Daily Archives: August 19, 2007

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

Oh, I hate it when people say that. But when I cook with my mother, I know it’s true. She’s the reason I’m not very good at making things over and over again.

She was with me at Trader Joe’s last week, when I raided the store of everything convenient.

So many of you ask me how I come up with recipes. This is how it went on Monday:

Jess: I want to stuff something.

Mom: Flank steak?

Jess: Just made it. Plus, I have chicken breasts in the freezer.

Mom: Spinach?

Jess: (Picking up pre-packaged chard leaves.) Chard! Ooh, maybe some cheese?

Mom: How about this (picks up container of pre-crumbled blue cheese)? And walnuts! Use the walnuts.

And a recipe was born.

(Look, it’s one of the Christmas plates!)

Chicken with Walnuts, Bleu Cheese & Chard

Walnut-Crusted Chicken with Chard and Bleu Cheese
Recipe 231 of 365

Stuff a heady mixture of garlic-infused sautéed chard, bleu cheese, and toasted walnuts into chicken breasts, coat them with walnut dust, and pan-sear them, as directed below, or use the same stuffing for pinwheels made from thin-pounded flank steak, for filling a butterflied, rolled pork or beef tenderloin roast, or for hollowed-out Portobello mushrooms.

To make the recipe ahead of time, chill the filling while you prepare the chicken, stuff and coat the chicken, and refrigerate, well wrapped in plastic, up to 4 hours before cooking.

TIME: 40 minutes active time
MAKES: 6 servings

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1 pound coarsely chopped chard leaves (such as Trader Joe’s Chard of Many Colors)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup walnut halves, toasted
1/2 cup crumbled bleu cheese
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, then the garlic, and cook, stirring, for just a few seconds. Add half the chard, turning it with tongs to coat it with the oil, and cook, turning frequently and adding more chard as it begins to cook down, until all the chard fits in the pan. Season with salt and pepper and cook for about 10 minutes, or until all the chard is completely wilted.

Meanwhile, chop the walnuts. Transfer half of them to a large mixing bowl. Chop the remaining walnuts very, very finely, and set them aside in a small bowl. When the chard is done, transfer it to a cutting board, remove any still-crunchy stem pieces, chop the leaves finely, and add to them mixing bowl, along with the bleu cheese. Stir the chard, walnuts, and cheese together until well blended – this will be the filling for the chicken – and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Using a small, sharp knife, trim the chicken breasts, and cut each breast almost in half horizontally, so each opens like a book with one long side of the breast holding the two halves together. (Placing the chicken on the board smooth side-down makes it easier to see that both halves of the breast remain intact when you cut them, so that no stuffing will fall out.)

Season the chicken breasts inside and out with salt and pepper, and stuff each with a sixth of the stuffing mixture. Turn the closed, stuffed breasts smooth side-up on a plate, and dust with about half of the remaining finely-chopped walnuts.

Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add 1 tablespoon of the oil, swirl to coat the pan, then add three of the chicken breasts, nutty side-down. Season the newly exposed sides with half the walnuts left in the bowl. Cook for 4 minutes, or until the chicken releases easily from the pan. Flip the breasts over carefully (try not to lose any stuffing), and cook another 4 minutes on the second side, until browned. Move the chicken to a baking sheet, smooth side-up, and repeat with the remaining tablespoon oil, chicken, and walnuts. Bake the chicken on the middle rack of the oven for an additional 8 to 10 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through. Serve immediately.

Note: if you have two large, ovenproof skillets, simply cook the chicken in two skillets in one batch, then transfer the skillets to the oven for the last part of the cooking process.

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Remembering John Lancaster

Normally, my meanderings through Middlebury Magazine, my college’s quarterly alumni publication, follow the same sick paths as other readers’: first I look to see who got married, and who was there, then I check the news from my fellow graduates. Then, and only then, do I actually read the articles. And I don’t always get that far.

But I’d heard a lot about this issue, about the cover story, and about Bill Clinton’s commencement speech in May. So after dinner last night I sat down and read it, cover to cover. (There’s also a charming and thought-provoking piece on cherry picking in New Zealand.) As I flipped through the last few pages in the same lazy, obsessive, not-really-reading-but-must-look-at-every-page way I always do, the obituaries zipped by.

But not fast enough. John Lancaster, 46, of Denver, CO., one read. Class of 1982.

John! He was one of those people, the kind you see every day for part of your life but never really know. And now he’s gone, and there’s a hole where I never knew anything could be missing.

I met John Lancaster in the first week of February, in 2000. My now-husband and I were in Colorado, scoping out places to spend a year ski bumming after college. When I showed up to interview to teach ski lessons at Vail, it was John who met me at the bottom of Chair 6. I remember feeling so much more relaxed at Vail than I had at other mountains; I knew John had graduated from Middlebury, and taught at the Snow Bowl under Dwight Dunning, as I had. He’d be nice. We’d have fun.

Interviewers at other mountains had pansied around, showed me the locker room, bought me coffee, talked about PSIA standards and the change in teaching techniques. Made sure I had shaped skis before we schussed down a green groomer, trying to look perfect. The guy at A-Basin made me ski around cones. Snore.

John was not one to show is cards. He told me immediately that he was pretty sure I could teach, but showed no signs of welcoming me into the nest. He wanted to know if I could ski. Then he proceeded to kick my sea-level ass, stuff me with pasta at Mid Vail (penne bolognese and a Snickers bar, I remember), and kick my ass some more.

I got the job. And when Tito and I had narrowed it down to Vail or Copper for the following year, it was John’s approach that made me push for Vail. I knew he would make me a better skier, which might surprise anyone who’s ever taught skiing (or witnessed hordes of FILA-clad instructors joey themselves down the mountain with a surprising lack of grace or ability).

And he did. I never got to know him that well, but he was always there, the omnipresent boss, the guy everyone wanted to get in with and I knew. He was solely responsible for hooking me into private instruction, which meant for a much more enjoyable winter. Instead of herringboning up the rope tow hill, I skied. He found me a new pair of skis, a deal on boots, and a 20-day client that tipped me a grand.

But he wasn’t that kind of guy. He’d never have said look what I did for you. He never treated me any differently in front of the other instructors, he just quietly moved the best clients my way, which magically lifted me out of the ranks of first-year snot-wipers and into the private instructor squad, with the white-lipped Austrian lifers. I appreciated it, and I’m sure he knew that, but I never really thanked him for it.

I didn’t talk to John much after that year. A few Christmas cards. Said Hi to him once when I went back a few years ago, and he told me he was heading to Florida. He wanted to learn to fly helicopters and then start a flight school. Or something like that.

Then just like that, he’s dead. Died in a crash, somewhere in Louisiana, in February. He was a flight instructor.

My dad raised us with the theory of traveling debt, which he learned growing up with a parent in the military.

It goes like this: Lots of people do nice things for you over the course of your life. There’s probably no way you’ll be able to pay every single one of them back, so do what you can, when you can, where you can, for whom you can. Take your debts with you when you leave a place, and repay them when the time is right.

Reading John’s obit, I knew I’d forgotten a debt when I left Vail. It’s not that I haven’t done anything nice since then; I haven’t done anything nice and thought of him.

Thanks, John. I owe you one.

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