South Barrington's Zein Bertacchi makes falafel
Raised in Jordan, Zein Bertacchi's parents provided "a very social environment," a revolving door philosophy that she embraces with warmth and abundant enthusiasm decades later.
A South Barrington resident who lives in a restored, 1850s farmhouse with her husband, Roy, Zein packs her life to the brim with people-oriented activities.
She is an infection control specialist for Good Shepherd Hospital, Barrington, a real estate agent for Roy's construction firm and a volunteer for Chess Without Borders, an Aurora-based nonprofit that teaches and encourages chess playing and raises money for charities worldwide.
Zein fills up most of the remaining free slots with entertaining.
"Almost every weekend I have something going at my house or somebody else's," says Zein. "We're with people sometimes during the week too if weekends are booked."
Middle Eastern and Italian cooking are Zein's strengths, but her menus depend on her guests, who range from Americans to Indians and fellow Middle Easterners.
"If I know they like a certain dish I will do it for them," she says.
A from-scratch cook, Zein prepares light, simpler meals when she's cooking for Roy and herself. For friends and family, it's a different story.
"When I entertain I do it all the way, but I still keep health in mind," she says. "My nature is to go natural, healthy, organic."
Typically Zein pampers her guests with multiple courses and choices: two salads, two vegetables, two main courses, two starches. She starts early and works hard, but she draws out as much energy as she puts into it.
"Being in the kitchen, putting things together, building them up, is beautiful for me," says Zein, who cherry-picks ideas from the Food Network and cookbooks. "By the time dinner comes I'll be tired from cooking all day, and then my friends arrive and I get another spurt of big energy."
Offering multiple courses gives her the freedom to throw in untested dishes; there's always plenty of food to back up a dish that doesn't taste as good as it looked in the book.
"Here's my cop-out," she laughs, "I just say I've never made this dish before, it's fine if you don't like it."
This week prepare for a sampling of the Middle East with a trio of Zein's most popular dishes.
Her falafel is based on the popular street food from that region, eaten there mainly as a snack, but it can be served as an appetizer or sandwich tucked into pillowy pita bread. Though most American versions of this dish are made strictly with chick peas, Zein adds fava beans like her mother did.
Zein's stuffed zucchini (recipe at dailyherald.com/food) are a little fussy and unusually hearty; she fills the squash with seasoned ground beef and rice and cooks them with tomatoes and lamb chops. Serve them with an appetizer of her baba ghannouj, the popular eggplant dip, for an exotic company meal.
"Give me solid, hard-core cooking, I am there."
- Laura Bianchi