The year 2011 turned out to be a pretty decent one for Cate Brusenbach.
Yes, she's still trying to find full-time employment, but between job hunting and volunteer work at a local food pantry the 55-year-old Antioch woman had time to indulge her passion for cooking.
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At the urging of friends, Brusenbach entered the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge and landed in the final four. Just weeks after she took home second-place honors at the heated cook-off, she found herself competing again in a local television station's comfort food challenge. And earlier this month she tried out for TV's "Master Chef."
You won't see her with celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot on next season's widely popular reality show, but instead of getting discouraged, Brusenbach has become more determined.
"I want my own cooking show," she says confidently. "I like to share recipes, welcome people into my home. I don't think food should be a secret. Food should be shared."
Consider today's online video demonstration of her Rich and Easy Fettuccine Alfredo a sneak preview.
Brusenbach's interest in culinary arts didn't come until later in life. Even when taking home economics at Niles West High School, she says she chose very simple recipes to prepare.
The oldest of seven children, she watched her mom prepare "basic food that had to be made inexpensively because she had to feed so many mouths."
After losing her job in the financial field several years ago she turned to cooking to fill her days.
"I needed something to perk me up, something to be happy about," she says. "I found myself getting more and more creative."
Positive feedback from friends she'd invite over to try her culinary creations encouraged her to try her hand at catering. She also signed on with the Vernon Hills High School adult education program to teach cooking classes, but the downward spiraling economy eventually dried up those opportunities as well.
Brusenbach says she has learned to shop on a dime and what ingredients are worth the occasional splurge.
"I'm a very frugal shopper. I always look for what's on sale," she says. "I start in the produce aisle. I love using in-season vegetables and fruit and use that as my foundation."
Take her Curried Chicken and Cauliflower Stew, for example. It starts with two heads of cauliflower and mushrooms, definitely not the most expensive items in the produce department, but in Cate's capable hands they become stars.
"It takes a bit of time to prep, and the individual cooking steps may seem daunting, but it really is easy and so worth it," she says. "The individual layers of curry create wonderful deep notes from the early additions, to the bright hot flavor of the later ones."
For her fettuccine Alfredo, she splurges once or twice a year on imported Parmigiano-Reggiano.
"It can cost upward of $23 a pound, but is worth every cent. It has an incredible nutty flavor and a crunchy texture," she says. "The cheese makes this dish the special treat it is. I use only a small amount of cream, because the Parm Regg is the star of this show."
That cheese better appreciate its time in the limelight now, because Cate's star is on the rise in 2012.