Over the past four weeks we've seen 16 cooks sharpen their knives and put forth some incredibly creative dishes in our Cook of the Week Challenge.
Using such pantry staples as chocolate sauce, salsa and peanut butter along with such unfamiliar ingredients as salsify root, tofu and coconut milk they developed some pretty impressive recipes. Yet only eight of the accomplished recipe creators could advance to the next round in our elimination-style competition.
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During the next few weeks these semifinalists -- four men and four women; six former Cooks of the Week among them -- will face another round of secret ingredient challenges. The four who emerge victorious will compete in a live cook-off Nov. 1 for the title Cook of the Year.
Let's get to know our Elite Eight (to put it in basketball terms) better.
Michelle Abraham, 26, Schaumburg
What is your favorite kitchen tool? The spoonula. It's ridiculously versatile. Whether you need to scrape the last bits of cookie dough out of your bowl, grab every ounce of tomato sauce from the can, or get the last of the peanut butter or jelly from the jar, the spoonula is your go-to helper.
What three items are always on your shopping list? Apples, yogurt and tomatoes. I think very few days go by that I don't eat all three.
Tell us about your weekly cooking/menu planning: I'm currently on the radio at WBIG in Aurora from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and I spend some weeknights working at Westwood Tavern in Schaumburg, so I don't eat on a normal person's schedule, therefore I don't cook much during the week.
Special occasions are my time to play in the kitchen. Between my parents, my three siblings, in-laws and four nieces and nephews, there is never a lack of taste-testers for an Auntie 'Chelle meal.
My biggest challenge is timing everything so it's warm and ready together.
What's your guilty pleasure? I'm a sugary person and a huge chocolate and ice cream lover, but I think I'd have to identify my "guilty pleasure" as chocolate frosted doughnuts ... or dipping pretzels in uncooked brownie batter.
Anthony Barone, 50, Naperville
What is your favorite kitchen tool? My immersion blender. You get to put something that is like a little outboard motor in a pot of hot liquid and hope for the best when you turn it on. Then you get to watch the waves.
What three things are always on your shopping list? Green onions, fresh Italian bread and bacon.
Tell us about your weekly cooking/menu planning: I cook on weekends and one day during the week. I think often during the week about what special dish I can cook for my family on weekends. Frequently, I ask the kids what they would like. Last weekend they wanted different kinds of chicken wings. Cooking something special the kids want is a way I show my love for them.
What's your guilty pleasure? Anchovies on Italian bread with onions.
Terri Edmunds, 45, Naperville
What is your favorite kitchen tool? My all time favorite kitchen tool is a cast iron skillet. It never fails me ... Clean up is always super quick and easy.
What three things are always on your shopping list? Cheese -- but not just any kind of cheese. I love the strong and tangy Maytag blue cheese over salads or burgers, Parmigiano-Reggiano in my many Italian dishes and goat cheese. Eggs -- one of the world's most versatile ingredients which can be transformed into anything. Fresh seasonal vegetables like asparagus and sugar snap peas are my favorites but I always purchase mixed field greens to create wonderful salads any time of the year.
Tell us about your weekly cooking/menu planning: As a working mom, I might not get dinner served by 6 p.m., but I always make dinner. We rarely eat out at restaurants anymore because my family prefers my home cooked food, which is such a nice compliment! My biggest challenge becomes 'What do I make tonight?' but not because I run out of ideas, but because the possibilities are endless.
What's your guilty pleasure? As a Type I diabetic since I was 10, my guilty pleasure foods are probably not your typical ones. Instead, don't ever get between me and a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese! I realize gourmet it is not, but it's still a food that I would love to go back to for seconds and thirds.
Chuck Federici, 54, Hanover Park
What is your favorite kitchen tool? My Viking santoku knife; it's a must. It slices, chops, trims, smashes and scoops. It has it's own oak storage block on my counter top in the kitchen.
What three things are always on your shopping list? Red onion, fresh vegetables and crusty bread.
