Chicken Parmesan with Crunch and a Little Kick

First of all, ignore the heart-shaped ravioli, unless it’s Valentine’s Day again and it’s time for heart-shaped ravioli. If that’s the case, I made the ravioli below with this recipe using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter.

Chicken parmesan with heart-shaped ravioli, because it was Valentine's Day. Normally, I'd probably serve the chicken with store-bought whole wheat penne.

Today I want to talk about chicken parmesan. (That’s the little cheese-covered thing below the ravioli. Trust me, there’s crunchy breaded chicken under there.)

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of chicken parm that is breaded, fried, and then covered with sauce and cheese and baked. I always wondered why you would want to bother with breading and frying something if you’re just going to make it all soggy by covering it with liquid and baking it. I like to make it my mom’s way, which had a nice contrast in textures between the crispy breading, melted cheese, and marinara sauce. I’ve healthied my version up a little, using oven-fried chicken with a whole-wheat panko coating. Mom didn’t have panko back in the day.

I also like to put in a little surprise secret ingredient: I stick a little sliver of pepper jack cheese under the mozzarella. Not so much that you’re going, “Hey, a burrito!” Just enough to add a little kick.

I start with oven-fried chicken adapted from the Oven Fried Chicken with Almonds recipe in the South Beach Diet Cookbook. I use whole wheat panko crumbs instead of breadcrumbs and change the herbs according to whim. Also, the original recipe calls for pounding chicken breasts, but I’ve found that it’s quicker and easier to buy thin-sliced chicken breasts. You don’t have to go through the mess of pounding (though my son really liked that part) and the chicken seems to turn out more tender.

Chicken Parmesan

1 cup whole wheat panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup raw almonds
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch of ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/4 pound thin-sliced chicken breasts*

Pepper jack cheese, sliced
Mozzarella cheese slices
Marinara sauce
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. In a food processor, process almonds until finely chopped. Add panko crumbs, grated Parmesan, garlic, salt, oregano, and pepper. Process until combined. Empty mixture into a medium bowl. Pour olive oil into a shallow bowl.
  3. Dip chicken breasts in olive oil, then dredge in the panko mixture and arrange on a baking sheet.
  4. Bake for 25 minutes, or until thermometer inserted into the center of a piece registers 170 degrees.
  5. Top each piece of chicken with a small slice of pepper jack cheese and top with sliced mozzarella. Allow cheese to melt, then top with marinara and serve.
* There will be enough breading for about two pounds of chicken, if you want to open another package. I just use what comes in a standard package, which is usually a little under a pound and a quarter.

3 Surprising Things I’ve Learned About Writing Fiction

A couple of years ago I joined the ranks of newspaper journalists who became ex-newspaper journalists earlier than planned. Since the newspaper business had for years been becoming less and less fun, I decided to move on and not look back. I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to teach and write novels someday, (I know. Apparently I have some sort of deep-seated psychological aversion to getting paid.) so I enrolled in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts program in Writing Popular Fiction. I entered the program with a first chapter I’d been rewriting for years, a vague idea of where I wanted to go with it, and not a clue about writing fiction or what happens after you finish a novel.

I’ve learned a lot. For one thing, I was a bit dismayed to find that I’d left newspapers, where no one knows what’s going on anymore, to enter the world of fiction publishing, where no one knows what’s going on anymore, either. To make matters worse, my timing is terrible. I used to complain that I got into journalism too late for the flask-in-the-desk era. Now apparently I’ve become a novelist when “Gone are the days of Hemingway where writers could power drink, chain smoke and hide away writing books … .”  That last quote is from a March 2012 post by blogger and author Kristen Lamb. Lamb helps writers navigate a new world of publishing in which they’re expected to use social media to get out among the readers and promote themselves. This is great, but nobody seems to be working on reversing the no-drinking-at-work trend. It seems to me that if writers are going to be forced to socialize, somebody should give us back our flasks.

Anyway, here are a few other things I’ve learned:

It’s harder than it looks. I never set out to write War and Peace or The Great American Novel. I don’t particularly care what professors think about me a hundred years after I’m dead. My goal was to write fun little mystery adventures that made people laugh. I’d read plenty of them. Surely it couldn’t be that hard. I envisioned myself sitting at the keyboard like Jessica Fletcher, tap, tap, tap, then I’d type “The End” and whoosh, out would come the manuscript, ready to go. There’d be a couple of rejections, of course. I wasn’t completely delusional. But then I’d land an agent and pretty soon I’d be packing my bags for the book tour to promote my bestseller. After that, I’d buy a nice little cabin where I would tap out the next bestseller in blissful solitude, listening to the sounds of the river flowing by and the occasional mail truck dumping off big bags of royalty checks.

