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Scottsbluff’s ‘Team Hawaiian Punch’ preps for regionals

February 2, 2019 GMT

SCOTTSBLUFF — Walking past the culinary classroom in Scottsbluff High School, a tropical aroma permeated into the hall. Four students, dressed in their white chef’s jackets, worked as a team, fine-tuning their meal.

Scottsbluff High School seniors are preparing their menus and working on their plate presentations for the regional ProStart cooking competition, which Scottsbluff will host on Feb. 18.

On Thursday, Jayda Ahrens, Sadie Hamm, Sal Salazar and Gavin Patterson refined their three courses as the 60-minute countdown clock ran. As each student prepared their portions for each plate, teacher Hannah Liptac looked on in excitement.

“Three of the students have competed before,” she said. “This may be my most experienced team I’ll ever have, so we’re pretty excited and these guys are feeling confident.”

In September, the students brainstormed regional cuisine ideas for their courses. They were inspired by the Hawaiian culture, so they decided to call their team “Hawaiian Punch.” For their three courses of appetizer, entree and dessert, they selected Ahi tuna, pork tenderloin and mousse.

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“Everything isn’t necessarily 100 percent Hawaiian, but everything is kind of inspired by Hawaiian culture and cuisine,” she said. “You see a lot of mango and dragon fruit.”

The meal has to be prepared and served to the judges in 60 minutes using specific equipment and limited ingredients.

“They cannot use electricity,” said Liptac. “They do not have access to running water, so they get two butane burners and they can get water and ice before they start, along with kitchen tools, and that’s it.”

While a class period at the high school runs for 45 minutes, Liptac also keeps them during CATS, a specialized instruction period set aside during the school day, which is an additional 35 minutes. On Tuesday, Liptac said the students tasted the dishes to make sure the flavor profiles were at the level they wanted.

Salazar was responsible for preparing the Ahi tuna and pork tenderloin.

“We have Ahi tuna marinating in soy sauce and sesame oil,” he said. “We don’t cook this all the way through. We cook it so it’s raw because if you cook it all the way through, the muscles start to break down and it gets kind of gamey.”

Salazar added that he temps the tenderloin to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. If the meat is cooked to a higher temperature, it dries out the meat. The pork cooks in the skillet first, since the meat takes longer to cook through than the tuna and so the meat has 10 minutes to rest before it is prepared to plate.

To incorporate more flavors and textures into the dish, Hamm cut carrots into squares. The carrots will marinate in the pork sauce to soak up the sauce, making the dish cohesive.

“I cut the carrots into squares so they are more aesthetically pleasing,” said Hamm.

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Patterson worked on the rice to accompany the pork as well as the appetizer. The Hawaiian rice contains pineapple, toasted coconut and white pepper.

Hamm also worked on the dessert with Ahrens. Hamm put a brulee on the bananas and pineapple using a brulee torch as the mousse and gelatin mixture chilled in a ice bowl. Once the mousse formed into a solid, Hamm and Ahrens plated their dessert, decorating the plate with the brulee fruits.

“We used what’s called sugar in the raw,” she said. “When it starts bubbling, I stop because you definitely know it’s burning.”

Aside from the meal preparation, the students create content for a notebook.

“They have to write the recipes, cost the recipes, price the menu items, do a whole notebook and then we go and compete against the other schools,” she said.

With three weeks left before the competition, Liptac said, “We are working on our timing and our organization. They are doing really well.”

Scottsbluff will compete against Alliance, North Platte and Hemingford.

The winner of the regional contest will advance to the state culinary competition on Feb. 28 at Metro Community College in Omaha.

lauren.brant@starherald.com