Debbie Zuehlke of Mount Prospect with her Mexican special dish.
Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
Debbie Zuehlke uses tonight's leftovers to create tomorrow's dinner.
Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
Debbie Zuehlke makes Mexican Lasagna-style Enchiladas
Instincts an important ingredient when she cooks
At 16, Debbie Zuehlke was a runaway who fibbed about her age and landed a job as a live-in housekeeper/assistant/cook for a young Arizona couple who thought she knew what she was doing.
Not so, at least in the kitchen.
But with a survivor's instinct and the fear of losing her job for motivation, the teenager grabbed some cookbooks and winged it well enough to earn compliments from the "yuppies."
The child of divorced parents, who struggled to get along with her stepmother, Debbie had run away from home several times during her turbulent adolescence before leaving for good in her midteens. She earned her GED and tried to attend community college on a grant, but her living situation proved "sketchy" and she decided to fend for herself.
Debbie fooled her young employers for about a year and during that time discovered something about herself: She loved cooking.
"I got so much pleasure out of how excited they were about dinner," she says. "They would be elated."
Ironically, one of their favorite dishes, and a new approach to cooking, were both created one day when Debbie was angry over working 18-hour days and having no free time.
"I threw a bunch of stuff in a Crock-Pot," she says. "I felt like such a rebel. I had chicken and a big can of crushed tomatoes and some seasonings."
She worried that it would be awful, but "they raved about it for weeks."
That was her "aha" moment.
"It wasn't so much about following recipes as smelling different spices and knowing what goes together," she says.
From then on, Debbie trusted her instincts in the kitchen, much as she had trusted her instincts living on her own.
At 17, the jig was up. The yuppies discovered, to their dismay, that their live-in help was underage and reluctantly asked her to leave. She moved on taking waitressing jobs in several states before landing in Chicago at 24. Since then, she has never been far from the food industry.
Years later she is married, works in the catering department at a local Panera Bread, volunteers with special needs clients at Clearbrook in Rolling Meadows, contributes to bakes sales at St. John's Episcopalian Church in Mount Prospect and dreams of opening her own catering business.
"I am trying to start something exciting to other people; the adventure of creating different ideas," she says.
At home Debbie creates meals for her husband, Mike and herself, that are "pretty elaborate," but economical with mainstream ingredients. She enjoys the challenge of turning leftovers into something new and interesting.
Leftover meat and poultry are diced and frozen to use later in quiches, stir-fries, empanadas and pizzas or miniature beef Wellingtons.
She keeps frozen bread dough, phyllo and pie crust on hand because "you can wrap up anything under the sun."
This week she shows us how to prepare Stuffed Peppers, Greek-style Chicken, and, with leftovers from each, Mexican "Lasagna-style" Enchiladas.
They might turn into runaway favorites at your house.