About Tom

Creative home cook and party planner. I live to cook for and entertain family and friends in my Chicago loft. I love to use my life-long experience of entertaining and my penchant for creative menu development to satiate the tummies and invigorate the spirit of those I love

Baked chicken Parmesan

Baked, not fried, Chicken Parmesan. Don’t let the wordiness of this recipe prevent you from trying it. The 3 main components are a tomato sauce (you could even use your favorite pasta sauce and skip making your own all together), setting up a breading station (not as daunting as it may sound) and preparing your chicken and cheese.

Pounding boneless skinless chicken breasts flat is a great way to prepare them for all kinds of cooking, from baking like we are doing here or poaching or even stir-frying. It ensures that the chicken will cook evenly and the center of the breasts will be done cooking when the edges are fully cooked without over-cooking, keeping the breast moist and tender.

Ingredients
For the sauce
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 medium shallot, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
Big pinch red pepper flakes, then to taste
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 14 to 15 ounce- can tomato sauce
1 bay leaf

For the breading
1 cup flour
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon water
1 1/2 cups Italian seasoned panko breadcrumbs
Kosher salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill

For the chicken
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts

For final cooking and presentation
1 8 ounce ball fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 cup freshly finely grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Reggiano
Fresh basil sprigs or leaves

Method
For the sauce
Heat the oil over medium high heat in a medium sauce pan until it begins to shimmer. Add the minced shallot and a pinch of salt and cook until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Season with freshly ground black pepper and red pepper flakes and cook another 15 seconds. Add the tomato paste and cook until dark red/rust colored, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce and bay leaf; give everything a big stir, then bring to a simmer, 5 to 7 minutes, then reduce heat to low

Set an oven rack in the center position and heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a half sheet pan with a non-stick silicone mat or parchment paper.

Set up a breading station
Line up 3 glass pie plates or rimmed platters. In the first plate add the flour and a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper and whisk the seasonings into the flour with a fork. Crack the eggs into the second plate and whisk smooth with 1 tablespoon water. In the third plate add the panko and a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste and mix the seasonings in with your fingers.

For the chicken
Start with a long sheet of plastic wrap. Place a breast in the middle third of the right-hand side (or left hand side if you are left-handed). Bring the opposite end of the plastic wrap over the chicken and line up the edges. The chicken should now be covered and there should be plenty of room around the chicken to expand, staying between the plastic wrap and not extended out onto your work surface. Use a flat meat mallet or a rolling pin and pound the chicken flat, pounding mainly in the center where it is the thickest. The final thickness should be between 1/4 to 1/3 inch thick. Have a separate plate for the chicken breasts to land once they are processed.

Lay a chicken breast in the flour and coat completely then shake off the excess. Transfer the dusted breast to the egg mixture and coat completely, letting the excess drip off. Press the dusted and eggy breast to the panko and coat, pressing the panko onto the breast covering it completely. Transfer the coated breast to the prepared sheet tray. Coat each of the remaining breasts in the same way.

Place the tray of breaded chicken breasts into the oven and set a timer for 20 minutes. After 2o minutes remove the chicken from the oven and cover the top of each breast with 1 scant up of the prepared sauce. Then cover the sauce with an even layer of the fresh mozzarella slices followed by 1/2 cup grated Parmesan over each breast.

Transfer the tray back to the oven and cook an additional 10 minutes to melt the cheese.

Portion the chicken out onto dinner platters and garnish with a sprig of fresh basil.


Chicken parm by Tom Saaristo

Spinach artichoke gratin

Link

Do you really need another Spinach artichoke dip? You do when it is this good. Not so over-stuffed with cheese to turn it into rubber and not so heavy with mayonnaise that it is greasy or separates when reheated, yet still very flavorful and just creamy enough

This bakes up more like a gratin so I recommend slicing up a baguette and schmearing the slices with the gratin rather than trying to drag a tortilla chip through it

For a hint of heat, offer up a selection of favorite hot sauces and let guests help themselves

Ingredients
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup diced sweet onion, such as Vidalia
2 large cloves garlic, smashed, peeled and finely minced
9 – 11 ounce box/bag frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed dry (see Note)
14 ounce can whole artichoke hearts in water, drained, roughly chopped (see Note 2)
8 ounce block cream cheese, ART*
1/3 cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise
House salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
1 fresh nutmeg, for grating
1 cup packed grated Gruyere cheese, divided
1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano, divided
1 18 inch long French sourdough baguette, for service

Method
Place a half sheet pan on the rack below the rack on which the gratin will bake

Heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit

Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. When the foam from the butter subsides, stir in onions and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir garlic into the onions and slide the pan off the heat and allow to cool slightly

In a large bowl, stir together the onions, spinach, artichokes, cream cheese, mayonnaise, half the Gruyere, the 1/3 cup of Parmesan and salt, freshly milled pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to taste until very well combined

Mix the remaining 1/2 cup Gruyere and 2 tablespoons of Parmesan together

Spoon the mixture into a 9-inch pie plate then smooth into an even layer. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining Gruyere-Parmesan

Bake until hot and bubbling and the edges turn golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes (to further brown the top run the gratin under the broiler until the desired color is reached, watching it carefully)

Serve Spinach artichoke gratin with sliced sourdough baguette and palate knives for spreading

Note: Not every box of frozen spinach is the same weight. That can vary by brand and even within brand. Be sure to check that you have a box (or bag) that is at least 9 ounces but no more than 11

Note 2: I believe artichoke hearts in water in cans have more flavor than frozen artichokes but aren’t so saturated in a piquant dressing like the bottled ones. I buy the 14 ounce cans based on price, which can vary. Sometimes the whole large artichokes are less expensive than the smaller ones, sometimes they aren’t. Of course the smaller whole artichokes don’t need to be chopped as much. For processing the larger ones, I slice in half the long way then cut each half into thirds the short way. I want my guests know they are in the gratin so I don’t chop them too finely. Don’t buy chopped artichoke hearts because you never know what you might end up with

*Having the cream cheese ART – At Room Temperature – will make it easy to stir it into the other ingredients

View a photo of the finished dish on Instagram

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Brunch burritos

Brunch fodder … mainly because it takes a few steps to pull these together, a bit more time than most people have during the week, but you can make these anytime you wish. Breakfast for dinner anyone?

Folding the medium-sized flour tortillas piled with filling simply takes the better part of your conviction

Have ready a half sheet pan (rimmed baking sheet) lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat or brush lightly with melted butter or vegetable oil or a combination of both

Ingredients here make 3 burritos

Serving size: 1 per person

Ingredients
4 slices thick-cut smoked bacon (I’m on an Applewood bend right now)
7 large eggs, preferably organic
House salt
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon rendered bacon fat
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
3 medium flour tortillas, preferably organic
4 ounces extra sharp white Cheddar cheese, grated
4 scallions, green and light green parts finely sliced
Chili sauce or hot sauce or ketchup or favorite salsa
Sour cream, for serving

Method
Cook the bacon in the method of your choice until it reaches your desired texture. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels or brown paper. Strain the rendered fat through a sieve into a ramekin and set aside

Heat the oven to 355 degrees Fahrenheit (if you haven’t already because you roasted your bacon)

Crack the eggs into a medium bowl and discard the shells. Season with salt and whisk in the heavy cream until thoroughly combined

Add 2 teaspoons of the bacon fat to a non-stick skillet and heat over medium high heat until it just begins to smoke. Pour the eggs in an even flow into the center of the pan. As the eggs start to coagulate draw them to the center of the pan with a small non-stick spoonula, continue to stir the eggs as they turn opaque. When the eggs are almost done pour them out onto a rimmed plate, break up the curds, season with freshly ground black pepper and cover the eggs with a flat piece of aluminum foil

Char the tortillas on the grate of a gas burner until they puff and get lightly charred; conversely, toast them on a baking sheet in the heated oven for a few minutes

For final assembly and service
Divide the cheese evenly across the tortillas followed by an even distribution of the eggs. Divide the scallions evenly across the eggs. Season the eggs/onions with the sauce of your choice. Cut/snap the bacon into quarters and put 3 slices in a row across the eggs/onions. Fold the bottom of the tortilla up (with the fillings) up towards the center, not quite half way up, and then fold in the sides to cover the filling completely. Transfer the burrito to the prepared half sheet pan, seam-side down (turning them over). Cover the burritos (not the pan) tightly with foil and bake for 7 to 10 minutes to heat them through and  to melt the cheese. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Remove the foil and transfer burritos to plates. Serve with sour cream for dipping

2 Flatbread for The Golden Globes

Having tried pita for a short rib flatbread-type appetizer recently I wondered why some companies call them ‘pita’ while others say ‘pocket pita’. ALL pita have a pocket. Redundant much? While the pita I bought had very good flavor, cutting them into wedges revealed the double-layers and made eating the appetizer harder than it could have been.

