It's been a year since Penny Kazmier rose to the top of the heap in our inaugural Cook of the Week Challenge. You've no doubt noticed that since then she's started dabbling in food writing, penning the Culinary Adventures column that appears each month in Food. But what have the rest of the contestants been doing since the 2011 contest? I caught up with a few of them to find out.
Cate Brusenbach: Cook of the Year runner-up
What is your favorite product discovery? Greek yogurt, Oikos especially, is my new favorite staple. I use it in place of mayo in potato salad, and it is now my base for salad dressing. Combine a cup of Greek yogurt with a quarter teaspoon of Sriracha hot chili sauce, a few drops of soy sauce and enough lime juice to thin it out a bit and you have a low fat low calorie extremely tasty salad dressing.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? I made my very special fettuccine Alfredo for my friend Bill and he loved it so much that after his first bite, he actually got up from the table and kissed me! I also made it for his family on Christmas Eve and when his mother found out how expensive the cheese was for this dish she was a little mad! Everyone loved it though.
Any culinary adventures in the past year you'd like to share? None at all, sadly. But I started a mega healthy eating routine in February and starting posting pictures of my meals on Facebook. They garnered a good response. I always try to make my meals look beautiful, even if I am the only one eating. Most of the time, the protein I included in my salads were leftovers. I still volunteer three evenings a week at Open Arms Mission food pantry. Our client volume has been picking up since the weather has turned cooler. The hungry season is upon us.
Which of the 2012 baskets are you glad you didn't get? Tofu, broccoli, mango chutney and crispy rice cereal. This one would have made me nuts! I'm not a fan of chutney of any kind so that would have been a stumbling block for me. But it also depends on how many additional ingredients we were allowed to use. It got tougher when it was pared down to only eight. I don't envy this year's contestants!
What is your favorite product discovery? I have always used canned whole plum tomatoes in my cooking and sauces, however, after using San Marzano canned tomatoes there is no going back. They are expensive, especially when I use 12 to 16 cans at a time (I make 18 quarts of sauce at a time) but the proof is in the taste and color. I usually purchase two or three cases at a time at Tenuta's in Kenosha.
My new "go-to" store is Mariano's in Libertyville.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? There are so many, however, this summer I had a baby shower (about 24 ladies) and served my chicken salad -- instead of chopping the chicken I took the time and shredded it served over a bed of Boston lettuce leaves. Everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted to know how long it took me and could not believe I took the time. We eat with our eyes ... it really did look so much better on the plate.
Which of the 2012 baskets are you glad you didn't get? Tofu, broccoli, mango chutney and rice cereal. I have never cooked with tofu and by any stretch of the imagination don't think I could come up with anything edible with these ingredients.
What is your favorite product discovery? I love Trader Joe's Hot and Sweet Pepper Jelly. I mix a jar of it with pineapple (fresh or diced canned, drained) and a can of drained mandarin oranges. Stir it up and mix in a pound of chicken breasts, cooked and cubed. Serve the mixture over hot whole grain pasta and viola!
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? I try to make every meal something special, so this one is hard for me to answer. Was it the traditional barbecue (homemade sauce) chicken we served to our Japanese friends, or the new dessert I made and served to my girlfriends, or the successful new dairy-free recipe we tried at home for my daughter? Any meal can be memorable when you take the time to enjoy the food and the company you keep. When we miss out on the details during an everyday meal, it keeps us from growing the relationships and connections that are so valuable in life.
Any new culinary experiences? I have been experimenting more with new recipes at home. My kids can be a little picky, but so far all the recipes have been successful and everyone has been satisfied. We have recently had to remove dairy from my daughter's diet, so that has created challenges, but it has allowed us to get more creative with what we eat and how we eat.
Which of the 2012 baskets are you glad you didn't get? Korean barbecue sauce, catfish, fennel and Freekeh. I am not a fan of fennel (did I just admit that out loud?!) or catfish, so it would be hard to be creative with two foods I don't like ... and then add in a food I have never used: Freekeh. Phew, wasn't my challenge.
Penny Kazmier: Cook of the Year 2011
What is your favorite new product discovery? I really appreciate shredded cabbage you find in bags near the lettuce. I find myself purchasing at least one a week. We like apple coleslaw, I also add it to soups and frequently use it as a base for ramen noodle salad, a family favorite.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? We hosted a large family gathering and made homemade beef and chicken burgers. At first most were reluctant to try the chicken and opted for a traditional burger instead, but gradually people started to try a bite here and there, and by the end of the day I was being asked for the recipe. I like being part of someone's conversion to new food.
Any culinary explorations? I have taken a number of cooking classes including one on how to make apple strudel where the instructor was able to stretch one recipe of strudel dough over an 8-foot table like a tablecloth, and then roll it all up to make one strudel. I haven't yet been brave enough to try it at home.
Which of the 2012 baskets are you glad you didn't get? I cringed when I saw you included tofu, broccoli, mango chutney and crispy rice cereal in the same basket. To be honest, it was the tofu that would have thrown me for a loop, as I have only used tofu a few times. For me it is a textural challenge, as tofu never quite turns out as firm as I would like it to be. I suppose I would have tried to marinate it in the chutney, which would have also made a good base for a dipping sauce, since I would have then breaded the tofu with the crushed cereal and fried it like "fingers." Maybe I will try it after all and see how it turns out.
Michael Lalagos: Final Four
What is your favorite product discovery? Something that I've been using a lot is a can of crushed garlic, it's in a paste-like form almost. I've been using it in marinades and in a lot of grilling and other dishes. I'm a big garlic fan and like how fine the garlic is crushed so it won't burn when heated like chunks of garlic tend to get.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? Working at Le Titi de Paris, there was a dish with boneless short ribs and gnocchi that I ate at the end of service one night that was absolutely amazing. While I was eating it, I was trying to deconstruct how it was made so I could do it on my own. I got pretty close, and I made it one day for a friend, and it is something that I'll look forward to making again and again.
