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Farmers market adds cooking competition
Tim Miller of Gainesville tastes a salsa made by Scott Dixon, owner of Scotts on the Square, Friday during the first Gainesville Cast Iron Chef competition as part of the Market on the Square in Gainesville. Every other Friday through October will feature a cooking competition with a different ingredient. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The downtown Gainesville farmers market is more than just a place to buy fresh produce.

Now, you can watch “Iron Chef”-style competitions that use local ingredients.

And Market on the Square manager Steven Thomas plans to pit the chefs against one another every other week.

“At first, I challenged Scott Dixon of Scott’s (on the Square) to a salsa competition, and then Paul Anthony at Re-cess found out,” he said.

“I discovered just how competitive our local restaurants are and got phone calls even up to last night.”

Using a seasonal ingredient, chefs will compete in sets of two. In the next competition, chefs will use peaches to create a variety of dishes.

After the final challenge in October, one will be crowned the Gainesville Cast Iron Chef and receive an engraved cast iron skillet.

“It’s a lot of fun, and for Gainesville residents who aren’t sure what to do with some foods, such as eggplant, we can show them different quick and easy ways to use these fresh fruits and vegetables,” Thomas said.

For the first competition, chefs from Scott’s on the Square, Re-cess Southern Gastro-Pub, Luna’s Restaurant, Blonde and Mestizo Southwest Grill spooned up unique versions of salsa — some with watermelon, some focused on chunky tomato and others packed with spice.

Armed with knives, cutting boards, blenders and produce from the market, the chefs created their dishes and then watched in anticipation as customers crowded the tables.

“I love salsa,” said Dottie Alger, who moved to Gainesville about six weeks ago with her husband.

“We hadn’t been to the farmers market yet, and when I heard about the competition, I thought it would help us get a feel for the city and the restaurants here.”

Marilyn Thomas, one of the judges for the afternoon, paced from table to table, trying the different salsa varieties more than once.

Thomas used to study culinary skills in China, Italy, England and New York before coming to Gainesville.

“It’s all delicious. I like the bite, which is what makes salsa so different,” she said.

“These different salsas are great, especially when the restaurants created more than one. It makes it easier to judge the restaurant.”

Local residents compared the tastes, too.

“It has a good taste, enough spice but not too much,” Gainesville resident Tim Miller said about the mild taste of Dixon’s salsa.

Miller and son Kevin, 10, then moved to the Re-cess table, which worked watermelon into the combination.

“It wasn’t as spicy and is good for people who like watermelon; you can really taste it,” Kevin Miller said. “It was good, but I like spicy, too.”

An hour later, the votes were in — Luna’s came in first, followed by Mestizo and Scott’s.

“It was hard to pick the winner, but Luna’s was a no-brainer with all the people I talked to,” Scott Thomas said with a laugh.

“They created three types of salsa, and people liked the traditional, homemade style with just the right spice and taste.”