Now is a good time to be Julia Irace’s friend.

The owner of Andrea’s Bridal in Portland, Irace has a fondness for hosting cocktail parties. And these days, the get-togethers have become a testing ground for the dish she plans to prepare at the Seafood Cooking Contest taking place this Friday during the 63rd annual Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland.

“No one usually complains when I ask them to try my recipe for the competition,” said Irace, who took top honors at last year’s contest with her lobster potpie.

The festival, which begins today and runs through Sunday, is one of the most popular summer events in Maine. In addition to the cooking contest, it features fresh cooked lobsters, daily pancake breakfasts, the Sea Goddess coronation, a parade, a carnival, and music performances headlined by country music superstar Clint Black. (See schedule.)

In keeping with her affection for cocktail parties, Irace will prepare lobster eggrolls with citrus aioli dipping sauce, which she characterizes as a heavy appetizer, for this year’s contest.

“I’ve been on an eggroll kick the last few years,” she said. “I wanted to take this traditional Asian dish and mix it with lobster. I wanted to do something more traditional Maine. The hardest thing was to figure out what to do with the dipping sauce.”

Instead of mixing it up with soy sauce, she used aioli (at her husband’s suggestion) and perked it up with a spray of citrus.

The public is invited to watch Irace and the four other amateur cooks prepare their dishes starting at 9 a.m. in the north entertainment tent. Those in the audience will get to taste each recipe. The judging begins at 11:30 a.m., and the winners will be announced at 12:30 p.m.

This year’s panel of judges include Deb McNeil, Rockland’s mayor; Pat O’Brien of Fiore Olive Oils & Balsamic Vinegar; and Cmdr. Kirk Weatherly, commanding officer of the naval ship USS Whidbey Island.

In addition to tasting Irace’s eggrolls, the judges will sample the fare prepared by the four other finalists. All five were selected from a field of 12 contestants who submitted recipes.

“We look for recipes that haven’t been done before,” said Kelly Woods, who coordinates the competition, when asked what organizers consider in selecting the finalists. “They have to use Maine seafood creatively.

“We did get some crab cakes and some lobster roll recipes,” Woods added, “But we tend to shy away from all that stuff. We look for things that use Maine seafood in a new way, but aren’t too far out. It needs to be something people want to try.”

One dish sure to tempt tasters — particularly the guys in the audience — is the Maine lobster stuffed steak created by Chris Oliver of Rockland, who took third place in 2008 and 2009 and second place in 2007. His recipe calls for butterflying a hanger steak, sprinkling it with cheese, layering on baby spinach and then heaping on lobster. He’ll roll it up, sear it on the grill and finally finish it in the oven.

“I think my recipe is very simple,” Oliver said to explain what distinguishes his dish from the competition.

In contrast, fellow contestant Sue Jobes, who’s traveling all the way from Davie, Fla., to compete, said her “lobstah” puff recipe stands out from the crowd due to its unique twist on the Maine crustacean.

“It reminds me of a savory lobster bread pudding,” Jobes said. “It’s real light and kind of puffy. I cook it in a ramekin and put it on a plate with a salad.”

Similar in consistency to a souffle, the dish calls for eggs, cheese, cream, bread, herbs and, of course, lobster.

“It’s great with shrimp and crab too,” Jobes said.

Another unusual lobster creation comes from Carolyn Cope of Allston, Mass., who plans to whip up lobster pie wontons. The dish piles lobster meat on a baked wonton wrapper and garnishes it with half and half, Ritz crackers, parsley and garlic.

The only competitor of the bunch who’s not crafting a dish around lobster is Jessie Gearson of Falmouth. She plans to wow the judges with crunchy haddock tacos topped with caramelized onions and sriracha lime cream. The dish puts a better-for-you twist on fish tacos by not deep frying the haddock, using Greek yogurt instead of heavy cream and cradling the filling in a trans-fat-free corn tortilla.

“I thought my children would like them better if I made them crunchy using panko bread crumbs,” Gearson said.

The trick worked. “When all of my family members like something, I know it’s good,” she said.

This Friday, she’ll find out whether or not they’re good enough to beat out the competition.

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]