In the year since Michael Pennisi was named 2012 Cook of the Year I've had the chance to work with him on a few projects. He represented the Daily Herald at a charity cooking event with one of his Challenge winning recipes, wrote a story about smoking for the Food section and then came on board the judges panel for this year's competition.
But aside from an occasional email or Facebook "like" I lost touch with our contestants. I took this opportunity to see what they've been up to, what new ingredients they're cooking with and how they've been pushing their culinary horizons.
Michael Pennisi: 2012 Cook of the Year
What is your new favorite new ingredient? Tempeh. I don't like tofu at all but I gave this fermented-soybean stuff a try and discovered that it is a surprisingly tasty and versatile ingredient. I have used tempeh in tacos, buffalo wraps, chili, and curries. It's not going to replace a rib-eye steak but if you were trying to eat less meat or just to eat healthier I would recommend it.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? For the season premiere of "A Game of Thrones" I made a Feast of Thrones: roasted duck with potatoes, honeyed chicken, braised lamb, stewed rabbit, meat pies, roasted beets, lemon cakes, and homemade bread. It took me two days and I probably will never do it again, but it was fun.
Any culinary adventures in the past year? My wife and I went to Germany to visit an exchange student that lived with us for a year. This gave us an opportunity to experience German food and culture beyond superficial exposure that a typical tourist would get. Some stereotypes of German cuisine were amusingly accurate (lots of sausages) but others were surprising (lots of local produce and fantastic fresh bread).
Are there any mystery baskets you're thankful you didn't get? Twizzlers, phyllo dough, almond butter, and celery? Seriously?! If that's all you have left in your pantry then order some pizza and go shopping first thing in the morning.
Louann Zundel: Runner up
What is your new favorite ingredient? Quinoa. Since using it in the challenge last year, I have found it to be delicious, nutritious and very versatile.
Tell us about a most memorable meal. The most memorable was a result of one of my prizes last year. I got the gift certificate from the Q7 Ranch and ordered the beef ribs. I was so excited to barbecue them that I invited my family over for dinner. I made a delicious dry rub, let them sit overnight, slow cooked them on the grill, spritzed them with apple cider as they cooked, then when I turned the grill to high to finish them off, I went inside for two minutes and all the ribs caught fire and burned to a crisp! We ended up getting KFC!
Any new culinary adventures? Since last year, I have been selling lots of cupcakes at our business, Mr. Beef & Pizza. I've been trying new flavors like pumpkin caramel and triple chocolate vanilla bean.
What 2013 challenge ingredients are you glad you didn't get? I am really enjoying the competition this year. The recipes are great. Considering that fish is not my favorite, I would not have been too happy to get swordfish.
Terri Edmunds: Final Four
What is your new favorite ingredient? My favorite new food that I've been experimenting with is Israeli couscous which I believe was a secret basket ingredient in our 2012 competition. It wasn't until after the competition that I realized just how wonderful this pasta can be. I remember my mom and grandmom always making couscous at family gatherings. Their specialty was a Moroccan variety which is finely milled as opposed to Israeli couscous, also known as 'pasta pearls.' Couscous is one of those overlooked side dishes that can also serve as a main entree -- if done correctly. My basic rule, add what you like and Israeli couscous will become one of your new favorites. Simple, easy and quick.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? I'm always cooking or baking so it's difficult to pick just one. But on a recent outing, I fell in love with dates wrapped in bacon and stuffed with chorizo accompanied with a red sauce that I later learned was made with piquillo peppers. Piquillo peppers are somewhat similar to sweet red peppers but they are very much overlooked. I decided to see how I could create a dish using delightfully sweet and tasty piquillo peppers ... that was my mission. So I transformed stuffed peppers into a dish that showcased 3 different peppers (red, green and orange), stuffed them with sausage, ground beef, mushrooms and topped with a sweet and tangy piquillo pepper red sauce that I created on my own using pureed roasted piquillo peppers, Worcestershire sauce, sriracha Thai chili sauce and mascarpone. Delish!
Any culinary adventures in the past year? While cooking is my passion, I decided to go a slightly different route in 2013 and started up a cupcake business called My Little Cupcake. (P.S. Don't tell anyone but this was the little pet name I called my two children when they were babies!) While I still have a long way to go in mastering my culinary talents, I felt this new challenge would allow me to branch out my creative talents in some new directions. Another personal challenge in starting this type of business was that I'm T1D, which means I have Type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed at 10, sugar has always been 'off limits.' So I thought, how else to better challenge me in the kitchen then to take on a cupcake business of sugary sweets that have always been taboo. I'm proud to say that while my cupcake business is very part time and not yet well marketed, my friends, family and customers enjoy my creative talents at decorating cupcakes for birthdays and special occasions. I learn something new each time I cook or plate, bake or decorate, and that's a win for me.
