The phrase ‘Close, but No Cigar’ is used to indicate that you have fallen just short of a successful outcome, and have received no reward for your efforts. I definitely don’t want a cigar, but I love winning. Who doesn’t, right? Interestingly enough, if you google it, the phrase 'close, but no cigar' and a variation, 'nice try, but no cigar,' originated in the United States during the mid-20th century, when carnival booths gave out cigars as prizes. One had to win a game to get a cigar; a close call went unrewarded.
My favorite game to lose, and I’m a three-time loser at it, is the cooking competition my friends and I put together over the holidays in our hometowns of Joplin and Carthage, Missouri. I’ve love-lettered my dear friends Shaun Steele and Jason Shelfer in blog posts of the past. Coming home to these men, their families, and our friends is one of the highlights of my whole year. We challenge each other to a cook off, all the while raising money for a charity called Art Feeds. Donating money to this organization makes us all winners!
Art Feeds believes all children are artists. They exist to feed creative development and facilitate emotional expression in children through art and community. To do this, they provide free therapeutic art and creative education programs within schools and children’s organizations by mobilizing teams of community members to bring all forms of art into classrooms.
This year we opened up the competition inviting more friends to enter the cook off. Shaun and his fiancé, Christy, hosted a stellar party entitled Sfida Lasagna (Lasagna Competition!) with seven delicious entries. We raised $587! If you’d like to add to our total, please donate here.
Shaun has won the last two years, deservedly so. He’s an excellent cook. Jason and I plot all year long for ways to best our friend. Our goal isn’t necessarily to win first place, our little game is just to just place above Shaun and raise as much money as we can while doing it.
This year, I’m happy to say our plotting must have paid off because I tied for first place with our friend Josh Taylor, and Jason won second!!! We broke the tie with a retaste from a guest who had only tried mine. She took one bite of Josh’s and declared him the winner. So I scootched to second and Jason took third place. Close, but no cigar. Sigh.
The three winning recipes could not have been more diverse. Josh made an Indian Butter Chicken Lasagna. I admit, I also took one bite of his and knew I didn’t have a chance of winning. It was incredible. Earlier this year, Josh and his wife, Liz, invited me to a big Indian feast in their home catered by a local Indian cook that blew my mind. Josh has good taste! I would never in a million years have thought to spin an Italian classic in this South Asian direction.
Jason and his wife Meg have changed up their eating routines to incorporate a ketogenic diet this year. They are looking and feeling pretty great. They teamed up to create a pasta free lasagna with a super rich Alfredo sauce and deeply flavored vegetable and meat layers. No one missed the noodles. I used homemade pasta sheets that I brought back from a market in New York. I made a filling of spinach and Boursin cheese with Italian sausage. And my sauce was the famous three ingredient red sauce from Marcella Hazan. I topped it with baby fresh mozzarella pearls, that may or may not have looked like mini toasted marshmallows.
I’m sharing the boys’ recipes along with Marcella’s tomato sauce recipe so you can get in on the action. Shout outs to our other delicious entries; Amberly Leverich (balsamic caramelized onions in her filling topped with prosciutto,) Daniel and Lindsey Koucky (gluten free) and Christa Tullis, (Everything that was in her fridge went into it I think.) And of course to our host and first time loser, but everyone’s favorite person, Shaun Steele, who rounded us out with a pan of classic Italian lasagna with pesto layers. .
Even though I’ve yet to claim first in our cooking competition and I am the only paid cook participating, I secretly love ending every year with a ‘loss.’ What?! Yep. Losing can provide inspiration to keep trying things. To continue working hard. To encourage others. To celebrate someone else’s success. To do things because I love doing them, not because there’s an imaginary cigar waiting for me. Here’s to all of our losses in 2018 - may they be the secret ingredient that sweetens all of our victories in 2019.
Butter Chicken Lasagna
by Josh Taylor
(Keto) Meaty Zucchini Alfredo Lasagna
by Meg and Jason Shelfer
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce
2 cups tomatoes, in addition to their juices (for example, a 28-ounce can of San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes)
5 tablespoons butter
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter and the onion halves in a saucepan. Add a pinch or two of salt.
Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with a spoon. Add salt as needed.
Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta. This recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta.) I highly advise you to leave the onion in and purée it into the sauce!)