Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My Inner Fruitcake

I've been mulling over putting together a book of essays about food and family called My Inner Fruitcake. This title was suggested to me by my cousin, Deborah Freedman, a wonderful children's book author whose gorgeous new book, Blue Chicken, is out this month. Debbie is an artist and an architect and the illustrations in this book are breathtaking. When I showed the book to my younger son, he said, "I can't believe someone in our family made this!"

We spend a lot of time thinking about chicken in our family. I've been cooking and writing about chicken a lot, maybe because it's a wonderful thing to make on a cold night. (Needless to say, I've never made fruitcake.) Below is the first of what I'm hoping will be a series of columns for Patch called "Sunday Night Supper," columns that will be about cooking and feeding the people you love and occasionally yell at. Of course, this column is about chicken. If you would like to read more about food and family on Patch, please go to Patch and leave a comment. Thank you!

Sunday Night Supper

Pam Riesenberg teaches a series of weeknight dinner classes for those who want easy and excellent.

I'm not one of these people who stands around making tomato sauce from scratch, but a couple of weeks ago, I realized I needed a steeper learning curve. My kids were back at school, getting new lockers and tackling geometry. I wanted to learn new subjects too. I thought about taking up knitting and bridge, but I knew both activities would require hours of sitting still and using my hands, which I did enough of already as a writer. So I signed up for a cooking class with Pam Riesenberg, figuring I would stand and use my hands.

Pam began teaching cooking classes out of her kitchen three years ago, after working part time at the Kings Cooking Studio. "I started the cooking classes after hearing feedback from those attending that what they really needed are quick and healthy recipes for their families," she says. She now teaches under the aegis of Home Appetit.

The first class of the fall season was billed as a weeknight dinner series that would begin with Meatless Mondays. The class met, appropriately enough, on a Monday. The idea is that on Mondays, you cook without meat, a movement that has turned into a national phenomenon and a website.

On Pam's MM menu were four dishes that all sounded fabulous: Middle Eastern Pizza, Ravioli Lasagna with Spinach, Tempeh Stir Fry with Mushrooms and Sweet & Spicy Tofu with Veggies. I tried to get my friend Debbie to go to the class with me, but she had to work, so I went with my friend Terri, who is one of the most adventurous and ambitious cooks I know. Together, we gathered with two other women for a two-hour class in Pam's kitchen sunny, red-and-white kitchen in Millburn.

I'm not sure what I expected. I just knew I needed to recharge my culinary batteries, and by the end of the class, I had. Pam's kitchen isn't big and she doesn't have a large staff to assist her, which is comforting, because if she can make four different meals in two hours in her space, so can you. Over the course of the class, Pam prepared the dishes and gave us advice on where to go and how to shop. Costco is great for feta cheese but don't buy the fat free version. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's sell excellent pizza dough, as do the major supermarkets. You can be super ambitious and make the pizza dough from scratch, but I did that once and it wasn't worth the effort. My neighbor said she goes by La Strada and gets a ball of pizza dough from them for $4.

Pam showed us how to make tomato sauce from scratch in 20 minutes (use good, canned tomatoes) but said you can also be lazy and use a high-quality tomato sauce for this dish, like Rao's. A couple of other tips from Pam: You can freeze fresh ginger, as long as you mince or grade it first. Sesame oil is perishable but will last four or five months in the refrigerator. Get your knives sharpened at Kitchen a la Mode in South Orange, Kings or William Sonoma at the Mall.

The beautiful moment came at the end of class, when Pam served us lunch. When was the last time someone prepared you a hot lunch in their kitchen and gave you the recipes to go wtih it? It was bliss. The Middle Eastern Pizza, with its delicious combination of eggplant, olives, sun dried tomato slivers and feta cheese, and the Sweet & Spicy Tofu, were my favorites.

A few days later, I went to Whole Foods on a Saturday afternoon to stock up on ingredients for Middle Eastern Pizza. Here is the beautiful thing about going to the supermarket on Saturday: You can sail out your front door saying, "I'm going to the market!" and be sure no one wants to come with you. I easily found everything on Pam's ingredients list except for fresh mint and slivered, sun-dried tomatoes. I bought a basil plant and substituted the mint with basil, and eventually discovered slivered sun-dried tomatoes at the salad bar. (The great thing about buying food off the salad bar is you can weight it and buy exactly the amount you need.)

On Sunday afternoon, while my kids were doing their homework, I set about making the Middle Eastern Pizza. Because my younger son and my husband don't like olives or feta cheese, I poured half of the eggplant, feta and olive combination on one side of the pizza for my older son and me, and put just the tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese on the other side for them. By the end of the meal, we were all fat and happy.

I was feeling pretty good so a few days later, I went back to Pam's for Class #2, this time with Debbie. In the class was a woman I'd gone to Hebrew school with way back when and the sister-in-law of a girl I played soccer with in high school. (That's what you get when you move back to your hometown.)

Over the course of two hours, Pam deftly made four chicken dishes: "Chicken Arturo" (an old-fashioned recipe handed down from Pam's mom that calls for two cans of Arturo Sauce, onions, carrots and dried herbs) Chicken & Rice with Mushrooms (fantastic, see recipe below), Breaded Chicken Cutlets (easy, great for kids) and grilled Lemon Grass Chicken (memorably tasty and excellent for those on a low-fat, high-protein diet.). Pam was clearly in her element: "I could just teach cooking classes and live happily ever after," she said.

