Nancy Smith makes Crunchy Honey-Mustard Tilapia

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The tips she picked up in commercial kitchens has served Nancy Smith well. She recently was a finalist in a national recipe contest for her crunchy tilapia. At right, Smith coats the fillets in crushed cornflakes.


Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

Smith coats the tilapia fillets in crushed cornflakes.


Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

Nancy Smith's finished tilapia, accompanied by spinach salad with strawberries, carrot fritters and a slice of orange.


Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

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Nancy Smith makes Crunchy Honey-Mustard Tilapia

Cook finds more than morning paper on fro

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print story Published: 10/21/2009 12:02 AM

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What should you do when a dozen cordial glasses appear on your front porch one morning, lined up next to the daily newspaper?

Throw a cordial party, of course, with fancy little desserts to nibble while sipping pricey liqueurs.

That was, fortunately, the only solution Nancy Smith could come up with when her neighbor in Elgin recently gave her the glasses after they didn't sell at his garage sale.

"I opened the door - and thought, 'now I'm going to be forced to have a cordial party,'" says Nancy, a semiretired children's librarian and former cook at the Oak Brook Center Neiman Marcus and the Ginkgo Tea Room at Lisle's Morton Arboretum.

To go with liqueurs like Grand Marnier, Amaretto, Drambuie and limoncello, Nancy prepared frozen cheesecake balls, Grand Marnier bars, "panda" bars of white and dark chocolate and "all kinds of fancy cookies."

Intimate luncheons and dinner parties and twice-annual neighborhood cocktail parties are routine for Nancy, who learned volumes about cooking and entertaining during her years in the restaurant business.

Among those lessons: white dishware is ideal for showcasing your food, smaller portions are best when you're serving a multicourse meal - "you don't want to come away groaning" - and an interesting, colorful garnish "punches up the plate."

"I usually use place mats and I always have fresh flowers," says Nancy, who did some catering for 30 years and is still in demand occasionally with friends and neighbors.

Her luncheons always begin with a glass of wine and an appetizer like skinny breadsticks wrapped in bacon, dipped in brown sugar and chili powder and baked until crisp.

For winter gatherings she serves small bowls of soup, such as beef broth-based tomato soup, and heartier entrees, such as smoked turkey with apricots, spices and mayo stuffed in a warm pita.

"When I entertain I try to outdo myself from the last time," she says.

Recently Nancy was one of five runners-up in a national cooking contest sponsored by Regal Springs Tilapia and judged by four of Chicago's better chefs.

The challenge was to create a meal for a family of four with a salad and side dish for under $15.

Nancy won $150 and a three-month supply of tilapia for her baked Crunchy Honey-Mustard Tilapia, subtly accented with orange zest, Strawberry Spinach Salad and Carrot Fritters.

"The tilapia can be finished in under an hour and delivers a sweet, tangy, salty base coated in crunchy, buttery cornflakes," says Nancy, who adapted the technique from one of her chicken breast recipes.

A single mother of three grown children and grandmother of three, Nancy lives with two freezers full of tilapia.

So what do you do when a three-month supply of seafood is delivered to your door?

"Funny you should mention it," says Nancy. "I do have a luncheon in the works featuring my winning recipe for a group of local friends."

After that she's hosting a fish taco party featuring a recipe from a friend of one of her sons.

I can't wait to hear what lands on her front porch next.

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