Liz Schulman and friends celebrate her birthday at Chianti’s on New Year’s Eve.
By Murray Schulman
This start of the new year has been busy, fun and exciting. We got through the holidays fully enjoying the company of the entire family. New Year’s Eve was Liz’s birthday. One of her gifts from the children (grown with families of their own) was an overnight trip to Lake Naomi in the Poconos just a few days after the New Year began. We had the use of a big house and the 10 of us just ate, drank, told stories, were entertained by skits that the grandkids came up with and played games. There were only disappointments: There was no snow, and the grandkids soundly trounced all of us adults at every game we played.
Two days later, it was my grandson Owen’s 8th birthday. They live in California. To the dismay of my son and daughter-in-law, we sent Owen a large remote-control robot for his birthday. Owen thought that it was “totally cool.” I am not quite sure of his parents’ reaction as I did happen to mention that Owen should have fun chasing his parents around the house with the robot. Finally, we got a short reprieve our wedding anniversary rolled around on Jan. 23. I toned that celebration down a bit. After all, I booked a trip to Punta Cana as a birthday gift for Liz. Yes, I will be going also.
Of course, there was dinner and a gift. After all, missing an anniversary for a married man is a direct route to shame and misery.
Finally, we arrive at February. My birthday, which I share with some other famous figures from the history books, is Feb. 10.
Now, my friends, you are all up to date and in the loop with what I have been up to. I am sure that many of you have stories of your own to tell.
Something that always stands out for me is the role that great food plays in all these happenings and events. I can tell you that there was plenty of it. Liz’s big birthday celebration was a small party for 24 of our closest family and friends. Once again, we chose to celebrate with Dominic and his team at Chianti’s in Mullica Hill, New Jersey. As always, that team outdid itself.
We started off with antipasto loaded with charcuterie, roasted vegetables and a variety of aged cheeses and great bread. We followed that up with two kinds of pasta. There was classic spaghetti Bolognese and rigatoni with broccoli, roasted garlic and olive oil. Both were delicious. But the rigatoni dish for me was over the top. The third course was thin chicken breast cutlets with lemon and capers. It was the ideal complement to the heavy pasta course. For dessert, I purchased a spectacular Italian Rum Cake from Gianino’s Pastries in Sewell, New Jersey. This is a small shop where owner Nino prepares every cookie, pastry and cake from scratch. Even his fillings and creams are scratch-made. The results rival the greatest pastry shops anywhere in the world. I’ll get back to the cake in a moment.
I just have to tell you that I tried some of his pignoli cookies. There is no skimping here. These soft delicate cookies were completely covered with pignoli nuts. I could not stop eating them. I was nice and saved one for Liz to try. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Nino’s cannoli. Six varieties were on display that day.
Back to that rum cake: It was 12 inches around and a good 6 inches tall – three layers of the lightest sponge cake perfectly soaked in rum and layered with chocolate and custard cream that melted in the mouth. The frosting was just sweet enough without being overly sugary. The cake was finished in the traditional style with toasted almond slices around the sides and tastefully garnished to my specifications with purple flowers and a bold “Happy Birthday” inscribed on top.
Gianino’s is a must-try pastry shop if you are looking for authentic cakes, cookies and pastries in the Italian style.
On another night during this hectic timeframe we visited a restaurant in Wilmington. Del Pez Mexican Gastropub was a first-class experience. From the moment we walked in the door, the warmth and top-quality service was evident. The menu selections were interesting and so well balanced as to more than satisfy any palate. Liz and I started things off with a side of sweet plantains served in a skillet as an appetizer. I knew we were in for a great evening immediately after tasting this specialty. Liz chose the short ribs served over smashed red skin garlic potatoes and crispy roasted Brussels sprouts. The portion was generous and each component was perfectly prepared and delectable. Her margarita was served in a mason jar and was expertly mixed.