All of this was desperately wrong, starting with the process. Nobody tap, tap, tap, whooshes out a novel. At least not a good one. There’s an often repeated quote, “Novels aren’t written, they’re rewritten.” This may or may not be paraphrasing André Jute, who said, “Good novels are not written, they are rewritten. Great novels are diamonds mined from layered rewrites.” Hemingway put it more bluntly: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

As far as that little cabin by the river? Well…

We are not alone. I confess I was relieved to learn that writing fiction isn’t all about sitting in a room alone with a computer. Sure, there’s that, but there is a lot of interaction going on in the fiction publishing world.

I’m used to working with a team on creative projects. I like getting feedback on my work. I learned as a newspaper writer and designer that the more eyes you can get on a page before it goes out means less chance of epic embarrassment. (Newspaper owners don’t understand this and are laying off editors in droves, so keep an eye out for more epic embarrassment. Actually, that might be a good reason to start reading newspapers again.)  This perspective turned out to be an advantage in critique workshops, which are a part of the MFA program and also, I think, a helpful step in the writing process. I look at critiques as an opportunity for fresh ideas, not as personal attacks.

Authors go to fun conventions and workshops and network online with each other, providing moral support and sharing knowledge about the craft and the industry. Okay, some of them say nasty things about other authors on Amazon, but we aren’t going to hang out with them.

Finally, the reason authors aren’t alone anymore is that they are now responsible for much of their own marketing, as I mentioned above. This is where you set up a website or blog, try to figure out something to say on Twitter, and go along with whatever Facebook is doing to us that week. This involves interacting with readers, which Hemingway and those guys never had to worry about much, but then again, they missed out on a lot of moral support from their fans. Also stalkers and trolls. I guess that’s what you’d call a downside. I’m just starting out, so I’m going to hope that stalkers and trolls are in the minority.

You may want to put off shopping for that beach mansion. Or the cabin by the river. The last figure I heard was that the average author advance these days is about $3,000. Sure, there are people who break out and manage multiple bestsellers, but there are many, many more, mid-list writers with multiple books published, who still can’t quit the day job. I’ve never heard anybody say, “Hey, if you want to get rich quick, write a novel!” If anybody tells you that, don’t listen. (I’m not going to get into self-publishing here. That’s another area where nobody knows what’s going on.)

So there you have it. The real life of the modern author. I’m relieved to find that I’m not alone, yet nervous about the whole process. Of course, I’m not going to have to worry about all this if I don’t do the most important thing I’ve learned, which is: Plant butt in chair. Hands on keyboard. Finish the book.

Do you have a favorite author blog or website? Authors you like to follow on Twitter?

I Am So Over Gardening

Here’s a photo from about a year ago showing my backyard vegetable garden:

garden.501

Here’s a photo of that garden now:

scarygarden3

The only things growing there now are one insane Italian parsley plant and a rogue tomato vine that is only thriving because I was was completely unaware of it until I went outside to dump something into the compost pile a couple of weeks ago. (There’s another trend I’m getting over; more on that later.)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have tried and failed to grow tomatoes. My mother, who effortlessly grew lush, eight-foot-tall tomato plants in boxes on her deck, tried to help me out by sending me the boxes she used, which were supposed to make the gardening process practically automatic. They were self-watering, and all I had to do was refill them occasionally and watch out for pests. Right. Fail, fail, fail.

I tried buying big, healthy plants. I tried starting my own seedlings. I tried inside, outside, upside down. There was apparently no way on earth a tomato would come to fruition in my care. Then, outside, in the middle of winter, there suddenly appears a healthy, fully grown tomato plant, as if to say, “Ha ha, Laurie, look at us! We are better off without you!” The plant is not staked, is surrounded by weeds, has not been watered or fertilized, and yet there it is, strong, healthy and rebelliously producing fruit. This is just the final proof that plants don’t like me.

My delusional adventures in gardening began about two years ago. I believe this can be partially attributed to identity crisis following my earlier-than-planned departure from the newspaper industry. This coincided with the major economic downturn that had many people looking toward getting back to basics, and so I jumped onto a national bandwagon of growing organic food at home, and planned to also hop on the home-canning trend, too. We would be stocked up with healthy, flavorful organic vegetables year-round!

