Friday, March 15, 2013

Birthday Dinner

I celebrated a birthday this week. It wasn’t a big one, but it was the birthday before the Big One. We fêted it as a family by going for a long cross country ski at a location we hadn’t tried before, a tradition we started about five years ago. This year we went to Mountain Top Inn, down near Killington. It was a gorgeous March day with a deep blue sky, “computer screen” blue as one of my daughters described it. That’s not the word that came to my almost-50-year-old mind.

I certainly don’t feel like I’m approaching the half century mark. Sometimes I’ll be shuttling Faye, my fourteen year old, somewhere, and hear parental words spill out of my mouth and I’ll think, When did I become this person? It’s a good thing, of course, to be a mature and responsible parent, but at times I’m taken aback by it. It doesn’t seem so very long ago that I was that fourteen year old myself, or a seventeen year old about to leave for college like Isabel, or the confused twenty-two year old, or the newly married twenty-seven year old. There is an age when you are most yourself, Linda Pastan writes in her poem “Something About the Trees." Followed by: When will I be most myself?

I remember asking my Grandmother on her 90th birthday if she felt like she was 90 years old and she replied, “No, I still feel a like young woman on the inside.” At the time, I was surprised by her response, but I shouldn’t have been. Although she was usually reserved, content to sit and observe at family gatherings, I would see glimpses of her previous (or inner?) self when she competed fiercely at Scrabble, often beating everyone including my equally competitive mother. Or when she flirted with, or bossed around, her boyfriend Emory. If she were still alive, I wonder when she would say she was most herself.

After our ski, we went out to dinner and had a lovely meal. But the meal I enjoyed even more was the following night, Sunday, when the girls and Chris made dinner for me— Chicken Parmesan with local ingredients, including luxuriously melting Maplebrook mozzarella. They had made this meal for me on my last birthday and I had hinted about how much I had liked it, hoping they would make it again, and so they did. 

Since Isabel and Faye were wearing sweats, they probably won’t be happy about my including these photos of them, but they’re just as beautiful to me when they’re dressed like this.

Faye and Chris took charge of the chicken while Isabel made the salad—greens with blood orange and pistachios, dressed in our homemade vinaigrette. 

For dessert, we had planned to share some special chocolate, which the girls know is my favorite dessert, but since Faye’s best friend Zoe sweetly brought by some chocolate cake, we shared that too. And so I’ve entered my 50th year.

For my grandmother’s 90th birthday, my mom and Aunt Stanis travelled with her to Australia where the three of them went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. I wish I could have seen her in her wet suit, marveling at something she hadn’t seen before.

Birthday Chicken Parmesan (adapted from Lucinda Scala Quinn’s recipe)

Serves 4 with leftovers

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1 28 ounce can fire roasted tomatoes
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, split down the middle
½ cup breadcrumbs
¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ teaspoon coarse salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1½ pounds fresh mozzarella, sliced thin

Heat a saucepan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the garlic, and the red pepper flakes. Stir for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, using a sharp slicing knife, cut each piece of chicken in half horizontally through the middle. In a large dish, combine the breadcrumbs and 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese. Spread out to cover the whole bottom of the pan. Lay down as many chicken breasts as will fit on the mixture. Sprinkle salt and pepper over each piece and turn over, completely coating with the breadcrumb mixture. Repeat the process with the remaining pieces of chicken.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, along with butter, to coat the pan. Add the chicken breasts in one layer and cook until golden, about 3 minutes on each side. Remove and repeat the process for the remaining chicken, adding a little oil and butter to the pan as needed.

Preheat the oven to 400˚ F. Spoon some tomato sauce into a greased 9 x 13-inch baking dish to cover. Layer in the chicken pieces and top with mozzarella slices. Spoon over about 1 1/4 cups more sauce, and sprinkle on the remaining 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese. Bake until golden and bubbling, 30 to 35 minutes. Let rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.

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