Again, Pam showed us what to do and how to do it: For the breaded chicken cutlet, she demonstrated how to thin out thick, boneless, chicken breasts: Open up the chicken breast, flatten it on a washable surface, cover it with saran wrap and pound it out. To bread the cutlet, she used Wondra, a fine, light flour, which I had never seen before, and which made the cutlets taste ever so slightly fried and gave them a nice crunch - like a healthy chicken finger. Pam ended up giving us more than chicken recipes that day: When one of the women said her teenage son liked to eat a lot of steak and she needed a new way to cook it for him, Pam ran to find a quick recipe for flank steak marinade and read it off to us: Three tablespoons balsamic vinegar, two tablespoons soy sauce, two tablespoons olive oil, one talbespoon sugar, one teaspoon garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt or paprkika. Marinade for two hours to overnight. (I can vouch for this recipe: I made it last Tuesday night and it was terrific.)

All the chicken dishes were easy and excellent, and I figured I would make the chicken cutlets first and use that super fine flour she introduced to us, but by the time Sunday rolled around, I hadn't gotten around to buying superfine flour and when I opened up the freezer, I saw that we didn't have boneless chicken breasts either. We did have a large package of frozen chicken parts so I defrosted them, just in time to discover that we didn't have peas, mushrooms or Carolina rice. Oh dear. But we did have basmati rice. My grandmother used to make a chicken and rice dish that didn't rely on any vegetables and it was always good so I adapted Pam's recipe, skipping the veggies, substituting the basmati rice for Carolina and hoped for the best. It happened, this dish is flexible and superb. The rice was crunchy and delicious, and if you like standing in the kitchen, and scraping spoonfuls of rice off the bottom of a pot when no one is looking, this dish is for you. My younger son, who doesn't normally like chicken-on-the-bone, said, "This is really good, Mom, this is fantastic," and had seconds. High praise coming from him. My older son also loved it. My husband had four helpings, and when some chicken and rice fell off the counter and onto my foot, our dog was all over it.

I'm going back to Pam's for a fish class next Wednesday. See you there.

Home Appetit classes are $45/class. For more information, contact Pam Riesenberg, Home Appetit,, 973 467-2633.

Middle Eastern Pizza

Sauce Ingredients

1 Tbsp. EV Olive Oil

1 small Onion, chopped

2 Garlic cloves, chopped

1 28-oz. can Whole San Marzano Tomatoes (or 2-14oz cans)

Kosher Salt/Pepper or Hot Pepper Flakes, to taste

Pizza Ingredients

4 Tbsp. EV Olive Oil

1 lb. Prepared Pizza Dough, at room temp.

1 medium Eggplant, peeled & cubed (in 1/2 inch pieces, about 5 cups)

1 Large Red Onion, thinly sliced

1 tsp. Ground Cumin

4 Cloves Garlic, minced or crushed

8 oz. Fresh Mozzarella Cheese, diced

¼ Cup Pitted Kalamata Olives, chopped

½ Cup Oil-Packed Sun Dried Tomato Slivers

¾ Cup Feta Cheese, crumbled (6 oz package)

Fresh Mint, to garnish (optional)

Preparation instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. To make sauce- Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic & tomatoes and cook until thickened, about 20 minutes. (Partially cover) Season with S/P.

3. To make pizza- Drizzle a rimmed baking sheet with 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil and stretch pizza dough to fill the pan. Brush the dough with olive oil and bake 10-15 minutes, (on bottom shelf) until golden.

4. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium high. Add the eggplant, red onion, cumin, garlic, and cook about 15 minutes, until eggplant is tender.

5. Top the pizza crust with 1 cup sauce, the mozzarella, eggplant & onion mixture, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and feta. Return pizza to oven and cook 15-20 minutes, or until cheese is melted.

6. Remove pizza from oven & top with fresh mint. Slice & serve.

7. Serve with a salad of mixed greens with lemon/olive oil dressing or Tahina.

Chicken and Rice


2 Whole Chicken Breasts, split in half (4 pieces-about 2 ½ lb)


2 Tbsp. Olive Oil

1 Medium Onion, Chopped

2 Cloves Garlic, Minced

1 Package (6-8oz) Whole or Sliced Mushrooms (slice, if whole)

1 Bay Leaf

½ Cup Dry White Wine (or Dry White Vermouth)

½ Cup uncooked Rice (Carolina)

1 ½ Cups Chicken Broth

1 tsp. Paprika

Optional: ½ Cup Frozen Peas, Defrosted

Garnish: Chopped Parsley

Salt/Pepper, to taste

Preparation Instructions

1. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper.

2. Heat over medium high, add 2 tsp. oil in a large sauté pan and add chicken pieces, skin side down. Brown about 5 minutes and turn over.

3. Scatter the onion and garlic between (not on top) the chicken pieces and add the mushrooms and bay leaf. Cook 5 minutes.

4. Add the wine and cook until it is almost all evaporated, 1 minute. Add the rice and broth (rice should not be on top of chicken pieces), and paprika. Bring to a boil, than lower heat to a simmer, cover the pan and cook about 20 minutes or until rice is tender.

5. Remove from heat, add peas if using and cover pan for 5 minutes.

6. Can garnish with chopped parsley. Season with salt & pepper.

7. Serve with: mixed green salad & crusty bread.

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