We've had a pretty cool summer, but things are about to heat up. Especially for the 16 home cooks who have been selected to take part in the Daily Herald's Cook of the Week Challenge.
Over the past two months, we have pored over dozens of applications from cooks wanting to be part of our fourth annual elimination-style cooking competition. Cooks came from all walks of life -- moms, students, accountants, teachers, retirees -- and from all over the area, from Aurora to Buffalo Grove, Schaumburg to Hampshire. They tempted us with recipes for Pantry Chicken Sloup and BBQ Pulled Pork Chili (seriously, what's not to like about that!) and twists on longtime favorites like Chicken Piccante and Smothered Fried Cabbage.
Over the next two months, these folks will compete in one-on-one recipe contests that challenge them to use the same "mystery ingredients" to create an entree and at least one side dish or a one-pot meal.
Their recipes will be evaluated by a rotating panel of judges that includes celebrity pastry chef and cookbook author Gale Gand; Brian Emmett, the Itasca man who won "America's Baking Challenge"; Buffalo Grove native and former "MasterChef" contestant Suzy Singh; and Ted Brunson, former producer and host at "Chicago's Best." Local chefs and the winners of first three Cook of the Week Challenges -- Penny Kazmier, Michael Pennisi and Dan Rich -- also will make appearances on the judging panel.
The cook with the winning recipe will advance to the next round, where he or she will tackle another mystery basket challenge.
The four left standing will compete in a live cook-off, where the winner will be crowned Cook of the Year and receive a prize package.
These 16 cooks aren't the only ones vying for prizes. Each week, we invite readers to vote for their favorite recipe at surveymonkey.com/s/COTW. Each week, we'll randomly select a voter to win prizes like T-shirts for Hunger Action Month, gift cards for Whole Foods Market and products from our sponsors. The contestant whose recipes garner the most votes overall will be declared Cook of the Week Challenge Fan Favorite and receive a special prize at the finale.
You can follow the contest each Wednesday in the Food section and on our website, dailyherald.com/lifestyle/food/cookchallenge. Like us at Facebook.com/CookoftheWeek to learn more about the cooks and the sponsors and for updates on how you can be in the audience for the cook-off extravaganza.
I'm excited to see what these cooks can do and I hope you are, too.
Tara Riley vs. Jamie Andrade
53, Arlington Heights
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? I don't really have a favorite ingredient; it changes. My staples are ginger, garlic, herbs, variety of oils and vinegars, whichever one I'm inspired by at a given moment is going to end up in what I'm cooking. After a recent yoga retreat in Mexico I began working with coconut milk and coconut oil. Think curry (Indian and Thai) with chickpeas or fish dishes. I tried baking with coconut oil too, chili-lemon bars. The crust was a bit dense and seemed to dry out quickly (nothing beats butter in baking).
Describe your approach to cooking: I like to work with foods I enjoy eating: fresh vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish and seafood. I feel best when I eat this way. It makes me happy. I'm often inspired by a particular ingredient that is in season or type of cuisine. I grow my own vegetables and herbs. I'd say my approach is an "American Fusion" of Italian/Asian/Latin.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? It seems like fun! I love to cook. I enjoy working with new foods, blending styles of cuisine as my tastes change. People always tell me I should have been a chef or owned a restaurant. I like the idea of being given a few ingredients and having to create on the spot. That's how I often cook at home. What do I have to work with today? It's a great challenge.
29, Elk Grove Village
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? I change my favorite ingredient every few months, currently it is cilantro. I make this amazing chimichurri sauce that we literally put on everything from chicken to burgers to nachos. I keep a large bottle of it in the fridge and it goes quick. It's perfect for a marinade also.
Describe your style or approach to cooking: My style is very seasonal. On a warm summer day, I'm outside grilling so marinated skirt steak or chicken. Cold rainy fall day, I'm making a homemade chili. I cook how I feel and I always try something new.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I've been part of the competition twice but never made it to the final. They say the third time's the charm!
