Sunday, March 10, 2019

Birthday Dinner: "Chicken Parm"

store bought birthday cake

  I don't make chicken Parmesan or "chicken parm" as it will be called for the purposes of this story.  Not because I don't like it.  I actually love it.  I can't get enough of crispy, shallow fried chicken dressed with a tangy tomato sauce and melted mozzarella.  I don't make it based completely on principle.  I will not make it because of an incident that happened ten years ago, on my 40th birthday when I had to head to the supermarket to purchase my own birthday cake so that my little children could watch me blow out a candle on my big day.  Since it didn't look as if their father, my husband had made any plans to celebrate, it was entirely up to me to make this happen.  But while I was there, I thought about how I really did not want to make dinner on my own birthday and maybe, just maybe he would pick up on this if I just dropped a hint.  So, I called him while he was at work:

"Hi, what do you want for dinner tonight?"  I said in a hopeful tone.
"I don't know, how about chicken parm?"  He responded.  WTF?  He was clearly not getting my hint.
"Are you crazy??? I don't want to cook that on my birthday!!"  I shouted into the phone alarming all the old ladies shopping in the bakery section of Roche Bros. Supermarket.
"Well, how about something easy like roast chicken with rice and some vegetables?"  Such a stupid man, still clearly not understanding this situation, at all.  He has no ideas what it takes to just roast a chicken.
"Never mind.  I will think of something.  Bye."  I slammed my phone into my purse.  He was lucky I even ended the conversation by saying good-bye.  
 To his credit, my husband did call me back a few minutes later and offered to make a "stir-fry" which I declined since he had no idea how to make it.  But I did appreciate the thought.  Seriously, though, who would suggest that the birthday person should make a labor intensive dish like chicken parm on their own birthday for the rest of the family to consume?  Not to mention the fact that I was still in the process of purchasing my own cake.  I was pretty pissed off.
 Fast forward to the following year on my 41st birthday.
My husband, Rob, announced that he would be making dinner for my birthday and what would I like?  I quickly snapped:  "Chicken parm."  He looked at me blankly for a moment then asked where he might find such a recipe, as if this meal was in my normal, weekly repertoire. (It's not.) I promptly told him that I didn't know and opened a book and began reading, completely ignoring his puzzled expression.  I had been holding onto to this for a year now, just waiting for the right moment to get him back.  He was on his own for this one.  
  He knew that take-out or anything pre-made from the grocery store would not be acceptable to me and I did not offer any suggestions.  It would be entirely up to him to source recipes, ingredients and to figure it all out in the kitchen.  The pressure was on as I was clearly not in the mood for a meal that would only earn an "A" for effort.  This dish had to deliver or I would have to drink a lot of wine to get through it.
  When Rob is in the kitchen, on few occasions, but it happens, I prefer to stay away.  I don't want to see the various abuses to my favorite tools or the mess splattering and adhering itself to the stove top and walls.  Also, I was a little afraid for him of the final outcome.  Although I did manage a peek at a few pages printed out from the internet before he snatched them away and banished me to another room until dinner was ready.
  It seemed like an eternity, waiting to be called to the table.  The kids kept checking to see if I was spying, smells of sauteed garlic and olive oil wafted through the air and the sound of a mallet being slammed on the butcher block piqued my curiosity.  My senses told me that  this dinner certainly held some promise.  By the time I was finally asked to sit down, the wine was poured and I was served a perfectly golden crisp chicken breast, pounded thin, to an even thickness, coated with just enough tomato sauce and melted mozzarella, I was pretty convinced.  After taking the first bite, I was a full convert.  This meal was an achievement, worthy of the finest Italian restaurant located in the North End of Boston.  
  That's the problem with great accomplishments, people want you to repeat them over and over, again.  So, since my 41st birthday, I am sure you can guess what my birthday dinner request is and who is required to make it.  Since then, Rob still asks me every year, "What would you like me to make you for dinner on your birthday?"  And I still snap back in my sassiest tone, "Chicken parm."  Then I leave the room as if to make a point.  I don't offer to shop for ingredients or to figure out any part of the meal.  I leave it all up to him and the kids to make me the best chicken parm dinner I will have all year.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

  This is the recipe Rob uses every year to make his famous "Chicken Parm".  Please note, he leaves out the Cubano chili pepper in the sauce recipe.



