Cook dishes out lessons with a no-nonsense attitude


LINDA WEST Eckhardt was brimming with no-nonsense advice about cooking. When making a salad use baby spinach leaves, not the grown-ups, she said. That way you can toss the entire leaf of baby spinach in the salad. If you use the grown-up leaves, you have to go through the laborious process of pulling off their old, woody middles.

When washing salad greens, the award-winning cookbook author said, let gravity do the work. Simply put the greens in a large bowl filled with cold water. In a few minutes, any dirt on the greens will sink to the bottom of the bowl.

And, she said, when searing chicken breasts, be sure to pat them dry with paper towels before dropping them in the pan. If they are dry, the chicken breasts will sear when they hit a hot skillet, caramelizing their skin. If they are moist, they will simply steam.

Eckhardt passed along these tips the other night to a handful of folks, myself included, who had gathered around the stove at A Cook's Table, a cooking supply store in Federal Hill near the Maryland Science Center. We watched Eckhardt cook. We made a feeble attempt at helping, peeling a potato or two. But mostly we chowed down, eating three main dishes -- the chicken breasts, a braised beef with herbs and red wine, a shellfish stew with fennel and Pernod -- and a spinach and strawberry salad that she prepared.

The recipes came from her new book, "Stylish One-Dish Dinners" (Doubleday, 1999, $25). She wrote the book with her daughter, Katherine West DeFoyd. This is the second cookbook that the mother-daughter team has turned out. The first, "Entertaining 101" (Doubleday, 1998, $27.50), last year won the James Beard award for best cookbook on home entertaining.

Eckhardt now lives in Maplewood, N.J., not far from her daughter and son-in-law and the couple's 18-month-old twins. Born in Dodge City, Kan., Eckhardt has spent much of her life in Hereford, Texas, and still has a lot of West Texas in her twang and her straight-shooter attitude. For instance, the other night when explaining to the cooking class that when handling raw chicken you have to be careful but not scared, she said, "Most pathogens are really wimps." If you regularly wash your hands, your knives and your kitchen sink with soap and hot water, those pathogens will turn tail and run, she said.

Eckhardt told stories, kept us company and, as they might say in West Texas, fed us real good. My favorite dish was one she called "panned chicken." It involved pounding chicken breasts, patting them dry, then searing them between two hot cast-iron skillets. Sandwiched between the two skillets, the bottom one on one burner, the top one recently removed from another burner, the chicken doesn't stand a chance. It can't scoot around. It simply gets golden brown.

One key to the dish, Eckhardt said, is making sure your pan's hot. "Crank those BTUs up," she said and demonstrated how to tell when a skillet is hot enough for the chicken breasts. She wet her hands and tossed a few drops of water in the heated pan. When you see the water dance, she said, your pan is ready.

Panned Chicken With Peppers and Corn

Serves 4

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 4 ounces each

1/4 cup olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, plus 4 sprigs for garnish

1 cup corn kernels, cut from cob or frozen

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips

8 slices cooked polenta rounds, about 1/2-inch thick (optional)

Dry chicken breasts with a paper towel. On a sheet of waxed paper or plastic wrap, spread 1 tablespoon olive oil, then lay out chicken breasts. Season with salt, pepper and the chopped rosemary and a sprinkling of olive oil. Fold the plastic wrap over the chicken, and pound it to a uniform thickness, about 1/2 inch.

Preheat 2 heavy skillets -- one 12 inches in diameter, and another 10 inches in diameter -- over medium-high heat. When the skillets are so hot that water flicked on the surface jumps off, coat the interior of larger skillet and brush the bottom of the smaller skillet with olive oil. Lift the chicken off the plastic wrap and place in larger skillet. Use the smaller skillet as a weight on top of the chicken breasts, pressing the bottom of the skillet onto the meat. Cook until first side is golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes, then turn the breasts, reheat the top skillet, and continue to cook until the second side is golden brown and meat is opaque, no more than a minute or two. Remove the chicken to a warmed plate; cover.

Add a little more oil to larger skillet over medium-high heat, and add the corn kernels, red pepper and optional polenta rounds. Cook and stir until everything is beginning to brown, about 5 minutes, turning the polenta once with a spatula.

To serve, place polenta on plate, then chicken breast, top with corn and pepper pieces, garnish with rosemary sprigs.

-- From "Stylish One-Dish Dinners" by Linda West Eckhardt and Katherine West DeFoyd (Doubleday, 1999, $25)

Pub Date: 09/22/99

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