Joan Huenecke vs. Pam Larson
Special education teacher
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? My favorite ingredients are vegetables that are in season. In my quest to eat healthy I have begun experimenting with a variety of fresh vegetables. Grilling or roasting is my favorite way to prepare fresh vegetables. Sometimes, I eat the vegetables by themselves. Other times, I incorporate them into pasta or rice.
Describe your approach to cooking: My style or approach to cooking is laid back. I use recipes as a guideline. Pictures in a recipe are a must! The food needs to look visually enticing. I enjoy the challenge of using leftovers to make "new" meals. My family laughs and says that they NEVER have the same meal twice. This proves that variety is the spice of life.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I want to be part of the Cook of the Week Challenge because I enjoy the challenge of cooking on the fly with unknown ingredients.
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? Tomatoes. I use them in a lot of different ways, I prefer to use fresh but in the winter months canned ones do just great. I like to make a fresh tomato sauce with basil, red pepper. It cooks in just about 30 minutes on the stove; serve over pasta, vegetables, ravioli.
Describe your approach to cooking: I try to go with whatever is fresh and in season. I've been cooking since I was a child, so I have a lot of family recipes that I use or, if I see an idea or have a dish at a restaurant, I try to make it on my own. I truly believe you can eat better at home than at some places out there.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I would love the opportunity to be part of the challenge because I am very quick with ideas when the ingredients are different or odd. I also have a keen sense of timing along with what herbs or ingredients would accent a dish.
Denise Allen vs Collette Amabile
43, Hanover Park
ADP Inc., human resources consulting
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? Onion. I like to saute it with vegetables and all types of meat. There is nothing onion can't go in.
Describe your approach to cooking: I love Southern-style cooking; flavor-enhanced food. I like to find recipes and make them my own by adding additional seasonings or additional ingredients.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? Cooking and trying new recipes is my passion. I would love to own my own restaurant, catering company or food truck.
Assistant at Prologis
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? My favorite ingredient is probably basil. I like to make sauces and dressings with it; it also adds instant freshness to my dishes. I have a large garden out back and many basil plants so it's always on hand.
Describe your approach to cooking: I like to cook with natural, fresh ingredients. I grew up on a farm in Michigan and was spoiled with fresh foods. My roots followed me here and my dad comes in every year from Michigan to help me and my husband till and plant our garden. Every year it keeps getting bigger and bigger. I am also teaching my 2-year-old son the fundamentals of planting, harvesting and enjoying fresh food on your plate.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I am family taught and love to cook. I use recipes as guidelines and try and put my own spin on the dish depending on my mood and what is in the cupboard. When I have the time, I love to cover the counters with fresh ingredients, turn on the music and cook a gorgeous meal for my husband and son (and whoever else I can feed). Through my husband's friends, I am known as the wife who cooks because I am always sending extra tidbits of last night's dinner to his buddies at work.
Tim Hoffman vs Emily Geddes
38, Buffalo Grove
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? I love cooking with garlic. I feel that it is a very versatile ingredient and can be used in all styles of cooking. I use this in my barbecue rubs and marinades.
Describe your style of cooking: My style of cooking definitely takes a barbecue approach. I love trying new and weird ingredients on the grill.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I think it would be fun to see where I stand in regards to home cooks. I love competition and would love the opportunity to show my abilities as a chef. I cook for my family and friends all the time and they all tell me how good my food is. My mother-in-law actually mentioned this to me and suggested that I enter. I think this would be a great experience.
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? Salt. Salt adds such a subtle difference to almost any food. I think people are afraid of it because of health concerns. A lot doesn't need to be used -- just a light sprinkle on foods that are savory, bitter, sweet, sour. It doesn't matter, the flavor is intensified.
Describe your approach to cooking: I cook my meals from scratch, using fresh ingredients. I use both new, old and family recipes for inspiration. However, I make every dish my own, perfecting to my own tastes.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? All my cooking has been done for my family and friends. I have always secretly wondered if a stranger would like my food.
David Rench vs. Roberta Fahey
66, Spring Grove
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? I would have to say the allium family because most savory dishes start with at least one as they are the aromatics that begin the base. Allium family consists of garlic, shallot and onions.
