It's coming down to the wire for Cook of the Week Challenge contestants
Let the nail-biting begin.
Round three of the Cook of the Week Challenge is in the bag, the judges' scores have been tallied, and we've got five home cooks left in the race. There's just one round left before the last four contestants face each other in a live cook-off during the Nov. 11 finale at the Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca.
This round, our six home cooks were faced with creating dishes using some unusual ingredients. In their grocery bags, they found: Al Pastor Pork Slices from Grecian Delight, plain popcorn courtesy of Andigo Credit Union, Dr. Gillerson's Burger Elixir, a homemade ketchup from Gillerson's Grubbery, and portobello mushrooms.
Each cook had four days to craft a recipe using these ingredients to present to our panel of judges.
Judges for the third challenge are Penny Kazmier, the first Cook of the Week Challenge winner from 2011; Ahmed Azizy, executive chef at the Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca; Dan Emerson, owner of Gillerson's Grubbery in Aurora; and Jimmy Nicolau of Grecian Delight Foods Inc. in Elk Grove Village.
The judges' scores are based on 100 points total, with 25 points each for creativity, use of ingredients, ease of preparation and perceived taste.
The cook with the lowest score each week is eliminated. This week, out of a tight race, Rob Benes of Glen Ellyn will not advance to round four.
While the third round's scores were close, the judges were a bit freer in offering constructive criticism, maybe to get the cooks ready for the finale. Here's a little of what the judges had to say about each cook's efforts. See all of this round's recipes at dailyherald.com/lifestyle/food.
Rob Benes made Flame-Broiled Pork Pozole with Mexican Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms for the judges this week.
"This is a unique way to create pozole and utilize the flavor already contained in the meat," Kazmier said. "Next time, you may want to consider chopping the meat into bite-sized pieces and not pureeing as much of the hominy, as in most recipes there is also hominy in the soup."
"Nice job!" Nicolau said.
Azizy said pork pozole is a tasty dish when executed correctly. "The stuffed mushrooms is a good idea," he said. But in this case, Azizy was not sure the mushrooms worked with the pozole.
"There is nothing like pozole on a cold day or a hot day … or a day that ends in Y," said Emerson. "The garnishes are great along with the use of the special ingredients."
Lulu Chapa made Street Tacos Al Pastor with dry mushrooms strings served with a side of cilantro lime popcorn.
"These tacos look like something from a restaurant," Kazmier said. "I can tell this cook knew what they were doing when creating the tacos. The salsa and popcorn both incorporate flavors I would not have thought of, good job."
Kazmier did add, however, that she wished the mushrooms played a bigger role.
Azizy called this a safe, simple dish.
Emerson said he would eat her tacos -- and then order more. "The use of the ingredients throughout and the plating is well-done. I think tacos are an easy selection for these ingredients."
Lisa Eberhahn made Pastor Risotto with Elixir Popcorn Mushrooms and Asparagus with Elixir Glaze for the judges this week.
Kazmier calls this a beautiful plate. "The risotto flavors sound very tasty, but I worry there should be more stock used in order for it to cook fully and be creamy," Kazmier said. "This is a unique mushroom preparation, a cross between a stuffed mushroom and fries, complete with a dipping sauce right on the plate."
Azizy said risotto is a good choice with the pork, although he thinks the dish might be overly heavy.
"Very nice," Nicolau added.
"Love, love, love me some risotto and pastor," said Emerson. "It's like the best of both worlds! Breading the mushroom in the popcorn is a nice texture change to the creamy risotto. Well-played."
Alex Marsalek made Al Pastor Stuffed Mushrooms with elote popcorn.
"This dish looks like it is loaded with flavor. I like the idea of adding cheese and tajin seasoning to the popcorn," Kazmier said. "The mushroom is a good vehicle for your stuffing and, when topped with the sauce and cheese, looks to have a ton of flavor."
Azizy conceded the stuffed portobello mushroom is a good idea. "But it's not enough for a complete dish -- the dish needs to be elaborated on," he said.
Emerson said he enjoyed the recipe, "but I'd like to see the popcorn incorporated a little more instead of just alongside it as a side dish, although elotes is one of my favorite things ever."
For the judges this week, Leslie Meredith created recipes for Meatloaf al Pastor with crispy cauli-shroom tots.
"The 'crispy cauli-shroom tots' sound great," Kazmier said. "I want to make them now. The flavors in the meatloaf sound good, but I'm not sure about the texture created by grinding the precooked pork."
Azizy declares this recipe a good use of the ingredients. "The meatloaf idea is a good one," he said.
"I thought the idea of creating an al pastor meatloaf is a spectacular idea," Emerson said. "As long as the cook has everything ready to go it wouldn't take that long to prepare. I love the cauliflower tots and the plating looks thought out."
Nicolau called the recipe "very nice."
Ann Wayne made an Open Face Pulled Pork Sandwich on a portobello mushroom bun topped with grilled pineapple, crunchy slaw and sweet 'n' smoky popcorn.
"This is a beautiful presentation," Kazmier said. "Clever addition of smoked paprika to your popcorn glaze and the spicy mayo sounds tasty." The mushroom, she added, would have benefitted from a marinade to add more flavor.
Nicolau praised Wayne's use of ingredients.
Azizy said this is a very good plate presentation and smart way of using the ingredients. "I am not sure of the use of the pineapple and portobello mushroom together, though," he said.
Emerson said this dish looks amazing. "I think it could be a sweet special in a restaurant," he said. "From the plating to the use of the special ingredients, I'm all about this."
Cook of the Week Challenge live cook-offAbout that finale ... the event is Monday, Nov. 11, at the Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca.
The four cooks will get a bag of secret ingredients. They will have an hour to craft dishes for the judges to taste and evaluate, using the same categories as the other challenges.
The winner takes home a prize package worth nearly $1,500 and, of course, the title Cook of the Year.
The public is invited to the event, which will showcase the Cook of the Week Challenge sponsors with samples, celebrity chef demonstrations and much more. Proceeds from a raffle will benefit the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
Tickets are $15 and available at events.dailyherald.com.