Michele Vrouvas, NJ

Senior Writer

A former history teacher, Michele has been a litigation paralegal for more than twenty years. She is also a freelance writer with an interest in law, history, education, and food. Her articles have appeared on LegalZoom and TheNest.com. She has branched out into print journalism, covering local government and profiling residents for several newspapers in New Jersey.

As a Story Terrace writer, Michele interviews customers and turns their life stories into books. Get to know her better by reading her autobiographical anecdote below.

A Restless Cook

Dear Food Diary:

Dinner tonight did not disappoint. I set before them (husband and son) a banquet-sized platter stacked high with chicken and potatoes. Not thirty minutes later, all that was left was a heap of bones, licked clean. Surely a welcome sight for the cook (me) after hours of chopping, peeling, and zesting. But later, their praise would be tinged with a warning: “Make this again…and don’t change one thing!”

The warning has merit. As my family well knows, I just can’t leave a recipe alone. Ingredients can be added or left out, methods swapped, steps re-ordered. And the payoff for dabbling is not always a sure thing. Take, for instance, the time I set out to improve our standby Bolognese recipe. I took ideas from a version acclaimed on the foodie blogs. It was built around tomato paste and red wine (a full three cups), two ingredients I don’t often reach for. But rather than the usual harmony of long-simmered beef, richly condensed tomatoes, and aromatic vegetables, we stared at a reddish-brown concoction with a boozy smell and fishy aftertaste. That was one meal no one struggled with portion control.

Occasionally my recreations will triumph. Like my newfound method for twice-cooking flank steak. I first seared the uncut slab in a blazing pan, then returned hefty slices of it back to that same pan, now over moderate heat. As the juices from the still rare meat loosened the browned bits clinging to the pan’s bottom, I added a clove or two of roasted garlic and enough pats of ice cold butter to make a lightly thickened liquid too good to be called gravy. By all accounts, a keeper recipe.

And another time that my restless spirit rewarded richly is tonight’s chicken and potatoes wonder. Starting out, I knew there could be trouble for messing with this dish, a family favorite. So I clicked around the more levelheaded blogs until I found a standout but restrained version.

The prepping got underway 24 hours ago by whisking buttermilk, garlic, and herbs into a brine for bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces to bathe overnight. Today after work, I roughly chopped Idaho potatoes, then tossed them with lemon zest and flaky salt. I buttered a shallow baking dish, placed the potatoes on the bottom and chicken on top. The dish went into a slow oven. Two hours later, we feasted. The meat, still moistened inside, was now encased by crackling skin. The potatoes were plush, their starchy insides having yielded to the oven’s heat, their golden exteriors glistening with poultry drippings.

“This works,” said my son, nodding between bites.

As I jotted it all down for the recipe file, I was nagged by one question: how can I make this better?

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