Love, competitions keep cook creating

  • Mary Beth Riley is ready for a throw-down; she'll put her lemon pound cake up against anyone elses.

      Mary Beth Riley is ready for a throw-down; she'll put her lemon pound cake up against anyone elses. Photos by Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Updated 5/24/2011 12:04 PM

If Mary Beth Riley ever gets a call to compete against Cat Cora or Bobby Flay, she will be ready.

With one competition under her belt, she's confident she can create a dish any Iron Chef would be proud to compete against.


Earlier this year the Elk Grove Village cook heard about the Chop Simmer and Saute Cook-Off hosted by the Hyatt Regency Woodfield-Schaumburg. She went through her files, found a chicken potpie recipe she liked and, along with friend Chris Gurrieri, submitted it for consideration.

"We gave the chicken potpie because it showed a lot of chopping, poaching chicken and making a cream sauce. It's making pastry. So we submitted that recipe to show what we can do in the kitchen," she said.

She earned the right to join five competitors in the cook-off, a bit of a cross between TV culinary competitions "Iron Chef" and "Chopped" where chefs work with secret ingredients. The secret ingredients for her competition were chicken, fennel, preserved lemons and dried apricots.

"They really didn't throw you a curve ball with strange ingredients. We were happy with that," she said. "I'd never tasted preserved lemons. So we tasted it, and it's lemon in salt water."

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Mary Beth said she was nervous but adds, "It's not brain surgery."

Given two hours, her team plated sauteed chicken breast atop couscous flecked with dried apricots, fennel, carrots, garlic and lentils. They topped the chicken with a sauce made with mushrooms, fennel, heavy whipping cream, wine and a squeeze of preserved lemons and garnished the plate with fennel fronds and dried apricot fans.

The dish took second place, a victory indeed.

"We were extremely proud. We're a couple of stay-at-home moms who love to cook," she said.

While Mary Beth may not need to plan dishes so quickly at home, she said her husband Jim and two children will try anything.

Mary Beth relies on an extensive cookbook and magazine collection to find inspiration. Those recipes may appear on the family table or at a friends' party or monthly bunco gathering. For an annual Mardi Gras party, Mary Beth said guests eagerly devour her smoked Gouda, caramelized onion quesadillas, a recipe she shares today.

Mary Beth knows she has won the hearts and stomachs of family and friends.

"For me, food is love. If I make good food for people, it is showing my affection for them. I like to take care of people with food, which is why my husband is chubby," she said with a laugh.