Despite a lifelong history of having plants generally ignore my friend requests, I planted squash, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes and peppers, with marigolds in between that were supposed to repel insects. The squash, as you can see in the top photo above, sprouted up beautifully. Then, just as quickly, it developed an incurable disease and rotted. The cucumbers spread wildly but never grew much past cocktail gherkin size. Two rows of corn provided a nice snack for the squirrels, and you know how it went with the tomatoes. The only success I had was with peppers, but this brings me to a major problem I learned about gardening, which is, if you do grow anything, you end up with too much of that thing, so you end up eating salsa with everything for weeks and still have to go to the store to get onions and all the other things you don’t grow.

I know a lot of successful gardeners, and they’re probably shaking their heads right now, wondering what’s wrong with me. Maybe some will side with the plants and unfriend me. However, I don’t think I’m the only one that feels this way. Last spring I interviewed a local landscaper for a story on upcoming home and garden trends, and he told me that he was getting fewer requests to put in vegetable garden beds. In fact, the major upcoming trend seemed to lean toward paving over the backyard altogether and maybe putting in some artifical turf. (This is in Florida. If you’ve ever cared for a yard here in the summer, you will understand this.)

The other thing I may abandon is composting. I never did that right, anyway. You’re supposed to invest in, or build, a nice compost bin and use official composting techniques such as layering with leaves or newspapers and flipping it all around occasionally. I never did any of that. I just piled some bricks in a corner and dumped my kitchen scraps out there. Sometimes I put leaves on it. It worked fine for a while, though it pretty much disappeared under weeds before I actually got to apply it to the garden. Now I suspect that it’s behind our recent fruit fly invasion. It has also occurred to me that I am taking away valuable organic material from the landfill. Wouldn’t it help the landfill to put good things in it, too?

I’m still dumping things in the yard as I ponder this, and in my defense I will say that I do recycle everything. Oh, and I haven’t killed the herbs, so I plan to keep them going. The tomatoes and I will remain civil but will probably never really be friends.

Are you a great gardener? Or are you ready to give up?

How to Make Eggless Homemade Ravioli

Recently I’ve had a couple of people ask me how to make homemade ravioli. Okay, it wasn’t all that recently. It was before the holidays, when I typically make a lot of ravioli. However, during the holidays I generally don’t have time to do anything more than make the ravioli and post a show-offy picture on Facebook, then collapse from exhaustion. Now that I’ve recovered, I thought I’d share my totally non-expert thoughts on making ravioli.

Though I’ve been known to make occasional random batches of ravioli here and there year-round, we have a tradition of having it on Christmas Eve at our house as part of our Feast of the Two Fishes. (This is based on the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but as we are a small family and only two of us are part Italian, we’re down to two fishes. Actually, they are usually crustaceans and bivalves, if you want to be exact, but hey, at least we have a tradition.)

I’m not sure when this got started, but clearly it was sometime after I learned to make ravioli, and then found a really good butternut squash ravioli recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse. I usually pair it with broiled shrimp and scallops with just a touch of Cajun seasoning on them.

As I said, I’m no expert in pasta making. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, my ancestors hailed from every western European country except Italy, so I’m not sure where I got my affinity for Italian food. If you want to learn about ravioli from an expert, check out this video from Laura Schenone, author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family (Norton, 2008). I also highly recommend the book.

To paraphrase the book jacket, Schenone has clearly mastered “… the mysteries of pasta, rolled on a pin into a perfect circle of gossamer dough.” That’s not how I do it, and to be honest, I’ve never had anyone fall out of his chair raving about how gossamery my pasta is. However, they do gobble it up and ask for more, and my way is a bit faster and easier, so I’ll share it. Note: My son is allergic to eggs, so I use Mario Batali‘s recipe for Eggless Pasta.

Things You’ll Need

  • Food processor, pasta machine, ravioli mold, rolling pin, small cookie scoop
  • 1 recipe ravioli (see above link)
  • Filling (see above link and recipe below)

Before we get started, I’d just like to say a thing or two about ravioli molds. I have a ravioli mold that makes a dozen medium-sized ravioli at a time. It’s easier than cutting them out individually and pressing them together, but the drawback is that it sometimes allows for air pockets. These are considered uncool among the ravioli crowd, I believe because they can cause the ravioli to break open. A friend tried a ravioli stamp and wasn’t crazy about it. My dream tool would be a ravioli pin like the one Schenone uses in her video. But then we’re getting into rolling-out-circles-of-gossamer territory, so it may be a while.