Are there any 2013 mystery baskets you're thankful you didn't get? One thing the Daily Herald competition taught me is that there is no ingredient that scares me. It's all about taste and presentation. For you Final Four contestants, please remember this -- plating is everything. I wasn't very successful on that front in the 2012 competition even though my salmon beurre blanc was tasty. While taste is important, we eat with our eyes first so plating has to be just as appealing. Everything tastes even better when it looks pretty.
Chuck Federici: Final Four
What is your new favorite ingredient? I have been working more with my own spice rubs and flavored salts.
Any memorable meals? I prepared quite a few dishes for my grandson's christening and first birthday; they seemed to go over well.
Any culinary adventures? I had an opportunity to attend a private chef pop-up restaurant that was interactive and informal but well served.
What 2013 mystery baskets are you glad you didn't get? I really missed the challenge of the mystery items and cannot wait to try my hand at it again.
What is your favorite new product? Strawberry balsamic vinegar. I know, I know, it's nothing too new or exciting, but it's a really great fall flavor in a salad dressing or a marinade.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? I recently made banana bread balls for Labor Day weekend and they were amazing, and so easy! Everyone should put them on their holiday baking list. Just put together your favorite banana bread recipe, mix it with 8 ounces of cream cheese (similar to cake balls) and dip them in melted chocolate. Then be sure to store them in the fridge. Oh my goodness so good. I'm making football shaped ones for an upcoming Bears tailgate.
Any culinary adventures in the past year? No actual adventures. I have definitely gone back to my baking roots and dabbled in a few amazing cupcakes this year. In April I made amazing lemon blueberry cakes for a bridal shower and then for my sister-in-law's bachelorette weekend made Rumchata cupcakes, which is another item to add to any adult's dessert list.
Are there any of this year's mystery baskets you're thankful you didn't get? Honestly, I was always thankful I didn't get fish! I am such a picky eater and am not a fish fan and I would've been a mess in the final round trying to sear fish in front of a live audience. I was very happy to eat the fantastic appetizer and dessert samples and watch the Final Four compete!
What's your new favorite ingredient? My wife and I recently started following the Paleo diet and one of our new favorite and most used ingredients is quinoa. Coming up with new ways to spice it up and change things up is our new challenge.
Any memorable meals you've prepared? Last year for Christmas we had about 25 people over and I made braised short ribs, garlic mashed potatoes and roasted brussels sprouts. Memorable because everyone loved it and I actually was able to get dinner on the table for that many people!
Any recent culinary adventures? Our culinary adventures are pretty limited these days with two little kids, but two do stand out. My wife and I were recently in Boston and had a chance to eat at Menton, where "Top Chef" winner Kristen Kish is the chef. We also dined at EL Ideas, here in Chicago, which was a really cool experience.
What 2013 mystery basket are you glad you didn't get? I recently saw a basket with sardines. I'd have no idea how to turn them into a full meal.
What is your new favorite product? I just left Mariano's where I purchased crackers made from pasta, Alfredo flavored ... name brand is Vintage Italia. Yummy! They'll make excellent appetizers for the holidays with lobster salad served on top of them.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? Deep Dish Spinach Quiche made with thawed, frozen spinach, fresh farm stand tomatoes, shaved parmesan cheese, mozzarella, asiago, eggs and, of course, lots of garlic (my absolute favorite ingredient).
Any culinary adventures in the last year? I've explored lots and lots of grocery stores this year. My two favorite stores are Fresh Farms International Market in Wheeling and, for absolutely gorgeous fresh (cheap) produce I go to Stanley's on North Avenue in Chicago.
Are there any 2013 mystery baskets you are thankful you didn't receive? Not really. The spaghetti squash and chicken was a challenge in itself, but like a famous actor/governor once said ... "I'll be back."
What is your favorite new product? A new Le Creuset pot.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? Dinner for eight with beef Wellington as the main course.
Any culinary adventures? I discovered BlackFinn at Randhurst and two new vineyards for Cabernet. We also had our kitchen painted bright yellow.
Are there any 2013 mystery baskets you're thankful you didn't get? No. They each would have been challenging and fun.
What ingredient have you discovered? I recently have made a few nice dinners using puff pastry sheets. I made my own take on salmon en croute and on beef Wellington which I made for my son and daughter-in-law when they brought home my first grandchild, Kara, a few weeks ago.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? I got to "cater" the baby shower, so I had to put together a full complement of good food, and I always aim for good presentation. One highlight was a grilled coffee and caraway cured beef tenderloin which was sliced and served with horseradish cheddar and green leaf lettuce on mini pretzel buns -- my variation on the "slider," a great finger food.
Any recent culinary adventures? Right now we're discovering a few restaurants in downtown Chicago, where we are staying for the weekend. Had birthday dinner for my wife, Laura, at 676 in the Omni Hotel with a nice view of Michigan Avenue. Enjoyed the colored beet and kale salad and a great shrimp flatbread. Tonight we're off to an early dinner at 312 Chicago. I need my carbs, since I'm running the Chicago Marathon on Sunday.
Any 2013 mystery baskets you're thankful you didn't get? Not particularly, I think they all look fun and rightfully challenging!