Carrie Shawala still remembers the response when friends would join her family for dinner.
"Their mouths would drop literally to the floor and they would ask 'Why do you have so much food?'" she said.
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The 28-year-old Roselle woman grew up learning to make generous portions of many of those passed-down dishes by watching her father, John. He taught her how to make his family's Italian gravy and other favorites such as meatballs, smoked salmon and her grandma's creamy baked chicken with mushrooms and potatoes.
"My dad's mom passed away when my dad was in college, so I never had an opportunity to meet her. Getting to learn the recipes she used and getting to try them out for myself and share them with others is my way of being connected with somebody who is an important part of family," she said.
As she has gotten older, Carrie has experimented with other dishes such as risotto. While Carrie thought risotto would require standing by the stove for hours, she has received tips -- like starting with a good broth -- to make wonderful risotto in less time with less effort.
"It helps because if you have a nice strong base for your risotto it can cook faster and pull all those flavors out," she said.
Italian is not the only cuisine served in Carrie's house, though. She and her husband, Keith, like to tinker with Mexican or Asian cuisine, mixing up lighter fare like taco salads or stir fries. Her pantry is filled with spices and salts she uses when crafting new recipes.
"I like to be able to experiment with cooking. If we're going to eat chicken I wonder how can I make it taste different from last time," said Carrie, a teacher at Buzz Aldrin Elementary School in Schaumburg.
Carrie has not only learned how to cook from her family, but hopes to one day follow one family member's footsteps and compete. Her uncle, Chuck Federici, was one of four Cook of the Week Challenge finalists. During the cook-off finale her dad played kitchen helper as her uncle created a dish using salmon, pomegranates, brussels sprouts and Greek yogurt.
While she's open to trying new ingredient combinations, Carrie says she is not fond of incorporating fruit in a savory dish and admits that would compound the challenge. Yet she sees competition having another benefit besides the chance to win. She may be able to serve as a role model to young adults who may think they can't cook.
"It is an opportunity to show people that someone who is 28 can make these great recipes and cook alongside other people who have been cooking many more years than I have," she said.
It may be no surprise, but Carrie also loves to host large dinners for family and friends. And she is following in her parents' footsteps, making more food than her guests can eat. Last New Year's Eve her spread included steak, lobster, vegetables and desserts.
"As a kid I always thought, 'Why are they making so much food. No one can eat it all,'" she said. "But now that I'm older my biggest fear is I will not have enough.
"It's funny, as you grew up, you remember you thought your parents were crazy, but (now) you realize they were right."
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