A teacher from Carpentersville, a business owner from Des Plaines, a maintenance worker from Hanover Park and a marketing professional from Naperville will compete in the Cook of the Week Challenge cook-off Nov. 1 at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield in Schaumburg. At the end of that night, one of them will walk away with the title Cook of the Year and a suite of prizes valued at $3,000.
After the second round of recipe challenges, Michael Pennisi of Carpentersville emerged victorious in the Chianti and cumin cook-off, his Sideline Skewers edging past Mary Beth Thornton of Cary and her Game Day Pork Chop Sandwiches.
In the Polish sausage challenge, Terri Edmunds of Naperville put the heat on barbecue circuit competitor Ron Nunes of Elk Grove Village. Her Blitz Sandwich and Sweet and Fiery Popcorn smoked past his East Meets Midwest sausage and shrimp kebabs. (Frankly, I found it interesting that the ladies in the tailgate challenge grilled up sandwiches while the fellas turned out meat on a stick.)
In the second week of Round 2 challenges, Des Plaines Mr. Beef owner Louann Zundel and her Moroccan spin on chicken flew past the glazed and cidery take on beer-can chicken put forth by Michelle Abraham of Schaumburg.
In the catfish and Korean barbecue marinade side of the kitchen, Chuck Federici of Hanover Park and his tempura-style catfish and fennel-fried Freekeh beat out chili master Anthony Barone's blackened catfish.
So on Nov. 1, these four finalists will compete against each other in a live cook-off in front of 300-some people (to be in the crowd, turn to Page 8). The cooks will have one hour to prep, cook and plate a dish made with four secret ingredients and a pantry of common ingredients. A panel of six judges -- including "Master Chef" finalist Suzy Singh, Hyatt chef Spencer Wolff and our 2011 Cook of the Year Penny Kazmier -- will help determine who claims 2012 Cook of the Year bragging rights.
You can read what the judges had to say about the final recipes on Page 4. Keep reading here to see what our finalists have to say about the competition up to this point (some comments have been edited for length).
What did you learn about yourself as a cook during the Challenge? Think out of the box. Recipes are simply suggested guides but by no means should dictate what you can or can't use. Experiment with new ingredients you never dreamed of using before. The results may surprise you.
Trust your senses -- sight, smell and taste ... Your dish should look visually appealing. You should be able to smell the main ingredients. Finally, always taste your recipes before you plate them. It's much easier to correct a few common seasoning mishaps, like forgetting to season at all, before you serve.
Simplicity -- no need to over-complicate a meal. Sometimes the simplest dishes are the best as they let the main ingredients stand by themselves.
Did the contest open your eyes to new ingredients or flavors? The Cook of the Week Challenge has not only opened my eyes to using new ingredients and flavors, but using the not-so-new ones in some very different ways. I've always been adventurous in the grocery store but when I haven't had time to shop, I'm not afraid to raid the pantry and use ingredients like Hershey's Chocolate Syrup for an espresso chocolate gravy that I created in Round 1 for a sirloin tri tip roast. The possibilities can be endless the next time that lone can of cannellini beans is staring you in the face.
Are there ingredients you wish you had received or ones you're thankful you didn't get? I wish there had been more secret ingredients in the fresh vegetables and fresh herbs category. Where we tend to eat an abundance of overly processed foods today, it would be good to cover a different angle and show readers how easy it can be to incorporate fresh ingredients into their diets that are both healthy and TASTY.
Is there a Challenge recipe that you're curious to try or have already tried? I have tried several contestant recipes each week -- many of the fan favorites. Props to all contestants that put their hearts and souls into creating such wonderful recipes out of a host of challenging secret ingredients. As a plug for a fellow contestant I competed with in Round 2, I tried Ron Nunes's Pork Chops with Blueberry Salsa. His plating was beautifully done and inspired me to try his very creative and delicious recipe. Well done.
What did you learn about yourself as a cook during the Challenge? The contest taught me to have more confidence in my cooking abilities. I usually am way too critical of my cooking. My family has always told me not to be so hard on myself; I guess they might be right!
Did the contest open your eyes to new ingredients or flavors? Yes, I had no idea what Freekeh was and would have never known how to cook it. I also would have never tried the Ying's Korean BBQ marinade if it wasn't part of my challenge. I was pleasantly surprised by its great taste and will definitely cook with it again.
Are there ingredients you wish you had received or ones you're thankful you didn't get? No, I always enjoyed food shopping and never am afraid to try something new and different. But now that I am more confident, I will be a little more adventurous.
I wish I could have been in the tailgate challenge, that looked like so much fun and it gave the cooks a lot of room to be creative. I am so happy that I didn't get the salsify root. I have never even heard of or knew what a salsify root is!
Is there a Challenge recipe that you're curious to try or have already tried? Unfortunately, I have not had time to try any of the great recipes from the Challenge but I would like to try Asian Style Turkey Wheat Berry Lettuce Wraps and the Blueberry Pork Chop Confusion.
What did you learn about yourself as a cook during the Challenge? I learned to trust my "gut" feelings about food because my initial recipe ideas wound up being the most liked by my tasters. Also I learned that I should improve how I present my food after seeing the gorgeous photos of my fellow competitors. The next time I have a dinner party I'm going try out the new ideas I have.
Did the contest open your eyes to new ingredients or flavors? I'm not terribly adventurous when it comes to fresh vegetables but seeing all of the different slaws, salsas and salads made by the other cooks has definitely expanded my thoughts on how I can prepare and season side dishes. Also, I've taken a greater interest in Asian flavors, especially curries as a result of playing with coconut milk in the first round.
Are there ingredients you wish you had received or ones you're thankful you didn't get? There have been a few mind-boggling combinations like spaghetti squash/salsa and the ravioli/peanut butter but I'm most happy that I didn't get the kielbasa. I know it's a popular sausage but I really don't care for it.
The chicken, plum, quinoa and celeriac would have been great fun because I can imagine a really tasty Moroccan dish with those ingredients.
Is there a Challenge recipe that you're curious to try or have already tried? The chocolate espresso tip roast reminded me of coffee-rub recipes I have seen on TV but not tried so that dish was really interesting to me. Also, I imagine the pork chops with the blueberry sauce were delicious. Next summer when blueberries are in season, I'm going to make something similar.
What did you learn about yourself as a cook during the Challenge? Because baking is such a passion, I usually think of myself as more of an exact recipe follower, but the Challenge revealed my spontaneity in the kitchen. All those years of reading cookbooks like novels really paid off.
Did the contest open your eyes to new ingredients or flavors? I was given the tofu challenge which is something I had never used before. I don't know that I will use it again, but it did get my husband and me to try it. Whole Foods is one of my favorite stores and I will literally shop there for hours. They carry so much in the way of new and exciting flavors, but the Challenge has gotten me to look at the ingredients in my pantry with a little more creativity.
Are there ingredients you wish you had received or ones you're thankful you didn't get? I wasn't too thrilled with the tofu challenge, but was really happy that I didn't get the salsify challenge. After researching it on the Internet, it doesn't look like something I'd like to use in my cooking.
Is there a Challenge recipe that you're curious to try or have already tried? Michelle Abraham's delicious Provolone and Pear Salad has already made it to my table. Because it sounds so flavorful, I would really like to try Mary Beth Thornton's Ham and Peach Quiche.