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PUBLISHED: 12:11 PM on Wednesday, February 8, 2006
Cooking up quality time in the kitchen
When I returned from golfing the other day, Judy asked for a favor.

"Sure, Judy. Whatcha need?" I said while crossing my fingers and praying that she didn't want to go to the movies.

Expensive snacks, rude people in the theater, cell phones ringing and all the chatter. Imagine, all this fun for $25.

Luckily my wife wanted something I could give her - she wanted us to cook together.

She was about to go on a week-long business trip and wanted some together time. And she wanted it in my favorite place. I gave her a couple of cookbooks and told her to choose the menu.

We rarely cook together. The reasons start with our small kitchen.

We laugh now because, as former apartment dwellers, we thought the kitchen was huge when we bought the house. We even called it a "two-butt kitchen" because we could both be in it at the same time. Or so we thought. Now we zig and zag and announce "behind you" when we share the kitchen.

I've said before that I wish I were one of those cooks who welcomed the world into my kitchen. Instead, I prefer to be a solo act, even when I really could use an extra pair of hands.

Besides the space issues, I'm hardly the most patient person. I get antsy when I see someone struggle to properly dice an onion. I just want to grab the onion and do it myself. Oh yeah, I can be quite a jerk.

But I invited Judy into the kitchen, and she chose two dishes: Roast Chicken with Black Pepper-Maple Glaze and Tomato Steak with Baked Goat Cheese and Herb Salad.

The first recipe was really too easy, just seasoned maple syrup brushed over a roasted chicken. I cut the backbone out of the chicken, while Judy watched the maple syrup cook so as to not to let it boil over. You have to be careful with poultry scissors or you can lop off a thumb. If anyone was going to end up bleeding during this planned group fun, it was going to be me.

However, I let Judy brush the glaze on the chicken. She was delicate and dainty, approaching the chicken as if it were a canvas.

The tomato dish was much easier than its revved-up name suggested.

Just coat some goat cheese disks in bread crumbs, saute each side for 45 seconds to brown and place on large tomato slices. Top that with a simple pesto of chopped basil, tarragon, parsley and chives.

I was rocking my chef's knife through the basil, tarragon and parsley when Judy asked to get in on the chopping action. I let her handle the chives.

I winced and bit my tongue as she went at the chives with a sort of painfully slow, up-and-down chopping stroke. Instead of making neat tiny squares, she often didn't cut through the chive. She pulled and squished it, tearing it more than dicing it.

But you know, when I stepped back from the moment and smiled at the determined look on my wife's face, I got past her lack of knife skills. We were in our cramped kitchen, sharing some wine and doing something together that didn't involve a lot of cash. It didn't require us to be on time for anything, or force me to shave on a Saturday.

For that brief period, Judy wasn't fretting about the upcoming trip and meetings. She wasn't packing and re-packing the suitcase in her head, trying to figure out how to get all the outfits in a single small carry-on suitcase.

My girl was happy, and so was I.

Tomato Steak with Baked Goat Cheese and Herb Salad

1/4 cup fine dried bread crumbs

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon water

1 egg

4 rounds fresh goat cheese, about 2 ounces each

4 thick, ripe beefsteak tomato slices

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for salad

2 cups lightly packed mixed together fresh herb leaves such as basil, chervil, tarragon, Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, chives, or young cress Red wine vinegar in a small, shallow bowl, mix the bread crumbs with salt and pepper to taste. Add the water, and work it in with your fingers to moisten the crumbs lightly.

In another small, shallow bowl, beat the egg just until blended. Dip one flat surface of each goat cheese round in the egg, and then in the bread crumbs, patting the crumbs in place.

Repeat on the other flat surface, leaving the sides of the rounds uncoated. Refrigerate with coated cheese rounds for about 15 minutes.

Center the tomato slices on 4 salad plates. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over moderately high heat. Add the 2 teaspoons olive oil. When the oil is almost smoking, add the cheese rounds, one coated-side down. Cook until lightly browned, about 45 seconds, then turn and cook on the second side until the cheese feels quivery, about 45 seconds longer, depending on the thickness of the rounds. Place the cheese round on each tomato slice.

In a bowl, toss the herbs with a splash of red wine vinegar, a light drizzle of oil and salt and pepper to taste. Mound the herbs on top of the cheese, dividing them evenly. Serve immediately.

Roast Chicken with Black Pepper-Maple Glaze

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup pure maple syrup

Coarsely ground pepper

2 medium onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

1 3 1/2- to 4-pound chicken

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small saucepan, melt the butter with the maple syrup and 2 teaspoons of ground pepper. Remove glaze from heat. On a large, heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet, toss the sliced onions with the olive oil. Season the onions with salt and pepper and spread in a even layer. Season the chicken inside and out with salt, then arrange on top of onions. (See Note).

After roasting chicken for 45 minutes, brush the chicken all over with half of the maple glaze. Roast for an additional 1 hour. Remove chicken from oven. Raise oven temperature to 425 degrees. Brush chicken with remaining glaze and place in oven for 5 to 7 minutes making sure the glaze does not burn.

Transfer the chicken to a platter and let rest for 10 minutes before carving. Pour the onions and juices into a large measuring cup and skim the fat from the surface. Season with salt and pepper and serve with chicken.

Macdonald is a food writer for Morris News Service.


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