Daily Herald's Cooks of the Year 2009

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Cook of the year Julie Finley of Libertyville with her oxtail soup.


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Cook of the year Julie Finley's oxtail soup.


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Cook of the year Barbara Simeo makes her Creamy Spinach and Leek Soup.


Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Barbara Simeo's Creamy Spinach and Leek Soup.


Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Cook of the year Barbara Simeo makes her Creamy Spinach and Leek Soup.


Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Jim Arrigo's stir-fried beef with broccoli and peppers.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Jim Arrigo of Wheaton and his stir-fried beef with broccoli and peppers.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Cook of the Year, Sandy Wegmann, of Naperville, explains how she prepares her Noodle Nest Appetizers.


Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Cook of the Year, Sandy Wegmann's Noodle Nest Appetizers.


Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

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Daily Herald's Cooks of the Year 2009

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print story Published: 12/30/2009 12:00 AM

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I can't blame you if you thought the recession scared a lot of people back to home cooking in 2009.

I thought so too, but the latest research by New York-based The NPD Group, says "not so."

Consumers are just heating up more prepared foods at home instead of going out to eat.

So that makes our Cooks of the Year more special, right?

In good times and in bad you'll find them in the kitchen, hunkered over cookbooks, the Internet or at the grocery store chasing down ingredients. Food Network provides the soundtrack of their lives.

Each year I select a handful of the most fired-up amateur chefs from my 51 Cooks of the Week to honor as Cooks of the Year. Today they give us a new recipe, cooking tips and insights into their culinary hopes and dreams.

Congratulations to this year's team, and thanks again for the recipes.

Barbara Simeo, Palatine

If Palatine ever experiences a power outage, they might be able to harness Barbara Simeo's energy to light the town.

She cooks, bakes, gardens, cans, is active in her church and hosts sleepovers for as many as nine of her 12 grandchildren at one time.

"Each year I get grandchildren involved in decorating birthday cakes," says Barbara, who confesses she wasn't the top student in her cake decorating class

"I excel at the star, (the easiest technique)," she says. "I am going to pursue other decorations in 2010," she promises.

Culinary goal 2010: To continue trying new recipes that look interesting and different. Whenever I try a new recipe on guests my husband gets nervous, but we have not been disappointed yet.

Favorite culinary discovery 2009: Garam masala. I had a recipe that called for only 1 teaspoon, but the smallest package I could find was humongous. I love that spice, so I will be searching for other recipes that use it.

Favorite magazines: Bon Appétit, for recipes with a little pizazz, and Every Day with Rachael Ray, which is down to earth.

Favorite tool: My Kitchen Aid mixer helps me as I get older with pie dough, bread dough and yeast dough for cookies. I don't mind doing that, but if I can get someone else do it for me so much the better.

Funny food memory: I made a double batch of snickerdoodle cookies but didn't double the sugar - disaster! The birds and squirrels loved them.

Jim Arrigo, Wheaton

Jim Arrigo is just one winning lottery ticket away from chucking the rat race and becoming a culinary student, or so he says.

In the meantime, he's an attorney with an adventurous approach to cooking and a desire to feed family, friends and guests at the local homeless shelter.

"Everyone deserves a good, home-cooked meal in their tummies."

Culinary goal 2010: To work on my baking skills; I don't want to rely on others for pastries.

Best culinary find 2009: I have a mini-obsession for Alton Brown's pork tenderloin Wellington. I've started tinkering with every element of it. Now I'm planning a mushroom-based filling with bacon, and maybe some sherry vinegar? Hmmm.

Favorite recipe sources: Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" and epicurious.com. If you find a nice piece of fish you've never cooked before, these are great sources for general information and inspiration.

Favorite restaurant: Charlie Trotter's was most amazing. For everyday dining I love the sushi at Matsuya near Wrigley Field and Clara's in Lisle; the lasagna Florentine is to die for.

Favorite kitchen tool: My Wustof 6-inch chef's knife; it feels like an extension of my hand.

