The month of May is upon us. It’s an important month. Know why? It’s my birthday month!!
Birthdays are a big deal to me. Without them, we wouldn’t be here!! So, I tend to make a big production out of them. This is in contrast to my husband who really doesn’t care about birthdays at all. Luckily, I grew up with a mother who loves birthdays almost as much as I do. She wears a tiara on her birthday, all day, every year. Sometimes, if we’re good, she’ll let us borrow it for our birthdays. It’s really pretty.
Growing up, my favorite birthday tradition was based on a book given to me by my parents. It’s called A Very Special Birthday* and it has no words. It’s just pictures, beautifully drawn, of a young girl who wakes up to the end of a ribbon next to her. She follows it through her house, her cat helping her, and along the way she finds wrapped gifts. She opens them, one by one, (again, her cat helps) and when the ribbon ends, her parents are waiting with open arms. My parents did this for me, year after year. One year the ribbon led to a little, child-sized table and chairs, which I used in my playroom for years.
The tradition continued over the years. When I was in high school, my mother pulled out the ribbon for my birthday my senior year. The year I lived in Israel, she packed the ribbon in her suitcase and flew it halfway across the world so that she could continue the tradition in another country. Even now, there are years when she sneaks into my house very early on my birthday so that she can set up the ribbon. It’s a tradition I intend to continue with my daughter.
Another tradition is that of the birthday dinner. It is a tradition in a family with whom I am close. In high school, they could each choose what they wanted to eat for their birthdays. Since there were five kids in the family, it meant a lot of dinners. The two boys have birthdays in May and one night when they were sitting at the table, planning their dinners, I made a list too. It involved freshly made bread, salad, mashed potatoes and some other things. A few weeks later, when I opened my locker at school on my birthday, there was my birthday dinner, wrapped and ready to go- the girls in the family, who were my closest friends, had cooked the night before and brought it in for me, complete with a small vase of beautifully delicate paper roses. What can I say? They have style.
So around here, we do birthday dinners. The most recent birthday belonged to Tom, who is my adopted brother. We met in graduate school and we ended up living together for several years. He had a difficult relationship with his mother when she was alive so we sort of took him into our little family and made him an honorary member (which is a hazard of living with us- we tend to hang on to people once they’ve lived with us for a bit. It’s both a blessing and a curse!). When we were done with school and had moved on to internships, Tom moved to NYC. He would still come home for holidays and visits and then, once he was done living in NYC, he came back and lived with me again. We figured it out once and over the last ten years, we’ve lived together for something like five or six of them.
Tom is a kind, generous, good person. At times he can be a bit clumsy and I can’t tell you the number of times I’d hear a CRASH! followed by a bad word. My response was almost always, “Are you ok?” and not “What did you break this time?”
Tom also couldn’t cook. He has learned a lot more about cooking over the last few years, especially now that he’s living on his own and needs to eat. Someday I’ll blog about all the funny things Tom has done in the kitchen (like the time he wanted to make chocolate mousse for his boyfriend and called me to ask me where we kept the meringue) but that would make this post way too long. Instead, I’ll give you Tom’s birthday dinner menu and a recipe from it.
The rule for birthday dinner is that you can choose whatever you want, even if it doesn’t go together or isn’t healthy. So Tom chose chicken marsala, zucchini and couscous. Generally chicken marsala is served with potatoes, pasta or rice and with a leafy green like spinach, to cut through the richness of the sauce. But, Tom was the birthday boy so, zucchini and couscous it was. It also gave us a running joke for the night.
Mom provided the cake (there was no way I was going to be able to cook and bake with the week I’d had) and it was beautiful. A shout out to Party Favors, which is a great bakery here in town- not only are the baked goods delicious, they’re also beautiful. Plus, the staff is really nice. **
Chicken Marsala (adapted slightly from Cook’s Illustrated)
2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts or fillets
1 cup flour
8 ounces (I may have used more, I think I had about 10) white mushrooms, washed and sliced
2 shallots or 1/2 a medium onion, chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon tomato paste (if you don’t buy your paste in a tube, you’ll have to open a whole can. That’s ok, you can freeze the part you don’t use.)
1 1/2 cups sweet marsala wine
4 tablespoons butter
Pat chicken breasts dry and season with salt and pepper. I sliced mine in half since they were pretty big.
Dredge the chicken breasts in the flour on both sides and shake off the excess.
Set them aside (but don’t stack them on top of each other, very messy).
Heat some oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet- not too much, maybe a few tablespoons. Just enough to coat the pan. Put the chicken in the pan in a single layer- don’t crowd it, do it in batches if need be- and let it brown on one side, about three minutes.
Flip and let it brown on the other side. If it doesn’t cook through all the way, that’s ok since you’re going to put them back into the sauce later. Put the chicken on an ovenproof plate or baking sheet and put in the oven on low heat so it will stay warm, but not dry out.
Add the marsala wine (really, you should do this off the stove for safety’s sake but I’m reckless and add it while the pan is on the stove and on the heat. Yeh, I’m that kind of rebel.) and use a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula to scrape up all the brown bits on the bottom of the pan (this is called deglazing the pan, which is my husband’s favorite kitchen term. I have no idea why.).
Try not to eat it all at once. It’s hard because it is just so good.
*Ok, I just spent a pretty long time trying to find this book on the web and I couldn’t- I may have the title wrong. UPDATE: oooh, ooh, I found it! It’s called A Special Birthday and it’s by Symeon Shimin. Here is a link.
** In looking for the link up to Party Favors, I found this story. It made me laugh because despite sounding the same, there is a pretty big difference between fondant and fondue.