Palatine's Monica Tragasz makes guacamole
Home schooled for the past two years, Monica Tragasz typically whisks through a full load of course work in two or three hours less than her peers, opening up a big window of opportunity for culinary adventures.
Aside from her academic and religious studies Monica is pursuing cooking, baking, cake decorating, vegetable gardening and canning, not to mention dance and sewing.
"I can advance at my own pace, so I go through subjects a lot quicker," says Monica, who will be a freshman in the fall. "That gives me a lot more time to do what I want."
The youngest of eight children, and nine years behind her next youngest sibling, Monica, or "Mo" as her family calls her, has enjoyed almost-only-child status for a number of years, reaping the benefits of one-on-one time with her mother and tutor, Juli. A well-seasoned Food Network junkie, Monica joined her mother in the kitchen at a young age, making suggestions for tweaking recipes and helping her cook.
"Because she's our last, I wanted to spend a little more time with her," says Juli. "I can teach her things she wouldn't get in school," like advanced home economics.
Monica and Juli both enrolled in a series of cake decorating classes last year, they collaborate daily on what to make for dinner and are party planners.
Monica researches recipes online, grocery shops with her mother and helps prepare the evening meal.
Tinkering with recipes is part of the fun, says Monica.
"We like to use up things we have, not go and buy new stuff," she says. "Last night we made a salad with spinach, tomatoes, red onion, little mozzarella balls and vinaigrette. We have made noodles and chicken with a sauce of cheese, sour cream, onions, tomatoes, garlic and Italian seasoning."
In spring Monica switches to botany and agriculture, helping plant the family's large garden with herbs and vegetables, and harvesting grapes and berries and fruit from their trees.
"I do like going out in the garden, looking around and finding different vegetables and thinking, what can I do with this?" says Monica.
She and her mother annually convert berries into jams, jellies and fruit salads, too.
Baking calls out to Monica's creative side, especially when she's decorating cakes for family birthdays, a baby shower or her aunt and uncle's wedding.
She contributes goodies to bake sales at St. Theresa Church in Palatine, and several of her recipes, including this week's Hungarian Goulash and Veggie Confetti Potato Salad, appear in the church's just-released cookbook, "Bless Us, O Lord." (To order a book, send a $20 check to Knights of Columbus Ladies Auxiliary, St. Theresa Church, 455 N. Benton Ave., Palatine, IL 60067 or call Barbara Simeo at 847-991-2782.)
Today Monica also gives us her signature guacamole recipe, ideal for the summer's best tomatoes.
Though it's early, Monica sees culinary school in her future, after high school, of course.
"It's nice to see when you can start with nothing, create something really nice and watch people enjoy it," she says.
- Laura Bianchi