I went in a completely different direction, choosing the chef’s taco combo. This dish was made up of four soft-shell tacos. There was marinated steak, Atlantic salmon, sliced duck breast and shrimp. Each taco was finished with a unique sauce that was just right with each variety of taco. I ordered a flight of malty style beer that progressed from tan to a full porter. I was tempted by the tequila menu listing at least 12 brands of tequila. Del Pez turned out to be a winner in every way.
As all of you would expect, I did in fact do a bit of cooking during this time. Two dishes come to mind, as they were just what was needed following the heavy eating that was taking place for nearly a month. The first dish was chicken with lentils. This is a super easy dish to prepare and is full of flavor and easy on the calories. I gently pounded out a couple of boneless chicken breasts. I dredged the chicken lightly in flour seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika. Using my oil sprayer in which I have equal parts vegetable and olive oil, I sprayed a light coating of the oil into my heated saute’ pan. I sautéed the chicken until it was golden on both sides. I then removed the chicken from the pan, set it aside and began the next phase.
For this dish, I used canned lentils, which I rinsed and drained dry. Using the same pan, I added a bit more oil and sautéed a small onion that I had diced. Once the onions began to cook, I added a clove of thinly sliced garlic. As the garlic began to sweat, I deglazed the pan with a small splash of Pino Grigio that I just happened to have open. As soon as the “pan goodness” was incorporated, I added the lentils and topped off the mixture with a can of drained diced tomato and a few basil leaves. The temperature came right back pretty quickly as planned.
Into the pan went the chicken breasts. A quick toss and a few shavings of aged parmesan and the dish was ready to serve. Normally I would have added a few pats of unsalted butter to finish this dish just prior to adding the cheese. But I was trying to behave myself. No butter for us. Served with a salad, this was a tasty treat.
The other dish that comes to mind was also simple and delicious. If you remember last month, I mentioned purchasing some very thin sliced pork cutlets from Bagliani’s Market in Hammonton, New Jersey. I had four nice cutlets in the freezer that I had pulled out to thaw earlier that evening. While the cutlets were thawing, I sautéed some onion, garlic and chopped frozen spinach in a saute’ pan with a spray of my oil blend. As soon as the mixture began to produce that delicious aroma, I pulled it from the pan and set it aside to cool. In a small bowl, I combined some ricotta cheese, shaved parmesan cheese and a sprinkle of mozzarella cheese. To this mixture I added an egg, the zest of a half lemon, salt, pepper and parsley mixing well to fully blend. Once the cheese was combined, I folded in the cooled spinach onion and garlic. The entire mixture went back into the refrigerator to set up for about thirty minutes. While I was waiting for the cheese mixture, I gently pounded the pork cutlets even thinner than they were. You may think it odd. But I didn’t dredge the pork with any flour. I was thinking that I would do a semolina dredge until my wife tenderly reminded me that we were supposed to be careful of our calorie intake. I gave her my best big tough-guy look and then obeyed like a good husband. Anyway, the cheese and spinach was ready. I sprinkled a touch of salt and pepper onto the pork. Using a tablespoon, I placed a dollop of the spinach cheese mixture onto each cutlet. Carefully I rolled each cutlet around the filling forming a roulade. Using a hot saute’ pan sprayed with my oil mixture I seared the seam side of the roulade first. As soon as it caramelized, I turned each roulade over allowing it to sear on the other side. I should have mentioned that I had preheated my oven for high broil. Quickly, I topped each roulade with the rest of the spinach cheese mixture and placed the pan into the oven under the broiler.
All these steps happened quickly as to avoid overcooking the pork. In just a few minutes, the entire top was golden in color and the filling was hot and just starting to run. I removed the pan from the oven, allowing everything to sit for a few minutes to rest. I served this with broccoli spears and lemon. That first bite was a flavor extravaganza. This was a great meal that was easy to prepare and light on the calories.
With a little creativity and a few simple modifications to your recipes, eating better healthier meals is possible. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have some “gentle encouragement” from my wife. Mangia (eat) with intent, coupled with your passion and creativity. You will enjoy great meals and a healthier lifestyle.