Time to Stay In
Cooking at home shows such affection. In a bad economy, it's more important to make yourself feel good. ~ Ina Garten
Many of us may be experiencing something new in our lives right now: the act of cooking for ourselves at home. For some, this may be no big deal; for others—not so much. We at Letters thought this time around, we’d offer a new perspective on our Dining Out segment and focus instead on Dining In.
You may recognize my name from my column, The Real Dirt, where I provide information and tips for gardeners and gardeners at heart. I also love to be in the kitchen, either baking some tasty treats or cooking a dinner for two. In some cases, I combine these passions.
I’m a blend of Ina Garten for her pure joy of food, Sandra Lee for her semi-homemade easiness, and Vivian Howard for her tying food to seasonality and sense of place. I’m also very much my German and Serbian roots, so a lot of stick-to-your-ribs dishes and hearty meals.
There’s not one ounce of Italian in me, but my chicken Parmesan has become a standard meal in our home. Ending the dinner with a slice of rum cake is sure to satisfy. So here, for your pleasure, is an easy dish made with simple ingredients that doesn’t require all day in the kitchen. It’s paired with a semi-homemade dessert that’s so easy you’ll be making it every week.
For the chicken
4 chicken breasts, thin-sliced or butterflied and flattened
½ cup flour for dredging
2 eggs for dredging, beaten
1 cup each of seasoned breadcrumbs and panko breadcrumbs, mixed, for coating
Salt and pepper
4 oz shredded mozzarella cheese and ½ cup grated Parmesan for topping chicken
For the Bolognese
Favorite sausage or ground beef, 1 pound
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves minced
½ diced green pepper
1 can (6 oz) tomato paste
1 cup red wine, (for deglazing pan—may substitute beef/vegetable broth)
1 can (14-oz) diced tomatoes
1 can (28-oz) crushed tomatoes
1 can (24-oz) spaghetti sauce, (I use either garlic-herb or chunky vegetable)
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tbsp dried Italian seasoning
1 tbsp dried or 2 tbsp fresh, chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
Sprinkle of nutmeg
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp red wine vinegar
Directions for chicken: Get three bowls (8x8 baking dishes work well too). Place flour in one, beaten eggs in the second, and breadcrumbs in the third. Season the chicken breasts on both sides with salt and pepper and season the eggs with a little of both as well. Then try and keep a ‘dry’ hand and a ‘wet’ hand for the chicken process. I usually suck at it, so I get gobs of flour and egg on my fingers, but I don’t care because I’m enjoying myself. Flour each breast and shake off excess, then dip into egg and allow excess to drip off. Then drop in breadcrumbs and press crumbs into chicken, making sure it sticks well. Set aside on large plate and continue to dredge all chicken pieces. Heat vegetable or canola oil in a large skillet until a small bit of breadcrumb dropped into it begins to bubble. Fry the chicken pieces in batches about 2-3 minutes per side until golden brown. Chicken does not have to be cooked through as it will continue to cook in oven later. Drain on paper towels.
Directions for Bolognese: Sautee onions and green pepper in a little olive oil until just starting to get tender. Add in ground beef and brown until no longer pink. Season with salt and pepper along the way. Drain excess grease and return to heat. Add tomato paste and stir to combine. Cook until mixture begins to stick and brown on bottom of pan. Deglaze with wine or broth and stir up all those tasty bits. Add in diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, and sauce. Add in the rest of the ingredients except for vinegar. Stir to combine and allow to simmer until all flavors are blended, about 30 minutes. This means you need to taste it! Adjust seasoning to taste. Finish with the vinegar in order to add a bit of acidity and freshness at the end.
Put it together: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place chicken in a large baking dish and top with Bolognese on each piece. Sprinkle tops with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Serve with a side salad or your favorite pasta, and a big chunk of garlic bread.
My mom makes this rum cake around the holidays, but I’ve been leaning on it as an emotional pick-me-up in turbulent times. She makes it in mini loaf pans and saturates it with glaze so you can get drunk on just a few pieces. I make it in a Bundt® pan because it’s pretty and I’m all about the visual.
Prepare a Bundt® pan by spraying bottom and sides with baking spray. Sprinkle about 1 cup of chopped pecans in the bottom of the pan. You can place some boozy cherries for decoration too. Mix together 1 box of yellow cake mix, 1 box of instant vanilla pudding (I use sugar free because I am so svelte), 4 eggs, ½ cup water, ½ cup oil, and ½ cup rum.
Pour into Bundt® pan and bake in 325 degree oven for 50 to 60 minutes, until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool for 1 hour in the pan, then invert it onto a platter. For the glaze, boil 1 stick of butter, ¼ cup water, and 1 cup sugar for 5 minutes. Stir constantly. Take off heat and add ½ cup rum. Poke cake with toothpick and baste with glaze until it all saturates the cake. Enjoy!##
Eric W. Wahl, The Cook and the Gardener on Facebook