Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Writers Who Lunch
What’s cooking? Jersey City Chicken Salad

What do you serve a group of really special guests for lunch? The four women who came to my house today have been nothing less than extraordinary influences on my writing life. Or maybe I should just say on my life, period.

For almost a decade, we met weekly to talk about writing, to read what we’d written over the previous week, but also commenting, interpreting, suggesting, and praising each other’s work. We had different goals, different needs fulfilled by the writing, and different genres in which we worked. One is a poet, one a short story writer, one a middle-grade novelist and essayist, one a much-published author of romances and young adult novels. And me, the essayist.

Longevity isn’t the only feature that distinguished us from many writing groups. The frequency of our meetings was also unusual, as most writing groups in my experience meet monthly. Being a small group, and meeting that often, we developed an amazing closeness that transcended the writing life and into the rest of our lives. The highs and lows of married life, parenting, professional progress, and mental health in general were often on the table along with our manuscripts.

But after all those years, life intervened, and one by one, we scattered to the winds – or, rather, to Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York City. One lone member is staying put in New Jersey, maintaining our roots, but even she stages periodic escapes to Colorado.

I’ve tried other groups. Even while this New Jersey group was still going strong, I attempted to put together other groups from various writing workshops I attended. But none was so strong or so supportive. In fact, just knowing they’d be here today stirred something in the back of my brain – the need to create, to share that creativity, to hear how it affected others.

So today's lunch had to be special. I started with a cold minted pea soup, a bright green purée so smooth it fairly slips down the throat on its own. The main course was a chicken salad, tweaked a bit to accommodate some members’ dietary needs. But as often happens, the alterations produced a serendipity of flavors that I thought I should share with you.

I accompanied the chicken salad with a batch of Cochineal Drop Biscuits (from my April 28, 2011 posting), and a bright summer fruit salad of watermelon, peaches, and red and yellow New Jersey tomatoes, dressed with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a chiffonade (finely ribboned) of fresh basil. Dessert was sorbet from a local gelateria and amaretto cookies. Yum!

Jersey City Chicken Salad

4 cups cooked chicken breasts (about 1½ pound), cut or torn into bite-size pieces
1 cup walnuts, toasted (400° for 5 mins)
1 cup jicama, cut into ½-inch cubes and sprinkled with juice of ¼ lemon (if jicama is not available, use celery
2 cups seedless red grapes, halved
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
⅜ cup (6 tablespoons) light mayonnaise
⅜ cup (6 tablespoons) no-fat plain yogurt (my yogurt of choice is Fage, which beats all the others I’ve tried in creaminess)
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Kitchen Goddess note: I like to cook the chicken breasts all together in the oven – so easy. In a Pyrex dish large enough to hold the breasts in a single layer, sprinkle the chicken with garlic salt and pepper, and top each breast with a sprig of either thyme or parsley and a thin slice of lemon. Cover with foil and bake at 350º for 20 minutes. Uncover the breasts and let cool before you shred them for the salad. Toss the shredded chicken with about ¼ cup of the broth that collects, and save the rest for another use.

In a large bowl, combine the shredded chicken, walnuts, jicama, grapes, and tarragon. Stir together the mayo, yogurt, wine vinegar, and salt/pepper, and pour it over the salad mixture. Toss until combined well.

Do ahead? If you want to make this the day before, combine the non-dressing ingredients (chicken through tarragon) and cover tightly then refrigerate. Separately, combine the dressing ingredients (mayo through salt/pepper) in a jar. about a half hour before serving, toss the dressing with the chicken mixture and refrigerate.

Serves 4-6.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Big-Hearted Father’s Day BBQ Sauce
What’s cooking? Harry’s Best BBQ Sauce

I’m back! And just in time for Father's Day. So in honor of my own dear Dad, I’ve come with a recipe for the best barbecue sauce ever. This is what a loyal daughter does: she declares her father’s barbecue sauce recipe the best ever. Even if he’s no longer around to bask in the glory. But with my own personal bias disclosed, I will still promise that this sauce is pretty damn great.

By most accounts, daughters have their fathers wrapped around their little fingers from Day 1. I am probably no exception. My dad was a great guy who would have done back flips for me if he could have.