Cook of the Week Challenge: Home cooks face a mixed bag and they some in round 4

 
 
Updated 10/31/2018 10:43 AM
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  • Mark Clemens of Elgin made Sicilian Pasta with Sardines or (Pasta con le sarde) and Meat(less)balls.

      Mark Clemens of Elgin made Sicilian Pasta with Sardines or (Pasta con le sarde) and Meat(less)balls. Rick West | Staff Photographer

The Cook of the Week Challenge is down to the last round. Five home cooks tell you their stories today and share their recipes. Alas, one of them won't be advancing to the live cook-off Nov. 12.

This last round, the mystery baskets contained Tomato Brisling Sardines from King Oscar; Q Cup Quinoa from NOW Foods; canned artichoke hearts from Chandler's Chop House; French bread crumbs from Gonnella Baking Co.; and Sun-Dried Tomato & Basil Chicken Sausage from Greenridge Farm.

Today, the cooks share what inspired them to create their dishes, how they viewed the list of ingredients and if any freaked them out. All of the cooks this year have produced wonderful things to eat. You want to cook what your family wants to eat. And you want options that won't take hours to make -- especially on a busy weeknight.

This week's celebrity judges are Suzy Singh, a chef with NOW Foods; Ahmed Azizy, executive chef for the Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca; John Engle, President and CEO, King Oscar, Inc.; Dave Gonnella of the Gonnella Baking Co.; and Robert Kempa, executive chef at Chandler's Chophouse & Banquets.

In the closest scoring yet, Ann Wayne is the cook out of the running for this year's Cook of the Year title.

See these and all the challenge recipes on dailyherald.com/lifestyle/cookoftheweek and read what the judges had to say about the cooks' efforts in the accompanying article.

Oscar Chapa
Oscar Chapa -
Oscar Chapa

King & Farm Jambalaya

I made King & Farm Jambalaya with Greenridge Farm's Sun-Dried Tomato & Basil Chicken Sausage, King Oscar's tomato brisling sardines and NOW Food's Q Cup quinoa -- served with a side of Cajun-breaded artichokes and a Creole mustard dipping sauce.

I think sausage with seafood always makes me think of comfort food. Stews, one-pot meals, etc. And the French bread crumbs just screamed at me, Creole and Louisiana, so naturally jambalaya came into focus.

I had to think about the sardines and how to incorporate those into a dish. The flavor is pretty distinct, and it is a very tender fish and breaks down quickly. And then the artichokes weren't a slam dunk either, so I had to figure out how to make them a part of the offering.

Cook of the Week Contest participant Oscar Chapa of Volo made sardine and chicken jambalaya, breaded artichokes and Creole mustard dipping sauce.
  Cook of the Week Contest participant Oscar Chapa of Volo made sardine and chicken jambalaya, breaded artichokes and Creole mustard dipping sauce. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Breading canned artichokes can be difficult, as they are very soft and wet. Plating proved to be a challenge because jambalaya is not a "clean" dish to present, so I had to be creative. I am pleased with the overall dish.

So far in this contest, except for the eggs Benedict, I've used three ingredients in one portion of the dish and two in the other. This challenge was no exception, three ingredients in the main portion and two in the side portion. And as the judges have repeatedly commented, my recipes have not always been the easiest for your typical home cook, and I decided to tone down the difficulty level a couple of notches.

Jambalaya is easy to do: You can do it the traditional way, or you can dump everything in the slow cooker. So the sausage and sardines along with the quinoa had to be combined in this one dish because it had all the richness and fat, and spice, tomato flavors and lemon juice to help cut through those thick fatty notes. As for the breaded artichokes, I just put the two remaining ingredients together and added a dipping sauce.

I am happy as this cooking contest has pushed my creativity in the kitchen. But as it's said, life begins where the comfort zone ends.

Mark Clemens
Mark Clemens
Mark Clemens

Sicilian Pasta with Sardines or (Pasta con le sarde) and Meat(less)balls

I felt that these ingredients lent themselves to a Mediterranean dish. The sardines and artichokes wouldn't let me go anywhere else. In previous weeks, I have immediately locked on to a recipe idea as soon as I opened the bag of ingredients. This round, I was dumbfounded. Individually the elements weren't extreme, but in some ways that made bringing them together harder.

As I stated before, canned fish was part of my upbringing. I probably could be a sales manager for King Oscar. Artichokes, in all ways, are consumed in my house. The hard part for me was to bring the two proteins (sardines and chicken sausages) together. A pasta dish I make often is a simple broccoli and anchovy dish spiked with red pepper flakes. I modeled this recipe after a traditional meal of Italy. In Italy, pasta con le sarde is actually officially recognized as a Prodotto Agroalimentare Tradizionale (Traditional Italian Food Product). I thought the meat(less) balls kept it Italian and fun at the same time.

My testers loved it, even recommending having the artichoke balls with a dipping sauce as an appetizer.

What surprised me was trying to make the chicken sausage work with the dish. Crisping it up as a topping surprised me on how well it turned out. I had three days to think about it before I cooked anything. I'm thrilled how it came full circle.