Any culinary adventures in the past year? I worked at Le Titi de Paris for a stint in the winter on Saturday nights with chef Michael Maddox. Got paid at the end of each night with a bowl of amazing French food and also experience in learning how a professional kitchen works.
Any personal changes since November 2011? I recently started a new job, but cooking remains a passion and I'm not ruling out a career change down the road, or finding another kitchen to work in for free in exchange for knowledge and experience.
Which of the 2012 baskets are you glad you didn't get? At first the beef roast, chocolate sauce, plantains and lime basket looked daunting, but a mole sauce could be used for the chocolate. The one that stumps me is Chianti, cumin, American cheese ... prepared on a grill ... my head hurts thinking about that one.
What is your favorite new product discovery? Organic vegetable broth in a box. I picked up a six-box case at Costco. It is deep with flavor and an interesting alternative to more traditionally used chicken and beef broths. I like to use it in place of water for cooked rice, as a deglazer, soup base, and even as a part of a marinade mixture. Who can argue against using more vegetables in our diets?
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? A vegan cookout honoring my vegan niece who departed a high-rolling job in finance to pursue a career in nutrition. The center piece was tempeh. It makes a great "fillet" that can be steamed, marinated, then basted throughout the grilling process (I even smoked it up with cherry wood chips). I used a Jamaican-style sauce as both marinade and basting that gave it a tangy depth that garnered oohs and ahs from the guests.
Any new culinary adventures in the past? I checked out a few Cuban-style restaurants in Chicago; I love the portions and the use of plantains and jicama versus traditionally used vegetables. Dipping sauces add flare and the diner controls how much to use. Which of the 2012 baskets are you glad you didn't get? I must say, none intimidate me. In the theater of my mind, I saw "the light" in how the ingredients in each basket can be used harmoniously to create a great and memorable plate. In the hands of the capable contestants this year, there is no dish they created that I would hesitate from feasting on!
What is your favorite new product discovery? A new staple in my food pantry is Trader Joe's Julienne Sliced Sun Dried Tomatoes in Olive Oil. This is a versatile product, which I use to make a sun dried tomato vinaigrette, works well when blended with extra-virgin olive oil and garlic to make a delicious pesto. I also use as is on crostini with a soft cheese (brie or goat cheese) and basil.
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? This summer our best friends were in town, and we invited them and two of their cousins for dinner. All of them enjoy cooking and trying new recipes, just a little challenge. We had flat iron steaks (my new favorite cut of beef) with herb butter, a green salad with broccoli and oranges and a pear torta. Everything was hit.
Any culinary explorations over the past year? When I can, I am still taking cooking classes at Lynfred Winery in Roselle. At Cantigny in Wheaton there is a program called Garden Tips and Tastes, where we learn about gardening tips and always taste an herb or vegetable from the garden. The most unusual was lavender cookies.
Which of the 2012 baskets are you glad you didn't get? A real stumper for me was gluten free pizza dough, salsify and pears. Coming up with a recipe combining these would have been a real challenge. There were a couple of stumper ingredients salsify, celeriac, roasted wheat berries -- I would have been on the Internet a lot.
Ann Marie Nordby
What was the most memorable meal you prepared in the past year? I've done Thanksgiving for small groups of family before (never more than 10), but last year I cooked for all of the residents at the WINGS Safe House. I had no idea what I was in for when I asked what foods they would like to see added to the meal, what had they really been missing not having their own kitchens? This led me to my first collard greens and turnips ever. They didn't turn out quite the way I had hoped, but the attempt was greatly appreciated! Fingers crossed for more success this year.
Any new culinary experiences? A neighbor treated us to dim sum as a thank you. The never ending carts of exotic (if slightly weird) treats were amazing. It encouraged us to choose a new style/ethnicity of food once a month when we have dinner before seeing a play.
As the 4-year-old next door would say "Your farm keeps getting bigger!" We had our first harvest of asparagus this year (in March due to crazy weather!). I also added beets to the vegetable garden. Newly planted Asian pear, fig, hazelnut and pawpaw trees should feed the neighborhood over the next couple of decades.
Which of the 2012 baskets are you glad you didn't get? What about those ingredients intimidates/stumps you?
All of the baskets looked good to me. I guess the only one I would have disliked would be the one with the salsa and spaghetti squash, since I prefer to make my own. It's hard to change a flavor profile of an already prepared food. Also, I had to look up salsify and freekeh.
What is your favorite product discovery? I don't use a lot of convenience foods but I do use Rinaldi pasta sauce quite often. Found at most stores and a real bargain when it's on sale. I also like Trader Joe's cocktail sauce which is nice to have on hand in a pinch.
Any new culinary experiences? I've been experimenting a lot with Mexican food the past year. Over the Christmas holidays, I made tamales for the first time. I had two different fillings, chicken and pork. Made the corn masa, added the filling and steamed them in corn husks. It was great to do with family and they tasted amazing. And about 2 weeks ago I bought my first ice cream maker. My first batch of vanilla ice cream turned out great.
My daughter is in Abu Dhabi teaching fourth grade and we are visiting her the end of November. I'm looking forward to some Middle Eastern cuisine. There's a spice market in Dubai I'm looking forward to visiting as well.
Which of the 2012 baskets are you glad you didn't get? I am so glad I did not have to cook with some of the ingredients you came up with this year. Just reading about them brought up all the anxieties I had trying to figure out polenta, brussels sprouts and barbecue sauce from last year. Probably the wheat berries, coconut milk, tomatillos and ground turkey would have been the worst basket for me.