4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded thin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
4 large eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons water and seasoned with salt and pepper
2 cups panko bread crumbs
1 cup vegetable oil or pure olive oil
Tomato Sauce, recipe follows
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Fresh basil or parsley leaves, for garnish
Tomato Sauce:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Spanish onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed with some kosher salt to make a paste
Two 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes and their juices, pureed in a blender
One 16-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 small bunch Italian parsley
1 Cubano chile pepper, chopped  ***(Rob leaves this out)
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1.      Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2.      Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge each breast in the flour and tap off excess, then dip in the egg and let excess drip off, then dredge on both sides in the bread crumbs.
3.      Divide the oil between 2 large saute pans and heat over high heat until almost smoking. Add 2 chicken breasts to each pan and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a baking sheet and top each breast with some Tomato Sauce, a few slices of the mozzarella, salt and pepper, and a tablespoon of Parmesan. Bake in the oven until the chicken is cooked through and the cheese is melted, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and garnish with basil or parsley leaves.
     Tomato Sauce:
  Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and cook until soft. Add pureed tomatoes with their juices, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 cup water, bay leaf, parsley, Cubano pepper, and bring to a boil. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Reduce heat and cook until slightly thickened, about 30 minutes.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Sweet Orange Marmalade

blood oranges with juicer

 I always thought jam making had to be a summertime pursuit.  Utilizing fruit at its peak beginning with the strawberry harvest in late June then on to raspberries, peaches and pears as we move into fall, to mention a few.  But jam should really be made in the winter on a cold, dark day when the weather is twenty degrees at noon and all I want to do is stay inside, wearing my slippers and sipping a cup of hot tea.  I actually feel like firing up the canning pot since I have all the time in the world to stir preserves at the toasty warm stove.  Forget watching football, jam is the thing to make on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
  If fresh fruit at its peak is required for this project, then citrus is the thing in January.  Marmalade to be exact, is the type of jam to put up.  The problem is, I have never cozied up to the taste of it.  Looking at a jar of sticky orange jell, skinny strips of dark orange zest suspended throughout, it always looked sweet and inviting.  That is, until I tasted it.  I expected the sweet, fruity flavor I encounter in my favorite jam flavors, that sugary sour bite like from citrus candy. But the shocking surprise of the bitter pith taste threw me off.
  Growing up, we never had a jar of marmalade hanging out in the back of our refrigerator. Val says it's because us kids didn't like it and she used all of her jam and jelly budget on Smucker's strawberry or raspberry for our lunch box PB& J's. We were never forced to acquire a taste for those sophisticated preserves.  I'm sure she would have liked to treat herself to a fancy gourmet jar of imported orange marmalade but couldn't justify the expense.  Fyi, she usually has a jar tucked away for herself now that she doesn't have to pander to our needs, anymore.
  For some reason, I wrongly assumed that children today and those of my generation (under the age of fifty years old), share my opinion regarding marmalade.  But a quickly posted question on facebook revealed an informal and completely unscientific survey that said otherwise.  When asked, "Is marmalade just for grandmothers and Brits?" the results returned a 50/50 of pros and cons, from all different age groups.  For those against, my guess is that the bitter pith is to blame.
  So, I set out to create a version of marmalade to please my sweet tooth.  Blood oranges for the intense color and Cara Cara for their sweetness.  I only used a small amount of zest.  And as for the pith, that all ended up in the compost bucket after I cut it away from each piece of fruit leaving just the juice and the edible sections. I needed to add some pectin on the second day of the process, having removed the part of the fruit with it.  But other than that, I did not have to mess with the fruit all that much.  I think what I created can please both parties: those that like marmalade in its traditional form and those of us who prefer a sweeter note on their morning toast.

jars of sweet orange marmalade on a table

 Sweet Orange Marmalade
(makes approximately four 8 oz jars)

2.5 pounds (combined) blood oranges and Cara Cara oranges 
1 1/2 cups apple juice
3 cups sugar
juice from 2 lemons
1-2 tablespoons natural fruit pectin

Day one:
  Thoroughly wash all the oranges.  Peel the zest from the pith of one blood orange.  Finely dice and place in a large stock pot.  Cut away the peel and pith from all the oranges.  Roughly chop all the oranges, remove any seeds and add all the chopped oranges and juices to the pot.  Discard remaining peel and all pith.  Cover oranges with apple juice.  If the oranges are not completely covered in liquid, add just enough water to cover them.  Bring the mixture to a boil and cook uncovered until the mixture reduces by one third.  This takes about 30 to 40 minutes.
  Gradually add the sugar, stirring constantly until it dissolves.  Add the lemon juice and taste.  If needed, add more sugar or more lemon juice.  Boil for 5 more minutes.  Remove from heat and allow mixture to rest overnight.
Day two:
  Place a few small plates in your freezer for the plate test.  If you are planning to can the marmalade, set up your canning pot with boiling water enough to cover the jars by at least one to two inches.  Sterilize jars, lids and rings.
Bring the orange mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring often.  If the mixture appears to be thickened, test it by placing a few teaspoons on a chilled plate and hold it vertically to the ground for a second.  If the preserves are finished, they will not run much and will set up semi-firmly if placed back in the freezer for a few minutes.  If it remains runny, it is not finished and may need some added pectin.  To be sure, bring the mixture to 215 degrees on a candy thermometer.  If it is still not thickened at that point, add pectin a tablespoon at a time, bring back to boil and do the plate test again.  The mixture should resemble a very thick syrup while it is still hot.
  Once the jam is set, remove from heat and allow it to rest for about 2 minutes.
Ladle jam into warm jars leaving 1/4 inch head space.  Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp cloth.  Place a sterilized lid on top and screw into place with a ring.  Place jars in water bath in canning pot with at least 1-2 inches of water covering the top of the jars.  Bring water to a boil, decrease heat to a simmer and process for 10 minutes.  Turn off the heat and leave the jars in the water for about 2 minutes more.
  Using a jar lifter or tongs along with a pot holder, transfer the jars onto a smooth surface to cool undisturbed for 8 hours.  Check to be sure the jars have sealed.  If any did not, refrigerate and use within a few weeks.  The properly sealed jars can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to 2 years.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Party Season