Tell us about your weekly cooking/menu planning: I work from 3 to 11 p.m. so weekends are my only cooking days, usually I cook Sunday dinner for my wife, daughter and son-in-law. Soon my grandson (only 3 months old) will be enjoying dinner with us.
My biggest challenge is time! I get so into cooking that I sometimes loose track of time.
What's your guilty pleasure? Goober Peanut Butter and Grape Jelly (the stuff in the jar) on top of Ritz crackers.
Ron Nunes, 52, Elk Grove Village
What is your favorite kitchen tool? I have many favorite tools, spice grinder, stick blender, Dutch oven, but I have to say the tool I use most and take with me anywhere I cook is my instant read thermometer. I bought a good one a few years ago ($50) and find it the tool I use most.
What three things are always on your shopping list? Fresh bread, garlic (we go through about 2 heads a week) and fresh fruit (we only buy enough each time so it does not go bad).
Tell us about your weekly cooking/menu planning: A few years ago when my wife went back to work full time, we decided that on every Sunday we would plan a menu for the week using what we had first, and then buying what else we needed when we grocery shop on Sundays.
The first thing we determine is who will be home, we went from five to three at home so it's important to know. We always have one grilling night, one pasta night, one entree salad night, and the other nights could be anything from sloppy Joe's to panini to a bowl of homemade soup or chili. We try to never have the same items two weeks in a row.
What's your guilty pleasure? Southern biscuits and gravy. My wife will not let me order it with her around, or make it if she is home because there is absolutely no nutritional value to biscuits and gravy. But the taste is something that makes me feel really good, and very guilty about eating it.
Michael Pennisi, 41, Carpentersville
What is your favorite kitchen tool? Since a chef's knife seems like a boring answer I'll go with a food processor instead. It makes really quick work of prepping vegetables, blending sauces and making dough.
What three things are always on your shopping list? Apples, bread and cheese (ABC! It's easy to remember.)
Tell us about your weekly cooking/menu planning: I usually cook four nights a week and the other nights will be leftovers or sandwiches (I'm a little odd as I only eat at restaurants a few times a month). Most of my meals are dinners for two but on weekends I will cook for guests and have Sunday dinners with family.
The biggest challenge I have in getting dinner prepared is creating a meal that uses the fresh ingredients I already have in the house because I really dislike wasting food.
What's your guilty pleasure? Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. There's never a bad time for them and in a moment of indulgence or desperation they can serve as breakfast or lunch!
Mary Beth Thornton, 43, Cary
What is your favorite kitchen tool? A mezzaluna chopping knife. I use it to finely chop herbs, garlic and onions.
What three items are always on my shopping list? Milk, pasta and chicken.
Tell us about your weekly cooking/menu planning: I make dinner pretty much every night, when I am not working. If I am at work I normally make something before work and my husband throws it into the oven for dinner or I make something in the crockpot.
I don't really plan meals, whatever I'm in the mood to make for the day I make. I just sort of look around the kitchen, see what I have and start cooking! The biggest challenge to getting a meal on the table is my children's homework, sports and after school activities along with working some nights!
What's your guilty pleasure? Nutter Butter cookies hands down! I love them. They're my go-to treat!
Louann Zundel, 48, Des Plaines
What is your favorite kitchen tool? My microplane. It makes quick work of grating citrus zest, cheeses, nutmeg, garlic, ginger, chocolate, etc. and it grates them to the perfect texture.
What three things are always on your shopping list? Herbs, citrus fruits and eggs.
Tell us about your weekly cooking/menu planning: My weekly cooking is fairly impromptu. I keep a well-stocked fridge/pantry so that I have a few choices and I usually keep it pretty simple and try to keep it fresh and healthy. It's almost always a salad, a meat and some sort of vegetable.
Owning a restaurant makes our schedules kind of crazy. Though I love to cook, my biggest cooking challenge is being creative when I am just too tired to even think about dinner.
What's your guilty pleasure? Butter being my favorite ingredient should be a dead giveaway to my sweet tooth. I love to bake and eat any kind of cookies, cupcakes, pies, custards. Those are my true guilty pleasures. My kids say that one of my chocolate chip cookies can make anyone feel better.