Cook of the Week: A young love of creating in the kitchen evolves into lifetime career

By Abby Scalf
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 3/8/2017 6:21 AM
  • Cook of the Week Lori Hartnett with her Mexican corn salad and avocado in her Lincolnshire home.

      Cook of the Week Lori Hartnett with her Mexican corn salad and avocado in her Lincolnshire home. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Mexican corn salad is served in an avocado half.

      Mexican corn salad is served in an avocado half. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Lori Hartnett believes cooking doesn't have to be complicated. She learned that in grade school, coming home from school and not finding much in the refrigerator for herself and her siblings.

"I thought maybe I'll create something. I would look for ingredients, and start baking. My sister has a memory when I created my own chocolate peanut butter cups. I just loved playing in the kitchen and getting creative. My brother and my sister were my taste testers," she said.

This love later turned into a profession, after going to the University of Illinois to study foods and business. Over a 25-year career, the Lincolnshire resident has worked for various companies on staff and as a freelance consultant, working on recipe development, product testing, writing packaging directions and food styling. A lesson learned on the job over the years she also follows at home.

"You can start with basic, pure, simple ingredients and transform those into delicious meals and recipes with little effort," she said.

Lori thought about creating a website to share her ideas about recipes and how to cook. It wasn't until her nephew, who was gaining weight at graduate school, asked her for recipes and suggested she should create a website with healthier options. So Cooking Fresh Today was born last fall.

"One of my goals is to write recipes that are easy to follow and foolproof," she said, "I test my recipes, so when consumers prepare something, there is not going to be a flop or a failure."

Lori credits her husband and their two daughters as willing taste testers. She added they also have friends who will drop by and taste some creations.

"I recently made a flourless chocolate cake for Valentine's Day and wrapped up samples for a friend who dropped by," she said. "I welcome opinions back from people because their comments are very important to me."

Lori said because her focus is cooking fresh, dishes rely heavily on local produce and lend themselves to creating stir fries and soups.

Cook of the Week Lori Hartnett plates one of her signature salads.
  Cook of the Week Lori Hartnett plates one of her signature salads. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

"These give you a lot of wiggle room to try different ingredients and different seasonings," she said.

Relying on local produce lends itself readily to creating vegetarian and vegan dishes, adding more millennials are following these lifestyles, Lori said. A popular dish is her Thai coconut veggie bowl, using coconut milk, cauliflower, sweet potato, chickpeas and red curry paste for a spicy kick.

"Because I love Thai cuisine, I simplified the Thai flavor profile in this recipe with those two ingredients (coconut milk and red curry paste)," she said.

It's all about making life easier too, such as keeping pantry staples such as canned salmon, which can be mixed with oats, egg, mayonnaise, grated carrot, and chopped onion to make salmon cakes in 10 minutes. She shops for seasonal produce but keeps an array of lettuces on hand all year to mix with whatever she can grab in the house such as carrots, seeds, leftover chicken and canned beans to make a chef salad.

"You don't even need a recipe for that," she adds with a laugh. "Just add whatever you have into a big bowl and toss it up."

She also loves avocados. "Sometimes we just have guacamole for dinner. My husband makes a killer margarita."

Lori aims for balance, which includes healthy dishes that also taste indulgent. The chocolate date smoothie, including almond milk, cocoa powder and dates, tastes like a chocolate milkshake without the ice cream. She is also quite proud of the kettle corn she now makes with coconut oil.

Mexican corn salad and avocado made by Cook of the Week Lori Hartnett.
  Mexican corn salad and avocado made by Cook of the Week Lori Hartnett. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Lori said she tries to add new recipes two to three times a week and notifies readers via her Facebook page.

"One reader told me, 'Oh I am so happy to see that you have desserts included and it's not all just healthy salads,'" she added. "I do occasionally have a cookie recipe. I put my favorite-ever vanilla cupcake recipe because you're making it from scratch."

Lori believes in celebrating great food and hopes that she can encourage others to gather in the kitchen and create some memorable, healthy meals.

"I believe the kitchen is really the heartbeat of your house," she said. "You provide a meal where people can gather around your table and share in conversation. Food is such an important part of that."

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