Cookbook in the Making?

It's very rare that I EVER follow recipes to a "T", whether it be cookbooks, magazines, online recipes, recipes from friends, newspaper articles, etc. But, I am a creature of habit, buying food mags and cookbooks like they are going out of print (well, in this case, Gourmet magazine fell to the chopping block this week - so sad). I always seem to look to them for inspiration or a different twist on a new and exciting ingredient or way to cook something. Whenever I have a hankering for a specific dish or I just want to cook something different, I reach for my stash o' books and mags, including a possible visit to

Sometimes I will even dig out my old recipes from my catering days and play around with them a little to not only make the dishes a little more current but also to change things up a bit. These are recipes that I created or tweaked from other recipes or collaborations over the years; they were used over and over again as tried and true dishes for my loyal clients over a fantastic span of almost four years. I keep these "trade secrets" in a recipe index box, all hand-written, some placed in plastic covers, some stained with God knows what - soy sauce, olive oil; probably, in some cases, both. My "little black BOX" is filled with recipes; sweets to savories, salads to soups, appetizers to desserts. And, in 99% of all the index cards, all recipes are 100% written by me.

I haven't added any new recipes to this box since I stopped catering for work. It is kind of a lock-box of memories that I keep close to my heart.

Instead, I have embarked on a new avenue of transcribing my recipes: into a journal-like composition book. Over the last year, I have found myself on any given afternoon or evening thinking about a classic dish, such as Beef Bourguignon or a Fricasseed Chicken or Roasted Tomato Soup, and immediately pull out my tried-and-true cookbooks, mags, and saved recipes online to see if there is anything interesting I can combine looking at three or four ways to do the same dish. I then will combine my ideas with inspiration from the books and mags and write down what I think will be a great recipe. Then, I will follow my own "new" recipe and still continue to tweak it along the way.

Most of my friends still feel bound to cooking straight from recipes because it is "safe". While I totally understand this "feeling", I always encourage them to learn from cooking the recipe once, pay attention to the techniques the recipe calls for, and then make it their own another time around. For example, if you are doing a dish like Beef Bourguignon, the technique is "braising" the meat. There are PLENTY of recipes out there that call for different herbs, aromatics, wine or other liquor, bacon or no bacon, etc., when braising beef, and simply what I will do is look at about three or four recipes, look at consistent ingredients, see the additions that might add depth of flavor (i.e. one I have added is dark brown sugar...), and create my own, keeing the basic technique in mind.

For that, most friends will say, "Les, that's great and all, but will you just give me 'YOUR recipe' instead of me having to test recipes?" And, to that, how can I say No?

Well, it was that time of week again where I head out to Trader Joes to do my weekly shopping. And, once again, as I have written about in a previous entry (Thank you, Trader Joes, for Not Having Filet Mignon Yesterday..., I walked in wanting bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts and walked out with bone-LESS, skin-LESS chicken breasts as TJ's was, wait for it, OUT again of some protein I wanted. Alas, it was the makings of a great, newly "inspired", dinner.

I decided to get some capers, lemons, white wine (obviously), and do a simple version of Chicken Piccata, knowing I had some shallots, garlic, butter, and chicken stock to use in my fridge at home. Brown rice and roasted broccoli (yes, roasted) would round out the meal.

I got home, grabbed my Joy of Cooking, looked up, spent about five minutes looking for any inspiration to brighten up the dish, and decided to settle on making the most basic Chicken Piccata with a balanced and seasoned lemon-caper sauce, a basic recipe that I can ALWAYS build upon in the future. I began (with a glass of Chardo) to write down my simple recipe:

(Click on the picture for a bigger view, otherwise email me of you want the recipe)

...and pulled out my ingredients:

Chicken broth, capers (drained), shallot (minced), olive oil, butter (cubed and chilled), garlic (minced), white wine, lemon (juiced), and chicken breasts (pounded). Missing? flour for coating chicken.

Just wanted to show this picture too; here is a pounded chicken breast (between two pieces of plastic wrap) compared to a regular chicken breast IN SIZE.

Oh, and to clear answers for questions later, the wine I am drinking is in "THIS" glass.

First, heat olive oil in large skillet; season chicken breast with salt and pepper; dredge in flour, pat off excess, and add to heated oil; saute each side for about 4 minutes until lightly brown; remove from pan and rest on paper towels.

Meanwhile, take half of the capers that you are planning to use and set aside. Heat about 1 tbsp of olive oil in a small skillet over high heat. Add the capers to the oil and "fry" until caper berries burst and get slightly crispy and slightly darken; drain on paper towels. This is just an added texture and flavor to a traditional Chicken Piccata.

Capers are starting to burst, kinda like popcorn seeds.

In the same skillet used to cook the chicken, add the shallots and saute over medium low to soften.

Add the garlic and cook until you can literally smell the garlic. That is all the time you need. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up all of the bits at the bottom of the pan. Reduce the wine until completely dry.

Almost dry...

Add chicken stock, lemon juice and reduce to half; then add capers and reduce slightly.

Finish sauce with cubed pieces of chilled butter; either remove pan from heat or reduce heat to LOW (has to be extremely LOW heat or the sauce will melt the butter = greasy mess). Technique is "whisk" the pan, not the sauce - the PAN. Constantly swirl the pan, moving each cube of butter around as it melts into the sauce. Don't add all the butter at once, add a few pieces at a time, and then add more as needed to thicken the sauce.

Action shot of swirling and "whisking" the pan....

Finished thickened sauce. Yes, folks, butter CAN thicken sauces! Oh, and make sure to season with salt and pepper.

I like to return the chicken to the pan to heat through before plating.

...And, plate...

..and the "plus"es of living in San Francisco where your counter in the kitchen is slanted and the sauce so happens to "shift" while taking a picture and get soaked up by the brown rice. Well, you all get the picture.

Anyways, it was a fantastic yet simple, clean approach to a classic Italian chicken preparation. In the future I might add some sauteed mushrooms or artichoke hearts, but this recipe is a great base and came from collaborating on different ingredients and amounts listed not only in books and mags but also in my head. Perhaps my "lock box" of catering recipes and composition book of new and improved ideas will someday be published. Until then, keep enjoying the recipes HERE.


  1. looks FAB...I am making a similar recipe tonight! I need to take more pics of my cookin...miss you girlie!

  2. One of Steve's fav's & the kids like it too.....more importantly it gives me an excuse to buy more wine! Friday night = Chicken Piccata night.....thanks!

  3. Love love love chicken piccata! I'm gonna try your recipe sometime!