Dad takes growing and eating local to heart

Cook of the Week

  • Andre Zielinski grows exotic ingredients, like Thai basil and Kaffir limes, at his Arlington Heights yard so he has them on hand for his favorite recipes.

    Andre Zielinski grows exotic ingredients, like Thai basil and Kaffir limes, at his Arlington Heights yard so he has them on hand for his favorite recipes. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
Updated 1/17/2011 10:40 PM

There's nothing halfway about the culinary transformation that's taken place during the past several years at the Zielinski household in Arlington Heights.

From a diet that was too reliant on prepared foods, Andre, DeLynn and their three children are plowing new ground as well-informed foodies.

 

In his role as chief cook, Andre prepares virtually all their meals from scratch, incorporating fresh or frozen produce from his backyard garden and orchard and honey from the bee hives. Yes, homegrown honey now graces their table.

Holy cow! What inspired this kind of turnaround?

"We have friends in the health field who talked to us about preservatives and how they affect your weight and health," says Andre, a visual arts teacher at Paddock Elementary School in Palatine. "I started reading books about improving your health, and a lot of the advice came back to avoiding processed food."

Weight gain was another issue.

"I noticed after 35, it wasn't as easy to drop weight," says Andre, who was approaching 170 pounds, but now maintains a leaner 155 to 160.

"I started doing suburban homesteading," he laughs. The backyard isn't huge, but in season it's packed with tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and onions, herbs, berries and a host of fruit trees, from apricot and cherry to peach, nectarine and plum.

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He freezes the excess, turning tomatoes into pizza sauce and marinara. DeLynn processes fruit into smoothies year round using the frozen extras.

For protein they try to eat only free-range beef and poultry.

Instead of watching television as often, the family socializes around food preparation.

"The kids are in and out of the kitchen, watching me," says Andre. "Sometimes they help, sometimes we're just conversing. It's good family time."

In some ways the kids are becoming food snobs, preferring their dad's hamburgers and pizza to any others.

Andre has become confident enough in his culinary skills to reverse engineer some of the dishes he tries in restaurants, or create his own versions of favorite packaged foods, like the spinach pesto pizza DeLynn loves.

With a background in Asian studies, Andre enjoys playing around with Thai and Chinese cooking, too. To make it easier, he grows Thai basil, lemon grass and a Kaffir lime tree, useful for its fruit and leaves.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Nightly meals now include bulgogi (a Korean, marinated beef dish), tom yum soup, pad thai and curry dishes. like his Panang version with readily available ingredients like coconut milk, lemon grass, cardamom and coriander, which DeLynn used to "hate."

"She forbade me from cooking it," he says. "But now she likes it."

His Thai Basil Chicken calls for tamarind paste and galangal root, a relative of ginger that's available in Asian markets. But you won't need to make any special trips for his creative Asian-Mexican fusion chili that blends chili and curry powders, among other spices.

Andre didn't mention whether he's considering raising his own livestock, just to take the "homesteading" thing a step farther.

But I wouldn't be surprised if a few chickens were running around his backyard come spring.