Deen cookbook.

In the meantime, Graham is preparing a cookbook of her own, compiling all the recipes she’s created for contests and photographing them, as well.

“I wouldn’t ever sit down and do this otherwise,” she said. “It would be sad not to have this recorded. I’m writing my own family book.”

To vote for Merry Graham’s festive grilled tilapia chimichanga, visit www.gortons.com/grilled-finalists.php and click on her recipe photo. Votes can be cast every day until the contest ends on April 30.

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