Friday, January 9, 2009

Write, Cook, Love

A couple of months ago, New Jersey Life & Leisure gave me the opportunity to do three of the things I love to do most: Write, cook, and write about a cook.

Alison Bermack
Beating Back Angst
with Chicken Pot Pie
Photo by Michael Stahl
11/12.08 • newjerseylife&leisure •
by L a u r a Z i n n F r omm

The stock market is a shambles, the housing market is a mess, consumer spending is down,and the Presidential election seemed less about the issues, and more about whose running mate was less objectionable. Where do you go? Don’t say the local bar. Okay, fine, hit the local bar, but first, invite a friend over and cook dinner for your kids. Sit on a stool and chop vegetables. Stand at the stove and sauté chicken breasts. Gossip, laugh, and make dinner. How else can we maintain our sanity in these uncertain times?

That is Alison Bermack’s philosophy. A Montclair mom of three, she gathers her friends in her kitchen, or goes to theirs, and together the women cook dinner for their families several times a week. Taking it a step further, Alison and her business partner, Shannon Henry, started a website called two years ago. On it are easy-to-follow recipes, and suggestions for how to make the most of seasonal ingredients. The website is cheerful and colorful, and a lot less heartbreaking than the business section of The New York Times.

Curious to meet the women behind the website, I made plans to visit Alison at home. (Shannon Henry lives in Wisconsin.) The morning I knocked on her door, rain was falling in buckets, but pansies were blooming in pots on her front porch. Despite the depressing weather, her house was cheerful and welcoming. Alison, however, had no idea who I was. We had gotten our dates mixed up, and I had arrived a week earlier than expected. No matter, she invited me in. Though her plan that morning had been to cook dinner at her friend Elizabeth’s house, she quickly made arrangements for Elizabeth to come cook at hers. In the kitchen, Alison opened her freezer and showed me the pan-seared pork dumplings she’d made the day before. She had cooked the dumplings with her friend Jackie. “We did it like the Chinese have done it for thousands of years,” Alison said, “crimping and sautéing with a little olive oil.” Alison’s children had gobbled them up. This morning, she and Elizabeth planned to make chicken pot pies.

Chop. Smell . Taste. Create.
Alison has been cooking with friends for years. “It has been life-changing for me,” she said. “It lets me emotionally connect with friends while getting something done. It’s so much more enjoyable to have a friend in the kitchen while cooking – someone to chop, smell, taste and create with. And there is the back-and-forth, push-and-pull of ideas as we brain-storm new recipes and improve old ones.” A few minutes later, Elizabeth arrived, groceries and toddler in tow. Alison described the day’s menu. In addition to chicken pot pie – “mild, so the kids will eat it” – they’d be making a lentil salad. Alison’s young son took his guest to the playroom as their mothers began to chop, chat and cook. Alison had made the chicken the night before and boiled the lentils that morning. Elizabeth had bought ready-made dough (“We’re cheating today,” Alison said. “I usually make homemade, but sometimes you have to cut a corner.”) The two women had split the expenses and each contributed various ingredients. “When you cook with a friend, you help each other,” Alison said. “She’ll keep sautéing and I’ll make the kids lunch. Things that aren’t possible become possible.”

As a child, Alison began cooking while standing next to her father in the kitchen. “My mother was a busy business woman. She always made dinner, but sometimes she’d overcook the chicken,” Alison said. Her father taught high school English and was home in the afternoons so they would often make lunch together – cheese, tomato and onion sandwiches were a favorite. “I’d start cooking and my Dad would help me, so I got the benefit of cooking with someone else. Finally, I took over the dinner challenge.” Alison and Shannon Henry are working with cookbook author Raquel Pelzel to write a Cooking with Friends cookbook. It will contain 150 recipes, from appetizers to family dinners to birthday cakes. Alison belongs to a food co-op,grows vegetables in her garden and tries to use as much local produce as she can. The cookbook will emphasize making use of seasonal produce (pesto in August, roasted squash in October)as well as frozen and canned products when necessary. (In fact, Elizabeth had laid out a couple of cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup as a backup for the chicken pot pies’ filling, but in the end, the two women didn’t use them.)

Like most cooks, Alison is a pile of contradictions and cheerful compromises. She loves the Global Knife Sharpener that her Dad gave her, but avoids the Cuisinart. “The Cuisinart just pulverizes things. I just love a sharp knife. I can dice an onion faster than anyone. Cooking is so much easier withsimple tools like a good peeler.” That said, Alison is not completely opposed to modern conveniences. “Sometimes I’ll nuke the carrots.” She will also use dried herbs instead of fresh herbs, “if I don’t want the kids to see the green stuff.” And she is happy to use frozen peas in the pot pies because “we can’t get fresh peas now.” The two women discussed adding potatoes to the pie. “Friendship and food bond you,” she explained. “We do food swaps once a month. We’ll all come with pesto, marinara, ragout, six quarts of soup. My friends and I see cooking as an ongoing adventure. It’s a way to generate ideas and support each other.”