Instructions

First, make your filling. If you make the full recipe for Batali’s pasta, you will have enough for a batch of butternut squash pasta and a batch of another. I make cheese (recipe below). You can also halve the recipe for lesser occasions.

Next, make the pasta. The traditional method calls for piling your flour in the center of a cutting board, making a well in the center and adding your water (or eggs, if using) a little at a time, stirring with your hands, and then kneading. My method calls for piling the flour in a large food processor and adding water a little at a time with the processor running on a low speed. As soon as it comes together, take it out and divide into two balls. Cover one and set aside. Knead the dough by running it through the pasta machine on the widest setting 8-10 times. Cover and set aside. Repeat with remaining pasta. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.ravioli2 (2)

To fill the pasta, roll it through the pasta machine at increasing settings until it is thin but not so much that it won’t hold filling. I usually stop at level 4 or 5. Lightly flour the pasta mold and lay the dough across it. Use the plastic thingy that comes with the mold to make indentions for your filling. Using a small (teaspoon-sized) cookie dough scoop, fill each section. Cover the ravioli with another section of dough. Seal the ravioli by rolling with a rolling pin, starting in the center of the mold and working outward. Flip the mold over and gently remove the ravioli. Place the ravioli in a large dish sprinkled with cornmeal (I also use wax paper between layers). Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Chill in refrigerator until ready to cook.

To cook, simply drop in boiling water until ravioli floats to the top. Many people recommend salting the water for various reasons. I’m going to leave that up to you.

Cheese Ravioli Filling

Makes enough filling for 1/2 of Mario Batali’s Eggless Pasta recipe.

8 ounces ricotta

4 ounces shredded mozzarella

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley

Pinch nutmeg

Mix ingredients in food processor or by hand.

Laurie’s Holiday Bourbon Balls

Aside

I think I have bourbon ball elbow. It’s a condition that mimics the symptoms of tennis elbow but is caused by standing over a double boiler for hours dipping balls of filling into melted chocolate. I may be getting too old for this holiday game.

You'll get approximately ten dozen bourbon balls from this recipe, plenty to allow you to pick out only the pretty ones to give as gifts.

You’ll get approximately ten dozen bourbon balls from this recipe, plenty to allow you to pick out only the pretty ones to give as gifts.

In the past, I took my role as a Christmas tradition-holder seriously, churning out dozens of baked treats from my great-grandmother’s recipes and introducing a few new recipes into the mix. In recent years, with the back-to-basics mentality brought on by the economy, it became trendy among my friends to make homemade gifts, so for me, baking was a perfect fit, and the bourbon ball list grew.

Now my friends and I are starting to figure out that you can make yourself crazy and take all the joy out of your own holidays by trying to make everything yourself. And you don’t save money – I just spent $35 on pecans, for example. Sure, homemade gifts are charming and meaningful, but if the end of it I’m exhausted and definitely not charming, it may be worth rethinking. This week I had my annual “Ack!” moment when I look at the Advent calendar and realize my son has not, in fact, been cheating and opening the doors ahead. So I’ll be standing in line at the UPS store once again and saying, “Yours will be late” a lot.

I’ve already threatened to send everybody a Yankee candle and be done with it next year, but I’m sure by then my holiday spirit will be recharged and I’ll start the madness all over again.

If you’re a crazy person holiday baker and are up for a new challenge festive treat recipe, here’s the recipe that gave me the bourbon ball elbow. These are pretty boozy, which makes dealing the filling a bit of a challenge because it has to stay very cold. You can make your life easier by reducing the bourbon or leaving it out altogether, but where’s the fun in that?

Laurie’s Bourbon Balls

Makes about 10-12 dozen, depending on size.

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

32 ounces plus 2 cups confectioner’s sugar

1 can sweetened condensed milk

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons bourbon

3 cups chopped walnuts

1 cup flaked coconut

24 ounces chocolate chips*

1 bar paraffin

Cream butter in a large bowl. Add confectioner’s sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and bourbon, mix well. Stir in nuts and coconut. Cover and chill at least two hours or overnight.

Roll filling into teaspoon-sized balls and place on a parchment-covered cookie sheet. Insert toothpick into each. Place cookie sheet back into refrigerator to chill before dipping. Repeat with as many cookie sheets as you have room for in the refrigerator.