Today I’m using Naan

Flatbread 1: Shrimp ‘scampi’ with white wine poached shrimp, great olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, Manzanilla olives, grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and freshly ground black pepper layered on Naan that has been marked on both sides on a gas burner

Flatbread 2: Barbecue chicken with rotisserie chicken pulled and sauced with smoky barbecue sauce, quick pickle red onion, crispy Applewood smoked bacon bits and toasted sesame seeds layered on Naan that has been marked on both sides on a gas burner

Flatbread 2 might get some baby arugula because I have it on hand

Champagne or other favorite sparkling wine is always a good choice when you are serving foods with different flavors that a single wine might not be able to bring together.

Enjoy The Globes, or The Globs which is what they’re called around here!

Thanksgiving 2016

I have been hosting Thanksgiving dinner ever since I moved to Chicago. In the beginning my roommates and I all chipped in with preparing the annual dinner (why did the oven always seem to break on Thanksgiving morning?) Once I moved out I started hosting for the other folks, like me, whose job or other commitments prevented them from taking any more time off than just the holiday. After a few years those commitments went away and I was able to take that time off and concentrate more time on planning the annual dinner. My guest list was now filled with friends and it wasn’t long before I started to think beyond the traditional dinner of turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes … and while I do love that tradition and that traditional food, I tend to think non-traditional even if I do serve turkey. Instead of a whole bird I might do something like Braised Turkey Thighs, a nice option especially when all of my guests prefer dark meat. I start by thinking of a theme, like “Modern Scandinavian” or “Pub Crawl”, and build my menu around that. I serve my dinners restaurant style, as opposed to buffet or family-style and take on almost all of the cooking. Friends are typically tasked with ordering the flowers or bringing the booze. I don’t typically reveal the theme, instead I hope that my friends feel the warmth and appreciation of the gathering and love the food for what it is: a reflection of my affection for cooking and for them.

Vintner & vintage of Champagne and wines yet to be determined

Welcome
Champagne toast
Duck breast rumaki, uncured wild Cherrywood bacon

Amuse bouche
Caesar salad, Parmesan tuile, garlic-butter crouton
Continue Champagne

Soup
Prawn bisque, spicy oyster crackers

Main & sides
Prime rib au jus, 3 sauces
Gratin of spinach
Thrice-baked potatoes
Fried onion ‘cake’ with spicy barbecue aioli
Duck fat popovers, butter

Dessert
Fallen chocolate cake, glazing sugar, pomegranate redux
Coffee: Peet’s Italian roast

“Cigar”
Trio of handmade Martha Washington candies
Cognac: Grand Marnier 100 year old cuvee

The Art of the Picnic

There’s something about a picnic that can elevate even the lowly balogna and cheese sandwich to gourmet status, well, at least make it seem more special than it really is. Foods taste different outdoors too, not to mention the fact that when you’re off on a picnic, you are with people you choose to be with.

There are different types of picnics. Lounging on a good blanket on the lawn, or in a meadow, or on a riverbed, or at a concert doesn’t have a hold on the idea of picnicking. A picnic, by definition, is any meal eaten out of doors, generally on an excursion.

If you’re anything like me, you might prefer those lovely fall days on which to picnic. Indian summer is a great time for picnicking! The first frost has passed, coloring the leaves, and suppressing the ants to the underground, but the sun shines bright, warming the ground and the air for what could well be the nicest time of year for a picnic. But I’m not selling Indian summer picnics. I’m touting the picnic as a do-ahead-so-you-can-enjoy-yourself meal. For two or twenty, the picnic has its roots in the prepare and transport methodology. You can prepare your picnic the day before, instead of the morning of and thoroughly enjoy your day. Most picnic food is actually better if it’s leftover. Envision a picnic: a meal eaten outdoors on a blanket in the grass, under a shady tree perhaps, sans ants.

Eating on the picnic table in the backyard of your home (or somebody else’s home) is perhaps the most popular form of the picnic. The fare tends to be more traditional, with more of everything. Throw in whatever the neighbors bring and your heading towards a block party or a pot luck. Nevermind; if you’re eating all of those wonderful foods outside, it’s still a form of the picnic.

Food safety is of the utmost importance when picnicking. As much as it gets a bad rap, store-bought mayonnaise contains pasteurized eggs and enough salt and lemon juice or vinegar that it actually inhibits bacterial growth. Low-acid foods in picnic dishes such as potatoes, chicken, and ham are much more susceptible to bacterial growth than the mayonnaise itself. It’s the foods that breed bacteria, not the mayonnaise. It’s easy to deal with ants and other little picnic pests you can see; the tough ones to avoid are the invisible organisms that can make you sick. Here are some guidelines for packing and transporting picnic foods safely.

