Snickers bars and liverwurst? Blood oranges and eye of newt?
I'm not telling what's in the mystery basket for tonight's Cook of the Week Challenge Final Four Cook-off, but to read the digital banter among the contestants you'd think I've been stirring over my witch's caldron for weeks now conjuring up a wicked combination.
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Super hero challengeIn the spirit of Halloween and in an effort to remind our four finalists that this food is fun and they shouldn't stress (too much) about the cook-off, I asked them: If you were a super hero, what would your name and super power be. Here are their answers.
Kitchen Chameleon: The power to wander the aisles of ethnic grocery stores then head back into her natural habitat, the kitchen, to transform ingredients into dinner.
The Saucier: The ability to create sauces on a whim and break down various mystery basket ingredients on command.
Green Goddess: The power to achieve complete sustainability of the food she prepares.
Kitchen Storm: Able to cook everything and have it all on the table all at one time, with everything hot, and the kitchen all cleaned and beautiful before everyone sits down -- and all in an hour or less!
Head to Facebook.com/CookoftheWeek or join us at tonight's event to learn their secret identities.
Whatever the ingredients turn out to be, our four cooks -- Lori Motyka of West Chicago, Christine Murphy of Palatine, Dan Rich of Elgin and Lori Wiktorek of Aurora -- will have just one hour to create and plate a dish and present it to a panel of five judges at the Hyatt Regency Schaumburg. They've each drafted a trusted friend or family member into service as their sous chef.
So while there will be a familiar face nearby, they're still cooking in front of a sold-out crowd of 400 Daily Herald readers and curious food enthusiasts. At the end of the night one of them will be crowned Cook of the Year and receive a suite of prizes valued at more than $2,500.
How are they holding up? I checked in with out Final Four just days before they report to the competition kitchen.
Lori has impressed judges and readers with her uncomplicated approach to the mystery basket ingredients. That's uncomplicated, not unsophisticated.
"I continue to noodle the sardine challenge," she says. "I like the Sicilian Flatbread recipe, but there was something missing that could have put it over the top." Will she be second-guessing herself tonight?
Cook-off prep: I keep reminding myself that I make dinner in about an hour almost every night of the week, sometimes having to pull a rabbit out of my hat using whatever we have on hand. I'm also preparing myself to take the time necessary to develop a good plan. A bad recipe executed flawlessly is still a bad recipe. Once the adrenaline starts pumping, I'm hoping I'll be on autopilot.
I'm asking myself lots of questions about what I do and don't know how to prepare. Tofu, for example. While I love to eat it, I've never cooked with it. Beef tongue? Never eaten it and wouldn't know what to do with it. I will be spending this coming weekend researching foods I'm not very familiar with, just in case. This will probably include time at the market and time on the computer. I don't anticipate trying to learn any new techniques as I want to be comfortable and confident with what I'm doing Wednesday night.
Strength: Hopefully my sense of humor and my sense of what flavors work well together.
For a few days last week I was afraid we were going lose Chris to jury duty. Phew! So in the midst of an already busy week (she teaches, tutors and cares for an elderly parent) she had to process what it means to be a cook-off finalist.
"I am trying to visualize having a great time at the event itself and I imagine it will be a whirlwind of activity that passes by too fast," Chris says. "I want to be fully present to just enjoy cooking with my daughter (her sous chef) and the other contestants."
Cook-off prep: While I was on jury duty before the Final Four announcement, I was busy reading recipes and taking notes on techniques and proportions for some dishes I could potentially adapt if I was chosen. It felt like when I was studying lists of vocabulary words for the GRE Test only to find that none of the words I had learned were on the test. I also plan to cook up some experimental dishes this weekend.
Strength: I think I enjoy my own creativity and I will have fun in the process. For me, it's not so much about creating something better that anyone else, but preparing a dish that will be unique and tasty.
"Most people close to me, believe it or not, are kinda scratching their heads at this," Dan says. "They see me cook all of the time, routinely eat the food that I prepare, and can't quite figure out who the heck would actually go and watch me compete in a cook-off."
Still, he'll have a cheering section there and has pledged to donate his winnings to the Elgin Boys and Girls Club, an organization that he has helped in the past.
He still hasn't forgiven me for canned salmon. Is he still too twisted by Twizzlers to concentrate on the ingredients at hand?
Cook-off prep: I watch Gordon Ramsay on TV and pretend that he is hollering at ME. A few glasses of good wine ... a seasonal ale. I don't know if the spirits help me with my technical competence, but they seem to take the edge off. And of course in preparing for the long day next Wednesday, I'm trying to think about what unpleasant offerings might be in the basket of mystery ingredients. I have taken a look at how the heck induction cooking works. I have brushed up on a few recipes, and will commit a few of the more critical cooking combinations to memory ... sauces and baking combinations especially. Sleepless nights? Nahhhh ... not for me. Did I mention the seasonal ale?
Strength: The same easy going attitude and approach that I think all of the Final Four contestants bring. We are all here to compete, to have some fun, and to encourage one another throughout the competition. There have been some great contestants, some terrific recipes, and I believe that overall folks have really enjoyed themselves over the last few months.
If you haven't made Lori's Bacon Cauliflower cheddar Casserole yet from Round 1, you don't know what you're missing.
"It came out so well, I even surprised myself," she says.
Lori's trying not to dwell on the upcoming competition but "my subconscious has a different idea ... I keep waking up at 2:30 a.m., with my brain wanting to be wide-awake and wanting me to think about the contest and what ingredients we might be challenged with."
Cook-off prep: I'm going to read through my huge "favorite recipes box" and a couple cookbooks to refresh my recollection in advance of some ingredient proportions and cooking methods for things I don't cook very often and cooking methods I may not have tried yet. I also walk through Whole Foods a lot to get ideas on what the hottest "new ingredients" are -- they always seem to be on the cutting edge on that. They'll let you try everything in the deli and I love to try new things I've never had before.
Strength: I think I can bring a good challenge with my cooking experience more than level of knowledge, and bring some fun at the same time. I don't think a cooking competition should make everyone pitted against each other all serious (unless there is huge cash prize maybe?) . It's doing the very best that you can, doing it just for yourself, and having fun trying your best.