  I've often said, my grandmother, Edie, loved a party, an occasion, any type of gathering.  Especially if it was in honor of her.  Her birthday is December 30th.  It is only fitting that the following blog post details a memory of her entertaining style.

Party Season
  My grandmother, Edie, enjoyed entertaining.  However she was never one to slave in the kitchen or go to extremes cleaning her house before numerous guests arrived.  She just turned down the lights, lit some candles and prepared a few easy to put together bites along with an amply stocked bar then let the party begin.  With a shortage of caterers on Cape Cod back in the days when she was hosting cocktail parties for the upper crust of society in Falmouth, MA, she embraced any means of short cuts, and hacks-as we know them to be called today.  Her recipe file filled with newspaper and Women's Day magazine clippings is chock full of recipes using canned ingredients and speedy methods to keep the cook out of the kitchen and in the mix of the party.
  Sometimes Val happened to bring us kids for a visit the day after such an event.  I loved hearing the names of some of Grammy's guests: The Clausons, who owned a car dealership, The Faxon's, old money (hospital wing), The Eastmans, proprietors of the hardware store on Main Street, to name a few.  I imagined them dressed in their finest, helping themselves to such exotic delicacies as Vienna sausages, Swedish meatballs and Grammy's show stopping Mock Lobster Dip, molded into the shape of a fish and surrounded by Saltine Crackers.  The ice in their glasses of vodka or whiskey (light on the mixers), clinking as they chatted, gossiped and laughed in the dim lighting of the dining area and living room in Grammy's house in Greengate, the then  "it" neighborhood in Falmouth.
  It all seemed so glamorous to me.  After all, the only parties we hosted were children's birthday parties and the occasional cook out, fun but not very fancy.  I always wished to attend such a sophisticated soiree.  Finally, at fifteen years old, I was granted that wish, well, sort of.  My best friend, Jenny and I were asked to help out at one of Grammy's larger holiday cocktail parties.  We dressed up for the event: I wore a nicer sweater and a skirt and fixed my hair to look appropriate.  Our job was to take the guests' mink wraps, heavy overcoats, evening bags, and silk scarves and place them "carefully" on Grammy's bed.  We then snuck off to the kitchen to sample the "hors d'oeuvres" using fancy frill picks to stab the Swedish meatballs  and an elegant cheese spreader to smear globs of port wine cheddar on Triscuits.  Once the party got into full swing, Grammy relieved us of our duties and sent us off to my aunt's old bedroom for the night, where we laughed and giggled about the guests until we fell asleep.  In the morning, she was up before we were, still wearing her gold charm bracelets and sipping black coffee.  She made us breakfast: ice cold Tropicana Orange Juice and toasted Thomas' English Muffins slathered in melting peanut butter. When Val picked us up to go home, Grammy handed us each a check.  In the memo, written in her swirly script, "Party Help".
  I came across a letter the other day in that same unmistakable hand.  Grammy wrote me in 1997.  She had found a snapshot of me in a party dress taken when I was about seven years old.  On the flowered note card she congratulates me on a new job, hopes it's going well.  In the next sentence, she implores me to also take time for my social life.  "because it's really important not to be just a 
work-a-holic.  Work hard and play hard as long as you can- it makes life such more fun!"

Mock Lobster Dip
(for a party)

1 can crab meat
1 can tomato soup*
1 cup mayonnaise
1 (1/2 lb.) package cream cheese
1 package Knox gelatin
1/4 cup green pepper, chopped very fine
2 tablespoons onion (chopped fine, also)
1/4 cup chopped celery (fine)

  Melt cream cheese over low heat.  Add tomato soup until well blended.  Add gelatin and mayonnaise, stir well.  Add the rest of the ingredients and pour into greased mold.  Chill well before serving.**

* I am guessing that the soup should be condensed, preferably Campbell's
**Probably should chill overnight, at least 6-8 hours.

Grammy and Pressy  celebrating their December birthdays before a night on the town.