The bugs that cause food poisoning thrive at temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. Don’t leave prepared foods in that danger zone more than two hours. When the outdoor temperature rises above 90 degrees, the time limit is one hour. Discard any leftovers or any questionable foods. Wait until just before leaving home to pack chilled foods in an insulated cooler, and make sure you have plenty of ice or ice packs to surround them. Containers of frozen juice or juice concentrate can help keep other foods cold.

Take two coolers, one for drinks, the other for perishable foods. That way, warm air won’t reach the perishables each time someone reaches for a beverage.

In hot weather, keep the cooler in the air-conditioned passenger compartment of the car, not in the trunk. At the picnic, keep the cooler in the shade.

Wash your hands before and after handling food. Soap and hot water are ideal, but bring along a jug of water and paper towels in case none are available at the picnic site. Disposable moist towelettes are an easy-to-carry option.

Wrap uncooked chicken and meats in separate tightly sealed bags or containers, and put them in the bottom of the cooler. Cook them within one hour of leaving home.

When grilling, use a meat thermometer to be sure meats and poultry reach a safe temperature. Cook chicken breasts to 170 degrees Fahrenheit; other poultry to 180 degrees Fahrenheit; beef, lamb, and veal steaks and roasts to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for medium-rare or 160 degrees Fahrenheit. for medium doneness.

Make your picnic/Memorial Day weekend/4th of July memorable for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

Serving pieces (pocket knife, spoons, corkscrew, etc.) utensils, napkins (preferably cloth for less litter), cups, cutting board (one without feet: saves space and you can use both sides), plates, and trash bags are de rigueur. Tow everything in a gorgeous fabric-lined picnic basket to add a level of sophistication to the event. Or use any large basket or bag. Just make sure it’s big enough to carry the food and enough cold packs or zipper bags filled with ice to keep food cold.

Keep your picnic simple or elaborate, but definitely safe, and FUN!

Turkey, Jarlsburg and olive salad sandwiches

Inspired by those expensive but addictive sandwiches from those ubiquitous boulangiers around the country

Plan ahead, these pressed sandwiches need to be weighted down for at least 8 hours

Ingredients
2/3  cup green olives
1/4 cup black olives
7 ounces canned or thawed frozen artichoke hearts (not bottled and marinated)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 crushed garlic clove
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano
Pinch of kosher salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 white sandwich rolls
8 ounces white turkey meat, sliced
8 ounces Jarlsburg or Aged-Swiss cheese, sliced
Extra Virgin olive oil or mayonnaise

Method
Coarsely chop the olives and quarter the artichoke hearts, transferring to a bowl

Mix vinegar, garlic, basil, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the oil. Pour the marinade over the vegetables and leave covered at room temperature for 30 minutes

Split the rolls. Brush the interior of the tops with Extra virgin olive oil (or mayonnaise). Divide the sliced turkey and cheese on bottom half. Top with olive salad and cover with top half of roll. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then in foil. Place the sandwiches on a half sheet pan or tray platter with some heavy cans on top to weight down on the sandwiches. Refrigerate under the weight 8 hours or up to 24

Unwrap the foil from the pressed sandwiches and distribute. Serve with kettle-cooked potato chips and cold beverages

5 for Cinco de Mayo: Quesadillas

Cinco de Mayo is Thursday and while it is typically a low-key event at home with family in Mexico, we like to turn the party whenever possible; to wit: A week of easy and delicious dishes and drinks to share with friends and family

Day 2: Quesadillas

Quesadillas are easy to prepare and can be customized from the very simple and sublime to the very rich and deluxe. Let your budget be your guide

Over the years I have found that a combination of melting cheeses is more flavorful than sticking with just one, typically jack

8 ounces of cheese will shred into 2 cups … i.e. these quesadillas bring the cheese!

