Those little green cabbages nearly got the best of Michael Pennisi, one of the four finalists -- and ultimate winner -- in the Cook of the Week Challenge.
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"I didn't like them as a kid and the few times I've made them as an adult I always found myself thinking 'Why I am eating these when I can actually eat whatever I want?,'" the physics teacher from Carpentersville said, reflecting on one of the secret ingredients he and the other cooks had to use during the live cook-off Thursday that capped the elimination-style competition.
Besides brussels sprouts, the finalists had to cook with Skuna Bay salmon from Fortune Fish, Grecian Delights Greek yogurt and POM Wonderful pomegranates. A limited pantry of staples and a handful of ingredients from previous recipe challenges also were at their disposal.
The contestants had one hour to prep and cook the ingredients and present a plated dish to a panel of judges before a crowd of 300-some food enthusiasts at the Hyatt Regency Schaumburg.
While the other finalists -- Louann Zundel of Des Plaines, Terri Edmunds of Naperville and Chuck Federici of Hanover Park -- cooked the brussels sprouts, Pennisi shredded the raw orbs with carrots to make a yogurt-dressed slaw, a move that impressed the judges who liked the freshness of the side dish and how well it balanced with his spicy sweet potato purée and sauteed salmon.
"I considered sautéing the brussels sprouts with bacon but that seemed very traditional," Pennisi said, who had his sister Mary Samycia working as his kitchen assistant.
"Brussels sprouts are like little cabbages so I also thought maybe a fresh slaw would work and then I could dress it with the yogurt and pomegranate," Pennisi said. "My sister was excited when I said slaw but I wasn't sold. I was actually going to try making the sprouts both ways but I made the slaw first and after I tasted it I felt really good about it."
That decision helped earn Pennisi the title Cook of the Year 2012 and a suite of prizes that included a Bosch dishwasher, a spice collection from the Geneva Spice House and classes at Harper College.
After the rush of the competition had ebbed, I asked the contestants to recap their experience and what they might have done differently.
Without a doubt, the first thing I would have done differently is to get a good sear on that salmon skin and present it skin side up. The potatoes lost color because I pureed them with some of the coconut milk so I would either use less coconut milk or add more potato. And while I was very happy with the slaw given the time constraints, I would have loved time to experiment with different ingredients in the dressing, maybe vinegar or apple cider and possibly some fresh herbs like dill.
How was it cooking in front of the crowd? There were a few times when I felt like a monkey at the zoo, waiting for a peanut to be thrown at me, but the crowd was actually very nice and supportive. I loved that they were interested in the process so during the times when I wasn't too buried inside my "cooking zone," I tried to talk loudly so that they would know what I was doing.
The most challenging ingredient was the salmon. I have never cooked or eaten a piece of fish in my life. Luckily, I've seen enough cooking shows to know somewhat what to do with it. I knew right away that I wanted to poach the fish and shred the brussels sprouts and I wanted to keep it kind of light. Originally, I was going to keep the brussels sprouts raw, then decided that a lightly sautéed hash might pair well with the fish.
Unfortunately, having never eaten salmon, I was just guessing what flavors would work with it. I couldn't decide what to do with the yogurt and the pomegranates until I started tasting them. Then, ideas just started popping into my head. The pomegranate reduction was sort of a last-minute idea.
After it was over, I couldn't stop thinking about what I could have done differently. I even dreamed of it that night! I think I would have done a seared salmon to crisp the skin and brushed it with a pomegranate glaze and would definitely have done a Brussels sprout slaw with a Greek yogurt and pomegranate vinaigrette.
Cooking in front of a crowd was no problem for me. I was in a zone and wasn't really paying too much attention to the chaos around me. I stayed pretty calm, except for the one moment that I forgot I was reducing the pomegranate juice and thought I burned it.
The most challenging ingredients where the pomegranates, whole and the juice. I was just not sure how to approach them. The dish came to me kind of quickly, I had to tweak it a bit, but overall my first ideas stuck.
I pretty much have been beating myself up since. I am my worst critic. The plate could of used a little sprucing up, and a mix-up on yogurt/ leek placement.
The whole crowd, cameras and (recipe watcher and Cook of the Week columnist) Abby Scalf aspect really added to the fun, unfortunately I could not really enjoy the crowd due to working at the prep table so much but I did enjoy the interaction when it happened.
I've always been fascinated with fusion (cuisine), and I love so many dishes from around the world so I wanted to showcase different preparations of star ingredients with flavors that represented different cultures. I decided to begin with a French beurre blanc sauce for the salmon, and then developed a North African flair for my fried sweet potato chips using similar spices found in the harissa spice, and finally, a tzatziki dip originating from Greece for my grilled flatbread.
As much as I stand 110 percent behind my completed dish, and the wonderful flavor profiles I was able to develop, I didn't win. Therefore, I keep trying to create the winning dish in my mind that would be second to none. That's the annoying perfectionist in me. Perhaps seafood crepes would have impressed the heck out of the judges with a Brussels sprout and parmesan cheese dipping sauce. Or maybe a seafood gumbo using the salmon, chicken stock and Israeli couscous with a mirepoix of sautéed leeks, celery, mushrooms and carrots. The possibilities are indeed endless. So, from this experience, I will focus more not on what I could have done differently in this challenge, but what I can do each time I step into my kitchen to prepare something new, different, untraditional … or just plain darn yummy!
Cooking in front of a crowd didn't make me nervous because you find your "zone" and focus on all that you have to do. However, I did find it a bit challenging to answer questions about the recipes I was creating on the fly, ingredients and measurements used. I never measure anything so I needed to estimate accurate quantities instead of a squeeze of this, a pinch of that. When I became most anxious, I turned to the audience who were very interested in what I was preparing. They were inquisitive and they were fellow foodies who love food as much as I do. Sharing this bond was fun; so much so that before I plated my dishes, I spooned out samples of the wonderful warm Brussels sprout salad sautéed with bacon, pomegranates and lemon and my beurre blanc sauce that had a wonderful lemon citrus profile among with the white wine and Paula Deen quantities of butter. Everyone seem to really love these recipes and that made me feel much more at ease.