They came. They cooked. Seven of them conquered.
But the 2009 National Beef Cook-off winners circle didn't include our local teenage contestant, Natalie Benthin.
In the end, it was Mary Hawkes, of Prescott, Ariz., who took home the $25,000 "Best in Beef" prize for her Sonoma Steaks with Vegetables Bocconcini.
Her winning recipe was one of five entered in the "Live Well with Fast & Convenient Grilled Beef," a category that only allowed competitors to use six ingredients (along with a few freebie ingredients such as salt), and three steps of preparation of less.
Hawkes, who has competed in several cooking contests - including the Pillsbury Bake-off and National Chicken Cook-off - used the herb marinade from the mozzarella balls to flavor the boneless beef top loin steaks and vegetables in her dish.
The simple elegance and vibrant flavor of the dish was a hit with the judges (I was one of five judges at the competition, but did not judge Benthin's category. More on the judging experience later). The recipe called for the mozzarella and red grape tomatoes to get a brief rendevous with the microwave, a manuever judges thought was odd on paper, but fantastic on the palate.
"I liked the simplicity and the innovative use of the ingredients," said Amy Sherman, a food blogger and cookbook author from San Francisco who judged the entries Wednesday. "The finished product was just refreshing ... I would really make that dish."
As it turns out, it was Hawkes' last chance to compete for the beef cook-off's grand prize - she's attempted to secure the title twice before.
Here are the other winners, listed by category, state of residence and recipe name. First place winners received $10,000; second place received $5,000.
"Live Well with Fast & Convenient Grilled Beef Recipes"
First place: Kristina Vanni, California, Orange-Chipotle Skirt Steaks
Second place: Deborah Biggs, Nevada, Treviso Fig & Pear Steak Salad
"Teens Cooking with Beef"
First place: Morgan Hanrahan, Washington, Southeast Asian Steak Salad
Second place: Erin Ozment, Oklahoma, Olympian Burgers
"Lean Beef in Nutrient Rich One-Dish Meals"
First place: Elizabeth Bennett, Washington, Sonoma Ranch Steak Salad
Second place: Fran Fehling, New York, Beef Ranch Zucchini Gnocchi
A highlight of this year's competition for many was watching the teens cook, said Sherry Hill, the cook-off's program manager. The teenage competition was a first for the National Beef Cook-off.
"It's fun to have given teenagers an opportunity to compete," she said. "It's wonderful to see that genuine interest in cooking and their creative talent."
Although Natalie Benthin won't leave Sonoma with prize money for her Sicilian beef short ribs recipe, she's going home with fond memories of the competition.
"I love the adrenaline rush of it," she said. "I would love to do it again."