FIFTY PLUS ADVOCATE – Michelle M. McGrath of Scituate integrates artistic and marketing skills in her work. The most recent result is her cookbook titled “The Creative Table: Inspired Recipes that Nourish, Gather and Unite.”
Early in her career she worked as a graphic artist in the publishing industry. In 2010, she founded her public relations agency, McGrath PR, to promote the arts, nonprofits and small businesses.
“It made sense to use those skills to preserve all of the recipes I’ve created for my family over the years,” she said. “The arts and nonprofits have been quiet during the pandemic and my work parallels that. It gave me an opportunity to think about what’s on my bucket list.”
From meal deliveries to compiling recipes
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, McGrath prepared and delivered meals to educators for several weeks. In retrospect, she perceives it was subliminal groundwork toward beginning the cookbook last summer.
“First, I went through my entire archival library of recipes – everything I’ve created off the top of my head or adapted from longstanding family recipes,” she explained. “Many of the recipes that I still have are in my grandmother’s own handwriting. I wanted to make sure that those recipes as they have been adapted were passed down through the generations.”
After choosing the book’s 60-plus recipes, McGrath needed to refine the ingredients and instructions. She solicited neighbors to take part in her one-week test kitchen.
“I have a lot of happy neighbors,” she said of the taste testers. “I spent the entire week cooking two or three dishes a day.”
Along the way, she photographed the dishes. A photo accompanies each of the book’s recipes.
For McGrath, cooking is a creative outlet – hence, she named the cookbook “The Creative Table.”
“I like to make food look as good as it tastes,” she noted. “When I go to the kitchen, the same rules apply as if I were creating art. Pastel is one of my favorite mediums to use as an artist because it’s very colorful and textural – and so is food.”
Shortly before committing to compile recipes, McGrath created a new dish with a coined word: chicken “saltimprese.” A photo she took the same day is on her book’s cover.
“I felt particularly creative that day,” she recalled. “I had ingredients for chicken saltimbocca as well as chicken caprese salad. I realized that I’d like to meld those flavors together. The chicken ‘saltimprese’ recipe was born out of the combination of ingredients in the house. It was so pretty to look at that I took pictures.”
Amazon’s #1 in New England cooking category
Her cookbook was published Nov. 3, 2020. Ten days later, it rose to #1 on Amazon in the New England cooking category. Although a professional publicist, McGrath doesn’t credit her marketing skills for the accomplishment.
“I joke with my friends that I’m almost a failure at my own public relations because I hadn’t even written a press announcement about the cookbook yet,” she acknowledged. “Truly, the book rising to #1 in New England came from word mouth of friends and family, and people in the media. Then it took off on its own.”
The first-time author is thankful that she exceeded her goal.
“My original goal was to just document the recipes that I wanted my kids to have years after I’m gone,” McGrath noted. “I’m so incredibly grateful to have had so much fun with a project that I thought was just checking off a bucket list item. It turned out to be an incredible way to spend the pandemic year.”
Makes four servings
For the chicken:
- 8 large chicken tenders
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the filling and topping:
- 8-12 slices prosciutto
- 1/2 8-ounce ball fresh mozzarella, cut into 4 evenly thick slices, halved
- 1 large heirloom tomato, sliced, cut to similar size as mozzarella half slices
- 24 fresh basil leaves, divided
- 1-2 slices red onion, separated into rings, cut into 1” strips
- 1 cup shredded Italian blend cheese
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Cooking spray
- Fresh basil and parsley, finely minced, for garnish
For the sauce:
- 2 tablespoons chopped red onion or shallot
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled, finely minced
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup Marsala wine
- 1 cup extra dry vermouth or dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
For the chicken: On a large cutting board, between two sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper, pound chicken tenders to 1/4” thickness. In a medium bowl, whisk together garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the marinade, refrigerate until assembly, up to 24 hours ahead.
Make the purse: On a clean dry surface or cutting board, lay out one piece of prosciutto. Cross it with a pounded chicken tender to form an “X.” In the center, build a stack of one piece of tomato, one piece of cheese, several onion strips and two basil leaves. Fold the chicken tender ends over the stack, and in the opposite direction, fold in the prosciutto ends to form a tightly sealed purse. Repeat with remaining ingredients. (Additional prosciutto slices can be helpful sealing in exposed ingredients.) In a medium skillet, sear each purse in batches in olive oil on both sides until lightly browned. Transfer to a 9” x 13” glass or metal baking dish coated in cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Prepare the sauce: In the same skillet, sauté red onion and garlic in olive oil over medium-low heat until translucent, about two minutes. Add in both wines, return to a simmer until reduced slightly. Add butter, lemon juice and parsley, simmer over low heat for two minutes. Pour the sauce over chicken purses and bake until fully cooked in the center, about 15-20 minutes. Top with shredded cheese, fresh basil, parsley, salt and pepper, and return to the oven for five minutes, or until the cheese begins to brown. Cut purses in half, and serve cut side up drizzled with pan juices.
By Ed Karvoski Jr.