Wednesday, April 23, 2003

A personal touch

Lebanon-based chef rises to our virtual challenge with her own version of sauteed chicken and vegetables

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Roxanne Yoho serves Chicken Peprone while the Short family watches; from left, Jerri, her son Kyle and daughter Jane.
(Gary Landers photo)
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Bo is hungry.

As soon as I open my rear car door to pull out the bag of groceries, he jumps in to sniff around. Then I realize he's more interested in the 20-pound bag of dog food on the back seat. I have to pull the dog food out to entice Bo out of the car.

Bo is a friendly black Labrador retriever who belongs to John Mengle, our host for this edition of Virtual Chef. Bo obviously loves to eat. He may be one of the few labs around with a double chin.

The happy dog escorts me to the front of the house, surrounded by horse pastures on the northwest edge of Lebanon, perhaps thinking he's going to get some of the groceries. But the food is meant for the folks waiting inside at 1 p.m. on Good Friday - Mengle, his mother, Martha; his sister, Jerri Short; his niece, Jane Short, and nephew, Kyle Short. They're hungry, too.

It's a little confusing, but Jane, an attorney who lives in Oakley, was the one in this group who voted in our online Virtual Chef poll last week. After we called to see if the chef could come to her house to cook, she invited her mother, who lives in Morrow; her brother, a freshman at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Delhi Township, and grandmother, who lives in Lebanon, to watch our Virtual Chef, Roxanne Yoho, at work. Yoho, who works as a personal chef and caterer, also lives in Lebanon.

Last week, we invited readers to vote for their favorite ingredients at Cincinnati.Com. More than 400 voted and the most popular ingredients were:
Skinless, boneless chicken breasts
Fresh green beans
Canned tomatoes
Red or green bell peppers
Fresh white mushrooms
Feta cheese

We turned the voting results over to our Virtual Chef, Roxanne Yoho. She created a dish using the primary ingredients (she could also use staples from a "pantry list") at the home of John Mengle in Lebanon. Mengle and four members of his family watched the chef cook. They tasted and then scored her creation.
The scoring system
We give the chef 90 points.
The chef must use all six of the primary ingredients selected by readers.
For every five minutes under 30 minutes total cooking time, the chef earns one bonus point.
For every five minutes past 45 minutes total cooking time, the chef is penalized one point.
The reader "observation panel" tastes and scores the chef's creation on a 1-10 point scale. The scores are averaged and added to the chef's total score.
Highest possible score: 106. Roxanne Yoho's total score: 98.2.
Look for our next Virtual Chef story June 4.

A native of Alliance, Ohio, Roxanne Yoho has cooked professionally for more than 20 years, including stints as a corporate caterer and as a demonstration chef at Jungle Jim's Market in Fairfield. Based in Lebanon, she started Roxanne's Catering in 2000, and her personal chef business, Chef Just for You, nearly two years ago.
At first we were supposed to go to Jane's mom's home for this cooking exercise. Even though Jane lives in Oakley, you see, she works in Lebanon. Then the family changed its mind and moved the location from the Short home in Morrow to John's house. Anyway, they're all here and ready to eat. And they're probably a little tired of waiting for the guy with the groceries who is playing with the chubby dog out front.

The chef is ready to cook. As soon as the grocery bags hit the counter, Yoho starts pulling out the food - skinless, boneless, chicken breasts; red bell peppers; fresh green beans; a carton of white mushrooms; a large can of tomatoes; and a hunk of feta cheese. According to the rules of Virtual Chef, readers vote on-line for their favorite ingredients and then the chef must create a dish using them.

"I can't believe they chose chicken breasts," Yoho says. "I would have bet on flank steak."

Jane thinks she voted for flank steak and blue cheese, but she's not sure.

Whack, whack, whack!

Yoho is flattening the chicken breasts on a table with a rolling pin, rattling the china in John's cabinets, making cracks about her two ex-husbands. She knows what dish she's going to make. She had it figured out shortly after she heard what the ingredients were the day before.

"Hey, I didn't lose any sleep over this," Yoho says.

She is making what she calls Chicken Peprone - a quick, one-pan stew of sauteed chicken with vegetables. After pounding the chicken, Yoho tosses it in a plastic bag with flour, cinnamon and other spices.

"Cinnamon, huh?" John observes quizzically.

He is a wonderful cook, his family says. John began cooking when he was young and now entertains with dinner parties.

"Men cook differently," offers his mother, Martha. "They slam and bam."

Everyone laughs. All of the Mengles and Shorts love to eat, if not cook. (Jane cooks a little and Kyle comes home from college on weekends to eat his mother's sloppy joes.) But Martha doesn't remember teaching her daughter and son to cook.

"They just did it," she says.

They sip white burgundy while watching the chef work. The kitchen smells of garlic sizzling in olive oil. Yoho has already browned the chicken and is trimming the tops off the green beans. Jerri offers to help, but we point out that would be against the official Virtual Chef rules.

"I'm fine," the chef says.

Yoho even finds time to make her pitch for the benefits of personal chefs, while slicing the peppers and mushrooms. The vegetables go into the pan, along with tomatoes, white wine and chicken broth. And before you know it - 41 minutes after she began cooking - Yoho's Chicken Peprone is ready to be served, along with a special beer bread she baked at home that morning.

The family sits in the dining room, talking about Martha's last birthday visit to the Maisonette and Julia Child's opinions on McDonald's french fries. (Jerri heard Child loves them.) Chicken Peprone may not be the typical lunch dish for a Good Friday celebration, but the family is eating together.

Meanwhile, Bo the dog is stretched out in the sun on the back deck, visions of leftovers probably dancing though his head.


Chicken Peprone

1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 cup olive oil

2 cloves fresh garlic, sliced thinly

1/2 pound fresh green beans, topped

1 large or 2 medium bell peppers, cored and julienned

1/2 pound sliced mushrooms

1 14 1/2-ounce can crushed tomatoes, undrained

6 ounces chicken broth

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 ounces dry white wine

Crumbled feta cheese

If chicken is more than 2 inches thick, cut into thin fillets. Place chicken between plastic wrap and pound with a mallet or pan until it is about 1/4 inches thick.

Combine flour, cinnamon, salt, pepper, thyme, cayenne and garlic powder in large sealable plastic bag. Place chicken in bag and shake to coat well with seasonings. Remove chicken to plate.

Heat 2 ounces olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown chicken on both sides, about 1 minute. Remove chicken to plate.

Add remaining olive oil to pan, along with sliced garlic. Saute garlic until brown. Add green beans and saute about 2 to 3 minutes. Add sliced bell pepper and continue cooking another 2 to 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add tomatoes and chicken broth.

Place browned chicken on top of vegetables, cover pan and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer about 5 minutes. Uncover pan and increase heat to high. When vegetables begin to simmer, add butter and wine. Cook another 3 to 4 minutes, until sauce thickens. Garnish vegetables with crumbled feta before serving over rice or pasta. Makes 4 servings.

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