At the stove, he creates works of art Cook: In his life, James Backas, now director of the Maryland State Council for the Arts, has tried his hand at many things. But he's always kept his hand in the kitchen.


James Backas has worn a lot of hats in his time -- musician, teacher, music critic, publishing executive, and now, director of the Maryland State Council for the Arts. But one hat that's never been far from his head, figuratively speaking, is the chef's toque.

As a teen-ager in the Midwest, he began working in his father's restaurant, and though he pursued a career as a musician, he found that cooking was "a good second income to fall back on." For a few years, he cooked all over the world, in restaurants, on cruise ships and in hotels. Today he describes his cooking style as "very traditional, American and, to some extent, French."

He and his wife, Margot Wells Backas, entertain often, and Backas likes to prepare an elegant main dish, such as sauteed veal chops with a vinegar and chicken stock sauce, or chicken breasts and apples in a cream sauce flavored with Calvados, TTC apple brandy. The latter, he said, "is a real hit," especially at this time of year when the best apples are available.

His most glorious culinary moment was a steak dinner for 350 people in Iowa City that was part of a humorous conspiracy to disrupt a rival event. "It was fantastic. Not elegant, but boy, it was good."

But he will admit to a failure, such as the time, many years ago, when he had no twine to tie a sausage-stuffed flank steak and used rubber bands instead. The steak marinated all day, and when he put it in the oven, "it smelled like a fire in a Goodrich tire factory," he says, laughing at the memory. "That's probably the single most comical thing I've ever done in the kitchen."

Here is Backas' recipe for his sumptuous chicken dish. He suggests serving it with risotto (made with chicken stock), crisp-cooked green beans, and "a reasonably good dry red wine."

Chicken breasts with apples and cream

Serves four

2 chicken breasts, skinned, boned and halved

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 sticks plus 1 tablespoon butter (divided use)

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and sliced

3 tablespoons minced shallots

1/3 cup Calvados

2/3 cup chicken stock or broth

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons minced parsley

2 tablespoons chopped chives

1 teaspoon dried tarragon

salt and pepper to taste

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Saute chicken breasts in oil over high heat until browned in oven-proof pan. Add salt and pepper, pour off oil, add 2 tablespoons butter, and bake uncovered in oven 5 to 7 minutes. Do not overcook. Remove from pan (reserving pan with juices), and keep, covered with foil, in a warm place.

In a separate pan, saute apple slices in 4 tablespoons butter over moderate heat, turning gently, until browned. Remove from stove and keep warm.

Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from the chicken pan, add shallots and cook over low heat for 1 minute, stirring. Do not allow to burn. Add Calvados, scraping up browned bits in pan with wooden spoon, and reduce to 2 tablespoons. Add chicken stock, reduce to 1/3 cup. Add cream, reduce, stirring, until slightly thickened.

Remove sauce from heat, add 6 tablespoons butter, in small pieces, stirring; add parsley, chives, tarragon, salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm. Melt remaining tablespoon of butter.

Cut chicken breasts into slices and assemble chicken and apples, alternating slices of chicken and slices of apple (about 6 of each, per portion). Pour a generous amount of sauce on each warmed plate, and place chicken/apple slices on top of sauce. Brush with melted butter. Heat in turned-off oven for 1 minute and then serve.

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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