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updated: 6/10/2014 3:02 PM

Mount Prospect mom finds success on recipe contest circuit

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  • Sue Cortesi has learned how to stretch the family meal budget still load the dinner table with bold flavors.

       Sue Cortesi has learned how to stretch the family meal budget still load the dinner table with bold flavors.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Sue Cortesi grills miso-marinated chicken and tops it with an Asian-influenced salad.

       Sue Cortesi grills miso-marinated chicken and tops it with an Asian-influenced salad.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

By Sally Eyre
Daily Herald Correspondent

Remember last January? (Here's a hint: cold, snow and ice, repeat.)

Well, while we were busy shoveling our driveways for the umpteenth time, Sue Cortesi of Mount Prospect, and her husband, were winging their way to sunny California. Sue's recipe for Moroccan Lamb Bolognese took the grand prize in a recipe contest held by Kenwood Vineyards, garnering an all-expenses paid trip to Napa Valley.

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"They were so nice and it was such a nice break (from the weather here,)" says Sue. Born and raised in Napa Valley, she says the chance to see family was an added bonus.

Sue has been cooking for as long as she can remember, though her biggest influence was not necessarily her mother.

"I grew up in the '60s and '70s -- the era of casseroles and Campbell soup recipes. Mom was a functional cook. She worked and it just wasn't her thing," explains Sue. In spite of this, even at a young age, Sue was always intrigued by recipes and would rip them from magazines and file them.

"I still do that now," she laughs.

Fast forward through a divorce, move, new office job in human resources and the blending of two families (Sue and her husband have eight children between them) and Sue found herself looking for a creative outlet. She began entering cooking contests; after all, she had a full table of potential judges who all needed to eat.

"For awhile I was doing it so much that the kids would ask, 'What are we testing now?'" Sue was a finalist for the National Chicken Cooking contest twice, which meant traveling and cooking in front of cameras.

"That was really fun." She shares one of her winning recipes with us today along with her often-requested lemon bar recipe.

Until the Kenwood Winery contest, Sue had taken a hiatus from entering competitions; life was getting pretty busy. Although her step children did not live with them full time, at one point she and her husband had five teenagers in high school, so there were lots of things to take care of and plenty of big family dinners to prepare.

"I got really good at making pasta -- because it stretches!"

Sue tends to take a health-minded approach to meals.

"I tend to try to be healthier. I use a lot of olive oil, not a lot of butter, but I follow what Julia Child said, I'm not going to eliminate anything, just have everything in moderation."

Because she and her husband work, meals during the week are simple and quick.

"Generally I don't cook elaborate meals during the week, unless I've done a lot of prep ahead of time. I like to braise a lot in the winter, or I will marinade something and then send it out to the grill with my husband. We grill a lot of chicken, vegetables or fish and have it with a nice salad. My husband will eat anything I make, which is nice.

"Good food is really a part of our family culture."

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