Melt paraffin and chocolate chips in a double boiler. Dip each ball into chocolate and place on wax paper or parchment to set. Repeat with rest of balls.**

After the balls are cooled and set, remove the toothpicks with a twisting motion. Drizzle chocolate over each to cover the toothpick hole.

Drizzle a little chocolate over the top to cover the toothpick holes.

Drizzle a little chocolate over the top to cover the toothpick holes.

* Depending on how small you make your balls of filling, you may need more chocolate. I often end up throwing in an extra cup of chocolate chips and about a tablespoon-sized chunk of paraffin.

** If the filling becomes soft while you’re dipping, return it to the refrigerator or freezer to chill completely before resuming. Otherwise, they will fall into the chocolate and melt. Disaster. Put the lid on the double boiler and turn the heat off, and go wrap presents for half an hour to an hour, then turn the heat back on the chocolate and resume dipping.

Do you have a favorite holiday recipe or homemade gift idea? Or have you abandoned this insanity altogether?

My friend Scott runs for Sandy Hook victims. Little kids having trouble with Christmas song. And an angel saves a woman in a fender-bender.

lauriesterbens:

Blogger Michael Lewis writes about my husband’s fundraising effort for the Sandy Hook families. Thank you, Michael!

Originally posted on Wide World of Stuff:

newtown.scottrun

I first met Scott Sterbens in December, 2005, when I started working at the Daytona Beach News-Journal newspaper. Scott was an assistant sports editor there, and over the next five years he became my best friend at the paper.

We bonded over our shared love and misery of the Jets (we watched the AFC championship game in 2011 at his house, with an unopened bottle of champagne in my car, just waiting to be opened in case of a Jets win. Of course, the champagne stayed sealed), we made all kinds of sarcastic remarks that only we found funny, and we endured the misery of layoff after layoff at the paper, while friends of ours saw their jobs and livelihoods stripped away.

Scott is a true and honest friend, and a really good husband and father, so when I heard what he was doing for the victims of Sandy Hook…

View original 226 more words

When Life Hands You Peppers, Make Salsa

I only have one little jalapeno plant, but it has kept me busy making salsa.

As I have mentioned in some of my earlier posts, I am a sort of a hapless gardener. I’ve been at it for about a year and a half, and in the beginning I even killed squash. I thought anybody could grow squash. Now I’m kind of hit or miss, but I have found that peppers seem to be pretty much Laurie-proof. I have a randomly planted collection of bells, hot bananas and jalapenos that just keep growing and going. Now I’m starting to wonder about the bell peppers. Maybe I should ask somebody about whether the plants are supposed to get as big as trees. I was sort of envisioning large-houseplant-sized units that would give me a few peppers over the summer and then die so I could plant pumpkins. Now I have a small pepper orchard. Not that I’m complaining.

I only have one jalapeno plant, but it is very energetic. Lately we’ve been eating lots of fresh salsa, which is a healthy snack, except that it goes on chips, which aren’t so much. We like Archer Farms Blue Corn Tortilla Chips with Flaxseed. Organic, whole grain, a little flax, not bad on sodium. We do what we can.

The great thing about salsa, besides being healthy, is that even if you start with a recipe, it’s almost impossible not to make it your own. And even if you end up with something different every time, it’s probably going to be good.

Speaking of variations, here’s a link to a recipe for Mango Salsa that I make whenever there is an occasion for mango salsa, such as fish tacos, grilled fish or grilled chicken. It’s good on chips, and I’ve learned that if you give me access to mango salsa and whole wheat Ritz crackers, someone will need to plan an intervention. My secret weapon for making this chunky salsa is my Genius Nicer Dicer, which quickly makes perfect diced mango and bell peppers, and has a smaller size that’s great for the  jalapenos. In fact, it’s worth the price of this tool just to avoid dealing with onions and peppers.

Fresh Tomato Salsafresh salsa by Laurie Sterbens

4 large tomatoes

1/2 bunch cilantro

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1/2 bunch green onions or 1/4 sweet yellow onion (or combination of both)

2 cloves garlic

2 large jalapeno peppers with seeds, stems removed

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon stevia sweetener

Salt and pepper to taste

Quarter tomatoes and roughly chop cilantro, onions and peppers. Combine with remaining ingredients in the bowl of a large food processor. Pulse to desired consistency. (I don’t recommend a blender; the salsa will emulsify and turn beige. Tastes the same, just not pretty.)