Funny food memory: Preparing a crazy Peruvian "salad" for a Latin-American dinner. The recipe had to have 30 ingredients and it took hours. I was thinking 'this can't possibly be worth it,' But it was. I don't think I will ever look at a daunting ingredient list the same way.

Kathleen Bonham, Schaumburg

Busy? Why yes, she is.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas Kathleen Bonham helped organize and cook for seven family parties including a grandson's first birthday and a welcome home celebration for her daughters who were in London last semester.

In Kathleen's world there's always a good excuse for a family celebration and good food to go with it.

"It does my heart good to see my children feel the same way I do about getting us all together," she says.

2010 goal: To include my family more in the cooking/party process so they can carry on the traditions. Of course, delegating makes it easier for me, too.

Best culinary find 2009: Wraps! We had an assembly line making them this summer for our picnic on the pontoon (at her summer home in the Wisconsin Northwoods).

Favorite recipe source: landolakes.com, and I always check the Web sites of major food companies: Nestle's, Fleishman's Yeast, Hellman's - I feel their recipes should be the best since they are trying to promote their products.

Favorite restaurant: Dover Straits in Hoffman Estates. I love to eat fish when I go out because I don't usually cook it at home. They have a nice variety.

Favorite gadget: Hand-held pastry blender, but I use it for making egg salad, streusel topping and chopping nuts.

Funny food memory: A storm blew up and the power went out one night when all 23 of us were at the cottage so we decided to cook outside on the grill. The wind shifted, tons of smoke blew in the door and the smoke alarm went off. When the fire department arrived the children were thrilled, the adults were embarrassed and the food was ultimately overcooked, but we had a great evening eating by candlelight!

Julie Finley, Libertyville

Nine months ago Julie Finley told us she never wants to grow stagnant as a cook, and her family took heed.

Last Mother's Day her five children gave her a class at the Viking Cooking School in Glenview, where she and her husband, Mike, made Lyonnaise potatoes, beef tenderloins, and a fresh fruit dessert.

"You never can learn enough," says the full-time nurse from Libertyville.

2010 resolution: To become more proficient at preparing roasts and seafood/fish. I feel so comfortable with chicken and pasta, it is time to expand my horizons.

Best culinary find 2009: The Vacu Vin instant marinator. The food is ready in minutes so I don't have to worry about getting something ready before work in the morning.

Favorite restaurant: Those that are family run, like Philly G's in Lincolnshire.

Favorite kitchen tool: It's a tossup between my Kitchen Aid mixer and Cuisinart food processor. I use them all the time; they consistently meet my expectations.

Funny food memory: When my youngest son, Sean, was 18 months old he went missing during a holiday dinner when 30 to 50 people were packed into our house. We found him in the garage where we were keeping extra food cold. He had stepped in the middle of my pumpkin flan, leaving a cute little footprint.

Sandy Wegmann Naperville

Frugal and creative, Sandy Wegmann came along just when we needed her, providing inspiration and a great attitude in the midst of layoffs and pay cuts.

Growing up poor in an Irish and French Canadian family, Sandy throws away virtually nothing, not even the liquid from canned salmon, which goes into fish chowders, or some of the water from boiling potatoes to use in potato bread.

"I never cease to be amazed at how much today's women spend feeding their families," she says.

2010 resolution: To cook lighter and healthier. I'm watching (Lifetime's) "Cook Yourself Thin;" they have great ideas for paring down calories."

2010 goal: To can and freeze the wonderful bounty from my daughter's garden.

Best culinary find 2009: "The Frugal Foodie" by Lara Starr. It has helpful hints on making things from scratch, using leftovers; I'm earmarking pages.

Favorite restaurants: Maggiano's, Mon Ami Gabi in Naperville and Oak Brook; in Chicago I love Bistro 110 and Red Light on Halsted. I enjoy good Italian cooking and French bistro food.

Favorite kitchen tool: My (Oskar) mini food processor. It saves time chopping onions, nuts, herbs and shredding cheeses.

Most thankful for: My frugal childhood that taught me how to survive tough times like today; living below your means, not within. No one would ever know that I save money wherever I can.

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