Cook of the Week: Feeding family, friends all in a day's work
As a young mom, Nancy Annino relied on processed and often frozen meals to feed her sons, Dustin and Daniel.
But after remarrying 12 years ago, Nancy discovered that cooking doesn't have to take as long as she once thought. Her husband, George, helped show her that with planning, she could create meals family and friends would rave about.
"There's a perception that it takes so long to cook a good meal that the only option is to throw in a frozen meal. Now I know better," the Elgin resident said with a laugh.
Even though the children are grown, Nancy still doesn't want to spend three hours preparing a dinner. Planning minimal grocery trips, mostly to buy produce, she puts together meals that include fresh meats and vegetables. George, whose parents are both Italian, often makes homemade pastas to accompany the meal.
Nancy said she's picked up tips as she and George watch television chefs such as Rachael Ray, Gordon Ramsay and Bobby Flay (her personal favorite), who showed her, via the screen, how to cook meat properly.
Her signature dinner is pork tenderloin flavored with soy sauce, ginger, pepper flakes and lime juice -- "I can do that blindfolded now" -- but she also loves to make soups. Today she shares her spaghetti soup that combines fresh meat and veggies and gets helped along with store-bought sauce.
Since learning her way around the kitchen she has found she loves to entertain and has hosted as many as 100 guests.
"I enjoy seeing people enjoy my food," Nancy says.
After a friend suggested she sell her food she launched a business, Gourmet Express Catering, offering such homemade hot lunches as meat loaf and mashed potatoes, sloppy Joes and bacon cheeseburgers. When the lunch business grew, she decided to cater to a larger crowd and in 2005 opened a restaurant, Backstage Grill and Pizzeria in Lake Villa.
Due to the struggling economy, her restaurant closed in 2008, but Nancy found another way to do what she loves, now working as regional catering sales manager for Panera. She also has tried to use her cooking skills in competition, auditioning for "Master Chef" and "Hell's Kitchen." She said she thinks she did not make the final cut for the latter because she was not "crazy enough."
Back in her kitchen, Nancy continues to be inspired to whip up meals using fresh ingredients and trying new cuisines such as Indian, Jamaican and French.
When she thinks about her work and meals she presents at home, she responds with a laugh, "15 years ago I would say the last thing I thought I'd be doing is working in the food industry and cooking good food.
"Never say never."
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