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posted: 1/8/2013 6:00 AM

Cook of the Week: Fearless and fun in the kitchen

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  • Nick Brenkus sources Italian flour and cheese for the Pizza Margherita he makes in his West Dundee home.

       Nick Brenkus sources Italian flour and cheese for the Pizza Margherita he makes in his West Dundee home.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Nick Brenkus conservatively sauces his Pizza Margherita before adding the other toppings.

       Nick Brenkus conservatively sauces his Pizza Margherita before adding the other toppings.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Nick Brenkus makes pizza

 
By Abby Scalf
ascalf@dailyherald.com

Nick Brenkus claims he is not afraid to try anything.

From making pastas and poppy seed and nut rolls inspired by his mom to producing wine from his own vineyard and entering a deconstructed hot dog in a recipe contest, Nick is fearless having fun in his West Dundee kitchen.

Brought up by his Italian mom, Nick learned from her and his aunt how to make their special sauce, roll pasta and bake his dad's favorite poppy seed and nut rolls that he still bakes for gatherings.

"My mother was a wonderful cook," said Nick, now retired from the transportation industry.

He has found continued inspiration watching television chefs such as Jeff Smith, Julia Child and Mario Batali. And after encouragement from his wife, Susan, he decided to hone his knife skills by enrolling in a culinary class.

"I took the class to learn more techniques, which I thought I was lacking as a home cook," he said.

What Nick says he loves about cooking is he can create something new whether it be cooking for Susan or hosting a dinner party.

"There are a 100 different ways to make chicken and there are 101 ways to make eggs," he said. "There is no end to being creative."

Nick most likes to make comfort foods such as beef stew, lentil soup, and uses his stand mixer attachment to make sausages.

To prepare for winter, he offers readers some hearty dishes: beef tenderloin rolled with bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, parsley and parmesan cheese and a Greek-inspired chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and pistachios and wrapped in grape leaves.

"I can get fancy, but I like the basics, too," he said.

There's something equally fancy and basic in the Pizza Margherita he demonstrates today online. While on a cycling trip through southern Italy he watched chefs craft the pizza and he recreates it at home by sourcing authentic, high quality ingredients.

For a recent gathering with friends, Nick prepared the dough -- "it's flour, water, yeast, a little salt and a little sugar. That's it." -- and set out ingredients for guests to top their own pizza.

He enjoys baking and flirted with the thought of opening a small artisan bake shop, until he realized, "OK, we have to get up at 2 a.m. to make the dough."

So for now he sticks with making wine, a hobby he's maintained for more than 20 years and one that evolved from watching his grandpa crush grapes in the basement to harvesting 42 pounds of hybrid grapes from his own backyard. That harvest yielded three gallons of wine.

"Next year, I should hopefully double or triple that," he said.

"You get instant gratification when you hand someone a bottle of homemade wine. More importantly, they taste it and you see in their eyes how happy they are. That is the rush a lot of chefs enjoy -- that instant gratification. That is what makes me happy."

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