Describe your style or approach to cooking: I have been cooking since my father passed away when I was 15 years old. I had to cook for my brothers and mother. I started with recipes and eventually began changing and adding to them. I now love to cook by seeing what I have in the cupboards and fridge and invent something. I use an ethnic idea and then go from there. I love Greek, Italian, Middle European, French and Thai.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? It's exciting and I could learn something. Prizes are always a nice second incentive. My friends did an "Iron Chef" contest in their yard. I participated and had a blast! FUN!
57, Arlington Heights
Food service at Thomas Middle School in Arlington Heights
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? My favorite ingredient? That's a tough question. I have so many. I love to blend so many different spices and textures. I have to say that garlic goes into almost all of my recipes even if it doesn't call for it. I also love to cook with shrimp.
Describe your style or approach to cooking: I try to take a pretty healthy but very eclectic approach to cooking. I love to try new things and try to put a different flair into my cooking. I also love a good presentation even when cooking for my own family.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I would love the challenge. Two years ago I went to Springfield with my school district and there were different classes we had to take. One of them was set up like the food challenge kitchen. We had to run and get our ingredients and prepare a meal and set up a beautiful presentation. I loved it and I took charge. I've always wanted to take part in something like this to see what I can create.
Molly Sutton vs Aban Daboo
50s, Arlington Heights
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? Olive oil, fresh vegetables, seafood and any fresh garden ingredients I have.
Describe your approach to cooking: I create the menus for each week and then adjust to what is available at the stores or market. I try to vary in taste, such as a different ethnic flavor each day.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I love the creative part of working with certain ingredients. I once made stuffed garlic bread out of leftover hot dog buns.
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? Freshly ground ginger-garlic paste. Use it in almost all the dishes I cook for enhancing the flavor and health benefits.
Describe your approach to cooking: Use everything fresh -- herbs, vegetables, legumes, spices, nuts. Using natural flavor eliminates the need to cook with more animal protein. To thicken gravies I prefer the use of onions, yogurt and tomatoes instead of flour.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? To demonstrate my skills for healthy cooking without sacrificing flavor. Also that cooking is a creative art and can improve family ties, relationships and friendships. When we break bread with our loved ones it creates a special bond which is virtually hard to describe.
Juanita Harrell vs Steve May
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? Buttermilk. I like to use it in pies, cakes, for making biscuits, cornbread or for soaking chicken or fish in before dredging with flour.
Describe your approach to cooking: Relaxed, fun and experimental.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I think it will be both fun and challenging.
Assistant principal, Wheeling High School
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? Not sure about this one. I cook a variety of things. I do like the versatility of chicken. I grill it, mix it with pasta, make tacos, nachos, barbecue sandwiches, etc. with it. My wife hates chicken on the bone so I have found many ways to use boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
Describe your approach to cooking: I like to sit down on Sunday with cookbooks, magazines, etc. and plan the week of meals for our family. I then use an excel spreadsheet to list ingredients and shop for the week. I try to pick a few different things each week to expand our horizons
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I think it would be fun to try something new and outside my comfort zone.
Jack Mac Intosh vs Chris Crabtree
Jack Mac Intosh
Business development for Postal Source
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? Chorizo. It's so versatile, you can use it with eggs, main dishes and it's great in appetizers like grilled stuffed jalapeņos.
Describe your approach to cooking: I will try anything once -- from chilled pumpkin soup, to Spam kebabs. I like using fresh herbs at the end of recipes in the summer to get that "summer fresh" taste. I love Thai food as well as Cajun. I enjoy participating in barbecue contests as well as chili cook-offs.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I have been following the contest since its inception and look forward to reading the Food section every Wednesday. I am intrigued because quite often the contestants come up with ideas that I would have tried given the specific ingredients. I think it would be a blast!
Homemaker, PTA president
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? Such a tough question. Chicken broth and stock. I always have a box of broth or stock on hand to add to my dishes.
Describe your approach to cooking: I do not like following a recipe, but love to read recipes and then put my spin on something or try and duplicate something I eat out.
Why do you want to be part of the Challenge? I enjoy creating new recipes and our family plays "Chopped" at home where we come up with a basket of ingredients and cook together.