Quick & easy recipes for the busy chef

By Nancy Johnson

I started working in the music industry in 1978, just as Saturday Night Fever was dying, punk was rising, and the industry was eating returns on all that disco music. It was a bad time to start my record biz career.

On my first day on the job at Warner/Elektra/Atlantic (WEA) in Cleveland, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the end of the week. Everything was bigger, hipper, louder and faster than any other office I’d ever worked at. The branch manager swore a lot at the sales manager. The sales manager swore a lot at the sales staff. Laid-back, wild-haired promotion reps came and went; I could barely keep track of them. I had never had music blaring over my head while I tried to answer a phone, music that occasionally was turned up even louder by one of the promotion reps when The Cars came on the radio, because, as it happened, we were breaking The Cars during my first week. I had never worked in a business like the music industry. It was fun and funny and absolutely fabulous.

I did make it to the end of that first week and ultimately logged 30 years in the business before starting to work for Quench — mostly in marketing positions, first with WEA Cleveland, followed by a stint at WEA home office in Burbank and then several years with Sony Music Canada. Every day was interesting. Every day was an adventure. There were a lot of exceptional moments; it’s hard to choose the most memorable, but these are just a few:

Bowling was an oddity the artists seemed to enjoy when they came to Cleveland. We took many artists bowling, including Van Halen and Phil Collins. Their entire entourage would join us and it was always fun and a little bit surreal.

I have a special place in my heart for Cher. I met her at a Geffen party at one of our conventions. We talked on and off throughout the evening. Seriously, there’s only one way to describe her — Cher is incredibly cool.

ZZ Top stopped by the office on St Patrick’s Day. They were good ol’ country boys as far as I could tell. But I can never forget the image of those beards.

Eric Clapton attended one of our marketing meetings at WEA Burbank. Imagine Clapton participating in the mundane discussions of marketing, sales and merchandising. Yep, it really happened.

The actor Michael Douglas launched his record label with a party. He greeted me at the door with “Hi, I’m Michael Douglas.” To which I replied … um … nothing. I couldn’t talk.

Céline Dion’s management company sent me a Céline Dion Madame Alexander doll. It was a thoughtful and very sweet gesture.

Alicia Keys did a television interview right in front of my desk. I had to pretend to look busy since I think I was on camera.

Over the years, the industry segued, somewhat reluctantly at first, to digital distribution. Most of the record stores in North America closed. Since our biggest account base was gone with the wind, fewer people were needed in the field. I was put out to pasture, but in the gentlest of ways. WEA moved its headquarters from Burbank to New York with a much smaller staff. The Sony staff moved into smaller digs as well, and the iconic Sony Music Canada building on Leslie Street in Toronto was demolished. The other day I ran into a former promotion director who was at the top of his field back in the day. He and his staff broke more artists than I can remember. He told me he’s doing landscaping now. And the beat goes on.



spaghetti with cauliflower and pancetta

serves 4

When I was working full-time and raising my son, one of the things I learned to do very well was to cook quickly and to sneak veggies into the mix whenever possible. This is one of those fast and fabulous pasta dishes.

1 package spaghetti
1 tbsp olive oil
4 cups chopped cauliflower, in bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup diced pancetta
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup pitted chopped Kalamata olives
2 tbsp butter
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp minced parsley
Hot red chili flakes (optional)

Cook spaghetti, reserving 1 cup pasta water before draining. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat olive oil. Cook cauliflower and pancetta over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until cauliflower begins to brown, about 10 minutes.

Add garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Stir in wine and cook 2 minutes until wine is nearly evaporated. Stir in olives and butter.

Add spaghetti with reserved pasta water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until liquid is nearly evaporated, about 2 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with parsley and hot red chili pepper flakes, if using.

Match: Uncork a Chardonnay.

eggplant parmesan

serves 4 to 6

Many recipes call for frying the eggplant in oil. To cut back on fat, I bake the eggplant slices in the oven until they’re softened and the breading is crisp before covering them in sauce and cheese.

2-3 small eggplants, cut into 1/4 inch slices
3/4 cups flour
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
Salt and pepper, to taste
Extra virgin olive oil
Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)
350 g mozzarella cheese slices
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for garnish
1 package spaghetti, cooked

Preheat oven to 350˚F.

Place the sliced eggplant in a colander set in the sink. Sprinkle with salt and let the bitter juices drain from the eggplant, about 3 hours. Rinse well and pat dry.

Place the flour on a plate. Beat the eggs in a wide, shallow bowl. Place the bread crumbs in a plastic bag. Season with salt and pepper.

Dredge the eggplant slices on both sides in flour, dip in egg and shake in plastic bag of bread crumbs to coat.

Arrange the eggplant slices on a baking sheet that has been coated with cooking spray. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake in oven about 30 minutes or until eggplant is cooked through and bread-crumb coating is golden brown.

Spread a spoonful of tomato sauce on each eggplant slice. Top with mozzarella. Bake another 5 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Sprinkle with Parmigiana Reggiano cheese. Serve with spaghetti and remaining tomato sauce.

Match: An Amarone works well with this dish.

tomato sauce

This is a great all-purpose sauce that is simple but special when made with certified San Marzano tomatoes, grown near Naples in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius. They cost a bit more, but they are worth it. You’ll find them on most grocery shelves with the canned tomatoes.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans certified San Marzano tomatoes
2 tsp sugar
Salt, to taste

Purée the tomatoes in a food processor.

In a Dutch oven, sauté the onion in olive oil. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Add the tomato purée, sugar and salt.

Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and cook over medium-low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Purée sauce with an immersion blender, if desired.

Serve with Eggplant Parmesan and spaghetti.

bistro steak with bacon for two

A tender steak is the key to getting dinner on the table after a hard day at the office. This recipe calls for beef tenderloin, but use whatever steak you happen to like.

4 slices bacon
2 beef tenderloin steaks, 1 1/4 inches thick
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup Italian salad dressing
2 slices tomato

In a skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Drain bacon, reserving 1 tablespoon drippings.

Add steaks to reserved bacon drippings in skillet, sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook over medium-high heat about 5 minutes per side or until medium-rare (145˚F), turning once. Remove steaks. Add Italian dressing and cook over high heat, scraping up any browned bits.

To serve, arrange steaks on two plates. Top with tomato slices and bacon. Drizzle with warm dressing.

Match: Serve with a Bordeaux.

grilled two-cheese and tomato sandwiches

So easy, so basic, and so many ways to change it up into something new and different. Add Sriracha sauce or chipotle adobe sauce to the mayo. Skip the mayo and spread the bread with basil pesto or chutney. Add thin-sliced pear or apple. Try different cheeses and bread. Sky’s the limit.

8 slices Italian bread
Butter, softened
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
4 tomato slices
1 cup Gouda cheese, shredded

Spread butter on one side of each bread slice. Spread mayo on the flip side. Divide shredded cheddar among 4 slices, pressing slightly so cheese sticks together. Top each with a tomato slice and shredded Gouda, pressing slightly. Top each with a bread slice.

Coat a large skillet with cooking spray. Over medium-low heat, cook 2 sandwiches at a time. After pressing each with a spatula, cover skillet and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Flip sandwiches and cook 2 to 3 minutes more.

Match: Serve with Sauvignon Blanc.



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