Cooks come out strong in Round 2's first two challenges

  • Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Mike Ek of Bartlett prepared Asian-grilled Cornish game hen with a side of vodka stir-fried farro.

      Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Mike Ek of Bartlett prepared Asian-grilled Cornish game hen with a side of vodka stir-fried farro. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

 
Daily Herald reports
Updated 10/12/2016 10:48 AM

In Challenge 9, home cooks Micheal Ek of Bartlett and Daniel Imburgia of Elk Grove Village found Absolut Vodka, courtesy of Moretti's Ristorante; celery root, courtesy of the Westin Chicago Northwest; farro and Cornish game hens in their secret ingredient bags.

In Challenge 10, cooks John Hampson of Antioch and Greg Zielinski of Arlington Heights were given baba ghanouj, courtesy of Grecian Delight; corn tortillas, courtesy of Valli Foods; lamb chops and bell peppers.

 

Today, we hear from these cooks about their dishes, inspirations, trials, thoughts and more.

Next week, we'll hear what the judges thought about recipes submitted by cooks in Challenges 9 and 10 and who will be going on to the live cook-off finale Nov. 1. Plus, cooks in Challenges 11 and 12 will show us their dishes and tell us about their Round 2 experiences.

Enjoy!

Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Daniel Imburgia of Elk Grove Village created a dish using vodka, Cornish game hens, farro and celery root.
  Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Daniel Imburgia of Elk Grove Village created a dish using vodka, Cornish game hens, farro and celery root. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Challenge 9

Daniel Imburgia loves to cook with seasonal staples

I am a very seasonal person, waiting for fall half way through summer and anticipating the food I'll be eating in winter. I thought of all the wonderful stews and soups that keep you warm in cold months, and I came up with a lemon/thyme infused vodka vegetable broth bowl with mushrooms, celery root, carrots, baby bok choy and farro with a pan seared Cornish hen dipped in the broth before serving. Often, it's easy for some parts of the hen to cook faster than others and potentially get a bit dry, so dipping is a great trick to ensure juicy, tender meat throughout the whole hen every time.

Daniel Imburgia
Daniel Imburgia
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My first reactions were "what is farro" and "Oh how wonderful of the Daily Herald to give me a whole bottle of vodka, a shot for the soup and the rest for celebration!" I love celery root, especially in fall, and Cornish hens … let's just say many a tiny bird have graced my grill grates, skillets and baking dishes.

Vodka has a minimal flavor, but like all alcohol, it contains the ability to perfectly deglaze a pan and create a wonderful addition to any good sauce. I wanted to bring a little more to the dish in terms of flavor, though, so I infused the vodka with lemon and thyme thinking that it would contradict the nuttiness of the farro and add a well-balanced depth to the entire dish. The big surprise was realizing there's not a really great way to infuse vodka for only one week, but I found that chopping the herbs finely and cutting the lemon into as many pieces as possible sped up the process.

During cooking, I had the window above the sink open with a breeze of cool air mixing with the aromatics, and it was just one of those moments when you feel like that's exactly where you are supposed to be, and life is good. Or was that the vodka cocktail I was sipping? The taste testers enjoyed my dish and thought it was hilarious that it looked like a Cornish hen taking a skinny dip in a hot tub full of deliciousness.

Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Mike Ek of Bartlett has prepared Asian-grilled Cornish Game Hen with a side of Vodka Stir-fried Faro.
  Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Mike Ek of Bartlett has prepared Asian-grilled Cornish Game Hen with a side of Vodka Stir-fried Faro. - Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer
Mike Ek turns to the grill for his Asian-style Cornish game hen

At first, I was all over the culinary map to come up with a recipe, but I was dead set on grilling the Cornish hens. It's the end of summer; the sun is still warm, but the air is cooler making it the best time to cook on a hot grill while your friends sit around the patio. I prepared Asian grilled Cornish game hens with a fig glaze and vodka/celery root/farro stir fry.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Michael Ek
Michael Ek

I boiled some farro and my wife, Kym, mentioned that it reminded her of rice which was my inspiration to go with an Asian preparation. I wanted an old-fashion backyard picnic, Asian style, and a meal you could make quickly on a weeknight. Although I never cooked with any of the mystery ingredients, I knew that essentially it was poultry, grain, root veggie and liquor -- all well within my wheelhouse. The vodka was the most perplexing. Other than pasta with vodka sauce, I was not familiar with dishes that have vodka as an ingredient.