Ingredients
4 10-inch or 8 6-inch flour tortillas
Canola oil, for the pan
1/3 cup sliced pickled jalapenos, minced
8 ounces Chihuahua cheese, shredded
8 ounces Provolone cheese, shredded
2 teaspoons paprika
Coarse grey sea salt
Cooked protein of your choice, pulled: chicken, steak, shrimp, duck

Method
Set oven rack to center position and heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush a half sheet pan generously with oil

Heat the tortillas briefly over a gas flame or in batches of 3 in the microwave, stacking them as they finish to keep them warm

Combine the minced jalapeno, cheeses and paprika together in a medium bowl. Divide the cheese mixture evenly among the tortillas, leaving a 1-inch border, and fold in half (add the cooked protein of your choice before folding if using)

Arrange the quesadillas on the oiled sheet pan and bake for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and flip the quesadillas over; return to the oven and bake another 5 to 7 minutes until hot and melty

Remove from the oven and press with a spatula before sprinkling lightly with salt

5 for Cinco de Mayo – Margaritas

5 for Cinco de Mayo
 
Cinco de Mayo is Thursday and even though most people in Mexico and Mexican-Americans will keep it low-key at home with their family, leave it to us Americans to turn any event into a party for the ages; to wit: A week of easy and delicious dishes and drinks to share with friends and family
 
Day 1 The Margarita
 
Originally created by Texas socialite Margarita Sames in 1948
 
Ingredients
1 ounce orange liqueur
2 ounces silver tequila
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
Fresh slices or wedges of lime
Coarse grey sea salt, for the glass, optional
Lime slices or wedges, for garnishing
 
Method
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the orange liqueur, silver tequila and lime juice. Replace the lid of the shaker and set aside
 
To salt the rim of your glass (optional but highly recommended):
Fill a small plate with 1/3 cup kosher or sea salt. Fill a second small plate with 1/4 cup orange liqueur. Turn a margarita glass over and press into the orange liqueur and then press the moistened rim into the salt. Turn the glass upright and fill with ice
 
Shake the chilled cocktail shaker vigorously for 30 seconds or until the cocktail shaker is covered in a white frost
 
Strain the Margarita into the prepared glass and garnish with a slice or wedge of lime

Culinary frustrations

Time for a time-honored Culinary Confession … or rather, frustrations

For some time now I have found myself frustrated by a couple of things, specifically hard-boiling eggs (as many of you know) and never knowing how many cloves of garlic you’re going to get in one head

I prided myself on being able to perfectly hard-cooked eggs that would peel like a dream. This is no longer the case and I have tried everything to fix this wrong, but nothing has worked like the way I used to do it … which, again, no longer works. I am to the point where I am blaming the eggs (everything else has changed, eggs must have too)

My other frustration is with heads of garlic. It’s always a mystery until I crush the head to separate the cloves, how many cloves you’re going to get. The other day I leaned down on the head of garlic and pressed and an octodecillion microscopic cloves spilled out all over the counter. How am I supposed to work with microscopic unpeeled garlic?

These 2 things have been going on long enough now that I have already resolved to buy hard boiled eggs and peeled garlic cloves when and where I can find them and save myself the time, expense and sanity of dealing with these two things any longer

Recipe of the week: Stuffed burger

I did not make this up, I’ve seen it a few times over the last 10 or so years, but it’s my method that will guarantee the burger doesn’t ‘explode’ when you are cooking it

I don’t always put this on a bun (especially lately as I’ve been losing weight avoiding sugar) but when I do I like to brush the inside of each half with butter and toast it in a saucepan … or on a grill pan if that is the method I am using for cooking the burger

Whether or not it goes on a toasted bun, I like to dress the Stuffed burger with mayonnaise, ketchup, Vidalia onion and soft butter lettuce leaf/leaves

Quantities here make 1 Stuffed burger

Ingredients
8 ounces ground NY strip steak
1/2 teaspoon House salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 ounce strip crispy bacon, chopped
1 ounce flat slice Fontina cheese
Pinch of cumin

Special equipment
Lid of a peanut butter jar (see Method) or other mold
Plastic wrap

Method
Heat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit

Season the meat with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Gently form into a ball and then divide in half

Line the peanut butter jar lid with plastic wrap that extends 4 inches beyond both sides. Press one half of the ground steak into an even layer on the plastic wrap inside the lid. Add the bacon and the cheese to the center of the meat (avoid the edges). Sprinkle the cheese with cumin and then add the second half of the ground steak. Fold the edges of the plastic wrap over the mean and press firmly into an even layer and to seal the ingredients into a burger. Remove the burger from the mold and remove and discard the plastic wrap

Cook the burger in the desired method: 1. Pan-fry in 2 tablespoons just-smoking canola oil, 3 minutes on the first side and 1 to 2 minutes on the second side OR 2. On a lightly oiled hot griddle pan for the same 3 minutes on the first side and 1 to 2 minutes on the second side

For both methods, transfer the burger to the oven and let it set for 5 minutes. Remove to a board, tent with foil and allow to rest for 5 minutes

Serve immediately after the Stuffed burger has rested