I've never seen a bowl of pasta that looked bad. Parsley and meat(less) balls brought some contrast into the equation. Buon appetito!

Roberta Fahey
Roberta Fahey
Roberta Fahey

Chicken Sausage and Shrimp Paella with Quinoa served with Sardine and Artichoke Fritters

With these ingredients, I thought I'd make something Mediterranean which is what I've already done. Then the paella came to my mind -- or should I say "a different twist to paella."

When I picked up the "mystery bag," I was pleasantly surprised until I saw the sardines. But actually, there are quite a lot of things that you can do with those little fish.

I thought I created an easy recipe for others to follow. I think all of the ingredients were pretty simple and straightforward to work with and, honestly, there were no surprises.

Roberta Fahey's entry this week was Chicken Sausage and Shrimp Paella with Quinoa served with Sardine and Artichoke Fritters.
  Roberta Fahey's entry this week was Chicken Sausage and Shrimp Paella with Quinoa served with Sardine and Artichoke Fritters. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

The sausage is something that I have purchased in the past, and I do like it. I've eaten a few of the different varieties that Greenridge Farm makes. I, along with some of my family and my neighbor, tasted my recipe and enjoyed it. This was a favorite of mine for sure.

As always, I get nervous at first, but then I have fun creating and really, really love my presentation.

This journey so far has been so much fun, and everyone has been super friendly and very helpful. After the first story on the contest was published in the paper, I was recognized by someone while I was in Elk Grove. It was very funny. She made me feel like a "shining star." I'm so happy that I made it this far and I hope that the fun continues.

Darla Pitts
Darla Pitts
Darla Pitts

Cajun Gumbo served over Quinoa, with Artichoke, Parmesan Fritters

I chose this dish because I thought the fish and sausage ingredients would work well in a gumbo.

I was really excited about this basket because it was very challenging. I think the ingredient that was hardest to use turned out to be the bread crumbs.

Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Darla Pitts presented her recipes for Cajun Gumbo served over Quinoa, with Artichoke, Parmesan Fritters.
  Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Darla Pitts presented her recipes for Cajun Gumbo served over Quinoa, with Artichoke, Parmesan Fritters. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

My testers enjoyed the meal; they actually all had seconds. I was amazed at how well the fritters turned out and will for sure make them again. This was so far my favorite meal that I have made. I didn't think it was an overall fancy presentation, but it was a delicious meal.

Ann Wayne
Ann Wayne
Ann Wayne

Fish 'n Chix Meatball Nest with Artichoke Bruschetta

While I often cook with chicken sausage, I have never made anything with a precooked sausage. And I don't think I have ever eaten a sardine in my life! So what can I do with the precooked sausage and sardines? Well, combining both sausage and seafood reminded me of paella, which became the inspiration for my Fish 'n Chix Meatball. I used the same seasonings and substituted the quinoa for the rice.

Never having eaten canned sardines, I was nervous but pleasantly surprised at how good they taste.

I love quinoa and make it regularly. I send the Ellyndale Q Cups from NOW Foods to my son away at college. They are quick, easy and healthy meals to make in the microwave.

As I am now familiar with Greenridge Farm from their Caminito Ham Off the Bone in Week 1 and Tacchino Arrosto Turkey Breast from Week 3, I knew their chicken sausage would be another quality product.

I usually make my bread crumbs, so I wasn't sure what to expect with the Gonnella Classic French bread crumbs.

I had so many ideas about creating different recipes using this week's ingredients and could not wait to start cooking.

Ann Wayne created Fish 'n Chix Meatball Nest with Artichoke Bruschetta.
  Ann Wayne created Fish 'n Chix Meatball Nest with Artichoke Bruschetta. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

My first few attempts at the meatballs were way too fishy. I went back and forth in deciding between using pasta and squash pasta. Ultimately, I went with spaghetti squash because it's a much healthier option and I did not want a double starch.

I use canned artichokes all the time and prefer the ones in water just like one of the mystery ingredients. It has less salt, and I can season them how I like to complement my dish.

I pureed the sardines in the food processor as I do with many healthy ingredients when cooking.

The feedback from my testers was that the seasoning was good, but it needed "more zing and garlic." No problem! I'm never afraid to use garlic, but when cooking for other people I tend to tone it back.

The spaghetti squash nest was light, crispy, cute and fun to eat.

My tasters all liked the bruschetta, as it reminded them of artichoke dip.

I was surprised at how tasty the sardines in the tomato sauce were. The can opens easily, and I was relieved there were no heads or tails on the sardines. My testers also loved the Gonnella bread crumbs. Even when sampling them out of the can they said it tasted like fresh French bread from the bakery.

Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed cooking and experimenting with the mystery items. The more I experiment, the more I learn, and the better my dishes. I love being introduced to new ingredients that I have never cooked with before. Cooking with the King Oscar products has positively changed my views on canned fish. The other brands proved to be of high quality, including Greenridge Farm, NOW Foods and Gonnella.

I like to garnish with chopped parsley right before serving for a pop of color and freshness because we eat with our eyes first.

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