The sautéed chicken and vegetables smelled divine. Alison gave me a spoonful of the filling – it was delicious. The filled pies were put directly into the freezer. “You want to freeze the pies as quickly as possible,” Alison said. I left her house feeling warm and safe, eager to print the recipe off of her website and make it for my own family. Two weeks later I did just that. The friend I sometimes trade meals with was not around, so I enlisted my children in her place. (In retrospect, it would have made sense to wait and cook with my friend. We would have split the cost of the food, saved some money and we would have laughed a lot.) I made the dough from scratch with my younger son, and the filling with my older son. We ended up with three small pies, in disposable tin cups, and one large pie in a 9” pie plate.

How did they turn out? In the words of text messaging, OMG. The crust was
out of this world – sweet, buttery, and delicious. The filling was perfectly (and
easily) seasoned. My older son ate one of the small pies before hockey practice. He asked for seconds and said, “I think this ranks up with one of the best things you’ve ever made.”

I’ll take that! Times are tough, and the economy is acting like a teenage girl – angry, petulant and unforgiving. We have to find ways to cope with the
stress of feeding and raising our families. Cooking in the kitchen with friends,
savoring the mouth-watering smells and tastes of a homemade meal, is as
good a recipe for managing stress as any I’ve encountered. It’s cheaper than
seeing a therapist, and won’t lead to a hangover.

Cooking With Friends Chicken Pot Pie recipe:
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon dried minced onion
1 large onion, chopped finely
2 stalks celery, diced (1/2 cup)
2 carrots, diced and pre-cooked
(1 1/4 cups)
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons flour
1 small potato, cooked and diced
(3/4 cup)
1/2 cup frozen petit peas
1 3/4 cups chicken broth
1/8 cup white wine (optional – if so,
you may need to lessen
the chicken broth)
2 boneless and skinless chicken
breasts cut into cubes*
1 package homemade or
prepared pie dough
* You can also use leftover chicken from Roast
Chicken or chicken soup.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Sauté the garlic for a minute. Add the raw
chicken and season with a teaspoon of kosher salt, garlic powder, minced onion and thyme. (At this point, you can improvise if you like and flavor the chicken with fresh herbs or spices.) Cook the chicken on a medium high heat for about 5 minutes. Add the onions and cook for another few minutes, seasoning with additional ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Add the celery and cooked carrots. Sprinkle in the flour and stir until pasty. Add the chicken broth slowly, stirring the mixture constantly so that no lumps form. Add the wine, diced potatoes and petit peas. Simmer for a few more minutes. If making one pot pie, lay pie dough on the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate. Pierce the dough with a fork and pre-bake until golden in an oven pre-heated to 450 degrees, for about 14 minutes.

Spoon the filling into the pie pan and cover with a second sheet of pie crust, making sure to press the edges into the pie dish. Pierce the dough in several places with a fork to make air holes. You can either freeze the pot pie or bake it. If freezing, place uncovered in the freezer for about an hour and then wrap well in aluminum foil and plastic wrap, making sure that no air can reach the food. If baking, bake in the oven at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes until golden. If making mini pot pies, cut the dough to fit the bottom of a muffin tin or pot pie tin and spoon in the filling.

Easy “From Scratch” Pie Dough
Makes two 9-inch crusts
Although store bought dough is completely acceptable, if you have a few extra, minutes, making your own pie dough will add a nice touch to your pot pie. Cinnamon adds a hint of sweetness to our dough, complimenting the savory filling. If you are using a bottom crust for your pot pie, we suggest pre-baking the dough to prevent sogginess.

2 1/2 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 sticks unsalted chilled butter
6 tablespoons ice cold water
(may need a bit more)

You can use a pastry cutter, two knives or a mixer (such as a Cuisinart) fitted with
a steel blade to blend the butter into the flour mixture. In a large mixing bowl, mix
together flour, salt, sugar and cinnamon. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until crumbly, adding the ice cold water gradually. Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and form into two round balls. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for about 30 minutes. Roll the dough out on a floured surface and fit the dough into the bottom of a pie dish. Then follow baking directions in pot pie recipe.


  1. Get rid of the adds. And bring back the color!!!

    You're #1 fan.

  2. I brought back the color. I don't make any money off the ads but they crack me up. They actually seem to echo my blog posts, which makes me think Big Sister is watching. Oddly, i find comfort in that.

  3. It's a shame you don't have a donate button! I'd without a
    doubt donate to this superb blog! I suppose for now i'll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google
    account. I look forward to new updates and will share this site with
    my Facebook group. Chat soon!

    My page wagner twin stroke airless paint sprayer model 1700