Once I came up with the first draft of the recipes, everything went smoothly, and my only trouble was adjusting the recipe for the glaze. First, it came out too thick, and sweet, so I balanced the glaze with the soy, chili flakes and vodka. I thought that the vodka might ignite when I added it to the stir fry, and I'm not sure if I was happy or disappointed that it didn't! After tasting the celery root, I thought the vodka would go well with it because doesn't a Bloody Mary usually come with a stalk of celery? Frying the farro turned out to be a great idea, taking an otherwise bland grain to a new level. I added peanuts because my mother got us to try Chinese food by pointing out that certain dishes include peanuts. To this day, I can be bribed with cookies, nuts and pretzels.

I didn't tell the taste testers that it was farro and a few said it was the best fried rice they had. They liked the game hen and thought it was fun to pull apart to eat. The celery root bites were popular for their meaty texture and distinct celery flavor. Celery root in place of meat is a healthy alternative, and this dish is now a regular in our household.

Cook of the Week Challenge contestant John Hampson of Antioch made a Sunday lamb ragout, crispy baba ghanouj polenta and roasted red pepper coulis.
  Cook of the Week Challenge contestant John Hampson of Antioch made a Sunday lamb ragout, crispy baba ghanouj polenta and roasted red pepper coulis. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Challenge 10

John Hampson finds a way to use ingredients in more than one way

I was very relieved to get items that looked like they would coexist well, plus there were two racks of lamb loin in my freezer. I prepared Sunday Lamb Ragout with Crispy Baba Ghanouj Polenta and Roasted Red Pepper Coulis.

Looking for a unique way to incorporate the baba ghanouj, I thought pureeing, then mixing it with a starch and frying it in a tortilla breading sounded really good. Additionally, I am a big fan of braising, so it seemed natural to braise the lamb but little did I know that it would turn out more like a meat sauce. Lastly, making a coulis is a great way of transforming red bell peppers into something tasty. I really liked the elements as they worked well together.

John Hampson
John Hampson

I made the coulis first and came up with the idea of using the bell pepper in two places, so I added it to the braising liquid for body. I was so excited upon tasting the ragout and it far exceeded what I wanted. I decided to use ground tortillas for breading on whatever starch I used in the dish. Working with the baba ghanouj was challenging. I first mixed it with potato flakes to make something similar to a pappas relleno with the ragout stuffed inside. The flakes and ghanouj formed well, and I was able to stuff it with the ragout, roll it in the tortilla crumbs, and it fried nicely. It presented well, but the ghanouj and ragout got lost in the mixture and the rest of the dish lacked continuity. I was sure that the potato version would be amazing and was shocked that it fell so flat, so I had to consider another starch -- polenta.

I was only able to test with my kids since my wife is on a special diet. She was a great help with suggestions (like they always say behind every great man …) and she did say that the aroma from the ragout was killing her. My daughter basically licked her plate clean, and my son who does not like traditional polenta really enjoyed the fried version.

This challenge was a lot tougher than I expected: I loved the ingredients, but I had to work on the balance of the dish as well as the presentation. In the end, I try to qualify my original recipes as "restaurant quality," and this one definitely fits the bill.

Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Greg Zielinski of Arlington Heights created easy braised lamb chops for Round 2.
  Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Greg Zielinski of Arlington Heights created easy braised lamb chops for Round 2. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
Greg Zielinski keeps it simple with his one-pot stew

I prefer to cook one-pot or maybe one-pot-and-a-side type meals, so I prepared a relatively quick and easy braised lamb chops. In round one, I learned about avocado oil and millet, and this time around I learned that there are basically four types of lamb chops: loin, rib, sirloin and shoulder chops. When I went shopping, I saw that loin and shoulder chops were the most readily available chops. Both meat cuts have their virtues, but based on the Challenge 10 ingredient list, I selected the shoulder lamb chops for my recipe since they braise well. I created a flavorful stew using the baba ghanouj, corn tortillas and vegetables.

Greg Zielinski
Greg Zielinski

When I opened the container of baba ghanouj, the garlic and lemon were very fragrant. I thought, "why not use it as a braising liquid with some wine and broth"? The corn tortillas could be used as a thickener for the braising liquid similar to flour in a roux, and add a variety of vegetables like bell peppers, onions, carrots, mushrooms and celery, and you have a stew. This stew is versatile so that you can add other vegetables such as parsnips or turnips for variety.

All of my testers liked the flavors even though baba ghanouj was an unfamiliar ingredient to them. After explaining what it is and how to make it, they were pleasantly surprised at how it was used in the dish. They gave a few suggestions on seasoning and with a couple of adjustments I finalized my recipe.

I am familiar with lamb and baba ghanouj, but we don't eat them very often. After reading about them, I discovered how easy they are to prepare, which also helped in creating this recipe. The challenge has offered me a chance to learn and experiment with ingredients I would not normally use or pair together in a dish. With seasons changing, the timing was perfect for some comfort food; I hope a stew was the answer to this challenge.

-- Jacky Runice

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